Shion and company return to form in the conclusion of the Trilogy.
When the original Xenosaga was released in 2003, it instantly stood above the typical RPG by focusing almost too much on cut-scene presentation and dialog. The scope of the story seemed limitless, discussing topics like the meaning of life, humanity, the existence of one’s soul, and so on. Many fans were disappointed with some of the decisions made for the second installment of the series, which followed the exploits of Jr., Xeno’s resident “man-trapped-in-a-little-body” instead of sticking with Shion and KOS-MOS as closely. Worse than that were a number of questionable design decisions, such as the removal of the Database and the complete ditching of money and trading for basic necessities.
Fans of Xenosaga, fear not. Although the epic has been cut three chapters short, the final chapter of the saga is certainly worth the ride. On top of that, gameplay mechanics in III are much better thought out and executed than in II, ensuring that anyone who has come this far will have a good time uncovering the answers to all the questions presented in I and II.
Before I get too far in describing Xenosaga III to you, my gentle readers, I must make sure you understand this. The Xenosaga series isn’t for everyone, period. Gamers that prefer to play a game non-stop from beginning to end instead of sitting through dialog-laden cut-scenes will turn their noses at this one. Of course, anyone that is interested in Xenosaga III anyway will be well aware of this, so they certainly understand what they are getting themselves into.
Also Sprach Zarathustra, which translates from German into “Thus spoke Zarathustra,” opens about twelve months after the events of II. Shion has begun working with a “terrorist” organization known as Scientia to investigate her previous employers hand in the events of the story thus far. Fate, it seems, tosses her back into her old circle of allies when they are commissioned to examine a floating landmass in space named Rennes-le-Chateau. This, of course, is only the beginning of the story. When it is all said and done, just about every question from episodes I and II are answered, and it would be hard to imagine a better ending for a series cut so short.
Like the two titles before it, Also Sprach Zarathustra is waist-deep in religious and philosophical references. Rennes-le-Chateau, for instance, is named for the castle in southern France at the center of numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the Catholic Church and the lineage of Mary Magdalene. One character that you will come across that references religion is Abel, the child Omega Res Novea pilot. There are also other references as well, such as T-elos, which is designed as an upgrade to the similarly designed KOS-MOS. Telos, in ancient Greek, means “purpose,” “meaning,” or “an end of a process.”
It is through these references that the most clever and mind-tickling moments of the game are presented. The conflict between KOS-MOS and T-elos, or between “order” and “purpose,” is only one example of Monolift’s clever use of references to portray a higher meaning. Xenosaga III intrigues and fascinates in a way that very few videogames or anime series have, but it trips up when it tries to force-feed philosophy to you through clumsy dialog. For anyone that has seen dubbed anime and thought, “Why don’t they just cut out the one-word lines instead of forcing the emotion,” then you will understand what I am talking about. While it would have been nice to include a little more action in the title early on in the story, the pacing of the last half more than make up for it. When the storyline shines, it’s as bright as any other meaningful piece of modern Science-Fiction out there. After all, when you subtitle your game after the famed philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche, you should probably back it up.
Xenosaga has always shown a unique visual style, and III is no different. The character design is closer to the realistic design of II, but not quite as “hyper-realistic” if you will. Gameplay graphics are as solid as ever, with the only slowdown or graphical hiccups coming from cut-scenes when there is too much action going on. These moments of slowdown don’t occur too often to become a nuisance, though. Explosions, mecha-fights, chick-robot on chick-robot melees, engross the player sitting and watching. It’s not jaw-dropping beautiful the entire time through, but there are more than a few moments of “wow” here to be found.
In repenting for the various changes in II, Xenosaga III brings back much of the voice talent from the original to act the more important roles. Shion is easily the most noticeable, and best, change from II. Best of all, the voices that were more annoying in the original and recast for the better (see: chaos) have been kept from II. The grand-scaled orchestrated soundtrack from the original is still missing though. Instead, a majority of the game sounds very subdued musically. It isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t stand up to Yasunori Mitsuda’s original score.
The developers also heard the cries for the return of the Database and brought it back for III. Players can literally read through and discover anything they need about the plot, characters, weapons, or gameplay functions by flipping through the Database. Money and stores also make a return, though the stores are more or less just save points where you can buy things instead of actual stores. For many RPG fans, this game will feel a little too easy, however. Save points recharge the HP and EP of all your party members, and there are usually multiple save points in any given dungeon. Smart rotation of your party as you advance through hostile territory will ensure that you never need to rely on health or ether recharging items, which is a little disappointing.
Combat has been simplified from the previous game for III and now resembles something closer to the traditional RPG. Instead of players pushing the face-buttons in combination for particular attacks, it is all menu-based. Tech attacks that used to be the result of a specific button arrangement are now in their own menu along with ether spells and item selection. Breaks are now not broken down into specific regions of the enemy. Instead, every attack builds up a break-meter on an enemy. Many different tech-attacks, such as office-favorite “Choke” with Ziggy, focus on building the break meter instead of focusing on damage alone, which allows for a level of strategy in prolonged battles. Characters on the battlefield can swap out with one in reserve, which is pivotal in battles where a boss may be susceptible to a specific type of attack. The reserve of characters is deep and varied enough that you will find use for every one of them at one time or another.
This simplification of all the combat means that battles take much less time. Before, battles could take anywhere from two to five minutes depending on what characters you had in and what you were up against. Now, you would be hard pressed to find yourself in a fight lasting longer than 90 seconds, save the occasional boss battle. Action is constantly on the move and the game is much better for it. The boost meter for the party charges with every blow you score. When it is filled to one, players can boost for an extra turn before the enemy can strike. If you wait until it charges to two or three, then you can use a “Special Attack” to score even more damage. What’s more, if you finish an opponent off with a special attack, you gain additional experience and money from the fight. Simple mechanics adding up to quick battles with a considerable amount of strategy is about the most you can ask for.
E.S. fights have also been simplified a little, but are even more exciting than the on-foot battles. The level of customization that you had in the original, where you could choose what type of weapon your mech would carry, is absent here. Instead, every E.S. carries a couple of different weapons. Each weapon costs a certain amount of energy to use, and pilots can attack as often as their generator output allows. Every attack carries with it a chance for a team-attack, racking up the damage for practically free. I say practically because they usually do less damage, and chain attacks aren’t guaranteed. E.S.s also have their own versions of finishing moves, so there is that to consider as well. Again, the combat seems simple at first, but it allows for a significant amount of strategy.
That is pretty much what you get with Xenosaga III; an excellent storyline that challenges players to understand the philosophy of life, existence, and religion, backed with solid, if a little too easy, gameplay. If I had to choose between a game too challenging or not challenging enough, for this title I would take the latter. When you play through this game, you aren’t beating it for the sake of beating it, but instead looking for all the references and what they mean. Also Sprach Zarathustra won’t convert any non-believers, but it certainly does justice to the rest of the trilogy. And although this may have been the official finale of the Xenosaga epic, there’s no telling what will become of Shion and company if the rabid fan-base speaks loudly enough. Stranger things have certainly happened.
Xenosaga Episode 3: Also Sprach Zarathustra Preview
Xenosaga Episode 3 could be the last in the series. by Patrick Evans
Named after the famed Friedrich Nietzsche novel “Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen,” Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra concludes Namco’s planned six-game epic three games short. After losing some of their fans with a few questionable gameplay changes, MonoliftSoft looks to end its franchise with a bang and make sure everyone that’s stuck it out thus far leaves satisfied.
Summing up the story of Xenosaga would really be a daunting task for a college thesis, let alone a game preview. After all, when you name your games after the novels of the philosopher that brought us Nihilism, you have to be pretty deep to do it justice. The long and short of it is as follows: Shion, the series protagonist, has learned that her employers at Vector Industries have been involved with the alien threat known as the Gnosis. These creatures have leveled planets and ruined more than a few lives. After learning this truth, Shion and company join up with Scientia to dig deeper into the truth behind this Vector-Gnosis connection. This, of course, is really only a hint of what’s truly going on, and fans of the series will be right at home having kept track from the beginning.
Scientia’s newest members will certainly have their work cut out for them when they carry out this investigation. Besides the ever-present threat of the Gnosis, Vector Industries has a little surprise for them as well. T-elos, an updated version of super-femmebot Kos-Mos, is hunting them down. In cut scenes we’ve seen thus far, T-elos survives repeated bombardments, deflects mecha with an energy shield, and dices another up with energy blades. Needless to say, she/it will certainly be one tough customer.
With cut scenes that rival Final Fantasy for length and scope, the storyline behind Xenosaga has and will be the focal point. In advancing through the story, however, there will be enemies to vanquish of course, and this is where MonolithSoft has done the most tweaking. Instead of the complicated button combinations of the previous two titles, Xenosaga III will feature a much more traditional combat engine. With that in mind, there are still plenty of features that set this title apart. Characters will have basic attacks, technical strikes, ether maneuvers (Xeno-speak for magic), and three levels of special attacks. These special attacks can be used when the party’s boost meter is filled by successful attacks and offensive spells. A break meter, which fills as the enemy is successfully struck, can cause an opponent to freeze in battle. But, as in games before, these tricks aren’t exclusive to the good guys, and players will have to be aware that they are susceptible as well.
The mecha that you use in combat are also getting new tricks. Special unlockable attacks, called Anima attacks, can devastate opponents as the Anima gauge fills, while players will often get the opportunity to launch team- and ambush-attacks to obliterate the enemy. What’s more, these machines will also be able to set area traps to disable their opponents with status effects.
While the battle system gets an overhaul for III, various favorites from the first title are making their return. Cut from the second game, stores can again be used to purchase upgrades and supplies. This is a great sign for fans that didn’t quite understand MonolithSoft’s decisions to cut it from the sequel. Another snub that is seeing a return is the database system, providing all the back-story anyone could want in the Xenosaga universe.
When the series launched back in 2003, fans were hoping that this series would make the entire six games that were promised. Instead, we should hopefully be treated to a finale that befits the epic storyline and cut scenes of the two previous titles. Look for the saga’s conclusion when Also Sprach Zarathustra launches in late August.