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   Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra - Staff Review  

On a Good Note
by Josh Martz

BATTLE SYSTEM
INTERACTION
ORIGINALITY
STORY
MUSIC & SOUND
VISUALS
CHALLENGE
Medium
COMPLETION TIME
25-40 hours
OVERALL

4.5/5

Rating definitions 

   So here it is. After the first two incarnations of the Xenosaga series, gamers everywhere have pondered the question, "Well, will the next game be better?" Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht behaved more like an interactive movie than a game. Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose suffered problems in the skill system and the battle system, though the latter was hit or miss depending on how each gamer received it. So, did Monolith Soft manage to pull it off with Xenosaga Episode III: Also sprach Zarathustra? Let it be known that the answer is "Yes." Yes, they did.

   The skill system reverts to a more individualized method of skill distribution. After characters earn Skill Points (SP) in battle, they may go to the menu and spend those points on learning more skills. Characters each have the option of following two skill trees, and only by mastering the four skills in one node can they progress to the next one. The two trees highly differ, as traversing one may provide a character with Ether Point (EP) boosts and support spells, while the other tree may focus on strength enhancements and attack Techs. However, party members may switch back and forth between the two trees, with the trade-off that they will learn different skills at the cost of not progressing to the higher levels as quickly. On any given node, they can learn abilities that provide them with Techs, Ether Spells, or stat boosts. While all of the Techs are unique to each character, many Ether Spells are provided to a variety of characters, though not at the same nodes in the tree. All in all, the system provides players with some customization without completely ruining the identities of the characters.

   The battle system returns to a somewhat more simplistic model. Again they are divided between character battles and E.S. battles, and the game provides a nice balance between the two. In character battles, each party member is able to use a variety of commands, including Attack, Ether, Tech, Item, Guard, Special Attack, Change, and Escape. Both Ether Spells and Techs cost EP, though the new Special Attack option actually requires Boost Levels. Like the previous games, the party can stock Boost levels in order to jump ahead in the combat order. However, with the advent of Special Attacks, characters can now expend Boost Levels to execute devastating attacks on the enemies. The other upshot of this is that finishing an enemy off with these attacks increases the XP and SP gained by 1.5x. Unfortunately, this makes Boosting less of a factor in battles, as it is much more efficient to just pummel the enemy rather than jump ahead, unless the player really needs to do something right before the enemy does.

A few not-so-familiar faces appear! A few not-so-familiar faces appear!

   The biggest change to the battles is the inclusion of a Break Gauge. This gauge increases whenever a character or enemy is struck, and if it fills up, that player is incapacitated for two turns, and the chance of a Critical Strike against them rises dramatically. Some attacks are designed to do minimal HP damage, however they will increase the Break Gauge by a substantial amount. Surprisingly, this gauge is the source of a lot of strategy in boss battles, and proper use can turn the tide of the battle in the player's favor.

   Like Xenosaga II, characters can switch out at any time, at the cost of a turn. Also, gone are the different types of attack damage, as everything is now combined into five elemental attributes: Physical, Fire, Ice, Lightning, and Beam. Another nice addition that was lacking from Xenosaga II is that attack spells are massively useful. With the right combination of spells, it's possible to have MOMO dealing out thousands of points worth of damage. Lastly, practically every player of Xenosaga II hated the load times before and after battle, and they will be pleased to find that they are absolutely non-existent in this game. Honestly, within a second or two after running into the enemy on the field, players are able to input commands and act.

   E.S. battles, on the other hand, are quite different. Players can have three E.S.s on the battlefield at any time, with the fourth one only coming in when one that is currently out becomes incapacitated. Each E.S. contains an Energy Level (which can be increased through purchases) that dictates how much energy a character may spend per turn. Each weapon that an E.S. equips requires a certain amount of energy to execute, and players can attack as much as they like per turn, provided they have the energy. E.S.s can no longer use spells, but they can enter Anima mode by using Anima levels which are gained by successfully attacking an enemy. Anima mode decreases the amount of energy each weapon requires, as well as providing the character with a special attack that can only be used once per Anima mode. Just like the special attacks in character battles, these Anima attacks will increase gained XP and SP if the player kills an enemy using it. The break gauge is gone in this mode, but characters can use any items to heal the E.S.s until their HP falls to 0, at which point the E.S. can no longer be used during that fight. Overall, players will be hard pressed to find any normal enemies that provide any sort of challenge in this mode, as it is incredibly easy to dispatch the enemies with constant attack barrages.

   The game's menus are easy to navigate and are virtually load-time free. One of the only small issues found was that when purchasing items in bulk, they changed the controls so that left and right modify the purchase by tens, and up and down by ones, which is a slight change from the norm. Nothing wrong with it, just strange.

   When running through an area, if players pass an NPC, a text bubble will automatically appear with some form of dialogue, with a piece of highlighted text that displays what the NPC wishes to talk about, and if players wish to continue the conversation, they can merely hit Square, and the NPC will continue on. On one hand, it's nice to be able to see if an NPC is going to say something relevant before deciding to actually initiate conversation, but it can be a rather annoying problem discerning which NPCs will actually give out that information, as the bits of text that are highlighted are rather vague.

   The destruction of bits and pieces of the landscape returns, as well as the traps. However, unlike the previous installments, traps are not littered around the environment. Instead, players may purchase up to ten traps at a time, and they can place and detonate them at will. Successfully initiating combat against a trapped enemy increases the Boost Gauge or Anima Gauge by one or two.

The new skill system in action! The new skill system in action!

   In case any gamer was worried, the story makes a triumphant conclusion to Shion's arc of the series. The story follows Shion and her crew as they finally try to figure out the mysteries surrounding the Gnosis invasion and the origins of U-DO. The game is divided into ten chapters, and while the first few chapters only pose more questions, the subsequent chapters finally shed some light onto all of the mysteries of the series. Finally, in the ninth chapter (the tenth is the ending), everything comes full circle, and Xenosaga fans can drift away, content in the knowledge that the story is finally complete. The quality of the voice acting conveys the story well; every conflict between characters presents a tremendous amount of emotion that ultimately draws the player in. And there are the countless Xenogears references, which are sure to please any Xeno-fanboy, causing them to fall into convulsive fits of joy.

   The story is almost entirely voice-acted, though small scenes between NPCs or events where the characters point out a lever to the player are purely-text based. The dialogue takes place in two forms: movie sequences where the aspect ratio switches to widescreen and players are treated to cinematics with subtitles and voice-acting, and in-field speech, where text boxes appear (replete with CG faces) alongside voice-acting. The flow of the game is actually much better due to this, although the game makes frequent jumps between the two types, causing a bit of loading, as well as irritation for the player if they wish to skip the scene, as they have to skip each one individually.

   The music in this game is quite good, especially the ending theme. However, the fact is that while most areas have music, it merely seems like a background noise, due to an unfortunate problem. This is where the most annoying sound effect comes into play: the developers felt like increasing the volume of footsteps tenfold, causing the most repeated sound in the game to drown out all other sounds. While during cutscenes, it's natural for voice-overs to be louder than the background music, it's quite a nuisance for the clip-clop of Shion's footsteps to echo loudly over the music.

   Despite this sound effect's problem, the music is still filled with many great tracks. The piano is the central instrument in many of the pieces, and is a step up from the last game's music, which many found to be subpar. Coupled with top-notch voice acting, especially in the final chapters of the game, where some of the most dramatic moments in any game are acted out with wonderful talent, and Episode III is sure to please anyone's ear.

   The visual style of the characters is somewhat of a mix between the anime-style of Episode I and the more realistic one of Episode II. The graphics as a whole are more crisp and fluid than the previous installments, leading to impressive visuals for the PS2 hardware. This is especially apparent in the scenes where the heroes suffer some cuts and bruises, which look quite good when introduced to their bodies. The backgrounds are a bit more detailed as well, and since about half of the game takes place in areas other than giant facilities, they also maintain a good amount of variety.

   For the most part, the game is relatively easy. Normal E.S. battles are rather simple; enter battle, unload as much power as possible, walk away. However, boss battles are another story. While throughout the first half of the game, bosses can be taken out easily, the later bosses tend to have some incredibly damaging attacks that will wipe the party out if the player's strategy isn't good enough. Character battles, on the other hand, can be time-consuming and sometimes difficult, since the enemies generally have HP that surpasses the characters' by a large amount. The optional bosses also provide a good challenge, and will definitely test players' abilities in both E.S. and character battles.

   The game clocks in around the 30-hour mark if players don't complete all of the sidequests such as filling up the database and segment files, which can bring the time around the 40-hour area. There is also a time-consuming minigame called HaKox, which involves guiding the characters around a maze of sorts by using moveable blocks. Players can create their own levels and share them, which can lead to virtually unlimited replay value.

   For those who have never played the series, this game may be a reason to start. For those who have been waiting for this game, they could not have asked for a more fitting conclusion. For those wishing for a great game to play...this is it.

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