Tonight I finished the main game of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, though I haven't played the new epilogue yet, and while I want to write up full thoughts at some point, for now I just want to complain about the end of the game, or really the back third. I think that XBC falls into the incredibly common JRPG trap of starting out telling a personal story about relatable characters and then ending up just describing the mechanics of its world and the philosophies of characters you don't really care about for hours on end as it draws towards its conclusion.
After the introduction of Dunban and his comrades the game really begins with the story of Shulk and his friends coming of age in a small city in the aftermath of a war. Despite XBC having a fascinating and insane world where everyone lives on the surface of this dead titan in the middle of a boundless sea, it starts with a grounded and relatable scenario. The game takes some time with this setting, giving you some menial tasks and quests and letting you get your feet wet with the combat fighting bunnies and caterpillars. Then, after things change for Shulk and his friends, he sets off on a big adventure to explore his world and seek retribution, while also learning about himself and the Monado, the magical blade that's at the center of the game's story.
For the next 35 or so hours you go from fascinating environment to fascinating environment, learning all about Bionis and its inhabitants, seeing all kinds of really cool art assets, listening to some amazing music, and meeting new people along the way. You follow Shulk's quest through its various twists and turns and his growth as a person and a character and then there's a major development and big event that splits up your party for a little while and explores the characters a bit more deeply before they regroup and start back on their path.
You are, at this point, about 60% through the game (My playthrough was about 56 hours and I got to this point ~35 hours in) and have seen the vast majority of what it has to offer. From here the game switches from a nice mix of combat, exploration, and story, to a much grindier and more combat-driven experience that not only has you fighting similar enemies in similar environments for like 10-15 hours, but drastically scales back side quests, characters outside your established party, and even story cut scenes. These things still exist within the game but they are de-emphasized in favor of running through dungeon zone after dungeon zone fighting similar mobs with similar tactics. You stop getting new abilities, you get fewer fresh equipment drops, and everything stagnates. Even worse, the story stops being about Shulk's relationship to his friends and himself and becomes much more about the antagonists and their various incomprehensible plots and ideas, which are explained in excruciating detail over and over. I don't care that Egil is bitter about Zanza's betrayal. I really don't care about Zanza's stupid justifications for his actions or endless speeches about how all life are just insects for him to devour. The game seems to lose all interest in Shulk, leaving a whole lot of questions about him unanswered, and instead focusing on this massive plot and mythology it is spinning out, none of which really means anything. The game started with a plenty interesting premise. It did not need to spend this much time revising that premise into complete and utter nonsense!
Even the music is not as good.
I don't know if they ran out of money to make a game as huge as they wanted to make, or ran out of time or what, but the back third of this game was so grindy and repetitive that I enjoyed it substantially less than the first two thirds. To add insult to injury I actually had to level grind, partially because there were fewer side quests to level up on and partially because some of the late game boss fights are totally unmanageable with the limited tools the game gives you at a lower level, or at least were for me. If I think back on the memorable moments and character developments they almost all happened in the first 30 hours, which is basically the first half of the game.
A lot of games have better first halves than second halves, for a bunch of reasons. Every player is going to see the start of a game so it makes sense to put your best assets there where everyone will experience them. Games naturally get repetitive and grindy over time, at least if they are long enough. It's much easier to start a game in a compelling way than to end it in one. But when a game is as long as Xenoblade Chronicles is, it's unclear to me why they didn't cut a lot of the fat towards the end and focus on making the end areas more varied and interesting, and on the things that made the game great to begin with, instead of what feels like endless padding, incredibly repetitive combat, and a series of false endings. In addition, personal stories are always much more interesting than big philosophical info dumps, but so many JRPGs don't get this. They make you feel like they only had characters to begin with to grab your attention so they could bore you to tears with nonsensical worldbuilding and villains who absolutely never shut up.
I'm frustrated because while I still enjoyed the game overall, I wish it were like 10 hours shorter and more focused, and almost all of that came towards the end. Specially while the climb up Mechonis' leg was kind of interesting, the endless mechon factories and cities were very boring, especially since you just fought the mechon in Sword Valley. Then everything after Egil is just a mess. It almost feels like Bloodstained in terms of its all over the place tone and re-used environments as you jump from the super lame skinny pathways of Bionis' lungs and heart to the weirdly huge castle and cathedral environments on Prison Island. Seriously, why is everything so big in that place? None of the characters even mention the insane proportions! Then the final revelation of the game is just crazy and nonsensical.
I think Xenoblade Chronicles would have been one of my favorite games of all time if it were a 40 hour JRPG instead of a 55 hour one, and that's very frustrating. I think the game loses track of the story it's telling and tells a different story that's frankly not as good. I think it runs out of interesting visual ideas, new enemies, and ways to keep combat fresh and engaging, but keeps going anyway because more is more.
It's a good game, but it really needed an editor.