‘Xenoblade Chronicles’: Up Through the Belly of the Beast

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My biggest complaint about Xenoblade Chronicles for the Nintendo Wii around the 15-hour mark is its menu system. It should have been trigger-based. The way it works now, you tap a face button, then cursor around with the d-pad. Tap another face button and you’re into the thing another level. It takes at least one, sometimes two taps to back up and make the menu disappear. It’s thus easy to forget to fully close, wander into an area with enemies and accidentally initiate an attack when you just wanted to talk to someone or pick something up.

That’s a petty criticism, I know. I submit its pettiness and my inability to come up with anything else to bark about at this point as evidence of just how much developer Monolith Soft gets right in this exceptional roleplaying game, whether it’s telling a snippet of story that deepens your connection with certain characters or throwing new combat angles into the mix or just pulling back the lens on what’s turning out to be a fascinating world-building experience.

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That’s partly because XC is game-making on an Olympic level, something that’s appreciated in the drill-down pliability of the battle mechanics as well as the literal up-scaling of environments. The area I’m in now reminds me a lot of the Archylte Steppe in Final Fantasy XIII, a mammoth outdoor expanse inhabited by hundreds of creatures, some harmless, others terrifying and a few as tall as skyscrapers. Here, it’s called “Bionis’ Leg,” after the world-sized body part you’re meant to be traversing, but it looks more like someone dropped a huge swathe of subtropical Africa onto the thing’s stomach and said “have at it!” You can roam pretty much anywhere, and it’s easy to get turned around, but more in a “hey, I’ve never seen that before!” and not an “aww crap, more of this?” way.

Night and day increasingly dictate which quests I’ll work on, sustaining the game’s circadian merits, though in keeping with the “if it’s donkey work, chuck it” maxim, you can change the time whenever you like by opening the menu and resetting the in-game clock. And “Bionis’ Leg” is only the game’s third area, where in Final Fantasy XIII, you’d put in upwards of 20 hours (and seen 10 of 13 chapters) before the story train came to a halt and let you off to explore Gran Pulse at your leisure.

Then there’s the towering Bionis (our hero, at least so far) and Mechonis (the big bad robot-thing) themselves, which comprise the game world entire. There’s something about looking up from the horizon and seeing unfathomably titanic, alien things in the sky that’s both unnerving and at the same time kind of wonderful (in fact we call it a “sense of wonder” in sci-fi circles, a critical phrase that suggests “good” science fiction ought to inspire a sense of awe in the reader). It’s something games can do in ways that movies can’t, because instead of flashing through sequences and settings from a director’s vantage, you can linger in a game, rubbernecking with the camera controls or zeroing in for a better view. XC is full of “sense of wonder” moments, like when its first thunderstorms roll through and lightning makes the sky flicker, silhouetting these sky-robots roughly the size of planetoids.

Something else I’m coming to appreciate: all the different enemy types. Most still ignore me as I’m wandering past, leaving me free to attack or take a pass at leisure, but some attack me on site, while others attack based on sound (if you move past them too quickly), and I’ve just come across a variety dubbed “ether type” that actually reacts to the use of magic in its presence — contrast with the enemy types in a game like Skyrim, where getting an enemy’s attention is either line-of-sight or sound based. And again, I’m only at the game’s third area, so who knows how much deeper this particular rabbit hole goes.

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I’ve still managed to put off gem-crafting, something I’ll remedy in my next writeup — I tend to leave ability-bolstering mechanics in games by the wayside unless I’m blocked up somewhere, like defeating a quest enemy or moving through a story-required goal, something I can already see as ineluctable per a few recent and epic to-dos. At present I’m appreciating the evolution of the game’s main weapon, a sword called “The Monado” that’s been slowly giving up it secrets and further deepening battle-play. There’s a clairvoyance angle to the sword, for instance, that involves a battle mini-game: During certain battles, you’ll be able to see a major enemy attack/move in advance, after which a timer ticks down, turning that portion of the battle into a frantic attempt to either change or postpone the impending onslaught. Thwarting these does wonders for your brain’s satisfaction center above and beyond zeroing an enemy’s hit points. The see-the-future mechanic extends to picking up items in the field you might need for future quests you’ve yet to receive. If you’ve ever collected dozens of seemingly useless items in a game then sold them for cash only to find you need them for a quest, XC feels your pain and gives you one more anti-drudgery solution. Better still, it’s folded seamlessly into the narrative, giving it more than just a gamey reason to be there.

Another side-activity I find fascinating: “Heart to Hearts,” which are predesignated points on the map at which, assuming you meet certain relationship requirements, you can engage a fellow traveler in conversation, usually about a past event. It’s a clever way of feeding you backstory without dragging you through cutscenes or flashbacks, and if you do well, your affinity with that person goes up. It’s also a clever way of getting you to revisit areas, since you’ll often not meet the heart-to-heart requirements when you first discover one. This isn’t strictly a level-clearing game, where you work over an area, then never come back. Retreading is essential. And XC makes it worth your while, slow-feeding its bonuses and mysteries and gameplay change-ups so that just when you’re growing bored doing activity X, along comes undertaking Y or diversion Z. In that sense, it’s mastered a trick few games ever do: keeping you riveted while somehow making that bid for your enthusiastic attention feel effortless.

[Note: This is part of a Xenoblade Chronicles review series. Here’s part one. Keep an eye on our Game Time section for further installments.]

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