Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 06/02/2019 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
After a little over a week of marathon gaming, I’ve finished the Xenosaga trilogy with the completion of Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra (which translates to “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” arguably Nietzsche’s most well-known book). In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzche describes the concept of the Übermensch which, while literally translating to “superman” or “above man,” refers to mankind’s outgrowing or going beyond traditional Judeo-Christian morals and ascending, for lack of a better word, to a higher morality. I don’t know enough about Nietzsche’s other works to know how fitting the previous games’ subtitles were, but this one fits this game’s theme and tone pretty well. I’d heard from a couple of friends who’ve played the series that Episode III was hands down the best of the three games, and I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. It’s still a very flawed game in a lot of ways, but unlike the first two games in the trilogy, I never found myself bored with the actual gameplay in Episode III.
Xenosaga III picks up a few months after the events of the second game, it’s immediately clear that the developers put in the extra effort to make this game something good. The game’s first environment hits you with catchy piano jazz background music and a fun and reinvigorated combat system that blended the polished mechanics of Episode II’s combat with the relatively easy to understand combat system of Episode I. There are still some nuances to learn, but it’s a marked improvement in both entertainment and lasting appeal over the previous two games’ combat. That theme would continue throughout the game as far as quality is concerned; pretty much everything about Episode III took what was good about the first two games and capitalizes on that while shedding most (not all but most) of those games’ biggest issues.
One of the things that bothered me most about the Xenosaga trilogy is the storytelling, and while that was improved in this game along with everything else, it still leaves a lot to be desired. A huge amount of the story is just outright told in narration, and while that may not seem like a bad thing at first, the way it’s done totally contradicts the writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell.” I know that they had three games to tell a story they’d planned to stretch out over six or seven games, but still, the storytelling continues to leave a lot to be desired. This game does a better job of explaining lore concepts and filling in gaps than the previous two did, but it still leaves a lot either unexplained or only vaguely implied. Given that the story is always my primary motivation when playing a new game – especially with that game is an RPG – this continued to be a point of contention with me all the way up through the end of the trilogy.
One aspect of the storytelling for which I do need to give credit where credit is due is the character development. I still have some complaints with that, but this is the only one of the three games that really made me FEEL things for the characters outside of a couple of isolated incidents. I was sad for Canaan. I was happy for Virgil. I celebrated with Allen. I wanted to pimp slap the shit out of Shion. Regardless of what it was that I felt, I felt, and that’s something the other games had never been particularly adept at making me do. Episode III still, of course, had the ungodly long cut scenes that were an absolute bore, but at least the characters felt more fleshed out this time around.
Xenosaga Episode III is absolutely the most competent game of the trilogy, and it’s definitely the only one I’ll look back on with any fond memories. That’s not to say that the previous two games were bad, but damn, they were a slog to get through. Because of that, though, as good as parts of this game were, I’m not sure I can say that it’s worth playing through the whole trilogy to get to. Yeah, on its own, Episode III is definitely a game worth playing, but most people aren’t going to want to play the last third of a trilogy without the playing the first two parts, and the first two games are just okay and pretty decent, respectively, and I’m not sure the time commitment to get through those two are worth it just to play this one. If you do decide to go through the Xenosaga trilogy as I did, though, at least you can take some comfort in the knowledge that the trilogy ended well and actually did save the best for last, unlike a certain other space RPG trilogy we all know (looking at you, Mass Effect 3).