Cidolfas's RPG Reviews: Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra (PS2)
You Are: The same guys you were in Episode II.
Your Goal Is: Follow the storyline, save the universe.
General System: Some excellent tweaks from the previous games. The database is back with some great changes - entries are sorted by category, and indicate when they've been updated. Segment files also return, as does the EVS. Unfortunately, there are some areas you can't return to after seeing them (mainly town-like areas) but there isn't anything major inside. 8-) Talking to people now involves you simply coming close to them and "listening in" to their speech bubble; pressing Square then initiates a conversation. It's an interesting idea and is surprisingly natural, but the text is often too small to see without squinting. Another nice trick is pressing Select to instantly change party leaders. Traps are also back with a twist: you get to carry up to 10 traps around with you, and can set them off at will, stopping enemies in their tracks and starting with advantages in battle.
Shops and equipment are back (which was big enough for them to actually put it in big letters on the back of the box). Characters can equip weapons, armor, bracelets, necklaces, and rings, which makes for a wide variety of effects and strategies. The skill system is also back, though streamlined; characters now have two "streams" of skills to learn, along with several sets of unrelated skills. Learning one set allows you learn the next one in line, and when you finish one line you get an "ultimate skill". Luckily, characters outside the active party also learn skill points this time round, making SP far more useful than in Episode II. Skills learnt include stat bonuses, techniques, and ether (spells). E.S.'s are also back, and this time can equip weapons, armor, engine, frame, and CPU; the latter affects the number of slots available for equipping disks, which act as accessories.
Finally, there's HaKox, a cool mini-game which involves characters from the main game, has unlockable levels, some great prizes, and is actually (gasp) sort of fun to play! Oh, and let's not forget the fact that you can go back and view any event in the game, along with the ability to play around with the character, enemy, and mech models, which is quite neat.
Battle System: Simplified and tightened up from the previous offerings. The event slot is gone (yay!). Boost is back, and fills up with any damaging attack at all, but now any character can boost at any time, which removes a big headache. You can also use up several Boost levels to execute a Special Attack; finishing off an enemy with one adds 15% to your earned money, experience, and skill points. Another big introduction is the Break gauge; each character has one, and when it's full, the character goes into Break status. This immobilizes them for two turns, drops their evade to zero, and makes them more susceptible to critical attacks. Enemies also have Break gauges, so managing them is a big part of strategy.
E.S. battles are quite different this time round; you have three E.S.'s in battle, each of which has a set amount of energy (EN). Each weapon uses EN, and they can chain their attacks as long as they have the EN to do so (EN refills at the start of each turn). They also have an Anima gauge which fills up as they attack; you can go into Anima mode by using up gauge levels, allowing you to use less EN with each attack as well as executing a giant Special Attack that functions the same as the characters'. E.S.'s have no healing or support skills (other than guarding, which heals some HP), so most healing is done by items; luckily, they're pretty plentiful and help a lot.
Graphics: Pretty similar to Episode II, except that the females seem to have much more revealing outfits. Some of the city areas really look astounding, though.
Music: It actually exists, unlike Episode I, and it doesn't make you want to throw your TV across the room, unlike Episode II, but for the most part the music is pretty forgettable. There are some quite sad violin- and piano-based pieces which set the mood nicely, though.
Story: Wow. Not only does it pack an insane amount of plot into its running time, a lot of the plot is actually interesting, and answers nearly all the questions brought up back in Episode I. The ending is daring and quite intriguing. Voicework is impeccable, with KOS-MOS and Shion returning from Episode I, chaos and everyone else from Episode II, and MOMO finally getting a good (as in non-annoying) voice actress. Jr. sometimes sounded stilted, but everyone else did a very good job.
Length: About 50 hours doing absolutely everything, maybe 40 hours straight.
My Thoughts: Here it is, the game that Xenosaga should be. The gameplay is so much tighter this time round. Character battles are challenging without being as hard as in Xenosaga II. Regular E.S. battles are extremely easy, but there's something satisfying about smashing everything in sight, and the boss E.S. battles pose a good challenge. I love the skill system, I love having equipment again, and the plot moves around at a brisk pace, giving you just enough impetus to keep going without overwhelming you. It was one of the few games in recent memory that I really felt I couldn't put down. Monolith and Namco, if you're reading this, you've got my vote for an Episode IV.
Overall Rating: 9.0/10