Thursday, March 14, 2013

Xenoblade Chronicles

For a JRPG buff there are a lot of reasons to be interested in Xenoblade Chronicles, especially since it's been a while since its release. First and foremost, it has the magical Xeno prefix put there to pay homage to the other Xeno-games: Xenogears and Xenosaga. It has been created by Monolith Studios, who also created Xenosaga and (some of them) were involved in the creation of Xenogears. The reason this prefix carries so much weight is that as far as game plots go, both gears and saga are among the most complex. Particularly Xenosaga, which was originaly planned to run for seven episodes in total. Unfortunately it was cut down to three and it shows quite a bit. The third and final episode does tie together the main plot but leaves a lot of unfinished or hastily finished business in its wake.

Second, Xenoblade promised to honor JRPG traditions - the game has a large world and lots and lots of things to do. It also has epic length as I very recently discovered. Finally, the game has had a massively positive response in both reviews and among the gaming community. The biggest reason that was holding me back from playing it was honestly its platform: the Nintendo Wii. Let me just say that Wii is possibly the biggest disservice to the entire industry ever and a joke at best as a gaming system. Having seen how poorly The Last Story performed on the system I was not very enthusiastic towards experiencing Xenoblade Chronicles. Now that I have laid the game down, I will have to immediately say that this game is not worth all the hype. I will however have to admit that it was, in the end, a good JRPG despite its very slow start.

1. Timescale balance

The first topic therefore is what I think is actually quite a common issue in JRPGs in general: they are almost always more interesting after a good many hours into the game. Not always, but often - usually when this is not true, it is because the latter half of the game is botched horribly. What I mean to say is, these games have a tendency to start slow both story and game mechanics wise. Often the very beginning is actually quite fast storywise because something needs to happen to get things going. After this a lot of games start to falter a bit. Either they fail to introduce anything thrilling for quite a while because the characters are resolving the initial issue (which often is not the really interesting part of the plot - interesting twists later in the story are a norm in this genre).

This is what happens with Xenoblade too. The first half of the game is basically spent traveling from point A to B, through a cavalcade of points in between. For me it simply failed to inspire the sense of an epic journey - something Final Fantasy X did for me - which meant it was literally just a series of new places and rather lame subplots. Perhaps the biggest failing plotwise in Xenoblade was however that for the entire first half of the game you could easily guess what the plot twist would be after the destination was finally reached (it is the same twist I referred to in the earlier post about women in games). In a way it just fails to give the player anything to chew on. One of the major advantages of Xenosaga in particular was that it had the player going "wtf" from almost the beginning. Actually the saga's plot is so complex that the player might still be all "wtf" by the end of it but hey, that's another topic entirely. I like the sense that something bigger is clearly going on.

Another, once again rather common problem in all games that have some kind of character development, is that in the beginning the player has very limited options and therefore mechanics can become really boring. This happens in Xenoblade on massive scale - partly because I think there are some flaws in its combat design - in such a way that the game is not exactly the most thrilling to play for the first twenty or so hours either. Quite honestly if I had made this analysis halfway into the game, you would be reading some serious bashing. At this point I actually was of the opinion that the game is utter crap and massively overhyped. A word of warning: if you want to like this game, be patient enough to actually get to the likeable parts. Unless you like the design which I believe a lot of people do, because it is reminescent of another JRPG title that reviewers liked and I find outrageous.

The bottom line is, way too often JRPGs fail to truly spark any interest in the player for the first few hours - this is strangely forgiven by the time players get to the good parts. However if we stop to consider, some of the worst offenders are not particularly good before the player has put in enough time to have beaten most games in any other genre. That is not good design and it is no wonder the genre is no more massively popular. It also outrageously common to have a certain plotline in the game that requires the player to rummage through several dungeons or other places while nothing really happens to move the game forward. "Now we are prepared to face the villain... almost. We just need you to get four pieces of this ancient relic from opposite corners of the world." that kind of thing. Meanwhile, absolutely nothing happens.

2. The single player MMORPG syndrome

This is what links Xenoblade to one of my least favourite JRPGs I have played: Final Fantasy XII. This syndrome is exactly what the name suggests: the game borrows its tropes and mechanics heavily from massively multiplayer online games and tries to make them work in a single player experience. The problem of course is that they just fail miserably. The gameplay mechanics of MMORPGs are - on average - frigging boring, especially in the beginning when there are very few abilities to use. My guess is that they have been optimized for playing with latency and in general to be playable by people who are not so great with their keyboard+mouse-fu. In case you have somehow missed the World of Warcraft school of fantasy combat, it is built around abilities with cooldowns and aggro mechanics.

We will get to the combat in a sec, but first let's talk about another trope that is ubiquitous in MMORPGs: quests. Lots and lots of quests. So it is in Xenoblade; the amount of quests in this game is simply overwhelming. When there are so many quests, it is immediately clear that almost all of them will be of the simple variety: collect items or kill monsters. As if it wasn't enough to have a massive amount of quests, the game also has one annoying aspect: quests are given by people, and in some clumsy attempt to appear more realistic, the people are not always available. Instead some people are only available during certain hours, sometimes only in certain weather. I could maybe understand people missing from the streets at night but making it also dependent on the exact time of the day is just really frustrating. I was already flooded with quests so this didn't bother me that much, except when I tried to turn in some quests and the recipients were not around.

The game does feature the ability to at least fast-forward the game clock. Still this is just not the way to do things. The game also gives horribly little information about the quests - like for instance what god forsaken hours the quest recipient would be as kind to be available. This is one thing I have always hated about JRPGs: some stuff is hidden in such irrational ways that the only sensible way to go about finding it is using a guide. Usually side quests are particular to the area where you get them, but when they are not, the game sure as hell doesn't bother to give information about where it would be possible to find the required items. The world is very large, and each area contains a huge amount of different enemies, so trying to find things is a massive time sink. Which I ultimately opted not to do.

As stated, the battle system in the game is very MMORPG-inspired. Simplified yes, and somewhat conforming to JRPG tropes, but MMORPG nonetheless. The player controls one character while two other party members are AI-controlled. Characters attack automatically when close enough to a target. They can also use abilities called arts, each of which has its cooldown time. Positioning matters but only slightly: attacking from behind or sides affects how some arts work. Another thing that matters is aggro, which is used to determine who the enemies will be targeting. It's not a bad system, but it is kind of boring. There is not that much strategy involved because the effect times of most abilities are way shorter than their cooldowns. The best single mechanic is the break-topple-daze system that allows enemies to be disabled for a while and take more damage.

The single player MMORPG syndrome is not a collection of aspects, but rather a general feeling. In Xenoblade it is very strong, and I think it is a bit lazy design. The biggest problem with the syndrome is that it is definitely not the combat mechanics that keep people playing MMORPGs. It is mostly the MMO and for some players the RP. The design of the G is actually not that exciting - at least not the combat part. I do know that in some MMORPGs the combat design is actually more exciting (e.g. Guild Wars, Tera) but the basic form seen in World of Warcraft is effing boring. It likely gets better later in the game as it eventually does in Xenoblade. However, over 20 hours is a long time for combat to be not that interesting.

3. Conservative RPG design

The real problem with combat in Xenoblade is not its similarity to MMORPG style but rather all the character development aspects that affect it. Xenoblade has a very conservative character development scheme in which advancement is carefully tied to plot progress. Higher levels in arts become available only when the player discovers manuals. Equipment is gradually upgraded in every area. Even the game's built-in crafting system puts limitations on how high leveled gems the player can produce at a given stage in the game due to the availability of materials. The problem with being so conservative is in the fact that it makes half of the things kind of redundant. The game does not really need scaling equipment because their scaling speed is about the same as character level advancement. This is something I have always had trouble understanding: if equipment is just better numbers, why have equipment in the first place.

Granted, there are pieces of equipment that have fixed games attached to them, which gives them special abilities that are usually slightly better than what is possible to produce at that time using slotted inventory and crafted gems. The gem system is mostly fine, although the crafting itself has unnecessary complexity. I found myself using the same two characters to produce every single gem during my game, and was more than happy with the results. The system probably has more to give but I didn't see any way to "jump ahead of the curve" - so to speak. The choices that really matter are which arts to equip and level up, and which gems to equip in slotted equipment. Skill trees are very simple, and the skills themselves are quite conservative in how much they affect the game.

It is not as bad as, say, The Last Story, but I still felt that my control over how my party fought was not the same level as I would have liked it to be. It is true that Xeno games in general have never been outstanding in this sense, but I do feel that some of the Xenosaga episodes did have more strategical options available. As far as options are concerned there is one factor that I found especially weird: practical party compositions are actually pretty limited. It is good that characters have different strengths and in Xenoblade every character has a quite distinct role. However there are two or three cases where this is simply taken too far: only one character can cast a shield against enemy talent arts; only one character can deal serious magic damage; and only one character is good enough at healing to actually have an impact.

The first and second are borderline fine, because there are not that many enemies where you would require their expertise, but the last one is really horrible. The way the game is designed, there tends to be only one way to fight: the slugfest - outlast your enemies. This topic was earlier discussed in this blog and I concluded that games where the slugfest is the only option are rather weak. In slugfests, when fights get prolonged, it is simply impossible to last very long without a healer. This makes that one character a requirement for any serious fights and with a party consisting of three characters, that only leaves two choices for the player. Granted, getting through bread and butter combat can be done without a healer but for every boss encounter you will need this character. There simply is no other way to reduce incoming damage.

Another problem with this whole conservative approach is that the player simply doesn't get the feeling of being in control in fights. There is simply not enough agency. There are some systems in the game that do increase the sense of agency - they will be discussed shortly. Nevertheless the sense of being in control is simply quite diminished. Although you control a character in real time, there is only so much you can do because none of the arts have really drastic effects. The designers have simply done too good a job of making sure the game is in balance - the result is overbalanced. Although the characters are different, the fighting experience is alarmingly similar with every party composition. The only exception is whether you have a healer or not. Controlling other characters yourself also gives a distinct experience, but the overall strategies remain the same.

Xenoblade does get more interesting around the 30 hour mark but it still is simply not as interesting as many other JRPGs that give a better sense of agency. That, and the mechanic itself is not that satisfying to play, largely due to its MMORPG influences. In lot of JRPGs tactical variance is in fact quite low, but usually the tactics are more satisfying to carry out. Often this is linked to how well skills combo with each other. This is another thing that Xenoblade does not do as much as I could have hoped. Monolith Studios does know how to build more intriguing skill systems into a game as was evidenced by Xenosaga 2 and 3 - they have just chosen not to do so.

4. One meter to rule them all

One central mechanic that the game itself somewhat underemphasizes is the party meter. At first I thought it was a bad idea but once I figured how to manipulate it better the game actually became quite a bit more enjoyable. The meter is more or less the lifeblood of your party because it does a variety of things. The meter has three segments, and most things cost one segment. The things you can do with it are: revive an ally; get revived by an ally (if there are no segments left, you lose the battle when the main character falls); warn an ally about an incoming art (see below); perform a tri-attack which uses all three segments. The fact that you need the same bar for both the combo attack and revival made little sense at first because it made combo attacks very suicidal to perform (lose 3 revives/warnings for a combo? No thanks!).

The warning system is noteworthy. Whenever an enemy art would incapacitate or put a character on very low HP or disable them severely, the player is given a foresight of the incoming attack and (usually) 8 seconds to react (12 if it is a talent art). If the player chooses to warn another party member, they can instantly cast one art with the warned character out of normal sequence. Most importantly, even abilities that are on cooldown can be cast, and casting arts from warning doesn't put them on cooldown. So, basically it is a free cast whenever something bad is about to happen. The player can actually warn both allies for the price of two segments. The system is in no way limited to defensive abilities, it can also be used to get a quick powerful attack in hope that it will kill the enemy. It can even be used to activate buffs that are on cooldown.

It is still slightly unclear to me what factors are involved in raising the meter. Three things raise it: critical hits, triggering special effects of some arts and seemingly random affinity moments. The last is a bit unclear because I did not experience anything that controlled when you get the affinity opportunities in battles. The first two are something that the player can actually build a strategy around by using characters with easy access to high critical chance or arts that have easy-to-trigger special effects and low cooldowns. These things allow the use of tri-attacks actually quite frequently. Furthermore, tri-attacks are usually used to cause a break-topple-dazzle combo which incapacitates an enemy for a moment. The daze can also be refreshed when it wears off (the window is quite short) which means you can follow a tri-attack combo with prolonged knockdown.

My basic setup was often able to fill two segments of an empty party meter during this period of daze. This allowed almost non-stop tri-attacks. Some enemies are immune to it though, because they are immune to break. Some enemies also have a defensive mechanism that makes them return a ton of damage when they are attacked while toppled. This effect can be removed temporarily, but only by one character in the entire game. The tactic is somewhat reminescent of Persona 3 Fes where it was possible to keep an enemy in an infinite knockdown loop but better in the sense that the loop cannot be infinite (I think, I haven't tried too hard). The fact that it doesn't always work also makes other tactics useful. Tri-attacks on the other hand are not very useful if they cannot be used to cause a daze, largely because without that temporary lockdown the player will be left entirely without party meter segments for a while.

Especially towards the end of the game, the party meter played a central role in tougher battles. The battle was then more about keeping the meter high, especially because of the warning system that allowed instant free heals for the whole party whenever someone was about to die. The warning system actually has a strong familiriaty to it - it reminds me of the boost system that was used in Xenosaga. It allowed characters to skip ahead in turn order and enabled both reactive plays and ability combinations to be carried out effectively. I am quite fond of systems like this one that allow the player to mess with the normal turn order. Although Xenoblade doesn't use turns what with being real-time and all, the warning system allows the player to ignore ability cooldowns.

5. World exploration

After playing the game I kind of know why it is held in high regard by many. Undeniably the world is interesting. Civilizations existing on top of two dead titans is a concept you don't see every day. Most importantly, this shows in the game. Look up and somewhere in the distance you can see a motionless metallic face. Environments are quite varied, especially on the starting titan. Most importantly, the local fauna on each area is credible. Enemies of very high levels can be found among the normal residents which makes it feels less like everything has been put there for the player. A similar choice was made in the largest area in Final Fantasy XIII. Like in FFXIII, monsters are visible to the player and can be avoided. Battle also takes place on the world map itself, like in FFXII, and prolonged battles can sometimes be joined by wandering monsters.

Enemies are divided into four categories based on how they get aggressive towards the player. The first category never does, they just exist and will only fight if attacked first; the second uses sight to detect the party; the third uses hearing (shorter range, but 360 degree detection); and the last type is drawn to magic being cast. Because the enemies can flock to battles that have already started, some consideration is required from the player before starting to fight. I have a divided opinion of this system - I find it fine when enemy patrol routes are not too long and it is somewhat predictable when more will join the fight. However in some areas there are flying monsters with monstrous patrol ranges that can just pop into a fight. I did find a rather silly way to deal with battles with too many monsters: hit and run.

Battles end when the player runs far enough, and characters recover their hit points very quickly outside of combat. Monsters also recover their health, but dead ones stay dead for quite a long time. Therefore it is possible to run in, kill one enemy and run away to heal. Rinse and repeat. Reminds me of the very old times with dungeon crawling games like Eye of the Beholder where you could literally run in, hit, and quickly run back (one step) to make any retaliation miss. In Xenoblade this strategy is brought about because escaping is quite easy, especially when all three characters are still alive. Once aggro is off the main character, the player can just run out of combat with no risk at all. Bursting down weaker enemies one by one in this way is an effective tactic but I did find it to be rather tedious. Fortunately it was not needed very often.

Unfortunately, besides monsters there is not much in the world to discover. Collectables are scattered here and there randomly (they also respawn randomly) but the only thing that truly drives the player to explore is the scenery. I have to say that I was quite positively suprised by the game's drawing distance. This made the scenery actually look quite impressive, despite the Wii's lack of visual processing power.


Ultimately the biggest issue I had with Xenoblade Chronicles was that it took so long for the game to truly get started. The first 20 to 30 hours simply were not up to the hype because nothing interesting was going on in the story and battle mechanics were not particularly varied yet. Once the game finally upped the stakes by a few notches I found it to be a solid JRPG. However it wasn't particularly spectacular at any point. Most aspects of the game are "only" good. Characters, plot, mechanics... none were really spectacular. Oh and why is that if there is a silly looking race in the game, they have to behave like idiots too? I can understand why a lot of people liked this game. After all, a lot of people also liked FFXII - which is possibly the worst JRPG I have ever played - and Xenoblade does have a lot of similarities.

Curiously enough, the fact that this game was for Wii did not bother me much at all. After the framerate nightmare of The Last Story I was prepared for much worse, but in fact most of the time Xenoblade ran just fine. It is possible that I would have liked this game more in the past. Now it suffered from rather high expectations and simply did not live up to them. The plot was nowhere near the complexity of other Xeno titles. Characters and dialogue were pretty standard stock, and I found voice acting - both English and Japanese - to be really tired. It was not quite as bad as The Last Story, but quite close. I guess the low budget of Wii development carries over to other aspects of the game too. The seriousness of the plot was also hurt by the fact that armor changed character appearance and at some point in the game the best armor - for a really long time too - was practically underwear.

Xenoblade did in many ways resemble JRPGs of the old times. It is just that it retained some things that could have been left into the past, but most importantly I think most of the modernizations were misses. This trend of likening single player RPGs to MMORPGs is a bad direction to head into. Sadly it is quite prevalent. Stop the madness and start making good single player games dammit.

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