Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

June 29, 2013

Let's discuss Xenoblade Chronicles (Part 1).

There’s only one wrong way to play Xenoblade Chronicles...and I found it.  

I’ll be upfront with you.  If for some reason you have a Wii, but never gave this game a shot, you owe it to yourself to track it down now.  And if you do, DON’T do what I did and pick away at it over the course of a year.  I know it’s a long game -- very long -- but the faster you beat it, the more likely you are to be able to digest its particulars in one fell swoop.  The gameplay, the story, all of it; if you have the willpower, I’d recommend an all-guns-blazing marathon run.  Don’t play any other games but Xenoblade until you finish it.  Got it?  That way, when you decide to sit down and write a post about it, you’ll be able to remember and type everything you need to in order to prove that you haven’t lost your touch.

…Though I could be reaching a bit.

Warning: There are some minor spoilers up ahead, so unless you want to subject yourself to the horrors within, I’d recommend avoiding this post.  Nothing deal-breaking, but there is stuff in there that’ll sour an experience if you’re not careful.

So let’s do this thing, and celebrate the one game that justifies the Wii’s existence.  You know, unless you count Skyward Sword, Punch-Out!!, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Trauma Team, NBA Jam, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Galaxy 2, No More Heroes, No More Heroes 2, MadWorld, Sonic Colors, Super Paper Mario, Metroid Prime 3, Monster Hunter Tri, Mario Kart Wii, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and about twenty other games on this list.

…Why do people give the Wii so much crap, exactly?

Okay.  So there’s this thing I do where I listen to a song and I come up with plus or minus two thousand words explaining why it’s pretty cool.  You might have seen it once or twice, maybe.  Or maybe you saw that one post I did where I named some of my favorite video game songs and explained why they’re cool in plus or minus two paragraphs.  Or even that post where I brought up DAT ANIME MUSIC.  (Remarkably, no rowing or power-fighting was done.)

Joking aside, there’s one song that I’ve thought about analyzing in full several times in the past -- but I always held off.  Part of that was because The Manly Song Repository is (primarily) where Cross-Up visitors can offer their own suggestions for manly songs…with the proper recognition, of course.  I’ll throw in a song every now and then if need be, and while there are plenty I could choose from, I’ve held off on including this song in particular.

I’ll explain why in a moment.  But for now, listen to this song.  I mean it; I’m making this a requirement for the rest of the discussion.  Plus it’s pretty good, so there’s that.

If you weren’t aware, “You Will Know Our Names” is the song that starts up whenever you encounter a unique -- and more often than not, powerful -- monster on the field.  A lot of people equate the song to the quintessential realization of “oh shit, I’m gonna die”; honestly, I have to disagree.  You heard the song, didn’t you?  It’s true that there’s a sense of danger behind it, but considering that those ominous tones are followed by scorching guitar solos -- and that the REAL “oh shit, I’m gonna die” song only kicks in when you’re in grave danger -- I’d say it’s hard to get too worried when the song cues up.  Though that could just be me and my preferences; frankly, I was itching to hear that song whenever I could, if only for the chance to have my battles turn into blood-boiling struggles for survival, and a chance to blow away my opponents with a well-placed Sword Drive or Monado Buster.  Granted I got curb stomped more than a few times when the song kicked in, but you get the idea.

I’d argue that “You Will Know Our Names” is one of the key songs of Xenoblade Chronicles; that is, it carries within a four-minute loop the spirit and thrust of the story.  This is something that I’ve been mulling over for a while, trying to find just the right word to sum up the experience (besides the obvious, “good”).  I wanted to get all the characters and ideas and world under one umbrella.  And I went through a few potential choices.  Discovery was one of them, and probably the strongest contender.  Revenge might have worked as well.  But I think there’s one word that not only encapsulates the game, but elevates it into something truly memorable…and it’s as clear as the song of a thousand party wipeouts.

The spirit of Xenoblade Chronicles is triumph.

That really is the best word to describe it, considering what went on in the background.  Remember, if not for Operation Rainfall (or alternatively, a dearth of releases for the Wii during that period), the states might have never seen Xenoblade outside of tantalizing videos on YouTube.  The fact that we have it, AND The Last Story, AND Pandora’s Tower has to stand for something -- if not the power of a unified cause or the benefaction of a company when reasonable demands are made, then just the fact that, hey, something actually worked in our favor.

Not having played The Last Story or Pandora’s Tower, I can’t speak about their quality.  But in the case of Xenoblade, there’s no doubt in my mind that it IS a triumph.  When people say it might be the best JRPG released this generation, that’s not hyperbole.  Neither is it exaggeration when others call it the Wii’s best game.  Where exactly it’ll slot in depends on preferences from one player to the next.  But as for me?  I’d say it’s a strong contender for several titles, if it hasn’t claimed them already…well among them, a potential spot as one of my favorite games ever.

But you know what the funny thing is?  Xenoblade isn’t a good game because it’s complicated.  It has a slew of gameplay mechanics, sure, and its story has interesting ideas and characters, as it should -- but all of it comes in a thoroughly-simplistic package.  It’s got compressed complexity, to the point where you don’t even bother worrying about whether the game is too simple or not.  So in a sense, that makes things easy on me; there really isn’t much to say on every little detail, because it’s a product with uniform and intertwined quality.  Simply put?  This’ll be an easy, breezy, relatively short post.  Well, relative to my abilities.

Before we get going, let’s spice things up a little.  See, if there’s one phrase that I’ve tossed out often when it comes to JRPGs, it’s “Better than Final Fantasy.”  That’s obviously me speaking from a post-FF13 perspective -- reinforced with the release of 13-2 -- but I wonder if that’s an applicable phrase in this case.

…Yes, of course it is.  Xenoblade surpasses that hoary old franchise several times over.  Not having played every game in the series I can’t say with any confidence whether it’s better than, say, FF4 or FF6.  That said, I can at least offer up a comparison and contrast with some of the later titles.  And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  Get ready for a brawl.

So let’s focus on gameplay first.  I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a turn-based combat system.  It’s a holdover from days of old, sure, but if Lost Odyssey and Persona 4  have taught us anything, it’s that it’s very easy to tweak and add mechanics so that even a game with controls no more complicated than a DVD menu can offer both strategic, smooth, speedy, and of course satisfying gameplay.  It’s the ability to slow down the action and observe selective gameplay moments that can make for a stronger game…and of course, more success on the battlefield. 

That said, Xenoblade makes a damn fine case for real-time RPGs.  You encounter enemies on the field, and rather than teleport to a canned fighting arena, you -- that is, a party of three -- engage with them wherever you cross paths.  It feels like an MMO at first glance (which admittedly was/is a turnoff for me), in that your characters -- one you control, and two AI partners -- will auto-attack as long as they’re in range.  Likewise, all your special moves operate on cooldowns.  Some have short cooldowns, some have long ones, and some moves help restore your other moves to a ready status. 

It’s all a matter of using the right moves at the right time, especially because every move has significantly different applications than just being an attack.  Take leading man Shulk, for example.  He’s not exactly a glutton for punishment, and his fighting style is more appropriate for someone of his character (more on that later).  So instead of acting as the tank, he’s almost thief-like.  Some of his earliest and most vital moves are Back Slash and Slit Edge, which will score huge damage/critical hits as long as you attack an enemy from behind or from the side, respectively.  Thing is, enemies won’t make it that easy for you, since -- again, like an MMO -- you have to manage each character’s aggro levels via a red ring that appears around them.  So in Shulk’s case, you want to use Shadow Eye to reduce his aggro; maybe put the heat back on the game’s real tank so you can get those critical hits.

There’s an undeniable amount of differentiation between one character and the next, and because of that the synergy between your on-screen fighters makes for some cool combinations.  I’m not exactly the adventurous sort when it comes to my party setup, so I was fine with spending a good 98% of the game with sword-boy Shulk, tanking Reyn, and supporter Sharla.  Reyn draws fire with his aggro-building abilities, taking the heat off his soft-bodied cohorts.  Sharla keeps the team healed, turning Reyn into a wall of steel.  Meanwhile, Shulk gets in those hits; with moves like Air Slash and Stream Edge, he can set up enemies with the Break status effect…and once they have that, Reyn can use Wild Down to inflict Topple, knock them over, and open them up for free hits. 

The combat system takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve spent enough time with it -- the perennial “cracking the code” -- you’ll have a tight and manageable system.  It’s worth noting that even beyond the uniqueness of each character and the strategies therein, the system still has plenty of other flourishes.  Chief among them?  No items.  Barring a few exceptions, all your healing is done via cooldown skills -- which in my eyes made Sharla almost a requirement, but apparently she’s unnecessary in the metagame -- and while you’ll slowly heal back up to full HP after a fight, if you’re taking a beating you’re bound to feel some real pressure.  

Furthermore, reviving characters takes the use of the Chain Gauge; if it’s full, you run up to a downed partner, hit B, and spend 1/3 of the meter to bring them back.  The trick, of course, is that if you’re not fighting effectively, you won’t be able to keep that gauge full, and you’ll be that much closer to death.  Even beyond that, there’s a certain risk-reward nature to the gauge, in that you can spend 100% meter to execute a string of attacks with your party via “Chain Attacks” -- and if you’ve got Sharla in the party, you can get in one free heal after another.  Options have to be weighed accordingly, strategies have to be considered, and even though there’s no item management aspect, there are still resources you have to be mindful of.  Or else.

To say the combat system is a success would be the understatement of the millennium, and I’d recommend the game on that facet alone.  Even so, I can’t help but take the issues into consideration.  For one thing, I feel as if the gameplay is almost too complex and has too many flourishes.  Okay, so it’s like an MMO, and an easy one to grasp.  But then you’ve got Shulk’s ability to see visions of the future that’ll let you see when an enemy’s about to curb-stomp one of your characters, and you’ve got a few seconds to do something about it.  Easy, yes?

Except “doing something about it” comes down to using the proper ability that coincides with the color of the text, so if you use Shulk’s Monado Shield, that’ll save the party from Talent Arts, but Ether Arts are still fair game, I think?  Oh, but you can use Monado Speed to boost one party member’s evasion, but that won’t save you from a full-party attack.  And using one of Shulk’s (many) party-saving moves puts them all on cooldown, so if you save one party member from one monster, and then another monster uses another big whompin’ attack, the most you can do is run up to a party member and tell them to use a certain move, but sometimes they won’t be able to do anything about it, especially if they’re taking on multiple attacks.  And your Chain Gauge is the only way to revive people, and if you have to revive fallen party members in rapid succession -- by running over to them, exposing yourself to a savage beating of your own -- then that Gauge will not only empty, but STAY empty.  Basically, it’s very hard to make a comeback in this game without sheer luck on your side -- and I feel as if those are complications that didn’t need to be there.

The whole “see the future” element of the combat isn’t a deal-breaker by any means, but I just want to make it clear that while the combat in this game is great, it’s not without flaws.  Still, the complexity can be overwhelming to some, and to some extent that trait carries over into the customization.  Basically, there are about four separate levels of customization (five if you count the affection levels between characters) that you need to be mindful of to succeed.  You have to manage their equipment and the status bonuses/losses therein -- including MMO stats like auto-attack speed.  You also have to give your characters materia gems that also offer stat bonuses and slot into equipment, but some equipment comes pre-loaded with gems so you run the risk of overloading yourself trying to keep the perfect setup up to and including forgoing certain gear. 

And even beyond that, you have to get raw materials for gems in the field and produce them yourself (and unless you do the proper sidequest, you have to return to the same single spot over and over again).  And then on top of that you have to put points into your moves so they can get powered up and have shorter cooldowns, and on top of that you have to choose your characters’ specs so they can gain passive bonuses, but if their affection levels are high enough and they’ve progressed far enough down certain trees they can get the same bonuses that other characters have, but you can only do that by slotting in certain perks into certain geometric holes, and -- shit, I think I’m starting to understand why it took me almost a year to finish this game.  It’s so damn long, you’ll grow a beard by the time you’re finished with the tutorials.  Seriously, who goes out of their way to overload their works with so much content?

“Overload” is the only word you can possibly use to describe Xenoblade.  I’m 100% convinced that, unless you’ve got a guide in your lap every step of the way (or you’re some sort of deified savant), there is NO WAY you’re ever going to see all the content in this game.  Ever.  Let’s set aside the fact that there are untold hundreds of sidequests, where any given city can offer dozens of them, and any given NPC can give you three quests at one time.  And let’s set aside the affection system that demands you have the right characters in the right spots to advance their bond further, not only requiring expeditions throughout the world, but for you to develop affection in the first place by having the right party members fighting on the field (so if Reyn and Riki haven’t been fighting together enough, tough luck).  And let’s ignore the fact that it’s extremely possible to clear the game without even knowing that you can unlock additional talent trees -- and even moves -- for your party members by way of doing certain quests.  Let’s just set all of that aside.

Why?  Two reasons.  One: because even with that overload in mind, it is hardly a detriment to the overall product.  In fact, it’s pretty much a strength in its favor, whether you like the MMO styling or not; the fact that the most I can do is take the piss out of Xenoblade should be proof enough of the quality.  Two: when I say “overload”, I’m not just talking about the gameplay mechanics or the quests.  The element that matters most -- the element that everyone who’s played this game has noted and adored -- is a simple one.

The world.

You know, I think there’s an image floating around on the internet about the scale of the universe.  The kind of thing that just goes to show just how small Earth is in comparison to the rest of the solar system, and the solar system compared to galaxies, and galaxies compared to the universe, and the universe we know of compared to the rest of the universe.  If I remember right, the entirety of the universe that we know about compared to the rest of the universe is like comparing the size of a quarter to the entirety of the universe we know about.  That’s the kind of stuff that’ll make you feel really friggin’ small. 

And that’s this game in a nutshell.  Never mind the fact that you’re roaming around on what’s pretty much a bipedal mech large enough to house multiple ecosystems, up to and including an ocean across its body…and let’s just ignore the fact that you eventually get to explore another giant bipedal mech made accessible by a sword that doubles as a valley.  Any given area in this game can require a multi-day commitment -- in-game or otherwise -- to fully traverse from one end to the next, and that’s under the assumption that you move in what’s essentially a straight line.  You won’t, of course, because there are twists and turns you’ll be making almost constantly -- if not to get to the waypoint marked on your map (and thankfully pointed to by an arrow and distance marker in the HUD), then to mine resources, look for special monsters for clearing quests, and look for a path that’ll lead you back toward the right path, because after minutes of traversal you’ve realized that you’ve been on the wrong path for ages.  And on top of all that, there are still hidden areas for you to find and explore (and reap additional EXP from). 

I guess what I’m getting at here is that Xenoblade is what happens when the JRPG everyone’s idealized for years is finally made…and then proceeds to pump iron almost nonstop until it’s a hulking titan of stats and pixels.  This isn’t a world you explore, but rather a world you survive; what’s on display here is absolutely overwhelming, to the point where even a single area and the traversal demanded can prove exhausting.  But it’s the good kind of exhausting, if you believe such a thing exists.  The lack of item management outside of battle puts the focus on getting from Point A to Point B (or Point C, D, E, and Tau, if you prefer), which in turn lets you enjoy the sights without worrying if you’ll have enough Orange Gels to keep your TP high.  Outside of the thousands of battles you’ll fight on your way to the endgame, you’re free to do what dozens of other games have failed to offer this generation: the ever-vital ability to move at your own pace.

The ability to move at one’s own pace in a game makes a world of difference.  It’s what separates games like BioShock or Mass Effect apart from games like Gears of War or Call of Duty.  The mindset behind the latter games is all about shuttling you from one firefight to the next, and de-emphasizing the world that scores of programmers have put their blood, sweat, and tears into making; without that ability to process information by virtue of strapping players to a rollercoaster, there’s no way to get the full effect intended by the developers or the narrative at large.  In stark contrast, games in the former camp are only successful, and even possible because there are big gaps in the action.  You have all the time you need to walk around, search for rarities, talk to the populace, and just generally faff about.  As such, the world -- and again, the developers/narrative at large -- can leave a much stronger impression than if you just went from fight to fight.  It certainly helps that they have more to show, of course.

And that brings us back to the “exhaustive” nature of Xenoblade (and plenty of other good games, I’d wager).  On the one hand, once you’ve cleared an area and the enemies therein -- bosses and all -- you’ll have a sense of relief wash over you.  That said, you’ll ALSO have some pretty strong memories of your journey, by virtue of spending so much time in an area as well as the ability to enjoy the particulars instead of just letting them be a backdrop for the action.  I won’t soon forget grooving to the sounds of Gaur Plain as the battle system finally started clicking, and I headed down the big bridge in search of monsters to wallop.  Or my first visit to Satorl Marsh -- a dingy swamp by day, but at night becomes one of the most awe-inspiring areas ever to grace a video game.  And once you venture to the world of mechs, there are plenty of chances to strut your stuff -- from exploring rocky canyons outfitted with mechanical parts to taking on spider tanks the size of the average brontosaurus…and if you’re good enough, beating said spider tank. 

But there’s one moment fairly early on in the game that’s really something.  I was exploring the edges of the world -- relatively speaking, given my position on the biological titan’s body -- and about to head into a new area.  But before I could, I noticed that the sun was setting.  So I stopped to swivel the camera around to have a look at it.  And I stared at the sunset for a long while.  Long enough to realize that even though I was standing on a precariously-perched bridge (in a game where fall damage is a real threat), I still couldn’t help but think of that scene, and that moment, as beautiful.  Without question, I was on an adventure.  And I would go on to enjoy it every step of the way.

If I had to sum up Xenoblade with one word, it would be “genuine.”  It’s true -- and obvious -- that there’s always going to be a divide between the real world and what’s going on inside the TV/Wii.  That much is unavoidable.  But Xenoblade creates the illusion of being on an adventure, and in this world, and in each and every fight.  The developers managed to make the heights dizzying and frightening, making you take each step as carefully as you can.  They made each tunnel in a cavern perilous and unpredictable, with one path leading you to an underground lake, and another to a nest of spiders.  And they made the walk to the final boss unreal, in the sense that it has you literally travelling through space.   That’s not the kind of shit you’re likely to forget anytime soon.

Nor will you be forgetting the victories you’ll rack up over the course of the game.  When you win a fight while “You Will Know Our Names” is on full blast, you’ll be getting into the battle fever.  The battle system in general, in spite of its MMO basis, exists as a tool designed to get you hyped.  Positioning and aggro management are important, no matter which character you play as.  Proper use of your skills at the right time can make you an offensive juggernaut, a living fortress, or the ultimate support unit.  Moreover, the characters will talk to and support each other as the battle wears on; some status effects can be cured without cost by running up to a teammate and hitting B to give them a pep talk.

More often than not, you’ll use it simply as a way to A) put a fallen party member back on his/her feet after being Toppled, or B) boosting their tension so that they’ll fight more effectively instead of missing the target.  If Reyn scores a critical hit, if you press B with the right timing Shulk or Sharla will chime in with compliments, boosting that party’s affection as well as offering bonuses like restored health or meter in the Chain Gauge.  Simply put, the combat is as far away from static or uninvolving as you can possibly get; these characters are not only active, but supportive of one another on a gameplay level instead of just a story level.  It’s a vital tool that builds rapport on a subconscious level -- and when it’s time for them to bond in cutscenes and uphold the almighty idea of The Power of Friendship™, it’s all the more believable.  All the more genuine.  All the more triumphant.

It’s rare for a game to be so overwhelming, especially in the era of triple-A excess and wastelands of brown.  But here we are, with a single disk on an underpowered, underappreciated system that manages to offer one of the most complete and thorough experiences in ages.  And when I say experiences, I MEAN experiences; not the buzzword version you’ll hear used to describe every other title.  No, Xenoblade Chronicles is the real deal.  It has a goal in mind, the mechanics to do so, and the vision to offer up something incredibly substantial.  And each time you set down your pad for the night, you’ll know that each outing taken has given you something vital.  A sense of progression. A sense of accomplishment.  A sense of ownership.  A sense of true adventure. 

Well.  Wasn’t that just the most ringing endorsement for a game you’ve heard in a while?  Eh, well, it can’t be helped.  I’ve played some crappy games in the past, so if I get the chance to celebrate a good title, I’m going to do it.  And with that in mind, let’s see how Xenoblade’s gameplay stacks up to its “competition”:

So yeah.  It’s pretty friggin’ good, is the takeaway from all this.

But as good -- and rewarding -- as the gameplay is, that’s not where Xenoblade is at its strongest.  No, that honor goes to its story and the intricacies therein.  I’m not going to act like it’s a perfect story -- no such thing exists -- but it is a very good story.  A very, very good story.

How good?  So good, that it actually made me want to stop playing long before I’d finished.

But that’s a topic for another day.  In the meantime, keep “You Will Know Our Names” fresh on your mind.  Bookmark it or something.  We’re going to be coming back to it (and ALL OF THE SPOILERS) next time.  Hope you’ve got a Monado on hand.  You’ll need it.

Or maybe not.  I’ve heard that weapons beyond human comprehension can prove problematic. 


  1. "Don’t play any other games but Xenoblade until you finish it. Got it?" That was my plan back in 2012, then my Wii died on me, and I lost the 90 hours I put in it! It is a unique scenario, and one that I'm not sure if I can recover from, after a good 50 of those hours were devoted to the game's bizarrely bloated sidequest system. Which was more than daunting with its sheer quantity and the amount of prerequisites that had to be managed prior to their activation.

    It reminds me of the sort of game I'd get a guide with as a kid, doing literally everything in it and eating away an entire summer back when having twenty games meant I was the holder of a large collection. In the end, I really do want to beat the game, but the devoted time to recover my progress would be enough to go through six others. Why can't I ignore most of the side quests? Same reason I'm getting all S ranks in Sonic Generations. Still think Xenoblade is freaking radical though.

  2. Truth be told, I pretty much ignored a lot of the sidequests in this game. I did the ones that jumped out at me, sure, but I wasn't going out of my way to complete some of the no-doubt obscure ones. There's an argument to be made that I'm not getting the "full experience" as a result, but then again, that's probably what New Game Plus is for. Plus I can use Dunban a lot more rigorously if I do another playthrough.

    But sidequests -- the many, many, many sidequests -- aside, Xenoblade IS freaking radical. The gameplay is something special (barring a few nitpicks here and there), but to me it's the story that makes the game really special. But that's a topic for another post...

    And now for the obligatory BORN IN A WORLD OF STRIFE!

  3. I'm trying my best to finish this and skyward sword. I fell out of console graces this generation and only beat a handful of games. No coincidence that I started writing seriously at the same time. But if you need a nice brainless break, head back not one but two generations to a little gem on the N64, Blast Corps. If you've played it, great. If not, time to get edjumacated son.

  4. Ah, I tried that one back in the day...for a given definition of "tried". My brother and I rented it a couple of times, and he played more of the game than I did (as was the standard), but what I played, I enjoyed. Then again, any game with giant robots gets a few million points in its favor.

    Still, I don't blame you for not finishing Xenoblade yet. Its length is enough to scare anyone off, I'd wager -- or if not anyone, then at least me. For a while it felt like no matter how much I played the game, it felt like I was chipping away at a mountain. A blessing and a curse, if you ask me.

    Buuuuuuuuuut that said, I'm glad I beat it, and I'm glad I played it. Hope you get to have some fun with it, too.