Tuesday, July 14, 2015

GOT 'IM - XenoBlade Chronicles

Here we are, my final review of one of my 2014 targets.  Yes, I didn't beat it until January 3rd, 2015, and yes, right now it's mid-July.  Don't care.  Final 2014 target.  XenoBlade Chronicles for the Wii. 


Okay, time to get into some background stuff that I've never addressed on this blog before: the Xenoverse and Operation Rainfall.  I'll keep this brief: I played Xenogears in high school (probably 2002 or 2003) and thought it was great, but got stuck in the final dungeon and never beat it.  My overall opinion and feelings concerning Xenogears are a little complicated, but in general I felt it was excellent overall, but a little unfinished.  I never played any of the XenoSaga games for the PS2, but I own the first two - I planned on playing the first XenoSaga game last year in my 14 in '14 quest but never got around to it. 

Operation Rainfall is a community of gamers that initially banded together in support of three RPGs: XenoBlade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower.  Those three all came out in Japan in late 2010 or early 2011, and there were no revealed plans on releasing them in North America at the time of Rainfall's formation.  Rainfall's initial goal was to petition Nintendo to localize those three games and release them in English, and they eventually got their wish when all three dropped between late 2012 and early 2013.  Nintendo ended up publishing XenoBlade, while XSEED backed The Last Story and Pandora's Tower.  Nintendo insisted that publishing XenoBlade in North America was not influenced by Operation Rainfall's efforts, but you don't have to believe that. 

I was never involved with Operation Rainfall.  I don't browse their forums or even follow them on Twitter, but I support their mission completely.  I am naturally interested in more Japanese RPGs coming to the states, and I pre-ordered and bought XenoBlade and The Last Story as soon as they were available.  I decided against that for Pandora's Tower (which didn't appeal to me as much as the first two), but ended up buying it on sale in late 2014 anyway.  Bottom line: it took some time and some doing, but Operation Rainfall's initial mission was a success.  That community is still alive, focusing on identifying cool Japanese games that need some cheerleaders before they might get published westward.  Good on them. 

So, XenoBlade.  From the get-go it seemed like an interesting, beautiful RPG with a somewhat tenuous connection to the older Xenoverse games, and that was more than enough for me.  I included it on my list of 2013 games to beat but never got around to it, and it rolled over to my 2014 list.  I started it in earnest in October of 2014, and eventually finished it on January 3rd of this year.  Since I officially granted myself an extension on my game-finishing quest, I'm officially counting it as a 2014 target.  So there.  Now let's talk about the game proper. 

Story and Characters

The world of XenoBlade is on the unique side - two titanic humanoid beings, the Bionis (made of stone, earth, vegetation, and organic materials) and the Mechonis (made of metals and inorganic materials) were locked in battle for an unknown length of time.  Eventually, the two giants stopped fighting when the Bionis cut off the Mechonis' left arm as Mechonis's sword pierced the Bionis's midsection, and both fell unconscious.  This is essentially the "creation myth" of the world of XenoBlade, as life and civilization blossomed on both beings - organic life on the Bionis, and inorganic machines on the Mechonis. 

On the Bionis, there are three major civilizations - the Homs (humans), whose major cities are on the Bionis' legs and waist; the Nopon (little furry creatures), whose big city is on the Bionis' chest; and the High Entia (humanoids with wings protruding from their head), whose large metropolis is on top of the Bionis' head.  Our heroes are some Homs living in Colony 9, on the foot of the Bionis: Shulk, a young engineer, Reyn, a city guardsman, Dunban, a retired soldier, and Fiora, Dunban's younger sister.  Shulk, Reyn, and Fiora are childhood friends.  One year prior to the events of XenoBlade, Dunban and an army of Homs repelled an invasion of Mechon (living machines from the Mechonis), wielding the Monado, a mysterious sword that can cut through Mechon with ease.   Eventually, our heroes (mostly Shulk, who has a surprising aptitude for wielding the Monado) travel up to the Bionis Head, across the Mechonis' sword ("Sword Valley"), and into the Mechonis itself to bring an end to the Bionis vs. Mechonis conflict.

I'm simplifying the plot of XenoBlade with that description, but hot damn is it dramatic.  It delves deep into the origin and state of its world, the nature of fate and free will, and a LOT of character drama.  I was blown away by personal tragedies and plot twists multiple times throughout the story, with the surprises continuing right up to the last dungeon.  Most of these twists have real resonance, with both a small amount of foreshadowing and appropriate buildup before payoff.  By the final encounter, your perception of nearly every important character of the game is different from the first meeting, and it's awesome. 

But it's not only the major characters that are given a spotlight in XenoBlade - there are over a hundred NPCs and minor characters with plenty of development as well!  XenoBlade has five major metropolitan areas plus a few smaller settlements (which are basically camps with one or two residents).  Roughly half of the NPCs in each zone have names, histories, personalities, and even relationships with other NPCs!  By taking part in XenoBlade's huge, daunting wealth of sidequests, you can affect the daily lives of these characters in a major way.  For example, by doing a few quests for Desiree in Colony 9, you can choose her career path, affect her friendships, and have her discover what happened to her missing father.  And she's one of well over a hundred in the game. 

The world and story in XenoBlade is lengthy and full of detail.  The main plot is fascinating and beautifully executed, and it's extremely easy to get lost in XenoBlade's lore and spend several dozens of hours just speaking to NPCs.  That seems boring to more goal-oriented players, but most of those NPC quests yield rewards in items, experience, and the right to witness how the city and world at large changes.  XenoBlade nearly hits Skyrim levels of the volume and details of its minor characters and Final Fantasy levels of vaguely fantasy, vaguely sci-fi of story drama.  It's incredible. 

Playing the Game

So Shulk and his friends make their way up the Bionis and become directly involved in the Bionis vs. Mechonis conflict, and for most of the game you'll be taking a party of three across a variety of settings.  The environments in XenoBlade are segmented, but most of the major areas are ENORMOUS in and of themselves.  The first town, Colony 9, comprises of three large city blocks standing over a large lake (which you can dive into and swim around), plus three massive artillery structures and a system of trails surrounding it.  And there are pretty sizeable dungeons connecting each of these fields!  It's easy to spend hours just getting lost in Colony 9 before you're even allowed to leave. 

And the huge field zones have an even larger feeling of scale and vastness.  Exploring the nooks and crannies of these areas is fun in and of itself, but players are further rewarded with EXP, SP, and AP when they discover new areas within a zone.  The constant rewards cycle is one of the many hooks that XenoBlade casts out for players, as the huge number of optional quests also provide regular rewards.  But seriously, these fields are gorgeous and I definitely spent a good 4 hours in Gaur Plains before moving on with the story in that part of the game (which is quite early on, when you're traveling up the Bionis' Leg). 

So I mentioned quests; each of the five major metropolitan areas has a population of 20+ named citizens and even more nameless ones, and each named person is connected in a relationship grid (viewable from the menu) to a number of other named characters.  Each character has a walking-around schedule for when they're available, and nearly all of them are involved in optional quests at some time or another.  There are hundreds of optional quests in XenoBlade, which are normally of the "defeat X enemies" or "gather X items" variety, but almost always given in-game context and creating new quests upon their completion. 

While the quests themselves are usually mundane, there is a real sense of community in XenoBlade that the quest system supports.  Completing quests and occasionally making binary decisions in quests affects character relationships.  As you complete more quests, the detailed flowchart of every named NPC in the game fills out more elaborately and your reputation in each region (centered around those five metropolises) improves accordingly.  It's pretty cool.  The best comparison I have for a system like this is the social dynamics of a complex western RPG like an Elder Scrolls or Baldur's Gate game. 

There is a similar social dynamic between your own characters.  By having characters fight together in the same party and occasionally locating extra dialog scenes strewn throughout the world, character relationships improve, allowing for improved chain attacks and a higher success rate when crafting gems.  It essentially rewards players for discovering and sticking to preferred combination(s) of characters. 

Okay, chain attacks and gems.  I won't go into huge detail here, but the item collection and crafting systems in XenoBlade are enormous.  Every region has specialty items, local monsters and their items, and gem-crafting for augmenting weapons or armor.  Most of the materials are used as quest goals, but there is a huge number of gathering and monster-based items that players accrue over the course of XenoBlade and a lot of them go into esoteric sidequests with surprisingly robust rewards.  Lots and lots of items to collect and gems to craft in this game. 

Combat takes place on the world map, with almost nothing in the way of cutscenes or additional combat interfaces.  All enemies are visible wandering on the map without entering combat, and some will attack on sight, some will only attack if you initiate combat, and others will only attack if they witness others of their specifies being attacked.  The majority of enemies are living organisms in one of several animal families, but there are a few otherworldly creatures (mostly in the "Entia" family) and enemy robot Mechons.

The beautiful field maps and the surprisingly robust ecosystems creates a pretty cool experience.  As early as the first area in the game you can encounter creatures dozens of levels above your ability, and these monsters are to be avoided.  Taking care not to disturb higher-level beings and only exploring as far as the ecosystem allows is part of the exploration elements of XenoBlade and makes the world seem bigger and more complete.  It's great.  It's also tremendously satisfying to go back to some level 70 jungle dinosaurs or whatever and kick their asses after you've reached the endgame.  I did some grinding in the mid-70s in levels to obtain endgame equipment and reach an appropriate level for the final boss, who I believe is level 80 or 81.

That grind is probably the weakest part of the game.  It's possible to avoid many enemy encounters in the large field areas (which is great), but the overall challenge level spikes at certain times that makes grinding somewhat necessary.  And taking advantage of the huge numbers of quests and enemies to fight and farm is the best way to get stronger.  XenoBlade is a very lengthy video game (my total playtime was over one hundred hours, and I'd guess the absolutely minimum is in the 50-60 hour range) but the difficulty curve stretches out the gametime significantly. 

Combat is pretty dynamic, with a (mostly) unobtrusive UI on the bottom of the screen and almost no transition between exploration and combat.  You control your lead character only, but are unable to switch characters mid-combat (that's another one of my biggest complaints about the game, for serious).  Your lead character auto-attacks if he or she is in range of an enemy, and executes skills as the player selects them on the bottom of the screen.  These skills are key to XenoBlade's combat.  Choosing which ones to equip (everyone but Shulk has at least 12, and you can equip up to 8) determines each character's playstyle and flow. 

Those skills range from direct damage to status skills to auras to recovery options.  Each skill also has a color, with some general associations between different skill colors - direct damage skills are red, most damage-over-time debuff skills are purple, most knockdown skills are green, etc.  There's also a meter that fills up over time (faster if you take enemies by surprise and have good teammate synergy) that can be spent for Chain Attacks - attacks that freeze time to perform consecutive moves, ignoring cooldowns.  Having Chain Attacks with moves of the same color boosts their effectiveness. 

And that's only barely scratching the surface of XenoBlade's combat.  You can have skill compositions for chaining statuses together, stun-locking by including lots of Break, Topple, and Stun skills, create stacks of party-wide buffs and enemy debuffs, it can get pretty crazy.  Positioning in incredibly important, as it changes the nature of certain attacks when you attack from the front, side, or rear.  And since all attacks are just manipulating cooldowns, there's no MP system in the game.  HP also increases back to max quite rapidly once you exit combat.  XenoBlade's basic flow of combat is for it to flow in and out rapidly, and to keep the menu navigation to an absolute minimum.  Unless you're affixing gems of clearing your inventory.  There's a lot of that. 

My favorite team was  Dunban, Riki, and Shulk.  Dunban has good damage output and MASSIVE evasion, making him a decent tank for sustained damage; Riki has an enormous HP pool, some helpful buffs and heals, and can cast a large number of surprisingly-strong damage-over-time effects; Shulk had really good damage output, multiple links in a stun-lock combo, and his special move (denoted by the large circle at the center of the move bar) is employing the Monado for incredibly powerful attacks that can pre-empt and predict enemy attacks.  Yeah, there's a story justification for that, but it's still completely broken in-battle.  Shulk's really good. 

Shulk's buddy Reyn has huge HP and defense with several buffs and physical attacks intended to have enemies focus on him while his allies deal damage and back him up.  Sharla has mediocre ranged offense and a large number of healing arts.  Melia is a mage that summons spirits in stacks of up to three to provide a variety of magic damage and support.  Melia is really effective if you have a nice setup for her, but you really need to control her yourself.  AI Melia never does what you wish she would.  Whew.  This game has great characters and combat.  Trust me on this one. 

I've mentioned this occasionally throughout this review, but wow, XenoBlade has goddamn nearly mastered the carrot-on-a-stick reward system.  You're rewarded for quests, rewarded for using party members together, rewarded for collecting useless monster items, rewarded for discovering new areas, rewarded for building up town reputation, rewarded for meeting new NPCs; you get three types of experience points for basically doing anything, and it's awesome.  Players feel like they are constantly succeeding at the game, regardless of whether they're making real progress.  It's a powerful tool, and XenoBlade's massive scale and consistent rewards drip are huge parts of why it's such an impressive and satisfying experience. 

Visuals and Audio

The visual and audio design elements of XenoBlade are superb, with each setting conveying its mood perfectly in its color palette, architecture, and music.  I explored the Gaur Plains and Mount Valak far more than I needed to because they were SO beautiful, but it helped that there were usually rewards for discovering new areas, heh.  The textures are a little lacking compared to modern standards since the game isn't on a high-definition, but that's never a concern.  XenoBlade is stunning to behold at both the artistic and the technical graphics level.

The character models are very nice, cleanly-made polygons.  Or at least that's what they look like. The character builds and faces are reasonable for an anime-inspired design, and I GREATLY appreciate the changing appearances of armor and weapons as you equip new ones.  Yes, sometimes a mix and match armor set looks totally awful.  But it's a really cool detail that I wish every single RPG did.  Hell, every single video game in which you equip stuff. 

The music is exceptional.  The soundtrack was a collaboration between legendary composer Yoko Shimomura, industry veteran Manami Kiyota, the game composer trio ACE+, and the super-legendary composer Yasunori Mitsuda.  What a fuckin' lineup.  XenoBlade has one of the best soundtracks of any game I've ever played, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that.  My favorites include the Gaur Plains field theme, the "You Will Know Our Names" battle theme, and the stunning, minimalist opening menu music.  One of the best game soundtracks in recent memory. 

The voice work was recorded in the U.K., so the main characters speak in a variety of British accents.  It reminds me of Dragon Quest VIII in that regard, and it's well-done enough that it's far from a negative.  The Nopon characters speak in a vaguely childlike, cartoony manner that can get a little annoying, but I have no doubts that it was similar in the Japanese version.  And the Nopon are cute and funny enough that it isn't grating all the time.  Even though I don't usually prefer cutesy mascot characters (Koromaru from Persona 3 being the exception), I ended up using Riki quite often in my party.  "Heropon verycool!" 

The Final Word

I was really affected by XenoBlade, if it weren't already obvious.  I did rank it as my favorite game from my 14 in '14 quest, after all, and now it's my favorite Wii game, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  XenoBlade is a huge, ambitious RPG with beautiful art direction and music, interesting, action-packed combat, terrific story and characters, and the most fun, rewarding exploration in just about any RPG I've ever played. 

The huge amount of things to do is impressive, but the uneven quality of all that content makes the game seem... messy.  XenoBlade's also hampered by an uneven experience curve that leans a little too heavily on tedious side quests, and as a result the game feels artificially long.  In a way that comes with the territory, being a Japanese RPG, but it's certainly frustrating and (mostly) unnecessary.  Most of my other complaints, like the inability to switch characters in combat and an over-abundance of useless loot items, are similarly messy touches that are irritating but not deal-breakers.  But if you can get past those caveats, XenoBlade Chronicles is a must-play for RPG fans. 

Games Beaten: 2014 Edition

1. Ys Seven
2. Rayman Origins
3. Assassin's Creed II
4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
5. The Walking Dead (season one)
6. Frog Fractions
7. Mortal Kombat (2011)
8. Digital Devil Saga
9. Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance
10. Persona 3: Portable (FeMC)
11. Sonny
12. Sonny 2
13. Dragon Age: Origins
14. Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening
15. Retro Game Challenge
16. Batman: Arkham City
17. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
18. Bravely Default
19. Persona 2: Innocent Sin
20. Persona 4 Arena Ultimax
21. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
22. Dragon Age: Inquisition
23. XenoBlade Chronicles

Targets: 10/14


That's it!  Done with 2014 review stuff!  In the next few weeks you should see the first of my 15 in '15 reviews, starting with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies and Ys: The Ark of Napishtim.  I am at least eight games in the hole as of this writing.  Whatever.  Happy gaming! 

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