After finally completing Xenoblade Chronicles last night, I figure it’s a good plan to give an overall review of my impressions about the game. I meant to update more frequently, but I guess four posts on this game is more than enough (first three posts here, here, and here).
Quick Overview: Xenoblade Chronicles is a very classical JRPG. There is a big plot – the world is at stake – that hinges on the decisions on one key character, a smart and very morally developed teenager. There are a number of smaller enemies to beat, many of whom eventually come out on the side of righteousness. There is an angry god to contend with. Most of these things are present in most of the JRPGs I have played. Xenoblade does what it does very well, though.
The plot, as in all JRPGs, gets progressively more complicated, but unlike, for instance, Xenosaga, it isn’t hard to follow or understand. There are two civilizations that live on the bodies of each of two giant beings. The organic creatures of the Bionis contend with the mechanical forces of the Mechonis. The game follows a young humanoid (a “Homs”) named Shulk, who is the only one who can wield a mysterious weapon called the Monado. Shulk and his friends travel all over the Bionis, and eventually the Mechonis, fighting for survival, and later, for a peaceful end to hostilities.
Setting and characters: First of all, the setting of the game is great. It is extremely fun to crawl around on the body of these continent-sized giants. On the Bionis, one of the two collosal titans who make up the world, it is also very beautiful. Here are two of my favorite locations: Sartol Marsh and Valak Mountain:
The marsh is bleak and foggy and grey during the day, but at night, the trees all light up with this strange spectral glow. The mountain is harsh and isolated and beautiful, and at night, giant ice crystals shoot beams of light into the sky.
As lovely as the setting is, though, it’s nice to be able to explore it in the company of interesting people. The characters that make up your party are all decent, moderately interesting people. Their dialogue can be clumsy, cliched, and repetitive (they use the term “reason for fighting” way too often), but overall, I liked these people and enjoyed spending time with them. Shulk is a bit bland, but curious and inventive and passionate nonetheless. His best friend Reyn is funny and tender about their friendship. The exception was Riki, a sort of animated beach ball, whose cutesiness, annoying voice, and irritating diction were rather grating, at least to this curmudgeon.
They all get along rather too nicely – there really isn’t much intragroup conflict. This is emphasized by their constant references to “teamwork”. Again, the crank in me would like to see a little more fractures in their unity for the sake of spicier dialogue and deeper character development. As nice as it was to spend time with this, they weren’t overall that memorable, I’m afraid to say.
Fate and the gods: Like many JRPGs, Xenoblade ends with a struggle against an unloving god. I’m not sure why this theme is so common in Japanese media, but it certainly does seem to come up a lot. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead…
Shulk & Co. initially set out to battle the mechon, a hoard of mindless and probably evil robots. However, in the third act it is revealed that the world of Mechonis is not the true enemy. Instead, the Bionis itself is revealed to be the initial aggressor. The Bionis is (sometimes) mobilized by a soul/god named Zanza, who wishes to wipe out all life and restart creation because the beings it created want to fight against fate and therefore negate the gods (or something). In the end, Shulk is given the option to destroy fate and the gods and leave the future in the hands of the citizens of the world.
As an atheist and a rationalist, I have to say I am very sympathetic with the ideas portrayed. Not that I am necessarily out to destroy God or convert anyone to my way of thinking. Rather, I, too, believe that there is no Fate or Destiny, and that’s a good thing. I don’t believe that there needs to be a higher purpose in order for people to have meaningful lives. Living each day is good enough. On Bionis, before Zanza was killed, there was a higher purpose for each life – to die and feed Zanza with your energy. But life is sweeter without one’s place in the universe being pre-determined.
Not that Xenoblade is really making any complex philosophical arguments or anything. I’m just inclined to agree with the fairly simple proposition that it lays out.
Pacing and gameplay: A big issue with RPGs, as I’ve mentioned before, is pacing. Xenoblade drags badly, especially near the end. According to the cutscenes, the characters really need to book in order to prevent the destruction of all life. However, it is perfectly acceptable for them to spend weeks of game time running favors for random people, trying to get through doors that were locked, rebuilding a town that may very well be demolished again if they don’t hurry up and get to the world-saving. In many games, there is are huge tradeoffs between exploration and plot – from watching my boyfriend play, the Rockstar games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and LA Noire (which we played together)) are prime examples of this conflict. If you have a huge, cool world to explore, there is naturally a temptation to blow off what you are supposed to be doing. I think this is a normal part of game playing, and is to be expected.
The problem with Xenoblade and other similar RPGs is that it can be really difficult to actually move on and finish the game. You have to be at a certain level in order to have a chance of beating the final boss. If you aren’t at that level when you decide to face him, then you have no choice but to continue messing around, fighting random monsters, running more favors for people, etc. etc. We spent probably five or six hours after we were pretty much mentally done with the game just getting our characters to the point of being able to actually do the thing that they had been not doing for who knows how long. It’s a very frustrating way to end a game.
Really, these games are just so dang long. There is a lot to do and a lot to explore, but the fact is that by the end, the game has long run out of ways to surprise you. A game (or book, or movie, or piece of music) should end when you still think you want more. You shouldn’t end on a note of desperation to be completed, but with a feeling that it was the perfect length, or maybe, just a page or a minute or a note too short. This is why I don’t watch dramatic television until the series has ended and I know just how long I’m in for. This is also why I don’t really read interminable fantasy/sci-fi series.
One more gripe: I thought about having a post on this topic earlier (maybe ten or fifteen game-hours ago), but I never got around to it.
Sharla is a practical-minded person, a medic, cool-headed, sweet, sensitive. And yet, when I look at her, the only thing I can think is “What on earth are you wearing, woman?”
I hate, hate the way women dress in video games. This isn’t some one-off goofy special outfit for Sharla. All her clothes are like this. Now, I’m not complaining because I think women need to dress conservatively, or that strong women can’t be sexy. But Sharla spends approximately 18 hours a day either jogging or shooting a ridiculously large gun at robots. And she has zero support for her gigantic, buoyant, independently mobile breasts. It has to be extremely uncomfortable! Not to mention terribly dangerous.
Furthermore, and this is really what gets to me, Sharla wouldn’t wear something like this. Not based on her personality, the way she talks, the way she acts, the place she lives, the culture she grew up in. There is no way I can imagine her waking up in the morning and electing to wear something that just barely covers her nipples into battle. It’s distancing and alienating – her mind becomes a puzzle a person can’t hope to understand. What this tells me is that the game designers don’t ultimately care about empathizing with Sharla. They assume that the player (an adolescent or post-adolescent male) will be more interested in ogling than in understanding. And that’s fine – she’s just here for the eye candy.
Now, to be perfectly fair, I don’t think that’s the message Takahashi was trying to send – he clearly cares about Sharla. But somewhere in the design process, it was pretty much accepted that she was going to be “sexy,” dammit, and that was that. Again, in the interest of fairness, I have to admit that Xenoblade shows much more male skin than is usually seen. All the men can fight shirtless, and if that’s not enough, there’s this little number on Reyn:
But I still think there’s a difference between the way the male characters dress and the way Sharla does. The male characters all at least have the option to dress in normal, protective, chest-covering clothing. Sharla doesn’t.
So, to conclude: I think I ultimately don’t have that much more to say about Xenoblade Chronicles. As an example of the JRPG genre, it is quite good, but not as unique or fresh-feeling as my favorites. It suffers from many of the flaws common to the medium. In particular, it is longer than it really needs to be, and although it gives you plenty of things to do, it runs out of surprises long before it ends. However, it also highlights a lot of what is enjoyable about these types of games, providing an exiting world, decent characters, and an original, involved, and inventive plot. I enjoyed my time with Shulk and the others, but I’m happy to let them go on without me…