Several things happened since my last blog.
Number one: I hacked my Wii. I did this because there are many games I want to import in 2012, and some other added conviniences. The LEGAL, PIRACY-FREE benefits of doing this includes running games I LEGALLY, ALREADY OWN off of a USB hard drive (which eliminates load times, except for a notable exception below, but entirely in Metroid Prime Trilogy) and being able to run homebrew applications, of which there are plenty of legal ones. Plus, I own Quake 1, and there's a version you can play on the Wii. That's cool.
Number two: I made a few new friends, which I've been alluding to for a few blogs now, and one of them owns Xenoblade Chronicles in the European PAL edition. So, I made a nice little copy of the game on my USB hard drive, which I intended to delete after I gave the game a nice, lengthy go just to see what us Americans are missing out on. And you know, I think I'll have to keep that disc image on my drive a little longer. Just for, yennow, safe keeping and all.
I have so much to say about this game that this blog will be really long. Ready? Let's go.
The fact that it's a Wii game with a 91 Metacritic score is notable. The fact that it's a Wii JRPG with such a high score is even more notable. Not only is the platform working against it (most reviewers find the Wii's limited hardware a detriment) but the genre has been battered to heck and back in the past generation for one reason or another.
But suffice to say, the game lives up to such a noble calling. How could such a game manage critical acclaim? By being the best JRPG I've ever played. My only bit of unhappiness with the game so far is that every other game in the genre isn't retroactively tweaked with the things Xenoblade does so absolutely well, making Xenoblade without peer. How depressing. This game is so forward thinking it makes pretty much every other JRPG worth a little less in my mind. Possible game of the year, contender for game of the generation, option in game of the genre.
The reason is simple. This game is solid. It doesn't cut any corners. It's got a great story, a fantastic sense of what it wants to accomplish and the addictive gameplay to get us there. It tries many new things with the JRPG genre, which flawlessly work together to make a fantastic journey the likes of which we have seen so little of this generation. It's the peak of the PS2-era JRPG design, both evolving them naturally and making new innovations the likes of which inspire a genuine sense of wonder in my heart. Nintendo, you dirty scoundrels, localize this bloody game.
The game looks unimpressive at first, mostly because the game starts out with some very close-up shots of models looking like they were slapped together using slobs of clay. Kind of reminded me of Timesplitters 2. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this was a distinct choice - that the game is using the lack of detail in a single, significant way. It's something Xenoblade does incredibly well, and it's across every facet of the game: consistency.
Apart from some slightly better animation in certain cutscenes, every single scene in the game is rendered using the same engine. The same beautiful 60 FPS, 480p Wii graphics engine. From the bogglingly busy opening cutscene, which has what I could only estimate at many dozens, if not up to several hundred independent units running about, locked in broad-strokes battle. And this is why the consistency is so breathtaking: Xenoblade is goddamn epic.
I haven't felt a deep set desire to explore a game world since my first few spawns in Minecraft. But where Minecraft started to grate due to the lack of inventive vistas, Xenoblade's scope never stops impressing. From the epic battles in the cutscenes, with characters reacting and emoting with brilliant facial expressions and relatively good animation, to the wide-open landscapes with dozens of enemies dotting the plains, the game's breadth is a sight to behold. So, sure, the individual models aren't that great, and there are load times (even installed to a USB hard drive!), but the game makes up for it by never wavering, substitutingfor a pre-rendered cutscene and introducing something that breaks the illusion. Even some vast, staggering sweeps and massive long shots are left rendered by the Wii's (apparently formidable) strength.
And this wouldn't matter an iota if the story wasn't interesting. And sure, the game falls into a few smaller anime tropes. But where it does so, it does with ingenuity, unexpected bravado, and amazing sty1e, and makes up for it by breaking expectations in other ways. Again, the scale helps. The stakes are well represented, and it becomes very clear what's risked in the opening act. And it all comes together with engaging characters and good writing.
None of the characters are anime tropes. They're all multi-dimensional characters with distinct personalities, combat attitudes and animations and facal expressions that reflect both. These are characters that seem to breathe within their confines of a game with ease, expressing their hopes, dreams, fears, and personalities through the well-written conversations that ensue. And the game doesn't waste any more time than the player wants to, with a storyline pace that I haven't seen quite this fast since Radiant Historia or even Chrono Trigger.
I suggest going into the story blind and letting it tell its own story, but this paragraph will sum up the gist if you like. The game takes place on the bodies of two gigantic monstrosities that battled and fought viciously ages ago. Now, the few remaining human factions (or "Mons") live their lives in fear of mechanized beings known as the Mechon. It's clear this world contains many secrets from past civilizations, as much of the environment is dotted with structures of unknown origin or use. A year before the game's true beginning, a man named Dunbar wields a sword named the "Monado," apparently the only weapon that can effectively destroy the Mechon. He fights off the Mechon force, but at a great cost to his body. A year later, the story follows the study of a boy named Shulk, who tries to unlock the secrets of not only the Monado, but the surrounding structures that the Mons depend on for survival. (That's about the first hour or so.)
The story clips by. Exposition is pretty reasonable considering the depth of the material, and if it's communicated at all it's usually shown through explosive, short and engaging cutscenes. Much of the game's world is left to environmental communication and player-initiated conversation. This makes for a very on-demand experience that feels fresh in this generation's reliance on linear funnelling and awkward sit-there-and-I'll-talk-to-you exposition.
And this feeds into how the entire game flows, because the entire game is on-demand. There are two principles to the game's general structure: one, everything is beneficial, and two, only the main story is mandatory. The non-story material, however, is vast. I cannot begin to communicate how much side-quest stuff there is in this game. You can get all of it in gigantic heaps and solve it all at the same time if you like. And again, everything is beneficial in some way.
It's crazy how much this game has been game-ified. You get EXP for almost everything. Found a new landmark? EXP. Had a conversation between units? EXP. Backtracking? You'll probably get genuinely useful items. Had some cool story-related cutscene occur? EXP. Probably. If not more. Finish a quest? Tons of stuff, with EXP, gold, and items.
And then the quests themselves. They run the full scale in what they demand, but they're usually bite sized and force you to go to places you would want to explore anyway. And the best part is that, unless there's a good reason for it, the quests are automatically managed for you on the fly. You got the conditions met? EXP and gold immediately, even in the middle of battle. If you're almost there, a reminder pops up telling you how far away you are from getting the conditions. And if it's something you're supposed to find or track down, usually it shows a notification on your map so you know where to look. It's streamlined, smooth, and utterly beautiful game design. Add to this the "everything is beneficial" mantra, and the result is so addictive and delightful I had trouble tearing myself away to write these impressions, as much as I wanted to. It's like it has beaten MMORPG's at their own game.
Non-Gameplay Mechanics (world, layout, etc.)
In addition to this, the game is designed so that you always have a few quests that are out of your reach, and a bit of the map that contains monsters too powerful for you to deal with yet. And if you find a monster too powerful that woops your sorry tush? You're set back a few minute's time, with a little EXP boost to make it worth your while and the ability to warp back to town to regroup. Yes, that's right: you can warp to any landmark you want. Though considering the rewards you'll find even on the most boring of routes, you may not want to.
You can save anywhere, which is great. And you find so much loot and random drops that you'll have plenty of wiggle room for customization for your units, even in the opening hours of the game. Meanwhile, the world is seamless save a few random loading times for interior dungeons, meaning you can waltz into and out of town with nary a pause. I only noted a few things popping in as I explored, which never impacted gameplay. World design is flawless, with nooks and crannies offering, if not interesting quest locations and cool items, at least a fantastic vista of the already incredible view.
I'll also note here, in the misc. section, that there are numerous options for camera control and other various tabulations to tweak. Everything from camera speed to subtitles. Also, Japanese is an option, but I'll get to that in a moment. In addition, once outside of battle, all of your characters' HP meters rise to full pretty quickly. Another interesting mechanic that really doesn't take anything away from the experience.
And then we get to the battle system. Is it too much to profess my undenying love for it? What introduces itself as a chaotic bunch of buttons flying about and combos randomly triggering QTE's for no-one to respond to, turns into one of the most engaging chunks of strategy I've found myself immersed in a long while. It reminds me of Sacrifice, in a strange way; that 2000 PC RTS game shares more than a few notable characteristics with Xenoblade, I must admit.
Basically, once battle has been triggered, your units will automatically attack with standard whacks of the sword. In addition to this, the player has little orbs on the bottom of the screen that represent various extra skills that, once triggered, have a designated "cool down" period in which they cannot be used. What makes this work is how these skills work together - or in certain cases, how they do not. Do something in a lame order and you've got to sit there and wait while your units smack the enemies with boring, normal attacks. But do it the right way, paying attention to your CPU-controlled friends, and you'll be rewarded with both Combo Attacks (an actual game mechanic where you choose every-body's next move and react to QTE's) and combo attacks (where you, on your own, merely string together attacks in a cool way that deals a ton of damage, inflicts statuses on the enemies and makes your cool down time more manageable).
Besides this, several other mechanics introduce themselves, such as party morale, an incredibly in-depth customization system, and the Monado itself. These all add up to, again, an initial mess that with practice starts to make sense and then starts to be genuinely fun when you can wield these strategies against common enemies. Plus, many enemies won't attack you first, and some only on eye contact, so if you don't feel like combat while you're hunting for something, it's relatively easy to avoid.
Pretty; vaguely European, and seems like it connects together in some nice thematic ways. Good range of instruments. Reminds me of Wind Waker, though time will tell if it's quite that good. I'm impressed so far though, and I like how it slowly transitions from track to track as you enter new areas.
The English voice acting is very English, in the British sense of the word. Lovely accents. If NoA has any decency, they will release the game as it is overseas with those great accents, because they're great.I haven't heard a bad voice so far. Well picked actors. Not quite as good as Final Fantasy XII, but reminds me a lot of that one. Shulk is a lot more interesting than Vann though, and the characters are in general a lot better than pretty much any Final Fantasy game.
Japanese can be selected if you want it, which is cool, but the English is so good I stuck with it.
I would pay many, many dollars for a localized copy of this baby, Nintendo of America. No extra work, just this game, as it is, for NTSC consoles. I'd buy multiple copies.I may sit tight for 2012's initial plans, but I will own a copy of this game by next summer, imported or not. And I encourage everyone else to give it a go, if they can. This is worth your attention, no matter what the cost.
Operation Rainfall is not lying. This game is worth getting angry over. Play it. It's so good I will probably play it to completion on my friend's PAL copy by accident. Time just slips by when you play it.