Namco’s Xenosaga sci-fi epic had planned to take players through six episodes of RPG storytelling. Unfortunately, it had never quite reached the kind of critical mass that it hoped to inspire, taking heavy criticism for being more of a movie than as an actual game, and disappointing fans with a sequel that felt like a step backwards. With the third, and final, chapter of the saga, Namco has apparently listened as the final curtain rises with Xenosaga III: Also Spracht Zarathustra.
And So It Ends
As with its counterparts, Xenosaga III takes place thousands of years into the future where humanity has made itself at home among the stars. The Gnosis, otherworldly horrors that manifest themselves within our space, occasionally appear without warning and leave nothing but devastation in their wake, haunting the relative peace. As the Galaxy Federation continues to wage a war against these horrors, Shion Uzuki and her friends are caught up in their own struggles to save themselves and all that they hold dear against an enemy whose will is determined to save…or destroy…the universe itself.
A year has passed since the events in Xenosaga II and Shion Uzuki, one of the main characters of the series, has left Vector Industries after discovering information linking the company to the Gnosis phenomenon along with a revelation about her father that she was not expecting. Secretly working for a group called Scientia, she continues to wage her own personal war to find the truths that her former employer continues to hide. She’ll eventually find herself back among the friends when it becomes clear that there is far more at stake than any of them had ever realized.
The Will to Read…
Xenosaga III is thick with storytelling, loaded with hours of cut scenes that detail many of the religious, psychological, and personal themes that bring each character to life which might not be every player’s cup of tea. But for fans that have gotten used to series’ cinematic approach, it offers plenty of the sci-fi fiction that they expect laced with plenty of philosophical and religious geist, blending together to create a unique mythology that is certainly different from your typical run-of-the-mill “good vs. evil” story. Topics ranging from the existential nature of the universe to the nature of God and the will to realize the impossible are all part of Xenosaga’s imaginative universe thankfully told in digestible…if not detailed…chunks.
The character designs and animation work nearly match the story’s quality. Mixing together traditional CG and in-game cinematics, players have a lot to watch onscreen as they play or when the story is told. A lot of detail has also found its way into the world, with special effects and incredible design bringing each corner of Xenosaga III to life, although the title is surprisingly bloodless, probably in a nod to keep the title’s rating. It can be jarring, though, to watch as a character pulls a clean blade from their woundless body despite the violence implied elsewhere. The music does an exceptional job, and many of the orchestrated vocals at the end of the game can easily make the battles feel epic.
It won’t require you to play the previous titles, but it makes more than a few passing references to the last two chapters that may leave newcomers scratching their heads. For fans that have stuck it out with the series, they can expect the game to answer many of their questions, if not raising more than a few mysteries of its own while doing so. Even so, Xenosaga III gives the arc a sense of closure while leaving the door slightly open on a possible continuation, much in the same way that we would wonder how the descendants of the characters may fare, or what the future may actually hold. But it still very much feels like a fitting conclusion, standing out as one of the best to be found in any title.
Help in understanding the crazy number of topics within the game arrives with an encyclopedia that was part of the first Xenosaga and mysteriously dropped from the second one. If you missed it from the sequel, get your reading glasses out. As the player proceeds through the game, it updates itself, acting as a detailed notebook on the world of Xenosaga. There’s plenty of information to read through it and you can easily spend some time by simply going through and reading up on everything that Xenosaga is in an attempt to clarify something that you might have missed or simply learn more about the fiction. For players that want plenty of detail to go along with their storytelling, Xenosaga III is loaded with it.
But the story and the world around it wouldn’t amount to much if the characters weren’t up to task, and fortunately, they are. Experienced voice acting flows through each twist in the story’s dialog from Steve Blum’s menacingly cool delivery as UTIC scientist, Sellers, to anime veteran Michael McConnohie’s third outing as the seemingly unstoppable Margulis. The baddies in Xenosaga III are as every bit as ruthless as those found in many RPGs, but each one of them will also confront their greatest fears and ambitions as the heroes do, making them out to be some of the more colorful villains that you will experience in any title as their wills struggle against each other for supremacy in fulfilling their own deeply personal agendas.
As deep as the story is and with so much riding on it, there are still a few things that can stand out. Players simply getting into the game in the third chapter are going to be hurting if they jump right into the adventure. Text summaries are provided to get players up to speed, but the emotional investment might be different for them versus that of a fan who was with the series from the start. This is very much a game for the fans. The explanation for Shion’s departure also feels fragmented. Although this is somewhat remedied by a web series that Namco has posted in Japan for the “Missing Year” which goes into more detail, the background material on this and other topics within the in-game encyclopedia hint that there could have been a lot more to explore.
An interesting change to talking to NPCs was also made in Xenosaga III. Most everyone will have something to say if you simply walk up to them as a speech bubble appears over their head. When an important topic comes up, hitting the Square button will bring up a topic that might reveal a small side quest or additional information on what is going on. It’s an easy system to get used to, although because of the camera, some NPCs in awkward locations can have their speech bubbles cut off by the edge of the screen leaving you to try and move around to see what they’re actually saying.
In addition to the side quests that you can find, there’s also a puzzle game that you can play called “Haxxox”. It’s a completely optional challenge that’s sweeping the galaxy in Xenosaga and you won’t have to play through all of the levels that it can throw at you, but it’s an interesting diversion especially when it can also be played with co-op. Some particularly useful items can also be earned by completing each level in Haxxox as a reward, making it something that completionists with a puzzle streak might enjoy.
…and to Play
While it’s still a linear RPG loaded with a ton of cutscenes and can feel limited in the number of places that you can freely travel to, the gameplay itself has undergone an almost complete overhaul to make it more exciting and traditional, ostensibly to make up for Xenosaga II. Players will have a lot to look forward to when the time actually comes to play and if you were disappointed by the sequel, Xenosaga III’s system will help you forget.
Encounters are all visible, allowing you some chance to avoid getting into a fight if you can stun the enemy with a trap or sneak around them. But when it’s time to dive into some combat, fans will immediately notice that Xenosaga III throws out much of the previous system. Instead, it brings in a traditional menu allowing players to give orders to their party members through a selection of attacks and special abilities such as ether drive “spells”. Being able to choose your actions is a huge change from the previous system, where players had to basically string together button presses to build the attack combos that the characters would use instead. You’ll also be able to switch characters in and out of combat, changing up your strategy and support options when needed.
Each character is also given two skill trees that they can develop along as they earn skill points along with experience, hearkening back to Xenosaga I’s system. This allows for a degree of customization that was missing from Xenosaga II’s bland skill system, now allowing each character to stand out in combat. In addition to the skills that you can customize each character with, they also have special attacks that are unlocked at certain levels or can be discovered during play.
The boost system also makes a return. Although it keeps one boost pool for the entire party as it did in Xenosaga II, it still works. Boost is earned in combat as characters do damage with their attacks, which also goes for the enemy. There are different levels of boost that can be improved through special items equipped by the characters, allowing you to string together special attacks or use the boost to “jump” your characters ahead in the queue, allowing them to take action before their actual turn comes up. The enemy can also do the same thing, unleashing punishing special attacks that can easily ruin your day if you aren’t careful in watching their gauge.
In previous titles, there was also a special “event icon” system that would give you bonuses in damage or experience depending on what it had scrolled to. This is now gone, replaced instead by the “break” system. In addition to health, characters and foes have a break meter that fills when they are attacked. When the break meter is filled, the character, or the enemy, is stunned for two rounds and unable to act, suffering critical damage with every attack. And if the enemy is finished off with a special move that uses boost, bonuses in experience, skill points, and money are rewarded. Unlike Xenosaga II’s party system, those that sit out on the bench also share in spoils so that you won’t have to worry too much about rotating everyone in and out to improve their statistics.
This adds a great level of detail to combat, allowing the player to break down the bags of hit points that masquerade as mobs. Even the bosses can be stunned, and there are plenty of attacks that your party can learn that focus on hitting the enemy’s break meter. Although elements such as fire and ice continue to play an important part in combat often providing a valuable weakness that can be exploited, the break system gives the player something new to think about for both their characters and in what they should focus on when a boss comes knocking, placing most everything on what can feel like a more equal footing.
The title is still an extremely linear RPG, with each major chapter moving along to a different locale in most cases, leaving behind areas that had served as the “dungeons”. To revisit these, Xenosaga will eventually provide an interface taking the form of a floating, aqua colored, icon that you can use to simulate them allowing you to earn more experience, explore to discover something that you my have missed, or get to places were not able to get to before. Saves are also handled at special, floating yellow icons that are found most everywhere and right before most major encounters. Stores are accessed at blue icons, thanks to the high technology of the age.
Massive Machines with Guns. Lots of Guns.
Xenosaga II had no stores. They were mysteriously missing from the game, although you could explore places that might have been able to sell you something, but didn’t. Xenosaga III makes up for that loss by bringing this feature back to players, allowing them to purchase plenty of items and equipment that they can use to customize the party with as the game continues now that money has a use again. There’s plenty to sell off in order to earn the credits needed for new toys, and money isn’t that difficult to come by especially later in the game when incredibly powerful items become available.
This also includes customizing your E.S. mechs, giant robots that the characters will occasionally use at certain points in the game. E.S. combat is a lot more exciting here than it was in Xenosaga II which raked your fun over the coals of boredom. An energy gauge now shows how much energy you have in stock for the E.S. that is attacking, and each attack has a specific cost attached to them. Some weapons will draw more energy than others, and they might even require two hands to wield. Although the energy gauge regenerates most of its energy after each attack, picking what combination of attacks from the store of energy it provides can easily determine how easy…or how difficult…a particular battle will be. Teammates may also randomly join in following a successful attack in an ambush or a co-op strike, giving you a surprising edge in battle when you least expect it.
E.S. mechs can also go nuts with Anima Awakenings, special modes that allow them to unleash a tremendously powerful attack and reduce the power needed for regular ones for a limited time. This is a lot like Boost, only now each E.S. has its own bar that they can fill up as they damage their foes. Only one Anima Awakening level is available at the start, but eventually up to three levels can be earned, and they can be the key to surviving many of the boss battles that you will face off against in the game.
Plenty of items and special enhancements ranging from armor to energy reactors that can supply the power an E.S. needs to execute more attacks are also available in the shop. There’s also software that you can install to provide special abilities such as nullifying an enemy’s ability to guard, or allow you to regenerate even more damage when you guard. Each E.S. also has a certain set of weapons that they can purchase and equip, with some of these requiring two hands to wield effectively, forcing you to choose between loading up with two special rifles or one uber gun.
Most of the “dungeon” areas in the game, for both E.S.’ and the party, are also no longer filled with the kind of oddball puzzles that Xenosaga II enjoyed throwing at you and most of the puzzles that are there make sense in the context that they’re found in, and there’s quite a bit hidden away in most of these to make exploration a rewarding experience. Revisiting many of these locations later on in the game can easily reveal plenty of new items and relics to give you an edge.
The End of the Beginning
Xenosaga III closes the series with a bang, returning to traditional RPG concepts while adding a batch of new ideas in what feels to be the polished formula that the series has been looking for. Longtime fans will be treated to a chapter that attempts to answer most of their questions, although it tantalizingly leaves the door open at the end to a possibility that it can be revisited again, if Namco Bandai ever decides to revisit the series. The worst thing that I can say about this is that this story is over. But just as FFXII has bid the PS2 goodbye with what may be the best chapter yet in that franchise, it feels as if Xenosaga III has done the same. It’s a worthy end to a journey filled with fantastic sci-fi, divine ambition, philosophical quandaries, terrible sacrifice, and harsh disappointments as the characters that we’ve come to know find the strength of will to face the truth at the end when one of their own is asked to make the ultimate sacrifice.
– World 1-1
Images: Xenosaga(R) EPISODE III Also sprach Zarathustra &(c)2001-2006 NAMCO BANDAI Games Inc.