IGN Review of Xenosaga III
It was supposed to be a six-part series spanning multiple systems and more than a decade of time, but out of nowhere, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra suddenly became the end of the best-selling RPG franchise instead of the middle of it. To that effect, the team at Monolith Software has packed a starship's worth of storyline into the thing, making the game just as heavy (if not more so) with its dialog and cutscenes as the first episode. Of course, the plus side to this is that longtime fans of the series can expect every last question they've ever had to be answered (and answered dramatically), with the downside being that there's a whole lot to take in all at once.
That sort of force-fed feeling is especially true in the first half of the game. The way in which the story is told assumes that the player understands everything that's happened between Episodes II and III, despite the fact that there's no way for them to know unless they study the database like maniacs (yes, the database is back, but more on that later). If you can forgive being overwhelmed with an abundance of information early, though, then it's all uphill from there. Xenosaga's plot is undoubtedly its best feature.
Following Shion Uzuki's departure from Vector a year after the end of Episode II, Also Sprach Zarathustra begins with Shion's quest to learn her former employer's involvement with the Gnosis phenomenon. Naturally, the story expands way beyond its initial setup -- including (but not limited to) the Elsa's quest for the Zohar, the spiritual understanding of what "God" is, and who's been pulling the strings for all three episodes. With its heavy emphasis on themes like the circle of life and deception (ie, everybody in the universe is a damned liar), Episode III certainly has a much better story than Episode II. It's also nice to see the focus shift back to Shion rather than "Captain Chaps" himself, Jr., and the fact that there's a time travel element is a bizarre but needed twist.
One thing that's truly appreciated is that Monolith listened to its base and addressed a lot of the problems that people had with Episode II. The over-extended load times have been lessened (10-12 seconds is now the exception rather than the rule) and players can expect their typical pre-battle loads to fall somewhere between 4-7 seconds long. Several of the Episode I voice actors have been brought back to replace the generic-sounding Episode II counterparts too, with Shion, KOS-MOS, and a number of other supporting characters back to their original vocals.
Presentational improvements aren't the only fixes that Monolith has made, either. As mentioned earlier, the database feature that was so sorely missing in the last game has made a return for Episode III. It's a much better tome for information as well -- illustrations, an easier to navigate menu system, and better category divisions makes browsing the catalog much, much easier. More importantly, it's a great source of information for just about everything that's happened in the story prior to the start (making it easier for newbies to understand where they're at). Just expect to set aside plenty of time to read through it.
Finally, and most importantly, the biggest upgrade to Xenosaga III is with the battle system. Slightly more strategic than it was before and definitely harder to abuse, the combat here benefits from a smarter boost system (instead of just allowing extra turns, now you have to decide how you want to use them) and team attacks have been axed in favor of more elaborate special moves (which get stronger the more you use them). Moreover, the enemies, while not varied in their appearance, are more diverse with their maneuvers and tactics. The problematic zone break system is gone too, replaced by a straightforward "break or don't break" mechanic that allows you to gain extra turns on an enemy.
With all these improvements, you'd think that Xenosaga III would be back to the glory of its original installment... but that's not necessarily the case. In the time since the first game was released (or even the second), several strong RPGs have come down the pipeline. That ups the ante quite a bit. And while Xenosaga has certainly improved in the areas mentioned, those fixes aren't remarkable enough to really stand out when compared to other contenders in the current crop of role-players. Just because it was great three or four years ago doesn't mean it's great now, and that observation isn't helped by a couple of bothersome snags.
What bothersome snags? To be honest it's nothing too destructive -- just a collection of little things that take away from the whole when paired together. Most environments you'll explore, for example, are far too big for their own good. For no reason whatsoever, you'll have to keep walking down a number expansive corridors where's there's almost nothing to do... it can get a bit tedious.
There are also a few combat hiccups that get annoying as well. Take the new "back attack" and trap setting options, for instance. Sure, they're good ideas, but technical hindrances don't allow you to make the most of them. Oftentimes, you'll sneak up on an enemy when their back is turned but the surprise attack flag won't trigger -- or it works just the opposite way and you'll attack them head-on only to have them somehow score a sneak attack instead. Toss in the occasional lock-up (which happened four times for us in forty-five hours), some censored "blood" scenes (which make a couple of very important moments make less sense), and a few camera problems that make it difficult to see where you're going, and the list of irritations adds up.
But as I said before, none of those complaints really destroy the game in any way, they just keep it from excelling to legendary status. And to be fair, for all the things Xenosaga may make mistakes with (like downgrading from Episode III's 5.1 sounds to the current 2.0 stereo), it does add a few things that make it a little more forgivable. Whether it's the soundtrack (which is melancholy, piano-driven, and pretty darned good) or the visuals (which have found a happy medium between Episode I's deformed models and Episode II's overly realistic ones), there' plenty to like here. This is especially true of the final chapter in the game (of nine), where the story climaxes with a huge bang (in fact, a lot of huge bangs) and offers some of the best and well-acted dramatic moments we've seen in a long time. The ending is definitely worth the wait.
Also, let's forget that the new ES battles are a lot of fun thanks to it multi-character ambushes and special attacks, and that the boring card game from Episode II has been torched in favor of more traditional sidequests and a new grid-based puzzler. All of these additional attributes definitely count for something.
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