Xenosaga Episode III Part 25: Let’s Review Xenosaga

Previously on Xenosaga: 10,229 pictures, 448 days, 2.74 gigs of data, and one curry recipe that no one ever seems to acknowledge.

Okay, it’s taken me a while to narrow down exactly how to approach this update. I’ve got it down to:

• Xenosaga Episode 3 is the worst game in the franchise.
• Xenosaga Episode 3 is the best game in the franchise.

You see my dilemma.

Eh, let’s take it one step at a time.

Worst Xenosaga Ever

First and foremost, the decision to hop over to boring text boxes over any other choice was… ill advised.

Xenosaga has always been all about that magical dream from the 80’s: the playable movie. It started back in Xenogears… hell, it started back in Final Fantasy 2… but Xenosaga was always, always more about the story than anything else. This was never a Kingdom Hearts situation where a vestigial “excuse plot” eventually grew to consume everything it could find; no, Xenosaga was meant to be an “epic” from its inception. Hell, it’s right there in the title: you don’t call yourself a “saga” if you’re focusing on the gameplay.

So it’s a major blow to the franchise when the presentation of that story takes a backseat. Yes, it was likely due to budget and time concerns, and, yes, I would argue that getting an Episode 3 at all is better than no Episode 3 because no one can afford to animate Allen stress-puking for the eighteenth time, but it’s still a blow to the audience. Sitting around reading a series of text boxes has never been fun, but it’s compounded by holy crap did you read that update that was 4,000 words just explaining what happened in the ending? Admit it, Xenosaga fans, you fell asleep when Wilhelm’s soothing voice started elucidating how rebooting the universe and cycle of rebirth and circle circle circle is this done yet?

In short, the episode of Xenosaga that required the most dramatic staging to keep your brain entertained got stuck with text box after text box. No. Bad, Xenosaga. Bad.

And it’s not like the gameplay rushes to fill in the gaps. The battle system of Xenosaga Episode 3 is the absolute most boring it’s ever been. XS1 featured a battle system that was kind of an evolution of Xenogears that focused on building strength for special attacks (remember death blows?), and the challenge was knowing how and when to upgrade those special attacks, and choosing which special attacks to bring to a random battle. XS2 introduced a radically different battle system that relied on “breaking” an opponent, and then using that window to pile on the weakpoint damage. The average fight took forever, but it was a new and interesting way to interpret a JRPG battle. In XS3, we’ve got… Fight, Magic, Item, and Run. Wow. Revolutionary. Maybe we’ll knock down Garland later.

And even the “variety” in this battle system seems entirely perfunctory. By about the midpoint of the game, you should never choose the “fight” command, because you’ve likely got a better spell or tech to use every round. Except… 90% of those spells and techs seem like Fire1-Fire2-Fire3 affairs, so you’re only ever using the most powerful spell/tech available, and the rest of your rapidly expanding “spell list” is superfluous. In a weird way, this entire battle systems feels like something that would be the ancestor of the XS1 special attack system (hey, why don’t we just eliminate all these useless level 1 spells and make the best attack level up with the character?), as opposed to its descendant. XS3 has the most boring, rote battle system in the entire franchise, and, were it not for the break gauge, it would be practically indistinguishable from 8-bit JRPGs.

And don’t think I forgot about XS3 being the only Xenosaga game that continually requires stopping at shops and upgrading everyone’s equipment. XS2 eliminated money (almost) entirely, and XS1 didn’t require store bought upgrades for some characters (like, say, the one-of-a-kind battle android that was just activated yesterday), but XS3 revels in requiring a daily trip to the local store for not only your characters, but their ESes as well. I know this is standard JRPG fair, but the lack of shops in XS2 really streamlined things. Did people think that was too easy? It wasn’t because the promise of shops in XS3 allowed for more options, because you’re almost always only buying a +2 sword to replace your +1 sword. There’s no thinking here, just mindless consumerism. You upgrade because thou must.

Only the Best

And all that said? This was my most enjoyable experience in the whole Xenosaga franchise.

Full disclosure: there were a few points in this complete LP where the whole thing nearly stopped, and I was this close to hanging up the controller. XS1’s Cathedral Ship? Terrible. Come to think of it, the only good dungeon in that game was The Song of Nephilim, and even that had a lot of same-y hallways at the start. And XS2 had that stupid dungeon that was the exact same dungeon, but, ya know, whiter. And those sidequests? Holy crap, I never want to see a sewer again in another videogame for any reason. And never mind that the average XS2 battle against anything stronger than a slime takes at least five minutes. That does not make for a happy Goggle Bob when a random dungeon has to be revisited for some stupid trinket. And it’s not just about “this part sucks”, it’s about “this part sucks, and oh God am I going to have to do this crap again because this is only the first dungeon noooooo I can’t do this”. You will note that, yes, I finished all these Xenosaga games (with only minor cheating!), but there were definitely some points where that completion was in question.

Xenosaga Episode 3? Not a single spot where I wanted to quit forever.

Okay, yes, Merkabah is a lousy dungeon, but it was bolstered by every other dungeon in this game being better than previous experiences. And, at the end, Merkabah revealed itself to be a plot-mandated waste of time. That’s clever! It’s like Xenosaga recognized the crap it put its audience through in previous games, and said, “Hey, yeah, sorry, we know a lousy dungeon when we see one.” This doesn’t mean Xenosaga Episode 3 has the best dungeons on the PS2, but it does mean, if I were somehow forced to replay one of the Xenosaga games again, I’d definitely choose XS3, no question.

Xenosaga Episode 3’s various systems might be rote and predictable, but they go down smooth. Couple this with the persistent feeling that you’re actually accomplishing something in this episode (as opposed to the all-prelude previous episodes), and Xenosaga Episode 3 winds up feeling better than every other Xenosaga experience. XS3, miraculously, is the first Xenosaga that begs for more content because the game is actually good, and not because you just need more answers to these unending questions.

Xenosaga: Was mißriert

So, the title of this LP has always been “Xenosaga: What Went Wrong?” We’ve just completed the entire franchise, so let’s answer that question as succinctly as possible.

Ratta tat tatThe most obvious culprit here is pacing. Xenosaga Episode 1 was intended as the first chapter in a six part series, and it drags its feet slower than my dear, deceased grandma. By the end of XS1, all of the characters have been introduced… and that’s it. Whole lot of set up, complete lack of resolution. Then came XS2, which continued the XS1 story, and, by and large, ended it. MOMO, Ziggy, Junior, Albedo, and even Shion all got pretty worthwhile story “finales”, and the series could have ended right there, were it not for some lingering KOS-MOS/chaos mysteries. This left us with XS3, a game that had to create new problems for some of the cast (Shion/PTSD & daddy issues, Junior/Yuriev & daddy issues, KOS-MOS/T-elos & her daddy issues), and then resolve those issues, and satisfactorily resolve every dangling concern that ever existed in the franchise. This would be a difficult task for a staff that was still receiving complete resources, as opposed to the reality of the situation, which seemed to be that Namco was pumping this one out apparently out of obligation more than anything else. So maybe that was the problem? Monolith Soft never knew how much Xenosaga was “left”, so we got an Episode 1 that assumed there would be five more sequels, an Episode 2 that played it safe and tried to wrap up nearly everything, and an Episode 3 that had to quickly reboot and close the franchise. That kind of thinking makes it easier to forgive a few hiccups.

But then again…

Let’s look at Xenosaga Episode 3 again. What we have is a pretty basic story about how Shion got her groove back: start off with the establishment of her depression, and then we get the band back together through her eyes. We’re then hurled back in time so we can explore our heroine’s tragic past a little more. And then… it’s the Junior show, and Yuriev is the main threat. Then Yuriev is off the board, and we’re back to… Michtam and Ziggy’s past? Canaan, where did you come from? Jin, you had a relationship with Pellegri? Or was it Margulis? No, wait, nevermind, we’re back to Shion again, and KOS-MOS is Mary Magdalene, and Wilhelm has an evil plan, and… oh, it’s over. Shion and KOS-MOS got to hug a few times, and maybe they’ll be reunited through the sequel hook. Thanks for playing!

Obviously, the game had pacing problems. Even the final dungeon had ridiculous issues. It starts off like a Mega Man X style “Sigma Castle”: a long series of “final challenges” punctuated with plot significant bosses that all have something important to say before exploding. But then there’s the KOS-Mary room, and suddenly there’s this entirely new plot thread that involves Jesus Christ. And then… another two indistinct hallways? And then we’ve got the biggest Shion emotional moment in the franchise that ties up three games worth of pining… and then the final boss and a plan that barely has anything to do with all that. And did I mention how long that entire area took?

We started the final dungeon at 19:41…

And cleared the game at 24:26? The final dungeon alone took over four hours. That’s, what, 20% of my entire playtime? How could that have been a good idea?

And I don’t want to consider how long it took on my original, less-informed playthrough.

Yes, I’m going to say it: Monolith Soft has no idea how to pace even one videogame (see also: Xenogears), so there’s no damn way a trilogy or sextology was ever going to come together properly. Don’t get me wrong, this franchise isn’t a complete failure, it just… has some issues, and those issues dramatically affect its message and “fun”.

And speaking of impacting the message, I’m going to call out the graphic changes here. I particularly noticed it going through the old chapters of this LP, but Shion, KOS-MOS, and the entire cast change dramatically from game to game…

And it gets distracting when you’re trying to reconcile character growth and changes. It’s one thing to ask the audience to accept XS3’s Cranky Shion as the same endless fountain of compassion that we saw in XS1, but it’s another thing entirely when it seems like she’s mutated into an entirely different person. It’s one of those subconscious things, but it’s a lot easier to claim character assassination when it seems like the old character doesn’t even exist anymore.

Also, it’s pretty clear that covergirl KOS-MOS got an upgrade every game to sell toys. Hey, whatever pays for more Jin/Margulis swordfights.

And, finally, (and likely related to the two previous problems), Xenosaga as a whole lacked cohesion. It seems like Xenosaga wanted to have its Final Fantasy and eat it too: we’ve got three games with three totally different battle systems, commerce systems, and mech systems. We’ve got wildly different character models from game to game, and, in many cases, a vacillating “star”. As I noted repeatedly, it seemed like there was some confusion over whether Junior or Shion should be the star of the show, and the two rarely seemed to work together. When Junior was leading, Shion barely spoke, and when Shion was the focus, Junior was basically there to act confused. And remember that glorious hour during the opening of XS1 when Ziggy was the lead? Good times.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it leads to a very jumbled experience. The whole of the ending had practically nothing to do with Junior, Ziggy, or MOMO, so if they were your favorite characters, I can see how you might quickly forget what happened. chaos might have been Jesus? Who cares? When I started this LP, I commented that I had forgotten much of the ending of XS3, and that was after years of pouring over XS1 data. Why did that happen? Well, I’m pretty confident in blaming the scattershot way the rest of the franchise covered… everything. For anyone that finished XS1, but then didn’t ever get around to XS3, I don’t blame you. It is, in many ways, an entirely different experience.

And does that work? Does Xenosaga work? Well, yes, but only to a point. This franchise does not feel like the original Star Wars Trilogy, or even the prequel Star Wars Trilogy. We’ve got all the same characters for three games, but there isn’t enough interconnection to make it all feel linked. Xenosaga seems like it would be a lot more comfortable being another Final Fantasy experience, where maybe the plots are related and some familiar terms pop up, but they’re largely independent. One way or another, Xenosaga the Saga falters at its biggest selling point. This is an epic, multi-part videogame, but only in the most superficial ways.

But is Xenosaga, the whole franchise that spanned six years, a bad experience? No. It’s a fun little (big) JRPG, and I don’t regret having played through this franchise twice in ten years. Assuming you can look past its foibles, and deal with its more… mind-numbing… bad sections, Xenosaga is a worthwhile series of videogames. It’s no Citizen Kane, but it’s no Ishtar, either. For a sequel to the most published book of all time, Xenosaga ain’t a bad time.

Final Xenosaga Rating: Hopeful MOMO

“Okay! Good job!”

Next time on Xenosaga: The Xenosaga FAQ to answer all your questions!

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