As I’ve mentioned before Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra had a heck of a lot of work to do if it was going to win me back and I freely admit I came at this final entry with something of a hostile attitude, one fuelled by two games worth of annoying characters, poor writing, and various examples of self-sabotaging and entirely avoidable design choices.
Unfortunately playing through Episode III’s prologue didn’t help improve my mood at all, as the experience was very much a condensed greatest hits version of everything that irritated me with Xenosaga Episode II. It opens with some truly jaw-dropping scenes that touch upon terrible events of the past before shifting to thrilling chases through a beautiful sci-fi city in the present… and then when you get to do anything you’re reminded to read database entries, told what a save point is, and stuck listening to some light jazz music as you help Shion, Canaan, and comedy sidekick Miyuki infiltrate Vector’s high security S-Division. There are switch puzzles, memory test puzzles, a “shoot the things in the right order to open the door” puzzle, and to top it all off leading lady Shion once again acts undeservedly smug and snappy towards people who are both kind to her as well as vital to her mission’s success. During this segment Doctus, an all-new secondary character fond of dropping superfluous and untranslated Latin quotes into conversation because Xenosaga’s still trying really hard to prove its mystical religious thing was actually worth the effort, shows up; their sudden significance not a planned in media res introduction but the result of yet more cuts and changes, their introduction taking place in Xenosaga: A Missing Year, a significant chunk of exposition only officially available in Japanese via one website, fifteen years ago. Xenosaga could’ve written the character out. They could’ve streamlined the entire thing to a quick post-mission conversation between Shion and Miyuki. They could’ve done anything other than think clinging on to the bloated scraps of a story they clearly can’t tell was the best way to proceed. They didn’t.
Still, maybe it gets better. I do remember this being the good one, after all…
I’m thrilled to say the visual design is still absolutely breathtaking even in its most ordinary moments, going above and beyond Episode II’s already impressive efforts. Everything from tiny security gates to idyllic beaches to dense forests to bustling cities that stretch all the way to the horizon have been created from the ground up to be a part of Xenosaga’s world, every building shape unique, every scrolling sign freshly invented and aglow. There were times I was in utter awe of the sights before me, and for all the trickery needed to bring these scenes to life – a high resolution texture used to add depth and detail to an otherwise flat distant cliff, a faked reflection, lush vegetation a bundle of wafer-thin intersecting leaves gently swaying in an imaginary breeze – after seeing how Episode III looks with a fresh pair of 2022 eyes it’s hard not to wonder if today we’ve overshot a happy compromise between power and practicality with our constant push for more.
Likewise the music that accompanies these stunning vistas is never anything short of magnificent, to the point where I would sincerely say buying a second-hand copy of the official soundtrack (it sadly seems to be out of print and unavailable to buy on the usual digital services) would be a great way to spend some money regardless of how you feel about the game – and even if you have no intention of ever playing it at all. It really is that good, Kajiura’s potent combination of sombre strings, delicate piano melodies, electronic beats, and haunting vocals weaving an unforgettable soundscape capable of communicating the sheer weight of the fictional history Xenosaga’s smothered itself in with a sense of clarity and deftness of touch the plot fails to match.
How to handle the labyrinthine plot it’s voluntarily saddled itself with remains an ongoing issue in Episode III. I know this is the final game in the series and Xenosaga knows it too, so why am I still waiting for the game to get its narrative skates on? Why doesn’t this closing chapter feel like it’s doing everything in its power to move decisively towards a grand climax befitting a tale that’s been three full-length PlayStation 2 RPGs and a few canon side stories in the making? Why is the story still dwelling on the exact same events it always has without ever really moving on from them? Why am I still just playing more Xenosaga? There’s nothing in this trilogy that makes me believe this is a story that really needs three games (and more) to be told or that it’s doing anything so very clever it takes its players three games to understand the enormity of it all. When it’s going over ancient history (sometimes literally) again you never feel you’re witnessing anything that couldn’t have been mentioned the first time around or is so plot-upending that this latest retelling comes as a shock – it’s just an excuse for more misery in an adventure that has repeatedly mistook characters being sad for depth. There are a few times when you’re sure Episode III’s about to kick things up a notch and finally make an effort to push things forward… only for these sections to be swiftly dragged down again by another overly-long variation of an event you’ve already seen a game ago. Xenosaga’s the videogame equivalent of thirteen year old me, the kid who spent an entire term gently sanding a block of wood because I wanted to look busy in class instead of daring to cut into it with a saw and get some actual work done, forever dithering with minor nothings instead of getting on with the one thing it already knows it should do.
This disappointing mix of reheated final act leftovers and mediocre conclusions now firmly belong to Shion, with everyone else relegated to a supporting role. While on the one hand picking a single person and treating everyone else as so much background noise was the only way this third act was ever going to get anywhere at all it does feel like something of an emergency sticking-plaster approach in a trilogy that has spent so many hours making dozens of characters directly relevant to everyone and everywhere else, all of them suffocating under the weight of their own backstories. To make matters worse Shion is simply not likeable enough to take up this much screen time, nor unlikeable enough for whatever she’s about to do next to be a big bold move that’ll force everyone else to d something extraordinary just to keep up and make you want to see what’s going to happen next. RPGs need to either “Do a Suikoden” and set up One Big Hero for everyone else to willingly rally around from the start, or they need to take a more Sword and Fairy 7 approach and have everyone in the group relevant all the time, right up until the very end. Xenosaga – as it does so many other things – wants to do both yet fails to do either, and so we end up picking our way through the half-told carcasses of enough material to fill a whole heap of perfectly decent games worth of sadness, revenge, and reality-determining challenges instead. At one point Shion even admonishes the all-seeing ghost-child Nephilim for showing up for another round of cryptic word-spew, the writers apparently failing to consider that if their headline character was sick to death of being treated that way, then maybe the person playing was too.
With this narrative wastage laid on top of a foundation seemingly eager to tackle every vaguely philosophical topic under the sun and loosely kept in place by flimsy rules that can clearly be rewritten as often and to whatever extreme is considered most useful at that moment in time there’s no point in paying attention to developing events, because whatever you’ve seen or been made to believe – from definite deaths long ago to the nature of the universe itself – can be altered to suit current whims in an instant. It’s just as easy to tune out the multiple mysterious people and organisations at work in Xenosaga too, almost all of them so long-lived they’ve been operating with intent behind the scenes of all humanity for millennia, and U-DO (essentially “God”) so other dimensionly, unknowable, and eternal that even the slightest contact with them is physically harmful to humans. As conceptually interesting as all that may be this broad canvas painted with shadows makes for a poor concept to battle against/with/whatever the heck a dozen different opposing NPCs are doing at any moment in time; so abstract, enormous, and malleable are the forces you’re up against may as well be told you’re fighting the colour purple.
We also have to address Xenosaga’s fondness for religious references, and how it’s failed to justify the vast amounts of ultimately pointless name dropping it’s subjected its players to. Now I know said in my article on Episode I that sometimes a bit of superficial artistic pilfering is fine and I meant it: Making you fight angels – the burning kind with hundreds of eyes and made of impossible shapes – just because they look cool is something we should encourage in RPGs, but Xenosaga, with its… everything (up to and including robo Mary Magdalene) really wants to be so much more worthy than that, but still thinks naming typical RPG elements – the special thing with hidden power, the guys in the fancy cloaks, the McGuffin everyone’s chasing – after frequently unrelated Gnostic/Abrahamic beings, concepts, and objects is all it takes to siphon off a portion of the original’s profound cultural importance and meaning. It’s not like… let’s use Final Fantasy Tactics as an obvious example; which chose a not-Catholic world as a convenient setting to explore power, corruption, and the vast gulf between reality and the “truths” told to the general populace for the continued benefit of the ruling few. The Shin Megami Tensei series is famous for asking almost as a matter of routine the purpose of the divine, who should have divine power, and what exactly are the consequences of doing something “For the greater good“. For all its stodgy terminology and endless dialogue Xenosaga ultimately doesn’t do anything more with its conclusion than make a rag-tag band of people punch something weird in the face at the end of a completely linear tale for the sake of the universe, leaving players with an experience akin to waiting hours for an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant… (strained analogies aside, Xenosaga did expect players to purchase three full price PlayStation 2 games if they wanted to see how the story ended) only to still end up with a cheeseburger.
The battle system used in Episode III to punch weird things in the face has been greatly stripped back from its prequel’s combo-obsessed zone-bothering shenanigans and replaced with Standard RPG Encounter System: Beige Edition and that’s a real shame because Jenseits von Gut und Böse’s fight mechanics were a great idea, badly done – they needed tweaking, not completely throwing out. The good news is most skirmishes now take seconds rather than (tens of) minutes to clear, the bad news is this is because all you need to do now is hit things until they fall over and maybe use magic every now and then. The ghosts of Xenosaga’s past hover around the periphery of the UI, although the redesigned break and boost mechanics are rarely worth engaging with or necessary, and the new skill learning system can be summed up as “Do you want this skill/stat boost or that one? Oh, you want both? OK“. Even worse than suffering through this mindless bore ’em up is knowing a pretty good compromise between Episode II’s ideas and the accessibility developer Monolith Soft seemed to be aiming for in this final release can be found in Also Sprach Zarathustra’s E.S. battles. These have attacks draw from each E.S.’ limited pool of energy, with you able to perform as many attacks per turn as you have the energy to do so. So! Do you go for the devastating close-range rush and risk a painful counterattack, or do you pepper them with multiple lasers from afar? Do you think it might be worth using a low power move to finish off an already weakened enemy, knowing your second attack will automatically target another, or is it best to definitely put them down for good? Building up and then unleashing “Anima” power will temporarily grant a boost to your energy pool, which can then either be used to perform special killer attacks or a larger string of standard ones – what’s the best in this situation? Would it be best to spend a turn recharging an E.S.’ HP rather than attack? There’s a lot going on in these battles without them taking until the end of the decade to play out, and it’s a shame these engaging ideas didn’t carry through to standard fights.
Once again the dungeon designers appear to have been paid by the obstacle, your path regularly blocked by a selection of switches, buttons, branches, crystals, hovering platforms, and whatevers that rarely feel they have a genuine reason for being there. Those who have played Resident Evil 3‘s remake may recall a particular stairway rendered utterly impassable for STARS’ master of unlocking Jill Valentine by nothing more than a step ladder and a few small everyday objects placed in a corner: It was ridiculous, frustrating, and arbitrary. Imagine a whole game of that. Imagine once again giving players direct control over incredibly powerful spacecraft capable of effortless interplanetary flight only to tell them they must navigate winding paths and pick their way around small obstructions in an area so cavernous there are several spots that by design look down upon areas you’ve previously visited, as if to highlight the fact there’s nothing between the two points but empty air. Imagine anyone thinking it would be fun to shove boxes around or hit three different switches just to get from A to B – and then do it all over again on the next floor. Xenosaga is an RPG series with a story to tell (eventually…), not a puzzle focussed adventure like Ragnacenty. Its dungeons should have been rollercoaster rides, a bit of something exciting to run through between the talky sections, not a constant stream of petty roadblocks.
If there’s one word I’d use to describe Episode III and Xenosaga as a whole, it’s “squandered“: The universe Monolith Soft created is a beautiful virtual space brimming with unique ideas. The story they tried to tell within it has been tripping over itself from the very beginning, and I sincerely don’t believe that problem would have gone away if only they’d had even more time to [re]tell me about something that happened on Old Miltia. For all the invented technical terms, superficially intellectual Nietzsche-themed episode subtitles, and ancient names with (irrelevant) meaning they try to bury the story under the general plot and the religious themes run no deeper than they do in any other RPG featuring some mysterious guy with a biblical name, and every profound point the story tries to make has been handled with more thought and clarity in less time by any number of pre-existing competitors. It’s an unsatisfying trilogy that desperately wants to say Big Things About Stuff too much to just say to hell with it and be the fabulous sci-fi epic with added tech-magic it could’ve been, but also never dares to go wilfully Gnostic enough for its story to conclude in a way that feels materially different from any other “fate of the universe” tale. If anything the world the characters find themselves in when we finally leave them for good, one lacking the advanced technological infrastructure they were accustomed to and calling out to each other across the vast emptiness of space, was perhaps the one idea they really needed to expand on, the one thing that would’ve set the series apart from every other that decides the new future you’ve fought so hard to create isn’t actually interesting enough for you to spend any time with.
The ambition on display here is incredible, the art and music are phenomenal, and if separated from the plot I can’t fault the world-building as such. But even considering all the very real problems Xenosaga weathered during its time – a newly formed team learning how to work with the PlayStation 2 as they went along, the huge change in style that came with Episode II, the fact the entire PAL region only ever got to play the middle bit, or how so many significant events happen in other now lost media or were never seen at all – it’s hard to muster any real sympathy for what is mostly a self-inflicted problem. Most of Xenosaga’s issues could have been solved before they ever appeared simply by picking one story and then telling it well over the course of one game, the way almost every other PlayStation 2 RPG did. There are times Xenosaga comes so close to greatness you can feel yourself wanting to cheer it on, wanting to push through another awful dungeon hiding enemy encounters in destructible containers, hoping you’ll get to see it become the visionary title everyone imagined it could be. But these moments are rare, fleeting, and mired in a game that doggedly refuses to learn from its own unforced errors even when given multiple well-funded chances to do so.