Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Xenosaga III: A Semi-Interactive Movie!

The Xenosaga series has taken a lot of criticism for its long cutscenes, linear gameplay, and overarching story. This has caused some poor sales, and Namco Bandai decided that the 6-part series would be cut short, making Xenosaga III the final game of the now-trilogy series. While the storytelling hasn't changed much, the gameplay has, and for the better.

How it Looks: Excellent/Poor
How can a game get an excellent AND a poor rating? Because the graphics are great, but perhaps a little too great for the engine to handle at times. Characters are nicely detailed, with a style that is more of a balance between the anime-style Episode I characters and the super-realistic Episode II characters. Essentially, keep the detail of Ep. II and make the eyes bigger and mouths smaller, and you get where the character design is going. Naturally, all the main characters gets new outfits, which are a mixed bag, but that's only subtle things.
What gives the graphics a poor grade as well is the fact that during cutscenes, if there are more than 3 characters on the screen, or 2 or more with a lot of action, explosions and such, then the graphics will skip, passing over a couple of frames at a time. It keeps going at the same speed, meaning when the action should stop, it does, but it looks choppy.
Environments look absolutely tremendous, with lots of detail, even when close up. The camera is perfect for the layout of each level, though it is annoying (to me at least) when it stops moving forward/back when you run into a wall when coming towards the outside of the screen.

How it Sounds: Excellent
The musical score for Ep. III is again very good, reminiscent of Ep. I, but adding a couple of tunes in the style of Ep. II, but more in place than in Ep. II. Each piece of music fits the location or the situation, and plays smoothly throughout, without any hiccups. While none of them will stick in your head for very long after the power goes off, it has kept me from playing with the volume off since I've got it.
Voice overs are, once again, a mishmash of sorts. The original voice actors for Shion and KOS-MOS return, and the original voices for Jr., Albedo, Ziggy, Allen, and Margulis all stick around for the third installment (there may be more, but those are the only ones I could pick out). chaos, MOMO and Jin keep their Ep. II voice actors (I like chaos and Jin's Ep. II voice actors better anyways), while the rest of the cast seems to get new voice actors. Minor characters aren't heard from much, so annoying voices are kept to a minimum. I'm still disappointed that Tony's voice from Ep. I didn't stick around for the entire series, and his Ep. III voice is the only annoying one. VO play smoothly throughout the cutscenes, but through the meat of the dialog, there seem to be a lot of awkward pauses when sentences are cut up (whether using normal or auto mode of dialog advancing).

How it Feels: Awkward
Controls are still the same as the other two installments of Xenosaga, but it is rather awkward that way. Instead of the standard X button for confirmation and advancing, everything is done with the O button, which is different from almost every other RPG I've played. Worst still, you can't change the controls. At this day and age, that is unacceptable. Shortcuts are nice, like the Triangle button automatically gets you out of any menu screen and back into the field, and pausing cutscenes and dialog scenes with start and skipping them with Triangle, but it doesn't make up for the O/X swap. I find myself adding a 5-minute learning curve to each game I play after I finish a session of Ep III, and another 5 minutes getting used to Ep. III again.

How it Plays: Somewhat Boring
The gameplay has been simplified a fair bit from the last two, probably due to the fact of a limited budget. Battles are still turn-based, but instead of pushing key combinations, you now just input simplified commands, like Fight and Ether (magic), which removes a bit of interactivity. Also, the random battle panel is gone, which removes more of the randomness of the battle, so your enemy doesn't all of a sudden hit you ten times for criticals and cheese you out of a battle, or you find yourself getting mad boost because you hit them hard on the Boost panel. Speaking of boost, for those who haven't played the game, the battle system is a lot like Final Fantasy X: a turn-based fight system, where order is decided by speed, and you choose commands for the character when their turn comes up. There is a boost gauge that fills up when you hit an enemy. By holding an R button (besides R3) and pressing either O, Triangle or Square buttons, you can make it so that a party member goes right after you do, as long as you have one boost in your gauge. A new gauge has been added to this game: the Break gauge. D&D fans can relate it to subdual damage: some attacks (usually punches, kicks and choking) also do break damage, and when that bar is full, you go into Break status and skip your next two turns. It's a good strategy on hard-hitting enemies, since you also do normal damage with break attacks, but do note that they can do the same to you!
Most of the gameplay is somewhat far in between the cutscenes, with 1/4 of it walking from cutscene to cutscene, hence the somewhat boring part. However, the areas in which you fight are large and good for exploring. Scattered among the levels are 15 Red or Gold doors called "Segment Files", which need a decoder to open. Find the decoder, then find the door to get a goodie from inside. It's about the only thing to distract you from the monotony of the main quest (there is a minigame called HaKox, but it's essentially Lemmings that forces you to use the face buttons and not much else to guide the poor souls to the end. Yawn). Boss fights do get intense, since there's a lot of skill involved in beating the later ones, because some of them can get lucky and off a character in one hit. Note that there aren't many bosses that can crush your party in one hit.

Game Length: 30-50 hours
The main quest does go on for a while, but mainly because of the story parts. Learning every skill and finding all the decoders are a couple of ways to add to the time, but other than some more Robot Building quests (like in Ep. I and II), once you finish the story, you're pretty much done with the game. If you want to complete HaKox, that supposedly doubles the game length, but I'm not a fan of it.

Verdict: Split
People who played through Ep. I and II and liked either or both: Buy!
The closure on the story is almost enough to get you to come back to this game, since you don't want to leave the story unfinished do you? Gameplay has changed enough to make it different, but still feel natural at the same time.
People who didn't play either Ep. I or Ep. II (or played neither): Rent!
It's hard to recommend a game so heavily driven by story to people who haven't played the first two games. The notes on Ep. I and II on the title screen are very helpful, but some subtleties will confuse players who haven't seen all of the first two games. Plus, there isn't much playing to do in the game, so take the game length and cut it in half and that's actually how much you play in the game. Also, the battle system feels a lot like Final Fantasy X to really make it stand out. If you are a fan of Japanese RPGs and don't mind the heavy story commitment, then give it a try. If not, you may want to steer clear, because this follows the Japanese RPG guide to a tee.
Do note that I'm not recommending you try to beat it by just renting it. It's a suggestion that if you want to try it, rent it or borrow it first. It's not that good on its own to be a pick-up and play title.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of reviews, this one is unacceptable.

3:49 PM  

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