It’s been a few years since I wrapped up my time with Xenoblade Chronicles. According to my list of saved games, the last time I played was Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at 9:48 PM. I don’t remember exactly what I did after that, but I doubt I celebrated or treated myself to an ice cream sundae or anything - I certainly wouldn’t have deserved it. What I deserved, now that I can look back with some sense of objectivity, was a slap in the face. Unfortunately, given that I was the only source of blame and my sense of pride the only victim, there were no obvious candidates for slap-administration. I could have consulted Craigslist, I guess - I hear it deals in that sort of thing.
Here’s what happened, and it may or may not surprise you: I invested hours upon hours - sloshy bucketloads of my free time - wandering across the grassy and cybernetic surfaces of those humongous dead robots, swinging around the Monado like it was going out of style (it did go out of style, pretty much immediately), ambushing unsuspecting wildlife and Mechon, picking up celery stalks and turnips and I-forget-what-else, and eventually found myself deep inside Prison Island, parked at the last save point just outside of the final boss fight. After a failed college try or two, a grim realization set in: my party wasn’t ready. In fact, it didn’t seem like they were anywhere close. Faced with the prospect of beaming out of Prison Island and reentering the workforce of level-grinding, I looked sadly down at my controller, depressed the power button for the requisite four seconds, and hung up my Xenoblade hat for good (my Xenoblade hat looks like this).
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, and you probably haven’t, this whole scenario may smell stinkily familiar. I underwent a similar personal failing with Final Fantasy X early last year, but I maintain that the blame in that case was shared substantially with the game itself and, in particular, Tidus and his deplorable personality. Xenoblade is a far better game than Final Fantasy X, and its characters, while certainly not not annoying, are a good bit more tolerable than Tidus, so that probably means I’m due for a little self-examination. Is it me? Have I become someone tragically incapable of finishing games, some sort of perverse non-completionist?
Well, no. I finished a bunch of games last year, and the year before that, and the year before that (The Year of Xenoblade). So what happened? The only way to pick apart this mystery is to closely analyze the game - and myself - for clues. Let’s do it.
Xenoblade is big, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice. In fact, I distinctly remember a substantial amount of the game’s pre-and-post-release press coverage being devoted to breathless descriptions of the gibungousness of its world, and, for the most part, that’s a hard point to refute. Almost all of the outdoor, non-city explorable areas are indeed huge, and there’s a wide range of terrains to tramp across, be they breezy plains covered in gently rippling patches of tall grass, snowy mountain peaks dusted with peaceful, floaty snowflakes, ghost-lit swamplands, or steampunky, foreboding fortress interiors. Hoofing it from one end of an area to another is no small endeavor, and you’re bound to stumble across all sorts of weird fauna going about their business en route - depending on your level, some of those beasties will want to fight you, and others will be so intimidated by your rippling musculature that they’ll happily pretend you don’t exist. Although the illusion of complete connectivity is compromised by partitions between the major zones, the need to cross those partitions is rare enough that it’s not a major issue, especially in light of how joyously alive the individual zones feel on their own. There aren’t many humans to be seen in the wild, but each area is teeming with a unique set of wildlife, studded with tucked-away grottos and caverns containing fancy treasures (or more sacks of turnips), and typically boasts at least one high-altitude panoramic viewing spot from which you can initiate a hilariously protracted upright swan dive into a body of water. If you have an exploratory funny bone, Xenoblade will tickle it.
If there’s a downside to all that giggly exploration, it’s that it doesn’t extend in any substantive capacity to the cities or other human settlements. You’re free to parade around the city streets and hit up merchant kiosks to grab new equipment or sell turnips or whatever, but, except in a very few cases, you’re not going to be seeing many building interiors. A Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy-style cabinet-raid this is not. Taken on its own, that’s not a dealbreaker by any means - there’s no reason why I should be permitted to enter households to rob them of knickknacks or look out windows or sleep in beds that aren’t mine, as much as I might want to - but it does feel restrictive after the comparative openness of the rest of the game universe.
So what’s the impetus for all this relentless exploration? Oh, it’s the eternal conflict between the Homs (humans) and the Mechon (machines), all of whom live on the surfaces of separate hibernating (dead?) gods, kicked into high gear by the apparent murder of the protagonist’s childhood friend by a roving band of merry cyborg pirates led by some ass-hat named METAL FACE. Shulk is the protagonist - he’s eighteen, plucky, living an unassuming life as the local weapons guy - and he starts down his Destined Path to JRPG Greatness when he comes into possession of the MONADO, a fortune-telling laser sword that has the unique power to gravely injure robots. Having not touched the game since 2013, I didn’t expect to have much recollection of the nuances of the story - and I don’t - but I was stunned to discover that I’d logged a cool 75-plus hours in the game without retaining any details for the long haul. That’s enough of my life spent Xenoblading that you’d think I’d remember, at the very least, the playable characters’ names and the major plot events. Somehow, though, even those basic tidbits of information have seeped out of my leaky brain over time. Or maybe they never took hold in the first place.
The problem with Xenoblade’s story is that it’s fine, but that’s about all it is. The plot arc is a solid-enough skeleton to build an enjoyable game around, but it contains almost nothing that hasn’t been beaten to death like a herd of dead horses by countless other games. And that’s a shame, because the characters are actually pretty interesting, and they’re all played by at-least-competent but usually excellent - and, notably, British - voice actors (Riki excluded, although he/she/it embodies the requisite uber-annoying-JRPG-high-pitched-puffball archetype, so the “badness” there was probably intentional). To be sure, there’s no shortage of super-dense lore to wade through - no one ever really quits discussing secret lineages to the High Entia race of winged angels or just how fucking awesome the Monodo is (if you took a shot every time someone said “Monodo,” you’d be dead in ten minutes) - but it all gives off a pungent whiff of familiarity. The Monodo, as long as we’re on the subject, is caught somewhere in the unholy overlap of deus ex machina and MacGuffin; it improbably drives a major percentage of the plot, but it’s really just a big blue sword that lets Shulk see a few seconds into the future. Whatever - at least the voice actors sound good volleying all this trash back and forth. That’s not nothing, as Final Fantasy X definitively proved.
The battle system has its ups and downs, too. While the characters tend to occupy established niches - Shulk, as the protagonist, is a well-rounded fighter, his buddy Reyn is a hulking tank, Dunban is a mysterious, older, battle-hardened swordsman, Melia is a princess of sorts and a diminutive healer-type - there are some successful attempts at changing things up. Sharla, for instance, is a devoted mother who wields a truly enormous rifle and is quickly revealed to be an integral part of an effective party (although her breasts are in turn quickly revealed to be not wearing shirts often - not all JRPG conventions have been broken here). Fiora, moreover, despite being another physically small female character whom most JRPGs would shoehorn into a magic-user position, winds up a fierce, cybernetically-enhanced melee-monster.
What the fighting all boils down to is a MMORPG-influenced free-for-all. You control one of three party members at a time and join your AI-controlled buddies in sprinting around the feet of often office-building-sized bad guys while setting off pyrotechnical strings of time-charged abilities. Giant numbers materialize and vanish on the screen in rapid succession as you take damage, deal damage, and heal, and all the while characters scream about the spells they’re casting, encourage themselves or each other to be brave, and otherwise spout non-sequiturs and/or lame quips as enemies are vanquished. Dunban in particular has a knack (and a radio-announcer voice) for proudly announcing whatever sword skill he happens to be unleashing, be that a Worldly Slash, a Tempest Kick, or - my personal favorite - an Electric Dustbuster. It’s like, yeah, Dunban, I’ve got an electric dustbuster too, but you don’t hear me yelling about it all the time (for the record, I know that he’s actually saying “Electric Gutbuster,” but once I heard “dustbuster,” that was it). There’s plenty of strategy to be employed in the maelstrom, too; for instance, certain abilities will knock an enemy down, and it’s only then that another party member can fire off a limited-use finisher against that floored enemy. There’s tons of equipment to be purchased, found, or built (although there are plenty of palette swaps), so that by the time the endgame approaches, your party is satisfyingly badass and has fallen into a comfortable rhythm of effective pain-peddling.
Main story and battle system aside, Xenoblade boasts unlockable one-on-one or three-person relationship-boosting conversational moments, a full colony to rebuild from scratch using the collectible junk strewn across the world, and a day/night system that results in some sexually arousing sunsets. So what’s the problem? There’s not much left to point to except the graphics, which were inarguably dated in 2012 and are shockingly, jumping-into-a-freezing-mountain-river bad today. Releasing Xenoblade as a Wii-exclusive virtually assured that that would be the case, though, so it’s not as if no one saw that coming, and it doesn’t do much to hamper the game experience if you approach it with the right frame of mind (remember: bonerrific sunsets). Still, it’s not exactly pleasing to brush up against a dungeon wall to discover that it’s comprised of six ceiling-height brown pixels.
And that about sums up Xenoblade, at least from my perspective. Unfortunately, despite this close analysis of the game and my soul, I don’t appear to have arrived at any easy answers. Why didn’t I finish the game? Did I even enjoy playing it? I could ask the Monado, but I have a feeling it would just show me a vision of me typing the next sentence of this article. If I had to guess at an answer and write it in capital letters, it’s probably that the MAGIC IS GONE or the TROPES ARE TIRED or I’M NOT FOURTEEN ANYMORE, but those topics have all been covered at length in Kotaku by other disillusioned JRPG-ers, so there’s no pressing need to delve into them here. In retrospect, Xenoblade actually had a lot to offer, but I’m a demanding gamer, and in the end there just wasn’t enough substance to get me through to the credits. What more could I have wanted? I don’t know - a protagonist who isn’t a smirking cheerleader bubble-machine, sidequests that aren’t so flagrantly fetch-y (Xenoblade is 75% padding, did I not mention that?), maybe a massive universe that’s more than just massive (sure, there are animals everywhere, but why isn’t there anything else?). The whole enterprise felt a little hollow, like the caves scattered underneath those dead giants or the inexplicable hole in the middle of the Monado. I’m not mad that I played it - not as mad as I am that I couldn’t elect to punt Riki off of a mountain like a floppy kickball rather than add him to my party - but I’m probably going to leave Xenoblade Chronicles X alone and do my world-exploring elsewhere. And when I stand in front of the head bad guy at the end of that world, his name won’t be something dumb like Metal Face, and I’ll pick up my weapon and slay the shit out of him.
PS: I’m aware Metal Face is not the final boss of Xenoblade. I just wanted to say his name again.
PPS: I’m also aware that my screenshots are all from emulated versions of the game. I want my post to look pretty, and Wii screenshots would just junk it up, man.
Lewis Beard is an avid player of old games, new games, bad games, and good games. He writes about all kinds of shit and is presently working his way through Chick-fil-A menu on his blog, Run For It Marty: