Monday, May 19, 2014

Ignorant American Gaming: Xenoblade Chronicles

Availability: The game was released exclusively on the Nintendo Wii June 2010 in Japan, August 2011 in Europe, September 2011 in Australia, and then April 2012 in the states. With minor research it's hard to tell why it took so long to come to America but when it did it was sold exclusively through Nintendo and GameStop. Despite selling very well the print was limited with little to no re-stock after selling out. There was even a controversy accusing GameStop of reprinting the game and selling it at an astronomically high $90 "used" price tag, claiming the game was rare and valuable. I don't know how true the story is. Regardless the game is definitely now considered valuable. It goes for at least $50 for a cheap copy, skyrocketing into the $100-$200 range for a sealed copy. I hesitate to call it rare because if you go to eBay or Amazon you'll find a lot of copies available. I got mine on Black Friday for $40 from GameStop. But if you want it now you'll have to pay up at least, if not more than a new, AAA PS4 or XBox One title.

Version I Played: American release.

Review: The Wii is a console I don't talk about a lot, and that's because the Wii doesn't have a ton to talk about. Sure you could mention how for a couple years it was the coolest toy to own but that will go down as a fad than anything else. Gamers will look back and remember how grandma paid $200 for a virtual bowling machine. So while the Wii sold stupidly well it also had a large number of people who owned maybe one or two of it's now 1200+ game library. And chances are those games were Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort. Still if you dig through the massive pile of shit that is majority of the Wii's game library you'll find some pretty incredible hidden gems. So anyway blah de blah de blah a lot of Wii games sucked, some examples of hidden gems would be nice, yadda yadda yadda, Xenoblade Chronicles is a hidden gem.

One thing the Wii does have going for it with hidden gems are RPGs. It's somewhat ironic that the little console that could is able to pack huge experiences all on a single game disc, especially when it's competitor the XBox 360 needed multiple discs for games like L.A. Noire and Final Fantasy XIII. But to be fair that was more so for the crazy high tech look and feel to these games. Still there's something to be said for the size of the world Xenoblade Chronicles provides. So I guess we'll start there before anything else.
First, the scope of where the story begins. The whole story takes place on the bodies of two titans. The game actually opens showing these two titans fighting in what appears to be an endless ocean. In a fatal, final blow they both stand frozen, lifeless, with the exception of their earth-like environments that live on them. Titans so massive with landscapes so massive you forget you're not on regular old earth, you're standing on one of these bad boys...

...and I'm not kidding when I say you forget. And I'm also not kidding when I say the Wii impressed me on the scope of the game...

And these aren't just set pieces. Unlike other JRPGs you can explore almost everything you seen. Matter of fact if you can reach it, you can explore it. Meaning that there are areas on top of cliffs or on top of buildings you of course can't explore, but everywhere else is fair game. I point out JRPGs because obviously games like Skyrim are freaking massive. But how many games have you played on the Wii where you can explore multiple open-ended environments that literally take minutes to walk across much like a Skyrim game? Yeah, didn't think it was much of any. Come to think of it, exploring every inch of every map in this game would take up a few hours of gameplay alone. Granted one thing that helps is the game does look like a PS2 game. But that shouldn't take your overall opinion of the game into account for a couple reasons:

1. This is on the Wii, you know it was behind the times even when it was new (minus the motion control)
2. I'm sure you still love playing Ocarina of Time so get over the graphics.

And even though the game isn't in 1080p, even though it doesn't even look like an early XBox 360 game it still feels far more huge than some of the AAA games I've played on Wii's competitors. But it's not huge for the sake of being huge. There's a ton to do in the game. TONS! I played for over 80 hours working mostly on the main story and leveling up. I paid casual attention to the side missions but there are hours of them to go if I ever wanted to finish them. I think I once read somewhere that the main story is about 60+ hours, but all the side missions nearly double that! Of course most of them are the typical RPG side missions. Go find this item, talk to this dude, kill this many monsters, etc etc. But I didn't mind the monster part cause then you get to see the variety of creatures to fight!
And the variety seen in these monsters and maps are fantastic! It's pretty standard kinda past-like, kinda futuristic JRPG fare but the attention to detail put into it is what really counts. There is a unique style that can be a bit too steampunky for my tastes but it doesn't go too overboard. Especially since there are sections that are in swamps, snowy mountains, deserts, that jump somewhat away from the expected (only to dive head first into the cliche of video games having a stage for every element). Each of these environments are beautifully put together with lots of reward for exploration. Again, you'll still be blown away by this game's beauty even though it came out at a time when these graphics were considered a generation behind.
Going back to that exploration, there's more to the reward than simply a side mission or new weapon, it also provides experience points. This I definitely liked, especially since there were multi-hour chunks I spent grinding just to beat a new boss.
Which leads sorta to one of my first complaints. I know some people like grinding but those people tend to be the same that like MMOs. A genre I have tried so many times to get into but never could. I like the concept of an MMO but outside of the subscription fee one of my main reasons I don't like them is because I'm not alone in them. I've always been more into the single player experience for the immersion. It's hard for me to get immersed into a world where I'm supposedly the hero when I see a trillion other people doing the exact same thing I'm doing. Sure it has it's benefits in boss fights, otherwise I find it annoying. Like paying someone to be forced to play with your weird classmate from elementary school.

SO COOL! Look how expansive this is! I can't wait to explore this world and see what it has to offer. This is going to be an amazing exper...

...well shit.

So what's cool to me with Xenoblade Chronicles is it offers that massive experience (to a point) in a single player setting. Something I'll talk about a bit more in a bit cause I'm sure some of you are screaming "You can do that in Skyrim!" What I originally wanted to comment on was how you get the same kind of experience points from discovery as you do from fighting battles.
In a way this makes total sense! Why not get EXPERIENCE points for your experience in the adventure? There's more to progress in these games than just killing bad guys. A part of it is gaining knowledge of the world, both geographically and culturally. I feel the characters gain something even if all they're doing is walking around talking to other people and looking for treasure. I don't know if other RPGs have done that in the past, let me know if they have. But this was a nice addition since it meant I could do some leveling up without having to constantly get in the same battle over and over again for hours upon hours. Now I just have to do that MOST of the time. Blegh.
But seriously, getting back to the grinding. It does spend a lot of time forcing you to grind. If you plow through the game naturally then you'll hit a brick wall eventually. Like I said earlier, I only casually worked on the side missions. Occasionally going back to them for variety. By the 70 hour mark I was at least a couple levels away from defeating a new boss. I was so sick of running around in circles I figured I may as well do something more interesting. Go back to old maps, discover more, and do my grinding that way. And you know what? There's enough content in the game where it works.
And that's what I mean by it having a massive world. An MMO-like experience for just one player. The game may be linear in the sense it constantly has an arrow telling you where to go next, but the paths you can take along the way are long and winding in a good way. And without the need of DLC! If I wanted I could easily spend over 100 hours completing the main story plus side missions. All on a little Wii disc. And while I'm sure some of you are still screaming about being able to do that in games like Skyrim, but please let me explain.

There are two reasons why I'm insisting on this being a special exception to the rule when other games have done similar things.

The first is a matter of context with where it came from. If you're not familiar then you should know that JRPGs tend to be a lot more linear, whereas Western RPGs are the open ended ones. This has changed for the better and worse somewhat over the years. While many JRPGs have expanded to bigger worlds some of the most popular titles are more linear than ever.
I'm not the first to say Final Fantasy XIII had it's issues. And to reiterate it was, for the most part, like walking down a hallway and fighting monsters along the way. It was not a very exciting experience and had plenty of cutscenes to show you it wanted as little to do with you as possible. However there were a lot of people saying it got good about twenty hours in. Not a good thing to praise it with but I do know what they're referencing. There's a portion of the game where it is in fact more open ended. FFXIII did have a section where you could run around freely doing just about whatever you want. It was a breath of fresh air that would be suffocated too soon but it was nice none the less.
Now imagine that but in the ENTIRE game like it should!
Japan, please take note of this. It's been harder and harder to get into some of your games because of your inability or lack of interest in innovation. I played a demo of Lightning Returns and while it was better it was not up to snuff for me. Japan, you used to be this wonderland of uniqueness and now it feels like you're behind the times for the most part. Please progress to the future! Or the present at least...

The second thing is the game's size.
Thinking about the expansive nature of the game it is easy to compare it to games like Skyrim, or a better example for me being Fallout 3. But the major difference between those two is the use of their size. One one hand Skyrim and Fallout 3 are maaaaaaaaaaaasive world! And I think it's fantastic what they're able to pull off. But they tend to be too much world. It's like they're too big or are big for the sake of being big. I realize in a post-apocalyptic world there's not exactly gonna be a ton of people running around. But there were times when I was running around for a long time before running into someone else or something worthwhile. Of course there's the fast travel feature but that defeats the purpose of the large open world, then.
In Xenoblade Chronicles not only does it have a huge world but it also has a lot to do. There's of course all the side missions, but then there are the enemies. Since this game is technically an action RPG it has all the enemies running around the environment and you fight them in real time, not turn based. And since there's so many in just the right areas it neither drowns you with enemies nor does it make you wonder if this world has any living creatures at all. It's all very well balanced. Meaning if you need to grind you will always know where to go to find someone your level to give you a good amount of experience.
And P.S. Xenoblade Chronicles also has a fast travel system. Not anywhere. Just areas you've discovered. Even then only particular landmarks.

Speaking of combat, the combat system in this game is well done and easy to use. Whenever you jump into battle all your stats come up as do a series of commands at the bottom of the screen. Throughout the battle your character will auto-attack until you tell it to do something else. All of these "special" attacks serve as your basic bundle of attacks, all of which can be leveled up individually. Meaning you don't have to be forced to use anything you don't want to. After you select the attack it will temporarily become unavailable until it had re-charged. And since each character has their own unique set of attacks (not simply Fire attack or whatever) it helps you build the perfect team to progress. There's a lot of variety in the combat especially as you toy around who works with who.

Having the ability to level your character in such a specific way also isn't new. That's been in RPGs longer than I've been alive. But the way it handles it here is so much more appealing than others. It presents you with so many possibilities but an easy way to handle it. It's not overbearing or require a masters degree in accounting to understand the next to impossible math in other RPGs. You build up ability points. When you're ready to use them you go into the easy to navigate menu where you level up your abilities on a scale from 1-10. Then there's tons of other things that can help your combat abilities. You craft gems to increase strength, defense, and more specific tech specs. Then you can build relationships with your fellow combatants, so if you have a better connection with them you have a better outcome in battle. Plenty of detail I could go into in all this but I don't need to. Despite having a ton of little, little things players could get caught up in they won't need to, to enjoy the experience or beat the game. That's because the game is really approachable.

And that's the best way to describe this game. It's approachable. The game is very easy to get used to in gameplay. In the open world there's always an arrow above your head telling you which direction to go ala other open world games like GTA. In combat you're constantly auto-attacking until you select a more specific attack. And since it's an action RPG it's a heck of a lot easier to jump in and out of battle. No random encounters out of nowhere like turn based RPGs. Then when in battle, heck before battle, you can see how powerful your enemy is letting you know if you're up to the task. The way the controls handle, the way the game looks, feels, plays out, it's all very approachable. The only major issue I have with the game is the story.

Complaining about a JRPG's story is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unless you're a fan of anime or paint by numbers hero stories you're likely not gonna get too into a JRPG's story. Regardless of what you say a lot of them can be pretty unbearable with little hints of interest sprinkled throughout. At least the games in the Playstation era and earlier had the common courtesy to have it entirely text based so we didn't have to listen to the hero sulk around left and right.
And this game isn't much different. It even went so far as to (unintentionally I'm sure) name it's main character Shulk. May as well have gone the whole nine yards and removed the H from that name cause that's what he does most of the time. Sulk, sulk, sulk!

Disclaimer: There are a lot of JRPG stories I have liked despite some of the cliches that come around. FFVII as a whole has a great story and Persona 4 is bad ass! I just generally speaking don't care for the overall execution in most.

But again Xenoblade Chronicles stands out. The story actually had potential to be really cool. It's not like the convoluted mess of some Final Fantasy names (you know what I'm thinking) or the painfully bad humor of Disgaea 3 (like the gameplay, hate the story, thinking of skipping all cutscenes from here on out). This game starts off with the battle of two titans! Remember?! I mentioned it earlier. And their dead bodies is where life in this world thrives. It's a cool start! Then comes this man vs machine war that kicks everything off. For the most part it's played out really well in the setup. The first thing you do in the game is fight in an epic battle with your sword of choice, the Monado. A badass weapon that is almost like getting the best weapon from the start.
Then you start off on the adventure and it's the usual ragtag team of quirky individuals. Textbook anime style, too. The weak and sulky hero, his buddy whose got that 'can do' attitude, the love interest who has no interest but the hero, the old adventurer, a quirky Jar Jar Binks-esque sidekick, and the list goes on. And this game has tons of cutscenes. I mean... TOOOOOONS! Almost every time you reach your destination via the arrow above your head you're in anything from half a minute to 10+ minutes of cutscenes. It all gets way too drawn out in way too many moments. One of the reasons why the game took be around 85 hours to complete, with the exception of doing some side missions and grinding.

Oh yeah, let me take a break from the story for a second. I'm guessing unless you mastered relationships in your party or mastered gem crafting there is a ton of grinding you'll have to do in this game. I'm talking 1980s JRPG bad. There were times when I was blazing section to section with the greatest of ease. Then I hit a boss battle who is way more powerful that I am and I was forced to backtrack to grind so I could level up. This wouldn't be too much of an issue if it didn't take so long to level up as is. After a while I started to notice I was averaging leveling up about once an hour (including cutscenes of course). By the end of the game my team was averaging level 85-86. How many hours did I play? About the same. Taking out the cutscenes would have eliminated that time by only a couple hours all things considering. But once I got to the final boss I think I was somewhere around 79. I couldn't do it so I ground and tried again. Rinse and repeat until I won. But that added at least another 4-5 hours onto the already massive game. And I was at the end! It's one thing to have a game so massive it takes an eternity to finish. But in this case it was easily padding out gameplay. I could have completed other, smaller games in the time it took me to level up to the final boss.

Speaking of endgame, I want to talk about the last good chunk of the story. So SPOILER ALERT!
The story wasn't engaging me much through most of it. I'm not a fan of that overly serious, overly stylized for the sake of stylized direction a lot of these games go. I had hope. The beginning was good so surely the ending would be good with everything in-between being filler. Well it was, sort of.
At about the 60 hour mark my party literally met their maker. They are approached by their god Zanza where a lot is revealed. Including the reveal that you, Shulk, have been nothing but an empty shell for Zanza to carry out his bidding (essentially, these stories get pretty complicated so wiki it if you want to). There's a period here where it seems like Shulk is as good as dead. But after he is (somehow, I don't remember) brought back to life he and your party team up to fight and kill Zanza. Yep, this game just went that direction from somewhat typical adventure to "KILL GOD!" Although that's not as uncommon as you may think. There's a really good examination of this featured in the web series Game Theory. It's interesting and you can watch it here.
The game played out pretty much the way you would expect. There's a hot pursuit with some minions trying to stop you before you get to Zanza. Then the final confrontation of Zanza in three forms. A big, epic battle that has you on the edge of your seat. Then the game ends with a stupid twist that Zanza was once a man who became a god. Making the story go from expansive and huge to as small as a science experiment in a petri dish. I didn't like how it did the bait and switch, cause when the game concludes with a reborn world for you and your friends it feels so unimpactful. As a religious man I'm not necessarily saying I wanted their god dead. I'm just saying it makes the story more interesting if their god was the actual god of this entire universe. Cause if Zanza was someone who became a god then what about beyond that in this game's world?
It's clear the game is anti-religion or at least anti-god. Or beyond that it just has an odd perspective per the Game Theory video explanation I directed you to. But then again there was a part when Shulk flat out says he wants a world without a god... period... as he makes his killing blow.
Zanza was painted to be more of a tyrant or dictator than a god I felt. Yes, dictators have a god complex, but again as a religious man I guess I have a different understanding and perspective of a god than some others would. Your party is rebelling against this god when in other circumstances he has the right and ability to do with his world as he pleases. When there is a god it's purpose is to watch over. And being the all knowing, all powerful being a god is then it's their way. They know best for their creations. Of course this is easily explained away with human flaw since Zanza was once a normal dude.
This is a topic that could be talked about forever. Instead I'll just stop here with my final words that this game's story could have been more interesting and impactful if handled just slightly different in the end. With that said SPOILERS END HERE!

All in all this is a fantastic game that is easy to get into. Even if you haven't played many or any JRPGs, or RPGs in general this is a good one to start with. It's super fun, will fill your time, and has plenty to expand on when you dig deep. It didn't have the impact Final Fantasy VII had on the world but I feel Xenoblade Chronicles has the same approachable feel to it, if not more so. The high price tag is for rarity but it would be well worth your money. I was able to pick up mine for $40 and when you do the math I averaged out to paying less than 50 cents an hour for how much I put into this game. Much better deal than a ten hour, $60 AAA title that you'll probably sell to Gamestop for $15 in a few weeks anyway. This game definitely justifies the Wii as a solid gaming system. A gleaming gem piled underneath a pile of crap that built over six or more years during the Wii's life.
I just hope you're able to get past some bad/obnoxious anime-esque cliches in the process. Unless you're into that sort of thing.

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