I meant to write a post every ten hours of gameplay, but it’s been 25 hours since my last post. I guess it goes to show 1) how very long JRPGs can be and 2) how they don’t really feel that long. I guess it means that we’ve been playing slightly more than an hour a night for six weeks. If I had been reading a book for that long, it would feel like a very long book, but as far as JRPGs go, we might be halfway through. We played Persona 4 for more than 90 hours and I still felt like the ending came sooner than I was expecting. To be fair, the game kept saying “This is it, the last battle, coming up,” but it’d said that before, and I just didn’t believe it.
Xenoblade is such a timesuck because it just offers you so many things to do. There are lots of areas to explore and items to look for. It even has a township-building aspect where you can rebuild a settlement that was destroyed by robot monsters. One of the things it offers is a way to build networks of friends between your characters. This isn’t the first RPG to have a social-simulation aspect. In the Persona series (we’ve played 3 and 4), your character is able to have better attacks/magic abilities when he forms deeper friendships. Friendships are formed by spending time with certain characters – your investment in time and energy will eventually lead to a deeper bond of trust, and your friend will open up about their thoughts and feelings a little more. Dragon Age: Origins, a western RPG that we didn’t actually finish, has a social aspect as well – your main character can talk to the other characters in your party and, by choosing the correct responses in a conversation, he or she can somewhat manipulatively encourage loyalty and/or romance. By choosing wrongly, you can also lose loyalty and the character may eventually abandon you altogether. Other RPGs have the appearance of a social aspect that is less fully developed. In the Mass Effect series (we’ve finished 1 and 2; 3 is on our to-play list), your character can spend time chatting with his/her crew, but there are no fine gradations of relationships. You can run errands for people that make them more loyal, but they are either with you all the way or not – there isn’t a fine scale. You can also become romantically involved with (some) of them, or you can sometimes decide to summarily execute them without trial.
In Xenoblade there is more of a Persona like aspect to the social simulation. There are six main player characters (PCs – characters you actually control) and who even knows how many named NPCs (non-player characters – characters you can’t control). The PCs all have relationships with each other, and the more time they spend in the same party, the closer they get. This is a picture of what the social network between player characters looks like:
The strength of the friendship is denoted by the thickness of the lines and also by the little symbol. For instance, Shulk and Reyn (the two characters on the top), are BFFs and spent a lot of time together, so they have a little heart. Shulk and Rikki (the rabbity-looking character on the far left), are not so close, so they have an indifferent little yellow face. What is amazing about this social aspect is how long it takes to build up a friendship. We’ve had Rikki in the party for probably 15 hours now, and he still has only indifferent yellow hexagons with everyone. The philosophy of Xenoblade seems to be that friendships are hard – it takes a lot of investment to grow close to someone.
One of the interesting things about the game is that it doesn’t force you to complete the affinity chart, and the bonuses to being better friends are kind of subtle. In Persona, you pretty much have to work on friendships in order to be able to fight. In Mass Effect 2, making the party loyal is non-optional. But in Xenoblade, the benefit to friendship is being able to talk to them. Scattered throughout the world are little symbols that indicate a place where two characters can have a conversation. These “heart-to-hearts” are the reward for all your efforts in making your characters friendly. They open up to each other. It is the only time when some of these characters will really talk one-on-one. It is sort of nice to have a goal that is so simple, so non-combat oriented, and so tangential to the main plot.