Monolith Soft's Xenosaga series is noted not only for its wordy German subtitles and lengthy cutscene exposition, but for its hugely complex storyline that's influenced by equal parts science fiction, religion, and myth. The series' first two chapters ended with far more questions and mysteries than they answered or explained, so Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra begins with an almost ludicrous amount of enigmas that need resolving. Fortunately, Xenosaga Episode III manages to wrap things up in dramatic and mostly satisfying fashion for the memorable main cast and the universe that they inhabit, while simultaneously leaving the door open for a continuation.
The familiar cast has reassembled one last time, including MOMO and her unfortunate, if jaunty, beret.
Episode III starts off with scientist Shion Uzuki participating in a break-in at a Vector Corporation research facility in an attempt to gain information. She's discovered that her former employer, which was funding and directing the development of the android KOS-MOS, has a more sinister connection to the appearance of the gnosis (strange ethereal creatures that can destroy the living with a touch) than anyone knows. What's more, apparently Shion's own deceased father had some culpability in the alien invasion now afflicting the universe. With her heart in turmoil, the young scientist turned her back on Vector and has teamed up with Scientia, an anti-UMN organization that fights against the all-encompassing Vector and its distribution network. This small reconnaissance venture begins to scratch at the surface of massive intergalactic power plays, as several factions (including the zealots of the Immigrant Fleet, Ormus) begin to set their plans in motion to use the powerful Zohar artifact for personal gain. Unrest shifts among the member planets of the Federation, and war is threatening the people even as they live in fear of the gnosis.
To reveal any more would spoil the game's serpentine storyline, but Episode III, even though it can't resist throwing in a bunch of new mysterious artifacts, places, factions, and terms, inexorably builds to its ultimate conclusion. Each character comes to his or her own sort of redemption as they resolve their pasts and face the future, and the general confusion of organizations and motives is slowly but surely reduced to a single, ominous objective. An extremely helpful feature is Episode III's massive database, a huge reference table of characters, events, items, and other entries that populates itself as you learn new things--and there's a lot to take in. Needless to say, those who haven't played a Xenosaga game before will have a lot of reading to do to try to get up to speed, but there's also a summary feature that covers the first two games if you need a refresher.
It's hard not to be taken in by all the grand, cinematic drama, and there's plenty of opportunity to do so. Episode III has more than eight hours of voiced story sequences, some of which are delivered in truly massive chunks. With so much voice work and what's largely a weighty, serious script, some of the delivery falters for some individuals. But there are also a number of genuinely moving moments that surround characters that you might never have expected to be sympathetic to. Despite all the twists and turns and a whole bunch of outright insanity at the very end, it's a fascinating tale, even if parts of it seem determined to remain inscrutable.
It's also worth mentioning that, like other installments in the series, this episode has seen some edits for new territories--in particular, the removal of blood from some scenes. While this keeps the game happily in T-for-Teen territory, there is at least one major moment in the game where a character is obviously reacting to large amounts of blood--only the blood itself is completely erased. Instead of being a visceral, if somewhat horrifying, scene, it just looks as if the person is staring at the floor and going insane. While this isn't too far-fetched for the Xenosaga universe, it's still unfortunate, and the scenes that were made bloodless after the fact are extremely obvious.
The E.S. units have returned, and they're as ridiculously powerful as ever.
The game's battle system is derivative of the versions in previous chapters, with some changes and additions, and is easy to pick up. When on foot, your characters are able to use basic melee skills, powerful tech attacks, or magical ether attacks on enemies. Successfully damaging foes will fill the boost meter, which allows you to either "boost" a character to attack on the next turn, or save boost charges for a variety of special attacks. Something new this time around is break, which is a meter on each character that slowly fills as that character takes damage. If the meter becomes full, that person is afflicted by break status and cannot move for two turns; they're also very vulnerable to critical strikes. The upside is that your enemies also have break meters, so you can use break attacks to immobilize them while setting up boost attacks or other strong moves to polish them off quickly.
When you're not on foot you'll be fighting in E.S. mobile suits, giant robotic war machines with special powers. Each is equipped with an artifact called a Vessel of Anima that allows the unit to get charged up and use blisteringly strong abilities on foes. E.S.-based fights tend to feature a lot of mechs flying around doing crazy-looking attacks, and they feel really satisfying.