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A savage night at the opera
Another savage night at the club
Things I love about Xenoblade: Part 1 
25th-May-2012 04:12 pm
Despite owning this game for a month and a half or something, I didn't get the chance to start playing until last week (during my break between semesters). I haven't played at all since (when I put in about 20 hours) but I am eagerly anticipating jumping back in this weekend.

This game has been hailed as one of if not the best JRPGs of this (console) generation and something of a revival of the genre. While I feel like this opinion is mostly supported by individuals who don't actually play JRPGs, my takeaway so far is that Xenoblade is an absolutely amazing game and needs to be played by everyone for reasons that go far beyond showing Nintendo of America that the US still has a market for this (Xenoblade was part of the almost tragic Operation Rainfall movement)

I'm not going to give the game a review, but I am going to make a short writeup of the things that make this game, in my opinion, special.

The world

This is probably the strongest part of the game. The mythology is fascinating. It's reminiscent of some of The World's backstory in the .Hack games except it's actually real, in an in-universe sense. The game world is literally built on the backs of two warring gods, who were put into some kind of slumber (death? I'm not totally sure) in mid combat. This leads to some interesting scaling, with most of your party's movement being a vertical progression through a number of caves, fields, swamps, etc. The environments themselves start off pretty standard, but by the time you make it to the otherworldly Satorl Marsh everything is beautiful.

What really makes the game world come alive though is your ability to explore it. The fields in this game are huge and open, not unlike those in Final Fantasy XII. There are "collectibles" scattered across the ground, giving you an incentive to explore, as well as numerous sidequests (the majority of which are completed upon satisfaction of the requirements, and involve no backtracking to the questgiver--this is good) and mining points for stat-enhancing/passive ability granting gems. Monsters roam freely (some of which are much too powerful for you to mess with at that point in the game) and many of them are non-aggressive. Those that are aggressive have three different aggro "types" and thus confrontation can be avoided by careful movement. The best part though is that nothing is off-limits. There is no part of the terrain that you cannot step on, there are no "roads," no invisible walls. You can fall hundreds of feet off of cliffs, you can swim, you can bloody jump. Xenoblade really succeeds in creating an environment that feels real and explorable, not some backdrop to your necessary story progression.

Also fast-travel exists and is very thorough, revolving around landmarks that are plentifully scattered in each map.

The writing

The story itself so far is a pretty standard magical sword tale, but it's so character focused that it's still extremely engaging. All of the plot points so far have involved saving people and personal motivations, not defeating some ominous-yet-detached big bad. And while the first few hours of the game are a little slow, something happens early that I ABSOLUTELY DID NOT SEE COMING and it really ups the personal engagement in the story. I'm talking Aeris/Chrono-spoilers level turns. And the best part is that during the whole sequence (which was really dramatic and drawn out, in a good way) it made it seem like while the thing could happen, it absolutely wasn't going to. And then it did and you're just like oh my god. Really good plot point, handled beautifully, everything is perfect

The characters

While they're not breaking any molds (with one possible exception) the characters all feel alive. They're not in your party just because, they all have a clear motivation and a stake in this conflict. Even certain characters I didn't like in the beginning have grown on me significantly. I can do without some of their battle catchphrases, though. Anyway, the aforementioned exception is Shulk, the protagonist. He's a nice departure for the genre because he's not some plucky shounen hero. He's effectively a researcher, and while he's not especially battle experienced he tends to put more thought into his actions than the typical JRPG protag. But what's really nice about the characters is the way that they're individualized in:

The battle system

I'm reminded of TWEWY. Not because they're similar, but because there is a lot of depth to Xenoblade's system but the features are added gradually. There's a case of "new powers as the plot demands" but I don't think it's so bad here (possibly because they show up to give you a fighting chance, not to do the work for you). Anyway, the battle system starts off really vanilla and kind of boring, but after a few hours it really picks up. What's especially great though is how different and realized each character feels. Shulk is a cross damage-dealing / support character. He's not as strong as other melee units, but he can be just as effective a damage dealer through calculated use of his skills, most of which have special or enhanced effects if used from certain positions or in different circumstances. Not only does this make using Shulk feel completely different from the other characters, it also makes him feel like, well, Shulk. He's not some brawler, he's a scientist. It makes sense for his skills to be more tactically oriented. Your physical character, on the other hand, has twice as many skills as any other character and most of them have very direct effects, either in direct damage or taunting/defense (He also has like, double the HP of any other character, making him really feel like more of a hardened warrior). Another character uses a rifle and has extremely useful and versatile skills, but must occasionally stop to "cool off" (basically reload) her weapon. She's also the healer, so that's cool. Then another character skill relies on chaining his skills together to get maximum effect. Furthermore, there's a lot of interaction between the skills/characters. Shulk may be capable of instilling a particular debuff. This debuff can then be exploited by another character for an even more powerful debuff, which can then be exploited again for something even better. This also carries over into the combo system, where chaining together skills of the same "type" between characters accrues an increasing "chain bonus." There are other possible battle actions too, such as assisting debuffed party members by approaching them and pressing a button. The same can be used to "encourage," revive, and "warn" (more on that later) them in the proper circumstances. Doing these also improves your relationship with that character.

As a sidenote, I also feel like the pace of leveling is really satisfying. Games with slow character progression can be a drag, but I would say that Xenoblade's (rather generous) rate of leveling and gaining skills is more or less perfect. Also every piece of equipment is individualized and shows up on your character. They even look different for each character, and show up in cutscenes.

The collectibles

I mentioned these in my World section, but I want to elaborate a little more here. Collectibles are blue, semi randomized objects scattered over the maps. They're picked up just by passing over them, which is extremely nice. Nicer still is that the game rewards you for getting them. Each map has its own set of collectibles, and if you gather one of everything for each "type" (plants, animals, insects, etc) you are rewarded with an item (which is done via a menu, not returning to some NPC), and another item if you get everything for the whole map. Furthermore, the items are individual to each map/area, which really adds to the world building.

The music

I already brought up the .Hack comparison with the mythology, but it's relevant here too. The score in this game reminds me strongly of the first series of .Hack games and .Hack//Sign. Observe:

Phosphorescent Land -Night-

Yes, good.

The story/gameplay integration

This right here is my other favorite thing about the game. Without giving too much away, one of the characters has the ability to see possible futures. What is wonderful about this is that the game doesn't back down from it. It informs a lot of plot points, sure, but it's incorporated into the game's interactive elements. The character will have visions mid-combat of special skills that enemies are going to use. They can then warn the targeted party member and give them a free skill use (which the player chooses) in an effort to prevent it. This adds even more depth to the battle system, of course. The other way that the future sight thing is used (so far) is that when you pick up an item for a quest you haven't obtained yet, not only will you receive a vision of the quest but the item will be marked as a quest item in your inventory. How many games would be improved by this feature? (The answer is all of them)

Also good is that the gameplay/cutscene balance is skewed heavily towards the former. For a story driven game, Xenoblade loves to just let the player run free. Even if you are advancing the plot. I'm reminded of SMT: Nocturne, just with a little more story.

Lastly, the sidequests feel like...sidequests. This isn't Mass Effect or Tales of, I don't feel like I'm missing something critical because I'm not going out of my way to get that one item for that person. There's almost no story in the quests (barring a few multi-stage ones, which are the only ones that require revisiting the questgiver) and when I skip them I don't feel guilty. They're there if you want to do them, and their rewards are things like early access to normal gear (I expect this to change later) and extra experience (rarely) or money. Things that are nice to have, but far from essential.

This is probably long enough. Purchase and then play Xenoblade, is what I'm saying.
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