Sunday, December 10, 2017

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the first high-profile RPG release for the Switch, as well as the first true sequel to the highly acclaimed Wii RPG.  But does Xenoblade Chronicles 2 live up to its legacy, or is this a misstep from Monolith?

Xenoblade Chronicles was a game that was met with much anticipation from JRPG fans, finally getting a release in North America after numerous delays and setbacks and acting as a sendoff of sorts for the Wii system, which was rapidly being supplanted by Nintendo's new Wii U.  A psuedo-sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X, appeared a few years later on that platform, though many were disappointed by the fact that it was much less of a story-driven experience, instead putting emphasis on its online elements and centering much of its gameplay around repetitious quests such as activating beacons and doing side-quests to earn gold in order to buy expensive upgrades for one's mech.  It played tolerably well for what it was, but those used to Monolith's more story-driven experiences were left high-and-dry.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2, announced for the Switch, promised to take things back to a more story-driven experience.  Indeed, the game's setting is now back in a decaying fantasy world, with an overreaching story element of characters having to scavenge ancient ruins and salvage parts by diving into the sea of clouds.  The latter comes into play by having the player purchase "capsules" and dive in at certain points on the map, earning better items as they perform successful quick-time event inputs.

The overall design of the game's environment remains reminiscent of western RPGs, having the player explore massive sprawling environments and beautiful scenery, this time on the backs of seven colossal Titans - enormous creatures who roam the cloud seas.  Surprisingly, however, there is no real sailing element to the game a la Wind Waker; nearly all of the exploration in the game is still based around land-based movement, whether climbing, leaping or navigating caverns and twisting pathways through mountainous areas or towering forests.  This also means that there is no smooth transition between the continents, making them feel much more like distinct video game "levels" than a single large, contiguous world - a slightly disappointing turn considering how fit-together the original game's world felt.

Continuing this design trend, Xenoblade has numerous NPCs to interact with, many of whom have quests to complete.  While these do tend to be of the mundane kill-X-monsters or find-X-items or following a series of waypoints to a goal variety, efforts are at least made to have them be less repetitive than the first game's; each chapter in a given area tends to have at most a dozen of them, and each also attempts to have a bit of storyline or lore behind it. While ultimately nothing too great, it is at least a valiant attempt to make the sidequests feel less like mundane chores to earn extra items and experience and make the player feel as though they're having a tangible impact on the game's environment.

Combat in the game remains much the same as its predecessors as well, drawing many cues from MMORPGs.  Characters attack on their own, with the player's main input being to use skills with the proper timing and synchronize attacks between the three active characters to maximize their effectiveness in a battle.  However, each character's skill set is significantly more limited this time (an attempt to push the new Blade system - more on that later).  Instead of having a bar of nine options to choose from, each character now gets three normal attacks and one special, all of which run off meters that slowly fill as they land attacks.  These attacks do retain some elements of the original game, such as inflicting Break and Topple status or doing extra damage when hitting from behind, but far more emphasis is given to special moves this time.  When a special attack is used, other characters with similarly full gauges can follow up with their own specials, with the third in the chain activating special properties such as weakening an enemy's stats, inflicting a status on all enemies in the fight or shutting down a specific enemy move temporarily (which can help in some tougher boss battles).  An interesting idea, but the smaller variety of skills afforded to each character and the overall emphasis placed on flashy special attacks gives it the inescapable feeling of being "dumbed down" and lacking the dynamic, yet strategic feel of the original game, where properly-timed skill usage would often make or break a battle's outcome.

Blades are Xenoblade 2's signature new mechanic, and a somewhat strange one at that.  While they are weapons in the traditional sense, they also serve as characters within the game and within combat - the player cannot directly control them, but they will apply buffer effects to the character they are equipped to in reaction to certain cues (such as casting Accuracy Up if a character repeatedly misses attacks).  They also come into play during special attacks, with the main character passing their equipped weapon over to them so that they can perform a special move for extra damage (with better effect achieved by timing a button press to a QTE).  One would think that this would lead to story threads and character bonding between the Blades and the ones they attach to, but this ends up not really being the case; Xenoblade 2 bafflingly gives little attention to this dynamic in the overall storyline, even going so far as to introduce a Persona-esque crafting mechanic and allowing the player to create new Blades for their party members to equip, complete with their own special moves, attack timing and skills to learn.  As someone who considers himself a big fan of the Persona games (well, the third and fourth at least), I believed at first that this would lend itself to something akin to those games - fusing new Blades together in order to carry over skills and stats to new generations and lending a sense of fluid customization and progression to the game.  This also proved untrue, however - once a Blade hits the limits of its potential, it ends up just taking space in the player's inventory until it gets deleted.  This, paired with a huge degree of randomness determining a blade's form and abilities (complete with randomly-acquired Rare Blades that have bonus abilities common ones can never get), ultimately just ends up adding a huge grinding element to the game and little else.  Really, the whole Blade idea just feels excessive and rather superfluous, especially as the Special (storyline-related) Blades tend to be far more versatile and useful than Common and even most Rare ones, leaving the player wondering why they're bothering to level up inferior generic ones at all.

Continuing the disappointment is the fact that Xenoblade 2's writing has taken a significant step back in many regards.  While the original game carried a mostly serious story and interesting lore in spite of its outlandish premise and setting, Xenoblade 2 seems to bring in a campy tone in spades.  Dialog is frequently ridiculous, there are many instances of cartoonish reactions and corny anime tropes, and the voice acting ranges from relatively decent to B-movie levels of cheese (with no option for a Japanese voice track, at least in the American release).  A jarring - and rather disappointing - turn for a company and writer who made their names in stories that blended philosophical and religious themes into a science fantasy setting, effectively crafting an engrossing narrative while managing to avoid coming off as pretentious.

Xenoblade 2's overall design also takes a step back in many regards, some of which are just plain baffling.  The map system in the game is a particularly big gripe of mine; in a game featuring convoluted pathways and enormous environments to explore, the lack of a decent waypoint system, or even a map giving a detailed overview of the whole area, is just plain baffling.  Too many times to count I ended up making straight for a quest marker only to be stopped by a sheer wall or run smack into a den of enemies well above my level and get instantly killed.  The minimap can be blown up to full-screen size by clicking the left stick, but it disappointingly provides no landmarks, paths or other useful information and loads only in chunks, meaning that until you get close enough to an area you'll just see a flat edge of the map with no useful information beyond it.  The maps viewable through the Pause menu (linked to the game's fast travel system) do a better job at pointing out interesting landmarks, but provide no view of quest markers or frame of reference for different areas' positions to one another, even upon the same Titan.  This single-handedly makes a basic and key element of the game - navigation - into an overly frustrating nightmare.  A blunder of this level has no place in a title released in 2017, let alone one released after Elder Scrolls and the modern Fallout games (among many others).

Another inexplicable mistake comes in the game's quest tracker.  Namely that completing a story chapter sweeps the tracker clean, which at first I took to mean that the game takes a similar approach to Ys VIII and does not allow the character to revisit quests they didn't complete before the chapter's end.  However, I still found that several of the NPCs would talk about such quests as if I hadn't completed them yet, even maintaining the active quest markers over their head; however, I was unable to actually complete these tasks they mentioned as I could not set the quests as Active in order to see where I needed to go, or even read the text associated with the quest in my journal, so I no longer had any way to guide myself other than looking it up online.  Again, a bizarre and incompetent mistake not just for RPGs of this type as a whole, but a baffling step back from the first Xenoblade game as well, which has a perfectly functional quest log that never makes quests unviewable to the player.  This proved particularly aggravating when a quest marker was pointing me to an area I was unable to reach, with the only apparent way up there being to go through a building that was locked at the time; naturally, I assumed I needed to advance the story in order for that door to open and grant me access to that area, but when I ended up clearing the chapter and wiping the quest log, I still found that said area was inaccessible and I still couldn't complete it.  Aggravating, to say the least.

Those two glaring problems aside, Xenoblade 2 possess numerous minor faults as well.  Collision detection is fairly lackluster on the platforming element, with my character frequently "sticking" in mid-jump on various geometry, sliding down some slopes of a given angle (but not others) and characters getting hung up on objects during fights.  New mechanics are dropped in at arbitrary moments and are explained in possibly the worst way, simply throwing large walls of text at the player to absorb in the middle of what should be a tense battle or moment in the story.  Combat quickly becomes a chore with frequent unavoidable enemy battles and overlapping, repetitious voice clips grating on the player's nerves throughout (particularly the soldiers who constantly shout "YEH THINK YEH CAN STOP MEEEEEEEHHHH?!" in a cheesy Scottish accent).

When all is said and done, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a letdown.  The MMO elements of the game are taken far beyond the pale for a game with no online element, resulting in massive amounts of grinding with very little tangible payoff.  Joining that with inept interface design, clumsy physics, the dumbed-down combat system and the grating voiceover, the game seems to have been specifically engineered to be a chore to play at every turn.  The original Xenoblade Chronicles certainly had its problems and suffered heavily from the law of diminishing returns once the player hit the 60+ hour mark, but Xenoblade 2's downturn comes in at only a fraction of that time.

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Released:  2017
Recommended version: N/A

Friday, December 8, 2017

Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles was Monolith Soft's first high-profile RPG release since the days of the Gamecube, and was one of their first IPs to be exclusive to a Nintendo platform.  But did Xenoblade provide a much-needed quality RPG experience for the Wii, or is this title a victim of its own ambition?

Monolith Soft, founded in 1999, quickly attracted attention for the high profiles of the minds behind its founding.  Tetsuya Takahashi, Hirohide Sugiura and Yasuyuki Honne had all made names for themselves at Squaresoft in the preceding years, working on high-profile games like Final Fantasy VI and VIII, Xenogears and Chrono Cross.  However, they had become frustrated by Square's business model and lack of support for secondary projects, causing them to eventually depart, form their own company, and seek a publisher in Namco (later Namco Bandai).  There, they developed several more titles that went on to achieve acclaim, most notably the Xenosaga trilogy on the Playstation 2.  However, a management change at Namco soon led to friction with them as well, causing them to seek out a new publisher in Nintendo, who bought out 80% of the company's shares, effectively making them into a second-party developer.  What followed were a few lesser-known DS releases (Soma Bringer and Super Robot Taisen OG Saga), and eventually a Wii-exclusive RPG in Xenoblade Chronicles.

The game quickly proved to be unlike any other on the Wii, or most preceding JRPGs for that matter.  Rather than the traditional, relatively slow-paced experience commonly associated with the genre, Xenoblade Chronicles took many cues from western RPGs like Oblivion and Skyrim, putting the player into a vast open world and letting them explore it at their leisure, interacting with NPCs, getting quests and farming items for a variety of means (primarily crafting new equipment).  Combat in the game was no different, with the player seamlessly shifting into a fighting mode as they approached enemies and just as easily shifting back out once the threat was gone.

Xenoblade's combat system itself is very atypical for a JRPG.  Taking place in real time and exhuming the usual complement of elemental spells, buffs and debuffs common to the genre, Xenoblade's combat system has a much different approach in its strategy.  Standard attacks are done automatically within Xenoblade's combat system, adding a degree of automation to the battle and leaving the player free to watch the battle and select skills from a character's action menu to counter specific threats.  A major focus of the game's combat is "aggro" - drawing attacks away from one's weaker characters toward more defensive ones.  Simply put, the more damage one does, the more enemies are apt to target them.  Healing one's allies also draws aggro, which puts healing-focused characters at risk.  However, some characters, such as the tank character Dunban, have skills that allow them to draw enemy focus to themselves, where he can then quickly shift into a defensive stance to greatly reduce the damage he takes (at the cost of attacking and mobility).  Shulk has an ability to cut his current aggro level down to a fraction by  making himself momentarily invisible, which plays into this strategy as well - he can draw aggro by doing damage, then quickly shift away and escape once he begins taking too much damage, heal himself, and leap back into the fight.  Atypically for the genre, skills are also not fueled by "magic points" or any similar mechanic, instead relying on a period of cooldown that can only be recharged over time or by landing normal attacks.

Other elements of the combat system also prove to be atypical for the genre.  A major focus of many fights is Toppling enemies to put them in a vulnerable state.  Before that can be done, however, one must first use a skill to put them in Break status - this does nothing on its own, but it does leave the enemy vulnerable to followup status-afflicting skills like Topple.  Only one character has the ability to do both of these things, which leads to necessary teamwork between characters.  Much emphasis is also given to the unique abilities of Shulk's weapon, the Monado.  It effectively serves as a great equalizer, not only in allowing him to do things like negate enemy buffs and deal damage to otherwise invulnerable enemies (notably the recurring villains known as the Mechon), but at times it even allows the player to peer into the future, seeing incoming attacks that could prove disastrous to a character (or even the entire party) and take steps to counteract them.  For example, if a character is being targeted by a larger foe, the other characters present can attempt to Break and then Topple them to negate its attack, or use a Monado ability such as Speed (which grants an 80% evasion chance against all attacks for a brief period) to make the attack miss.

Following up on this, Xenoblade's character archetypes are much less influenced by typical JRPG ones and are actually much more akin to those seen in MMORPGs.  Dunban and Reyn primarily serve as tanks, for example, having relatively high HP and decent attacks, but mostly being focused on absorbing damage in place of characters with their high HP, defense and aggro-drawing abilities.  Shulk, Riki and Melia primarily work as support by buffering allies and inflicting status effects on enemies.  None completely fit into these archetypes, however - Shulk, for example, has healing abilities as well as a few effective attacks mixed into his repertoire, while Riki has odd abilities like putting all enemies in an area (and himself) to sleep, or an attack that cancels all debuffs on a single enemy, but doing extra damage for each one it removes.  Riki also has the odd distinction of having more base HP than any other character (even the party tanks), allowing him to take a few more hits than one might expect. Melia may be the best example of this, however - she summons up to three "elements" at a time to serve as buffers; however, these elements are also used to perform attacks, removing that buffer from the party to damage the enemy.  The player must carefully manage which elements to keep in effect and which ones to attack with, as well as time their usage properly so the party isn't caught without them at an inopportune time.

Other elements of weatern RPGs creep in as well, with character customization governed by skill trees that grant various abilities; some can easily change up the way a character operates (allowing them to equip heavy armor they normally couldn't, for example) while others just give things like extra HP or bonuses to individual skills.  Equipment can be fitted with gems, which are earned by defeating enemies, completing quests or even crafting, with different combinations of characters, base items and heat settings giving a huge variety of different potential outcomes - resisting status effects, giving extra base or maximum damage, and dealing extra damage with back attacks just to name a few.

Xenoblade very much plays to Monolith's strengths in its world design and storytelling, providing a massive amount of lore and NPC interactions to get lost in.  The world the game takes palace in is a unique one as well, as the entirety of the game's "world" is built upon the bodies of two colossal gods whose war came to an abrupt end millennia ago, causing both of them to be stopped in time and allowing life to emerge from their bodies.  Whenever the player moves to a new area, remnants of their great battle are still evident there - sword marks the size of skyscrapers and a severed arm serving as an "island" to name two of the many sights to see.

Of course, such a sprawling and ambitious game has a few shortcomings to its design.  Character AI, while decent for the most part, is lacking in some regards.  The most prominent example of this is probably Melia, who just seems to summon elements and random and then immediately cast them, leaving long gaps where she provides little tangible benefit to the party; when using her, the player will likely want to take direct control so they can use her support abilities to their best benefit.  In trying to make Xenoblade a bit more of an MMO-like feel, the developers may have gone just a touch overboard - each time you get to a new area there are several dozen new quests to complete, with many falling into mundane "kill X number of monster" or "collect X number of item" archetypes that get tedious rather quickly.  The game as a whole feels just a tad too long - while it does its best to provide a lengthy adventure with a lot of different sights to see, the law of diminishing returns still kicks in before long; by the 70th hour or so, I was rather bored of the experience and just rushing through the main storyline to try and get to the end of the game.

Xenoblade Chronicles, like most every high-profile Monolith game, is both aided and hindered by its hugely ambitious designers.  By combining an MMORPG-like combat system, elements of roguelike titles like Diablo in its intricate crafting, skill trees and equipment setups, and of course the strong storytelling, imagination and characters of a good Japanese RPG, there is quite a to see here for both more casual gamers and completionists.  By that same token, sheer volume is a double-edged sword - while the game is engrossingly deep for hardcore gamers, those looking to experience a good story and move on to their next gaming conquest may find themselves getting burned out by the end and reluctant to revisit it anytime soon.  Be ready for a long journey, and don't be afraid to skip some (or even many) of the various side-areas and optional quests on offer, and you'll probably have a better time in the end with Xenoblade.

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii, *New* Nintendo 3DS
Released:  2012, 2015
Recommended version:  Both versions are essentially the same game, though the 3DS port has tacked-on Amiibo and Streetpass support to unlock bonuses in an extra gallery.  It also holds the distinction of being one of the few games that actually requires a *New* model of 3DS to play.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millennium

The final entry in the classic Phantasy Star franchise, intended from the start to give closure to its storyline that ran for nearly a decade.  But was Phantasy Star IV a worthy conclusion for the series, or is this one tale that should have never been told?

Like many high-profile Sega games of the era, Phantasy Star IV is one with a lengthy history.  It began its life as a Sega CD game subtitled "The Return of Alis" (referencing the heroine of the first game) and it was originally planned that the game would use animated cutscenes in the style of Ys or the Lunar games.  For a time, the game was even intended to return to first person pseudo-3D dungeons in the style of the first Phantasy Star, though fan feedback quickly caused them to abandon that idea.  The Sega CD platform quickly proved unpopular among gamers as well, causing Sega to abandon all work done on the early version of Phantasy Star IV and move development to the Genesis instead.

Some remnants of the early game's design are still evident in the final game, however.  While the Sega Genesis obviously wasn't capable of full-motion video cutscenes, the story is instead told through manga-styled panels alongside the dialog, which lends it a bit more of a cinematic feel compared to many RPGs of the time.  Alis does still "return" as well, though in a much more limited role than the original subtitle would imply - she is mentioned several times throughout as a heroine of the past and makes a small cameo appearance near the end in a non-speaking role.

Sega was clearly not content to have this be a stripped-down version of a more grandiose game either; despite they change in platform, they did much to distinguish Phantasy Star IV from other RPGs of the era.  For a start, Phantasy Star IV's visuals are once again raised to meet the lofty standards of the earlier games; in addition to the aforementioned cutscenes, each combat action from both enemies and allies being fully animated, making it feel much more in-line with the other games than III.  Music in the game is nothing short of spectacular as well, perfectly complementing the game's mood and pushing the Sega Genesis' sound capabilities to their absolute max, seemingly in an effort to rival the grandiose orchestral feel of rival games like Final Fantasy IV.  The end result is easily the most aesthetically pleasing RPG the Sega Genesis has to offer, and one of the few games I still recommend checking out on original hardware whenever possible - virtually every emulator I've seen for the Sega Genesis doesn't get the sound quite right, so playing on those results in missing out on some of the amazing experience Phantasy Star IV has to offer.

The game's writing pays heavy tribute to earlier games in the series as well.  A number of earlier events in the series are referenced (both as cute asides and as part of the main story) and the series long-running antagonist Dark Force is finally given some explanation and context in the grander scheme of things.  Some other mechanics return as well, most notably in the form of vehicles - as in the first Phantasy Star, one has three modes of travel in the Land Rover, the Ice Digger and the Hydrofoil; in addition to allowing transport through areas one cannot cross on foot, they also lend themselves to the game's combat system now, each having their own set of special abilities and enemies to fight, which adds a bit of variety to the game.

Earlier Phantasy Star games were notable for taking steps to acknowledge the repetition and monotony of RPG combat by offering a degree of automation - generally the player just had to click a button and their characters would automatically attack until the fight concluded.  Phantasy Star IV continues in this trend with programmable "Macros", allowing the player to pre-plan turn strategies out of battle and save them in one of ten slots for later use.  But more than that, the game's pacing is generally much quicker; while the game is still turn-based, everything from moving around the map to combat animations to scrolling menus is very fast and smooth.  Even the other Phantasy Star games - which were relatively well paced among most RPGs of their era - feel downright slow in comparison to PSIV, and it's a bit hard to go back to anything older after you've played it for any length of time.

Of course, the combat itself has seen some refinement as well.  While still fairly formulaic attack-spell-item fare seen in many RPGs, there are some new twists as well.  The game retains TP-driven "techs" (which generally function as elemental spells or healing), but also gives each character a complement of Skills, which vary heavily from character to character and have a variety of uses.  Chaz gets powerful melee attacks, for example, Rune gets elemental spells, Kyra and Raja get some powerful healing and support techniques, and the two android characters get a variety of new abilities that they must find modules to install and use.  Some greater variety is given to the cast as well, with playable Motavians and Dezorians for the first time in the series, as well as giving androids some distinct mechanics - unlike their Phantasy Star III counterparts, they no longer cast spells of any kind, and magic is useless for healing them.  Instead, one must use special "repair kits" or their own healing techniques to do that.

Another relatively new idea Phantasy Star IV brought to the table was the ability for characters to combine techniques together into one more powerful ability.  When characters cast certain techs/skills back-to-back, they have a chance to combine their effects together and cause even greater damage.  Several characters can combine elemental techniques together, such as combining a wind and fire or ice spell to hit all enemies on the field, while Chaz and Rune can combine their Crosscut and Efess skills to create "Grand Cross" and hit a single enemy for massive holy-element damage.  This is another area where the game's programmable macros come into play, as it can be tricky to line up characters' turn sequences without it.  Chrono Trigger would later take the idea of combining character spells to new heights, but as far as I know this Phantasy Star IV is the first JRPG to utilize this feature.

The game came out in the era when sidequests were beginning to become a major part of the experience and provide just as much depth and immersion, if not moreso, than the main quest.  Sega clearly took note, as in addition to its main quest, Phantasy Star IV also features a number of subquests to complete, both in the form of optional dungeons off the beaten path (which can grant extra abilities, stronger equipment or just good amounts of experience) and in a more formal capacity. The latter comes in Motavia's Hunter's Guild, where more sidequests become available as the storyline progresses.  These range from mudane (finding someone's lost dog) to more involved monster combat quests to some that are just silly (such as being offered a large reward to find missing persons, only to discover that they've been jailed and the bail cost is just as much as the bounty placed on the job).  In all cases, though, they add an occasional nice diversion from the main storyline as well as some extra rewards.

I've sung this game's praises a lot over the years, but I really can't stress enough how much I love Phantasy Star IV.  Its concise and polished design, fast-paced gameplay, well-crafted storyline and characters all come together to send off a legendary Sega franchise with a bang, and it remains an exceptionally fun title to experience even today.  It may have been largely overlooked at the time because of numerous high-profile RPGs on the PC and Super Nintendo, but Phantasy Star IV is just as worthy of the moniker of "classic" as any of the other lauded greats from that period.  Highly recommended.

Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, and several compilations on the Saturn, Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Steam
Released:  1995
Recommended version:  The compilation versions are all ports of the original Genesis game, but as mentioned, I have yet to see one that emulates the game's soundtrack perfectly.  For that reason, I recommend checking out the original release if at all possible.