Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra

Namco’s Xenosaga trilogy began in 2002 with the Japanese release of Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, which saw its North American release the following year, and somewhat polarized those expecting a title like its spiritual predecessor Xenogears and adherence to the Japanese-only publication Xenogears Perfect Works . Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse was just as polarizing, given its altered mechanics and divergence from Perfect Works, although Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra received more positive reception, combining the best elements from its predecessor into a solid conclusion to the trilogy.

As with its predecessor, Episode III features visible enemies wandering the game’s various dungeons, where approaching them from behind can grant the player’s party the initiative, although foes can do the same by touching the visible character model from the side or behind. Before touching an enemy, however, the player can set one of a few traps and detonate them to guarantee the advantage in the enemy encounter.

Like in the previous games, the player’s characters and the enemy take their turns depending upon speed, and like in the past episodes, unfortunately, the turn-order meter is still half-arsed, only showing the next couple of turns before ultimately running out of icons and being replaced by another meter showing the next couple of turns. Whereas the first two episodes had significant variations on the traditional role-playing game command of attacking the enemy normally, Episode III replaces this with a traditional command where the current character attacks the enemy once with their weapon.

The player’s characters can consume Ether Points to execute Techs and Ether spells against the enemy, and can scan the enemies’ weaknesses with analyze items or spells, although scanning unfortunately doesn’t work permanently except when a character has an accessory equipped showing the enemy’s resistances and weaknesses. Furthermore, switching one of the three active characters out with another consumes that character’s turn, a step down from the superior character-swapping systems of other RPGs such as Final Fantasy X, Breath of Fire IV, and Wild Arms 2.

The boost option returns as well, with the player initially having up to three boost levels, although an accessory can increase this capacity, and is in fact necessary to perform Special Attacks that require more than three boost levels. Aside from using boost levels to execute these attacks, which level with repeated use, the player can use a level to grant a character an extra turn as in the previous two games. Although enemies can boost as well, they’re notably less cheap with using boosts than in the past episodes, and tend to use it when their own boost levels are at their maximum.

A new feature in Episode III is break meters for each of the player’s characters and the enemy. Certain Techs can increase break points against the enemy (enemies also able to inflict break damage against the player’s party), and if these gauges reach their maximum, the player or enemy will be stunned and not be able to act for a few turns before recovering, during which they’ll be more vulnerable to attacks. Certain Ether spells, however, can decrease the number of break points accumulated for one of the player’s characters. Since taking the time to recover break can drag out battles, however, odds are most players will ignore healing break and fight the enemy normally in spite of accumulated breakage.

Winning battles nets all characters experience for occasional levels up, money (with items, equipment, and shops returning in Episode III), the occasional item, and Skill Points the player can use in a character’s Skill Tree to acquire more skills and unlock upper-level skills when acquiring all four of a set’s Skills, whether active or passive, and consisting of stat increases, Ether spells, Techs, and so forth. Despite the mentioned shortcomings in the battle system, not to mention some tough fights towards the end, standard battles are foot flow more quickly than in previous episodes (although many bosses can take a while to defeat) and are a boon to the third game.

E.S. battles return as well, with three of the four player’s mechs squaring off against a number of enemies, although unfortunately, the player can’t switch out mechs like they can with characters in foot battles, with the destruction of one of the active mechs being necessary for the fourth to drop in. As for the fights themselves, they follow the same turn order rules as normal foot battles, albeit without the ability for either side to boost, and each of the player’s mechs has a certain number of points they can use to chain attacks against the enemy, with the player initially targeting one foe, although if they’ve inputted more than enough commands necessary to defeat that enemy, they’ll carry on their remaining attacks to another foe. These fights flow smoothly as well, and are like foot battles a benefit to the game despite some tough endgame combat.

Interaction, however, is perhaps the game’s weakest link, with one convenience available even in a few sixteen-bit titles, the automap, being absent in Episode III, although mercifully, most dungeons tend to be linear with few branches. There are a few puzzles in some dungeons, though thankfully, they likely won’t drive players to use a guide, a sign of good design. Save points also fully recover the player’s party, and shop tiles are occasionally present by save spots, although there is a point near the end of the game where the player will be far from a shopping tile, with no quick transport through some of the longer dungeons. The menu system, however, is largely clean and quick, load times are minimal, and cutscenes are skippable. Despite its good points, though, the interface is, as mentioned, the game’s worst area, but is by no means terrible.

As with previous episodes, story is the strong point of Episode III, with long, developing cutscenes being a nice reward for winning the toughest boss battles, alongside the return of the databank that explains most things Xenosaga-related. The translation is decent, as well, although there are some glaring punctuation errors, but otherwise, the narrative is one of the game’s high points.

Although not as memorable as Episode II’s tracks, the soundtrack in the third episode is definitely above average, although there are some areas without music, yet not as many as in Episode I. The voice acting is more than tolerable, as well, despite some weak lip-synching at times, and in the end, the aurals are one of the game’s best aspects.

The visuals show plenty of polish, as well, with believable character models that don’t have blocky hands like in Episode II, alongside a fusion of the first episode’s anime character designs and the sequel’s more realistic designs. There is some occasional graphical slowdown, but otherwise, the visuals definitely shine in the end.

Finally, the third game is about thirty hours long, with plenty of replay value in the form of a fun minigames, secret bosses, and finding keys to the occasional hidden doors.

Ultimately, Xenosaga Episode III is for the most part a solid conclusion to the series that hits most of the right notes, particularly with regards to its battle system, narrative, aurals, and visuals, and doesn’t leave to much room for improvement, save perhaps in the area of interaction. Although Namco and Monolith Soft would pretty much abandon the series afterward, the saga remains even today a pinnacle of role-playing game storytelling.

The Good:
+Solid battle system.
+Great story.
+Nice music and voicework.
+Gorgeous visuals.

The Bad:
-Tough endgame bosses.
-Some interface issues.
-A few areas without music.
-Localization is spotty at times.

The Bottom Line:
A solid conclusion.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 10/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Medium
Playing Time: 25-40 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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