Sunday, March 31, 2013

Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Wii) Review

One of the most important elements of video games is their ability to draw the user into a different world. Whether that world is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future ruled by an alien race, a vast countryside full of magic and monsters, a representation of a real-life country or city, or any number of endless possible environments and scenarios, video games are superb at combining music, art direction, and intriguing world concepts into a living, breathing environment that draws the player in. Xenoblade Chronicles presents one of the most interesting world concepts I have ever seen in any medium and combines a beautiful musical score and stunning art direction to bring this fascinating world to life. Reflecting on my over one-hundred and fifty hours spent experiencing Xenoblade’s world, I feel like I have been there, like I have just woken up from a wonderful dream, a whole world full of strange people and fantastical places I could never find on earth. The kind of stunning imagination on display in Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the primary reasons I enjoy video games as I much I do.

Long, long before the events in the game take place, two massive titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis, clashed swords in an endless ocean. Upon striking the killing blows on each other, the two titans were frozen in place. Eventually, so the story goes, life sprang up on the bodies of these massive gods. On Bionis, organic life flourished; trees and grass, plants, animals and a human-like species known as Homs, among other intelligent species that are met throughout the game. On the Mechonis, mechanical beings known as Mechon came into existence. The game starts in the midst of an on-going war between the Homs and the Mechon. The reason these two factions are fighting, the reason the Bionis and the Mechonis themselves initially fought, and everything in between is a complete mystery at the game’s outset. The game’s world, its story, and its lore are a layered mystery that is uncovered piece by piece as the narrative moves forward. But this is not to say that the player is not given a reason for the lengthy quest that they eventually undertake. The story opens in the middle of a pivotal battle between the Homs and the Mechon, followed by a typically slower section in which we get to know our main character Shulk, a young researcher studying a legendary sword known as the Monado that is a key weapon in the war against the Mechon, his best friend Reyn, and his other childhood friend and love interest, Fiora. It is not long before our heroes’ peaceful burg is directly invaded by Mechon and our heroes inevitably begin their journey. So right off the bat, we have some familiar Japanese RPG tropes: a mystical weapon, a chosen hero who wields it, and an attack on our hero’s hometown. However, while Xenoblade does contain many of the familiar tropes and clichés that can be found in JRPGS across the board, it also takes many strides in providing a fresh experience and in breaking many of the genre’s clichéd tropes. Shulk and company are not just a group of young people who get randomly tossed into adventure. Shulk has a very good reason for beginning his journey and a very specific goal. In fact, the impetus for Xenoblade’s quest is one of the best in any adventure game I’ve played, and within the first few hours of the game, I already felt very connected to the characters and cared about their struggle. It’s also refreshing that these characters are optimistic and upbeat rather than angsty and mopey. Shulk may be a troubled orphan who suffers his fair share, but he doesn’t spend his time lamenting the past, but instead he stays optimistic and wants to do something about the future. He and his friends are driven to do something about the plight they find themselves in. Most of the game’s main characters, with a few exceptions, are fleshed out and memorable. All of the central characters in the game have a very distinct and expressive visual design, and even the NPCs in the game have detailed visual designs. The characters are also competently voiced in English (and also very British!). For the most part, the game manages to unravel a well-executed and intriguing plot while staying away from too much melodrama and overwrought scenarios.

Now I say “for the most part” because although the vast majority of the game manages to tell an intriguing, grounded story full of interesting characters and an exciting, moving tale of conflict, the game unfortunately loses some of its focus towards the end and things start to get pretty convoluted. The game keeps a metric ton of secrets from the player throughout the course of the game and reveals a great deal of them in a single massive plot exposition in the last third of the game. While previous plot points were slowly and smartly revealed to the player through well-paced cut-scenes and interaction and dialogue with NPCs and the world around them, the game suddenly hits the player with a blast of convoluted information in the span of a single cut-scene. There are also some moments towards the end that bordered on heavy melodrama and lost their impact on me because of it. While the story does maintain its themes of protecting loved ones and the importance of a world of racial harmony towards the end, and also raises some interesting philosophical questions, it just bombards the player with so much information, some of it that even seems to contradict other information presented, that it becomes easy to simply want to give up on caring about all the plot mumbo-jumbo and just enjoy the other aspects of the game. That’s a shame, because for the most part, the tale told in the game is a fairly captivating one. 

Despite these plot discrepancies, the game’s presentation, art direction, music, and the concept and execution of its world are all incredible and left a huge impression on me. This is one of the most memorable worlds in any game I’ve ever played and the player is given a lot of freedom to explore and take everything in. I was overwhelmed by the game’s opening area, Colony 9, which lets the player freely roam a giant town full of NPCs to talk to and quests to take on and also roam the fields and areas outside the town. The world is incredibly fleshed out and one of the aspects that contribute to this are the NPCs in the game. Throughout the game, the player can keep track of every named NPC they encounter (not every NPC is named, but a great deal are) and all these characters have lives and problems of their own. The player uncovers connections between different NPCs and boosts their affinity with a certain area by solving problems for people. This, coupled with a day/night cycle with different times of the day, different schedules for different NPCs, and the optional ability to learn about the world around you and the people that inhabit it is a system that reminds of me of another adventure game. That game happens to be my favorite game ever created: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Needless to say, I love this element of Xenoblade and I’d really love to see this kind of system in more games. 

There are hundreds of optional quests in Xenoblade, but they are not all created equal. I would split the quests into two categories: substantial side-quests and basic fetch-quests. These fetch-quests usually involve either A.) gathering materials for a certain NPC, B.) Finding a single unique object for an NPC, or C.) defeating a certain number and type of monsters for an NPC. While these errands can barely be labeled as “side-quests”, they work fine for my style of play. When I got to a new area, I would take on as many of these quests as I could and while out exploring the game’s gorgeous world, I would naturally run across the monsters and items needed to complete the quests and gain experience. Speaking of experience, everything gives you experience in this game, from completing quests to discovering new areas to of course defeating monsters, and being rewarded for all my exploring and questing is an aspect I really like. In addition to lots of fetch-quests, there are substantial side-quests and these were surprisingly detailed. Some of the more involved ones that I remember include helping a mysterious group of people in Colony 9 on a project that will help to rejuvenate the spirits of a community that just recently suffered a Mechon attack, helping two people-an artist and a writer-create a picture book for an orphaned child and later on helping these two people get together romantically, helping an indecisive man choose between two prospective love interests, a very lengthy quest about bringing down an illegal “red pollen orb” trade in the forest-dwelling Nopon village, and several quests that simply involve helping and getting to know the inhabitants of this interesting world. Then there’s the best and biggest optional side mission of them all, which is restoring Colony 6, a town that is basically completely wiped out by the Mechon. This quest involves finding materials to build houses and shops in the town, inviting people to live in the town, and otherwise rebuilding a ruined community. Over the course of the game, I saw Colony 6 go from being a ravaged pile of dirt to being a lively community full of a diversity of races from across the game’s world. My town had homes, a main street lined with shops, a park, a farm, and two competing restaurants. One of my favorite aspects of this quest is that the music played while in Colony 6 changes as you rebuild and invite more people to live there. It starts off as a low-key and quiet theme, then begins to get more upbeat and lively as the community follows suit. It seems like a simple reward but it reinforces the great deed that you are accomplishing and provides a great sense of satisfaction. The player also acquires items and gets access to new quests by rebuilding the colony, but simply watching the town grow is a reward in itself. While I didn’t complete the restoration of Colony 6 (after spending so much time with the game, I began to grow fatigued and simply wanted to see the end of the story), if I ever replay the game, which is a possibility thanks the always appreciated New Game+ option, I’ll be sure to make a point to see this completely optional task through to completion as it’s a fantastic idea and one of the best side tasks I’ve ever seen in a game. It reminds me of building a home base in Skies of Arcadia. I’ve now compared Xenoblade Chronicles to my two favorite video games of all time, so take that as high praise and proof that this game certainly does a lot right.

A key aspect of any RPG is its battle system and honestly, Xenoblade’s is hit or miss for me, although I will admit that the battle system is very well put-together (that is praise that I can pretty much extend to the game as a whole). Everything takes place in real-time and the player only controls one character while two others are AI-controlled, except during chain attacks, where the player gets to select each party member’s action manually. Boss battles were always a lot of fun for me and the combat, when you nail just the right string of attacks and really dig into a foe, is very satisfying. But I say the combat is hit or miss because the majority of my enemy encounters in the game were a line-up of extremely repetitive, easy battles. I did appreciate the ability to customize and level up which abilities I wanted my characters to use, but I found myself discovering a certain combination of attacks that just worked very well for the characters that I enjoyed using and thus repeating these same attacks over and over inevitably became repetitive. I know I can vary things up and try other attacks and there are eventually seven party members to choose to play as in battle, but personally I really only found myself enjoying playing as three of them (and I mainly used Shulk just because of how versatile and balanced he is) and once I found attacks and skills that simply worked well in battle for these characters, I continued to use them. I appreciate how quick and high energy the battles are, but I simply found myself getting bored with the combat oftentimes (again, except during boss battles, which were never overly difficult, but always kept me on my toes). I’m also just not a big fan of RPGs where you only control one character in battle. I like to be able to choose each of my party members’ attacks and strategize that way. There were many times during the tougher battles in the game when the AI just wouldn’t do what I would have chosen a certain character to do in battle at a certain time. The AI is usually fine, but it’s never going to be as good as me choosing when a character should heal when I want them to heal and when to use a certain attack on an enemy. Although, on the other hand, being able to leave the healing and the brunt of an enemies’ attacks to other characters while I concentrate on just one role is a bit of a relief and makes battles quick and fluid. The battle system does bring some very unique elements to the table as well, like Shulk’s ability to see into the future. During a battle, Shulk can have a vision that predicts a foe’s attack and the player can then try to change the future by shielding against the attack, warning a party member and choosing a command for them, stunning the enemy, etc. It’s a cool mechanic and a smart idea. There’s also a gauge that fills up in battle and when it’s full, the player can execute an aforementioned chain attack and sometimes can continuously string together devastating combos. All this leads to a battle system that I certainly don’t hate, but in the end, I simply found myself getting a little bored with battles a lot of the time and wishing there was more variety to them. Maybe I missed something. I know a lot of people love this game’s battle system and maybe they’d call me out and chastise me for playing the game wrong. But this is simply the experience that I had with the combat in this game.

The best aspect of the combat in my eyes is that it never drags on too long and enemy encounters are almost always optional and monsters can usually always be avoided, and this frees me to experience my favorite part of the game: exploring its breathtaking world. Spoiler alert for this section as I talk about several specific areas in the game. I really can’t praise the concept of Xenoblade’s world enough, although the execution is not entirely perfect (though still incredibly brilliant). I’ll get my few complaints out of the way first. Maybe I’m being greedy, but I felt a bit disappointed that there weren’t more Mechonis areas. Also, while I realize it’s difficult to make mechanical, industrial areas feel distinct, I found many of the later areas in the game to feel a bit samey in both aesthetics and enemy variety (So many of the same types of Mechon!). I still thought that these areas were very well-designed in their own right, with Mechonis Field in particular being a spectacular, animated landscape and Agniratha having a very appropriately melancholic atmosphere. I was also disappointed with the High Entia city of Alcamoth. When I first saw it floating above Eryth Sea, I couldn’t wait to explore a huge, technologically-advanced city, but what I got basically amounted to a big, empty courtyard. Alcamoth has a nice atmosphere and it’s pretty to look at, but it felt a little bland to me, especially after the sublimely enchanting Frontier Village. Anyway, on to the good parts, which is everything else. Honestly, I feel guilty criticizing this game's world in any capacity. This is a world that is simply staggering in its scope and beauty. The towns in the game are lively and fleshed-out communities (with the exception of Alcamoth, which I think could have had a lot more to it), and the vast, sprawling environments in this game are just a joy to experience and explore. From sprawling communities, to massive caves, to gorgeous shimmering marshlands, to wide open prairies, to a vast sea dotted with floating islands, to a giant hollowed-out tree inhabited by fluffy little creatures living in tiny houses, to gear-filled, cyber-punk mechanical complexes, the world is just incredible. Many areas also look completely different depending on whether it is daytime or nighttime and take on different atmospheres for each time of day. Building a world that exists on the limbs and bodies, both inside and out, of two colossal titans is, I’ll repeat, one of the coolest world concepts I’ve ever seen in any medium. In addition, the game’s extensive, beautiful musical score does an incredible job of immersing the player in this world, with many tracks having different versions for nighttime and daytime and some areas having two different tracks entirely for the different times of day. There really is no track in the game that I don’t enjoy, save for maybe the majority of the game’s regular battle themes (boss themes not included), which weren’t particularly memorable for me, but still good enough. Every track perfectly suits the situation, environment and scenario that it is paired with, whether it's an adventurous theme for exploring sprawling fields, a slower, contemplative, atmospheric piece for a vast, serene sea, heart-tugging tracks for emotional scenes or exciting, energetic pieces for action scenes. Xenoblade Chronicles has a fantastic atmosphere and I can’t tell you how many times I just stopped and appreciated the scenery and the world that I was experiencing. Gazing out across the plains of the Bionis’ Leg, looking across Eryth Sea towards the Bionis’ head at night while shooting stars paint the sky, getting caught in a windy blizzard on Valak Mountain, admiring the two titans from the Fallen Arm, spinning the camera around to observe all the gears and pistons and clockwork of the Mechonis’ interior all while incredibly fitting and pleasing music plays in the background during these experiences…the world the developers crafted through superb art direction and music is breathtaking.

In addition to the world, the memorable characters, the music, and the overall polish present across Xenoblade’s whole, one of the title’s best aspects is all the little things, the simple additions and options the developers give the player. The player is freely able to choose the time of day at any point in the game, as well as “skip” and instantly warp to any number of locations throughout the world almost from the game’s outset. Also, if the player runs into a particularly terrifying monster and gets killed or falls off of a cliff by accident while out exploring, they are simply warped back to the last landmark, or checkpoint, that they visited with all of their stats and items and everything intact. Also, many of the game’s simpler fetch-quests are completed, rewards and all, without having to return to a certain NPC. Options and conveniences like these cut out so much frustration and unnecessary tedium that is present in other games. They are simple additions, but they all make the experience that much more enjoyable and let you focus on exploring and experiencing the game while cutting out a lot of frustration. The player also has tons of options so they can play the game just about any way they want to. There are skill trees, upgradable arts, gems to craft, collections to build, and affinity to be built with other party members and NPCs. The player is also free to explore and do side quests and otherwise do whatever they want at any certain point in time, or the follow the convenient waypoint at the top of the screen and simply move on with the story. This approach creates an experience this is pretty much perfectly-paced because the pacing is completely determined by the player and there is basically no filler in the game’s main story. All these options make Xenoblade a very accessible and versatile experience that lets players experience the adventure in the way they see fit.

There may be a lot I admire about Xenoblade Chronicles, but I can’t wrap up without addressing the other side of things, which is a lot of the little annoyances and tediums I experienced in the game. The menu system isn’t perfect, as trudging through a massive list of equipment (you get a LOT of it) and figuring out what gear is best to equip can be quite tedious, especially since the game annoyingly tells you if a stat is boosted or lowered, but not how much the increase or decrease is on one screen, so you have to fumble around and figure that out yourself. Also, side quests can be a pain sometimes because the game’s affinity chart and quest list will tell you what time of day a certain NPC is active and what NPC gave you a certain quest, but it doesn’t tell you where in an area to find that NPC, so oftentimes tracking down a character is a needless chore because I meet so many people in the game and I can’t always remember where they all like to hang out. There are many other tedious elements in the side-quest department. Many quests require the player to farm item drops from a certain kind of enemy, and these are always the items that the enemy likes to drop in the rarest cases. Also, other quests require items that are only found randomly scattered about the world. If you don’t have a certain item, good luck wandering aimlessly around collecting glowy spheres (what items out in the world look like) until you find five of the thing you need. Grinding through weak monsters and running around hoping for randomly-generated items to be what you need isn’t fun, challenging or rewarding, it’s just tedious. Also, many quests involve defeating certain “unique monsters”, named creatures roaming about the world, but for whatever silly reason not all of these creatures are always present where they are supposed to be. They always appear in the same part of the world, but while sometimes there are certain elements that require their appearance, like they only appear at night or in the rain, oftentimes, they simply just don’t show up and this seems to be quite random. Several quests told me to defeat a creature which I was told was located at a very specific location, but upon arriving there, I simply couldn’t find the beast anywhere, even after changing the time of day countless times and running around like an idiot for minutes on end. I was baffled by this and simply couldn’t complete many quests because of it. There is nothing in the game that informed me of any special conditions for finding these monsters. In one of these scenarios I had previously beaten the monster I had to defeat, but upon returning to fight it again for the quest it wasn’t around and eventually seemed to appear out of nowhere. I don’t know why the game could not have just kept track of the unique monsters I had beaten like it does with collectibles so I wouldn’t have had to seek the creature out again in the first place. It’s absurd to think that for some of these monsters, the player is expected to just wait around for it to randomly show up. Finally, there is one last detail that irked me throughout the game. This is not a problem restricted to Xenoblade Chronicles, but one rampant in many video games out there. For whatever reason, the armor designed for female characters in this game (especially big-breasted ones like the character Sharla) is unnecessarily skimpy and even supposed strong armor that looks very protective on a male character amounts to a funky, metallic bikini conglomeration on poor Sharla. This game also has an obsession with high heels (although, I’ll admit, even some of the male characters wear them) and low-cut tops for the ladies. I just found it hard to take Sharla seriously sometimes when she’s running around snowy mountains in her underwear and when she’s supposed to be involved in an emotional scene, but is wearing a ridiculous outfit (because the armor you put on each character changes their actual appearance in real time, and since every cut-scene is in real time, your characters are always wearing what you give them, an otherwise cool feature).

                Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t without its faults: some tedious quests (which are admittedly optional), a story that loses focus towards the end and begins to dip into convoluted territory, and finally a battle system that I personally didn’t find necessarily flawed, just not as engaging as systems in other RPGs I’ve played. But all in all, what Xenoblade does right far outweighs my gripes. Its atmosphere, world, music, art direction, and aesthetics are simply astounding and the sense of scale the game manages to achieve on the Wii and the gorgeous look the game has despite limited technology is extremely commendable and reminds of how talented developers got around technological limitations to create engrossing, atmospheric experiences like Super Metroid, Chrono Trigger, the original The Legend of Zelda, etc. in the past. Xenoblade’s characters are charming, likable and manage to bash many JRPG tropes on their heads. It tells a mostly intriguing and entertaining story. It’s full of smart design choices that all contribute to making the game enjoyable and also serve to break down walls in the way of experiencing the game’s most important points, like exploring, doing side-quests, and experiencing the main story. Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t the best RPG I’ve ever played, but from the first moment I turned the game on and simply sat in front of the title screen as the gorgeous intro theme played over a tranquil image of the Monado as day turned to night and then to day again, I knew this game was something special. It’s clear that a lot of talent and heart was put into it. It’s definitely a game I’ll remember for years to come and even provides a standard in some respects that I’ll look to when I play future RPGs and adventure games in general.