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   Xenosaga III: Also Sprach Zarathustra - Staff Review  

All Things Must Come to An End
by Dallas Richardson

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

4.0/5

Rating definitions 

   In 1998, Squaresoft released a phenomenal RPG for the Playstation in Xenogears. Heralded for its deep story and gameplay, it quickly became a fan favorite among many RPGamers. Years later, some of the original developers of the game left Square and joined a new company, Monolith Soft. The developers then initiated an ambitious project, Xenosaga, which was intended to be a six part series. It all began with Xenosaga Episode I: Dur Wille zur Macht in 2002. Replete with religious themes and philosophy, Xenosaga I became a "love it or hate it" game, due to its labrinthine story and lengthy cutscenes. Nonetheless, the game sold very well and expectations rose high for the sequel. Sadly, those expectations were not met. Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, released two years later, featured a new graphics style that deviated from the original and a revamped battle system that inadvertently stripped most of the fun from the gameplay. The game received poor reviews and Monolith Soft took a huge hit in sales. As a consequence, budgets were cut and Monolith Soft forced an end to the series in the following sequel, instead of concluding four games later. Enter Xenosaga Episode III: So Sprach Zarathustra, the game that satisfyingly concludes the epic story with quite a bang, answering every last question a gamer could have.

   Like the games before it, Xenosaga III follows Shion and friends as they attempt to find a way to destroy the Gnosis, a race of seemingly invincible beings that wreck havoc on humanity, once and for all. The story arrests the player to the end, concluding different sub-plots along the way. Still, it is not until the final bit that the game gets intense and the stakes are raised dramatically. But, thankfully, everything is fully explained, including the functions of all the tongue-twisting organizations and mysterious figures. Faithful fans will come away satisfied with these conclusions. This game is most definitely not recommended to newcomers to the series. The game does include a "Xeno-Bible" in the Main Menu which details every concept, character, location, and organization in the game. However, this feature can't possibly bring newcomers up to speed. There's just too much information. Xenosaga III is clearly tailored to gamers who have completed the first two games and are looking to conclude the series.

   The story is excellent, but gamers will also be compelled to participate in the battle system. A few things have changed since the last iteration, and the system now include aspects from both of the previous games. Gone is the annoying zone system of Xenosaga II, where the player must exploit an enemy's weak "zone" before doing major damage. However, the boost system remains, and is more fair this time around. A character's turn occurs in the order that he or she performed a boost. No longer can bosses take priority. Also, boosts can be saved to use for special moves that do great amounts of damage. Other than these tweaks, the battle system is pretty much identical that of the first game; standard turn-based fare. Each character may learn Ether skills and special attacks that have certain attributes, such as doing extra damage to Gnosis enemies. Standard attacks will get the job done early on, but later a bit more strategy is necessary. Players must use a combination of attacks, Ether skills, and the boost system to continue to win both normal battles and major boss battles, some of which can last well over an hour.

Cutscene The cinematics here are really entertaining. It's just too bad they are so few.

    Battles become far more intense when the party jumps into their E.S. mechs. Similar to Xenosaga II, characters can only use the mechs during specific parts of the game. E.S. battles play out a bit differently from normal battles. The player's success depends almost entirely on equipment, either found or bought at shops. Different engines determine the number of times each mech can attack, and the different attachments have a variety of effects, including nullifying certain types of attacks. From the beginning, the mechs are overpowered and easily tear through all enemies in their path. These battles are dynamic because the mechs attack and move swiftly and the camera angle changes after every attack. Ultimately, with the fast-paced action, the E.S. battles are really fun to play.

    While the E.S. mechs depend on equipment, the characters must develop skills through the Skill Tree in order to become stronger. Each character has two distinct branches, like Ether skills and strength, to choose from. After winning battles each character receives a certain amount of points to use in the Skill Tree. The characters start at the very first box in the Skill Tree and must work their way up to the end. Each box requires a certain amount of points to be unlocked, and once done the skills specified immediately become available to the characters. Skills include new Ether attacks and attribute boosts. Everyone has his or her own Skill Tree, avoiding the clone issue, where each character's abilities were far too similar, of the previous game. For instance, Shion's tree is replete with curing Ether skills as well as HP and EP boosts, while Jr.'s tree focuses more on offensive Ether skills and attack boosts. The character development system feels similar to Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid, but a bit more limited. It would have be great if there were more than just two branches per character. As it stands, the skill system works well to maintain a diversity among characters and consistently rewards players with superior skills all throughout the game.

E.S. Battle Mech Battles are quick and lots of fun due to the immense power of the E.S. craft.

   The graphics aren't much different from the previous games. The first Xenosaga featured a chibi, anime-style character design, complete with large heads and bug eyes. The sequel, however, completely changed the art style for a more realistic look. Nonetheless, this new look wasn't well-received by fans of the original game. In Xenosaga III the art design strikes a mixture of the styles, leaning more toward realism. The end result looks little different from the previous game. Characters and environments look a bit cleaner, but the anti-aliasing, "jaggies," yet persists. There are much better looking games available for the Playsation 2. And gamers spoiled by the profilic, cinematic cutscenes in the series find disappointment here. Due to the budget cuts, the number of cinematic cutscenes has been cut dramatically. In their stead lie text boxes with character art, similar to old PSone RPG's. It's quite unfortunate that Monolith Soft had to result to such archaic storytelling, because a lot of the character emotion and personality gets lost in the act. In one scene, a certain character begins to cry over another's death. The emotion doesn't come out like it should because the scene is so static. However, these scenes do make the few cinematics appreciable. At least, all the scenes are still voiced.

   Speaking of voice-acting, it's quite good. Thankfully, the actors from the original game reprise their roles, and they sound great. The only exceptions are some of the NPC's that sound terribly over-acted, but they stand out simply because the rest is so good. The music, however, varies. They are only a few exceptional tracks, a number of good tracks, a majority of decent tracks, and some quite bad. The battle music is great and changes depending on the area and the type of battle, whether normal, E.S., minor boss, or major boss. The music during the voiced cutscenes is also good, but at times becomes slightly inaudible due to a low volume. Overall, the sound is merely decent, with a few memorable voices and songs.

   Ultimately, Xenosaga III: So Sprach Zarathustra brings a fitting conclusion to the series. The story is exciting to the climatic end. And the battle system makes the game enjoyable all the way to the end. It also helps that the game is a short but sweet journey compared to other RPG's. The average gamer can defeat the final boss within 25 hours with little trouble. Sadly, the game lacks replay value. The Segment Doors have returned and the game features a new puzzle mini-game, but it's not nearly as fun as the card game of Xenosaga I. Nonetheless, it's the story that will attract gamers to play through. Once it's over, it's over, but the journey to the end is all worth the while.

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