The Xeno series of games, renowned for their epic, space operatic presentation and cataclysmic storyline, experienced a somewhat jarring piece of drama last year when Soraya Saga -- one of the games' integral event writers -- announced that she was no longer involved with the franchise. Indeed, this occurence was powerful enough to turn an intended hexalogy into a trilogy, for better or worse. Now, in less than a month, North American RPGamers will be able to pick up the third and final installment in the Xeno saga, Xenosaga: Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Opening one year after the conclusion of Xenosaga: Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Boese, Also Sprach Zarathustra delineates a scene most would label as undesirable -- the Zohar is somewhere it ought not be; there is much talk about halting the development of KOS-MOS, thanks to the creation of the crazy-powerful T-elos; and Shion has left Vector to team up with the underground society "Scientia" in an effort to investigate her former employer and resolve the interstellar conflagration. Furthermore, the aformentioned T-elos's egotistic narcissim, and the fact that her power is three times that of KOS-MOS's, has led her to believe that KOS-MOS is entirely obsolete. She now actively hunts down the anthropomorphic weapon, a fact that obviously bodes ill for the blue-haired heroine. All this and more will be presented through 8+ hours of cutscenes -- three hours of which occur in roughly the first four of gameplay. So get a squishy chair or something.
|"The game's greatest changes adjustments...are found within the battle scheme, which should basically be viewed as a fusion of the previous two systems."
That all sounds pretty nifty, but it probably doesn't make a lot of sense if you haven't played the series' previous entries, right? No worries; Monolith has included a highly detailed synopsis of the preceeding story points in the "Xeno Bible," which also provides definitions for all the title's terminology, a bio on each character, and a background for every location and weapon located in the game.
Another addition is the 60 level, multi-hour, puzzle-based mini-game, originally given the fitting sorbiquet "Xenosaga Puzzle" but now called "Geomix," which players can activate at any time. Players aren't limited to trudging through only what the game provides, either; a built-in map editor allows for the conception of custom stages to help keep things interesting.
Dungeon exploration has been slightly recalibrated as well, for players now have the ability lay an enemy-stunning trap at anytime, anywhere -- but only one is allowed on-screen at a time, so some strategy will be required in that regard.
The game's greatest changes, though, are found within the battle scheme, which should basically be viewed as a fusion of the previous two systems. To expound, the Zone has been ditched and replaced by the long established concept of hit-or-miss; the Boost gauge still allows for players to gain ground throughout their turns; and the double combos of Jenseits von Gut und Boese have been traded out for a system of character-specific special maneuvers. These maneuvers, available in three levels, which making a total of 21 per character, offer more than eye-candy -- KOS-MOS's Level 1 G-Shot, for example, gives players an experience bonus when used to defeat an enemy. Charging these maneuvers is simple, too, because just about every attack, either from or against an enemy, charges the meter. Then there are the Break meters which, when filled, completely immobilize a target for two turns. Of course, certain characters, such as MOMO, come with attacks aimed specifically at filling an enemy's Break meter; likewise, many enemies will try to do the same to the player. Basic strikes, Techs, and Ethers also make their triumphal return, along with individual upgrade trees. All this, obviously, makes character progression a highly independent and player-controlled experience.
As for the manner in which battles play out, the system is fairly basic. Players will encounter an enemy -- visible on-screen before the fight -- and the battle will begin. Turns are determined by the characters' agility stats, and when the player's turn rolls around, eight options are made available. One can either attack, use an item, guard or evade, escape, use Ether, swap out a character, or perform a deathblow if the Boost gauge is charged. Again, fairly standard stuff. Also, a number of attacks fall into one of five catagories: physical, beam, lightning, ice, or fire. Think of these as elements; some enemies are weak to certain types, other are immune, and others will absorb them for a health bonus. Characters can fall under the influence of a number of status effects as well, which include the aformentioned Break; Poison, which rips away 20 percent of a character's health each turn; Damage Reverberation, which inflicts upon the character the same amount of damage they deal; Heat, which forces a character to endure the focus of all their opponents; and a number of stat-reducing or technique-disabling afflictions.
The ES machines are also in for another go at it, with three old, er, faces -- Dinah, Asher, and Zebulun -- and one new one included for the mech fan in each of us. The newbie, which belongs to Jin, is a sword-weilding nightmare called Reuben that can cleave through pretty much anything. Speaking of cleaving, the ES machines' attacks come in multiple flavors: some are weak but require little energy, while others are explosive but demand quite a bit of power. This, obviously, forces players to decide between using numerous weak attacks or a few outrageous ones. Although energy is a limited resource, it will slowly regenerate as the battle progresses. Furthermore, if players launch a certain number of successive strikes, they will trigger a co-op or ambush attack, resulting in free strikes on the enemy. There are also Anima gauges for the ES machines, similar to the Boost gauges for regular characters. However, the Anima of an ES must be awakened before a special attack can be used, and the recovery time between gauge refuelings is much greater.
A point that will most probably bring a smile to many a face is the reintroduction of shops and money, as well as the return of Segment File sidequests, which are now available in an even greater abundance, the ES machines, and the "swimsuit hunts". Miyuki and Canaan are also fully playable from the start, along with a number of other previously unusable characters. Monolith will even reward faithful fans that haven't been so memory-greedy as to delete their previous save data, because a number of bonuses for Shion will be rewarded to those who upload their Jenseits von Gut und Boese save files.
Xenosaga: Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra, the grand finale of the Xeno series, will release in North America on August 29, 2006. It has a suggest retail price of $49.99 USD and an ESRB rating of Teen. Happy Gnosis-busting.