Monday, September 29, 2008

Xenosaga III

Girls with guns!

Long time readers probably saw this one coming down the pipe. This final chapter in the Xenosaga story was the most difficult to acquire, requiring a drive to a Gamestop located at the furthest possible point from any highway. As well, unlike the previous games which were delicious little tidbits as far as RPGs go, this immense beast of game covers two DVDs and logs a playing time that's longer than the two previous entries combined (to be fair, this only puts at a level similar to other RPGs).

Something I forgot to mention in my review of Xenosaga II is that it was the only RPG I had ever played with no 'store' where you could buy healing items and upgrades. It was something of a shock to complete the first chapter of Xenosaga II and realize that I wouldn't be able to buy a health kit or anything throughout the game, so whatever I came by during battles and whatnot had to be horded. One of the selling points on the box for Xenosaga III is that the "store is back", and they should have added "with a vengeance". Other RPGs have options like 'equip with best available' when buying new equipment but it would only roughly apply in this game since the sadistic developers put out a series of equipment and options with benefits as well as drawbacks. I began to loathe refreshed store inventories since that would mean 20 to 30 minutes of refitting characters and their battle machines with the latest available equipment and then testing it out to make sure no one was going to get 'instagibed' during a boss battle due to a botched configuration.

Other changes to gameplay include a pared down battle system that is the simplest of the three and a redone NPC dialog system. In another interesting change, players can now buy traps that give them an early edge in most battles. Previously one would have to rely on these traps showing up on random, often unhelpful, places on the levels. Probably the most dramatic improvement is the skill tree that actually serves some purpose. Every battle nets the characters a certain amount of generic experience points that affects their level as well as 'skill points' that can be spent to upgrade specific character traits. The other episodes provided stingy skill points and near worthless abilities that could then be purchased. While still inferior to Final Fantasy style skill trees, it's a welcome improvement.

This game was even more aggressive in the ancient Japanese tradition of art over substance. The story in this episode, and thus the whole series,'s really something else. Any story that takes place thousands of years in the future and features flashbacks of in-game characters watching Jesus give his Sermon on the Mount will inevitably have 'issues'. This is a series that has spanned dozens of hours of dialog and cut-scenes with dozens of characters, most of whom have more than one name (and some with upwards of four). Despite the difficulty in keeping up with everything in the story, that didn't stop the developers from dumping even more characters and subplots into the third game. As I neared the back 10% of the game and I could begin to gauge the end-game, I began to wonder how they were going to tie together all these plot points and characters together and wrap it up in a nice, concise package. After thinking about it for a moment and thinking back to all the 'skilled' writing in the game, I deduced how it was going to happen: it wasn't going to happen, and unsurprisingly that was how it came to pass. As the jalopy of a plot came careening down the hill, whole characters and plot points bounced out, never to be seen again; and what was worse was that what issues were resolved were handled in such a sloppy manner that it makes me wonder whether they ever intended to end the story to begin with, that they would just keep making it up as they went along in perpetuity. As an example of my frustration, the question that bugged me the most at the end was that if the main character was the key to the antagonists plan, why were they repeatedly trying to kill her over the course of several years?

The story issues are nothing new for Japanese pop culture. The Japanese story building process seems to start with set pieces and then onto characters and then, if there's time, an actual story of some sort to hold it all together. Working from this mindset the developers got the art design and battle sequences perfected, and it's almost enough to make up for the story issues. However, when a video game sets out to make the primary differentiator for itself the story (the first episode was watched nearly as much as it was played), it would be nice if they could get that part at least partially pleasing.

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