The Future of the JRPG genre
After an underwhelming false start with Xenoblade Chronicles back when the game came out, the re-release on the 3DS made my give it another try and now that I’m nearly through with the game (just beat the 3rd last main quest boss), I feel compelled to write my first game review after many years of non-gaming content here.
«Review» might not be the entirely correct term though as this article is about to explain why I personally believe Xenoblade to be one of the best instances of the JPRG genre and might actually be very high up there in my list of all-time favorite games.
But first, let’s talk about what’s not so good at the game and why I nearly have missed this awesome game: If I had to list the shortcomings in this masterpiece, it would be the UI design of the side-questing system and the very, very slow start of the story.
First the story: After maybe an hour of play time, the player is inclined to think to have been thrown into the usual revenge plot, this time about a fight against machine based life-forms, but a simple revenge-plot none the less. Also, to be honest, it’s not even a really interesting revenge-plot. It feels predictable and not at all like what we’re usually used to from the genre.
Once you reach the half-time mark of the game, the subtle hints that the game’s dropping on you before that start to become less and less subtle, revealing to the player that they got it all wrong.
The mission of the game changes completely to the point of even completely changing whom you are fighting against and turning around many things you’ve taken for granted for the first half.
This is some of the most impressive story-development I’ve seen so far and also came as a complete surprise to me.
So what felt like the biggest shortcoming of the game (lackluster story) suddenly turned into one of its strongest points.
«Other games of the genre also did this» you might think as you compare this to Final Fantasy XII, but where that game unfortunately never really takes off nor adds any bigger plot-twists, the thing that Xenoblade does after the half-time marker is simply mind-blowing to the point of me refusing to post any spoilers even though the game is quite old by now.
So we have a game that gets amazing after 20-40 hours (depending on how you deal with the side-quests). What’s holding us over until then?
The answer to that question is the reason why I think that Xenoblade is one of the best JRPGs so far: What’s holding us over in the first 40 hours of the game is, you know, gameplay.
The battle system feels like it has been lifted from current MMORPGs (I’m mostly referring to World of Warcraft here as that’s the one I know best), though while it has been scaled down in sheer amount of skills, the abilities themselves have been much better balanced between the characters, which of course is possible in a single-player game.
The game’s affinity system also greatly incentivises the player to switch their party around as they play the game. This works really well when you consider the different play styles offered by the various characters. A tank plays differently from DPS which plays differently from the (unfortunately only one) healer.
But even between members of the same class there are differences in play style leading to a huge variety for players.
This is the first JRPG where I’m actually looking forward to combat - it’s that entertaining.
While the combat sometimes can be a bit difficult, especially because randomness still plays a huge part, it’s refreshing to see that the game doesn’t punish you at all for failing: If you die you just respawn at the last waypoint and usually there’s one of these right in front of the boss.
Even better, normally, the fight just starts again, skipping all introductory cutscenes. And even if there still is some cut-scenes not skipped automatically: The game always allows cutscenes to be skipped.
This makes a lot of sense, because combat is actually so much fun that there’s considerable replay-value to the game which gets much enforced by skippable cutscenes, though some of them you would never ever in your life want to skip - they are so good (you know which ones I’m referring to).
Combat is only one half of the gameplay, the other is exploration: The world of the game is huge and for the first time ever in a JPRG, the simple rule of «you can see it, you can go there» applies. For the first time ever, the huge world is yours to explore and to enjoy.
Never have I seen such variety in locations, especially, again, in the second half of the game which I really don’t want to spoil here.
Which brings us to the side-quests: Imagine that you have a quest-log like you’re used to from MMORPGs with about the same style of quests: Find this item, kill these normal mobs, kill that elite mob, talk to that other guy - you know the drill.
The non-unique and somewhat random dialog lines between the characters as they accept these side-quests break the immersion a bit.
But the one big thing that’s really annoying about the side-quests is discoverability: As a player you often have no idea where to go due to the vague quest texts and, worse, many (most) quests are hidden and only become available after you trigger some event or you talk to the correct (seemingly unrelated) NPC.
While I can understand the former issue (vague quest descriptions) from a game-play perspective, the latter is inexcusable, especially as the leveling curve of the game and the affinity system both really are designed around you actually doing these side-quests.
It’s unfair and annoying that playing hide-and seek for hours is basically a fixed requirement to having a chance at beating the game. This feels like a useless prolonging of the existing game for no reason but to, you know, prolong the game.
Thankfully though, by now, the Wiki exists, so whether you’re on the Wii or the 3DS, just have an iPad or Laptop close to you as you do the side-questy parts of the game.
Once you’re willing to live with this issue, then the absolutely amazing gameplay comes into effect again: Because exploration is so much fun, because the battle system is so much fun, then suddenly the side-quests become fun too, once you remove the annoying hide-and-seek aspect.
After all, it’s the perfect excuse to do more of what you enjoy the most: Playing the game.
This is why I strongly believe that this game would have been so much better with a more modern quest-log system: Don’t hide (most of the) quests! Be precise in explaining where to find stuff! You don’t have to artificially prolong the game: Even when you know where to go (I did thanks to the Wiki), there’s still more than 100 hours of entertainment there to be had.
The last thing about quests: Some of the quests require you to find rare items which to get you have a random chance by collecting «item orbs» spread all over the map. This is of course another nice way to encourage exploration.
But I see no reason why the drop rate must be random, especially as respawning the item orbs either requires you to wait 10 to 30 minutes or, saving and reloading the game.
If you want to encourage exploration, hide the orbs! There’s so much content in this game that aritifically prolonging it with annyoing saving and reloading escapades is completely unnecessary.
At least, the amount of grinding required isn’t so bad to the point of being absolutely bearable for me and I have nearly zero patience for grinding.
Don’t get me wrong though: Yes, these artificial time-sinks were annoying (and frankly 100% unneeded), but because the actual gameplay is so much fun, I didn’t really mind them that much.
Finally, there are some technical issues which I don’t really mind that much however: Faces of characters look flat and blurry which is very noticable in the cut-scenes which are all rendered by the engine itself (which is a very good thing).
Especially on the 3DS the low resolution of the game is felt badly (the 3DS is much worse than the Wii to the point of objects sometimes being invisible) and there’s some objects popping into view at times. This is mostly a limitation of the hardware which just doesn’t play well with the huge open world, so I can totally live with it. It only minimally affects my immersion into the game.
If you ask me what is the preferred platform to play this on, I would point at the Wii version though, of course, it’ll be very hard to get the game at this point in time (no. you can’t have my copy).
So after all of this, here’s a list of the unique features of this game it has over all other members of its genre:
- Huge world that can be explored completely. No narrow hallways but just huge open maps.
- Absolutely amazing battle system that goes far beyond of the usual «select some action from this text-based menu»
- Skippable cutscenes which together with the battle system make for a high replayability
- Many different playable characters with different play styles
- Great music by the god-like Mr. Mitsuda
- A very, very interesting story once you reach the mid-point of the game
- Very believable characters and very good character development
- Some of the best cutscene direction I have ever seen in my life - again, mostly after the half-time mark (you people who played the game know which particular one I’m talking about - still sends shivers down my spine).
My wishes for the future
The game is nearly perfect in my opinion, but there are two things I think would be great to be fixed in the successor or any other games taking their inspiration from Xenoblade:
First, please fix the quest log and bring it to the current decade of what we’re used to from MMORPGs (where you lifted the quest design off to begin with): Show us where to get the quests, show us where to do them.
Second, and this one is even bigger in my opinion: Please be more considerate in how you represent women in the game. Yes, the most bad-ass characters in the game are women (again, I can’t spoil anything here). Yes, there’s a lot of depth to the characters of women in this game and they are certainly not just there for show but are actually instrumental to the overall story development (again, second part).
But why does most of the equipment for the healer in the game have to be practically underwear? Do you really need to spend CPU resources on (overblown) breast physics when you render everybodies faces blurry and flat?
Wouldn’t it be much better for the story and the immersion if the faces looked better at the cost of some (overblown) jiggling?
Do you really have to constantly show close-ups of way too big breasts of one party member? This is frankly distracting from what is going on in the game.
I don’t care about cultural differences: You managed to design very believable and bad-ass women into your game. Why do you have to diminish this by turning them into a piece of furniture to look at? They absolutely stand on their own with their abilities and their character progression.
It is the year 2015. We can do better than this (though, of course, the world was different in 2010 when the game initially came out).
All of that aside: Because of the amazing game play, because of the mind-blowing story, because of the mind-blowing custscene-direction and because of the huge world that’s all but narrow passages, I love this game more than many others.
I think that this is the first time that the JRPG game really has moved forward in about a decade and I would definitely like to see more games ripping off the good aspects of Xenoblade (well - basically everything).
As such I’m very much looking forward for the games successor to become available here in Europe (it has just come out in Japan and my Japanese still is practically non-existent) and I know for a fact that I’m going to play it a lot, especially as I now know to be patience with the side-quests.
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