Reviewed: September 17, 2006
Released: August 29, 2006
I’ve really wanted to like the Xenosaga series. I was a huge fan of Xenosaga’s spiritual predecessor, the beautiful, enigmatic, and entertaining 1998 Squaresoft RPG Xenogears. I remember when Square, which kept a lot of its RPGs from Amercian release back in those days, originally indicated that it would not translate Xenogears for an American audience because of concerns about strong religious themes in the game. When Square changed its mind and release Xenogears, I remember being in awe.
Xenogears was, for the most part, a long, rewarding, old-school semi-2D RPG during an era when all the other RPGs were released in tragically primitive 3-D. Every thing about the game felt like a labor of love for its creators, from the beautiful soundtrack, to the beautifully drawn character sprites, to its touching, occasional anime cutscenes. That was, it felt like a labor of love until the second disc.
When you got to the second disc, the basic gameplay was the same, but there wasn’t a whole lot of it. Xenogears literally shifted gears from a tale of political intrigue and warring nations to a bizarre morality tale of abnormal psychology and horrible mutants. While the first disc had a nice 80% gameplay/ 20% cutscene ratio, the second disc switched it to the other extreme. Most of the second disc was spent trying to explain a ponderous story of human atrocities in cutscenes that sometimes pushed an hour. It was as if Square had decided to switch from a story like Dune to a story like Soylent Green (only sci-fi nerds now know what I’m talking about). The change didn’t sit well with me, so much so that I completed the game and never picked it up again.
When I heard about the Xenosaga project, I hoped dearly for the first disc. Unfortunately, much of it has felt like the second disc, including the highly disappointing Xenosaga II, which I reviewed two years ago. For its part, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra does a lot to make up for the sins of its predecessors, but it’s unfortunately still riddled with a lot of the ponderous pseudo-religious and pseudo-psychological iconography of Xenosagas I and II.
One of Xenosaga III’s chief accomplishments is that it fixed many of the gameplay mistakes that were made in Part II. For instance, in Xenosaga II, the gameplay focused around certain sequences of attack, which corresponded to letters; in many cases, you had to select multiple characters to pull off the sequence, and not all characters had the right types of moves available to pull the combo off. If you didn’t use the combo, you were assured to do almost no damage to the enemy. At first this seemed like a challenging innovation, but after a couple of hours, it became a frustrating chore.
In Xenosaga III, Namco has significantly streamlined combat and added a couple of innovations that I like. The first is the “Break Gauge.” During each battle, each character (and enemy) starts at 0 on their break gauge. As they are exposed to certain kinds of attacks, the Break Gauge rises incrementally. Once the Break Gauge is full, the character becomes fully fatigued and becomes unable to attack for a couple of turns, and is less likely to dodge and more open to critical hits. It’s another way to pull off the combo system from Xenosaga II, but more realistic and less tedious. If you know a monster’s weakness, you can exploit it for enhanced damage, and the Analyze command provides a nice display of each creature’s immunities and weaknesses to certain types of effects or Ether attacks.
The giant robot E.S.’s are also back, and in the battles where you use them they pack a serious punch. Although you have to be careful to conserve EN (energy) during long battles, the Anima special attacks are cool to watch and do massive amounts of damage.
You can still “boost” your characters during the human battles, which comes in handy when you want to soften up an enemy’s break gauge and then use your strongest attacking character to deliver a lethal blow.
Character development can be fun through the use of skill power-ups, which allow you to spend points unlocking certain trees of skills for each character. This allows you to focus more on attack power, healing magic, special attacks, or stat boosts for each character as needed, and requires some strategy to make sure that you have the necessary skills for your team. Unfortunately, in many areas of the game, there are a finite number of enemies, and once you defeat them, they do not reappear – even when revisited on the UMN virtual battlefields.
The limitation on power leveling is disappointing. One of the great draws of RPG’s are the reward systems they offer to players who want to build super-powered characters. With the vast array of skill power-ups that you have at your disposal, it would be nice if you had the option to build them all up. It would also make the long, difficult boss battles less tedious.
In the end, you don’t need to power-level; each boss should be manageable, if not difficult, if you fight the minor enemies in each stage and therefore stay around the level that the game intends you to be. The limited amount of fighting you can do, and the fact that the game seems to encourage as little battling as possible to progress through the story lends to the linear, cut-scene driven feel of the game overall.
Xenosaga III, like its predecessors, is story-driven to an extreme. When most RPG’s were about elves and kings and castles, the unique sci-fi story of Xenosaga was a refreshing change. However, the “sci-fi RPG with religious undertones” is becoming a cliché in its own right among Japanese RPG’s, and there’s still enough Latin and German thrown around carelessly in the game to make many gamers cringe. Xenosaga still promotes story and scripted scenes at the expense of actual game time, to its detriment.
However, it has been a long, convoluted, and intriguing story, and after two games stretched out over 4 years, even players of the original two may have trouble keeping it all straight. Fortunately, the game provides an excellent database where players can get up to date on the story and the backgrounds of the myriad of characters and organizations in this space opera trilogy. While the past two games have left a lot of questions unanswered and end with cliffhangers, the story does tie up nicely and most questions are resolved.
To be fair, the gameplay that is here in Xenosaga III is much more enjoyable than in the game’s previous episode, and there are still plenty of side quests to keep patient gamers entertained, such as the mysterious segment addresses. The game itself is pretty fun – it’s just too bad it’s buried behind so much movie time.
As always, Xenosaga III is a beautiful game. It looks and plays like a 3-D anime, with beautifully rendered characters, deadly looking battle machines, and stunning sci-fi worlds. The graphic designers of the game do a good job at portraying the cold, steely look of space fortresses and robots and the organic characters that inhabit these worlds.
The game starts with a stunning high-speed chase that looks almost as impressive as the space battles in Star Wars. The graphics of the gameplay look almost as good as the rendered movies in the series, and in many places, the cut-scenes are done using the game’s graphics. Players will spend a long time placing the controller down and watching the story unfold, but at least their patience will be rewarded with beautiful visuals.
Xenosaga III’s music is beautiful and mixes well with the aura of the game, but very few memorable tunes stick out. The sound effects are pretty good as well, and the voice acting is for the most part unobjectionable. There are a few voice actors that bother me, maybe not so much because of their voices, but because of the awkward lines they have to recite. One character likes to speak in Latin at strange times, and it just sounds forced. Also, it would be nice if you could turn the cheesy sayings during the battles off. Unfortunately, the only sound control in the game is a stereo-mono option.
At $39.99, Xenosaga III is priced just right. For gamers who have never played the Xenosaga series before, it’s more enticing than the $50 price point which still rules for many PS2 games, and should be enough to draw them in. However, in order to understand the story, the new gamer is probably better off playing the series from the beginning. For return players who enjoy the story, $40 seems like a small price to pay to see the story’s conclusion and play with an improved battle system. For the casual buyer who is looking for a really good, involving RPG, however, they may be better off going with other options, or at least waiting until Xenosaga III comes down in price.
I feel the same way about the Xenosaga trilogy as I do about the more recent Star Wars movie trilogy. I had such great memories of Xenogears that when I heard a trilogy of pseudo-prequels was being created, I had high hopes. Episode I was all right, but somewhat of a letdown. Episode II almost destroyed my faith in the concept. Episode III, while flawed, does provide a nice conclusion to the story, and provides enough decent gameplay to make the overall experience rewarding.
In ten years, however, when video game archaeologists dig through the dustbins of this decade’s games, Xenosaga will likely be remembered not for its innovative gameplay, but as an experiment in merging interactive entertainment with movies.