Monolith Soft: It Gon' Give X to Ya (Part 1)

Monolith Soft, not to be confused with the FEAR/Condemned fellows, is a Japanese developer of some recent burgeoning prominence. Originally a team of Xenogears developers that shot off from Square-Enix when they decided to take their inscrutable giant robot RPG series into their own hands, Monolith's slow rise to one of the most important JRPG developers of the modern era mirrors that of Level-5: both studios set themselves up to pursue very specific ideas of where JRPGs ought to be heading without being beholden to higher-ups focused on sticking with what's worked before for the sake of the bottom line. It's paid considerable financial and reputational dividends for the both of them, which is always something I'm happy to see occur in this industry. So why not talk about how they got to where they are today, as the developers behind one of the most spoken about trailers at last month's E3?

As I've come to accept as the norm with most Japanese developers, Monolith Soft has produced games that I was fortunate to play and will always cherish, some that are decidedly not for me and others which are forever trapped behind language and region barriers. Monolith Soft isn't a huge studio and cannot always get their games out onto a global marketplace, though their recent acquisition by Nintendo is certainly helping them extend their reach in that regard. Still, there exists a lot of incredible stuff that they've put out over the years and I'm going to take a quick gander at most of it and help raise their profile in whatever minor amount I am capable. They're not just the "Xeno- guys", after all (but they are mostly still the Xeno- guys).

Yep, nothing too thought-provoking or high concept from me this week (so, like every week?): Just a big old fan gush about a developer I adore. I mean, what else are internet blogs good for?

Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean

You know, JRPGs already have a poor reputation when it comes to petulant teenage protagonists, and this box art doesn't really help at all.

Though Monolith's first project was the first game in their Xenosaga series - the series they ostensibly split from Square to keep making, after it was becoming clear that Xenogears wasn't to get any sequel love - the first of their games that I actually played was their sophomore project Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean. A GameCube RPG on a system more or less bereft of the things beyond Tales of Symphonia and the second Paper Mario, Baten Kaitos is a fairly standard JRPG story wrapped around a rather unusual weapon/combat system. In battles, offensive and defensive options are depicted as playing cards and the player deals a hand for each turn out of a random assortment of cards, using the numbers on each card to create combos. A straight or a flush of weapon cards, for instance, will empower the hand with a considerable damage boost. Much of the game's mechanics depend on these cards, called Magnus, in one way or another. Not entirely unique - a similar RPG/card mechanic was employed in Atlus's Kartia: The Word of Fate - but it's a curious take on a CCG-inspired combat system which manages to sidestep many of the irritating problems inherent to that format.

It's presumably due to this odd card-based combat and the strange name (actually the traditional Arabic name for the star Zeta Ceti) that quite a few people were turned off. For those who actually played it, the imaginative touches and clever twist were early indicators that Monolith Soft had more going on than expanding the universe of their robot Jesus JRPGs. That's not to say they didn't have help, of course: Eternal Sonata's tri-Crescendo added a lot of their trademark ethereal whimsy to the floating world of Baten Kaitos too, and assisted with the programming.

This would normally be the point where I also extol the virtues of its follow-up, Baten Kaitos Origins, but that was a game that had the misfortune of never procuring a European release. I'm still a little annoyed about that. Baten Kaitos wasn't perhaps the GameCube's best JRPG (that honor goes to either of the two I mentioned earlier in all honesty) but, darn it, it was an original IP and deserved more recognition than it got. Just check out the battle music. If tri-Crescendo and Monolith wanted to team up for another Baten Kaitos, I'd be so down. I mean, I'm buying a Wii U anyway for the next Xenoblade, but a little more convincing couldn't hurt.

Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse

It's a very Star Trek thing, that whole "everyone stares at you from the teleporter stream" angle.

In retrospect, jumping into this series with its second chapter perhaps wasn't the best of plans. Jumping into what is generally regarded as the weakest chapter was doubly unwise. I just found Xenosaga Episode II: Germany von Bratwurst und Weinerschnitzel to be most inscrutable thing ever, from the many plot threads bereft of an origin or explanation to the very deliberately-paced mech combat to the copious amounts of expository cutscenes between comparatively small dungeon sequences. When I quit, I can't recall offhand if it was out of disgust or out of an obligation of putting a big pin through it and coming back after I'd tracked down the first game in the series and could actually acquire some context for whatever the hell it was I was seeing.

I mostly threw this in here to demonstrate that Monolith Soft isn't perfect. There's no denying I've done a huge disservice to this series by jumping in on middle chapter, but even so it's not like Empire Strikes Back would be an incomprehensible mess to someone who had never seen A New Hope, nor does the fact that I was narratively lost at sea exonerate its many other faults. Maybe I'll track down a copy of the first and try over, but something tells me I probably won't. There's a few other unplayed Monolith Soft games I'm more eager to try out first, let's just say.

Disaster: Day of Crisis

Unfortunately and inexplicably, this was never released in the land from which its many inspirations hail. Maybe you can all start an "Operation Falling Detritus" campaign to get it over there.

One of Monolith Soft's few non-RPGs (though that's not to say there isn't a little bit of that in there) Disaster: Day of Crisis is an incredible game, if only from the perspective of a keen purveyor of dumb action schlock. What initially seems like a played-straight parody of the sort of overwrought blockbuster Bay, Emmerich et al are fond of setting up absolutely confirms those suspicions less than an hour in when things start going completely nuts. The game is an amalgam of a disaster movie (or rather, several disaster movies) and an "everyman against terrorists" shoot 'em up action flick: there are allusions to at least a dozen different American movies, all invariably linked by being really dumb in a fun way. Cliffhanger, The Rock, Broken Arrow, Volcano, Dante's Peak, The Day After Tomorrow, Die Hard, Twister, Hard Rain and just on and on in that fashion, clearly from a lead design with way too many popcorn movies in his DVD library. I'd say the only "Japanese developer borrows American movie beats and completely ridicules them" game to edge it out in this department is the sublimely overpatriotic Metal Wolf Chaos, though that's not for a lack of trying on this game's part.

Under the hood the game is a curious mix of a few recurring modes, including a light gun shooter with RPG elements (of all the things to add RPG elements to), as well as a few mini-game sequences and QTEs. Though not the most riveting gameplay the Wii has to offer there's certainly nothing too objectionable here (though the driving sections are a consistently poorly-conceived pain) and the game largely coasts along on its amazing story and a constant chain of increasingly catastrophic natural disasters. This is a game that begins with an earthquake large enough to destroy an entire city and actually manages to raise the stakes again and again. The protagonist is constantly chugging energy drinks and oversized American fast food in order to keep his energy up. He heroically saves a little girl from a pyroclastic flow, and another from drowning in a torrent of water passing through the now-dilapidated city. He helps the city's mayor to convince everyone to push a broken bus out of the way so they don't all die from a fire tornado: a tornado, I'll just quickly reiterate, that is on fire and spitting out fireballs. There's a volcano, there's a flood - there's even a damn nuke you need to disarm.

Honestly, how can you hate any game where the sequel hook is an enormous meteor heading to Earth? What's my absurdly buff action hero playable character going to do, punch it back into space? Alas, Japan's probably seen enough natural disasters of late that they can no longer appreciate the inherent comedy of a game like this, so it's likely this series was quietly retired as soon as it began alongside Irem's Zettai Zetsumei Toshi/Disaster Report. Jokes simply can't land if it's "too soon".

Xenoblade Chronicles

You know, now that I look at this box art, it's really not all that encouraging: "Here's a plastic-looking red sword and there's a several mile-tall giant monster robot. Have at it."

I'm going to cap off Part 1 of this blog with an in-depth look at perhaps my favorite RPG of the previous generation. In all honesty, there's not a lot for it to compete with, though I suppose it is equally as fair to say that's there's still quite a few recent JRPGs out there I haven't had the fortune to play just yet. The reason this needs to be in-depth is that there's just far too many good parts that make up the whole of Xenoblade Chronicles, from its music to its non-linear exploration to its multitude of convenient utilities to its absurd plot to its character customization to its stunning vistas and environments to its idiosyncratic British voice-overs to its immense size and scope to the simple fact that all of this was possible on the Nintendo Wii - a console long thought to be the domain of lackluster mini-game collections and cutesy simplified sports games that Grandma can enjoy.

Where to start with that list, though? Well, why don't you let this (or this, or this) start playing while I try to come at a description of this game without getting my drool all over it. Xenoblade's a "spiritual successor" to the previous Xeno- games - not so much continuing their story or following their setting or even having anything like the same gameplay, but rather a plot that balances religious apocrypha with enormous robotic entities: a mixture of the god-damned and the Gundam, as it were. To say it's all a little convoluted would be an understatement, but doesn't go quite so deeply into philosophical matters as its forebears. Changing the setting to two enormous titans standing inert in an endless sea creates a very alien perspective of what the universe is from those living within it, and making these characters and their worldview so utterly unrelatable actually goes a long way towards rendering these reflective existential moments of the game far more palatable: they seek answers for why their world is what it is and we're invested in that journey because we'd like to have some context for it all as well - it's not simply creating an Earth-like world and having the quest to find Gaia or the lifestream or some other new age philosophy with a real-life counterpart that smacks of so much asinine "spiritual" drivel. Not that I really mind all that too much, but JRPGs tend to mine that vein a little too often and so it's always refreshing to see something new.

But I'd be scratching the surface with anything less than a full essay on Xenoblade, and something tells me that no-one would be particularly eager to read it. Of that long list in the first paragraph, the convenience utilities are the real highlight. The music and visual design are absolutely stunning, don't get me wrong, but they're the kind of things you generally hope to see in a quality JRPG. They don't surprise you as pleasantly as something like discovering you can save anywhere, or that there's frequent checkpoints you can warp back to instantaneously (and I do mean instantaneously - there's no loading whatsoever if it's part of the same region), or that there's achievements which do nothing but grant you small experience boosts for hundreds of independent milestones that the game keeps track of, or that minor fetch quests or monster hunts grant you all the rewards the moment the quest is over, or that the player can pinpoint to the minute where to rewind or fast forward to in the game's day/night cycle, or that...

You know, I think you've all got the idea by now. Why don't we just call it a day for Part 1 of this retrospective and next time I'll look at some of Monolith Soft's games I haven't yet had the chance to play, what they have in store for us in the near future and some of the more curious ways in which they've assisted their patron Nintendo. See you in a bit. (Or right now, if you'd prefer: Part 2 is up.)

28 Comments
28 Comments
Edited by Video_Game_King

Does Xenoblade have JRPG competition? Yes and no. I mean, there are a ton of really good JRPGs this generation, but Xenoblade's doing something completely different from all of them. It's hard to name a game from that genre which captures the same sense of scale as Xenoblade. Terranigma? There are several reasons why that's wrong.

Posted by Mento

@video_game_king: To be honest, the weirdness of Terranigma's world is one of the few to give Xenoblade's a run for its money. Terrangima's and Nocturne's, anyway. Damn inverse worlds made me seasick.

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Posted by Video_Game_King

You mean Nocturne has that freaky "living in a soup can" effect, too? Why haven't I played that already?

Posted by rubberluffy

I could listen to the Mechonis Field music for the rest of my life and be pretty content.

I can't even imagine jumping into Xenosaga with the second game. It's not even that good if you've played the first one. At least the third game is the funnest to play, even though that might be faint praise. About 1 1/2 years ago I actually sat down and played all 3 over the span of about 3 weeks. I think I skipped most cutscenes.

Posted by Mento

@video_game_king: It's a little more zoomed out, but yes. Actually feels a bit more like walking around a giant bowl, which makes me wonder about the pertinence of Persona 4's enigmatic meat dimension.

@rubberluffy: There was a thirty minute version of Mechonis Field floating around on YouTube, but it seemed like overkill. It would've also felt like I was denigrating the average reading speed of the Giant Bomb user.

It's why I can't be too harsh on Xenosaga, since I definitely screwed it up. I haven't actually played Xenogears either so I should probably start there if I ever decide to take another swing at that franchise. Or I can cut my losses and just continue with the next Xenoblade when it comes out. Well, backlogs exist for a reason, I guess.

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Posted by DeF

Does Xenoblade have JRPG competition? Yes and no. I mean, there are a ton of really good JRPGs this generation, but Xenoblade's doing something completely different from all of them. It's hard to name a game from that genre which captures the same sense of scale as Xenoblade. Terranigma? There are several reasons why that's wrong.

Funny how those two games are the absolute pinnacle of the Action RPG for me and I will drool over the for all eternity. Seriously, it can't be a coincidence! (Btw, they both have city-reconstruction gameplay ...hmmm)

Posted by Mento

@def: Actually... so does Dark Cloud II, which happens to be my favorite Action RPG. What the heck is going on here?

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Edited by Darji

@video_game_king said:

Does Xenoblade have JRPG competition? Yes and no. I mean, there are a ton of really good JRPGs this generation, but Xenoblade's doing something completely different from all of them. It's hard to name a game from that genre which captures the same sense of scale as Xenoblade. Terranigma? There are several reasons why that's wrong.

In terms of scale White Knight Chronicles felt bigger than Xenoblade but Xenoblade was a much better JRPG with flaws. For example yes they were over 500 Side quests but most of them were like MMO grind quests and nothing really interesting. Also I never saw how people could call Xenoblade Open World when it was clearly a linear JRPG with wider areas and nothing else.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

I just wanted to say congratulations on the blog title.

Well done, duder, well done.

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Posted by Video_Game_King

@darji:

Because you could always go back and fuck about with the quests? Granted, it's not entirely obvious how, but you can still do it.

Posted by Darji

@darji:

Because you could always go back and fuck about with the quests? Granted, it's not entirely obvious how, but you can still do it.

But that is not what open world means. You can also backtrack in FFX but it is still not open world. Backtracking is possible in almost every JRPG even in FFXIII you can backtrack later on. On a quick thought I can not name you one modern JRPG where you can not backtrack. A Game like Suikoden is more open world like even you are a bit restricted by the story in the end.

Posted by DeF

@mento said:

@def: Actually... so does Dark Cloud II, which happens to be my favorite Action RPG. What the heck is going on here?

*goesnutsandresearchesdarkcloudii*

Posted by ArbitraryWater

I don't think I've ever played a single Monolith Soft game. Xenoblade seems like a game I would like but its limited run in the US has ensured that a legal copy will be prohibitively expensive for the rest of time, sort of like Suikoden II and V.

I have the sinking suspicion that the Xenosaga games are all overwrought anime pretentiousness, but not in the way I can get behind (i.e. Evangelion). A pity, since I could probably get all three of those games for the price I'd have to spend on a used copy of Xenoblade. Same goes for Baten Kaitos, but replace "overwrought anime pretentiousness" with "inscrutable battle system". Oh, and before I forget...

A GameCube RPG on a system more or less bereft of things beyond Tales of Symphonia and the second Paper Mario

You forgot the crown jewel of the gamecube RPG library: Lost Kingdoms. Clearly that game is good and my fond memories of it aren't the product of it being one of the few games I could rent from my local blockbuster.

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Edited by Darji

@arbitrarywater: why is xenoblade so expensive in the US while you can gt it in Europe easily for 40 Euro?

Posted by DeF

I don't think I've ever played a single Monolith Soft game. Xenoblade seems like a game I would like but its limited run in the US has ensured that a legal copy will be prohibitively expensive for the rest of time, sort of like Suikoden II and V.

Easy solution: Softmod your Wii to allow playback of games from other regions (or play on PC via Dolphin if you can) and import a way cheaper European copy.

Posted by DeF

@darji said:

@arbitrarywater: why is xenoblade so expensive in the US while you can gt it in Europe easily for 40 Euro?

Because it was only sold via Nintendo's website and GameStop in limited quantities.

Posted by BisonHero

@def said:

@darji said:

@arbitrarywater: why is xenoblade so expensive in the US while you can gt it in Europe easily for 40 Euro?

Because it was only sold via Nintendo's website and GameStop in limited quantities.

Yeah, it was localised in a timely manner in Europe, and was given a reasonably wide release.

In North America, they dragged their feet forever on releasing it, didn't relocalise it (it uses the British voice track), and as DeF said, it was only distributed through Nintendo and GameStop (EB Games in Canada) and there really weren't many copies of it made.

Posted by BisonHero

@geraltitude said:

I just wanted to say congratulations on the blog title.

Well done, duder, well done.

The blog title is pretty masterful. You're a legend, Mento. DMX would be proud.

Posted by Dalai

@def said:

@darji said:

@arbitrarywater: why is xenoblade so expensive in the US while you can gt it in Europe easily for 40 Euro?

Because it was only sold via Nintendo's website and GameStop in limited quantities.

Yeah, it was localised in a timely manner in Europe, and was given a reasonably wide release.

In North America, they dragged their feet forever on releasing it, didn't relocalise it (it uses the British voice track), and as DeF said, it was only distributed through Nintendo and GameStop (EB Games in Canada) and there really weren't many copies of it made.

More American games should feature British voice tracks.

Nintendo didn't seem to have much faith in Xenoblade in North America, but they were at least smart enough to release it at all here.

Posted by Slag

@mento: I played Xenogears and Xenosaga 1. Both were crazy inscrutable, especially Saga which was basically like one giant incredibly long, verbose obtuse dull cut scene broken up by mediocre combat sequences. That's kinda what Xeno games are. Xenogears is frankly the only one worth your time.

So you didn't really miss anything.

I do need to play Xenoblade Chronicles some time, but I have a feeling I won't. :(

Posted by Hailinel

@slag said:

@mento: I played Xenogears and Xenosaga 1. Both were crazy inscrutable, especially Saga which was basically like one giant incredibly long, verbose obtuse dull cut scene broken up by mediocre combat sequences. That's kinda what Xeno games are. Xenogears is frankly the only one worth your time.

So you didn't really miss anything.

I do need to play Xenoblade Chronicles some time, but I have a feeling I won't. :(

I wouldn't go that far. Xenosaga is pretty dense and loves its religious imagery and symbolism, but it's not inscrutable. Episode I is actually a pretty well-paced game, if you're the sort that can stand to watch its lengthy cutscenes. It introduces all of the major players at an even clip before bringing them together, and then has a "Death Star moment" at the end where they beat the giant superweapon and the villains escape to plot another day.

The real trouble begins with Episode II, which as has already been noted in this thread, is not the best game in the series (by far). Unfortunately, a lot of its faults have to do with Namco's bean counters and issues with creative control. As I recall of the drama, in addition to making gameplay adjustments that would supposedly draw in a wider audience, Sorya Saga (Tetsuya Takahashi's wife and a co-writer on Episode I) was essentially forced out. These issues basically turned the game's story into a bit of a mess, and unlike the first game, the pacing was definitely off. Further compounding the problem was that Xenosaga was originally supposed to span six chapters, but then all of these behind the scenes shenanigans happened and they had to tie everything up in the third game even though Episode II isn't properly paced to be the second game of a trilogy.

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Posted by Mento

@hailinel: Damn, that's some xick senosaga knowledge dropping. I had heard that something went disastrously wrong with part II, but that's quite the debacle. Hopefully less of that will happen now that Nintendo owns them, but I guess it's not like they're perfect either.

Of course, while I don't know all the details of why Sorya Saga was removed from the project, it oddly coincides with what I learned today about Michiru Yamane getting laid off by Konami after Order of Ecclesia wrapped up. Her music was deemed too feminine for the "grittier" Lords of Shadow reboot they were planning, even though she had been the main composer behind almost all Castlevania music since the 16-bit era. As if I needed another reason to dislike that janky mess of a God of War knock-off (though the new guy's music isn't too bad either).

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Posted by Hailinel

@mento: I didn't realize that it was possible for me to dislike Lords of Shadow more than I already did, and yet now I do thanks to that revelation. Stupid Konami.

It's hard to say how Nintendo will treat Monolith in the long term, but they seem to be doing well so far, even though NOA has been reluctant to release their games stateside. (Missing out on Soma Bringer and Disaster, and nearly missing out on Xenoblade.) Then again, the uproar seems to have made them change their tune and they seem very adamant on giving "X" its due.

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Posted by Slag
@hailinel said:

I wouldn't go that far. Xenosaga is pretty dense and loves its religious imagery and symbolism, but it's not inscrutable. Episode I is actually a pretty well-paced game, if you're the sort that can stand to watch its lengthy cutscenes. It introduces all of the major players at an even clip before bringing them together, and then has a "Death Star moment" at the end where they beat the giant superweapon and the villains escape to plot another day.

... Further compounding the problem was that Xenosaga was originally supposed to span six chapters, but then all of these behind the scenes shenanigans happened and they had to tie everything up in the third game even though Episode II isn't properly paced to be the second game of a trilogy.

It may have been an over-statement, It has been 10-11 years since I even touched it, so perhaps my memory of Xenosaga is a bit unfairly harsh.

Monolith had always seemed to have some drama going on behind the scenes back then. I wonder if that's different now they are with Nintendo. It must be because it doesn't seem like much hints of any drama come out.

Xenogears in my recollection definitely went into some weird philosophical/spiritual territory with that second disc, not to mention what it did to the gameplay, which if memory serves was somewhat unintentional since they had to rush due to Square pushing it out the door. And then boom at the end credits

"Episode V" which made total sense after Xenosaga part 1 came out but was yet another WTF moment in on that disc.

But I loved that game. I'm ok with weird second discs. Neon Genesis Evangelion was just hitting stateside around the same time and it felt eerily similar in many respects.

I do remember hearing that Xenosaga was supposed to be a hexalogy and maybe that was the source of my problem with it as that probably really slowed down the pacing of the plot. Again memory not perfect, but it just seemed laden in a lot of filler dialogue and unnecessary detail but not in a good way. Typically I really like world building in games, but Xenosaga was one where I didn't. I like cutscenes so it wasn't the number of them for me, it was that they seemed so sparse on meaningful content that made the Plot feel like it was just going so slow.

For me at least there was enough density to the religious philosophy and psychoanalysis terms and theory that did make the significance of somekey plot points largely inscrutable to me.

from what you and Mento are saying about 2 and 3 I don't feel bad for passing on them

Posted by JackSukeru

Baten Kaitos was a game I sorta followed back in the day and considered buying though never did. It still holds a spot in my mind as something I could see myself going back to someday, if I ever clear out my backlog. I didn't know Monolith made it.

I also watched some Xenosaga trailers curiously but never dove into any of those games either, though in this case I have now researched them a little bit and concluded that I probably wouldn't have been very into them after all (or maybe I would have, though I'm certain I wouldn't be today).

Xenoblade I have played, though far from to completion, and I think that it is really fantastic in some spots. It alone has convinced me that this new X game that Monolith is making is worth paying attention to.

I never got to the part where it was played but by god that Mechonis Field music is great! I'm going to just doze off to that for a while.

Edited by DeF

I never got to the part where it was played but by god that Mechonis Field music is great! I'm going to just doze off to that for a while.

The awesomeness of that game's soundtrack cannot be overstated. The only thing I worry about with X is that that Sawano guy will only make stuff that I can't stand like the music in the reveal trailer (yuck!). Yoko Shimomura and ACE+ was a fantastic pairing for Xenoblade (with Mitsuda sadly only doing the ending song).

Posted by Hailinel

@def said:

@jacksukeru said:
I never got to the part where it was played but by god that Mechonis Field music is great! I'm going to just doze off to that for a while.

The awesomeness of that game's soundtrack cannot be overstated. The only thing I worry about with X is that that Sawano guy will only make stuff that I can't stand like the music in the reveal trailer (yuck!). Yoko Shimomura and ACE+ was a fantastic pairing for Xenoblade (with Mitsuda sadly only doing the ending song).

I think Sawano's music sounds great, but I'd have to hear more tracks to properly judge it for myself.

Also, on the subject of Baten Kaitos, I played the first game, and damn, what a weird game. But while people might bristle at its cliches and the crazy combat system, the twist that the main character was playing you, the player like a fiddle for a large chunk of it was a pretty awesome mindfuck.

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Edited by GrantHeaslip

Though I don't think I finished it -- I think I started university and didn't have a TV for a while -- I played Baten Kaitos and never realized it was made by the same developer as Xenoblade.

I've got a love-hate relationship with Xenoblade that certain members of this thread have heard more than enough about :), but I'm really curious what comes of X. Monolith, at least from my perspective, seem unpredictable in a really great way.

@rubberluffy said:

I could listen to the Mechonis Field music for the rest of my life and be pretty content.

Yeah, it's pretty great. Xenoblade might be my favourite video game soundtrack, and added so much to that game.

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