It wasn't until recently that I realized how unappreciated Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht is. The game was truly epic on all levels. It had some of the best graphics of any game at the time, shown off through its stunning FMVs. It had some of the best music of any game ever, which isn't surprising considering it was done by Chrono Cross's Yasunori Mitsuda. It had some of the best voice acting with top-level voice actors lending their talents to all the characters. Most of all, it had a tough, complex battle system reminiscent of Xenogears that was topped off by a near-endless number of statistics to play with. All this made the original Xenosaga one of the greatest games ever. Xenosaga II wasn't a bad game, but it didn't come close to the original's greatness. In every way, it was inferior, in fact, with average graphics, a significantly downgraded cast of voice actors, a disappointingly small amount of gameplay (about twenty-five hours, as opposed to Xenosaga I's eighty), and just plain inferior presentation. Xenosaga III takes several steps in the right direction, and becomes quite similar to Xenosaga I in terms of gameplay, but there are still some key issues that hold it back from becoming the insanely epic game that it could have been, and what's worse is how the Xenosaga series, at this time, is over.
Xenosaga III's story is initially quite difficult to grasp. Xenosaga III picks up one year after Xenosaga II. Unfortunately, between the plot tweaks made in Xenosaga 1&2 for the Nintendo DS and the Xenosaga anime that established some of the political problems going on during the series, character development made in the mobile game Xenosaga: Pied Piper, and some new characters introduced in Namco's to-be-translated web series Xenosaga: A Missing Year, it takes a whole lot of research to figure out a lot of what is happening early in the game. Despite that, the game events are more than discernable. Everything starts out with Shion, the series' semi-leading character who just quit her job with Vector Industries (because of some apparently shady dealings introduced in Missing Year), infiltrating a Vector facility with Canaan, the red haired Realian introduced in Xenosaga II, and Miyuki, Shion's long-standing friend (who Shion is a complete bitch to), along with support from Doctus, one of the characters from Missing Year in order to investigate some of the details of what really happened during in one of the spin-offs about some "Gnosis Terrorism." Apparently between games, while Shion has been running around separately from the rest of the cast, Allen, the series' lovable loser, has taken over Shion's job as the head of the KOS-MOS Project, while the remainder of the series' leads have been running around as a team, working for the Kukai Foundation. Everything starts to precipitate when a large, cone-shaped landmass is found floating through space, erupting in a battle between Ormus, a band of religious fanatics who work as the series' protagonists, and the majority of the Xenosaga cast (comprised of Jr., chaos, Ziggy, Momo, Jin and the Elsa crew), that results in the Elsa crash-landing into the landmass, codenamed "Rennes les Chateau." From there, the story moves a mile-a-minute, resulting in one of the most exciting RPGs in a long time, and the story has such an incredible number of great plot twists, that it becomes one of the best story-driven games ever.
The battle system returns to something quite similar to Xenosaga I's. It brings back the standard turn-based setup, with Ether and Tech attacks and the return of special attacks. The combo, knockdown and juggle-based combat found in Xenosaga II are absent, as well, which gets rid of the silly guessing games, though it keeps a pooled boost meter. Freely switching between mechs and regular units is still gone, somewhat regrettably. Special Attacks are now done by tapping into the party's boost meter, and take two, three (or more) bars. These allow for the beloved boosts to battle spoils (Experience Points, money, etc.), and naturally inflict large sums of damage. There is also a new, incredibly important status called Break. In addition to their HP and MP, each character has a Break bar. The most important (re)addition to Xenosaga III is the return of character-specific skill lines, which gives the gamer a couple of options of how their character will progress. Jr., for example, is a gunslinger with mediocre magical skills. Using Xenosaga III's skill line, Jr. can progress by learning some fire elemental magic, with some special gun skills, or he can become a backup healer, with various healing skills and magic-based stat boosts. The skill line is divided up into blocks of four skills or stat boosts, and when all skills for that level are learned, the next level becomes available. Characters still learn skills simply via level-up, as well, so Shion will still learn the different Medica skills. There are also special EX skills that can be learned, which allow for individual skills that aren't found on the character's skill chart to become available, adding another level to the character customizability. One of the big problems that didn't get fixed between Xenosaga II and Xenosaga III, though is the length of the game. The original game had about eighty hours game to be had. Xenosaga II capped off around twenty-five to thirty hours deep, which is disappointing for ANY RPG, never mind one with about a third as much to play as its predecessor. Xenosaga III improves slightly over the last one, but still falls well short of the original, clocking in at about forty hours. While that's generally alright for an RPG, it'd still have been better to have a massive amount of time to play in the game.
Xenosaga III doesn't have a lot of the aesthetic pleasure found in the original. Simply hitting Youtube and checking out the FMVs from each game makes the differences pretty obvious. Xenosaga I to this day remains one of the most graphically impressive games on the PS2. It had top-tier music. It had excellent voice actors. Both its sequels had presumably lower budgets, which resulted in a disappointing nerfing of all these aspects. Xenosaga III is significantly better than Xenosaga II in terms of actual gameplay (especially since characters once again have five fingers, since in the last one, their middle, ring and pinky fingers were all fused together). The music is much like the graphics, being a step above Xenosaga II, but several steps below Xenosaga I. While Xenosaga III is close to the greatness of the original…it still is quite a few steps back.
Xenosaga III is an all-around solid RPG, and will deliver for most fans of the series. However, the hardships that Monolith Soft has been facing lately are quite noticeable within the game. Gamers who have played the prior two games should probably pick this up, simply for closure purposes (though, playing through Xenosaga II again is recommended, since much of the lingo between the games is easily forgotten over a few months. For all other RPG fans looking for something turn-based to play, checking out the series is something worth doing, but playing the first two games is a must before considering getting into this one.