The Xenosaga universe began as a vision of considerable magnitude - a six-part storyline that would evolve across different gaming platforms and fuel the passion of fans for years to come. Somewhat similar to Square Soft's Xenogears, a title for the original PlayStation, the universe of Xenosaga (beginning with Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille Zur Macht in February of 2003) lured players into a powerful plotline supported by a cast of passionate and believable characters. Despite the original intentions of Monolith Soft, the game's developer, and Namco Bandai games, its publisher, it appears that Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra is the end to the series.
If there is one common denominator amongst the three Xenosaga installments, it is the cinema-driven and text-scrolling fashion in which the games tell their stories. Xenosaga Episode III alone boasts that it houses over eight hours of movies and in-game voiced scenes - a goodly chunk of time if you consider the approximate 40 hours it takes to the complete the game. Although not necessarily a negative aspect for fans of the series (especially those whom enjoy tapping the X button until they develop fingertip calluses) anyone new to the franchise may find their patience wearing thin as Character Z's face pops into the text window for the umpteenth time. Considering the amount of information and resolution required for this game to be the last in the series, sitting through long bits of dialogue is a common scenario.
Despite this minor annoyance amongst the series, Episode III makes the lengthy cut scenes worthwhile with its attractive and rewarding story. A year after the end of Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Bose, Shion Uzuki has left her job as Chief Engineer at Vector to pursue her own vendetta. The game itself begins with Shion joining up with Miyuki Itsumi, the magnanimous yet slightly annoying systems programmer, to break into Vector's S-Line division databank. Their target? Classified data on Lemegeton, the apparent Zohar control program. Information in hand, Shion begins to suspect Vector's involvement with the gnosis - an alien race that attacks from an alternate universe, and rebukes the ideals of the company for a new home: Scientia. To ice the cake, Shion discovers that her father may have even had a hand in the gnosis invasion. Thus unravels the beginning thread in a complex story that will leave those that complete the game in a state of quiet awe and consideration.
Anyone familiar with the franchise will quickly relate to the title's battle scheme, although a few fresh tricks are in play. There are two general modes in which the characters can fight, on foot or in E.S. mobile suits. When on foot, the basic options seen in the previous titles are all at your disposal, including the ability to attack, guard, and use items. Where Episode III shines combat-wise is its break and boost systems. When the break bar fills on an enemy or a team member, that character is rendered immobile for two turns. Although a nuisance when its one of your teammates, the tradeoff is that stunned enemies make for easier kills. Unlike the earlier titles, this time around the boost system requires you to use your extra turns in a careful manner, as you will have to determine which abilities and special moves are best suited for the situation at hand. This adds a bit more depth and strategy to the scope of the game.
As for the E.S. combat, the standard rules apply to these gargantuan metal flyers as well. Each one is equipped with a Vessel of Anima, and each of these artifacts allows the machine to do various attacks. That in mind, the exposition of flying around whilst exchanging powerful attacks and combos is right on and makes for some very exciting action scenes. However, despite the extreme amounts of damage your E.S. can do to the enemy, these battles become much harder later on. The simple reason is that unlike your standard, on-foot party, the machines cannot be revived and thus disappear from the battle once defeated. Although a greater challenge as the game goes on is a welcome endeavor, losing battles due to lack of resurrection abilities can turn into a rather excruciating ordeal.
Exploration in the world of Xenosaga is fairly enjoyable, and role-playing fans of old will find the onscreen enemies an agreeable distraction from the standard random encounters. This time around, your team will have traps at its disposable, as well as back-attacks, and both can be used alone or in combination. For example, setting a trap in the path of the enemy will cause it to freeze, at which point you can engage the enemy from behind, initiating a back-attack. Whether as a result of a successful trapping or simply from the player sneaking up on an unwary enemy, back-attacks allow the party members to each have a turn before the opposition has a chance to act. When factoring this in with the other elements of battle such as the break and boost bars, it is easy to see how each engagement can be a strategic and fulfilling fight.
When it comes to the look and feel of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the game falls alongside its predecessors. The controls react the way they should - running down endless corridors (devoid of enemies, more often than necessary) is as easy as tilting the joystick, and interacting with doors and destructible objects is a simple button tap away. Also, the battle menu is a cinch to peruse through, and seeking specific items or attacks will become common practice as the game progresses.
Graphically, Episode III falls somewhere just below Episode II's extremely detailed environments and characters. A definitive change from the cartoon-esque and oddly proportioned art style of the first game, this installment focuses on polishing the in-game cut scenes and battle motions, whilst simultaneously cutting back on the ridiculous load times prevalent throughout the second title. The E.S. battles, as previously mentioned, look amazing, and the simple amount of carnage you can dish out will show itself onscreen in the form of clashing metal and heavy weapon fire. There is a good variety of environments, from the commonplace city buildings to the lush greens of a forest, yet the former seems to be the general practice. Watching the walls of a glinting and teched-out laboratory pass by may become a bit repetitive, but at least the game will look good as it forces you down yet another hallway filled with unyielding enemies. The only genuine antagonists here are the few scenes that seem to be edited for blood - the movies still show the characters interacting as they would without the edit, which leads them to appear psychotic and unsafe. Mental ward patients manning the controls of colossal flying machines? Count me out.
The standard soundtrack goes well with the generally extensive act of walking about and exploring, as it is a symphony of battle themes and fairly upbeat scores; anyone who has ever played a console RPG will feel right at home with the fast strings and epic drumbeats. However, the background music really shines during the ending parts of the game, where the score swells into what seems to be an all-out menagerie of clashing instruments, and the onscreen action is accompanied by resonances of chaos. The sound effects throughout the game are consistent and enjoyable, from the cheery tune of the pause screen to the insect-like whir of save points. Another great aspect in this department is the voice acting - quite a few of the humdrum vocals from the second game have been replaced by the original vocalists from Episode I. Where Jenseits von Gut und Bose may have sounded cheesy and easily ignorable, Episode III is dictated in a crisp and believable manner. This is a necessary aspect when considering the vast amount of time listening to lines of dialogue.
Considering that Namco Bandai Games and Monolith Soft originally intended Xenosaga to be a six-part story, this third and final episode manages to efficiently cap the vast majority of unanswered questions and plotlines from the first and second games. Whether your cup of tea is lengthy cut scenes or strategic battles, or a combination of both, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra will not fail to disappoint. The series has grown from a goofy-looking RPG nearly five years ago to a cinematic adventure worthwhile to any adventure-seeker, and those that have not yet played this installment should play the previous titles first, if only to fully enjoy the bittersweet sendoff that accompanies the story's ending.