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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

My Top 100's Lost but Not Forgotten: Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra

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Top 100 List Blah blah blahÖ. I ended up re-writing this entry because the original was a little more bitter and more like just a genuine rant than a review. With that said, a little backstory is in order.

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Continuing my trend of snubbed entries in franchises, we now come back to a series that was very near and dear to me. At this point in time, the story of Xenosagaís creation is probably more interesting and infamous than the series itself. Xenosaga began as a reboot of my beloved Xenogears that was crafted by Tetsuya Takahashi and his wife Soraya Saga. They along with most of the Xeno team that didnít go freelance formed Monolith Soft a few years after Square cancelled future Xenogears projects. Their studio was picked up by Namco who wanted the ex-Square prestige of the team help them build a killer RPG franchise to rival Final Fantasy. What began as a six episode series that was supposed to span the entire scenario detailed in Xenogears Perfect Works ended up running into similar problems that had sunk Gears at Square. The series was simply too ambitious for the rookie team and they quickly ran into the harsh realities of trying to keep a company running. Episode 1 was a fantastic title that fell short of the original vision of the team in both content and sales. The game sold well, but not to the heights of FF that Monolith Soft and Namco wanted. For Takahashi and his creative team, Episode 1 was meant to cover Shionís entire story but barely managed to cover 20% of the plot already planned. The infamous 8 min. 8 sec. trailer even featured scenes that were left on the cutting room floor or appeared in Episode II with major alterations. For these reasons, Takahashi was removed as director and placed in a more consulting role for the next entry of the game. Despite the stories told, this wasnít due to Namcoís meddling according to interviews with Takahashi and Saga, rather Monolith Soft itself chose to sideline their ambitious founders in order to keep the company floating by dropping his meticulous style for someone who could make the series more profitable in the West.

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For this reason, Episode II turned into a massive departure from the slower but better constructed Episode I. The graphics tried for something closer to realistic characters similar to the direction Final Fantasy had gone over the pure anime aesthetics of Episode I and Xenogears. The battle system was overhauled to be more interactive, and the overly convoluted character building mechanics were overly simplified. The plot was also streamlined and made to be more action packed. The tone and feel of the game was radically different from the vision the husband and wife duo had wanted originally. Several design decisions also rocked the couple such as dissecting the script they had written and choosing to split it all up into multiple titles instead of trying to finish them with the second entry and keep the original story length somewhat intact. Saga infamously blogged her frustrations about everything they cut from the game. I was fortunate enough to be on a Xeno forum whose owner followed her blog and translated it for the rest of us. Saga wrote a script for Pied Piper, a cell phone title that took the section of the script that told Ziggyís plot and set up more of the worldís politics including Yurievís Life Recycling Act, the origin of Voyager, and more about the Pilgrimage Fleet. Afterwards she left the company and went freelance, only working two more times with the company she helped find. Takahashi felt dejected at this point since he lost control of his flagship series, but during this time, he had an intriguing idea for a game about two giant gods who kill each other and then has new life emerge from their bodyís eons later who continue their warÖ

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Episode 1 may not have set the world on fire, but it at least garnered a loyal fanbase. Episode II on the other hand was such a radical departure from the first game, and felt so stripped back compared to the plot heavy first entry that it largely flabbergasted the core fans, and its questionable graphical choices and being released in Europe despite the first episode never being released there sunk any chance it gained any new fans like the creative team had wanted. Sagaís emotional rant and the announcement of Pied Piper furthered soured the franchises chances of success. At this point, the heads of Monolith Soft restored Takahashiís position for the series. Unfortunately for him, the company was starting to see that Saga was just not going to pan out like they wanted, and Takahashi seemed to agree. Episode II largely squandered a lot of time and resources to tell the story he wanted to.
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Teaming up with the director of the series short lived anime adaption, Takahashi released a DS remake of the first two Xeno titles as a way to garner interest again among the fans who left the series, while the main development team worked on the final entry. This entry used simply 2D graphics to cram in the plots, but Takahashi used this as a chance to try and fix Episode II which was heavily re-written in this entry and introduced several important characters and scenarios to help set the stage for Episode III. Unfortunately for us Western fans, the game was never translated and brought outside of Japan. Even to this day, it has never received a fan translation. As Episode III got closer to its release date, Takahashi chose to cut another segment of the plot and release it as an episodic visual novel online called Xenosaga ~ A Missing Year. This sequence showed the origin of Nephilim and what actually caused mankind to flee their home world of Lost Jerusalem, as well as introduce Scientia which had been hinted at in Pied Piper. This was not translated in time for the final entry, but has been translated since then.

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Finally in 2006, Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra was released in Japan and North America. Takahashi and his development team knew this was likely going to be there last chance to tell their story, so they crammed everything they could to finish Shionís arc and not leave the series as a ďwhat ifĒ mess like Xenogears. Ironically, I find that Episode III suffers from many of the same issues that plagued Xenogears infamous second disc, ultimately feeling like what that disc would have looked like had the development team had another six months to work on it. What I mean by this is that Episode III feels very rushed and often like a an abridged versions of events. Episode I had an in-game encyclopedia fans could read to immerse themselves better with the tech and politics of the world, but Episode IIIís winds up being massive info dumps of the plot that either was denied to non-Japanese fans (like a summary of Pied Piper and A Missing Year), and just stuff Takahashiís team didnít have time to implement. Unfortunately, Xenosaga takes a different direction than Xenogears did in how this final act was portrayed. While Gears cut out most of its content to finally deliver the main story about Fei, the Zohar, and Lacanís backstory. Saga tries to finish as many loose plot threads as it can, leaving little time to flesh out many of them that had only been hinted at in earlier installments. The two arcs most negatively affected by this are Jin Uzukiís subplot and most damning of all, Wilhelm, chaos, and KOS-MOSís stories which were touted as the main mystery that tied Saga together.

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To give a brief summary of Episode IIIís plot. After the events of Missing Year where Shion discovers that Vector has been keeping the secrets of the U.M.N.ís connection to the Gnosis crisis and the big secret of what happened to Lost Jerusalem (Earth); she quits the company and joins the anti-U.M.N. organization Scientia. In the gameís intro, sheís using her connections with her former Vector colleague Miyuki as well as Realina Federation officer Canaan to hack into one of Vectorís mainframes to dig up dirt on what else the company has been hiding. When she finishes the job, she learns from her other friend Allen, that the KOS-MOS project will finally be ended and KOS-MOS will be put out of commission. She heads to Fifth Jerusalem to discover whatís going on and the dealings with the new Omega project and T-ELOS programs the Federation are bankrolling under the influence of returning human scumbag, Yuriev Dimitri.

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Meanwhile, Jrís forces are investigating a strange landmass that has appeared out in space that may be a piece of Lost Jerusalem phase shifting back into their reality. Their investigation gets cut short when Ormus arrives to protect what they claim is holy land and the whole landmass disappears along with the Elsa crew. To reopen the dimensional space, Jrís team determines theyíll need KOS-MOS for the job and head to Fifth Jerusalem also. The two teams meet up and do a daring rescue mission to save KOS-MOS from the scrap heap while deepening the mysteries of what Yuriev, Vector, and U-TIC organization are up to. From here, the plot basically turns into a major roller coaster ride of revelations and final confrontations with every big bad and secret the series has hinting at since the first game. The largest and best change is that itís all playable. So people who hated Gearsí artsy narrative direction with it's infamous second disc will likely sigh a bit off relief. Yet, as I mentioned beforehand, there is a real sense of rushing and urgency that follows all of it, especially the farther you get into the game. The entire opening of the game feels a bit like a massive info dump to get the player caught up on the universe and the myriad of changes that has happened within the gameís minor time skip. Like Gearsí second disc, a large chunk of the game is dedicated to a massive flashback sequence that finally explains one of the biggest moments in the series background. In gears, it was Lacan and the Solaris War; in Saga, itís the Miltian Conflict. There are problems in both of course, for Gears, the sequence has enough content and depth that it could have been its own game, and being unplayable and having some of the most interesting parts relegated to Perfect Works is certainly a huge sore spot against the game. The Militian Conflict comes across better from a gaming standpoint, but has different narrative issues. Mainly what caused the sequence to start feels a bit out there and more like something Futurama would have pulled than the more hard fantasy/science of Saga. Secondly, its presented as a strange ďtime travel, but really all a dreamĒ which makes the whole sequence feel a bit contrived just to finally let the player see the biggest mystery actually well told in Xenosaga. From here the plot dives into the end of the Yuriev arc, which is a little rushed but actually works well since even the main games have done a decent job keeping his story up, and it works better if you kept up with all the Japanese exclusive content as well. Unfortunately, all of this ends up taking up about 4/5ths of the plot and the last fifth tries to finally unload onto us the truth about KOS-MOS, chaos, T-ELOS, Kevin Winnicot, the Pilgrimage Fleet, Jin, Margulis, Heinlein, Ziggy, Canaan, and Voyager, and how the hell Shion, Nephilim, and U-DO fit into all of this and more Gnostic history lessons than a Dan Brown novel. To say thatís a lot to cover in the course of what was basically the final dungeon brings me to my point. Itís pretty much here where a lot of the plot and drama falls short.

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To this day, Iím still trying to wrap my head around how any of these bombshells would have worked even if the game had an entire disc to explain it, but I digress, it is here that the executive meddling of the franchise really shows its damage. There is potential for greatness here, but for every moment of success Episode III pulls off, there is another moment later that falls a bit flat and its all because the team was trying to salvage a squandered idea and try a Hail Mary pass at the very end. Whatís even more annoying is how playing all three titles back to back is how many things hinted at back in Episode I ended up getting serious call backs in Episode III. Every location in the Miltian Conflict Encephalon Dive sequence in Episode I show up in the actual Miltian Conflict sequence in Episode III. Rennes-le-Ch‚teau was actually being hinted at all the way back in Episode I during Shionís dream sequences in the gameís opening. Even Yuirevís role in the series was being alluded to at the beginning. When you read the whole of the series along with their Perfect Works sequences, it becomes all the more apparent how deep and complex this series was meant to be, but also shows how too many cooks lacking a unified vision, diluted the series. The Perfect Works for Episode I seem to contradict a few things that happen in later installments such as the nature of how Sakura died, with Episode I, II, and the DS remake of both each giving a very different account of what happened. Its ultimately why I walked away with a different opinion of the series, elevating Episode I more as the full potential of it was still its strongest point, but docking Episode III for having to try and stick the landing to a plane that by that point was already missing the wings and landing gear, and could only manage a rough belly flop. Its not the gameís fault, and if I sound a bit hyperbolic, I would say that I am, but Xenosagaís plot could have been so much more interesting and epic. Where Gears got things right is that it focused on what was most important for its central story and stuck the landing better, even if it had to make some controversial choices to get there. Saga tries to do better, but ends up hurting one of the core plot elements in the process, making the game end on a sourer note than it had begun. The fact it accomplished so much though is impressive to be honest. In fact, most of the gameís plot is pretty great if youíve been following along the series since the beginning, but it ends on a more disappointing note that is only punctuated by the series death which everyone saw coming.

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To change gears though, letís focus on the gameplay side of things. Episode IIIís combat system and character building can be considered a nice compromise between the previous two titles. It brings together elements of what was neat about the old games with one glaring omission and finds a nice balance between Episode Iís overly complicated mechanics and Episode IIís overly streamlined ones. The game drops the series trademark combo attack mechanics and gives the player a more basic menu driven system from more conventional RPGs. Tech Attacks are back from Episode I, but are now treated like Ether skills with the player choosing which ones to use from a menu as opposed to assigning them and using a combo system to activate. From Episode II, the break gauge mechanics are back but now the gauge is filled by landing power blows and special tech skills that specialize in break damage over damage. Breaking an opponent effectively disables them for a few rounds and lets your party get in some time for healing or setting up major damage with techs and ether. The Boost system returns, and like Episode II, it is a shared party mechanic as opposed to individual ones like in the first game. New to the game is that Boost gauge carries over in battles, so you can save them for boss fights.
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What is sadly missing from the game is the Event Slot mechanic which was one of the best features of the first two installments and really set the game apart from their peers. The event slot displayed a particular bonus for each round such as guaranteed critical hits, boost to magic, boost to the Boost gauge, and bonus XP if you killed an opponent on that event. This made the boost mechanic incredibly important and a large part of the strategy of the first two games was to manipulate turns order to maximize the benefit from this system. With it, gone, battles feel a bit more stale and ho hum. In fat, while Episode IIIís gameplay is overall solid, it feels incredibly safe and sterile compared to its more divisive and interesting predecessors. Not helping matters is that Episode IIIís difficulty feels a bit toned back compared to I and II which were both surprisingly challenging in an era where I felt RPG difficulty was getting really soft. Again, this was something I probably didnít notice when I first played it, but after marathoning the series, it was obvious the game felt a little easier than I would care for.
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Character building also gets unique spin and serves as a bit of an early version of a system Xenoblade used. Your characters have the option to use Tech Points to purchase skills from one of two skill tree paths. Each skill tree offers unique abilities that will shape what the characters role will be in combat and each tree is more or less unique to the character. Characters like MOMO can be made to either be a healer or offensive mage with a few powerful Break Attacks, while characters like chaos can either focus on being a Breaker specialist or red mage type deal. Learning all of the skills of a tree will allow a character to learn a special super mode tech that usually has a high EP cost but makes up for it by being utterly broken Shion and MOMOs skill that gives them perfect evasion, or KOS-MOS and Jrís super-modes that dramatically increase all their damage. These skills are so broken, youíre almost encouraged to pick one skill tree and stick with it until you get one of them before sacrificing tech points for the other tree. In addition, your party can also acquire special skill packs throughout the game that unlock a third tier of skills for players to even further add customization options like players who feel Jin would be even more awesome if he could use ether spells. Itís a great system overall, and gives a nice amount of personality to each party member which is much appreciated after Episode II made them all into skill clones. It has some balancing issues, but at this point, thatís par the course for the series.

Where Episode III does excel is in Gear combat. The A.W.G.S. in the first game were interesting but marred by too many scrappy mechanics against them and some serious game balancing issues in the titles later half. The E.S. units in Episode II offered a serious reprieve for those who hated the games drawn out regular combat system, but the gameplay for them was way too simplistic (Imagine playing FFXIII but occasionally had sections of the game where the combat was changed to DQIís for inexplicable reasons) but Episode III finally gets them right and makes them feel unique in a good way. In fact the series trademark combo mechanics make their return here. Mechs utilize action points and deplete them based on which move they use. This is determined by the mechs equipment with things like heavy cannons and double handed swords costing more to use than dual wielding laser knives or machine gun fire. In addition, each mecha has missiles and other small arms to serve as a basic ďlightĒ attack which will help boost the accuracy of subsequent attacks when used. Mechs can also regenerate health by guarding instead of attacking and the game has auto-counters in place which are based on your actions (like guarding) or whether you have light weapons equipped over heavy ones. As your characters land blows, they fill an Anima Gauge which once activated makes them enter a super mode. In this mode, actions cost fewer points, dodge, regenerate, and counter rates go up, and the mecha gains access to some super attacks that will shave off a good chunk of health. Like Xenogears before it, itís in the mecha portions that I feel Episode III really shines, as many of the Gear battles are far more memorable and challenging than the on foot battles. Largely because there is more factors to contend with, fewer game breaking exploits, and simply smarter bosses designed to punish you for coming into the battle with the wrong party configurement. The wealth of shout-outs to Xenogears in these portions also helps. Case in point, the game has to optional superbosses, one for player characters and one for E.S. units. The PC one is a joke, especially if youíve gotten a handful of some of the characters super skills at the end of their skill trees. The E.S. one? Even with the best gear in the game, that fight is brutal if youíre not careful as should be expected of fighting System ID. The redesigns for the units were also nice, though Iíve always liked the series mecha designs.

Dungeon crawling is another aspects this game does better than its predecessors. Enemies can be seen on the screen and will rush you If they see you, but you can use traps to give yourself bonuses or avoid the fights all together. In the first two games, traps were located in pre-determined places in the game, but taking a cue from BoFV, you can carry them around and set them up at your own discretion in this game. Just remember your traps are limited and youíll need to buy more in shops if you run out. Level design is also much better than previous installments with less linear layouts, good puzzles that donít require heavy backtracking, and a good ratio of dungeons to story in general compared to the first two games. The game still retains towns and they still remain pretty charming which has always been a series strong point even if none of the games have more than three of them. Sidequests are also nice, and a hell of a lot less frustrating than Episode 2ís G.S. Campaign. There is a min-game called HaKox which is basically a Lemmings simulator using the party as the lemmings. The Professor and his fight against the Dark Professor Super Robot Drama is also present in the game and nets youíre the series broken Erde Kaiser Summon as usual. Despite the main combat feeling safe and a bit stale, especially with the Event Slot Mechanic removed, Episode III largely delivers on the gameplay side of things. Iím still partial to Episode Iís system more since I loved the deathblow style evolution of the core gameplay and I like the AWGS, just felt they were poorly implemented.
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Graphics and Music are a bit divisive for me. Graphically, the game is superior to its predecessors in terms of better character models, colors, and visual styles. It doesnít have the sterile art direction of the first game, nor does it have the ugly designs from the second one. It returns to a more anime vibe with the character designs which is much appreciated. My only issues with the gameís visual come from noticeable poor quality of the cutscenes. Most of Episode Iís story scenes were full cutscenes and they had a steady framerate. Even Episode II, which had several sections use the gameís awful in game models had better framerate and more animation. Episode III had to cut corners here. Most story sequences are voiced but now use static models and close up character portraits for most of the dialogue sequences. Again, Iíd point out this was not something I really paid attention to the first time I played, but became very apparent in my marathon playthrough. The full animated CGI also has noticeable quality issues as well compared to the earlier games, which is a damn shame cause often those games wasted that quality on mundane sequences whereas most of Episode IIIís full animated scenes are pretty stellar. These are minor gripes though, but Iím sure tech heads will find this infuriating. Another minor gripe are some of the new outfit designs. Most of the cast get some pretty cool new threads, but Shion;s outfit and KOS-MOSís new designs have some questionable elements to them. I actually missed Shionís outfit from Episode II which actually looks great on her when you look at the raw character art that still uses an anime aesthetic. KOS-MOS always looked like she was in lingerie, but there is a part of me that feels her new designs were really more fetish fuel than needed. Not that this series hasnít had its controversy with sexualizing its cast. Still this is what you get when you finally let your character designer who started off in the hentai industry a chance to go hog wild. I still love Shion in her Vector Uniform the most.

On the musical front, taking feedback from the disaster that was Episode II, Monolith Soft dropped Shinji Hosoe who provided all of the in-game town and dungeon themes in that game, to just let Yuki Kaijura, who had worked on all of the fantastic cutscene/story scene music to just have full musical control. She delivers a really strong score, and itís honestly better than even her work on Episode II. Hepatica (KOS-MOS), Abelís Ark, godsibb, promised pain, and the return of Fatal Fight from Episode II, are all excellent tracks. My only complaint is not even a real complaint, so take this with a grain of salt, but I felt Mitsudaís work on Episode I worked better for the games feel. You can tell the games feel were designed with his music in mind, and while Kaijura is easily his equal in quality, her style is just a bit too more flashy and forceful than Mitsudaís. They both love their choir pieces, but Mitsuda shows more restraint in using it, whereas Kaijura will use them for any big piece she sees fit. Course with that said, since Mitsuda wasnít used for these sequels, I canít think of a better artist than Kaijura to take his place and she never disappoints. My other complaint would be that she and Monolith Soft chose to never release the full soundtrack. They didnít with Episode II as well but in that case, most of Shinji Hosoeís score was lost in that decision and instead we were treated to about fifteen extra tracks by Kaijura that never made it in. With Episode III though, she selected which tracks would appear and while we still got two great discs of awesome, weíre still missing a ton of great tracks. Tracks like Minor Boss Fight, Battle with Yuriev, Battleland #2 (which actually samples Mitsudaís version of Albedoís theme), and Abelís Ark are only going to be found in the seedier parts of the internet.

Overall, Episode III is a wonderful if disappointing end to a promising series. My few hang ups with it kept it from landing in my Top 100 but this is still a fantastic game and a great series I still urge everyone to play. The series was recently denied an HD Remaster, but maybe Namco Bandai will release the original PS2 games on the PSN network so a new generation can try this misunderstood gem. Iíll leave you with the ending theme of the game, ďUntil TomorrowĒ which feels just as bittersweet now as it did in 2006 when the series ended and lyrically embodies what I imagine Tetsuya Takahashi must of felt when it ended as well.

Updated 03-29-2021 at 06:28 AM by Wolf Kanno

Video Games


  1. Karifean's Avatar
    Largely had to skim this cause I only just went through Xenosaga Episode I, but curious how it'll read as someone who has absolutely no history with the games at release and just comes to look in from now =P would enjoy talking about it then.
  2. Wolf Kanno's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Karifean
    Largely had to skim this cause I only just went through Xenosaga Episode I, but curious how it'll read as someone who has absolutely no history with the games at release and just comes to look in from now =P would enjoy talking about it then.
    You'll have to tell me your thoughts on the trilogy after you finish them. Honestly, I'm curious to just know how you felt about the first game.
  3. Fynn's Avatar
    Reading through the document about the development of Xenogears and Xenosaga, I can’t help but feel really sorry for Soraya Saga in all this. Takahashi has moved on and is doing wonderfully with his Xenoblade series, but you can tell from her blog posts how utterly devastating the way the project got mangled was for her. I know she’s moved on to other projects as well, but I don’t think she’s contributed to a game’s scenario to such an extent since. I feel like this was her magnum opus that got taken away from her.
  4. Wolf Kanno's Avatar
    Yeah, I can agree. I remember reading her blog when all of the Episode 2 shenanigans went down and feeling really bad for her. Not helped that she kind of got out of the industry shortly after. She's only worked on a few things since Episode 2, which is a crying shame cause between her and Takahashi, she's honestly the better writer. Helped by the fact that the U.R.T.V. and Ziggy and MOMO scenarios were all her doing in Xenosaga and are honestly the best parts of the series.