The Conclusion to the Greatest Narrative RPG of our Time!
Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra is the third and final episode in Monolith’s epic Xenosaga series. If this sounds strange to you, you’re right. Xenosaga was originally slated to be six episodes long. However, due to the overwhelmingly poor sales and response to Episode II, Namco, Monolith’s publisher, pulled the plug on the project. The end result is Xenosaga has been cut short, and its developers have crammed everything they had finished for the later episodes into Episode III in order to give the saga a conclusion that is mostly satisfying. If you haven’t played a Xenosaga game prior to this one, unfortunately, it’s highly not recommended that you start now. The reason for this is Xenosaga is heavily story driven and a lot has happened thus far. Episode III’s story picks up anywhere from six months to a couple years after the end of Episode II depending on whose information you choose to go by. For the record, everything in the game suggests that it’s really just six months. A lot has happened in the gap between Episodes II & III, such as Shion leaving Vector, which sadly didn’t completely make it into Episode III. The story picks up with Shion, Canaan, Miyuki, and one of the new characters, Doctus, raiding Vector for information pertaining to Shion’s Father, the U.M.N. and the Gnosis Phenomenon. The story is action packed the whole way through, moves extremely fast, and to say anything more of it would be spoiling it. All in all, fans of the series should be satisfied with it; however, it’s important to note that Xenosaga Episode III requires a keen eye paying attention to detail in order to be completely followed because it moves so fast. There is a database that all the information you acquire in the games goes into, which allows you to go back and revisit it at anytime. This is helpful in counteracting the information overload problem, but is also a lot of reading. The database also has summarized information pertaining to everything in the Xenosaga universe, which acts to bring those who haven’t played through Episodes I & II up to par in the games beginning. However, as stated, it’s a lot of reading regardless of what you choose to look up in it.
The combat system has been changed yet again. This time around it has been stripped down to a standard menu driven turn based system, much like what you will find in Final Fantasy or Grandia. You can still boost and see the attack order though so not everything from the previous episodes combat system is gone. Break status has been changed from breaking through the enemies guard to a two turn stun that greatly increases the character suffering this statuses chance of being hit by a critical strike. Everything you can do to the enemy they can still do to you, and for how it operates, the combat system is both satisfying and rock solid. However, the inputting of fighting game style button commands to perform attacks is now a thing of the past, and thus, so is much of what made Xenosaga unique among RPG’s.
The E.S.’s are back in all their overpowered glory and feel better than ever to use. Episode III makes better use of them than Episode II did, and provides more E.S. specific levels and battles. The battle system of the E.S.’s has been noticeably stripped down as well, and it’s worth mentioning that the none of the E.S. levels or battles feel as challenging as those you go through with your characters. The main reason for this is if you keep your E.S.’s up to snuff then they can one hit pretty much all of the enemies you will face in them, aside from bosses. They have been given a cool new limit break style ability called “Anima Awakening.” How this works is you have an anima gauge that charges based on the amount of damage you are inflicting. Once it is full you can use your anima awakening, which reduces the fuel cost for regular attacks allowing you to attack more per round, as well as perform extremely powerful special attacks. All of this is very satisfying to use and will be your ticket to getting through the games tougher E.S. boss battles.
The character customization system has been revamped for the better. Unlike in Episode II, Episode III’s character customization system will have each character progressing along a different series of ability and skill trees, which is very similar to Final Fantasy X’s system, but much simpler. It doesn’t present much variety for each character, but each characters tree is different and there is enough difference within those trees to make you think seriously on how to invest your points. You can get tech attacks, ether attacks and abilities, as well as passive stat boosters from the trees, and once you master a tree you are granted a special “Master” ability, which comes in very handy later in the game. It doesn’t take much to master a tree, so most players will probably have one tree mastered and be working toward finishing their second tree by the end of the game.
The character models have seen yet another makeover. However, this time their appearance does a good job bridging the gap between Episode I’s cutesy Anime style and Episode II’s more realistic look. The graphics for Episode III’s environments look better than ever and don’t leave anything to complain about. The only downside with Xenosaga Episode III’s appearance is that for the North American release all of blood effects were censored out of the game in order to keep it rated “T” for teen. The result of this is that because Xenosaga Episode III is a serious game containing a lot blood shed, many of the games more serious and violent scenes look laughably foolish, or just don’t work at all. The emotion of these scenes is still able to come across in most cases, but in the few where it doesn’t, players will be left shaking their heads wondering what it is they are watching.
Episode III’s sound is fantastic, and does an excellent job setting the mood for the games environments, scenes, and battles, as well as heightening the games emotion. Everything from the ambient background music, to your characters footsteps across different environmental surfaces, to the crunch of metal against metal in the E.S. battles, to the choral music of the games big final bosses on disc two is fitting, and belongs where it is. Everyone’s favorite voice acting cast is back as well. A few minor yet noticeable changes that are for the better have been made to the line up, and overall the actors do an excellent job.
Content wise, Xenosaga Episode III is fairly solid. Most players will take between 30-40 hours to beat the game, while more experienced gamers should be able to finish in a little under 30 hours. The difficulty rises steadily enough that there is no need to grind levels in the E.V.S this time around. As long as you defeat the majority of the enemies in each area you go to then you should be able to get through the boss battles with minimum difficulty. None of the games main bosses are overly hard; however, it is worth noting that several of the end game bosses on disc two have extremely powerful attacks that will simply kill a member of your party outright, even if they are at full health. Thankfully there is no shortage of items or ether abilities in this game so it’s not hard to get your guys back up and kicking after they are knocked down. Also, the over powered anima abilities of your E.S.’s more than make up for the single over powered attack of these bosses, especially since you can spam these abilities more frequently than the boss can spam theirs. There is a ton of extra stuff to do in Episode III. The game comes packed with mini games, which are a blast to play, numerous side quests that range from easy to very challenging, and a dungeon maker. The dungeon maker is the most interesting added feature since it lets you make your own labyrinths to explore and share with friends. It’s also very easy to use. Despite all the good things, Xenosaga Episode III isn’t without its faults. There are a number of continuity errors present between Episode II and Episode III. For example, in Episode II one your E.S.’s had the ability to use Ether attacks. That same E.S. returns and is playable in Episode III, but can no longer user Ether attacks, and no explanation for this is ever given. Also, a number of things that happened in Episode II are rendered obsolete, because of the direction Episode III chooses to take the story. In fact, because of what happens in Episode III, almost all of Episode II is rendered obsolete and completely unnecessary. Another problem with Episode III is that because the Xenosaga project was canceled and they tried to pack so much into this final episode, there are several key questions that remain unanswered in the end, despite the excellent job Episode III does wrapping everything up. Also, there are many things in the story that weren’t developed enough, or at all, because of this. As a result, these things really loose their impact and importance when you come across them. In more than one case they will make the story fall completely flat on its face, because when you encounter these things they seem so far fetched and don’t make any sense.
It’s also worth mentioning here that the long winded cut scenes Xenosaga is famous for are largely absent in Episode III. This may be a plus for some, because it means Episode III is more a game and not an interactive movie. However, on the global scale of things removing the cut scenes was not a good idea and only hinders the experiences. This is because there still are several long winded cut scenes in the game and when you come across them they are extremely inconvenient, despite how good they are. Also, the long winded narration that the scenes contained is still present in the game even though the scenes themselves are largely absent. Now players are treated to spoken dialogue during the in game play. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t two or more figures standing around staring at each other like statues and lacking the animation for their motions that should be present with the emotion in their voice for what they are saying. Also, these sequences really break up the game play, and unlike before where players could set the controller down and sit back, watch, and be entertained, now the player has to keep the controller in hand and keep pushing the circle button over and over in order to get the next bit of dialogue. This becomes extremely boring and monotonous extremely fast, and quickly disengages the player from the story taking place on screen. Also, not to spoil the ending, but it is not one of the games strong points. In comparison to the endings of the two previous episodes, Episode III’s ending is neither on par, or a happy one. Players who go in expecting something more along the lines of what they received in Episodes I & II will more than likely be disappointed.
Finally, as has been said before, censoring out the blood effect was a huge mistake. Xenosaga Episode III is a gripping game with a superb story. However, by removing the blood the censors removed much of the games seriousness, and several of the games more important scenes simply do not work as a result, which really hurts the Xenosaga Episode III experience. All in all, however, Xenosaga Episode III is a must play for series fans, or anyone who enjoys a good story in an RPG. If you haven’t played Xenosaga yet, there is no reason for you to abstain any longer. Xenosaga’s cast of characters is both lovable and memorable. Xenosaga is thought provoking and engaging, and comes with enough added content in the form of side quests, mini games, and a built in dungeon maker to keep you playing long after the adventure is over. Episode III does a great job overall of wrapping up what is one of the greatest narrative driven game series of all time. It will keep you glued to the screen until the very end, and stay with you for a long time after it is over.