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Xenoblade Chronicles

Happy 2013! To celebrate the new year on my blog, I’m going to start with a post dedicated to a game I spent a lot of 2012 playing: Xenoblade Chronicles!

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Being a fulltime working mother of an infant, I often wish there were more hours in the day. Or that I could reliably function on, say, 3 hours of sleep. Every once in a while I pick up a game and damn myself for even trying to play it because I don’t have the time of day to give it the attention it deserves. Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those games. To be fair, I really have no one to blame but myself. I picked the game up when I was still pregnant. I (obviously) hadn’t done enough research on the game. All I knew was that it was a JRPG on the Wii that struggled to make its debut on the western hemisphere despite all the great buzz about it. Good JRPGs are hard to come by nowadays, I needed a new game for my Wii, and I had a Gamestop gift card to blow, so I picked the game up and brought it home.

Needless to say, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I don’t regret buying the game; I only regret not giving it the proper attention it deserves. Like many open-world exploration games, a player just cannot spend enough time exploring the world of Xenoblade Chronicles. In fact, I actually clocked in more hours playing Xenoblade than Elder Scrolls: Skyrim… and I was impressed with the time I put into Skyrim! Xenoblade has vast, beautiful environments to explore, and rewards players with experience and hidden goodies for doing so. It also has a ridiculous amount of quests. Over 400, if you’re looking for a ballpark figure.  Add on top of that the hefty main plot cinematics, managing the development of seven playable characters including skill and ability trees, increasing their affinities with each other to unlock extra dialogue (“Heart to Heart” sequences), an ongoing trading mini-game with NPCs, and tons of customizable equipment via gem crafting, and you have a recipe for an impressively immersive and ambitious RPG.

The only unimpressive aspect of this game is the graphics, hands down. I’m pretty sure I saw some SNES rendering sneak its way into the backgrounds. I’m very guilty of wishing this game was released on an HD system, because then it would be near perfection. The character models aren’t bad most of the time, but hideous at other times. Especially when they’re wearing ridiculous gear. I have a love-hate relationship with games that change character models depending on what they’re wearing. When someone’s outfit matches its pretty sweet. When each piece they’re wearing is from a different set, they look like a clown I’m stuck staring at it during all of the cutscenes. One of the playable characters, whom I will refer to as “Seven” to avoid spoilers, looks silly most of the time in a “How can they even walk?!” sort of way. At one point, most of my characters were wearing Sleek Oil, which meant they weren’t wearing anything at all. My dudes were topless and my chicks were sporting skimpy brassieres.

While I’m talking about character design, I’m going to throw this out there: Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the “Dumbest Main Character Name” award. Following JRPG tradition, you play as a blond male protagonist with a special sword. A special sword that also has a dumb name. This particular blond guy’s (or should I say “bloke’s”) name is Shulk, and his sword is the Monado. Shulk (Shuck? Skull?) has to be the worst name ever. Except for Butz from Final Fantasy V, but we can chalk that up to a translation error. Shulk is also  a boring nice guy. Out of all the party members, he was definitely the least interesting to me. And, following another JRPG standard, he is a well-rounded physical and magic user who gets a good combination of both types of abilities with his fancy-dancy sword.

The Monado grants Shulk visions of the future. The way they incorporated this plot point into battle was pretty creative. When an enemy is about to perform a devastating or fatal move, Shulk receives a vision. This interrupts the battle flow to play a clip of the enemy totally screwing you over. After you see the avoidable future, you need to try preventing it. A doomsday countdown appears on the top of the screen and the playable character can “warn” somebody else, giving you access to their equipped abilities to change the flow of battle. For example: If a monster is about to lay the smack-down on the healer who accumulated too much aggro, you can tell the tank to use an aggro building or absorbing ability with no regard to the ability’s current cooldown. A neat idea in the beginning, but it gets annoying when you can’t fast forward or press a button to skip the event you keep getting forced to watch. Or you’re fighting on a narrow path/hallway and can’t reach the character you want to warn because you’re fighting an enormous beast and can’t walk around its girth. OR one of your characters has fallen off the edge of the world because, yes, you can slip off those narrow walkways suspended hundreds of feet above oblivion. And this happens. A lot.

There are seven playable characters. The game supplies some typical builds to work with. You’ve got a meat-shield tank, a dodge tank, a healer, a mage/summoner, and a few different damage builds. The beauty in this battle system comes in the variety and freedom it grants the player. Each playable character has different gimmicks you can utilize to enhance their abilities. Shulk has attacks that debuff the enemy if he strikes them from the correct position. Dunban has something similar; there are a handful of abilities that have certain effects if they are used after Gale Slash. And Melia, one of my favorites, summons elemental buffs and then releases them for elemental damage. You only get control of one character at a time, as it is a real-time system, so you’ll definitely be switching to freshen things up a bit. I do lament the ability to swap between characters during battle. In late game boss fights it is impossible to know how to optimize your setup before you die a few times and say to yourself, “Hmm, maybe I should try controlling the tank.” As we all know, AI in games is only so smart, and doesn’t always perform ideally. The tank will only aggro one enemy at a time, or the mage will insist on standing in a puddle of poison water. This only frustrated me in the final fourth of the game where there is a ridiculous difficulty curve (more on that later), but it enhances the limited capabilities of real-time AI versus old school turn-based. When it got to the “make or break” point in the game I found a button command I never had to use before then. I believe the game developers called it the “Retreat to me” button. I call it the “Get your dumb ass out of the poison” button.

Two of my RPG pet peeves are missing from this game: Constantly getting party raped, and being forced to use the main character all the time. I cried tears of joy when I found out I could designate whoever I wanted as point and take Shulk out of my main party when I so chose. Not because he’s particularly bad, because he isn’t, but when you spend hours upon hours exploring the world and fighting enemies, you really need some variety. As I mentioned before, each character has a different shtick, so if you want to potentially maximize everyone’s potential, you’ll dedicate time learning their ability sets and designating skills.

There are a couple of my pet peeves that DO exist. One, which is going to take me far less time to rant about than the other, is time fluctuation. More specifically: the passage of time and how it affects gameplay. I have no problem with the pretty landscape changing with the rising and setting of the sun. Nor do I have an issue with monsters being more difficult at night during the day. What annoys me is the change in NPC behavior depending on the time of day. When I’m already sifting through 100 quests and trying to remember where the NPC I spoke to even was, I really can’t be bothered to remember whether it was noon or midnight when I spoke to that NPC 5 gameplay hours ago. 99.9% of the quest descriptions don’t bother to tell you when/where you can find that NPC either. And the loading time on the Wii for this game was frustrating. Sometimes I walked circles around an NPC before they showed up on the screen or their icon appeared on the minimap. In my opinion, it really functions as nothing more than an annoyance. I suspend my disbelief for a lot of crap when I play video games, I certainly don’t care if NPCs sleep all night.

My other pet peeve crosses over into the “point of no return” moment I mentioned earlier. I get very frustrated when a video games does a complete 180 on the player. The difficulty curve when I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore was astounding and jarring. I played this game on and off over the course of about 7-8 months. During that time I only utilized online walkthroughs for NPC locations to turn in quests. Never, EVER, did I need any assistance with boss battles. I casually quested and grinded and had no difficulty in plot fights or killing anything that wasn’t 5 or more levels higher than my party. The irony is this: The day before I got stuck on a boss battle for the first time, I said to myself, “I’m done screwing around with this game. I’m just gonna bulldoze the plot and beat it so I can move on with my life.”

Apparently the gods of gaming heard me. Soon after, I waltzed into a boss fight and got pummeled to a bloody pulp. Embarrassingly so. I figured I got unlucky, or it was a fluke, so I tried again. And again. And again. Bewildered, I went online and did some research. Lo and behold, I was not the only person shocked at the jarring difficulty curve thrown at me. Determined, I did some optional quests to unlock more abilities for the Monado, and I leveled up until I could keep going. But then I hit another roadblock. And another. Three boss fights in one day had me pulling my hair out trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Which would have been fine, if the 60 hours of gameplay before it alluded to the fact it would be that sort of game. Don’t lure me into a false sense of security in the time it would have taken me to beat 5 other games just to turn around and be like, “Bitch, please!” and virtually emasculate me. I had to read battle tutorials and look up features I’d forgotten about because I never had to use them up until that fight. I agree games should get more challenging as they near the end, but not in a “Did someone change the difficulty to Extra Hard when I wasn’t looking?” way. It doesn’t really make sense to me. With the size and length of this game, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have reasonably worked the fights up to that difficulty. Or, you know, incorporate certain battle mechanics in map encounters before tossing you into a super-hard boss fight.  I’d rather know in the first five or so hours of playing a game if it is going to be a beat-my-head-against-the-wall type of experience or not (Devil May Cry 3, I’m looking at you).   

Which brings me to my horrible confession: I still haven’t actually beaten this game. As a matter of fact, I am stuck at the second form of the final boss fight. He summons his little minions, they swoop onto the scene, I begin trying to kill them, and usually before I have one downed my party gets wiped out (or close to it) with no warning. I leveled some more, of course, and changed my battle set up (who would have thought Sharla/Riki/Shulk would be such a great party?) but to no avail. And frankly, I’m sick of level grinding to see an ending cutscene that I can just watch on Youtube anyway. I’m frustrated that 90 hours of gameplay can’t even grant me the satisfaction of beating the game, but I conceded defeat and moved on with my life. Of course, if anyone out there has any suggestions that don’t include me spending 10 more hours of my life mindlessly level grinding, I’m happy to hear them. Until then, I’ll be playing Assassin’s Creed 3 and Lollipop Chainsaw.

Don’t let my complaints deter you from playing this game if you’re into RPGs. The battle system is versatile and fun. Some of my favorite video game composers worked on the music, and the story is pretty good. Like the Xeno-series, the story takes a little while to pick up, but the twists start coming at you left and right. Xenoblade Chronicles definitely earned the great acclaim and reviews it received, and I think more of us RPGers need to play these rare gems that don’t get super numbers because they aren’t blockbuster hit series. It is one of the best games I’ve played (and probably the best JRPG) in a long time that didn’t have a 2 or 3 after the title.

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