Review by AegisKnight2000

"Significantly Improved From Episode 2"

Pros:
-Engaging characters and storyline
-Vastly improved mech combat
-Effectively implemented character customization utilities
-Mostly effective in tying up persistent mysteries of the Xenosaga universe
-Quality musical score
-Good atmospheric and graphical presentation

Cons:
-Low production value in some respects make this game feel like it could have been much more than it was
-While mostly good, some sound and music decisions were questionable
-Cinematics are still good, but not up to par with Episode 1
-While the game-play is better, it still often feels like filler for the better cinematic aspects
-Too much sprawl makes traveling an occasional chore

A number of years ago, I got my start in the Xenosaga series with Episode 1. It was ambitious. It was thought-provoking. Most of all, it was unique. It was not without flaws, but I still thought it was something special. Then came Episode 2, which while not being an absolute disaster, was a serious let-down for me, and by all accounts, the majority of the Xenosaga fan base. I'm happy to say that Xenosaga Episode 3 does rebound, and serves to provide a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Unfortunately, it never quite approaches the greatness of Episode 1, in my opinion.

***Aspect Summary***
Graphics:
Graphics looked very good in many respects. Settings look appropriately futuristic, lush or where applicable, other-worldly. Xenosaga made a good decision to blend the artistic style of Episode 1 and Episode 2 with respect to character models. The result is an appealing, yet comfortably familiar visual product. Some textures looked slightly muddled from time to time, and I would have liked to have seen more facial expressiveness from characters. Also, I would have liked to have seen more detail in generic characters and more variety in enemy models. Those exceptions aside, backgrounds and mechanical models were very easy to look at. So really, overall the graphics were nicely done, especially when you get into cut-scenes where the gamer can better appreciate the work that has been done. Of course, when considering any Ps2 game visuals, I can't help but compare to MGS3, and by comparison, Xenosaga still isn't very close, which is why I'd give a 9/10 to graphical quality.

Sound:
Let me first say that I'm rather glad they brought back the original Voice actors for both Shion and KOS-MOS. Also, I'd like to first add that including footsteps and E.S. Engine sounds at very high volumes for general field travel (such that it drowns out the music) is a very bad idea. I'll get into that more eventually. That being said, I found the sound element of Episode 3 to be riddled with strength and weaknesses.

First off, let's discuss the music. For the first 20 hours of the roughly 35-hour game, I would say that the music was appropriate, but nothing particularly special. It was ambient enough not to get in the way, but it didn't add terribly to the experience, so I would have called it rather mediocre. Of course, when compared with Episode 2's awful ambient tracks (as opposed to the gorgeous cut-scene tracks), I guess this was still welcome. As the game progressed, the music picked up quite significantly, and included some wonderfully re-imagined versions of ‘The Song of Nephilim' as well as a couple of other familiar tracks. There were also some commendable unique compositions. I particularly liked the Testament theme music, and several of the latter dungeon tracks. Of course, the music still wasn't perfect. A couple of spots had no music whatsoever, which I felt was am obvious mistake. Other areas featured tunes I simply was not expecting given the climate of the plot at the time. On a positive note, all battle themes were appropriate, if not excellent. There was also a great variety of them, which is generally a good thing, and a huge positive departure from Episode 1. Ultimately, I think this was good work by Yuki Kajiura, and ultimately the music for Episode 3 is commendable. But I did find myself wishing the music was on a more ‘epic' scale, on the order of “Communication Breakdown” in Episode 2, or most of Mitsuda's work in Episode 1.

Game sound quality was more of a mixed bag. Voice-acting for main actors at critical points for the game was generally (and thankfully) convincing. I may not approve of every VA choice, but at least those voices are delivering their lines with conviction. Among this specific scenario, there are no complaints. However, outside of those key situations, voice-acting trails off. In-battle calls mostly made me cringe. I got used to them, but for the characters I mainly used (Shion, Jin, KOS-MOS, Jr.) they were tolerable at best, and grating at worst. One of Jin's repeated lines is “Attacking!” And yes, it sounds as bad as it reads. More routine voice-actors such as those for calls being made on a starship bridge, or for generic soldiers needed a lot of work. With one soldier, it was so clear that it was Allen Ridgely's VA that it was annoying.

In terms of sound effects, a lot of the same bland sounds for mechs, swords, beams, etc. were overused, in my opinion, which added monotony by a small degree. Last, but certainly not least on the list of sound criticisms is the decision to amplify character footstep (and E.S. engine) sounds by an unusual degree, unlike any I've seen in any other RPG. This was intrusive all during game-play and never ceased to be annoying. So generally, good background music was being drowned out and your ears were practically hurting, no matter whether it was from Jin's boots, Shion's heels, or Asher's E.S. engine.

Story:
Story is a relatively unbridled strength of the game. I remember playing Xenosaga Episode 1 and thinking, “This is going to be a truly great story if they ultimately tie it up right.” Well, even for as disappointing as Episode 2 was, it still had a relatively strong story that pulled me in, despite the game's other inherent flaws. Episode 3 continues the tradition of the Xenosaga series, and does a remarkable, if imperfect job of completing the rich mysteries of the series. It also admirably approaches “meaning of life” concepts without becoming cumbersome or awkward in doing so, as some RPGs in the past have. Grandia 2 comes to mind. Also, with respect to religious inference and inclusion, Xenosaga sufficiently legitimizes using religious inferences. Unlike Xenogears, which at times appeared to be using religious nomenclature and symbolism frivolously, Xenosaga does a commendable job of including religious lore while making it a palpable aspect of the plot.

With all that positive feedback, there are also a couple of criticisms to be leveled against the story, and its development. First, Episode 3 did a poor job of establishing and maintaining momentum. I believe this may be due to a number of factors. Xenosaga Episode 3 seemed intent on ramping up the game-play content, in addition to condensing the overall play time. So, I believe some back-story and exposition had to be cut out, most presumably replaced by the Xeno-Bible. While many other reviews laud the Xeno-Bible, I feel it was poorly done and would have appreciated something more substantial, and possibly more interactive, rather than just static text. The point when I stopped reading the Xeno-Bible was when they started having trite entries for unimportant topics like ‘curry'. I think the Xeno-Bible was a mistake, poor in both concept and execution, but others appear to disagree so I won't hold this against Episode 3 too severely.

I also had some minor issue with the style of exposition. Switching from cut-scenes to text including an emotive facial profile of the speaking character just cheapened the experience for me. I'm not sure if this was intended to convey the nostalgia of Xenogears, or if it was due to budget cuts, or if it was meant to conserve on story exposition time. Whatever the case, it was a setback to me. I ultimately grew accustomed to it, as with many of the other weaker points of Episode 3, but I still would have preferred the more epic and ambitious cut-scenes of Episode 1, regardless of their extra length.

Ultimately, Xenosaga's story, character interaction, and fundamental basis provide strong foundations. In concept, Xenosaga as a series has among the best stories out there. I believe Episode 3 falters slightly in terms of execution, but honestly, it's not so bad as to detract from an otherwise epic tale.

Game-play:
Many measures were taken to improve and revamp game-play mechanisms in Episode 3. And for the most part, these improvements are well received. Character customization has been re-introduced with the implementation of ‘tech trees' that are not entirely dissimilar (but with enough nuances to feel different) to those available in Final Fantasy 10. Basically, players can choose one of two arche-type development paths for individual characters. So for example, KOS-MOS may choose between a ‘Defender'-type fighter and an ‘Attacker' style. Shion may choose between ‘Support' and ‘Attacker'. And so on for each respective character. Neat wrinkles are added in when you pick up technique packages or when you use skill points obtained from battle/items to build all the way to the master skill. Both aspects help make this character customization system persistently motivating and satisfying. However, I found character battles themselves to be on the tedious side of things. Towards game's end, HP ramps up for opponents and character battles amount to being a marathon of repeated action with little deviation. This is true enough for random battles, but particularly salient for boss battles.

E.S. Battles are a bird of a different feather. While out-of-battle customization is not quite as strong for E.S. machines (it's still good, just not where it is for characters), the battles happen to be where it's at for your mechs. This is the best mech combat scheme I've seen in Xenosaga. It wasn't terribly challenging or mind-bending, and since it's not active-time, it's not adrenaline-pumping either. I guess I would just say it's an engaging system, with exciting animations and interesting options to choose from. It's also one of the few instances in any RPG where you have to make full use of everything in your arsenal, with respect to needing all 4 E.S. machines to succeed. Almost every boss battle towards game's end found one, if not two or three, of my E.S. going down, so I almost always made use of the machine sitting on the sidelines, because that machine replaces one of the main 3 once they withdraw from battle(at 0HP). To sum up, E.S. customization was alright, but battles were just plain fun.

There are a couple of other game-play wrinkles to note. Such as lame puzzles that I found no point in including. They weren't tough, they weren't satisfying, and mostly they really slowed down the action…yet another momentum-stopper. The trap system used to obtain advantage on enemies prior to battle was ok, but was too gimmicky and low-tech to really be worth much of a mention. It became less tactical, and more of rinse-and-repeat procedure in the field as the game wore on. Honestly, it almost struck me as an afterthought by the developers. Hakox was a surprisingly well conceived mini-game, so I have to give Episode 3 some credit there. It would be rather difficult to describe, so I won't get into it, but it's got satisfying and amusing moments. Just trying letting KOS-MOS fall off the puzzle map, and listen to her reaction. That being said, I played Hakox for like an hour only once, and never really felt compelled to do it again. But still, it's there if you want it and it will give you some relevant prizes, but you can ignore it if you don't care about it, which ultimately is a plus.

One final thought…the concept of breaking objects in the field was novel with Episode 1. It has now officially gotten to be thoroughly annoying, and adds little to anything to the game-play.

Atmosphere:
Whether one likes it or not, Xenosaga probably still conveys the best medium for futuristic sci-fi RPG atmosphere. It would be very difficult to conceive of technology, mannerisms, and concepts evolved from the far future. While not perfect, this entire series has always seemed to try its best to convince events really are taking place in a futuristic universe. From environmental decisions to technological imagination, most things put you in the futuristic mindset.

That being said, certain decisions specific to Episode 3 did take a bit away from this well-conjured atmosphere. Annoying loud footsteps and engines in dungeons took away from atmosphere and tone that would otherwise be better set by the music, and maybe ambient sounds. Battle cries that were lame to begin with get continually repeated over the course of the game with little or no variation, and no obvious option to turn them off. Excellent cut-scenes were shortened in favor of rather bland text with a cheaply emotive profile picture of the speaker. The music itself, while still undeniably good especially as the game progressed, still felt scaled back from the epic scope of Episode 1. It almost felt like Episode 3 possessed what it needed to be a truly great game, but was holding back.

Ultimately though, I'd have to reiterate that atmosphere is still a strength of Xenosaga. Great imagination, mostly convincing dialogue, an elaborate yet cohesively constructed ‘world' (in the galactic sense), solid graphical decisions, and believably motivated pseudo-antagonists and protagonists all combine to overwhelm the aforementioned weaknesses. Therefore, I do ultimately commend the game for producing a credible gaming atmosphere.

*Extra Thought*
If pressed on the issue, I would have to say this game actually feels more like Xenogears than either of the previous Xenosagas…for better or worse.

***End Summary***


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/29/06


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