It has been a long time in coming, but the Xenosaga trilogy has at last come to a close.
Originally released in 2001, Xenosaga Episode I was an ambitious space opera of the grandest design. It was meant to be the first in an epic franchise of games that would span multiple entries, the storyline not to find resolution until now. With the second entry, there was a bit of a misstep, and the core of the franchises audience was left wondering about the fate of the series. Episode II tried many bold things with its gameplay, but in the end these changes were not for the better, and many fans felt betrayed by the experience. So with Episode III, the developers had to face an uphill battle in winning back their own fan base. Have they created a game worthy of returning to?
Absolutely. For all intensive purposes, Xenosaga Episode III is the masterpiece we have been waiting for. It brings the storyline to a close in style, mixing equal elements of espionage and philosophy into a plot with heart and passion. The gameplay has returned to a style more akin to the original Episode I, and the load times (a drastic problem in the second game) have been immensely improved upon. It isn’t quite perfection, but it’s beyond what many will want from it, and certainly a vast improvement over Episode II.
The storyline picks up one year after the events of Episode II, and in that time many things have changed. Shion Uzuki, the once-sweet and slightly naive girl we knew so well, has become disillusioned and lost her way in the complex politics of the universal landscape. She’s left her position at Vector and joined Scientia, and anti-Vector organization (I wont spoil why). To say much more about the storyline would be to betray any reason a fan would want to play the game, as the plot is the main draw of this franchise. But I will say that every major storyline comes to a rather satisfying close.
We finally find out the truth about KOS-MOS, the origin of the Gnosis, and who the sinister puppet-master of the trilogies events is (plus we discover their true goal). There are poignant final showdowns with the impressive rogues gallery the franchise has managed to build up (the Testaments, Ormus, and the Gnosis, along with Albedo and Dmitri Yuriev), and the puppet master is faced for an awe-inspiring final showdown. Nothing is left to chance, yet the ending still leaves massive room for interpretation and potential future sequels. However, this end is still both satisfying and conclusive as well.
Visually, the game has little to worry about. With the exception of the next-gen games and the Final Fantasy series, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more visually stunning game today. The cinematics, the character models, and especially the environments all have exquisite detail and style. Gone are the sub-standard backgrounds of Episode I and the surprisingly ugly character models of Episode II, this game gets every visual note perfect to the last detail.
Voice acting and the soundtrack are on the same level. In Episode I, these two elements bordered on perfection. While in Episode II, things fell apart. Luckily the developers hired a new composed to create the music for this entry, and managed to get the vast majority of the original cast to reprise their roles for this final chapter. Both the music and general audio are back on track, and many of the songs are perfect for their situations. This especially applies to the epic boss encounters, where the music manages to heighten the drama nearly tenfold.
None of this would really matter, however, if the game itself wasn’t fun to play. After all, Episode II wasn’t a downright failure in terms of its visuals, music, story, and voice acting. Even if it was all worse than Episode I, the game would have been more than acceptable had the gameplay remained entertaining. But that was Episode II’s biggest failing, and Episode III’s greatest triumph. Revamped battle systems for on-foot and E.S. conflicts are sharper than ever before, and make each battle an entertaining delight. The new character-specific skill system recalls the days of Episode I, as opposed to the “every character has the same skills” method in Episode II. It makes each party member feel both useful and important in various situations.
So all in all, Episode III is arguably the finest entry in the franchise. From its fine storytelling to its entertaining gameplay structure, there is little to hate in this final entry into the beloved Xenosaga franchise. Fans can breathe a sigh of relief and rejoice all at the same time, because this is the game they’ve been waiting for, in every conceivable fashion.