Mecha Monday: Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra

And lastly, we have the final game. It’s interesting to note that though the series was originally supposed to span six games, they had to cut it short for various reasons (which may include Episode II doing poorly in both Japan and the West). So it may seem like they had to cram the story of four games into one. However, that didn’t really happen. What actually happened was that they wrapped up the story arc of the first planned two games. See, Episode I was originally supposed to contain the stories of the first two episodes we got. Anyway, I don’t think it’s fair to judge a game by its rocky development cycle, so let’s dive in.

And the caption here, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", refers to perhaps Nietzsche's most famous work. Now, I think parts of it kind of spoil some of the plot, so don't go to Wikipedia just yet.

The story begins one year after the end of Episode II. I’ll get this out of the way immediately: you will be veryconfused at first, because one cellphone game and one online flash anime were produced between Episodes II and III, and they factor into the plot a decent amount. The flash anime, Xenosaga: A Missing Year, gets referenced a lot at first, and explains Shion’s supposed “change of character” that many seem to bring up. At any rate, you should watch/read A Missing Year if you want some clarification for a few things. The cellphone game, Xenosaga: Pied Piper, isn’t as necessary, but it also doesn’t hurt to understand its story. These are both pretty short, and only take around an hour to an hour and a half to go through each one, so I recommend experiencing them.

Anyway, back to the plot. Episode III wraps everything up extremely well. Every question you’ve had about this series gets answered, and in exciting and satisfying ways. At the same time though, there are a few plot threads raised that scream Sequel Hook, but they obviously will never happen. These can be seen as what would’ve happened in the last four planned games. However, even taking those dangling threads into account, the story still ends well. Meanwhile, the story comes to a head with all the allegories, symbolism, and philosophy. The allegories, this time around, actually factor into the main plot and backstory, and many points of Nietzsche’s philosophy are covered extensively (interestingly enough, the subtitles of the first two Episodes make perfect sense in this game). However, I think what’s most important in this episode is that it’s one of the most emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced in a game. The story, in the end, comes off as an extremely touching and moving one. In fact, looking back, through all the religious allegories, Nietzsche philosophy, and technobabble, the plot happens to be one of my favorites, and I’m glad I got to experience it.

Also be ready for a lot of drama!

The characters, meanwhile, all get their story arcs properly concluded. While there is a pattern regarding how the game concludes these character arcs, they still manage to be believable, enjoyable, and overall touching. Unfortunately, characters don’t get exposure in equal amounts. Shion in this game gets a ton of development, to the point where the other main characters don’t. It seems as if some of theese supposed main characters feel like side characters. Shion’s character development is incredible though, despite her characterization’s confusing start (see: A Missing Year). Additionally, many have complained about Shion’s characterization, saying that she’s not a very agreeable person. However, even if she is not really all that heroic or agreeable, the focus on her development is simply staggering. I found it really interesting to follow, especially when looking at it from a philosophical perspective. Also, I found the antagonist superb: he’s fascinating, interesting, and has some really strong, nigh unchallengeable points. While you may detest his methods, it’s hard to argue against what he’s trying to accomplish, and his ideals, too. All in all, the cast of characters is pretty great, despite some small focus problems.

Meet the new KOS-MOS. Fans of the first KOS-MOS are in for a welcome surprise.

The battle system has yet again gone through many changes. This time, luckily, the game explains the battle system well enough, so I won’t delve into it as much. The character battle system, essentially, has been dumbed down a decent amount, getting rid of the actions mapped to button input style for more of a menu based scheme. Characters have access to basic attacks, techs which mostly do physical damage and inflict status conditions on enemies, ethers, which are very much like their counterparts in the first two games, and special attacks, which are often nukes that consume some of the collective boost bar to deal immense amounts of damage (though some have wonderful buffs/debuffs). These special attacks also level up when used often enough. While it is a lot less complex, the break system is kept, but in such a way that makes things a lot less tedious. Not only is it optional to use, but working towards breaking a target requires much less pointless preparation and can be done through normal damage dealing, and breaking a target puts them out of commission for a few turns, susceptible to more damage, and add more to the boost gauge when attacked. You see, this time around, each combatant has a break gauge. By getting attacked, the break gauge fills up slightly (though certain skills cause the break gauge to fill up a good deal more). Once that gauge is full, the combatant is broken. Additionally, the slot system is removed, so no more waiting for the skill slot to get more points (though finishing an enemy off with special attacks will give more experience and skill points). While everything seems dumbed down, I thought everything was actually more streamlined. Battles moved by at a much quicker pace, and difficulty progression was a lot more balanced; while the game does start out a bit easy, it gets harder as you progress. I thought this was a lot better than the second episode’s, which felt to me like the difficulty was directly proportional to the number of enemies on the field (at least in the main game).

Here you can see one of the special attacks in action. You may find yourself using them pretty often.

The skill system, however, is a lot better this time. Each character has a skill tree, with two different paths to take. The tree is broken up into “branches,” with four skills that must be learned before one can continue down that skill tree. At the end of a path, you also learn an incredibly useful master skill. Additionally, certain key items add in extra branches that contain some skills that are universal between characters (or are at least borrowed). Through this, one can customize characters as they see fit, but they are still working towards a clear goal. I found this an improvement, since many of the skills were by and large useless (in fact, only one or two of the supposedly top tier skills were worth the cost of getting too). The game doesn’t hurt the player for experimentation, either. It doesn’t expect you to go down a certain path and work with that. Hell, the game doesn’t even expect you to go down a single path at all. You can certainly get by picking going down both paths (albeit slowly), or getting the extra skills along the way, as well.

Mech battles have been heavily revamped, however. Again, the game explains it well enough. What’s interesting to me, however, is that it uses menu based combat and involves combos (though not of the tight input variety). It’s automatically a lot better than 2’s mech battles. This time around, three mechs are sent into battle (though should one fall, the fourth one will come and take their spot). Mechs don’t have separate levels, and any experience gotten goes towards the characters themselves (and you can get skill points from mech battles). These mech battles are really fun to play, and are very visually engaging, standing out from normal turn based game battles. I don’t have much else to say about these, as I had no real qualms about the mech battles.

The mech battles are quite fun to both watch and play.

The graphics are pretty stunning. The styles have changed (again), but it strikes a good balance between the anime style of 1 and the more realistic style of 2. I personally thought it was the best style out of all three games, as they were highly appealing. This time around, the game uses text boxes sometimes to advance the story, using the character models. Disappointing, but then there are still plenty of the same type of Xenosaga cutscenes that we’ve come to grow and love. This time around, these cutscenes have gotten incredibly cinematic (moreso than 2), and sport some of the best graphics on the PS2, in my opinion. Even the choreography has gotten better, making action sequences really engaging. One downside to these cutscenes is that the framerate occasionally dipped, making cutscenes choppy. It’s sad to see this, considering the cutscenes in the first two games were always smooth. Luckily, this only happened occasionally for me, so I’m not going to slam the graphics too hard. Overall, despite the use of text boxes being a disappointment, and stuttering in some of the cutscenes, the game’s graphics really had me impressed.

The environments also happen to be very pleasing.

The sound department is similar to the graphics department: there are a few hiccups here and there, but overall wonderful. Yuki Kajiura composed the entire game’s soundtrack, and it really shows. The best songs are what Kajiura does best in, but it’s clear she’s not the best in everything. I found some of the normal cutscene music, dungeon and town themes, and a tiny amount of battle scenes underwhelming. That being said, the best songs are nothing short of amazing. These songs show up in the incredibly moving, touching cutscenes, and boss battles, and are, in fact, incredibly moving, touching, and engaging. I find it hard to rate the soundtrack, as a result, but in the end, I found myself enjoying the great songs more than I felt bored over the unimpressive ones. The voice acting, on the other hand, is really good now. They brought back Shion’s and KOS-MOS’ original voices, and I daresay they’ve gotten better (though some may disapprove of Shion). Additionally, it seems as if this episode got a new voice director, as the voice acting is, on a whole, much better than 2’s (though probably just about as great as 1’s). Performances are solid and believable, and really make you feel for the characters. As a result, I have no complaints for the voice acting in this episode.

Rating Breakdown
While there are a few prerequisites before you can get started, the plot is very emotional, the philosophy and religious elements finally come full circle, and the characters are wonderfully developed (though in varying amounts), and they all come together to form a grand, wonderful plot.
While character battles were heavily streamlined, battle moves at a much better pace, are balanced, and difficulty doesn't spike at random spots, but increases at a constant rate, making for some more engaging, though much less strategic, fare. On the other hand, mech battles are much improved, and much more exciting.
Character models have changed again (for the better, in my opinion), and though sometimes the plot is presented via textboxes, cutscenes are gorgeous, though not without some technical shortcomings.
Yuki Kajiura now composed the entire soundtrack, and though some tracks are underwhelming and forgettable, many tracks are either extremely awesome or touching, but all the good ones are highly memorable. The voice acting, meanwhile, has gotten a lot better, and is pretty believable now.
Just like the first episode, the main game lasts about 30 to 40 hours, but there isn't much in the way of side content.
Despite some shortcomings here and there, Xenosaga Episode III ends the conclusion on a ridiculously high note.
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A mad scientist who's so cool!


A mad scientist who's so cool!

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