Weekly Roundup 04/15/2012

As I mentioned two weeks ago, a bunch of friends and family came up to visit last weekend. It was good times; we played a new board game I recently got (Small World, really fun), saw The Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian, and capped it all off with a Video Games Live concert. The concert was fantastic, and I think the consensus favorites for our group were the God of War suite, Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII, and Time’s Scar from Chrono Cross. I also really liked the Mega Man and Shadow of the Colossus arrangements they did. Hard to go wrong with any of those, and the National Philharmonic did an awesome job. VGL can often be about celebrating video game culture as much as anything, but the musicians are the ones that make it work. Special shout out to those talented folks.

Certainly not the revolution everyone claims it is.
Certainly not the revolution everyone claims it is.

Anyway, past a little StarCraft I didn’t play any games at all that week (hence no post last weekend), but on Monday I dove headfirst into Xenoblade Chronicles, and have sunk a dozen hours or so into it during the week. I’ll just come out and say it upfront; I don’t understand the hype this game got. I like a good JRPG as much as anyone, but after constantly hearing people say for a year that it “is a revolution for the genre”, “drags the genre into the 21st century”, and “is the best JRPG this generation”, it’s hard not to have impossible standards for the game. Xenoblade is by no means bad, but I find none of those claims to be true. I’m glad people are liking this game, especially given its troubled localization process, but that’s taking it a little far.

More surprising is that I’m not even sure I’d call Xenoblade a JRPG. Sure, it’s a RPG made in Japan (so were the Souls games, and I wouldn’t call them JRPGs either), and its story is very much classic JRPG melodrama. In terms of gameplay, however, Xenoblade is much more World of Warcraft than Final Fantasy. You go from zone to zone, each one containing mobs that you can kill for experience and loot. Each zone has a town of sorts, containing a bunch of NPCs with exclamation points above their heads ready to give you quests of the “kill 5 wolves” variety. Taking the comparison further, characters in your party fill classic MMO roles such as tanks and healers. In fact, a lot of abilities deal specifically with the concept of “aggro” by name, with certain characters clearly designed to draw aggro, while others are designed to avoid it. All of these abilities are also on cooldown timers, just like a MMO. Really, the combat and quests make for purely standard MMO gameplay. Turning JRPGs into a different genre is not quite the same as “revolutionizing” them.

The combat and quests are far more MMO than JRPG.
The combat and quests are far more MMO than JRPG.

In fact, so far the game feels like a lesser version of Final Fantasy XII to me in a number of ways, which was a game I really liked. FFXII had a lot of similar MMO style mechanics, but didn’t take them quite as far as Xenoblade does (and also did a lot of them better). FFXII felt more like a JRPG/MMO hybrid, where Xenoblade feels more like a pure single player MMO. Initially, this was pretty off putting to me. I generally enjoy standard JRPG gameplay much more than standard MMO gameplay (hence why I'm not a big fan of MMOs), and I definitely had a moment during Xenoblade’s early hours where I questioned if I should even stick with it. I ultimately did decide to keep at it, so hopefully it will pay off.

There are other nitpicky issues I have with the game too. First and foremost, it simply needs full party control. It’s hard, if not impossible at times, to set up obvious combinations like inflicting break, then topple, then daze (effects that have to be applied in succession) when I can only control a single party member. I could also better manage aggro control and healing with full party control, a lack of which makes the game feel less strategic than it should; lacking full party control makes the outcome of battles feel much more dependant on my level and gear than my actual battle strategy, which I’m not a fan of. I also don’t care for a lot of the game’s auxiliary features, such as affinity and gem crafting. Many of these things just feel tacked on without any real substantial consequence, and make the game feel more bloated without necessarily being better. Maybe their purpose will become more apparent as I play more, who knows? Also, the areas of the game that do still feel like a JRPG, namely the story and characters, haven’t grabbed me yet. But it is still early, so I’ll withhold judgement on those for now. Finally, the tutorials are just bad. Nothing else to say about that.

The environments are big and look great.
The environments are big and look great.

It didn’t get off to the best start, but Xenoblade is slowly growing on me as I keep playing, and it does do a few things that are really neat. First and foremost is the sense of scale it has. The world is absolutely massive, and the environments are expansive and lively, and are a lot of fun to explore. The game also looks and sounds fantastic, though I’ll have to see how well that holds up in the long run; if the environments and music don’t have enough variety to last the entire game their impact could be lessened as I go. I also really like most of the character customization, from selecting and levelling up your Arts (your powers/moves) to the various skill trees. The way some quests are automatically turn in upon completion is also nice, and the fast travel is a good inclusion.

Anyway, that’s my first impression. Like I said, Xenoblade isn’t bad, but it also didn’t give me, as someone who doesn't really like MMO style gameplay, the best first impression. I’ll keep playing and see how it goes; I definitely think it’s only getting better from here. I may also play some Fez and/or Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (which comes out on PC tomorrow) over the next week or two, both of which look great. So that's all for now, until next time!

Currently playing: Xenoblade Chronicles

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