A Journey Through the Game of the 2010s
Well, I knew this would happen at some point. Yes, this month’s Virtual Odyssey will only be covering one game, Xenoblade Chronicles. This game lives up to its reputation as an absurdly large piece of software. Something the many who bought Definitive Edition the same day I released my first article about it can attest to. And not only that, I am still yet to finish the game, so you will be reading my thoughts on it at least one more time after this. That’s why Virtual Odyssey is more a journal of my thoughts rather than a series of reviews. But rest assured if you’re not an avid Xenoblade fan, unless something goes terribly wrong I should be finishing the game and moving on to something else next month. And if you can’t get enough of my writing you should be looking forward to a review of The Last of Us Part 2 I have coming very soon. With all that being said here are some more of my thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles for the Nintendo Wii.
So in last month’s article, the section dedicated to Xenoblade was rather glowing. I stand by everything said within that entry but I fear that I may have given off the impression that I thought the game was a masterpiece before finishing it. I talked mostly about the presentation in my thoughts on the early game’s story, aspects I had nothing but good things to say about. But even though I still would say I’m enjoying my time with the game it has problems, serious ones. So I want to spend most of my time this month outlining some of the issues I’ve had with the game so far mostly on a mechanical level.
Xenoblade has some of the strangest gameplay I’ve ever experienced in a JRPG and given the genre in recent history that’s saying a lot. Xenoblade seems to take influence more from MMOs like World of Warcraft than even previous Xeno games. Like World of Warcraft the game has a pseudo-turn-based real-time combat system that’s heavily reliant on special abilities that have cooldowns after being used to supplement your character’s auto-attacking. The world is split up into gargantuan zones filled with mobs of varying levels with only maybe one or two towns in each of these zones. Every area has a number of “Kill X amount of Y” quests that are meant to get you familiar with that area’s common enemies. Now the gameplay isn’t single-player World of Warcraft, Xenoblade makes a number of altercations to the formula but the similarities are clear.
This isn’t a problem nor is it something never seen before from a single-player RPG, Western or Japanese. But none have worn their MMO influence as blatantly as Xenoblade, sometimes to its detriment. And unfortunately Xenoblade lets this influence damage one the most important elements of an RPG of any kind, the party. In somewhat of a game design paradox, the combat of most MMOs mechanically is not very party reliant. What I mean by that is that you’ll be spending a lot more time focusing on your party members in a single-player RPG then you will with your questing buddies in an MMO. In an MMO you trust another player to perform their role, provided everyone knows what they’re doing. Your tank will tank enemies and your healer should be healing. Oftentimes the assumption is that people are playing while in some kind of voice chat and, if they are not, you have an easily accessible text chat, allowing you to quickly communicate with the people you’re playing with. Well in a single player RPG there’s only one person responsible for the party’s success: you. Therefore the game has to be designed around that. In classic WRPGs, they would just simply use the Dungeons & Dragons system of rolling for initiative, but you control every party member as their turn arrives. Others would have the combat play out in a more real-time manner but allowed you to pause the action and manage your party at any time. Most classic JRPGs did something similar to the initiative formula but in some cases turn order wouldn’t be based on individual characters but a back and forth between player and enemy phases. The one thing all these examples have in common is that the player is given the chance to control the actions of every party member. Because either the game itself is turn-based so you can handle things one at a time or they allow you to dictate the pace of the action to your preference. The player has control over the combat pace therefore controlling the whole party at once is a less daunting task.
Things start to get more complicated when this control is taken away from the player. Things like real-time combat with no ability to pause do take away from this control somewhat but can be compensated for in some ways. For example, Final Fantasies 4 through 9 have pseudo-turn-based real-time battles but also give you abilities like “slow” or “haste” they give you some control over combat pace. But what is a much more significant blow to this is removing a player’s ability to control every single party member. This is something that has become increasingly popular in RPGs for the last 20 or so years usually accompanied with a real-time combat system. This decision has a massive impact on your gameplay design. When you’re restricted to one character at a time and have an encounter raging around you, you will find a new appreciation for information you would have taken for granted in other games. Unlike in D&D or an MMO you can’t rely on another human that you can freely communicate with and contrary to past single-player RPGs you can’t rely on yourself to make the right calls. Your party members’ actions are in the hands of the AI of whatever game you’re playing. So when a real-time RPG only allows you to control one party member at a time it’s not just about constructing a strategy to beat your enemy, you must create a strategy, communicate said plan with the game and then work with the game’s AI to carry it out. So these games need to provide the players an intuitive way to communicate with AI-controlled party members, something MMOs largely don’t need to deal with.
What I’m trying to say with this unnecessarily long history and game design lesson is that I don’t think Xenoblade does enough to offset the lack of other humans’ reliability or player control. Your party members are AI-controlled and there are very limited options for a player to influence their actions. There’s only one real way to directly control an individual party members’ actions in battle but only by using a valuable resource in the least effective way possible. During a battle, your party builds up a three gauge meter. When this meter is full you’re allowed to do a chain attack, in which you lock onto an enemy, time pauses and you can have your whole party perform a combo on your enemy from massive damage. These combos can be extended to a party affinity system that the game also has. They’re massively useful battle shifting maneuvers that are almost always beneficial for the player to perform. But that’s not all the meter is used for, in maybe the strangest omission I’ve ever seen from a JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles does not have items you can use during battle. This doesn’t just mean no items that get rid of status effects or heal,it also means no items to revive fallen party members. If a party member dies the only way you can bring them back is by using one of the three sections of the meter. And if the player character is KO’d and there’s no meter left you to get a game over. The way this is mostly done is by making your character walk up to your other party members and hitting a contextual button prompt. The problem with this is that the screen is so often way too busy and the prompt is so small it’s hard to read. There’s a passive buff you can give party members called “encouragement” but on numerous occasions, I went to encourage a party member and wouldn’t notice the games actually prompting me to make them perform an individual action, and once that’s triggered you can’t cancel it even if you haven’t told them to do anything yet, wasting a section of your incredibly useful meter.
It’s almost always ill-advised that you use it to make a party member perform one action. You might wonder: “if the other options are so much more useful then why is that an issue?” Because this hinders a player’s ability to execute engaging strategies without the use of a chain attack. You have commands that can affect your party’s general aggressiveness but it feels like your party members take this as a vague suggestion most of the time. This lack of precision in the combat forced me into approaching most battles with the same game plan. Make sure you’re doing as much damage as possible without using all your arts at once, make sure everyone survives until a chain attack is possible, perform chain attack, maybe knock down enemy, repeat. It’s monotonous. The only time this routine is really broken is when facing a boss. But boss battles can often be plagued with their own issues, such as respawning enemies that serve more to annoy than challenge or obnoxious level spikes that force you to grind.
Where I am currently in Xenoblade Chronicles I have 6 party members but you can only roam the world with three actively. Whoever is the head of the three-man party is who you play as. You don’t need to play a Shulk, anyone can be the head of the party. However, one of the main enemy types, Mechon, can only be damaged by either Shulk’s weapon, the Monado, or an art that only Shulk can cast which allows other party members the privilege of damaging the enemy. Around halfway through the game, weapons that can deal damage to Mechon become available to the rest of your party but it’s quite an odd design decision; it only really discourages players from experimenting with other characters.
Overall the combat in Xenoblade has a lot of great ideas but feels messily executed. With just a few alterations it could be great and I can say that with confidence because Final Fantasy XII does so many of the things Xenoblade does but with small bits of polish that make the gameplay infinitely better. It has an undeniable MMO influence, a 3-person party, instead of attacks needing time to cool down they need to charge up, and battles play out in the real-time mostly relying on automated attacks. But it does all of this and instead of limiting possibilities actually give the player more. First of all you can pull up the menu and pause the action at any time similar to the older WRPGs we discussed previously. Not only does this menu allow you to pick your characters’ next actions carefully, but it allows you to pick your party members’ next action aswell. No additional cost. It’s not like you’re controlling the party member fully but you do get some influence over their immediate decision. However the biggest advantage Final Fantasy XII has over Xenoblade and most RPGs of its kind is the gambit system. In FFXII you can unlock gambits, these give you slots in which you can set AI behavior. It’s almost like extremely rudimentary programming. One slot is made out of two gambit commands. For example, you buy a gambit that reads “Ally: HP < 50%” that’s the situation and then you set an action like “Potion.” That means when another party member’s hp is lower than 50% this character will use a potion to heal them. The amount of commands in situations you can plan for is astonishing. You can have three different loadouts of gambits at once and one full load out of gambit has 12 slots while also allowing you to set the priority of each one. If you set up your gambits well enough you can basically have the gameplay itself. The characters will grind with no player assistance needed. Obviously I’m not suggesting that they needed to make something as complicated and useful as the gambit system. But giving us some customization over party member behavior should be a standard for these kinds of RPGs.
Please don’t take from this that I hate Xenoblade Chronicles gameplay. I do get enjoyment from it. My frustration comes with the feeling of wasted potential. It has the potential to have a really unique battle system that isn’t refined enough to allow for the fun creative strategies that we play RPGs for. I’m highly curious how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 builds on it’s gameplay. But as it stands right now Xenoblade Chronicles is a fun game with below-average combat.
You think I could resist the urge to go past five pages when I’m only talking about one game wouldn’t you? Nope. These articles aren’t this long because of the amount I’m playing there this long because I’m incapable of having an opinion on anything in less than a thousand words. I hope you enjoyed the slightly different structure of this month’s article. I enjoy being able to just do a deep dive into one specific aspect of a game. Next month will hopefully be the conclusion of Xenoblade, most likely focused around the game’s narrative. What will I think of it? What will I roll next? Hopefully not another 100 + hour RPG.
I hope you enjoyed my thoughts and come back next month to see me continue on this journey. Make sure to check out the other great content being contributed to this website. If you want to stay up-to-date with other story arc articles make sure to follow us at @The_Story_Arc and to stay up to date with me follow @jrebest on Twitter!