Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why I’m (Mostly) Completely Fine with Yet Another Delay for Zelda

Official new artwork of Link from the new Zelda, released by Nintendo

So the new Legend of Zelda game has been hit with yet another delay and this time I’m actually a bit surprised, as I fully expected the game to launch this holiday alongside the NX, Nintendo’s next console/thing/enigma. Oh but that’s the thing: NX has now been announced for a March 2017 launch, defying just about every prediction on the internet that it would launch at the end of this year. First off, I just want to say that I’m glad and a bit relieved that the NX isn’t coming out this year. I’m not exactly thrilled that the Wii U’s life is getting cut short and I definitely don’t think the hardware and its games get enough credit, but at least the Wii U gets one more full year. Furthermore, I don’t have to be tempted to buy not one, but two new consoles this year (the other being the PS4 so I can play The Last Guardian). Likewise, I’m also totally fine with waiting just a little while longer for Zelda, which is very likely to launch alongside the NX in March.

With just about every game delay comes some amount of negativity, but I understand if this one stings in particular for some people. It is the second delay for a promising entry in one of the most beloved video game series of all time, and Nintendo’s commitment for ultra-secrecy with the latest Zelda has left many fans scratching their heads, at this points perhaps wondering what it even is they’re looking forward to anymore. What’s more, it’s now been nearly five years since the last major console Zelda game, Skyward Sword, was released. The waiting, even for just a drop of information about this new game, is very real, but when it comes to video games these days, I’m a very patient person. There are way too many intriguing games out there right now as it is, and more are coming out throughout the year. Nevermind a giant backlog of games I own and haven’t started and my recent desire to go back and replay several older Zelda games. I haven’t even finished Twilight Princess HD, for crying out loud! I am not, in any way, in dire need of this new Zelda game at the moment, which I will want to free my schedule for and really sink my teeth into when I finally get my hands on it. Also, Nintendo’s announcement that the new Zelda will be the primary focus at this year’s E3 and indeed the only playable game on the show floor (in a wacky and surprising bit of news) should help to at least give fans something to make the wait easier (or perhaps even more difficult), and makes me nervous about just how much I’ll be able stick to my “media blackout” plan for this game.

Typically when I hear of a delay for a game I’m anticipating, I simply shrug my shoulders, nod my head, and think, “Ok; I’ll play it when it’s ready.” In fact, it typically makes me even more excited for the game, because at least I know the developers really care about what they’re making and are working hard, and that hopefully the game will be all the better for the extra development time. Of course, delays don’t always signify something positive and might even hint that a game might be in trouble or lost at sea. When it comes to Zelda though, I know how dedicated its developers are and how much love and energy they pour into these games, and since this new Zelda looks to be especially ambitious, I choose to be optimistic.

I’ve heard some speculate that the game is simply being held back in order to launch it simultaneously on the NX, or likely have it be a launch title for the console, and while the official word is that the delay is to “improve the quality” of the game, this speculated reason still might very well be another reason, perhaps even the main reason, for the delay. At the very least, the extra development time might largely be for successfully porting the game to NX. This whole situation is also of course similar to what happened with the original Twilight Princess back when it was delayed from 2005 into 2006, culminating in it being a launch title for the Wii as well as a swansong for the GameCube. I understand why some would be peeved if the game could be released on Wii U by year’s end with an NX version released later, and if this were the case, it might have been good practice for Nintendo to reward the people that bought a Wii U, and especially if they bought one specifically to play the new Zelda, by letting them get the game earlier than NX adopters. Despite this and despite me preferring one version of the new Zelda and not another Twilight Princess situation (especially if they do something extremely asinine like mirror the entire world in the game), I’m ultimately still fine with the delay even if the reason is nothing more than to have a simultaneous launch on Wii U and NX, for a few reasons.

Skyward Sword released exclusively for the Wii at the end of 2011 when the Wii U had already been revealed and was known to be releasing in a year. While the game sold very well when it first launched and was critically very well-received, it ultimately wasn’t very commercially successful in the long run and many people simply overlooked it as they looked ahead to the next console generation or otherwise just weren’t paying attention to their Wiis anymore in the largely barren final months of the console’s life. Nintendo doesn’t want to repeat this; they want Zelda to be successful, they want the NX to be successful, and seeing as how Zelda is, ya know, kind of something that I really dig and since Nintendo is one of my favorite developers, I want these things to be successful too. Holding Zelda back for a simultaneous launch on NX and Wii U is smart for a number of reasons: it would be a great launch title for NX, similar to Twilight Princess, not having it come out on Wii U earlier will mean that the game isn’t old news at that point, and finally if the game does launch in March 2017 or around that time, it won’t be competing with all of the other big holiday releases at the end of 2016. I want this new Zelda game to be successful and I want all the hard work its team is putting into it to be rewarded. I’ve seen enough great games fade into obscurity and neglect on the Wii U (*cough*TropicalFreeze*cough*Pikmin3*AHEM*) to be happy that at least the next big Zelda game will hopefully get the attention that I hope it will ultimately deserve, even if it means the slightly disappointing truth that the Wii U will never have had its own fully exclusive Zelda game.

Besides all this, it’s just kind of nice that we’ll probably be getting the next big Zelda in the spring instead of the holiday season. The last time a new major console Zelda game released in the spring, and in March to boot, was The Wind Waker in 2003, at least in North America. While it’s always a good time to go on an adventure with Link, The Legend of Zelda has largely always seemed like an experience very suited to the spring season for me; the air is warm, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and it’s just the ideal time to go on an adventure clothed in the green of fields, or in this upcoming game’s case, the blue of skies.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) Review

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a daunting, overwhelming, awe-inspiring beast to talk about, but after spending nearly four-hundred hours with the game across nearly four months, I feel like I need to say something. It is a gargantuan time-sink of a game…but was that time worth it? Mechanically, X is every bit a continuation of Monolith Soft’s previous game on the Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles, but the title of this game is also a bit misleading, and not just because X lacks a direct narrative connection to the first game. Chiefly, the soul of this Xenoblade is entirely different from its predecessor. While Xenoblade Chronicles felt like a JRPG with some western RPG elements mixed in, Xenoblade Chronicles X feels like the opposite. The differences between the two games run deeper than that and in many ways the two titles have a very different “feel” from each other, but that’s the basics. At its worst, Xenoblade Chronicles X is perhaps the most tedious and frustrating game I’ve ever played, but at its best, it is a beautiful and engrossing odyssey.

There’s still a central narrative in X, but it’s not the focus anymore. The premise here is compelling: the earth is destroyed by alien forces and humanity’s last survivors are forced to flee to the cosmos on colossal spaceship arks (a la WALL-E), one of which known as the White Whale eventually crash lands on an alien planet known as Mira. Basically this is all just an excuse to have a huge open world to explore and about a billion quests to undertake, most of which are doled out by the citizens of New Los Angeles (NLA for short), which was the White Whale’s “habitat unit” that was converted into Mira’s first human city. Instead of banding together with a small group of characters and heading out on a big adventure, traversing a sequence of new locations plot point to plot point, the main narrative is doled out in a handful of “story missions” which are all accepted from the same room in NLA. X sets the player free almost from the very start and the main story is essentially just another string of quests to undertake. Taken just on its own, the main story isn’t actually all that lengthy and since it has to fit a lot in its relatively brief time in the spotlight, certain aspects like character development often suffer, especially when it comes to the largely one-dimensional villains. In a game that stars a silent avatar protagonist, a lot of the weight falls to the supporting cast to pick up the slack and while characters like Elma, Lin, and Commander Vandham all do their best to bring some personality to the table, don’t expect much complicated interpersonal drama, at least until the very end.

*skip the next paragraph to avoid some nonspecific story spoilerage*

The narrative shows promise and contains several strong themes ranging from interracial harmony to the nature of consciousness, but it ultimately fails to live up to its potential, especially since the story ends on not one, but two cliffhangers, and leaves an uncountable number of plot points unresolved or completely unaddressed (even very major ones). This isn’t the kind of thing where a few lingering mysteries were left open, but rather the story is simply grossly incomplete and pockmarked with copious gaping holes. After spending so much time with the game, one might think this would have been quite frustrating to me, but it was more just baffling and I was so weary and exhausted I suppose I was just glad I had reached some kind of conclusion with the story. All the same, it is still a bit irritating because the game is ultimately called “Xenoblade Chronicles X” and not “Xenoblade Chronicles X: Episode 1” which is very much what it feels like in the end. I’m not sure what Xeno series creator Tetsuya Takahashi has planned, but I would have rather this story be wrapped up in one game. After investing so much of my life in X, I’m not exactly frothing at the mouth for more Xenoblade or more of this game’s particular universe at the moment.

Alas, like I said, the main storyline isn’t the focus here though, and it’s certainly not what I feel is easily this game’s main draw. Predictably, my favorite aspect of Xenoblade X was also my favorite part of the original Xenoblade: its world. In a word, the world of Mira is incredible, and it’s hard not to be swept away by its majesty on a very frequent basis. Roaming around these vast landscapes, if only to see what new wondrous sights I could uncover, was undoubtedly the greatest pleasure of my very long experience with X. Mira isn’t as overall interesting as the Bionis and Mechonis from Xenoblade, but it still stopped me in my tracks time and time again with its often staggering sense of scale, beautiful vistas, and imaginative locations. This is what I call a “screenshot game”, where my experience was frequently interrupted by the irresistible urge to capture a sight and save it to Miiverse. It’s like when I go on vacation in real life and am torn between simply wanting to enjoy a captivating sight with my own eyes or whip out my camera and capture the moment forever. Mira isn’t without its problems though. When I first set foot in Primordia, the game’s starting continent, I truly felt a sense of awe at the scope and possibility of the world, but after spending enough time with the game, the world begins to not feel quite as organic as I would like. The game’s five continents are all clearly delineated zones that all mostly adhere to one central theme (plains, forest, desert…you get it), and are even color-coordinated on the map. And while I’m usually the first to chastise the creative bankruptcy that these oh so classic video game staples sometimes represent, to simply dismiss these places as cliché would be doing this world a massive disservice. Yes, Noctilum is the “forest zone” but it’s freakin’ gorgeous, intricately and intelligently-designed, and contains a varied landscape full of interesting places to discover and marvel at (Noctilum’s my fave by the way). The vast space of each continent holds many different smaller regions full of unique flora and fauna, landmarks, and sights, so I’d never call these environments boring. Also, one of the game’s five major continents doesn’t follow any established tropes at all and is really something quite alien and unique, which I was very happy to see. Despite all this, at the end of the day, the game essentially still boils down to just five main areas that generally follow one theme and play the same musical track throughout almost their entire scope, and I find myself missing the huge variety of areas and music tracks from the first game (which, for the record, were also huge spaces in their own right).  

While the game’s art isn’t quite as vibrant as its predecessor, it has a style that often succeeds on its own merits, though it’s a bit hit and miss. While wide-open spaces truly shine, certain locations such as caves look dull and gray and don’t do the muted color palette any favors. One of my favorite aspects of the presentation is the multitude of weather effects, some unique to certain regions, which range from the usual rainstorms to floating blue particles and ruby-red auroras that can truly transform environments into something entirely different. When you’re caught in one of these unique phenomena while in the midst of a wide-open space, this is where the world truly becomes something stunning. I think Mira as a world is at its best when it demonstrates just how alien a place it can be, with its bizarre flora and fauna and multiple moons and strange structures looming in the distance, and the unique weather patterns often crank this otherworldliness up in surprising and delightful ways. Despite some questionably blurry textures here and there, some egregious texture and object pop-in especially when an area first loads (at least if you don’t have the space to download all of the game’s optional high-speed loading packs like me; although I did at least install the basic pack), and some occasional framerate stuttering, the game is quite impressive tech-wise and like its predecessor is quite an accomplishment given that it runs and looks as good as it does on an “underpowered” console like the Wii U. Ultimately, I defy anyone not to stop and marvel at that gigantic ring in Oblivia the first time they see it looming in the distance, and that’s really what this game is all about.

Mechanically, I actually found myself enjoying Xenoblade X more than its predecessor. I got a kick out of the battle system not only because of the satisfying, flashy attacks, but largely because of the game’s new class system. I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed having a customizable avatar in this game. I have little to no experience with western RPGs so this aspect was largely new to me and I found it quite fun getting attached to and building up a character that was all my own, even if I do miss having a developed character like Shulk front and center. Where the avatar concept carries over into battle is in the form of a new class system where several different combat-style routes can be selected, complete with different weapons and arts (i.e. special attacks). It feels satisfying to fully level up a class and even better to master an entire discipline, but more importantly being able to transition from one style to another and experiment with a wide variety of weapons and arts, all with the same character, kept battles from getting too repetitive and encouraged me to experiment with different arts and combat styles. Battles felt like they had a purpose besides just raising base stats, and I was always excited to learn new arts and try them out. Best of all, once a discipline is fully mastered, one can mix and match weapons and arts from different classes to customize a battle style that works for them and I found this to be very rewarding. Because of all this, I found myself appreciating the fast-paced, active system that Monolith Soft has crafted much more in X than the original. Ultimately, I still prefer turn-based battles or at least being able to have full control over all my party members (I’m not sure the AI in this game has any idea what it’s doing) or alternatively full-on active combat instead of this hybrid, but battles felt like less of a chore to me than in the first game. Plus, you can do front-flippy attacks with a lightsaber!

That said, I still have some serious grievances with the battle system in X. Due to the nature of every battle taking place in real-time in whatever location you happen to encounter an enemy in, occasionally the way a foe moves combined with the local terrain can create some seriously annoying situations. My “favorite” is when an enemy is positioned right next to cliff, where often either I or the enemy would get knocked off the side. I often wouldn’t care to chase after them, but the battle would still continue because the enemy was still close enough, and they would even still be able to continue attacking me even through walls, which brings me to my next problem. Evading enemies in Xenoblade X was frequently one of the most infuriating parts of the experience. If an enemy spots you and you don’t feel like fighting it, get ready to run about three-thousand miles away from it, wasting enormous amounts of time and throwing a massive wrench into one’s enjoyment of exploration. As I already said, my favorite part of this game is exploring, but the developers went out of their way to make enjoying the world of Mira as difficult as possible sometimes. High-level enemies are frequently peppered in scenic locations where sometimes I simply wanted to enjoy the view and don’t even get me started on certain enemies like the machines known as “Zigs” that spot you from miles away, often blindsiding you and pelting you with gunfire from some high vantage point that you can barely reach in time before the thing has halved your HP. Best of all are enemies that inexplicably aggro the player through walls and ceilings. It’s all often cheap, incredibly annoying, and really put a damper on exploration and my enjoyment of the experience overall (or at least on what I personally valued most about the experience). I understand that Mira is supposed to be a dangerous place and sometimes accidentally angering some enormous monstrosity is part of the fun, but I remember the original Xenoblade finding a much better balance between simply letting me enjoy exploration and throwing creatures at me every five seconds. As a quick side note, another element that soured the fun of exploration is the “field skill” mechanic, which frequently locks the player out of opening treasure boxes that they put in the effort to reach (and even out of expanding the visible map on the GamePad) if they haven’t met an arbitrary number requirement. I probably found every single treasure in the world, but wasn’t able to open a good number of them because of this BS, and the developers must be joking if they think I’m going to re-explore the whole goddamn planet to go back and open the ones I was forced to leave behind.

Beyond these irritations, while I found ground combat to be engaging, I quickly tired of Skell combat, which felt shallow and dull by comparison. Skells are the giant mechs that one is eventually able to pilot in Xenoblade X. You know, the thing on the cover and one of the main reasons a lot of people probably bought this game. The problem here is that all the time and effort put into building up one’s ground combat arts and skills doesn’t carry over to Skells, which come with largely a whole new set of rules. Gone is the branching class system and all of the arts you’ve worked to learn and you’re stuck with a set of Skell-specific “weapon arts” that are simply bought and equipped instead of earned. I suppose this makes sense, but it was frustrating having to learn a whole new set of battle mechanics about halfway through the game. Now I want to make it clear that it’s possible I’m just bad, but Skell combat usually amounted to me just spamming arts and hoping for the best; it just didn’t seem to have the same nuance as ground combat. What’s more, Skell combat was usually extremely stressful for me since dying in a Skell carries far more weight to it than dying on foot. Skells have limited insurance and will cost money to repair after it runs out (unless you have a certain special item, which I never received). Skells also run on limited fuel and while they can make short work of some enemies, other foes quickly tear through them. All of these hang-ups plus the dull battles themselves simply made me avoid Skell combat when I could, and I almost always felt more comfortable fighting on the ground. Still, I admit it’s pretty damn satisfying to completely trash certain enemies that gave me a lot of grief earlier in the game with a souped-up Skell.

Mechanics outside of combat are varied and mostly very competent. I love the slew of customization options of certain elements like how much of the HUD one wants to display, as well as the great degree of control one has over the camera, which is immensely important in this game. Control while moving about the world also feels great and your character has a welcome sprint option as well as a very powerful jump. There’s also no fall damage. All of this makes running and leaping around Mira a blast (again, when you’re not being harassed by obnoxious enemies that blindside you every two minutes). While I don’t dig Skells in battle, I adore them outside of it. The moment when I first got my Skell license and took my affectionately and cheesily named “Skelly” out for a spin in the wild was gloriously freeing and exhilarating. It also felt very earned (in other words, zero complaints here about not having a Skell right at the start; there are enough damn mechanics to learn anyway without Skells). This was all before I obtained the Skell flight module much later, which opens up the massive world completely and gives the player an exuberant and nearly boundless sense of freedom. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever played an RPG or an adventure game with such a great sense of freedom as this one. There are also several other neat features like an expansive, multi-tiered map system that makes great use of the GamePad in the similar kind of subtle but very helpful way that the The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD does.

While I think the mechanics of Xenoblade X have largely been even more streamlined than its predecessor, the game can also be a bit much. Ok, that’s a massive understatement. Xenoblade X has more mechanics, menus, concepts, and elements than any other game I’ve ever played, even though the bare essentials of what you actually do in the game usually boil down to one of three things: exploring, fighting, or collecting. While the first Xenoblade featured very brief text tutorials every time a new mechanic was introduced (with more expansive optional ones if you needed them), X has stripped all of that away, barring the occasional text blurb simply letting you know when a new aspect of the game is unlocked. While I appreciate the game’s dedication to giving the player freedom, this is actually a game that really needed some hand-holding. All you have for help is the game’s electronic manual, which even one-hundred hours into the game I still found myself studying like I was training to actually pilot a robot, and the good old internet, which is absolutely required if you want to find out the obtuse measures required to get many of the game’s quests to appear and things of that nature. There are whole areas of this game that I purposely completely ignored for a long time in the game because it was just too overwhelming to try to understand everything all at once, and several aspects I simply never bothered to grasp at all. This is a game that needs a preliminary briefer or a special guidebook or something, not just to teach everything, but to give advice on how to best approach this monster of a game that can easily smother the less prepared. If you’re reading this and thinking about playing the game, here’s my personal advice: don’t try to do or learn everything all at once or else you’re likely going to get burnt out and overwhelmed very easily. Also, after learning the ins and outs and getting somewhat of a handle on the experience, I would set some clear goals for your time with the game and try to stay focused, less you risk getting…distracted (unless you want to get distracted and fall down the seemingly endless hole of missions and tasks available to you in the game, but say goodbye to your year if that’s the case). I haven’t played any western RPGs and I don’t play MMOs (though I have played a lot of other JRPGs), but from my own estimation this game can be immensely, egregiously smothering at times with all of the junk it piles on your plate, and my playtime with it far exceeded what I ever would have expected and definitely what it ever should have.

When it comes down to it, I feel like the experience of Xenoblade X is split into two sides. First is the side where you’re out exploring the alien landscapes of Mira, fighting enemies, and discovering new places. This is definitely the side of the game I enjoyed the most. The other side is the time spent in New Los Angeles, the game’s only true city and essentially its central hub. If I’m going to talk about Xenoblade Chronicles X properly, than I need to talk about NLA, which is simultaneously one of my favorite and least favorite aspects of the game. First, the good. NLA essentially takes the concept of Colony 6 from the original Xenoblade, a “home base” of sorts that is gradually built up and becomes more lively and populated as the game goes on, and puts it front and center. Whereas rebuilding Colony 6 was an entirely optional side-quest in one corner of the original’s world, NLA is much more at the forefront of the experience. Over the course of the game, if one takes the time to do the necessary quests, NLA eventually becomes a cosmic exchange of different cultures and peoples. One of the thematic cornerstones of X, as it was in the first game and I’m guessing in many of the games Takahashi has worked on, is the idea of many different races and peoples coexisting and working together towards a common goal, and many of the quests and NPC dialogue in the game deals with issues like racism and the challenges that arise from many different kinds of people living together. One could say that NLA is basically just a not-so-subtle metaphor for the USA. While I think the ability to physically build new buildings and places in NLA a la Colony 6 is a missed opportunity (and the city’s unfinished and “under construction” nature seems perfectly suited for it too so I suspect this is something that was scrapped because the game is too damn big already), one of the best parts of NLA is eventually inviting more and more new alien races to populate the city, all of which have their own quirks and cultures to bring to the table. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid some minor to major spoilers here (depending on your definition), but my favorites include the Orphe, a race that is described in the game as being insect-like, but they just look like a cross between the Chozo and Luminoth from the Metroid series to me, that are connected via a spiritual force known as the “Ovah”, and the Wrothians, a proud lion-like race of warriors that start out serving the main antagonistic force in the game but will defect to your side at the end of a series of quests.

I have to give massive props to both the game’s original Japanese writers and its English localization team; the script is absolutely massive, from minute descriptions to every collectible found in the game to the changing dialogue blurbs for even the most insignificant of NPCs to of course all of the text featured in the game’s countless quests. NLA is a bustling, lively city, and if you take the time to look and to converse with its people, almost every single character, even the ones without names, has a story. There’s seriously a random guy who sits on a bench for the whole game outside NLA’s cathedral and if you take the time to overhear his muttering, you’ll realize that he actually has a character arc of sorts. It’s absurd, and only one example of many. The dialogue is mostly competently written as well, giving personality and mannerisms to every character and often being very amusing. The varied citizenship of NLA’s collective story is fleshed out throughout the game’s numerous missions (which by habit I’ve been calling “quests”), most of which are doled out in the city itself but also can be found from the occasional wanderer out in the world, and it is here in a sense where I feel the true story of Xenoblade X lies.

While almost every mission amounts to some combination of exploring, fighting, and collecting, the true worth of a mission for me was mainly based on how interesting of a story it told. And you know what? I’m actually struggling to think of a truly boring tale here. Sure, some missions at first feel like a total bust, but even those ones usually tie into a more interesting story later on. That doesn’t mean that the tasks you are required to do during missions are always stimulating however. Emotional boss battles at the end of a particularly long and weighty series of quests are great, but spending hours grinding the same weak enemies to get ‘X’ number of some randomly-dropped material? Not so much. This game truly delights in wasting the player’s time sometimes. I appreciate that quests are actually separated into three categories (besides Story Missions), with Affinity Missions being fully voice-acted and on paper the most substantial, Normal Missions essentially being just a step below those, fairly involved but not voice-acted, and finally Basic Missions, which are your standard “kill ‘X’ number of enemies” or “collect ‘X’ number of items” (my advice? Stay as far the hell away from the “gathering” Basic Missions as possible, at least until late in the game or unless you have a guide that tells you exactly where to find the game’s randomly scattered collectibles, but even then they are simply a waste of time). I said Affinity Missions are the most substantial “on paper” because it was actually in the various Normal Missions that I found the most memorable stories, from solving a murder mystery to deciding the fate of an entire species with a few decisions to taking down an entire alien criminal faction that is behind many of the problems the citizens of NLA face.

Despite me enjoying many of the game’s missions, there was often a disconnect between myself and the game’s internal narrative. Sometimes it was hard for me to feel like a hero in this game when my mission often involved slaughtering innocent wildlife that is “a threat” or otherwise milking the wonders of Mira for frivolous human gain (“harvest some antlers from these peaceful, majestic deer creatures that look like the Forest God from Princess Mononoke”…yeah, er, no thanks…). With this in mind, it’s a bit ironic that New LA of all places crashed into Mira, potentially infecting it with human pollution and decimation just like Earth. One concerned NPC worries about these kinds of things over the course of the game, at least, but otherwise none of this is addressed in the narrative. Also, it was extremely silly when I would kill five creatures for some quest to make things “safer” and the same five creatures would just respawn in the exact same place the next time I visited; even more jarring is the fact that the optional “Tyrant” bosses that are supposed to be unique beings and even have unique names also respawn. These factors made my efforts in these regards feel laughably pointless from a contextual perspective.

NLA essentially has most of the ingredients of a great video game town to me: I love the idea of a “home” in an RPG or a place to go back to after adventuring; a place to relax that is bustling with varied people that is “built up” over the course of the game. On paper, NLA is basically all this, but it has some issues that hold it back for me; one very unfortunate one in particular. First off, I appreciate how NLA’s more banal and Earth-like nature contrasts with the outside world of Mira. It’s truly a bizarre experience to go from wandering around plains filled with gigantic dinosaur creatures and massive trees that look like coral to a casual stroll through the suburbs of NLA. I understand that NLA is largely boring on purpose or at least “ordinary” on purpose…but it’s still largely boring. The varied alien races that eventually populate it add a lot of life to the place and certain areas like Armory Alley would look perfectly at home in a cyberpunk metropolis, but it’s just such a gray, dull place compared to the rest of Mira, and whenever I spent any length of time there, I often craved the outside world again. It’s also just a huge place filled with a daunting number of people to keep track of and talk to and that’s not even taking into consideration different people for day and night, so exploring it and trying to see it all and keep track of everything can be overwhelming. But this is all beside the point, because the biggest problem with NLA is its goddamn background music.

I find the music in NLA to be incredibly, immensely, unforgivably irritating, both the day and night themes, but mostly the track that plays during the day (ONE TWO THREE FOUR!), and it makes spending time there not only uncomfortable but often a downright loathed experience. Both daytime and nighttime tracks suffer from largely the same problems, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the daytime track, which is the bigger offender to me anyway. It’s the kind of song that wasn’t so bad when I first heard it, it has a charm to it I admit, and when the mood strikes me is even quite catchy and enjoyable…for about five minutes. The problem is that it is an absolutely awful choice for the BGM of the main city in a massive RPG due to it being a rather short song for one designed to loop over and over again, an irritating repetitive beat that thrums in my brain cells like a jackhammer, and intrusive, extremely obnoxious vocals. Everything about it demands one’s attention, so when I’m trying to concentrate on talking to the dozens upon dozens of NPCs in the town, or scrolling through the streams and streams of equipment at the shop, I can barely concentrate on what I’m reading or decide what I should buy or equip because some hyperactive lady is screaming nonsense into my ears (WHOA OH OHHHH!!!). It’s sort of like trying to read a book while listening to loud pop music, and hey maybe that’s your thing, but I could never get past a single page. I didn’t care for it to begin with, so I suppose it goes without saying that the song had zero lasting appeal to me and the more and more the game wore on and the more time I spent in NLA, the more the incessant drum beating and obnoxious vocals began to drive me mad (I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I CAN’T SEE YOU!). I make such a big deal out of this because it is a big deal. NLA is the game’s only city, it is the beating heart of the game’s world; you will spend a lot of time there, buying equipment, talking to people, taking on quests, etc. I could tell that the game really wanted me to form an attachment to this place…but that music, man. It made me often detest my time in NLA and that’s a shame, because in concept I love NLA. Music (and sound overall) is massively important to me in RPGs/adventure games and in most video games at large. It sets a tone; it often sets the mood of a place or an entire game. And for me anyway, a song that I just can’t stand listening to can be detrimental to an experience. It would have been nice if the music dynamically changed in each NLA zone a la Skyloft and the bazaar in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword or the shops in Splatoon, taking away or adding instruments to give a certain feel to each district. This may have at least helped to keep the music from getting too stale and would have, quite frankly, been a perfect fit here. Since Nintendo helped make this game, I’m surprised this wasn’t the case, as they are known for often implementing this kind of sound direction in their first-party games.

This of course all brings me to the game’s soundtrack overall and my opinion on the subject is mixed, to say the least. On the one hand, the music that plays in the five main continents of Mira, as well as when traversing the ocean in-between them, is pretty great. While X’s composer Hiroyuki Sawano definitely has a certain style, there’s still a fair amount of variety to these themes, and they all fit their respective environments well, and feature nighttime and daytime variants as the original Xenoblade’s areas did. Additionally, the battle music, which features several different boss tracks as well as a few standard battle tracks, walks the line between being embarrassingly campy and heart-pumpingly exhilarating when the moment is just right. A track like this one kicking in at just the right moment will make you feel like the anime hero you’ve always dreamed of being. There are also otherwise some wonderfully atmospheric tracks as well as some poignantly emotional ones that perfectly suit the environment or situation they play in. Despite these accolades, unfortunately the music in Xenoblade X on the whole just doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot for me. It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint the exact reason, but I think it’s a combination of repetitive songs, annoying songs (or at least songs that can get very annoying), and simply not enough musical variety when exploring. Whatever the case, I found myself tiring of most of the game’s tracks rather quickly. While I loved each continent theme the first time I heard it, they perhaps aren’t complex or rich enough to hold up over the hours and hours spent wandering around these massive places (or perhaps the fact that such a weighty burden falls to them in the first place is actually the problem). The music that plays in the continent of Sylvalum is a perfect example; I thought the nighttime theme here was simply entrancing when I first heard it, but thirty hours later it just became repetitive background noise most of the time and eventually its predictable melodies even started to get on my nerves. In addition, a few songs either aren’t quite fitting, very repetitive, or are incredibly overused and get extremely tiring after the thousandth time hearing them (the cave music, sadly, fits all three of these requirements). I don’t think Sawano is a bad composer (definitely not), but it’s telling to me that he has almost no experience composing for a video game. In anime, TV shows, and movies, Sawano’s usual stage, songs don’t stand to be listened to on repeat over and over again, but are specifically composed for certain moments or types of moments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I often felt that the songs that worked the best in X were the situational ones that play in certain “events” like cutscenes or other specific moments. Video game music is an entirely different art than the scores of anime or movies, and in my opinion the composers of the original Xenoblade Chronicles were a master of that art.

The area themes in Xenoblade Chronicles are complex and layered tracks; take Gaur Plains for example. I could listen to this song all day and never get tired of it; it ebbs and flows and is layered with various overlapping melodies. Similarly, no matter how much time I spent in Colony 9 or Frontier Village, I never tired of their background tracks, and only grew to love them more and love the locations more because of them. This is in stark contrast to the ear-slamming chorus of NLA’s BGM that made me want to beat my head against a wall sometimes. That’s my other main problem with X’s soundtrack: there are a large number of tracks in it that use vocals, several of which are probably not tracks that should have such prominent vocals. I’m not saying that vocal tracks in video games are universally bad or anything, but I do think that when it comes to music that stands to be listened to on repeat for hours and hours, vocal tracks are far more likely to eventually become annoying and disruptive. When it comes to offenders like NLA’s music (daytime especially) and the Skell flying theme, this was absolutely the case for me. These songs are loud, belting, repetitive choruses of nonsensical lyrics that literally made this game uncomfortable to experience a lot of the time. I’ve already expressed my feelings about NLA’s music in detail, but the Skell flight theme might be even worse. The first time I took to the skies in a Skell, the music was perfectly fitting and it was truly a magical moment, but after hours and hours of exploring via flight, listening to the theme constantly start and stop every time I landed somewhere and took off again, it became unbearable. The bottom line is that in a game as huge and long as Xenoblade X, the soundtrack really needed to stand up after hours and hours of play, and unfortunately some of these songs don’t even stand up after a few minutes of play. At its best, the soundtrack can be a joy to experience, but ultimately one that I don’t see leaving a lasting impression on me, but at its worst, it’s simply nauseating. To be fair, unless they retained the original team of composers, it was always going to be near-impossible for this game’s soundtrack to live up to one of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time in the original Xenoblade (a soundtrack I own and still consistently listen to…I’m listening to it right now, as I type this…), but all the same, it might not be an exaggeration to say that Xenoblade Chronicles X has my least favorite RPG soundtrack of all time. But hey, despite all my reasoning, at the end of the day music is just as subjective as anything else, so don’t get too in a huff if you love jammin’ out to that NLA theme.

On a related note, while my opinion on the soundtrack is mixed, what isn’t mixed is the rest of the game’s sound. Isn’t mixed properly anyway. …I’m trying to say that the sound mixing in Xenoblade X is absolutely terrible, and just one of many little issues that made this game uncomfortable to play much of the time. I was forced to turn subtitles on partway into my playthrough because the music blares at alarmingly high volumes during cutscenes, often drowning out all character dialogue (the fact that so many of these tracks feature vocals only compounds the issue). Even with subtitles on, cutscenes that were supposed to be impactful often fell completely flat because I often couldn’t tell if character voices were too quiet, the music was too loud, or both. Also, while the background music that plays while exploring is a reasonable volume, I often found the battle music to be far too loud and the enemy and battle sound effects at least are alarmingly loud. Just try fighting one of the game’s screeching “Mephite” creatures without cringing and making a mad fumble for the TV remote. This is the only game I’ve ever played that had me constantly having to lower and raise the volume depending on the situation (or in the case of certain tracks, like NLA’s music, the only time where I found myself lowering the volume because I couldn’t stand the music and sometimes seriously considering the mute button).

I think Xenoblade X is mostly a very good game; it’s just that after hundreds of hours, all the little problems I have with the game really started to drive a hole through my brain. Perhaps even more notable than the terrible sound mixing is the microscopic text in the game. I constantly had to lean towards my TV to read text and I know I’m not the only one that has had this problem. Between NPC dialogue and the five billion menus one has to sort through, Xenoblade X inevitably becomes an eye-straining, borderline painful experience. While on the subject, this game just has so much damn equipment and so many stats to sort through and features menus upon menus upon menus, that sometimes before I knew it, I’d have turned the game on and over two hours had passed and I had done absolutely nothing except scroll through menus, leaning towards my TV, my eyes squinting to see how much a piece of armor increased my ranged attack. The gear-switching can reach near ludicrous levels in this game and if one were to attempt to grasp every nuance of the game’s systems and attempt to defeat all of its optional bosses, I shudder to think of the time spent sorting through pages and pages of weapons, armor, augments, and attributes. I know this is all partly the nature of the game, but I’ve never played a game, not even the original Xenoblade, with just so much tedious menu scrolling. I’d be curious to see what others have to say about this aspect; I love plenty of RPGs, but maybe X’s particular flavor in this regard isn’t necessarily flawed, but simply isn’t for me.

Some other grievances: I hate how non-named NPCs’ little dialogue boxes full of itty-bitty text disappear after a short amount of time and there’s no way to prompt it to return unless you run a short distance away and back again (since I struggled to read the tiny text in one go, I frequently had to do this). Why did they get rid of the ability to change the time of day at any point (instead relegating this ability only to certain “rest spots”), which was present in the first game? I usually appreciate context in games but there’s no precedent for realism here in a game with more video-gamey, absurd elements and mechanics than I can possibly hope to count. Furthermore, I felt like the game was constantly trying to one-up itself in just how tastelessly sexualized and ludicrous the female armor and equipment is. Playing as a female avatar myself (and for the most part having an all-female party), I struggled to find practical armor that didn’t do everything it could to highlight my boobs and butt or otherwise look utterly ridiculous. Sure, some of the male armor shows some skin as well, but there’s a world of difference between having some sexy beach wear and business casual for both female and male, and combat armor being practical and protective on a man and…well, this, on a woman. Owning one’s sex appeal and dressing in a sexy way can be a positive thing, but in Xenoblade X women barely have a choice in the matter. It’s frustrating, foolish, and went a long way in making me have a hard time buying BLADE as a serious military organization and investing in the game’s world at large, which Monolith Soft wants me to believe is a serious sci-fi universe. But besides all this, female or male, why is the armor just so goddamn ugly in this game? I might be able to accept impractical armor, but this stuff is just a fashion nightmare across the board as well and I rarely, if ever, felt “cool” wearing the stuff I was wearing.

And then there are the glitches. The first major glitch I encountered involved the game soft-locking while trying to view a party member’s profile in the game’s Affinity Chart. After testing this out multiple times afterwards, it seemed to be a randomly reoccurring problem. Luckily, I didn’t lose too much time to that one, but don’t worry, because this was tame compared to what happened much later on! Oh you know, that time I spent two hours exploring a decent chunk of Sylvalum, raised my characters some levels, completed some quests and then, I shit you not, the game screen abruptly went black (GamePad screen included), a message popped up saying I was “disconnected from the server”, and the game then proceeded to load and boot me back to the title screen. I hadn’t saved. There is no auto-save. This…this is inexcusable. The Affinity Chart bug was bad enough, but the game just suddenly crashing out of the blue for an unknown reason? Especially in a game as huge and time-consuming as this one, this is not a small issue. And I know I’m not only one, as I’ve read about several others that have encountered the same exact problems I have and even several more and have had even worse, more frustrating experiences. I understand this is a big game pushing the Wii U to its limits, but the fact remains that I played Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii and never had a single issue. Perhaps a lot of these bugs come from the online component of the game and this only makes it all the more ridiculous that despite the game’s extensive UI customization options, there is not an option in-game to just play the game offline entirely (which I would do, because I barely used the online features and didn’t really care about them). Of course, you can just disconnect your console from the internet, but for some reason the developers thought it would be wise to leave you with an annoying red “OFFLINE” notification in the top-left corner of the screen in this case, that while isn’t too intrusive admittedly, is still annoying to someone who prefers to play without any on-screen HUD whatsoever. To date, there have only been two updates released for the game and they did not address any of these issues.

Some of these issues might seem like nitpicks, but over the course of my extensive playtime with Xenoblade Chronicles X, all the little problems started to become big problems, and they really do have a negative impact on the overall experience. Despite it all though, all this can’t keep X from being a good game with a lot going for it. There is so much more I haven’t even touched on with this game, or have barely given mention to, like the online component that I barely engaged with. This is simply a gargantuan game with some very positive aspects and some very negative ones. To answer my question back at the start of this, about whether or not the time I spent with this game was worth it, I would say no. But make no mistake: I’m not saying this game isn’t worth playing, because I think it is if giant open worlds to explore or complex RPGs are your thing. I merely mean that I regret spending just so much time with the game. One needs to know what they’re getting into with Xenoblade X. This is perhaps one of the few instances where I would not recommend someone go into an experience completely blind. I really think to get the best experience with this game, one should be aware of things like the glitches, that they should remember to save often, get a primer on the countless mechanics that the game never bothers to tell the player about (many of which are either barely touched on in the electronic manual or simply not even mentioned at all), that basic missions are largely a garbage waste of time, and that you shouldn’t be ashamed to look up help with how to reach certain missions online, because the mission list here is a convoluted web of obscure links and prerequisites that no one has any hope of figuring out on their own, lest they set out to do every single mission and task in the game. Early on, get a basic idea of the different things you can do in the game, dabble in all the game has to offer and decide what you most enjoy about it, set some goals and keep them. I for example most enjoyed exploring the world and even though I told myself early on that I was going to focus mainly on just that besides completion of the main story, it is all too easy to get distracted and then before you know it, over three-hundred hours have passed. On that note, I admit that I am somewhat bitter that I spent so much time on this game at the expense of, well, doing anything else.

The game has some problems, but my final word is that Xenoblade Chronicles X is a mechanically-engaging RPG with an ambitious central narrative that unfortunately isn’t nearly fleshed-out enough, but more importantly it is a huge, beautiful world to experience full of majestic sights to see and intriguing subplots that tie the whole experience together. While not as special as its predecessor (which is easily the game I prefer, if that wasn’t clear enough already), it’s a solid game on its own, just a much different kind of experience. If you plan on playing it, be prepared.

Also, you get to pilot a mech and that’s pretty cool.