Xenosaga Episode 3: Also Sprach Zarathustra - Staff Retroview  

Menschliches, Allzumenschliches
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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40-60 Hours
+ Fighting is quick and efficient
+ Story is hardly flawless, but never uninteresting
+ Challenging without being aggravating
- Boss battles can take awhile
- Audio is inconsistent
- ES grunt battles can get dull
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   Monolith Soft made three swings with the Xenosaga series, each one being ruled a strike. The first game succeeded best as a labyrinthine story instead of an interactive experience, while the second game succeeded in being a muddled mess. That left it for Xenosaga Episode 3: Also Sprach Zarathustra to close the series, since sales did not warrant a continuance of the project per Monolith Soft's original intent. Episode 3 is not without flaws of its own, but it manages to finesse the Xenosaga experience into what is unquestionably its best form.

   Episode 3 begins roughly six months after the events of Episode 2, with Shion Uzuki's attempt to conduct espionage against Vector, her former employer. From there, the plot switches to a planetoid on which the Elsa becomes trapped, with only the weaponry of KOS-MOS offering a chance to penetrate its barrier. Obtaining KOS-MOS when she has been classified inferior to a new model of Gnosis battler, T-elos, proves a troublesome proposition. Upon reaching the planetoid, an already-thick plot further congeals when the cast appears to have been sucked fifteen years into the past, and circumstances just get crazier from that point. The above synopsis benefits greatly from familiarity with the prior Xenosaga games, and while Episode 3 includes an enormous text database to acclimate newcomers, the game's story is not really standalone.

   The story of the entire series may be accused of many things, but a lack of ambition is definitely not one of them. Episode 3 grapples with weighty concepts such as the nature of God, fate versus free will, and how the universe will end. To say that these topics are not dealt with comprehensively is obvious, as thousands of years have produced no concord from the greatest of human thinkers. The means by which Episode 3 explores its subject matter is nevertheless open to constant question, and many of the answers it finds are attempts to solve the insoluble. On a less existential level, plenty of plot holes riddle the narrative, many (but not all) originating from an amazingly powerful manifestation of a person's subconscious. Particularly in the later sections, however, a number of surprisingly powerful character interactions take place that elevate the proceedings. Being overambitious may have made Monolith Soft leave a lot of loose ends in this story, but these scenes are a long way from forgettable.

In the future, spitballs become far more powerful than anyone ever dreamed possible. In the future, spitballs become far more powerful than anyone ever dreamed possible.

   While clearly related to the combat engines of its predecessors, Episode 3 has shuffled their sometimes-obtuse mechanics into something faster and more effective. Essentially the result is a standard turn-based combat affair, though the speed with which actions are carried out is most welcome. The Boost mechanic that inserts extra actions for characters still exists from the earlier games, but using it is unnecessary. A meter rises while attacking enemies, and that meter can be used either for a Boost, or to execute character special attacks. Using those specials is not only an efficient means to kill the enemy, it also guarantees increased experience and skill points, which serves as a very effective goad to keep the battles interesting. Since the meter which allows use of these attacks is limited, a careful balance must be struck between regular moves and specials, and the result is quite compelling.

   The combat when using ES's (giant robots that do the dirty work in certain areas) is a small step down from the character battles. The issue with ES battles is simply that character development has very little to do with them, as they are dependent solely upon the current equipment. Using the later special attacks of an ES will also wipe out every grunt enemy instantly, which makes these encounters rather uninteresting. ES combat rewards do accrue to the characters instead of the robots, and boss encounters are nothing to take lightly, so there remains a point to the ES action even when it threatens to become monotonous.

   While most apparent during the ES fights, bosses in Episode 3 tend to take quite awhile to kill. Beating them is a process of slowly chipping away at their huge HP bars, and quick wins do not happen. That does not mean the bosses during character battles are particularly difficult, since a plethora of healing items are cheaply available. It is a tribute to Monolith Soft that even with the length of time necessary to defeat some antagonists, because they save new abilities until later in the battle, monotony is not a problem.

   The skill points in Episode 3 are straightforward to use. As in the preceding games, spells and attribute enhancements are learned via this method. The system has been streamlined greatly from Episode 1 and 2, however, making this a very effective method of character development. Equipment is also easy to procure and apply, leaving little to complain about in the interaction department.

Who WAS this guy, and why did the sculptor feel the need to put a treasure chest inside? Who WAS this guy, and why did the sculptor feel the need to put a treasure chest inside?

   When it comes to the music, several spots attempt to use Episode 1's policy of dramatic silence, which is far more effective here because it is not overdone. Yuki Kajiura's actual composition quality is variable, with most of the compositions sounding more suited to background music in a film than the forefront of the game's action. There are a few pieces that stand out as superb, but most of the music is pleasantly unremarkable.

   The voice actors who were replaced in Episode 2 have returned, and the main cast does a worthy job. A few of the performances are ineffectual, notably Wilhelm's too-dispassionate dialogue, but overall the actors in supporting roles also do well. In terms of its visuals, Xenosaga's finale may not be the best-looking PlayStation 2 RPG, but it certainly offers a lot of memorable sights. The variety of locales to explore is somewhat larger in this installment, and many of the sights are quite pleasing to behold.

   It's a shame that Monolith Soft had to cut the planned Xenosaga epic down to a fraction of the original idea. The finale is definitely the best of the series, making it probable that an installment made immediately after this should have avoided most of the pitfalls that befell the first two games. Sadly, enough time has now passed since this installment's release that there is no guarantee Monolith Soft's development team would get things right again, even in the unlikely event of a new game being announced. Xenosaga Episode 3 will remain as a reminder of what happens when an ambitious developer manages to channel its energy well, however, and serves to show that an overreach is usually more memorable than trying to accomplish something ordinary.

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