Xenosaga Episode III is a fitting, if convoluted, end to the cinematic science-fiction role-playing trilogy.
If there's a downside to the battle system, it's in how the difficulty ramps up. Just about all the enemies and bosses on the game's lengthy first disc can be beaten very handily, but disc two introduces a number of very nasty people. Many of the later bosses in the game have abilities that will outright kill a character who wasn't at absolute full health, and in some cases will kill you anyway. Many of these fights can also drag on for some time, as you spend about as much time healing and trying to defend as you do sneaking attacks in. The game is at least kind with the availability of resurrection items and talents, so that you can keep your party members popping up like daisies when not in E.S.es. Mechs, on the other hand, will disappear from battle entirely if they fall, so, ironically, you'll have to guard your massive robots a bit more closely than your fleshier friends.
A new character customization system lets you allocate skill points into abilities, much like Final Fantasy X's sphere grid, only a great deal more simplistic. Each character has two skill paths from which they can choose. Usually, one choice is offensive in nature and one is defensive; for example, the cyborg Ziggy can either learn a range of powerful break attacks on one tree, or he can boost his health and defense and concentrate on being an effective "tank" character to take damage in place of his comrades. Putting points in one tree doesn't lock you out of the other, and you'll probably finish out one tree and start learning skills in the other one anyway; but while the customization might not be all that deep, it still encourages you to make a conscious decision early on about the direction in which you want to take your characters, and it lets you build a balanced team.
Encounters in the game are not random--you'll see monsters on the map, and you can sneak up to attack them from behind for initiative, or place a trap on the ground to immobilize them. You can scoot past some of the foes, but because most enemies in an area don't respawn after you've killed them, the amount of leveling you'll do in one area can be a bit limited, so you might as well shoot everything first and ask questions later. For the most part, boss encounters seem to be balanced around the levels you get from killing most of the random enemies, so there's none of that business of having to run around trying to gain another five levels and whatnot. The skill system also helps out with this a lot, as many skill trees include stat boosts like health and ether power, so basic stats can be increased without having to gain more levels.
The game itself easily reaches a full 40 hours between the two discs, each with plenty of cutscenes to watch along the way. While you can single-mindedly work through the game without touching any of the extras, there are still items to seek out, including the newest incarnation of everyone's favorite overpowered little robot, Erde Kaiser, and the mysterious segment file doors make their return as well. You can seek out alternate swimsuit outfits for your characters and you can track down special database files to reveal more information about the game's various bit players and backstories. Once you've finished the game, you'll get a clear file and an unlocked swimsuit mode that lets you replay any of the game's story sequences with Shion and company dressed for the beach, provided you've already discovered that character's swimsuit in the game. The clear file lets you replay only the very last areas of the game, but you retain all your learned abilities. There's even a puzzle-based Lemmings-like minigame that you can play with a friend if you so desire--and there's a level editor built in for you to create your own death traps.
Visually, the game is fleshed out with a lot of smooth, futuristic ships and research facilities, large cities, forests, ruins, and more. Character animations for cutscenes and battles are well done, and just about all the special attacks in the game are impressive to look at--particularly the anima abilities of the E.S.es, which are able to create ludicrous amounts of carnage in a very short period of time. The cutscenes aren't necessarily lip-synced, which can be a little distracting, but they still get the narrative job done. While the best music in the game is concentrated at the end--fighting massive bosses to swelling choral music feels incredibly right with this game--there's a lot of great sound effects and stuff to augment the more mundane music in other areas, from the low-key hum of an E.S. engine as you move around a zone, to the distinct clatter of each character's footfalls on a variety of surfaces, to the sharp metal crunches during mech battles, and more.
Though the Xenosaga universe had become pretty convoluted with mystery prior to this installment, Episode III manages to resolve just about every remaining loose end you'd want tied up. If you've missed the previous two chapters, the barrier of entry to this game is high, but existing Xenosaga fans should get up to speed very quickly. If you're looking for some highfalutin space opera and you don't mind setting down your controller for 20 minutes or more at a time, definitely give Episode III a try to see how it all works out in the end. Whether this is truly the last time we'll get to see these characters and this universe is one question that's left unanswered.