My unexplained, unexpected, and certainly unforgivable hiatus from posting last week was unequivocally due to an unexpected head cold that left me unable to properly let my thoughts undulate, resulting in an uninspiring lack of topics to discuss.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I have elected to continue my coverage of Xenoblade Chronicles. In my defense, I should probably say that my utter lack of other topics is only a portion of my reason for posting this. It’s rare that I have the chance to cover a new release, and the game is far too large to squeeze into a single link of the great sausage chain that is my blog. Tori’s already put well over 30 hours into it, and her ragtag group of impossibly pretty adventurers has yet to make it to the enemy country (located on the other god’s corpse for those who aren’t familiar). I assume the second half of the game takes place within the steely loins and supple curves of the Mechonis, so it seems the marketing guys weren’t lying when they said 60+ hours for the main story alone.
As far as that main story is concerned, I’m pretty impressed with it thus far. Although slow in getting started, it’s seeded with enough mystery and quality worldbuilding to make me honestly interested in seeing how everything fits together. Everything from (what appears to be) soul-swapping main characters with villains to one-line mentions of genetic designs implemented centuries before is designed to make an invested player cock their head and say, “Huh?”
These moments are all the more important because this game can go from amazing magical land of wonderment to curse-inducing vortex of frustration in a matter of seconds. This is due to the self-same combat system that I praised so highly in my last post. While the combat itself is still fun, Xenoblade‘s designers also decided to import another, less entertaining aspect of MMO combat: the add swarm. In certain areas of the game, mobs can become fairly concentrated due to the landscape. Floating coral reefs, for example, force the monsters to group up, which can devastate even a same-level party if you’re not cautious. Complicating matters further is the rare spawn feature, which is far more common than the name implies. These mobs are elite, wielding status ailments and bone-shattering melee attacks from within the safety of their own HP fortresses. They also love to hang out in groups of regular mobs, presumably pushing them around and stealing their girlfriends. Pulling one such group can wipe your party off the face of Bionis, and not even the game’s “pull” feature can eliminate this difficulty altogether. Thus, one can quickly find oneself cockblocked from proceeding further in the story not by a boss, but by the unfortunate placement of a rare mob.
The other main difficulty I have with this game isn’t one of gameplay or design. It’s a simple matter, really, and one to which I can give a partial pass because of cultural differences. Still, it crops up in the most unfortunate of places, screaming its presence, distracting me from what was surely meant to be a powerful moment. It bounces through cutscenes, always present, rarely silent, reminding you that you are indeed playing a game designed by people whose native tongue includes the word kawaii.
This fanged horror with the X-Box logo on its abdomen is Riki, the only non-humanoid member of the party. He joins up as a means of clearing his debt to his tribe of…things (said in the voice of Detention Block AA23’s overseer) and acts like a 15-year-old girl on Facebook from then on. Speaking of Star Wars, the Japanese apparently never got the memo that everybody fucking hates Jar-Jar Binks because they decided to shrink him to hobbit size, trade his ears for floppy wing-scarves, and stick him in this game. Yes, Riki is overzealously cute, but much like your seventh-grade crush, the adorability stops when he opens his mouth. The crude pidgin English that pours forth from his lungs (again, think seventh-grade crush) completely ruins any serious tone the game may be setting during a cutscene. Some of the banter between Riki and Reyn can be entertaining, but watching a crown princess weigh the decision to go to war with an animate beach ball shouting “HOM HOM FRIENDS HELP MELLIE!” behind her sort of kills the mood.
As promised, here is another coveted installment in my world-bending series of half-congealed thoughts on new releases. Today’s selection should come as no surprise to my loyal readers, but for all of you stopping by on a completely unrelated search, what follows is my evaluation of the first eight hours of Xenoblade Chronicles. Sadly, this post will not feature high-res screencaps documenting my intrepid journey up to the Bionis’ knee; unlike some people, I did not pirate the game for use on a certain cetacean emulator, so I have no PC screens to show off. Truth be told, I didn’t buy it, either, but I am living vicariously through Tori’s expedition and my own brief experimentation with the combat system.
As evidenced above, the story begins in the midst of an epic last stand between three dudes (one of which looks like a pirate) and an army of asymmetrical mechs. The guy with the glowing blue sword is intrepid, taking his buddies in for one final stand before their entire army gets annihilated. Not wanting to cut the story short at half an hour, our plucky hero turns the tide of the battle with his bravado and his ethereal, phallic blade. After the day is won, the narrative jumps forward a year, dropping into a happy little hamlet displaying an unclear level of technological development: these people have lasers and missiles, but they fight robots with swords. Were this Star Trek TNG, Captain Picard would lock himself in his ready room for days trying to decide whether or not making contact violated the Prime Directive.
The first quest features three tweenish people with British accents taking bladed melee weapons to go retrieve some fuel rods so they can move a piece of mobile artillery that crashed into somebody’s house. Things go swimmingly until a flying armada of evil robots arrives and puts their entire colony to the torch. Suddenly one friend short, the two remaining heroes band together and, with the help of the techno-magical sword Monado, drive the metal-faced menace back. They swear vengeance for their fallen comrade and set out on a half-cocked quest with nothing but the clothes and swords on their backs. Along the way, they save a younger person from monsters only to have him drive away in his internal-combustion-powered buggy and get caught by another evil mech. The kid’s older sister and her oversized sniper rifle join the party, and the trio sets off to save the dipshit from himself.
Things I Enjoyed
-The combat system takes some getting used to, but once you have it down, it’s a great new take on single-player RPG combat. I say “single-player” because it feels a lot like the standard MMO combat style; autoattacks, cooldowns, and real-time combat. It’s even a step above MMOs in that the AI-controlled party members aren’t the standard bong-bashed idiots one typically finds in a pug. You can control whichever character you want, meaning that individual play style can be somewhat accommodated. If you prefer guns to swords, jump into the skin of gratuitously-cleavaged gunner woman. Prefer tanking? Take resident meat shield Reyn for a spin. Best of all: no items, which means no running out of phoenix downs in the middle of a boss fight. Resurrection is handled via the party gauge; as long as you have one full bar (filled with combos and teamwork and crap), you can run over to downed allies and pull them back on their feet.
-The world is rich, colorful and evokes the bygone days of JRPG glory on the PS2. Some reviewers have listed this as a drawback, and I can understand the position. The character models do look like they belong on a previous generation’s hardware, but that’s okay with me. The developers may be cashing in on the dated graphics inducing waves of nostalgia, and it works. At the same time, the size of the world around you–complete with alternating day/night cycles and weather–adds a depth that the PS2 could not have matched.
Things I Didn’t Like
-While the older art style is charming, the silly voice acting that accompanies it (another hallmark of bygone days, right, Skyrim? RIGHT?) is either the mockery tree’s low-hanging fruit or an annoying impediment to immersion, depending on my mood and what’s going on. I realize that Nintendo probably didn’t redub the English version when they brought it over from Arthur’s kingdom (evidenced by the spelling of certain words in the subtitles), but it seems they never put much money into the voice cast to begin with. I’m not asking for Hellsing-esque levels of quality, but at least make sure the actors have read the script once before putting them in front of the microphone.
-The various party mechanics in combat are ambiguous, especially given that I wasn’t paying all that much attention to the tutorial (those Shadow Hearts: From the New World side quests won’t finish themselves). Thus, I find myself pressing B without knowing why and seeing little hearts fly around the screen as a result. Am I performing joint attacks? Offering time-critical buffs or heals? Waggling my eyebrows in a suggestive manner? Could be all three; I’ll never know unless I overcome my laziness and go back through the tutorials again, which are handily on file for the benefit of such idiots as myself. Still, it’s a lot of information to take in when you’re still adjusting to the combat system.
Verdict: This is kind of a moot point since we already own the game, but yes, I recommend picking it up. While not the paradigm-shattering revolution to the genre that people have claimed, it is more than a few steps down the road toward updating the JRPG for future generations.
The third and latest installment in the critically acclaimed role-playing game series, SHADOW HEARTS: From the New World takes place in the United States during the Great Depression. The Story Begins as Johnny Garland, a young 16-year old detective who lost his father, sister and his memory in an accident, accepts an investigation to track down a criminal suspect who has escaped from custody. As he closes in on the suspect, Johnny witnesses a supernatural occurrence – a huge monster appears from a green light known as a “window” and swallows up the criminal. Apparently, a series of horrific incidents similar to this have been plaguing cities across the nation. Johnny’s female counterpart is 21-year-old bounty hunter Shania, a Native American who is searching for these mysterious windows, determined to close them using her spiritual powers. Together, they travel across North and South America and are joined by a colorful cast of characters.
The box art for this game is fairly misleading. Despite her minimalist approach to clothing, the distraught Native American
princess in the arms of Johnny Blue-Eyes is a much more capable fighter and interesting character than he is. She wields twin tomahawks, can fuse with the spirits of ancient totemic deities, and is hell-bent on taking revenge for her slaughtered village; he has a pocket knife and a can-do attitude. But, because this is a JRPG from the PS2 era, the feather-haired teenage male must cradle a vulnerable, highly sexualized female. It’s the rules.
Once past the silly cover, however, one finds some unexpected surprises that lift this game out of the sea of tropes common to JRPGs from this period. Yes, some of the old standbys are still there (random battles, turn-based combat, status ailments, lolitas), but there are enough surprises to keep things interesting. For one, the cast of party members is absolutely bonkers. In most PS2-era JRPGs, the characters fall within a fairly narrow band of personality types: broody badass, plucky youth, naive girl-woman, etc. This game has a few (see Johnny Blue-Eyes), but the others more than make up for the cliches. What do a mobster mariachi guitarist, a chubby vampiress, a delusional German ninja, and a drunken kung-fu master who is also a giant anthropomorphic cat have in common? If you answered, “They all chew on the edges of my fever dreams,” then you must have been one of the developers responsible for this title. Still, for all the nonsequiturs involved, the batshit party gives a lot of personality to the story.
Another refreshing deviation from the norm is the setting. No pre-industrial castles, steampunk cities, or reimaginings of historic Japan for this title; the party is planted square in the middle of Prohibition-era New York and traipses all around the Western hemisphere on the trail of world-destroying antagonists Lady and Killer. Awkward names, I know, but they sort of make sense in context. Actually, “Lady and Killer” might not be a bad title for a book. Anyway, hopping from the Grand Canyon and Roswell to Chichen Itza and various Pacific islands makes immersion in the world easy.
The battle system, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. It is simple and straightforward, which is nice, but it also carries some flaws inherent to the Shadow Hearts series. The biggest, shiniest pimple on its face is the sanity point system. Each character has a sanity meter that drains as they are attacked by enemies. Once it hits zero, the character goes berserk, randomly selecting abilities and targets until they are killed or some sanity is restored to them via spells or items. Thus, one must waste valuable combat turns making sure the characters don’t snap and self-immolate. Had the sanity system any grounding in the story, it might be more tolerable; lacking that, it’s just an irritating chore.
Some of the boss battles are also absurdly cheap. I’m all for a tough round of fisticuffs; it gives me cause to satisfy my inner grind whore. What I don’t appreciate is a boss with an automatic IWIN button unless you’ve geared specifically against it. This sort of thing doesn’t happen until late in the game, but it still happens. One boss has a “petrify all” spell that is in no way announced, meaning you will most certainly lose your first attempt unless your party just happens to be wearing the anti-petrify trinket. Another’s regular melee attack has a fairly good chance of an instant KO. Very few (certainly no more than half a dozen) enemies in the game have this ability, so protecting against it seems useless. Then you fight this boss, spend half an hour trying to compensate for his cheap move, and end up redoing the fight anyway.Overall, though, the game is fun, funny, and endearing. Fans of Okage: the Shadow King should certainly give this title a shot. The main quest isn’t too long, either, so you’re not signing up for a Xenosaga-esque commitment by picking it up.