Version tested: PlayStation 2
Please bear with this. While a review of the finale to a three-part epic J-RPG science-fiction saga might seem irredeemably tedious to all but the most unflinchingly geekish consumer, there are lessons herein that are important to the rest of gaming. Ideas that should and shouldn't be repeated and, remarkably, beneath the rubble of this prematurely destroyed series, the pleading whisper of a good game trapped in a fallen framework.
Originally intended as a six-part run of games that would be released over no less than three console generations spanning a decade, the Xenosaga vision has been mercilessly downsized in recent times. Indeed, with declining sales as the story has progressed it was perhaps debateable as to whether we'd see any form of conclusion to this, Tetsuya Takahashi's lovingly crafted universe. So, there's some sense of relief for fans in this, the final (foreseeable) Xenosaga game: they at least made it to an end.
But first, a brief history of time.
Takahashi's Xeno universe first big-banged into existence in the 1998 PSOne release, Xenogears. Big in Japan, small in the US (thanks to its Church bashing overtones) and non-existent in Europe, its release saw the esteemed producer leave Square-Enix to set-up Monolith Software, his head still full of the details of the complex and vast universe he had spent the last few years of his life creating. Rather than discarding all that to begin afresh a new game, Takahashi began work on Xenosaga, an ostensibly distinct world to that of Xenogears (due to the obvious contractual limitations) but one in reality closely linked to the former game in style, theme, content, mythology and much of the detail.
Xenosaga 1's release introduced us to Shion Uzuki, a bespectacled geekgirl working for the multigalactic company, Vector Industries, on a robot intelligence codenamed KOS-MOS. A host of other supporting characters with alien jobs and histories but recognisable motivations and emotions filled out the characterisation colour and the dark threat of the Gnosis (ethereal creatures that can kill the living with one touch terrorizing the universe with increasing frequency) provided the shading needed to give the story depth and fear.
The game divided critics with its bombastic highbrow philosophy, impenetrable unfamiliar terminology, linear progression and, most notably, the long hours of non-interactive cut-scenes. But the cinematics were expertly-produced, the story while demanding was interesting, and the battle system (one of the few times the player wrestled control of the game's progression from Takahashi) fun to play. And so, as this space soap-opera has progressed and characters have seen their designs sexed up, stories outworked and questions added to, still these core elements of the series remain constant.
So as Xenosaga III comes in to land, seeking to wrap up the ubiquitous threads the earlier games have left hanging and frayed, players who have enjoyed the former games will know exactly what to expect. For anybody else here struggling to contend with the series' practical history, you have little hope unravelling its internal machinations. You see, any good storyteller knows that the key to creating a successful and believable universe is to know everything about it before you point pen to paper, camera to star or polygon to background. And any great storyteller knows that you don't go around telling the reader/viewer/player about all these details. Rather, you let the detail and fact of the universe permeate the story subtly and without fanfare as mere incidentals that reveal themselves naturally.
Xenosaga takes this line religiously but its complex and alien terminology makes it very difficult to jump in on for a new player. Indeed, both newcomer and veteran alike will need to regularly consult Xenosaga III's magnanimous internal encyclopaedia of terms in order to stay abreast of the twisting and terminology-heavy narrative.
And that narrative has some problems outside of its foreign vocabulary. While the game opens innocently enough - in an opening curiously reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII, recently-resigned protagonist Shion breaks into former employer Vector Industry headquarters in the search of incriminating evidence - it's not long before the philosophy and meta-physical posturing so beloved of the makers is heaped upon the player.
Xenosaga's obsession with philosophy is frequently stifling. Whereas a series like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings focuses it's meta-narrative on basic good vs. evil, brought to life and interest through the protagonist's emotions, relationships and grey moral choices, Xenosaga reaches for more ethereal plains.
Stuffed with references to Jung and Sartre (the German language subtitle of each game is named after a work of Nietzsche) this is a game obsessed with the existence of god, the nature of mankind's telos and the purpose of history's religious artefacts. Problematically, all the characters in the game are also obsessed with these themes often to the exclusion of comforting recognisable human attributes. For players not acquainted with such sci-fi anime vice, this can make your team difficult to identify with, often unbelievable and has the likely cumulative effect of making undedicated players not really care what happens to them or their universe.
But despite all these sky-high barriers to entry, with a little dedication and the aforementioned encyclopaedia, Xenosaga III is still playable for a newcomer. And, although seemingly interminably slow-burning, the game does move towards a grandiose and largely satisfying conclusion with grim determination and some moments of genuine beauty.
Helpful in spurring the new player along is the slick battle mechanic, which is very straightforward to pick up. There are no random battles in Xenosaga III - enemies are visible in the field and you can use the environment pre-fight to your advantage by laying traps or attacking from behind (although this doesn't always work as smoothly as one might hope). The transition to battle mode is near instantaneous which gives the game a fast pace lacking from many modern RPGs, and that was certainly missing from the first two games.
For the first time in the Xenosaga series, attacking during battle is done by making selections from a menu rather than using face buttons to perform various combos. When on foot characters can use basic melee attacks as well as techniques and magical ether moves, the latter two of which incur penalties for use. Damaging enemies fills a boost meter, which can be used to gift your characters extra turns and is far better balanced than in the previous game.
A new type of break meter is the main addition for the series (replacing the previous confusing break zone). When both allies and foes are attacked the break meter fills until, when full, it encumbers the character for two turns during which time they can't make any moves, offensive or defensive. It's hardly Grandia III territory as far as exciting battle mechanics go but it works well and, for the first disc at least (after which fights become considerably harder and death is a strong possibility in each skirmish), battles start and end quickly and satisfyingly.
The other battle mode is inside the E.S. mobile suits - the giant mechanised war machines so beloved of Japanese futuristic fiction. Each is equipped with an artefact called a Vessel of Anima that allows the unit to get charged up and use large-scale attacks. The E. S. fights are a far cry from the staid battles of Xenosaga 1 with exuberant animations darting through space and darting tag-team combination moves. Finishing enemies with a special move in either mode grants the party extra experience bonuses and, team management wise, the Final Fantasy X-esque skill upgrade system makes a return.
Outside of battles gameplay is extremely straightforward. Corridors and environments have very simple pathways to negotiate, sometimes with some simple lock and key mechanisms, and a few hidden chests and items scattered around. Essentially though, these on-field sections are really just the paragraph breaks in between the lines of drama. Some more traditional side-quests and an interesting grid-based puzzle game replace the dull card-battling game from Episode II as a diversion but as far as interaction goes that's your lot.
Indeed, so much emphasis is placed on the cut-scenes that Namco has included a facility where pressing select during any conversation will make the dialogue automatically progress. By removing that last bastion of interactivity (the press-X-to-advance conversation) the game nails it's aspirational movie hopes clearly to the mast. Perhaps even more telling is that this is a welcome feature for the player as it makes cut-scenes flow naturally and enjoyably.
These cut-scenes quickly start to tie up Xenosaga's loose ends in Episode III - and well they should, the first two instalments having convoluted their narrative into a tangle of unconsummated confusion. For those that have journeyed along with the game, the narrative endgame proves surprisingly satisfying.
Taken as a series Xenosaga's presentation is a horrible mess of incongruity. Visually, the first game demonstrated stylised super-deformed characters while Episode II plumped for more realistic forms. This final game opts for the middle ground while at the same time downgrading the audio from 5.1 to mere stereo. Episode III sees many of the voice actors from Episode I that had been discarded or Episode II make a return - all cardinal sins of universe inconsistency from Namco.
Indeed, this is a saga that has clearly been tugged and squeezed, compromised and spoiled by many, many cooks. So, in the end, has it all been worth it? If you're the kind of person whose waded through this review then it's likely you have the right temperament for the game's indulgences and will find merit beneath the unwieldy framework and unfashionable aping of cinema. But if you're the kind of person that skipped the body of critique to look at the pay-off score below then walk away now. This is a conclusion whose delight is in the long haul earning - not in the snatching.
7 / 10