The end of the world is nigh!
A large part of a series’ success is tied to how it develops ideas over time. Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra glosses over the strange tangents of its second iteration and gets back to what made the original so interesting and weird; a big, burly story and a streamlined battle system. Unfortunately, this finale is just as poorly paced as its two predecessors and is virtually inaccessible to anyone unfamiliar with the series. If you’ve never played a Xenosaga, now is not the time to start.
The story picks up a year after Xenosaga Episode II,
with Shion quitting her job at an evil corporation. From there, things quickly spiral into typical Xenosaga
insanity complete with time travel, crazy religiosity and more dramatic twists and turns than Dynasty. It’s by turns fascinating and completely overwhelming, even if you’re familiar with the series, so brace yourself for an endless stream of esoteric acronyms, literary allusions, organizations, robots, religious references, magic, and space monsters. Kindly, the database feature from Episode I
returns, now encompassing events and lore from the entire series. Although it’s boring to play catch-up, it’s there if you need it, and you will.
Because of the enormous scope of the plot, the gameplay takes a backseat to the drama. That’s too bad, since this edition’s battle system is probably the best of the bunch. You still have a three member party of people or E.S. (an acronym for the characters’ flying battle robots. See why you need that database? Not only do characters in the Xenosaga games duke it out the old-fashioned way, but they also fight in space as robots.) Anyway, you’ll switch reserve members in and out on the fly and use the same ether (magic), tech, and special attacks from the previous games, albeit a little differently.
The stock system is totally gone, and now the boost system handles extra turns as well as special attacks based on damage dealt and received. The zone damage system from Episode II is gone as well, instead putting all ‘break’ actions, which take a combatant out of the action for a few rounds, into one simple meter. If that was all Greek to you, know this: these simplifications maintain the series’ inherent strategic elements, while streamlining fights into quicker affairs.
Unfortunately, the speed of the battle system still collides head-on with the story’s awkward pacing. After the initial dungeon run, you don’t encounter another battle for hours
. After that, it’s islands of action in a sea of dialog. Don’t get me wrong - it’s a good story - but there’s a point where you wish you were playing
the game instead of watching
Even then it can drag. The environments are large but sparsely populated with baddies, which you can still see and attempt to avoid. Those few fights will precede lots of walking around, which is as boring as it sounds. The puzzles mainly involve walking around, too. Although they break up the action and the interminable dialog, they aren’t particularly hard or interesting, feeling more like obligatory hoops than real challenges. Other minor tweaks include a new mini-game as well as the handy return of shops and money from Episode I.
We’re also glad the dashing good looks have returned. From the cities to the characters to the monsters and robots, Episode III
holds down its signature tech-anime style quite nicely. Areas have their own distinct looks, and even if there still
isn’t a map, there are enough landmarks to find your way around. That is, if the careening camera doesn’t completely throw you off kilter. You can’t control it, and the thing swings around like a lakitu
on a bender.
Several of the original voice actors return for this go-round, along with some neat new audio effects. One sweet detail is the way a character’s voice will change based on where he or she is standing. When your characters are chatting in a cave, for instance, their voices echo. The surrounding orchestration moves from somber piano to reasonably un-cheesy techno. While the music never grates, the persistent and dynamic walking sound effects are way too conspicuous and can really get on your nerves.
In essence, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra feels like a better version of a four year-old game. It swaps out broken parts for new ones, a reshuffling of the same deck of cards. The bridge between familiarity and innovation is thin and slippery, and Xenosaga Episode III sits precariously in the middle, demanding a fee. If you haven’t played the previous two installments, this one will get you nowhere fast. But for those familiar with one of the weirdest tales in video games, it’s a toll worth paying.