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Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra

Platform(s): PlayStation 2
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: Namco
Developer: Monolith Soft


PS2 Review - 'Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra'

by Erik "NekoIncardine" Ottosen on Sept. 24, 2006 @ 7:40 a.m. PDT

Xenosaga Episode III will take place one year after the end of Episode II. The game will once again focus on the adventures of the series' main character Shion and her friends.

Genre: RPG
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release Date: August 29, 2006

May it be made clear from the start that if you have not played Xenosaga I and II, Xenosaga III is not for you. The plot is a maze that no amount of summary can even begin to sort out. If you do not like plot, Xenosaga III is not for you. Half of the point of this title, no matter how fun its other components are, is having perhaps the most convoluted, carefully built plot ever seen in a mainstream video game series. Finally, if you don't like Christian-based-then-twisted-on-its-ear mythology, Xenosaga III's complex mix of Jungian mythological, Christian, and anime motifs probably won't turn you on. This game is the Baroque Cycle (with Cryptonomicon) of sci-fi/anime RPGs, with some The Da Vinci Code and Gundam and maybe just a little bit of Hot Lesbian Androids from Outer Space for balance. In short, you can tell that this is the team that made Xenogears and the first two parts of Xenosaga. (Note to self: Come up with less obscure novels to reference next time.)

Luckily, if you've at least played the first two games, but just don't remember them too well, the "Data" function on the start menu (choose "Skip") will provide you with their summaries. This database will eventually expand to include a mass of information as you play through Xenosaga III, but right off the bat, it will let you catch up on all the basics and maybe remind you of some of the weird aspects. It will also recap the somewhat humorous changes in art direction as the series progresses. Of course, there are a few mistakes, like Ziggurat-8 being referred to as Ziggy before he meets MOMO, but nothing jumped out as major retcons or errors. Furthermore, if you actually finished Xenosaga II (or downloaded a save, or both), the game gives you Shion's Vector outfit as a reward, which comes in quite handy early on in the game. There are actually quite a few unlockable alternate outfits this time around (including, of course, the swimsuits), but more on that later.

All of those graphical tricks that Monolith learned and demonstrated in the first two Xenosaga games are in full force in this final iteration. From the beautiful sci-fi cities on Fifth Jerusalem, to a simple-yet-beautiful beach scene (complete with dolphins in the background, gulls flying up above, and some pretty explosions when you knock over certain rocks), to a beautiful-as-always hyperspace, Xenosaga III is beautiful, short on load times, and a demonstration that the PlayStation 2 still has some life to it yet.

Sound effects are also suitably well-produced, with a fairly eclectic and solid soundtrack being of particular note, though there is a lot of piano compared to the previous two games. Unfortunately, the voice quality can, at times, suffer significantly, which is sad, given the trademark excellence of the writing quality. It does not quite ruin the experience at any point and is never exactly terrible, but a few lines might make you laugh when they're not intended to. Of course, there are several lines that are intended to make you laugh, and these are some of the best-performed lines in the game.

By now, most of the Xenosaga fans who are still with me will have two questions left in their minds: "How's the plot?" and "How's the gameplay after all the sad issues with the last game?" Well, here's the good news for you all: Both elements are up to snuff. Particularly in dungeon and town exploration, Monolith has really outdone itself, smoothing out the walking controls, introducing a couple of improvements on how you talk to generic NPCs, and, of course, making beautiful partially destructible environments. They also brought back money, and with it, the ability to buy items. Encounters work similarly in terms of how they begin – tag an enemy from behind for an advantage, get tagged for a disadvantage. It's nothing as complex as. say, Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, but perfectly workable.

Combat itself, luckily, has significantly improved in both possibilities and exploration. Gone is everyone having the same skills. Gone is the rather silly-looking juggling trick. Back is the first game's Boost system (where everyone shares a single boost gauge), with the clever and new twist of Special Attacks, which use the Boost Gauge as a power source. Not only are these moves typically very powerful, but using them as a finishing blow on an enemy multiplies everything gained from said adversary by 150%; needless to say, there is quite an encouragement to finish off baddies with this. Factor in the Break System, Skill Lines, and the other additional elements, and it's definitely a good enough menu-based combat system that most players will be willing to forgive Monolith for putting them through the much weaker Xenosaga II system.

As for the plot question, I don't even feel I can start on this without spoiling things. About a year has passed in game time between the last title and this one, and quite a lot has happened. The Gnosis Terrorism – controlled use of the Gnosis as a weapon by some unknown individual – led Shion to discover information that potentially links Vector and her father to the Gnosis' initial appearance. The mysterious group Ormus is back and think that they have found a piece of the Holy Land, Lost Jerusalem – which the Elsa, including Jr., chaos, and Jin, are hoping to investigate, leading to the crew disappearing when ... something happens on the asteroid's surface. Shion's been working with a group called Scientia, which hates the U.M.N. – the network that powers intergalactic communications and hyperspace access – for as-yet unknown reasons. About six hours in, a face highly familiar to Xenogears fans is going to show up, but not exactly as you might expect. Needless to say, there's a lot going on all at once, and it is very confusing. I haven't even named all the plotlines from the first 10 hours of play, just to give you a clue. There is a lot going on here, and piecing it all together only for new information to force you to change your theories is, as always, half of the fun.

It is common to save the best for last, and in my opinion, one thing brings this title over the top. Monolith spent the time to create a mini-game that by itself is almost worth half of the purchase price. "HaKox" (or "GeMix" in Japan) is a sort of simplistic set of physics puzzles - characters walk along complex environments, following an extremely simple and easy-to-understand set of rules (kind of like Chu Chu Rocket, except in three dimensions). The analog sticks manipulate the camera, the L1 and L2 buttons make characters move more quickly, and the face buttons control four sets of "gimmicks" along the stage – boxes which move from a default position to another one. Controlling the speed of the characters will be relevant in some puzzles, besides just being useful to save time. You can even play the game with two players by splitting the gimmicks between yourself and a second controller. The goal is simply to get them to the goal, and the methods range from simple (finishing bridges and blocking paths that will make your characters fall to their doom), to somewhat tricky (making the block they're standing on "jump" to send them flying past a chasm).

The results are a fun, well-built, and completely optional set of puzzles (the only thing HaKox will give you is Ziggy's swimsuit). The only reason this mini-game did not suck up all the time I spent playing Xenosaga III for a review, is that the levels are unlocked as you progress in the main story. Of course, you can just create your own; sadly, there are no online sharing options as you may have come to expect, though I'm sure those of you with file-backup utilities for your PS2 memory cards have a solution in mind. Admittedly, some players are probably not going to enjoy the puzzles as much as I did, but at least you don't have to play a single second of it if you don't want to.

It is normal to conclude a review of a positively scored game with the list of flaws. Well, here they are. The graphics show that the PS2 is aging; several scenes appear to be pre-rendered, and some movement animations, especially during non-rendered cut scenes, look stiff. The Gnosis still aren't as fear-inducing as they were at the outset of the first part of this trilogy. In fact, many of the villains just don't seem to have quite as much punch this time around as they did in the prequel, though they're still ruthless, powerful, and now blatantly insidious, as you will find out. Every question that is answered will inevitably open up more questions, and while I couldn't get to the end of the game (damn you "HaKox"), I'm very confident that a lot of them are going to remain open for the fans to argue about for years. The biggest flaw is perhaps that this title is a send-off to a series; there may be mobile or portable iterations or remakes coming, but this game is, to some extent, fan service, in the sense that it is not intended to attract new fans but rather to gratify the existing ones. Then again, the same could be said about Xenosaga II and the mobile games.

In other words, may it be reiterated that if you didn't like the first two games' plot or storytelling style, Xenosaga III isn't for you. It's for that otaku who lives down the hall and has the game worked out like a partially complete jigsaw puzzle. Solid – but imperfect – presentation, some excellent writing, mythological themes, and a universe that seems just a little more complete combine to create Xenosaga III. If you enjoyed the first offering, and at least the second game's plot, you probably already have this game and are reading this to see someone else's opinion on it. If you're a fan who was burned by the prequel and, wondering if it's worth your money ... well, they brought back the swimsuits, there's a fair number of other unlockables, and "HaKox" is almost worth half the asking price if you're a puzzle fan. They fixed what was broken, and that should be enough.

Score: 9.4/10

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