By Mento 28 Comments
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
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
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
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".
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.)