Saturday, September 15, 2012

Xenoblade - Part 1

Its not exactly the nicest generation for JRPGs, is it?  Actually we're living in a Dark Age, perhaps the very last years of this style of gaming.  I'm sure we'll see a trickle of these kinds of games for years to come but its hard to imagine them ever retaking their place of cultural relevance.  Especially when you never be sure any Japanese game will get exported to your country.  And the games that are guaranteed to be released?  They're "Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns"*.  Final Fantasy, the flagship of this genre, has scuttled, "Dragon Quest" has gone MMO, and the future could not look bleaker.

But all is not lost!!!  Not by any standard.  Because JRPGs are still running strong and there are plenty on the way to keep us going.  Last month "The Last Story" was released, there's "Pokemon Conquest", there's "Persona 5" on the way, we got the Studio Ghibli-Level 5 combination of "Ni No Kuni" next January, and Square Enix, despite their endless stupidity lately, are still making "Bravely Default: Flying Fairy", an excellent-looking classic RPG.   Premier amongst this list, though, is "Xenoblade", perhaps the best-received JRPG in years, at least of this current console generation.  Sadly it took us over a year of arguing, begging, protesting, and pleading to finally get it released here in the United States.  But we won in the end, and here's our spoils:  a damn good RPG.  Exactly the thing you need to forget just how bad certain other gaming franchises have gotten.

"Xenoblade" is a game made by Monolithsoft, and developed to be a vague tangential successor to "Xenogears" and the "Xenosaga" trilogy.  Its also directed by Tetsuya Takahashi, who was the primary creative force behind those titles.  The other Xeno games have a troubled history, one I'll probably cover when I eventually review "Xenogears" (which won't be for awhile), but all they really suffer due to over-ambition.  Takahashi usually goes into his titles thinking of massive epic tales that would require six games to complete.  This time he just made a single RPG, essentially taking the vast open freedom of "Final Fantasy XII" and multiplying it to infinity.  This game is huge in size, and that is really its primary selling point.  Just one location, the Bionis Leg, could fit pretty much all of "Final Fantasy XIII-2", and that's the second location in the game.  The size is mind-boggling in its epicness.  But its also a solid game with great characters, great music, and a gripping interesting storyline.  This is the game you should be playing now.

But before I sing the game's praises too much, first and foremost, let's talk about the primary problem of "Xenoblade":  its on the Wii.  Yes, Nintendo's little white box was quite the success for awhile there, but now in the year 2012 it is a truly dead system, and any game released on it will naturally receive a far smaller reception than it would have gotten on the PS3 or Xbox.  Its probably Nintendo's almost masochistic desire to kill off their own flagship console in America that made localizing "Xenoblade" and "The Last Story" so damn difficult.  I'm pretty sure those two titles are the only games released for the Wii this entire year!  That and "Dragon Quest X", but trust me, nobody wants to play that game, and it can stay in Japan for all I care.  Yes, the Wii did have a few fine games: all those Mario games, "Smash Bros Brawl", "Donkey Kong Country Returns", "Sin and Punishment 2", and...... um........ um....................  the remake of "Okami"?  Does that count?  (If anybody knows any other really really good Wii games, please share, I got nothing else.)  "Xenoblade" is nicely joining that small but illustrious league of games.  Unfortunately, since its on the Wii, it means no second joystick so the camera controls are dodgy at times, and it means the graphics are PlayStation 2 quality.  They're very nice graphics still, and its a beautiful game, still, only the character models look worse than "Final Fantasy XII".

You can play "Xenoblade" with a Classic Controller... but not a GameCube controller.  Why exactly?  FUCK YOU, that's why.

The plot of "Xenoblade" is pretty basic RPG fair:  your hometown gets attacked by an army of robots, you find a sword of ultimate power, now you have to travel around the world to save people and unravel the mysteries of what's going on.  Also there's a mysterious white haired boy with a dragon listening on, a bunch of people with wings growing out of their heads, and Robot Bosses with Cockney accents!  The entire world is actually a giant humanoid creature the size of a continent, called the Bionis, stuck in constant battle with another giant.  They've both stopped moving, but they're not quite dead yet.  On one giant are the Homs, the humans who are mostly limited to two towns.  On the other is an army of indestructible robots, some of which have begun to learn sentience and have thus grown even more indestructible.  The only thing that can destroy robots is the Monado**, that mysterious red blade on the cover that offers its possessor images of the future.  Now, as your party travels up to the top of the Bionis in search of answers, the mystery keeps on building.  Who the heck are the robots?  What's the deal with the winged people?  And what is the Monado anyway?

Since this game was first dubbed by Nintendo of Europe the voice acting is entire British.  In fact, the game is unchanged from its European release, including holding the very same copyright date on the title screen, the only thing Nintendo of America did was changed the Region Code.  "Armor" is still spelled "Armour", etc.  Now the voice acting is very good for the most part, there are a few line deliveries that miss, but that's more the script than anything else.  If you notice, they don't even try to match the character's lip movements, which is a good thing because otherwise we'd have something akin to "Dissidia"'s fantastically awful acting - that was so bad that like three years later I'm still using it as the Ground Zero of terrible dubbing.  Since its all British actors, it means you get to hear totally new voices unlike the usual increasingly-stale gaggle of generic anime voice actors that every video game seems to get these days.  One of the actresses is none other than Jenna-Louise Coleman, who will become Doctor Who's newest companion later this year. 

Now there is a minor problem of the playable characters endlessly rattling off their attack lines, but this can be just as much of a good thing as a bad one.  There's this one guy, Reyn, who is just a fountain of great material.  "NOW ITS REYN TIME!!"  "MAN, WHAT A BUNCH'A JOKAHS!"


Anyway, I like the first posts in my video game reviews to talk mainly about the gameplay.  As I previously mentioned, "Xenoblade" is massive.  And its difficult to really convey the scale we're talking about here.  Most RPGs present themselves as being massive worlds, with whole continents and nations, but still you could walk across the world in about ten minutes.  In "Xenoblade", there's a river that runs through the Makna Forest.  In most games, that river would be a stream.  In this game, its a damn canyon a mile high, the leads from a lake that is roughly the size of the Great Sea from "Wind Waker" (it at least takes as long to travel across) and runs all the way across the map to some waterfalls.  When Monolith Soft were asked how big "Xenoblade" was, they said "its as big as Japan!", and you might be tempted to believe them.  This nicely rivals WRPGs in terms of scale and even freedom.

There is a tight running plot, but that can be ignored at virtually any time and instead you can run around the Bionis or return to previous locations and simply explore.  Or do quests.  There is no single World Map, but there is an easy teleport system so you can return to any warp point at any time, just as long as the game doesn't force you into a boss fight.  So like, the characters are trying to find this kid Juju who has run off and the Hero has a vision of the kid's death, some games would force urgency here.  No, "Xenoblade" lets me run up this mountain path for no particular reason, and I can climb through a cave full of ridiculous level monsters that could kill me if they so much as breathed on me, and then I can find a lovely cliff scene and discover a Secret Location.  And you get EXP for discovering things.  Or I could go out and do dozens of littlesidequests.  Lady, you want three wolves dead?  You got it!  Juju-who?

Of course, with freedom comes dangers.  "Xenoblade" is not a game that holds you hand at any point.  There are obviously broken bridges and stuff, but that won't matter when you've been given a playground the size my home town to run around in and find stuff.  Now, even though you are exploring stuff, that doesn't mean everywhere you go is safe.  Even in the very first town there are level 40 enemies that will slaughter you.  There are GAME OVERs, there really couldn't be.  You die rather frequently in this game, because sometimes you might just pick a fight with the wrong Owl, one of those Owls might be ten levels higher than you.  Oops.  There was one case when I was traveling up that same mountain path I mentioned before, and I found a little shrine overlooking a cliff.  I went up to explore it and pick up a bit of treasure.  Then a giant spider jumped out hidden from cliff wall and attacked me.  It had roughly the same level as GOD, so it killed me with one hit.  Rigidly structures JRPGs like "Final Fantasy X" would never have let this happen.  But while those games are obsessed with their own epic grand storylines and keep the player as just the guy who moving the pieces forward between cutscenes, this is a game where you run around free.

In "Final Fantasy XII", in the very first enemy area, the Dalmasca Westersand, there's a T-Rex running around.  You could fight the T-Rex, but he's way stronger than you.  Lots of very silly new players think they can beat the T-Rex - they can't.  "Xenoblade" is a game where about 10% of all the enemies are like that T-Rex, and that's what's great about it.

It also really helps that the world is amazing and beautiful.  You can run out in the fields and suddenly spot a really cool-looking cave out in the mountains.  Or a fortress built into a cliff.  There are lots of games where the horizon lines and structures in the distance are little more than wallpaper, "Xenoblade" is not like that.  You can go out and touch all of it.  You find a spiral staircase in a cave?  Go for it, maybe there's something cool up there.  Maybe there's a horrible monster who will eat your face.  There's no knowing, but you can find out.  And that finding out is what's really lacking from so many games.

Combat, as you'd expect, is seamless from the regular exploration elements.  (I'm not sure why any 3D RPG in the year 2012 would stick to the battle transitions anymore, but hey, some people can't move on.)   Any enemy walking close enough while you're in a fight might suddenly get caught into the melee.  Which can really suck if you're trying to kill the bunny two feet away from the massive turtle the size of a city block.  Inbetween battles you get your health immediately replenished.  While in the game you can take fall damage.  There's free jumping, free movement, and free consequences.  You can jump off cliffs, you can hop fences, you can swim.  You could even leap to you death, its great.  No invisible walls in this game.

Anyway, the battle system.  I'm sorry to say its worse than "Final Fantasy XII", the only other JRPG I've played that's anything like "Xenoblade".  I have to compare the two for a bit.  You only control one character, and you can only have three characters outside of the menus at a time.  Your control over the other two party members is limited entirely to vague commands like "focus on this enemy here", "spread out" or "come to me".  Sadly no Gambits.  There's no MP either, or battle items, or really magic for that matter.  Instead you're given a set list of attacks and you can use them all, but you have to wait a minute for them to load again.  The strategy is positioning yourself in the best place to use your attacks, and using the support abilities from the Monado the best you can.  Healing is somewhat difficult, so I pretty much stick to only Medic character.  In a turn-based static game, I'd probably say this battle system is one of the worst I've ever seen, but its all free time.  You can run off and move, pick your attacks, and even build up basic positioning strategy.  Sometimes the camera gets a little muddled, sometimes your characters seem to forget what they're doing and not move, but for the most part it all works really well and is really fun.

Oh, everything you equip shows up the party models!  No DLC for extra outfits here!  I recommend the Jungle Equipment for Sharla, just a tip.  Males, you'll like it.  Females, take off Dunban's shirt.

Anyway, that's really all I got right now on "Xenoblade".  In the second part of this review I'll discuss more about the story and the characters, but I really think I hit the main point:  the gameplay.  This really is the best RPG to come out since "Final Fantasy XII", a natural evolution of that game's genius ideas which sadly have gone mostly ignored by Square Enix and the rest of the JRPG world.  If you haven't bought this game yet, do it.  Seriously.

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* Alright, I'll interrupt myself now to give my thoughts, briefly on FFXIII-3.  It looks better than FFXIII-2... there are good ideas behind this.  But you can't trust Square Enix or Motomu Toriyama to actually make them work.  Yeah, they want a more open world and player interaction with it.  But will it matter?  The question is no longer "will it be good" its now "how will they fuck it up?"  I have ZERO faith in this game, NONE.  I'd only play it if it gets STELLAR reviews, and we know its getting those.

Also, who gives a shit about Lightning?  Why would I play a game just because she's in it?  She appears to be the main selling point, and I don't care.  Nobody cares!  How completely disconnected from reality is SE these days?  If they even bothered to ask anybody they'd know immediately that we all think of Lightning as nothing more than a female Cloud Strife, we see right through them.  AND Sazh is way more popular!  Seriously, "Sazh Returns" would actually get me exciting, "Lightning Returns" leaves me with nothing but a numb depression.

AND WHERE IS FRIGGIN' "TYPE-0"???

** At some point "Xenoblade" was set to be released in North America as "Monado: Beginning of the World" until Nintendo of America went full retard and did practically everything they could to stop release.  I prefer the final title.

10 comments:

  1. It's disgusting to see how Square Enix gets away with such idiotic policies. Seriously, there's probably no other game company that digs trolling their fans like them and the thing that really annoys the shit out of me is that they SIMPLY GET AWAY WITH IT. It's always the same: fanboys whine over that specific game yet ultimately they still have bought it.
    I think we are the real morons. We should stop buying their fucking games but there are just too many Japanese emo teens that love that stupid FF13 shit. If a western company would fuck their fans this badly, shit would go down really bad. Just look at Diablo 3... I'm getting too old for this, man.

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    1. Hey, I feel ya. I don't feel ripped-off by FFXIII-3 since I'm not going to buy it, but I do feel like its a true waste of so much potential. 99% of the workers at SE are competent, if not even brilliant people. Its just the 1% of guys in charge who wreck it. "Let's make it all about DLC!" "Let's see if we can end this on a cliffhanger to cram another shitty game into this series!" "Dissidia!"

      So this is precisely why games like Xenoblade should be considered so precious. They're the future. SE is the past.

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    2. XIII wasn't that bad, but -2 was awful. I'm not saying XIII was as good as XII, VII, or IX (or even X), but it was a solid game with four great characters (and two you wanted to strangle;looking at you, Snow and Hope). On an unrelated topic, will you be covering the emmys? Game of Thrones is up or Best Drama.

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  2. Tatsunoko vs Capcom and Monster Hunter Tri are fantastic Wii games. I highly recommend them. Also, you can't use the gamecube controller for this!? That sucks.

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  3. You know I saw this game and read the reviews and really looked forward to playing it until I realized the pure horror that this would not be on PS3. It makes me question why I saved all my pennies and recycled coke cans to buy this finely tuned piece of equipment only to find the JRPGs on it blow serious chunks. Oh well. Also, just finished Casshern Sins and I can't wait to read your review of it...when you review it!

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  4. So Blue... stupid question, but how did you put your Twitter on your sidebar? Like, which gadget did you use? Just wondering 'cause I just made a Twitter.

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    1. Twitter had an option that made it really easy to imbed it on your site. Then that got transferred over to Blogger and became a gadget. That's all I got.

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  5. A good game that you should check out on the Wii Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon. This was also made by Xseed. HA! I just got that name after I typed it. I'm so special.

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