A Good RPG Will Steal Your Life

I have not actually died, nor have I suffered hospitalization.  I have, however, been playing a JRPG that has sucked hours and hours of my life away in joyous questing.  It’s actually a game that I should not be able to play, actually, thanks to Nintendo of America.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a Japanese ass JRPG that incorporates a decent number of MMO mechanics, and the result is weirdly awesome.  It’s only loosely connected to the Xenosaga games as an ultra-prequel; an early title was Monado: the Beginning of the World.  It has gotten rave reviews pretty much everywhere and is fully translated and localized into English, so all that’s left is the slight shifts involved in changing to a different region-l0cked format.  It’s one of the best RPGs to come out in a long while and is exclusive to the Wii, so it seems like a no-brainer that they’d happily jump at the chance to get sales from North American gamers.  (All the work of translation and voice recording is done, after all.)  But apparently none of that makes financial sense to the regional corporate overlords, because they have announced that it will not be coming to a store near you.

I don’t pirate games, but I pirated this one.  And I don’t feel the slightest bit bad, because they gave me no legitimate way to play the game.  So it’s running through brute-force emulation on the main PC, and it looks pretty good actually.

But it’s also kind of monopolizing my life, gobbling up my free time like a ravenous beast.  Because it’s incredibly fucking addictive; it’s as if the game knows exactly what sorts of bizarre completionistic compulsions exist in my head and is actively exploiting them.

It’s enormous.  Not just the world, which is definitely huge (made manageable by a good fast travel system and the ability to save wherever) but there’s a lot going on in this game:

  1. sizeable party to shuffle and equip
  2. complicated system of individual talents to level up and overlapping skills trees of passive abilities that characters can equip from other characters (depending on how close you are to the other character)
  3. equipment gem slots and gem crafting from monster drops and mining (yes, actual mining)
  4. an active battle system that borrows from MMO elements, where not only are offensive debuffs useful, they’re necessary
  5. some quasi-quick-time button presses during combat to keep things extra busy
  6. an absolutely staggeringly large map with tons of hidden nooks and crannies, tons of hidden unique monsters, quest items, special collectibles, surprise quests, tucked away NPCs/merchants, and “heart-to-heart” locations that tie into a mad affection web
  7. seriously, this map is huge, I can’t even explain how large it is, but the fast travel is absolutely necessary
  8. bizarre diagram representation of interpersonal relationships with your party characters that you improve gradually over time to achieve better results in party collaboration
  9. a system of gift giving I just can’t seem to figure out
  10. an even crazier looking web of NPC happiness that affects your ability to get quests and trade for items
  11. a RPG of where you talk not just to everyone or even everyone twice, you talk them again and again and again
  12. money sink/grind encourager where you rebuilt an entire city to former glory on an ongoing basis during the story, even encouraging NPCs elsewhere to move there
  13. glowing blue collectables in each new zone that you use to fill in a stamp collecting element (yes, really)
  14. enough side quests of all shapes and sizes to kill a small elephant

So there’s a lot to take in.

But one thing that I keep coming back to as I get further into the game (as of this writing, approximately 130 hours in and just passed level 70) is the sheer scale of the world.  I remember someone saying that based on how far you travel and the time it takes with the night/day cycle that you cover approximately the same amount of area as the Japan archipelago.  I have to say that now that I’ve had a chance to travel many of the areas, I completely believe it.  There’s nothing quite like being able to look at the two titans and trace how far you’ve traveled.  The other day, Thrack walked in to see me play for a moment and was stunned by how small the town in the palm of Mechonis’ hand seemed from the uppermost fingertip I had climbed.  What’s more, although the game is made for Wii level muscle, it still looks good.  The developers put a lot of time and thought into making areas look immersive, interesting and varied.

I’m also decently impressed with the score of the game.  While the battle music is at times needlessly disconnected from the ordinary zone music, that’s almost to be expected in this kind of game.  But there’s something haunting about the lilting piano during the night-time music in Valak Mountain that I wish more games would try to emulate.

The game play can seem a bit frantic when you’re first trying it out, because while you only have direct control over one of the three characters in the party, you jump through the other two during a chain attack, which becomes active once you’ve filled the gauge through successful attack, damage and kills.  Ideally, you use this to put difficult enemies into a series of status effects (breaktoppledaze) that are honestly necessary to playing the game.  Other status effects, like bleed/poison/burn/slow/paralyze/silence (called-arts-seal) and what-have-you are not necessary, but they do help, and unlike other RPGs I’ve played, you can actually inflict them on enemies, rather than simply dreading the debuffs enemies throw at you left and right.  And I’m really starting to think that certain party buffs are essential for any elite named monster or boss unless you spend hours and hours grinding for levels.

The arts, or abilities you use to attack/heal/buff, are very much borrowed from MMO mechanics.  You have abilities that you select in your toolbar and level up.  All arts have basic cooldown times that you can shorten using leveling or passive skills.  The active combat feels a bit like Final Fantasy XII did, except I think it’s better executed in Xenoblade Chronicles.

Battle is weirdly tied in with the party affinity system.  You build affinity during battle, partially by just fighting alongside each other, but also by hitting the almost-quicktime dodges and the like; you can also run up to a fallen, status-effected or discouraged party member and get them back up to earn affinity.  But having more affinity means that chain attacks are more effective; you can keep chaining more attacks if you catch quick-time button presses that come with higher party affinity.

Affinity seems to seem into everything about how characters work together.  In addition to leveling up character arts (attacks/healing abilities), each character has multiple skill tree paths they unlock as they fight and gain levels, but these passive skills are shared between characters and can be equipped using affinity coins, which you get while leveling.  (Of course, as with many things in this game, it doesn’t do a great job of telling you what the hell things are for or how to do them, so I had 93 affinity coins before I found the portion of the menu to use them.)  Basically you need to watch how your characters relationships change and shuffle characters in and out of your party to get the best results all over the game.  Affinity even seems to play into how well you can make gems, with other characters jumping in to up the score and potentially the level of gem produced.  It’s crazytown.

Speaking of crazytown, nothing I say can express how terrifying/awesome I find the eventual web of relationships you build between NPCs all over the world.  Watching relationships shift after you talk to people enough and do quests here and there is a bit of a completionist’s nightmare; how do you know you’ve gotten all the quests in an area (especially time limited ones) if you don’t talk to everyone a five times between unlocking a new zone and getting to the next one?  And then once you gain a few levels and unlock the next area, you have to go back to all previous NPCs because someone somewhere will have a quest for you.  And don’t forget, different people are active depending on the time of day, so you have to run through a town over and over again just to make sure you talk to everyone once.

Being able to fast-travel back to all the towns at any time doesn’t feel much like a traditional JRPG, but it has enough of the tropes that I definitely categorize the game as such.  It very much feels like a JRPG that leans on Western gaming ideas that work and pulls it off well, but the story is so Japanese.  You have the young hero protagonist who was a somewhat petite and absentminded guy before being chosen to save everything ever.  You have the thief with a heart of gold and the cute critter all wrapped up in one here.  You have the somewhat sheltered magic girl who seems rather innocent and waifish but who gets tons of power.  You have the dumb, protective jock who everyone makes fun of.  You have the recovering war veteran who stoically hides some baggage.  You have a love interest lost at more or less the beginning of the game.  You have the hero inadvertently doing bad things that threaten all of existence through ignorance.  You have organic life versus technology, although this one is handled much better than in most games.

And in case all of that doesn’t make it seem Japanese enough, there are the optional cut-scenes called heart-to-hearts scattered all over the world/town maps.  So you get the usually inscrutable cutscenes tied to the story, but you also get to see optional ones between pairs of characters once you meet the scene’s specific requirements that are sometimes more inscrutable and surprise, surprise, can build affinity.

Xenoblade Chronicles is also very long.  It’s taken me a long time because I’ve tried to do everything, but I can’t imagine fighting bosses without the better equipment and levels I have gotten from sidequest related grinding.  I’m to where I think I see how the story will play out, but I’m far from at the end of the game.  It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’ll be sad when it’s over, but I recommend it to anyone who likes JRPGs.  I might recommend waiting until you have the luxury of devoting tons of time to this and only this (assuming you have my compulsive game-playing nature), but it’s well worth it.

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