A Journey Through the Game of the 2010s
It’s been a while hasn’t it? Yeah it’s been a long while since the last Virtual Odyssey, the series has been gone for the better part of a year. Not without reason, one of those being this charmingly eventful past year we’ve had has left me like all of us in a Schroeder cat-like state in between extremely busy and unbelievably bored which has left my time to play video games less consistent than it might have been in the past. But there’s a bigger reason, around the time the last Virtual Odyssey was released I got diagnosed with Tendonitis in my wrist. If you’ve noticed the other writing I’ve been doing on this site hasn’t been focused on games, that’s because this Tendonitis made long play sessions very painful. This meant I had to greatly reduce the amount of time I was playing games and obviously makes finishing them slower, so I figured I’d put Virtual Odyssey on a little break. But after a lot of healing I’m ready to jump back into playing the games of a slightly more sensible decade.
There will be some changes however, at the start I wanted to keep this series strictly monthly but that’s been a consistent difficulty even before I took my massive break. It meant sometimes I would have to cover the same games for multiple months, like Xenoblade. It also meant when I had a lot of games to go through my coverage of them wouldn’t be as robust as I would like. So now I’m giving Virtual Odyssey a more loose “when it’s done” schedule. I don’t want to ever go two months without a new entry again but they will no longer be released consistently at the end of the month like they used to be. However if you like me and my pop culture insight I still will be releasing articles on the Story Arc every few weeks covering a variety of different topics. Now with all the admin out of the way let’s finally talk about some video games.
With my over seventy hours of playtime with Xenoblade Chronicles one thing has been made abundantly clear, Xenoblade is made for people who absolutely adore Xenoblade. This sounds meaningless but it really is the best way to sum up my thoughts on this game. Xenoblade Chronicles has so much in it, so many intricacies and indulgences, so much worldbuilding and side questing, multiple novels worth of script both mandatory and optional, it is an uncompromisingly huge game. And if you love Xenoblade it can be a damn near rapturous experience tearing through the mountains of stuff this game lets you do in it. But if you don’t, if you find the game to just simply be okay or even really dislike certain aspects of it, it can feel like one of the most bloated, self-important, or just plain obnoxious wastes of time you ever played. It’s when I realized this paradigm and where I fell on it that this game finally started to make sense to me. Xenoblade is made for people who love Xenoblade and I just don’t.
Obviously, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the game in the time between my last article about it and having beaten it. I’m not sure my opinions on a game have ever changed so drastically and so frequently while playing it. My first entry about it was brimming with positivity praising nearly every aspect I mentioned, my second was simmering with criticism and frustration at a gameplay system that was continuously frustrating to me. This was very representative of my time playing it, periods of utter elation that made me want to do nothing more than continue Shulk’s journey, and stretches where I would dread each play session questioning how this game could garner such a dedicated following. Where do I fall on it now? Shockingly I’d say overall I enjoyed my time with it. I like Xenoblade and that affection is only held back by the fact that I don’t adore it.
Since this is the last time I’m talking about this game I feel like it’s only appropriate to revisit some of the things I have said about it in the past. My second article was very critical of the game’s gameplay attempting to break down its combat to an exhaustive degree and while I stand by most of my criticisms I will say their significance was a little exaggerated. A lot of my frustration with the gameplay stems from the fact that I spent very little time investing in the games affinity system. There’s a very good piece from Story Arcs own Sailor about the affinity mechanic and how it reinforces the themes of the games story that I think is worth a read. The point that’s most relevant to this article is that the game’s affinity System helps reinforce the themes of the story with its gameplay. For those of you that don’t know the affinity system basically functions as an incredibly large skill tree. You’re allowed three active party members out of the seven playable party characters, as the three of you do quests and level up with each other they will gain an affinity towards one another. After a certain amount of affinity is gained, your relationship kind of levels up going from yellow to green to blue to lavender to pink. This can benefit you in a number of different ways like unlocking heart-to-hearts things that allow you to significantly increase or decrease two characters’ affinity. Allowing those two characters to craft better gems which are Buffs that you can add to your armor. It’s how you unlock more slots for skill linking which is where a character borrows a certain skill from another party member. Or most damaging to me it also affects your ability to string along multiple chain attacks one of the game’s most efficient ways of dealing damage. Your party has affinity with certain towns as well. How this works is the more side quests you do for a given town, the higher the town affinity goes up, having a town like you more means that you get better side quests and better gear to trade with.
As you can see, affinity dominates a large part of Xenoblades gameplay and while I admit that it might help reinforce the story’s themes and a lot of it makes sense from a basic game design standpoint I just do not enjoy it. There’s a few reasons for that, one of which is partly just a byproduct of this article series. I generally avoid side content when playing games for Virtual Odyssey. My goal is to finish the game and do it fast so any content I can get away with skipping I usually do so. Since the affinity system is progressed mostly with side questing it felt a lot of the time like a roadblock between me and finishing the game. But even then, after I came back to the game and was under no obligation to finish it in an expedient amount of time, I still didn’t want to mess around with all these mechanics. A big part of that is, well just look at the sheer amount of things I listed that you can do with affinity. I didn’t even mention all of it. This comes down to what I said at the start: all these options in layered mechanics are great and a lot of fun to mess with if you love Xenoblade. If you love spending hours tinkering away in it’s menus and doing all the side quests in a town to max out affinity this is all amazing. But if you’re like me who just wants to do a side quest here or there and whose attention starts to wander after 30 minutes of stumbling through this game’s clunky menus it becomes a real burden on your playthrough. And there is one big problem with this system, mainly that affinity between party members rises way too slow. It is a Herculean task to get every party member’s affinity to max with everyone else. I understand that should be a challenge, but it takes hours of side questing in battling just to get two member’s affinity to blue. This is supposed to encourage you to constantly be shifting or party switching members in and out but the sheer amount of time needed for all these different party configurations to become effective is discouraging. I barely used Riki because by the time I got him every party member had at least some affinity built up with someone except for him and I never felt like doing four hours of side questing with a less effective party just to get him on par with everyone. Don’t get me wrong I didn’t not use it. I’d spend hours doing what I felt was a reasonable amount of sidequesting and menu tinkering but apparently not enough because I would frequently find myself underleveled and underprepared all throughout the latter half of the game.
Which brings me, mercifully, to my final gameplay complaint, this game has awful difficulty pacing. Xenoblade is a challenging game and often not in a good way. There’s not much to be said about it. It’s a problem that many RPGs run into, it’s hard balancing an RPG’s difficulty because the game doesn’t know how much grinding a player is going to do. This can be augmented slightly by difficulty settings but not always. But as a general rule I think an RPG on its normal difficulty should probably go on the assumption that a player isn’t doing most of its side quests. Or maybe you can have the game keep track of how many side quest a player has completed and balance the bosses according to that? I don’t know. What I do know is that I did about as much sidequesting in this game that I would do in any other JRPG and I frequently ran into boss fights that made me want to tear my hair out with it’s obnoxious difficulty spikes even at the games final dungeon.
Jre you have so many complaints about this game and get you still say you liked it? Yes dear reader and I’ll tell you why. I am a perennial nitpicker, when I don’t like something I have to find out why and explain it so it doesn’t come off as blind hatred. But when it comes to the things I like I feel much less obligated to provide a concrete reason why. This means I use a lot of words to explain why I don’t like something which can give the wrong impression. Because Xenoblade is full of stuff that I like, for example it’s world. I praised this a little in my first entry about this game but it has to be repeated the world of Xenoblade Chronicles is incredibly captivating. Two opposing planet sized titans locked in combat for who knows how long eventually killing each other and becoming two completely different worlds with their own forms of life developing on them, one of flesh and one of metal. If you are a Transformers fan like me you’ll stand up and immediately scream “This is like Unicron and Primus!” but the game does so much different with that concept it completely stands apart. Without getting into any specific spoilers they made sure to get every single thing they could out of this setting not just narratively but gameplay-wise. Bionis and Mechonis are great worlds to explore with lush, rich environments with strong visual design. Any review for Xenoblade Chronicles will make sure to marvel at the sheer scope of these environments and that’s for a good reason. These areas are huge in a way high budget modern JRPG’s never really have been. They’re not just large, they also have a lot of verticality to them. And it runs at a mostly consistent frame rate on the famously lacking in power Wii. Admittedly sometimes areas are so big it becomes kind of a chore to explore but for the most part the exploration in this game is just fun.
As for the game story I was torn on it for a long time. In my first article I mentioned the story at the beginning was very simple and without spoiling too much that does not remain the case by around halfway through the game. The game starts piling on a ton subplots, mysteries, and complicated lore pretty fast around halfway through. But as the game’s narrative grew more complex I didn’t feel like it grew a comparable amount of depth. It went from a narrative that was cliche but charismatic and charmingly simple to something much more complicated but still just as cliched. But importantly it kept that charisma. Xenoblades plot might start to lose itself in interminable lore and an unhealthy obsession with swerving the player that a lot of JRPG’s fall into, but thankfully still knows enough about narrative delivery that the emotions it wants you to feel still come through clearly. The cutscenes and voice acting in Xenoblade are a high point in the genre. The game uses in-engine cutscenes, but unlike many other games that do the same, important narrative scenes are not just character models in their idol stance talking at each other and occasionally emoting but actual fully blocked and choreographed cutscenes that feel like they were made by somebody with at least some experience in cinematic storytelling. And along with the game’s incredible soundtrack and great voice cast the game can put the player right where it wants you. Kind of like a good Shounen anime, sure there may be problems with the writing on a technical level but the story is so good at presenting itself that you can’t help but get swept up in the hype. But I guess we just call that drip nowadays.
Another similarity it has to a good Shounen series is a compelling cast. The worst thing a RPG party can be is detached feeling. Too often in RPGs the cast barely feel like coworkers let alone friends. In Xenoblade I can name at least three inter-party dynamics for every character. The game takes great effort to make the group feel like a bunch of friends, I’d say even better than any of the last three Persona games. The voice actors have tremendous chemistry with each other and the character interactions are the games writing strong point. I think the plot does most of the characters justice even though it’s very clearly Shulk’s story. Shulk himself is a generic Luke Skywalker unlikely hero type but leaning into his more timid nature and friendship with Reyn helps him from feeling boring. Reyn as a character is almost completely defined by how he interacts with others, his friendship with Shulk, his crush on Sharla, and bickering with Riki. That might sound like a complaint but he’s actually one of my favorite characters. He might be a dimwit with not much to him but above all else he’s a good friend. My two other favorites are Sharla and Melia.
Minor spoilers ahead, Melia is a pretty identifiable JRPG trope, spoiled noble to adventurer. For the most part she sticks to that trope but there are some key traits that keep her feeling unique. Refreshingly she isn’t saddled with the standard irritating Tsundere personality that plagues characters like this. Aside from some initial tension, she integrates with the group easily without a lot of forced arguing. She’s one of the only characters to get a subplot that’s mostly independent of Shulk’s story. A large part of the middle portion of the game revolves around her, as she is High Entia royalty and heir to her father’s empire and this creates drama within the monarchy because of her mixed race. Sharla is more of a background character with some criticizing her for not having much to her but I disagree. She’s probably my favorite character. Sharla and her husband Gadolt were part of the Defense Force of their home Colony 6. When Colony 6 comes under attack by Mecon Sharla and her little brother Juju are forced to leave Gadolt behind. It’s in these refugee camps that she meets Shulk and Reyn for the first time. Sharla is the game’s healer which is a very entrenched archetype in JRPG’s. Usually doting shy young women or knowledgeable motherly figures and almost always passive characters and often given the games romantic subplot. Sharla shares some of those traits, for one she’s a woman, she plays a maternal figure to her brother Juju, and she is involved in a romantic subplot. But like Melia the game makes some key changes with her to keep her well-rounded. When you first meet her she acts as the game’s skeptic not believing in Shulk’s ability to see the future. She’s a very prideful person, and despite being a medic and constantly checking to see if people around her are well, she hates when she’s shown that same kind of concern. She is not a passive character at all, her weapon, a sniper rifle that can heals people is completely appropriate. When she is wronged she’s not a passive victim of circumstance. She gets pissed off and she’ll fight to fix it. She’s mission-focused stemming from her military background, to the point where it can alienate her from some of the other party members. Which is why the relationship between her and Reyn works so well. His carefree fun nature keeps her from getting too lost in her goals.
Characters like Dunban and Riki, I have less to say about but they’re good in their own right, they simply capture my interest less. I will say those two taking up the mentor role in the party is very nice, it especially does wonders for Riki keeping him from just being a boring mascot character. The last thing I’ll say is that the final party member was an immense disappointment. The character starts with a lot of promise but ultimately is just squandered to the point where it starts to feel a little gross. They spend most of the game as a prop, a plot device, and most bafflingly a love interest. Any criticisms you may hear about Xenoblade character writing I cannot defend here. The only positive thing I can say about them is that they’re not around for most of the game.
It feels kind of bizarre saying that I’m done with Xenoblade. I’ve literally been waiting to write this paragraph for a year. By far the biggest challenge I’ve had since starting Virtual Odyssey. Just for this I’ll remember playing Xenoblade for the rest of my life. The game has come to represent ups and downs for me in the way no other can. In between my first and last save we have all gone through one of the hardest years of our collective lives. When I think about this game I can’t help but think about how much different my life was when I started it. That’s a lot to say halfway through a blog post about a video game I played but it’s just where my head goes. Should you play Xenoblade Chronicles? Yeah I guess I think it’s pretty damn good but I’m so happy that it’s over and that we can finally move on.
No More Heroes 2
Spinning No More Heroes 2 after Xenoblade was like a gift from the gods, a barely ten hour long game that I knocked out in three days. Not only that but a sequel to a game I got to play during my break. Just like many others, I played No More Heroes 1 and 2 for the first time via the Switch ports which came out late last year. No More Heroes was always a franchise I was aware of since I grew up as a gamer kid in the 2010’s who’s third parent was the YouTube homepage. These games were very popular in the YouTube gaming community back in the day. Despite being a certified Wii child growing up, who wanted nothing more than to play these games, those bastards at the ESRB, my parents’ vigilance, and my lack of a fake ID and disposable income conspired to keep these games out of my hands. Once I finally got to play No More Heroes 1, I realized that was a good thing, these games would have absolutely destroyed me. No More Heroes one is an insanely chaotic, brutally violent, hyper-sexualized nihilistic nightmare of a game that I absolutely loved. A blast of creativity that seeks to be nothing but itself that wears its frustrating and annoying rough edges with pride. In a lot of ways, it’s a true exemplar of everything games as a medium and an art form can do. So needless to say I was ecstatic to finally get the chance to play 2010’s No More Heroes 2 Desperate Struggle. It was a sequel that I was always more interested in as a kid, probably mostly because you could dual wield laser swords, but growing up I had repeatedly heard that No More Heroes 2 was something of a disappointing sequel which furthered my curiosity even more. Were they right? Is No More Heroes just a great one hit wonder? What would I think about this game that I’ve been wanting to play for a decade?
Certainly not much of it at the start, because the beginning of this game sucks. Well, to clarify, the first real level of the game sucks; the actual opening kicks off with the kind of chaotic yet stylish energy you would expect from a No More Heroes game. It gives a little exposition on how Santa Destroy has changed, how Travis stepped away from the life of an assassin after the first game and then amusingly throws you right into a boss fight with the brother of a throwaway character Travis killed in the opening of the last game. This not only serves as a fun, if somewhat clunky, tutorial but immediately throws the theme of the game, revenge, right into the forefront. Then you get the setup of the game: Sylvia’s back and so is the Assassin’s League. Not only that, but the number one ranked assassin had Travis’s friend, the guy from the DVD store, Bishop, killed and his head delivered to our unfortunately dressed protagonist. From that point on it’s simple – Travis needs to get back into the killing game and cut his way back up to the top of the rankings to get revenge on the man that killed one of his only friends in the world. Solid setup for a sequel right? I agree, and it gives the game a lot of focus and momentum right at the start. Unfortunately the game made several big stumbles right after this in a way I really wasn’t expecting. It’d be a mistake to put the word tasteful near either No More Heroes game at any point, really the games always revelled in their own audacity, they’re pridefully lowbrow. But speaking only for myself I always felt like these games were trying to offend my sensibilities and not just be straight-up offensive. However, right after the game’s prologue continues, you are hit with a double dose of problematic bullshit. First, there’s Ryan the owner of the new gym. Ryan is an extremely dated gay stereotype. He’s referred to as a “flamer”, his dialogues is full of double entendre, he’s obsessed with Travis and the central joke around his exercise minigames is avoiding heart kisses at you.
The first real boss of the game, Nathan Copeland, is a Scottish American Black rapper saturated with gold chains and diamonds. He starts his cutscene surrounded by two scantily clad black, let’s be nice and call them groupies, with massive afros that he, without thinking, throws at Travis before running at him himself. Then they have a classic anime style furious exchange of blows where the comedy is the two black women are caught in the middle being gruesomely killed, with neither of the two men acknowledging their existence at any point. I don’t think a full explanation of Ryan is my rant to engage in, I’ll say that gay stereotyping like this is far to common with this particular muscular mustached but effeminate prop showing up rather regularly in Japanese media. It’s lazy, not funny, harmful and needs to go. Now as a black man Nathan Copeland was a particularly insulting kind of offensive which made me have to put the game down early in my first play session. Not only is he just a horrible stereotype, everything from his appearance to his profession, it’s just the kind of lazy black villain that you see all too often. But what stuck out to me as especially grotesque was the treatment of these two unnamed women as the most blatant example of the kind of cruel indifference black women are subjected to in media. They are treated as literal objects to be disposed of, having no lines with no character even acknowledging that they exist. Objects that only exist to be sexualized before being literally thrown away and gratuitously killed by their black male partner. This is all too often the only way black women are represented in media just usually with a little more subtlety than this and the cruel dismissive way this game treats some of its only black characters is simply disgusting. No doubt angry fans of this game will decry me for saying that these aspects are deeply problematic. That I’m trying to make a mountain out of a molehill but those are just excuses for not acknowledging this game’s shortcomings, something I have no interest in doing. These stereotypes suck and negatively impacted my time with the game. No More Heroes grindhouse offensive aesthetic and tone does not excuse it from criticisms of how it offends. And just because I criticize homophobic and racist content in the game that doesn’t mean I’m calling it’s fans or the game itself bigoted as a whole. I’m not trying to get the game “canceled” I’m just having an honest conversation about it.
Onto a lighter note but still related note the game does struggle in its first half. The actual levels and gameplay are fine even better than the original for the most part, however No More Heroes as a franchise is heavily reliant on its unique bosses and for the first half of this game the bosses just don’t cut it. There either overstuffed with mostly not fun gimmicks or saddled with uninteresting move sets with too much health. Out of all the gimmick boss fights, the only one I found enjoyable at all was Letz Shake. Their boss fight, on top of being a hilariously trollish bait and switch was also a neat test of the player’s environmental awareness. Apart from them and a few notable exceptions like Kimmy Howell and the 23rd and 8th ranked fight, most of the game’s bosses range from below average to boring. This culminates in one of my least favorite boss fights ever against the ranked 7th Ryuji. This fight combines the game’s two worst habits by starting with a horribly janky motorcycle jousting section and then finishing with a overlong one-on-one duel as you chip away at his pointlessly large health pool. He also has one of the most irritating move sets this series has ever seen. At this point, I was ready to write off the game as a complete disappointment but something happened after Ryuji, something miraculous. From that point on the game near immediately disposed of almost every problem I was having with it.
The actual levels these bosses are connected to start to feel a lot more substantial with their design feeling a lot more tied thematically to it’s boss. And these bosses? Every boss’s gimmick after Ryuji became a lot less intrusive, requiring a player to use their knowledge of the game’s core mechanics for victory unlike many of the previous gimmick bosses. Their move sets become intense fun encounters that improve on the best of the first game’s signature battles. Not only that but the concepts and characters of these fights become more interesting by leaps and bounds. So many of the early game’s bosses are either one-note jokes or instantly forgettable cliches. But the last five bosses of this game are actual characters with at least some amounts of depth that stick in your mind. Specifically, the ranked fourth, Margaret Moonlight and ranked second Alice Twilight immediately became two of my favorite boss fights of all time. And surprisingly I even found myself enjoying the near-universally reviled final boss. I’ve never seen a game turn itself around so immediately in its final hours like this but it happened here, the game’s final five bosses range from good to spectacular. I know that might sound like damning with faint praise considering the game has fifthteen boss fights but remember there were four other boss fights that I liked, nine out of fifthteen isn’t the worst score imaginable. Going back through my notes on the game, it has way more hits than misses, it’s just there are so many misses near the start of the game and the hits only become truly consistent in its final hours.
There’s stuff to talk about other than the bosses. No More Heroes was partly Infamous for it’s incredibly bizarre open world. You would have to drive Travis around an empty feeling open-world in his ridiculously controlling motorcycle doing odd jobs to make cash in between every level. These odd jobs would be damn near ancient feeling Wii waggle mini-games that were charmingly awful at best and unplayably broken at worst. These open-world sections were the most universally criticized thing about No More Heroes at launch. So in two they simply disposed of the entire thing. You instead just have an overworld screen where you pick what you want to do and there is no longer a requirement to make money in between levels. Pretty much all the same things you could do in the first game are available here, you can go to the gym, buy clothes, buy new beam sabers, and even do odd jobs. This is an odd change and one I’m not fond of. I understand the idea behind it, streamlining the game and giving the player more choice in their playthroughs, but I think it overall harms the game in several ways. First of all the removal of the open-world feels like a massive mistake to me. Even though the open-world barrenness was criticised at the time it seems like most players and critics have come around to it in the years since. It’s empty drab atmosphere really helps get across the kind of hopeless soul-crushing place Santa Destroy is and in a game where the mood is so important that is a big deal. The game’s odd jobs and gym mini games have also been changed instead of motion control mini-games, just retro 8-bit NES style mini-games. Which again is almost an objective improvement in terms of functionality but unfortunately now they’re just kind of uninteresting somehow making them feel like an even bigger chore. At least the first games’ awful chores were engaging. The ones in No More Heroes 2 are still not very fun mini-games and they’re in a retro style that even for the time was extremely tired. All this makes the outside-of-level gameplay feel extremely trivial and unimportant which is only half true. The game’s still balanced in a way where it expects that you’re increasing your stats at the gym and buying new beam katana. The only way to do that is with money and the only way to get significant amounts of money is these odd jobs. I found myself having to do a lot of job grinding towards the middle of the game because I’d been largely ignoring it since it felt so pointless. It almost makes me wonder if the game should have bothered with having money in it at all. If you’re going to cut the open world and make the things in it feel irrelevant as a way of streamlining it why not just make Travis get stronger through story dependent unlocks?
The final thing I’ll comment on is the game’s story. Without getting too far into it I found it surprisingly effective. It’s another tale about revenge being ultimately unfulfilling which some people might see as a overdone theme but I think it really works here. Travis is on this warpath not just as a way to get revenge but he sees it as a way to make all the killing he’s done mean something as some form of redemption. The game is full of terrible people trying to find some dignity or just meaning in their lives and it really worked for me. Some people say this is kind of ruined by the final boss but without getting into any specifics I disagree.
No More Heroes 2 is a bizarre game. The definition of a higher-highs lower-lows sequel. I completely understand the mixed responses I’ve been hearing about this game for years. Despite my laundry list of complaints with the game, I cannot overlook that when this game is at its best it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing a game. If you want to know if this is something you’d like, play the first game and if you like it you’re bound to at least have an all right time with this even if at points playing it feels like a desperate struggle.
It’s good to be back. I’m glad I got to return with games that gave me a lot to talk about. Let’s just hope the next time it doesn’t take a year to write about them. Thank you for reading and thank you even more for waiting! To stay up-to-date with myself follow me @jrebest and too get an update on all the tremendous continue get from this website each and every week follow us @Story_Arc_blog! The next game we’re covering in the next Virtual Odyssey is Odin Sphere Leifthrasir see you next time!