Little Ways That Xenoblade Has Impressed Me

I've been playing a considerable amount of Xenoblade this year. It's fair to say I'm a little addicted to it. While there's plenty of positive things to say about the major parts of the game (graphics, sound, the combat, etc.), there seem to be an incalculable amount of smaller design improvements that it's making to slightly hoary JRPG trappings, going some way towards bringing the genre to the 2010s. Some of the following items wouldn't be out of place in many modern Western games perhaps, but it's refreshing to see in a genre I find myself becoming an apologist for more and more as the years go on.

I should also say that Xenoblade isn't perfect, in spite of how adulatory this list comes off as. It's as occasionally interminable as any large-scale MMO-but-not game like Monster Hunter or FFXII and the lack of HD for such an attractive game would probably irk anyone who seriously cares about that sort of thing. But man, if I haven't fallen for it hard. I hope this convinces a few of you fence-sitters to try it out when it arrives in the States in a few months' time.

List items

  • I mentioned this briefly in that comparative review blog thing I did towards the end of 2011 but, essentially, the world of Xenoblade is an endless ocean with two colossal deities standing in it. Both deities killed each other some inestimable time ago, creating all manner of lifeforms (including humans, called Homs) from their decaying corpses in the interim. At most points in the game, you can look towards the horizon and see the towering figure of one of these deities (usually Mechonis, the one you aren't living on). It floors me almost every time. Creepier still is when the weather gets so dense that all you can see in the distance are its eerie glowing red eyes, hundreds of miles away and above.

  • I don't want to harp on about the graphics, since the Wii can only do so much. However, the swamp level is the other thing I wanted to bring up about the game's visuals. During the daytime the Satarl Swamp (which is situated on the Bionis' ass, as if reminding the player to avoid extremely long game sessions) looks like a miserable swamp. However, at night there is some serious psychedelic Aurora Borealis shit going down as all the bioluminous flora and fauna get their glow on. It's more than a little visually intense and quite alien, which is more or less this game's aesthetic in a microcosm.

  • The game has a day/night cycle. While an excuse to get some pretty scenery changes going on (see above), it also has the practical application of doubling the population of any given area: certain monsters are only out during the day or night, and this applies to most NPCs as well. However, the game recognizes that players would not appreciate having to wait around for the opportune time of day to finish a quest or talk to a NPC or what have you, so at any point you can change the clock. Not just day to night like Ocarina of Time either; you can select the exact hour. The change is instantaneous too.

  • There's a lot of these. It wouldn't be a sprawling open-world type game without them. However, unless there's some actual NPC bonding to be doing, all fetch quests immediately end once you have the requisite items, or killed the requisite number of monsters. You get the reward then and there. Handy.

  • So these huge maps that make up the world are fine and all. It's nice to have a big playground to play in. But it sure makes getting from point A to point B a pain, especially when the quest sponsor is on the other side of the world from the objective. Except.. there's fast travel. You can warp to any landmark from any point in the game, and there's usually a landmark in any NPC settlement. Not exactly groundbreaking perhaps, but appreciated.

  • Perhaps the most notable features of the game are the time-bending powers of the Monado, the big plot McGuffin and the main character's weapon. I'm not too far in yet, so the powers I've unlocked might only be the tip of the iceberg. One of these powers is getting a heads-up whenever a monster is about to launch a particularly damaging attack. You can then prevent it from happening by either defending, buffing the target character, drawing aggro to a different character, disabling the monster's ability to perform that attack (say, by knocking it over) or just eliminating the monster before the timer counts down. You even get bonus rewards for doing this.

  • The precognition doesn't end there either. It can also inform you of an outcome to a quest you're following, occasionally adding extra optional steps to prevent a disastrous, hitherto unforeseen conclusion. If you pick up an item on the field that will later be part of a fetch quest, it'll tell you about that too so you can hang onto it. Everything else, therefore, is vendor trash. So, so convenient.

  • If you've ever played a Tales game, you'll know that building affinity between characters can pay off in more ways than simple cute story moments. Popularity leads to intimacy, this is true, but in Xenoblade it also means being able to use each other's skills and building up chain attacks faster, increasing the power of buffs and lots of other near-imperceptible boons. There's so many points in combat where you can give big ups to a party member on a particularly fine attack or dodge and improve your affinity with them, making frantic battles an oddly endearing support-fest. Go Team Discovery Channel!

  • I've never seen this in a game and I kind of wonder what the point of it is, but you can see a massive flowchart of relationships between every non-story named NPC in the game. As you talk to NPCs and help them with quests, these relationships change for better or worse. It's a definite curio and it's kind of neat, too.

  • There are collectibles, which are ubiquitous blue dots you can run over while exploring the landscape. You can use them up by putting them in a "Collectopedia", which unlocks various rewards once you fill up rows and tables with them, Bingo style. You can also trade them to NPCs for items or gift them to each other for affinity boosts. But it's all optional. It's just another thing you can do, if you wanted.

  • Yeah. Save points. Remember those? Xenoblade doesn't give a shit. Save anywhere you want. Finally, am I right?

  • Revive techs are fairly rare in Xenoblade. In fact, they're non-existent. To revive someone, just walk over to them and help them up like you would in any Gears game. Of course, with less active party members, you'll get more aggro from the enemies than usual. So be mindful of that while attempting to reach a fallen comrade.

  • Death is occasionally unavoidable. There are plenty of high level mobs just chillaxing in whichever areas you need to get through. As such, the grim penalty for death is... nothing. You just warp back to the nearest safe area. The only things you don't keep are the enemy drops you weren't able to procure before dying. Except... they're still sitting there where you died, so you can go grab them if you want. No biggie.

  • The skill trees are a little underdeveloped, but interesting all the same. You basically get three personality traits that make up the chosen character, with various passive and active bonuses that reflect that part of their personality. What impressed me is that as well as sharing bonuses with other team members after building some affinity with them, you can also acquire new traits by helping specific NPCs and discovering something new about yourself. It's yet another curious twist on a moth-eaten feature.

  • To be fair, FFXII did this too. Monsters that have colored tags to indicate how high- or low-leveled they are compared to your party. It's a nice visual short-hand for "look, don't touch".

  • Despite being a Wii game, Xenoblade has its own achievements. And there are hundreds of them. More than a sane person would ever bother completing in their entirety. But that's not really the point: Like Borderlands' challenges, they're mostly just milestones that award you bonus XP should you pass them. Just the sort of intermittent positive encouragement and supplemental objectives that achievements were always meant to be before some folk (like myself, admittedly) took our gamerscores a little too seriously.

  • Nopon make moogles look like the Skeksis. Those adorable little balls of Engrish are every bit the inventors and entrepreneurs you'd expect to see in any given FF game's moogle population. Just cuter. And with more of a backstory.

  • The British accents are a little hard to acclimatize to at times, even for someone who is also British. Instead, I wanted to hug whoever named the achievement for having a character equipped with the maximum amount of gem slots as "Truly Outrageous". Goddammit, no-one's going to get that, guys.

  • Just.. Dunban. Like Basch of FFXII, he was clearly designed to be an alternate protagonist for Westerners, who are generally more into the bad-ass older heroic type than the earnest effete blond kid. I also like the major damage-dealing types of fighters too.

  • Another thing I appreciate about the side-quests - you'll automatically get a prompt to check a quest after it updates (if it's a multi-part quest, say, or you need to return to the quest-giver to complete it). It's probably way more common than I'm remembering though. Easy to confuse the cool things Xenoblade does with the cool things most modern JRPGs also now do.