Review: More hot robots than you can shake an alpha circuit at
Xenosaga is perhaps the ultimate love it or hate it RPG franchise. Lovers rave about the mature, fully realized story that's a universe onto itself, haters rant about lengthy cutscenes that take you out of the game. Lovers praise the complex battle systems that punish being stupid and reward careful strategy using the tools at your disposal. Haters complain that it's far more complicated than it should be when a basic turn-based system will do fine. This could go on and on. This polarized conflict is perhaps why the series is prematurely ending ? or maybe this is just the end of the first trilogy. But don't accuse Monolith of not listening; but perhaps it's too late to make a difference. Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra is a slight consolation to the non-believers, with a more focused battle system and less moments of sitting around watching, without completely stripping away what's made the game popular with its fans. It begs the question though...why didn't this happen with Episode II, the game that most figure killed the series? It boggles the mind. But Xenosaga III is here and you might just as well live it up because this is the end of the line...and quite a way to go out.
Xenosaga III wastes little time getting you up to speed following the events of Episode II. Shion, formerly the head of Vector's 1st division, has quit over her belief that the company has had more to do with the Gnosis phenomenon than meets the eye, and has joined up with anti-Vector group Scientia (with the C sounding like a K) to search for answers. Meanwhile, almost every other major player is planning something ? Margulis and Ormus are looking to unlock the secret to returning to Lost Jerusalem (Earth); Dimitri Yuriev is crazy like always, and Wilhelm & his Testaments are all speaking in riddles and cliches, just like usual. And really, that's just scratching the surface of what's going on ? because this is the final game in the trilogy, everything has to be revealed, and that's exactly what happens by the end of the lengthy adventure. Everything moves at a hectic pace, with little downtime ? to be expected not just because it's the end, but because all the characters have been developed and not much more is needed.
But unless you're a long-time fan of the series, you'll be lost. Kinda. There's no refresher course in-game, as there's precious little time for that, so any new players will be lost at all the references, acronyms, characters, and events. Thankfully for both newbies and series veterans, the extensive Database has returned after taking a siesta during Episode II, where it would have been much obliged. This not only can bring new fans up to speed by reading the lengthy story recaps, but while you're playing it'll update with lots of new info periodically that can make sense of many of the rapid-fire twists and turns. Because quite seriously this an RPG going at very high speeds, zipping through things to reach the next spot. That's really gotta be pounded into your head; this is probably the most 'busy' RPG I've played in a while ? there's always something going on, and it's usually not good news for your party. The nature of the game hasn't changed either ? it's still heavy on story and cutscenes ? but there's far less time spent watching this time around. Not until the end of disc 1 does the game throw out one of the infamous 45 minute cutscene intermissions. Which is a huge improvement.
While the Xenosaga series has been derided for its high amount of cutscenes that break up the gameplay bits, the battle system has been at the brunt of most criticism from those who got over the whole cutscene thing. Xenosaga I had a slow, plodding system with some confusing menu elements, making it more complex than it needed to be. Episode II revised the battles by making them quicker, but dealing with break zones and combination moves through Boosting made many battles even longer
than the first time around, made even worse by frequently lengthy load times before even getting to input a command. That, and the skill system was stupified, with few unique skills making every character operate basically the same. Xenosaga III's battles have been completely redesigned, taking some pages from the first game, a couple pages from the 2nd, and made it into something that's fast, intuitive, easy to learn, and most importantly...fun!
Everything is still turn-based, with no random encounters but instead the enemies appear on the screen. But it's so much faster that most battles will take a few minutes, tops. It even loads up instantaneously, with the exception being before a boss encounter. The combat is defined by its new Break and Boost systems that offer some new tricks. Breaking in XSIII is far different from the zones of the last game; instead, if you can pull it off, 'breaking' an opponent paralyzes them for 2 turns, and during this you can get more damage in and perhaps more importantly, take some heat off your party by reducing their numbers, or while in a boss encounter, give you some time to heal up or stack some buff spells. On the downside, your characters can be broke with the same repercussions, but thankfully most everyone can learn a Break Heal spell in case it gets too close for comfort.
Boosting is familiar to series fans; building it up lets you 'boost' and slide in a turn ahead of schedule for an extra attack or healing before the smack is laid down. Episode III brings in a welcome new wrinkle ? special attacks. In the 2nd game, these special attacks were eliminated in place of Double Attacks ? moves that were hard enough to actually unlock, and required a lot of stocking and screwing around to pull off. With stocking gone away to hopefully Video Game Hell, Boosting has returned to a more normal form, but this time, you can sacrifice your Boost for devastating special attacks ? and it's more than an invitation; it's a license to kick major amounts of tail. In the first two games where you had to boost a lot or die, it's almost strange to see the system being used so conservatively ? all the way through I hardly ever used boost to jump into a turn order, instead relying on it to pull off the special attacks that were far more helpful. These special moves even level up as you perform them, and by the time they peak they're tools of massive damage, no weak spots required.
Taking a page from the original game, the skill system has returned to a more useful form; now every character has their own unique Tech Attacks and spells, though many share more universal moves. For instance there's really nothing wrong with every character getting their hands on healing spells. But now everyone has their own arsenal of special moves for numerous purposes. It's all done through the Skill Line, a system that has a tad of an Final Fantasy X vibe in that skills and HP/MP upgrades have to be 'bought' with skill points, though it's not really a grid-based system. Each spot on the Line has 4 skills; exchanging skill points earned in battles unlocks them one at a time, and finishing off the area unlocks the next until you fully max out the board. As a bonus, the party can find EX Skill items that unlock skills different from their own line ? this is where you can beef up your characters in other ways. It's akin to, if we can use the Final Fantasy X comparison again, taking Yuna to Auron's part of the grid ? only you'll never be able to make it so she can pull off 9999 damage with a freaking staff with any character here.
It wouldn't be a Xenosaga game without mech combat, and thus Episode III features probably it's most useful mech combat yet. It's generally very easy due to the availability of half or full repair items that heal your entire party, but at least it's fun. It's also very different from regular battles ? there's no boosting, no tech attacks, no break system, and no separate experience system, as the EXP dished out goes to the pilots regular level. What it does have is a more robust system for whooping enemies, using both energy and Anima. As you get better equipment for your crafts, it's possible to increase your energy levels, which allow more attacks in a single turn; even more if you're in Anima state. Anima is based off the ES mechs that use the Vessels of Anima for a power source ? as each craft attacks, an Anima gauge fills up. Once it's full it's possible to trigger a super-powerful special attack that can decimate almost any troupe of enemies and can do consistent damage to ultra-beefed up bosses. As time goes on the Anima levels increase and thus more brutal attacks unlock.
Because there's no boosting or breaking of mech enemies, Xenosaga III has a combination system that's activated at random. After one craft attacks, it's possible your other pilots will join the fun in a cooperative attack, or sometimes, a full onslaught with the entire group ? without wasting their turns. Because damage stacks and has a subtle combo bonus, getting a co-op or ambush attack can generate some massive damage, with no giant enemy crabs required. On the downside, these can be interrupted by Revenge attacks from enemies, usually when you do a melee attack. Generally the mech fights aren't taxing ? like regular fights, it's more a battle of status effects and smart tactics to whittle down HP rather than going all out and trying to kill as fast as possible. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say. But because of all the healing items (no Ether healing this time around), it's almost impossible to actually lose a boss fight unless you're not taking the time to heal.
One of the things Xenosaga II lacked was a form of economy ? there was no Gold to be won, nor shops to buy things with money that didn't exist. Thus there was no weapon buying, armor upgrading, and whatnot. It felt a bit...weird to not have such a thing. Now, it's back ? but instead of its more 'realistic' take from the first game, it's fallen into RPG clich? land. What does that mean? Well, in Xenosaga I, you didn't find money off dead Gnosis or mechanical enemies ? that's pretty much a duh since I doubt they carry cash. Instead you could only earn Gold from human characters like U-TIC soldiers. This time around, money is earned off anything you kill. But it's better than nothing ? at least this time you can use money to buy all sorts of good stuff. However you're almost always going to have more money than you need and thus it's easy to be well equipped.
Finally, the side-quest system has been changed a bit. Gone is the Global Samaritan Campaign, which had it's uses but was far too 'organized' to be a set of individual quests. Xenosaga III is full of familiar and new side-quests that open slowly, as the game progresses. Naturally Segment Addresses hold many useful items and are scattered all over the world and can be returned to using the Encephalon Dive plate on the Elsa. Along with that, there's an ultimate weapon quest for every character except KOS-MOS, because her ultimate weapon is bought in the online store for a mere 300,000G. Scattered around every area is some really small quest that can garner useful items, and one stage features a tricky, but enemyless puzzle dungeon that's only accessible by returning there later. Collecting loose database files not only can help flesh out the Xenoverse, but unlocks a very useful item. There's even a clever mini-game called HaKox that will either enthrall or annoy. Needless to say if you spend some time returning to other areas there's plenty of extra stuff that offer big rewards.
Clearly, Xenosaga Episode III had a much smaller budget than the previous games, simply because of how the cutscenes are handled. Yes, there's still plenty of fully voiced, action-packed scenes, but it's mixed in with basic conversations handled in traditional RPG style ? text boxes! Along with a nice character portrait that expresses current emotions, a great deal of the story is told through fully voiced text-box events that use the in-game engine. On the bright side, at least they're interactive since you must press Circle to continue. The big-budget scenes are very impressive, but actually can chug from time to time and have an annoying blur effect. But they do look good. Character designs are the best yet ? Shion might be dressed a bit tacky but at least she's designed well. The game is a mix of the original Anime style with huge eyes and Xenosaga II's more towards more realistic designs, creating a happy medium for most. There's also a nice mix of sci-fi dungeon designs and a couple 'natural' environments that are surprisingly beautiful. If anything, Xenosaga's style remains unique.
The first time KOS-MOS speaks, you'll smile. Why? Because instead of the lifeless, too human sounding voice from Xenosaga II, the original actress has returned to reprise the role of the conflicted female android. Along with the return of Shion's original actress and everyone else from the last game (including of course Margulis, aka the greatest voice ever), this is a stellar cast of actors who along with a sharp translation quell any doubts that the mere month between Japanese and US releases meant a hack localization. Sure there's some funny lines and bizarre phrasing but it's still very good. The soundtrack is far more epic this time around if only because the dungeon music has been fixed ? no weird, misplaced J-Pop, replaced by tense themes that convey the situation. In one spot you can hear the little hymn that appeared many times in Xenosaga II. The return gave me a couple chills simply because of where the hell it plays.