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Platform

PlayStation 2

 

Genre

Role-Playing

 

Publisher

Namco

 

Developer

Namco

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

Q3 2006

 

 

- No Xenosaga experience necessary!
- Straightforward, enjoyable story
- Breathtaking, fully realized environments
- Absorbing combat engine -- easy to learn, difficult to master
- Wonderful character set
- "Four branches" skill-system lets you emphasize the stats you prefer
- HaKox!
- Beautiful music...

 

 

- ...except when it's not
- Enemy Overlord: Turn off your intercom!
- Unsatisfying resolution
- Paradoxically, overburdened with material...
- ...and too short!
- Makes other games look bad

 

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Xenosaga 3

Score: 10 / 10

 

“My children are near, my children!” – Zarathustra

“You’re with me right now!  This is the maximum level of being with me!” – Bender “Bending” Rodriguez

 

When I first heard that the story surrounding Xenogears was going to be loosely adapted into a series spanning six games, my immediate response was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  I’d take those words back now if I could, as Xenosaga ultimately turned out to be a series for everyone and no-one; while its massive scope caught everyone’s attention, negative sales and word-of-mouth doomed the series to a premature end.

 

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But the first question we need to ask ourselves – since this game is neither rigorously philosophical nor given to bombastic oratory – is why the reference to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in the title.  Fittingly for the third game in this series, there seem to be about three reasons.  First, as with Xenosaga, Nietzsche originally conceived of writing six parts for his work but later decided to scale it back to three, with only a fourth epilogue added a few years later.  Second, it seems the world of online role-playing is starting to redefine the single-player game: the cities in Xenosaga 3 have people walking around with their name-and-dialogue hanging over their heads; speaking to them involves walking up to them, listening, and then interrupting them to ask about the topic of their conversation.  So periodically throughout the game, just as the philosopher, you have to “go down” into a city from a “high place” (whether a mountain or space-station) and engage everyone in conversation to learn what the social situation is (and of course many people have different perspectives).  Finally, Xenosaga’s ominous Mr. Big seems to believe in Nietzsche’s idea that the universe will endlessly repeat itself, though ironically his ideas are significantly different than those of Nietzsche himself (the contrast between the bad guy who espouses Nietzsche’s philosophy, but misunderstands it, to our heroes who resist him but in fact embody Nietzsche’s ideas – of giving meaning to a meaningless world – is very compelling).

 

The other important thing to establish right off the bat is that Xenosaga 3 is a very different beast from its predecessors.  It was practically impossible to separate the previous two Xenosagas from their status as films; in fact, their modest success as films was more surprising – and interesting – than their modest failings as games, due to the several strikes working against them:

 

- overly familiar/derivative material

- lack of texture (humans, androids, backdrops: all equally plastic)

- expressionless “actors” (Shion’s immobile smirk in Xenosaga 1 reminded me of a cow being led to the slaughterhouse), which worked in conjunction with…

- truly dire voice acting

- straight-to-video style visual flair (talking heads, etc.)

 

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…but as the disparate storylines came crashing together I was drawn in almost against my will and managed to forget the many technical shortcomings.  So then it needs to be explicitly made clear up front that Xenosaga 3 is film No More; most of the story is now conveyed in charmingly old-fashioned dialogue boxes…though some (much improved) cinema crops up from

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time to time when a lot needs to be in motion at once!  In exchange, all of the above problems have finally been fixed: the actors – many returning from the first in the series – have greatly refined their performances, and the characters have skin for the first time; their eyes alone can now be used to gauge their mood.

 

But with the background niceties out of the way, I was extremely nervous going into Xenosaga 3: my memory of the first two was not very good and I just knew that an incredibly keen, in-depth knowledge of them was…ideal (if not necessary!) – and I was in no mood to return to either one.  As it turned out, it was never an issue; in retrospect, it seems (even though the story stretches across them all) each of the three games was basically designed to stand alone.  In fact, I suspect this third Xenosaga would play better with no knowledge whatsoever of the previous two games: the game’s philosophy seems to be “Screw the characters and full speed ahead!”  This is no problem; since all of the characters are archetypes, you can easily and comfortably pick up on who’s-who with a few quick lines of dialogue and then simply go-with-the-flow.  Some of the terminology is confusing, but it’s designed that way, whether you’re new to the series or not; if it makes you uncomfortable, you can try screening 2001 before you start (and who hasn’t seen this?) and think of the Zohar as that film’s monolith, the Gnosis as the enigmatic entity (if vast in number…and hostile), and “Lost Jerusalem” as “Earth”.  Still not satisfied?  Xenosaga 3 has an in-depth encyclopedia of the Xenosaga universe (most of which has nothing to do with Xenosaga 3 !), and even PowerPoint presentations of the first two games in the series.  Just quit worrying like I was.

 

xenosaga-3-4.jpg (35790 bytes) xenosaga-3-5.jpg (48674 bytes) xenosaga-3-6.jpg (28542 bytes)

 

It was love-at-first-sight as the game kicked off with an energizing, aesthetically flawless set-up: chasing pulsating beams of light down a hallway with light improvisational jazz in turn following your lead.  Musically, this was one of the few times where everything cohered effortlessly…but there were quite a few highlights nevertheless: magnificent cello music when spelunking into a mysterious asteroid-land-mass in space or a heavenly choral ode when facing one of the final bosses.  Otherwise, too much of the soundtrack could best be described as “tastefully banal”.  It puts to the test the old saying “Only when you risk the ridiculous can you achieve the profound”: one boss (who sounds like a tobaccy-chewin’ Col. Crackerjack) gets a fascinatingly off-kilter soft-core surf-rock theme to himself.  It, like the character’s accent, seems wildly out of place at first, but darned if it doesn’t gel against all odds.  (And for this city dweller, Xenosaga 3 has one of the best “urban anonymity” themes I’ve yet heard.)

 

But as the music gradually fades into the background as the game goes on, you’ll start paying more attention to the visual element instead.  Although it’s absolutely breathtaking, with one of the best color palettes I’ve ever seen in a game, it’s the camera here that’s the real marvel.  Inquisitive and probing, it knows exactly where to position the character in the grand scheme every single time; its ability to effortlessly dolly back, pan left, and tilt up to better flesh out the surroundings is so immersive that I repeatedly found myself ignoring the character to pay more attention to the cityscapes and forests.  How well does it work?  Traditionally, when navigating an enormous city, you try to use the tallest building as a landmark to maintain your bearings; arriving at a cross-roads here, and just as I started to wonder which way to turn, the camera thoughtfully glided ahead of me and revolved slightly to reveal exactly the structure I had been using as a marker sticking up in the distance.  Compared to the stand-offish camera from Xenosaga 1 and 2, this is manna from heaven.

 

I always loathed the battle system from the previous games (the second Xenosaga’s in particular) – in fact, this was arguably the crucial failing of the series up to now – but mercifully the interface has been stream-lined.  No more power meters, just the classical fight, magic (ether), item, guard.  And naturally, by simplifying it, they managed to make it infinitely more complex and engaging.  Trying to conceive of ways to weaken the enemy, without destroying them, to then take them all out at once – for two or three times the experience and money! – makes each encounter tense and meaningful.  Xenosaga 3 also deserves special attention for being one of the rare role-playing games without any “idle characters”; I know from personal experience (and exasperation) how often I keep using the same few characters over and over again throughout the entire game, relegating the others to the sidelines.  Not so here.  The cast is so roundly enjoyable and useful that often after making my way through a dungeon with one group of three, I’d make my way back to the entrance and start over with three other characters; the desire to put everyone into play was that powerful.

 

You wanna carp?  The game is spread across two discs, and it’s my impression that the first disc represents “Xenosaga 3”, while the second disc is “everything else”…  meaning that the flow of the game is pristine until the second disc starts, when you’re suddenly shoehorned from one dungeon to the next without even a chance to breathe.  This doesn’t impact the game too much, but as the material retains enough promise to deserve being fleshed out, I can’t help wishing that the first disc had been allowed to be its own unique entity and the second disc given a chance to breathe in a different game (or two) of its own.  Along similar lines of “compression”, outside of quickly wrapping up the various “plots”, Xenosaga 3 brings no further nominal insight into the characters that wasn’t already in 1 and 2.  This traditionally doesn’t bother me – I generally don’t find character development in “plot” or dialogue but in setting, motion, juxtapositions, and the like (and Xenosaga 3 is extremely rewarding on those levels) – but despite that, the truncated character development is a noticeable concern: in particular, Shion’s development from a ditzy, mild-mannered intellectual (formerly) to an obnoxious, foul-tempered glamour queen (here) makes absolutely no sense.  Along the same lines, the ending – which, including two boss battles, runs about two hours – contains at least a dozen Epiphanies, Sacrifices, and Lessons Learned – hardly any of them truly earned.  Again, I can’t help wondering how (conceivably much better) this might have played if given the chance to develop more gradually.  And finally, part of the plot revolves around the characters (seemingly) traveling back into their own past; the game seems to fudge some of the details here (were the characters changing the past, or was that the past as it actually happened – the game provides an answer but not the most illuminating one).

 

But now forget all that, for the list of miraculous things here is far more important.  Did I mention HaKox, the maddeningly addictive Simon-cum-Lemmings “puzzle” game that could have arguably been released as a game of its own; you could certainly spend as much, if not more, time on it than the main game.  I don’t know if I can adequately describe how much I despise “giant robots”, but whenever Xenosaga 3 puts you at the controls of your very own EVA – even though they handle like molasses in January – I quivered with excitement.  Or what about those “I won the battle!” stock phrases that somehow never once managed to get on my nerves?  And I could go on for a while, too.  Prediction is dangerous, and I personally like to avoid gushing, but as far as I’m concerned, this is, by a considerable margin, the best game of 2006 (the first disc alone perhaps the best game in several years) – and I couldn’t say that about the last two games.  A new Zelda or Final Fantasy might just tip the scales, but I don’t envy them the work they have to do just to keep pace with what we have here.  This is a phenomenal achievement on virtually every level.

 

(Favorite moment: After spending several hours exploring a new town and infiltrating an enemy laboratory – meaning several hours of relaxing, stress-free exploration – the in-game characters tell “you” [Shion] that “you” look really tense and need to relax.  How else?  By playing HaKox…which is one incredibly intense experience which is guaranteed to get you as worked up as an aerobics routine would.  And after playing, as you’re wiping the sweat off your palms, Shion announces how much more “relaxed” she feels from playing.  Obnoxious to the end.  I guess that’ll teach you who’s really playing this particular game!)

 

- Brendan Lynch

(November 29, 2006)

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