Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Where's My Mech?

November’s been weird, huh?

So let me talk about a video game, Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Sherri and I bought a Wii U in mid-September. We picked it up primarily for two games: the aforementioned Xenoblade and Tokyo Mirage Sessions. That’s not something we do for a console. We usually wait for a critical mass of games we want to play. But the Wii U catalog isn’t getting any stronger. I can only think of 4-5 other games on the system I’d even want to pick up. As well Nintendo just announced the end of Wii U production and the development of the “Switch.”
But we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the Wii U.

As of today I’ve played 269 hours of Xenoblade. Sherri’s played 378.

It hits our sweet spot and I’m not entirely sure why. We like JRPGs, though we prefer turn based combat. Still we dug FF XII & XIII, Star Ocean, and Dragon Quest Heroes, all twitchy games. But many others we’ve hated (Resonance of Fate, Rogue Galaxy). Today I’m going to boil down ten things I like about Xenoblade Chronicles X.

But first some backstory.

The original Xenoblade Chronicles came out for the Wii late in its life cycle. A fan campaign barely managed to get a US release. Sherri and I played a ton of Xenoblade Chronicles (I’ll call it XB1 from this point on). It had a decent active-time combat engine and (for the most part) interesting characters. But XB1’s set up and presentation sold it. It had massive zones, giving a better sense of space and scale than any other rpg I’ve played. It has to because your characters lived on the surface of a colossal warrior statue- one of a pair. These titans had frozen, locked in battle. To cross from one to the other you journeyed across their clashing swords. XB1 remains a dynamite game and probably the second best rpg on the Wii (after Rune Factory Frontier). Later Nintendo would do a version for the “advanced” 3DS, but I haven’t tried that.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (yes, they could have made a better title split) doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the original. That’s as far as I can see many, many hours in. Instead we’re clearly in our universe. Warring alien races destroy the Earth at the start, though why remains uncertain. Several colony ships escape just before the end. Aliens attack our ship, The White Whale, another solar system, shattering the vessel. The pieces crash across a world called Mira. Gameplay begins with our rescue from a stasis pod. We’re brought back to the single human settlement, New LA, developed in the months we’ve been on ice. From there we explore the world, fight monsters, do missions, develop new equipment, and uncover the secrets of this world and the original conflict which destroyed Earth.
 
It plays a little like an MMO. There’s a continuous landscape of several enormous zones. Xenoblade Chronicles X only loads when you fast travel across the map. In combat you have a default auto-attack and cycle through various arts to activate special attacks. It’s fast and chaotic, but gets manageable quickly. The AI controls your team of three additional characters, but you can tune their loadout and special actions. There’s a ton to do, but the emphasis is on exploration.

The Bad and the Good
(I’m limiting myself to eleven each)
BAD This space colony project clearly had terrible vetting. Many of your fellow human survivors (a limited pool) turn out to be assholes. They’re venal, greedy, and xenophobic in the face of humanity’s extinction. And they’re really dumb at times. The game needs to have human adversaries, I get that. But the side missions fall back on this trope way too much.

GOOD I love exploring environments. That’s my favorite part of every MMO (Final Fantasy XI, Everquest, Secret World). In particular I loved just flying around City of Heroes to see what the designers had created. This is even better. Each of the major zones has a distinct feeling: different colors, textures, weather, monsters, verticality, pathing. And there’s always more to find. This morning, 269 hours in, I dropped down into a place I’d never seen before and nearly got my ass handed to me.

BAD You can dress your characters. But there are many super cheesecake-y female outfits/armor. They have male flesh-baring clothing, but they’re not nearly equivalent (especially in the pants department). It can get annoying. In a similar vein a couple of the alien races fall into lazy design tropes (bulky, brute, armored males vs. svelte sexy, scantily-clad females).

GOOD But you have a ton of armor and costume choices throughout the game. And I mean a ton. Some are color swaps, but even they have minor differences to distinguish them. More importantly you can set your “Fashion Gear,” meaning your pick of visible armor. That lets you play paperdoll to your heart’s content. I love switching around outfits for my team from time to time, especially after I uncover a new unique suit.

BAD There’s no sort function for any of the inventory lists (collected items, weapons, armor). In some cases you can filter. But that only helps a little. You’ll spend time finding things within sub-menus. This is probably a translation artifact. As with other JRPGs items appear on the list as they did in the original language.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X fixes several of the problems of the first Xenoblade. You have more control in combat. You can train in different weapons sets, switching them between fights if you want. The creation system makes sense here as opposed to earlier random alchemy. The environments feel more full and diverse. The annoying Nopon race from the first game reappears here, but they’re more interesting and palatable.

BAD Though it didn’t bother me, some critics didn’t like how long it takes to get a battle-mech of your own (called Skells here). You’ll be well past the halfway mark before you do. Even then you have to wait another chapter or two before they develop flight technology.

GOOD When you finally get your Skell, it’s awesome. It controls very differently and takes some getting used to. By that time you’ve gotten down all the base character systems. Piloting a Skell introduces a host of new mechanics: new weapons, add-ons, fighting combos, tactics. It feels awesome when you can go out in your mech and beat up the monsters that crushed you in the past. There’s a parallel feeling of hubris when you discover Skells can’t solve every problem. More than anything since you’ve explored on foot for so long, being able to jump higher and eventually fly recharges the landscape. You get to explore again and uncover new secrets.

BAD Boy this game is white. You can change your own character’s skin tone and set up whatever ethnic identity you like. But most of your seventeen possible party members are white. Two are definitely Asian, one might be, and only one has darker skin. The same holds true in the human population within the New LA Colony: you see few definite persons of color.

GOOD I love the monster designs in this game. Of course you get the palette swaps with some species but more often than not, you’ll spot new details across beasts in different regions. I love watching Sherri play because I can actually see these foes. Yesterday I noticed that one species of Lictor, a big insect creature, had unique armor plating. I could see rune-like engravings on its plates. This game has many moments like that. I haven’t even touched on how well animated the monsters are. All have striking, animal-like movements.

BAD There’s a limited ‘palett’e to the characters you can add to your party. Let me rephrase that. Of the seventeen characters you can add, six feel interchangeable (either milquetoast or slightly douche-y males). The female characters fare better. Despite that you still have many great characters with interesting stories to choose from. But it’s disappointing that they don’t feel unique or possesses more than a basic characterization (know-it-all, drinker, airhead).

GOOD That being said I dig some of the richer characters and their stories. I want to know more about Alexa, Murderess, Elma, Nagi, and L when I play them. Murderess, in particular, is a terrible human being who stands in stark contrast to the others. It’s great to hear her interact with the more ethical party members.

BAD There’s little in the way of DLC. I would drop money for new things: armor, areas, missions, characters, monsters.

GOOD You have seventeen recruitable characters. They have different conversations among themselves depending on your team composition. We’ve seen that in other games, but I don’t recall there being this many. Some of the interactions are awesome and revealing.

BAD If you’re a playing a woman, some weird after-combat dialogue that pops up from time to time. In particular talking about problems with your hair. Some the female characters talk about shopping. If you’re doing a lot of battle grinding, you’ll notice it. It’s so weird and discordant with other stuff that I wonder if it’s an artifact of the original or something that popped up with the localization.

GOOD I love the way Xenoblade Chronicles X handles online stuff. And I hate console online gaming. You can go light with it, just getting some new tasks and bonuses or heavy and actually go on missions with other players. I haven’t done the latter, but it doesn’t feel like I’m missing out on something vital.

BAD “Here’s your weapons. There you go.” This game throws you in. There’s no real tutorial. Systems aren’t explained, you just have to figure them out. When they do finally mention something (“Hey, there’s a Collectopedia!”) that’s 20+ hours after you’ve discovered it for yourself. Arts & Skills, key combat elements, Overdrive, that there’s no falling damage, etc. aren’t explained. You have to dig down to figure out that out. Potential’s a listed stat…what does that mean?

GOOD At the same time I kind of love that. I dig figuring out things here- and that’s not normally my bag. I love having to go to the manual. I even love hunting around on forums to get insight. There’s a real pleasure when you get something to work. Like that moment when you spot signs about of a monster’s susceptibility to a particular damage type-- important because the game has six of them (Physical, Thermal, Ether, Gravity, Electric, Beam…with no explanation). The system’s opaque, but that doesn’t hurt it.

BAD Xenoblade Chronicles X has hundreds of side missions: from basic gathering, to bounty hunts, to city-changing assignments. You meet many, many quest givers. But one is presented as stereotypically gay: mincing, making suggestive comments, wearing make-up. It’s clearly presented to make the NPC seem odd and weird. That’s an off note and something we don’t see anywhere else in the game.

GOOD Combat remains challenging for a long time. Eventually you’ll be over-leveled, but that’s a ways in. You might smash through some monsters if you’ve tuned your weapons and armor right. But then you hit another creature that doesn’t work with and have to start again. If you’re like me, eventually you’ll get complacent. You’ll see a group of bug and jump in, only to have them agro a horde of other insects. Then Phogg dies, then Hope dies, and suddenly you’re away running as fast as you can …

BAD The Earth has been destroyed and New LA is the last holdout of humanity. We have a population, I’m guessing, of a few thousand. They live in a hostile environment, beset by alien foes, with a pseudo-military leadership. Yet Capitalism remains the driving force. Humanity immediately builds a “commercial district” with shops, colonists worry about their finances, and you see class distinctions. As well, all the friendly alien races are capitalists. It’s odd and actually becomes laughable in a couple of spots. Again, a minor note but a strange backdrop.

GOOD Xenoblade Chronicles X is an open-world game. Within zones animals of vastly different levels wander next to one-another. There’s no “this is the newbie area.” You’re forced to plan and move carefully. If you’re smart you can get by truly dangerous creatures. That allows you to unlock riches or die quickly. This open-world approach means that the story’s loose. You have distinct chapter missions you pick to move the story forward. That’s complemented by several dozen normal and affinity missions deepening the world and adding new elements. But the through-line of the story can be hard to follow and you may find yourself just wandering. That’s the risk of a sprawling game like this. Despite that, Xenoblade Chronicles X has gotten me a couple of times. It’s had some twists I didn’t see coming and at least one revelation that completely changed earlier events for me. 

In short: a great game that makes the Wii U worth it. 
Other experiences with it?