All-New Saturday Summaries 2017-01-28

So, I prefaced this new iteration of the "[Blank] Summaries" feature by saying that I wouldn't be commenting on new game releases any more. Fact was, without actually playing the games, I didn't have much I could lend in the way of insight beyond my own interest level and my background with the franchises they belonged to. Inconceivably, however, the first few months of this year are offering an incredible volume of the type of games that are well within in my area of expertise. It almost feels like this year's output is tailor-made for me, which becomes a little less solipsistic a statement when I consider how often I've seen the same sentiment expressed by others here and elsewhere. When doves cry, and whatnot. (Oh, right, that guy died last year. I bet there were a whole lot of crying doves when that happened. Or maybe just a lot of pooping on statues. We all cope with grief differently.)

Anyway, we now have the unenviable scenario where this year will feature a new Yakuza, a new Tales, a new Persona, a new Mass Effect, a new Nier, a new Xenoblade, a new Ni no Kuni, a new Ys, a newly translated Trails in the Sky chapter, a spiritual sequel to Planescape: Torment and a reboot of the venerable The Bard's Tale. These are some of my favorite series, many which haven't been active for half a decade or more, and I can't help but feel a little overwhelmed. I've already got a wishlist a mile long for last year's prodigious output, and I've got no reason to believe 2017's won't end up even longer.

Getting older and having less free time often means letting things go, but due to my nature as a mildly obsessive completionist with a fondness for enormous RPGs and open-world games it's becoming harder to do. I'll probably never play half of the above list, because a number of them - I'm thinking Ni no Kuni 2, and possibly Yakuza 0 and Xenoblade 2 - will take more time than I'm prepared to spend on a single game these days. Never say never, of course, but I can see myself consulting "HowLongtoBeat" more frequently this year and beyond to see what I can fit in where. The downside of living in the Best Time to Be Playing Video Games™ is dropping all these backlog items for the sake of stringent scheduling. Like dumping valuable treasure to make room in your inventory for the slightly more valuable treasure.

As I ponder the year's embarrassment of video game riches, you can all feel free to ponder this week's content:

  • While this year's wishlist is going to be a difficult one to whittle down, it's starting to look like The Top Shelf's eliminations will go a lot smoother. We took out all five of this week's entries, the majority of which were lesser PS2 ports and unexciting licensed games, giving us less work to do for the second round. Check out this week's unfortunate quintet over here.
  • The fourth Indie Game of the Week was Shardlight. I might've been a little harsh on this one in retrospect, but that's only because I hold Wadjet Eye Games to increasingly impossible standards as they continue to meet them year after year. If all you're looking for is a decent yarn with a minimal amount of frustration with its point and click inventory puzzles, I'd recommend giving it a look. But yeah, there's a few older WEG creations I named in that blog that you might want to visit first, if you haven't already.

Xenoblade Chronicles X

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Whenever I play a game that builds a sci-fi universe from scratch, I always look first to its alien races. I recall playing the first Mass Effect and spending hours on the Citadel getting codex entries on all the xenoforms I could meet, becoming better acquainted with Turians, Asari, Salarians, Elcor, Volus, Hanar, Krogan and the Keepers. Part of the reason Star Control II endures is through how well its various alien races are realized, some comical and others chilling, and how their stories are inevitably woven into the player's mission of restoring humanity and its federation of star-faring allies. Creating an entire species, with its own distinct technology and culture and history, is a tall order and probably the best litmus test for the imagination and level of detail that has gone into the worldbuilding of this new universe. Think of it as being the creative sci-fi equivalent of the variable quality of Triple H's hair tech.

Xenoblade Chronicles X isn't so much a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles but a new interpretation of its specific open-world pseudo-MMO RPG format, and one that borrows as much from Xenosaga stylistically than it does from the original Xenoblade. It focuses on a plot that sees humanity hunted almost to extinction across the cosmos after the utter annihilation of the planet Earth, and those survivors are forced to figure out how to live on a dangerous alien planet with their aggressors still in pursuit. Some odd property of the planet attracts other wayward xenoforms the player can bump into, along with a handful of native sapient races, and the player's human city of New Los Angeles starts filling up with colorful aliens as the player makes allies, all of whom share the same warlike nemesis to unite against.

There are some mild spoilers here. The game slowly introduces its alien visitors, has you complete a task or two for the opportunity to extend a laurel of peace, and then reconfigures the player's hub city to incorporate all these new faces granted residential rights. As you complete various story missions and side-missions, you find more alien NPCs to talk to, which continues to fill the game's immense "Affinity Chart" of criss-crossing relationship lines and gives the player more side-mission sponsors and sub-stories to consume. I'll introduce each race with a few descriptive lines and then launch into a spoiler-blocked review of their role in the game for those curious. (I'm presently most of the way through the story, so there might be a handful of end-game twists I haven't accounted for.)

  • Humans. We've been coping fairly well with the destruction of the Earth and the instantaneous vaporization of 95% of our fellow kin, given the circumstances. A lot of humans are teetering on the brink of insanity from losing so many loved ones, but for the most part the planet of Mira presents an opportunity to rebuild and find our place in a galaxy that is a lot more populated than we previously thought.
  • The humans we see in the game are in fact mimeosomes: hyper-realistic androids that are controlled remotely from their respective hosts' stasis pods from the seedship, The White Whale. The crux of the game is locating this "Lifepod" - the enormous freezer that contains all known living human beings - before it is destroyed or before its auxiliary back-up power runs out. When a mimeosome is damaged, it can either be repaired from a finite supply of spare parts or becomes nonoperational, essentially killing that mimeosome but sparing the human in stasis that was controlling it. It's a fascinating take on humanity and mortality, calling into question our relationship between consciousness and our physical forms, and a way to have both its cake and eat it in terms of shocking NPCs deaths. Any mimeosome can die at any moment without huge risk to the host, but it means they're essentially removed from the game, and the player can inadvertently kill people by making the wrong decisions. While this might seem to carry little consequence since the fleshy human equivalents are just fine and curled up in a stasis pod somewhere, the fact is that the New LA government needs every available operative searching for the Lifehold. Every human soldier lost means one fewer pair of eyes to locate the Lifehold and one fewer gun to protect the city from encroaching threats both alien and indigenous.
  • Prone. The tall, buff and warrior-like Prone race make up the bulk of the Ganglion forces, the name given to the hostile alien organization that helped destroy Earth and continues to hound the remaining humans. The first Prones you meet seem to despise humans, and will kill them on sight, as is the case with any other Ganglion the player might encounter. This hatred almost borders on religious indoctrination. Oddly, while the male Prone are around ten feet tall, the women are the same height as humans.
  • You discover later that there are essentially two warring clans of Prone - the Tree clan and the Cavern clan - and the latter were given powerful weapons to eliminate their rivals in exchange for servitude to the Ganglion. The Tree clan you are able to rescue eventually join you in New LA, giving the residents a bit of a shock. After all, the Prone are the most readily recognizable threat outside the city walls. You even eventually befriend some Cavern folk too, though the city officials have a hell of a time keeping them and the Tree clan from being at each other's throats. What I like about the Prone is that, despite the two clans fighting for "10,000 suns", there's no indication that their species had advanced much further than the Stone Age when the Ganglion found them, trained and equipped them with high-tech weaponry and used them as muscle in their conflicts.
  • Nopon. Yeah, these guys are back. I mean, they're pretty much the series' mascot character. It makes slightly less sense why an equivalent to the Ewoks managed to travel to a planet so far from home, but then this is probably a completely different universe that just happens to have their own race of Nopon. The Nopon are tiny furballs who talk in broken English and are avaricious to a fault. This makes them excellent traders, however, and their nomadic lifestyle means they're experts on the planet's geography. With the arrival of the Ganglion, they're happy to have humans around to protect them, as well as another race of sapient creatures to barter with. And by barter, they essentially mean rip off. A particularly annoying Nopon called Tatsu ends up being the party's pet, and there are endless jokes involving eating him which... kinda got weird as soon as we understood that the Nopon were sapient, and have just gotten weirder as time has passed.
  • Ma-non. The Ma-non are a diminutive and squeaky-voiced race similar to amphibians, but without any apparent capability of living underwater. They're also highly advanced with a mothership filled with inscrutable technology, but with that level of advancement and relative lack of adversity comes an almost detrimental level of wishy-washy indecision and lethargy. They long outgrew most of their baser instincts, forsaking weaponry and conflict and currency and hierarchical structures and strong emotions and most vices. That humanity kinda introduces a lot of those elements back to them is both exciting for them and a little shameful of us. They're big pizza lovers too, which I have to imagine is a turtles thing.
  • When the player meets a handful of Ma-non around the desert region of Oblivia, they're worried about their ship, kept trapped in the nearby ravine by Ganglion artillery. When this ship is freed and the Ma-non joins humanity under their protective umbrella - they can't leave the planet, and they don't have weapons to defend themselves in spite of all their technology - the ship turns out to be half the size of the city. It also becomes a permanent location to visit, and the source of many of the more alien-focused side-missions. I particularly like the idea of the Ma-non as being an example of an advanced race living in a Utopian version of the future, such as Star Trek, and what that might mean to such a race's psychology and temperament after a few thousand years. Even a perfect, intellectually-rewarding egalitarian society would get boring after a while.
  • Orphe. An ant or mantis insectoid race that reproduces asexually through fission. While dispassionate and logical, initially only joining the humans because they presented slightly better odds at winning their fight with the Ganglion, they prove to be helpful allies with their vast amount of scientific knowledge and eidetic memories. The process in which they split into two separate entities preserves genetic memory, so every generation is as knowledgeable as the one before though their individual intelligence levels and areas of expertise can change. They primarily eat plants, which is causing the city's landscapers some issues.
  • The Orphe are guided by a symbiotic virus they named the Ovah, which allows for their fission-like reproduction and allows them to connect to each other empathically on a level that isn't entirely clear. While a highly rational species in most respects, they treat this Ovah with an almost religious fervor, considering it an integral part of their being. It's also what makes it difficult for them to warm up to species without Ovah, such as humanity. A sapient race that reproduces through fission is just a fascinating idea, especially with the relationships that form between the deceased host and its two offspring. It also means no genders and no relationships beyond the acquaintance level. Because they only need a special catalyst to split - senirapa water, which they soon learn to fabricate from the purified water the humans are making - the five remaining Orphe on the planet you recruit eventually become dozens. We don't know if that's going to be a problem yet, though the Orphe definitely seem above any kind of hostile territorial action. Like the Ma-non, they've long outgrown the need or desire to use weapons, but are happy to develop specialized armor for humans instead. I've not used this armor, but it focuses on evasion instead of defense.
  • Zaruboggan. I love these guys. Zaruboggan resemble the Volus or Quarians of Mass Effect, in that they all wear protective hazmat suits at all times because Mira's clean atmosphere is poison to them. They are sustained by a substance they call "voltant", which appears to be analogous to radioactive materials or some other form of toxic waste. They will happily process any voltant they come across, and consider it a divine calling to remove all voltant from the galaxy. It also means they don't particularly care about anything else, making them easier to understand as allies. It probably says something bad when a species with an affinity for removing toxic waste products is fond of humans for producing so much of it.
  • The Ganglion had been using them as scouts for less hospitable areas, and while they can survive most environments they aren't quite as endurable against hostile creatures. Because the Ma-non have long switched to a form of energy that is both clean and emission-free, the Zaruboggan have less interest in them. They also tried eating pizza, but it proved almost fatal. What I like about these guys is that they seem like an engineered race, or perhaps an artificial one: a species created by an advanced civilization who had poisoned their planet and needed a way to fix its toxicity levels. They're almost like a race of WALL-Es.
  • Others. There's the feline Wrothians, an initially hostile proud warrior race who seek honor in battle which are reminding me of the Kilrathi quite a bit. There's the Milsaadi, Marnucks and Definians; a tall ninja-like race, a group of armored warriors and an all-female shapeshifting espionage species respectively, all of whom work for the Ganglion. There's the lagomorphic Qlurians, of which I've met exactly one so far - she's the only one with a British accent, if you don't count your avatar (you can give him/her the voice actors behind Shulk/Fiora from the first Xenoblade). There's also L, who is a very curious and polite alien of indeterminate species who introduces himself as a merchant of sorts and decides to stay in the city to start his own boutique. He's been a big question mark so far.

Anyway, that's enough about aliens for now. What really helps establish each of these alien races is the number of NPCs associated with each one, and how your conversations with them can reveal all kinds of small details. I'm looking forward to learning more as I continue to play the game. I feel like the game's saving a couple of big mysteries for its conclusion, in particular regarding the Ganglion's inexplicably white-hot hatred of humanity and the presence of what appears to be a Telethia on the planet; one of the incredibly powerful psychic dragons from the first Xenoblade. I'm about a hundred hours in so far, and yet the main plot is still grabbing me, so that's definitely an impressive feat for an open-world game. I can tell you how much I still cared for stopping Alduin towards the end of my Skyrim playthrough: not a whole lot.

(Also, my skells can fly now. It's pretty cool.)

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