By Mento 16 Comments
Hey folks. I'm going to be just as contentious this week, though hopefully way less negative, by talking about a trio of games I've become hopelessly addicted to despite my best efforts to avoid such a situation in a month packed with highly coveted new releases.
These three games stand out as particularly similar with their intimidatingly dense open-world RPG gaming, if very little else tonally or structurally. Because I still have several shorter games on my to-do list for 2011, and that by their very nature these open world RPGs tend to be very time-consuming to an OCD nutcase completist like myself, I'm doing a direct comparison of the three to see which is most deserving of what little spare gaming time of 2011 I have left.
So I guess I should do a thing where I talk about each game, right? Maybe in a cliché boxing match sort of way, since this is a showdown. I'm all about the clichés over here. We'll have separate rounds too, because I've never found a blog device I couldn't wear out.
IN THE RED CORNER: Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Our most recent release and major heavyweight is Skyrim, a game about dragons and the Nords who love them. Love killing them and stealing their souls so they can shout at bad guys to make them fall down, that is. This probably needs very little introduction beyond that, since everyone and their grandmother is currently stomping across Tamriel's northern territories watching giants launch wildlife into the mesosphere.
IN THE BLUE CORNER: FromSoftware's Dark Souls
Dark Souls, the last big thing to take up everyone's time, is FromSoftware's opus and monument to abject, arbitrary cruelty. A much more methodical game than anything else in this contest, players are expected to enjoy themselves by finding wonder in their surroundings, learning from their mistakes and participating in a very patient combat system of parries, evades and ripsotes. Actually, they're expected to die a lot. Any pleasure derived from the experience is largely incidental.
IN THE... YELLOW CORNER?: Monolith Soft's Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade is sort of a dark horse, in that a considerable number of Giant Bomb users have yet to play it. And, in fact, are finding it hard to get a copy and would probably be sort of sore about someone calling attention to it like the tactless fool I am. Sorry for rubbing salt in the wound, guys. It's your usual JRPG, with a bit more of PSO's/Final Fantasy XII's fake-MMO gameplay rather than the usual linear turn-based adventure. Importantly, it's a hell of a lot of fun for a game so idiosyncratic with its many gameplay features. Almost to the same insane, sublime zenith that Dark Cloud 2 reaches. Almost.
ROUND 1: The World
Ding! For the first round, we explore perhaps the most important aspect of any open world RPG - the world in which the RPGs are open.. in.
Skyrim's got a very detailed frozen realm full of Nordic and Gaelic architecture and mythology, with the usual plethora of ruins, caves and the like to explore at one's leisure. Unless they have trolls or something equally big and scary, in which case you make a mental note to avoid it, go outside and get attacked by a dragon instead. The towns too, are impressive with their conceptual variation, with the mountain-forged Markarth a highlight. I haven't had the opportunity to see all the towns yet, but I've liked the ones I've stumbled into while half-dead so far.
Dark Souls' world is interesting if only because of how dark its apparently gotten since its glory days. Enormous terrors live in every dark corner (good god, I need to buy a thesaurus), and there's plenty of ugliness and beauty in turn to be found in many of the game's varied settings.
Xenoblade's most impressive feature is its world. From the eyeline of your tiny human protagonists, it's a place of verdant fields, networks of caves and impressive vistas. Pan out, as the game enjoys doing occasionally in dramatic story cutscenes, and you find that the entire "world" is the corpse of a million-foot tall colossus that died in an epic struggle with a similar colossus some distance away. The game starts with this battle, but it's a few in-game hours later when players are able to truly appreciate the actual size of these leviathans. It takes a while to get used to the idea, especially when every location is referred to as a body part of the giant God corpse you're all living on.
Winner: Xenoblade Chronicles. Dude, giant God corpses!
ROUND 2: Character Development
Ding! Ding! Join the Nintendo fanclub! I'm going to scrap the boxing analogy from now on. It's.. it's making me feel like a bad person. If you're planning to spend a lot of time in an RPG world, you'll want to have an engaging system in place for developing your playable character(s). One that ideally starts off as a blank slate of unlimited potential, with which to sculpt into a very specialized build that works for your preferred playstyle.
Skyrim's is exactly that, with a system that allows you to focus and enhance the skills you use most often. Sticking with one small group of skills allows you to quickly master them, but branching out to practice other beneficial talents will also allow you to gain skill points quicker, growing stronger at the expense of taking a while longer to utilize some of those super-useful high-level perks. It's a balancing act that's been a core component of the Elder Scrolls games since the beginning.
Dark Souls will ask you to choose a "class", giving you a smattering of stat points and the starting weapon/armor based on your choice. Beyond that, players are free to develop their character however they want, using their class choice as a loose guide of where to focus points into than a permanent statement of what that character is. Levelling happens at a rate dictated by the player, depending on how difficult they want the game to be, how effective they are at holding onto their souls and their tolerance for grinding. There's no doubt a few crazy people out there who are running around in their skivvies at zero level who have managed to beat difficult opponents through sheer skill alone. It's that sort of game, ultimately.
Xenoblade's development is far more arbitrary and specialized, in the way most JRPGs are. As far as player choice goes, you can choose to focus in skill trees that depend on personality aspects of the character. So the heavy bruiser might have "Determination" and "Recklessness", with defensive and offensive skills respectively. Players can choose to switch at will though, so with enough grinding it's possible to have everything. Where the character focus comes in is with the skills the player chooses to enter battles with: There are a limited number of spots on your "palette", so after a while you have to decide which mix of offense, support and technical skills work best. When you factor in the complex system of needing to break/topple/daze certain enemies to attack them effectively, it gets complicated fast.
Winner: Skyrim, by a hair. The new perks, one of many features cribbed from Bethesda's Fallout 3 project, is what makes the overall system shine brighter than it ever has.
ROUND 3: Combat
With round 3 we finally look at the game's combat. Again, it's a dealbreaker feature - a game with a lacklustre combat system will get dull fast, regardless of how much work has gone into every nook and cranny of that game's universe. Unless your open world sandbox game is Animal Crossing, it pays to have a combat system that's sufficiently fun and dynamic enough to never bore someone into a coma by their 1000th unavoidable battle.
Skyrim has managed to improve the usual Elder Scrolls system of waving a sword in someone's face as they barely acknowledge it until their semi-circle of health finally vanishes and they ragdoll into a pile on the floor. Instead, the new combat errs on the side of giving the players at least some feedback for their heavy hits, with Fallout 3's cinematic kills making an appearance sans that enigmatic dapper gunslinger in a fedora. It's got a way to go, but at least I can arrow a dude in the head and have it be considered more than a mild annoyance.
Dark Souls, inversely, has a brutal combat system that requires constant vigilance for telltale signs a fatal attack is coming so they can dodge out the way and find an ideal time to strike. Each opponent has their own methods of attack, and while holding one's shield up will negate most of the danger, it's never guaranteed and will quickly wear you out. Each fight, even against those you can take down in a single swipe, will prove to be your (temporary) undoing if you don't adequately prepare for the blows to come.
Xenoblade's is a massive clusterfuck of real-time combat with cooldown-based skills. On top of utilizing attacks which drop enemies into stunned states for set-ups, you also need to be aware of character tension (morale, in other words) which lead to devastating chain attacks, enemy statuses, enemy types and their immunities, attacks which cause more damage depending on your position relative to the enemy, keeping your allies healed and status-free and eventually being able to predict the enemy's next move and take steps to counteract it or at least deflect some of the damage. It gets fairly insane when you factor in the large number of enemies that could join melee at any given moment.
Winner: Dark Souls. It's the one combat system that isn't too simple to get bored of, but doesn't get too crazy complex to get hopelessly lost with. The little bear's porridge of combat systems, in this particular case.
ROUND 4: Sidequestin'
Any good open-world game gives the players a story thread to follow, and a yarn store's worth of threads to optionally chase after like some adorable, easily distracted kitten.
Skyrim has the customary longship full of sidequests which players can find by talking to almost anyone with a name. Turns out everyone has problems, delivered to you by guilds more often than not, plenty of which are conveniently located in several dungeons just outside of the city walls. Any town in which you choose to make your roost will have plenty to keep you busy, to the point where you're actually buying property once you realise you're in for the long haul. Or the large haul, as the case may be. Bandits are loaded it seems. With cabbages and terrible armor, more often than not, but at early levels you can't be choosy. There's plenty of aimless stuff to get yourself deeply addicted to as dragons systematically incinerate the world around you.
Dark Souls doesn't really do sidequests, but it does have the covenant feature. Each covenant is an entirely optional guild you can join and gives you a single focus which you can follow for adulation and some achievement-based collection achievements. They range from stealing souls, sneaking into other people's worlds for PvP, creating monster generators for other people, actually helping other people with bosses and other quests clearly intended to make completists throw hundreds of hours into every style of playing the game offers to get a platinum trophy. The swines.
Xenoblade's sidequests have the usual open-world format of finding hub towns, talking to several dozen people with exclamation points over their heads and walking out into the wilderness to find an entire pawn store inventory's worth of junk from the local environs. Among the pointless fetch and "kill X duders" quests, which are suspiciously played down (as if the game knows it's inane busywork) and conveniently automatically completed once the totals are met, there are plenty of better thought-out missions where you can assist the inhabitants with personal issues. This leads to building a weird flowchart of sorts where you can see a web of everyone's relationships with everyone else and how they're progressing because of your interference. It's oddly in-depth for something as minor as quest sponsor NPCs.
Winner: Skyrim. Just because of how crazy each minor side-quest has the potential to become, with the larger storylines for each guild on top of that. I'm at least 15 hours in and still doing quests for Whiterun's (my first town) populance.
ROUND 5: Crafting
If players are expected to run around collecting endless amounts of vendor trash from the monsters they hack apart, they're going to want a decent crafting system to sink those items and some time into for some sweet equipment.
Skyrim's trio of smithing, alchemy and enchanting (cooking hardly counts) gives players plenty to do with the minerals, reagents and magical sources they come across throughout the world. Vitally, each system awards players of differing temperaments: Smithing is all about diligence, with players needing to create a lot of low-level trash to raise their skill level to the point where they can make something worthwhile for themselves. Alchemy rewards experimentation, with reagents needing to be tested and combined to discover their effects. Enchantment is all about sacrifice and dedication, with the best enchantments locked away until the player has discovered them on other items, which they then destroy to learn their secrets at the cost of whatever gold the item could've been hocked for.
Dark Souls only really does Smithing, but it is so ridiculously in-depth that half the game's trophies appear to be linked to crafting items to their peak quality. There's very little variation in what needs to be done, however: Each ore and material needs to be grinded from particular monsters that carry them, and then weapons must be enhanced with those materials at an exorbitant price until they're at their shiniest. This is really the only way to get weapons and armor that can challenge the stronger enemies, and in some cases affect the enemies at all.
Xenoblade's crafting mini-game is utterly perplexing, like many of the game's features. Occasionally after killing an enemy, they drop gems which have specific traits related to that creature (such as fire resistance and hightened defense, for instance). If these gems are combined with others in this magical furnace back in town, you can create items that will slot into weapons and armor and enhance them. The trick is to find ways of combining enough of the same type of enhancement to create exceptionally powerful versions, but it's so often a crapshoot entirely left to chance. Or it might be because I suck at it still. I haven't got to grips with it fully yet, because there is just so much else to do.
Winner: Skyrim. Though to be fair, I've done very little crafting in all three games so far, beyond the necessary tutorials. They all seem fun though.
ROUND 6: Story
Story really takes a backseat in many of games of this type. If you ask about the story of Skyrim or Dark Souls, you're often told that you're missing the point. But hell, if I'm trying to pick a game I want to beat by the end of 2011, the culmination of the story is surely an important consideration?
Skyrim's story, so far at least, appears to involve dragons. Specifically, it appears to involve killing dragons and preventing some sort of dragony apocalypse by using the protagonist's innate (and mostly unique) talents of taking them out and using their own shouty powers against them. So it's like Condemned 2 then? Because I've met a few asshole bears in this game as well.
Dark Souls' story involves killing everything that isn't evil - the number of which can be counted on one hand, if something hasn't already lopped it off. There's nothing else besides some vague directions for the next goal given at every major checkpoint of the game, and some optional lore that equates to "everything's fucked", delivered by NPCs who haven't yet figured out they're supposed to kill you like everything else does.
Xenoblade actually persists with a fairly strong plot (which means a lot of cutscenes, but you can't have everything) that sees shit get real very quickly that convinces a mysterious protagonist with a mysterious past go off and find his mysterious destiny. It's fairly JRPGy, all things considered, but it's elevated a bit with a truly novel setting, some badassery, some weirdness and some pathos that somehow creates a JRPG narrative that doesn't make me feel embarrassed to be playing the game (hey ArbitraryWater, how's Final Fantasy X-2 treating you?).
Winner: So far, Xenoblade. But hey, it could all go horribly pear-shaped as the typical JRPG illogic sets in. Likewise, Skyrim's main quest storyline could be amazing, but considering how few of the game's players will commit to it makes me wonder why they would bother with something spectacular. I do think some of the short stories in the many books of Skyrim are fantastic in their own right, though.
So after adding up the number of wins, I think Skyrim has it. Honestly, I don't think I was going to play either of the other two games until Skyrim was done, but it's nice to have it scientifically verified in a battle royale all the same. I hope this helps some of you guys make your mind up, too, or at least try one of those two other games once you're done with Skyrim. Like always, post your preferences and dissensions in the comments below. Thanks for reading all this too, by the way. It sure turned out to be a lot of words to reach the astonishing conclusion that Skyrim is pretty great.