Monolith Soft's Xenosaga series is noted not only for its wordy German subtitles and lengthy cutscene exposition, but for its hugely complex storyline that's influenced by equal parts science fiction, religion, and myth. The series' first two chapters ended with far more questions and mysteries than they answered or explained, so Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra begins with an almost ludicrous amount of enigmas that need resolving. Fortunately, Xenosaga Episode III manages to wrap things up in dramatic and mostly satisfying fashion for the memorable main cast and the universe that they inhabit, while simultaneously leaving the door open for a continuation.
Episode III starts off with scientist Shion Uzuki participating in a break-in at a Vector Corporation research facility in an attempt to gain information. She's discovered that her former employer, which was funding and directing the development of the android KOS-MOS, has a more sinister connection to the appearance of the gnosis (strange ethereal creatures that can destroy the living with a touch) than anyone knows. What's more, apparently Shion's own deceased father had some culpability in the alien invasion now afflicting the universe. With her heart in turmoil, the young scientist turned her back on Vector and has teamed up with Scientia, an anti-UMN organization that fights against the all-encompassing Vector and its distribution network. This small reconnaissance venture begins to scratch at the surface of massive intergalactic power plays, as several factions (including the zealots of the Immigrant Fleet, Ormus) begin to set their plans in motion to use the powerful Zohar artifact for personal gain. Unrest shifts among the member planets of the Federation, and war is threatening the people even as they live in fear of the gnosis.
To reveal any more would spoil the game's serpentine storyline, but Episode III, even though it can't resist throwing in a bunch of new mysterious artifacts, places, factions, and terms, inexorably builds to its ultimate conclusion. Each character comes to his or her own sort of redemption as they resolve their pasts and face the future, and the general confusion of organizations and motives is slowly but surely reduced to a single, ominous objective. An extremely helpful feature is Episode III's massive database, a huge reference table of characters, events, items, and other entries that populates itself as you learn new things--and there's a lot to take in. Needless to say, those who haven't played a Xenosaga game before will have a lot of reading to do to try to get up to speed, but there's also a summary feature that covers the first two games if you need a refresher.
It's hard not to be taken in by all the grand, cinematic drama, and there's plenty of opportunity to do so. Episode III has more than eight hours of voiced story sequences, some of which are delivered in truly massive chunks. With so much voice work and what's largely a weighty, serious script, some of the delivery falters for some individuals. But there are also a number of genuinely moving moments that surround characters that you might never have expected to be sympathetic to. Despite all the twists and turns and a whole bunch of outright insanity at the very end, it's a fascinating tale, even if parts of it seem determined to remain inscrutable.
It's also worth mentioning that, like other installments in the series, this episode has seen some edits for new territories--in particular, the removal of blood from some scenes. While this keeps the game happily in T-for-Teen territory, there is at least one major moment in the game where a character is obviously reacting to large amounts of blood--only the blood itself is completely erased. Instead of being a visceral, if somewhat horrifying, scene, it just looks as if the person is staring at the floor and going insane. While this isn't too far-fetched for the Xenosaga universe, it's still unfortunate, and the scenes that were made bloodless after the fact are extremely obvious.
The game's battle system is derivative of the versions in previous chapters, with some changes and additions, and is easy to pick up. When on foot, your characters are able to use basic melee skills, powerful tech attacks, or magical ether attacks on enemies. Successfully damaging foes will fill the boost meter, which allows you to either "boost" a character to attack on the next turn, or save boost charges for a variety of special attacks. Something new this time around is break, which is a meter on each character that slowly fills as that character takes damage. If the meter becomes full, that person is afflicted by break status and cannot move for two turns; they're also very vulnerable to critical strikes. The upside is that your enemies also have break meters, so you can use break attacks to immobilize them while setting up boost attacks or other strong moves to polish them off quickly.
When you're not on foot you'll be fighting in E.S. mobile suits, giant robotic war machines with special powers. Each is equipped with an artifact called a Vessel of Anima that allows the unit to get charged up and use blisteringly strong abilities on foes. E.S.-based fights tend to feature a lot of mechs flying around doing crazy-looking attacks, and they feel really satisfying.
If there's a downside to the battle system, it's in how the difficulty ramps up. Just about all the enemies and bosses on the game's lengthy first disc can be beaten very handily, but disc two introduces a number of very nasty people. Many of the later bosses in the game have abilities that will outright kill a character who wasn't at absolute full health, and in some cases will kill you anyway. Many of these fights can also drag on for some time, as you spend about as much time healing and trying to defend as you do sneaking attacks in. The game is at least kind with the availability of resurrection items and talents, so that you can keep your party members popping up like daisies when not in E.S.es. Mechs, on the other hand, will disappear from battle entirely if they fall, so, ironically, you'll have to guard your massive robots a bit more closely than your fleshier friends.
A new character customization system lets you allocate skill points into abilities, much like Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, only a great deal more simplistic. Each character has two skill paths from which they can choose. Usually, one choice is offensive in nature and one is defensive; for example, the cyborg Ziggy can either learn a range of powerful break attacks on one tree, or he can boost his health and defense and concentrate on being an effective "tank" character to take damage in place of his comrades. Putting points in one tree doesn't lock you out of the other, and you'll probably finish out one tree and start learning skills in the other one anyway; but while the customization might not be all that deep, it still encourages you to make a conscious decision early on about the direction in which you want to take your characters, and it lets you build a balanced team.
Encounters in the game are not random--you'll see monsters on the map, and you can sneak up to attack them from behind for initiative, or place a trap on the ground to immobilize them. You can scoot past some of the foes, but because most enemies in an area don't respawn after you've killed them, the amount of leveling you'll do in one area can be a bit limited, so you might as well shoot everything first and ask questions later. For the most part, boss encounters seem to be balanced around the levels you get from killing most of the random enemies, so there's none of that business of having to run around trying to gain another five levels and whatnot. The skill system also helps out with this a lot, as many skill trees include stat boosts like health and ether power, so basic stats can be increased without having to gain more levels.
The game itself easily reaches a full 40 hours between the two discs, each with plenty of cutscenes to watch along the way. While you can single-mindedly work through the game without touching any of the extras, there are still items to seek out, including the newest incarnation of everyone's favorite overpowered little robot, Erde Kaiser, and the mysterious segment file doors make their return as well. You can seek out alternate swimsuit outfits for your characters and you can track down special database files to reveal more information about the game's various bit players and backstories. Once you've finished the game, you'll get a clear file and an unlocked swimsuit mode that lets you replay any of the game's story sequences with Shion and company dressed for the beach, provided you've already discovered that character's swimsuit in the game. The clear file lets you replay only the very last areas of the game, but you retain all your learned abilities. There's even a puzzle-based Lemmings-like minigame that you can play with a friend if you so desire--and there's a level editor built in for you to create your own death traps.
Visually, the game is fleshed out with a lot of smooth, futuristic ships and research facilities, large cities, forests, ruins, and more. Character animations for cutscenes and battles are well done, and just about all the special attacks in the game are impressive to look at--particularly the anima abilities of the E.S.es, which are able to create ludicrous amounts of carnage in a very short period of time. The cutscenes aren't necessarily lip-synced, which can be a little distracting, but they still get the narrative job done. While the best music in the game is concentrated at the end--fighting massive bosses to swelling choral music feels incredibly right with this game--there's a lot of great sound effects and stuff to augment the more mundane music in other areas, from the low-key hum of an E.S. engine as you move around a zone, to the distinct clatter of each character's footfalls on a variety of surfaces, to the sharp metal crunches during mech battles, and more.
Though the Xenosaga universe had become pretty convoluted with mystery prior to this installment, Episode III manages to resolve just about every remaining loose end you'd want tied up. If you've missed the previous two chapters, the barrier of entry to this game is high, but existing Xenosaga fans should get up to speed very quickly. If you're looking for some highfalutin space opera and you don't mind setting down your controller for 20 minutes or more at a time, definitely give Episode III a try to see how it all works out in the end. Whether this is truly the last time we'll get to see these characters and this universe is one question that's left unanswered.