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110 Hours Later, I'm Still Undecided.
on September 8, 2012
Xenoblade has been one of my most anticipated games since it was announced. As a fan of Xenogears, and many of the other games that Takahashi has worked on, I'm always thrilled to play new games by his team at Monolith. Many of us waited eagerly for an announcement of a localization. I pre-ordered the game and was excited when it finally arrived. That said, 110 hours later, I found that I was forcing myself to try to finish the last few hours of gameplay.
Please let me explain why. I don't wish to initiate a flame war. Many times, people voice their opinions about games only to receive backlash from people with opposing opinions. Xenoblade is an amazing game, created with love, but it's simply not for everyone.
This game is epic, overwhelming, and huge. The shear magnitude of some of the environments is extraordinary. The draw distance in the superbly detailed worlds is mind-blowing. Everything about this game's presentation defies what people have said about the Wii and its capabilities. I've seldom played games with such a huge and open world. Load times are practically non-existent even with fast travel between areas. This is truly a "next-gen" game that defies conventions and breaks rules. Forget that the Wii is "simply" 480p and marvel at the level of detail that went into this game. It's fantastic.
The music was crafted with a great degree of care and several of the tracks are fantastic. Even after spending hours upon hours on the Bionis Leg, I never tire of the inspirational and exciting tunes, even with it repeating in a loop. It just makes it all the more grand. The transition between day and night is well done, and the variety of tracks throughout the game is huge. That said, some of the soundtrack still feels relatively weak compared to other games. I just don't feel that it compares, as a whole, to other games; Xenogears, Nier, some of the legacy Final Fantasy titles, etc. It's truly ambitious but simply has very few tracks that I find to be memorable. After nearly 30 years of gaming, there are just too many other games that have standout soundtracks that I remember and love years after playing the game. I just don't find that Xenoblade will be one of those games.
So much of this game's length is artificially extended by the outrageous volume of fetch-quests and grinding. In reality, a 120 hour game could be pared down to a real 30-40 hours of actual enjoyable gaming with relevant plot devices. Some people will claim that all of the quests and grinding can be completely avoided. This added depth is assumed to be a voluntary ordeal. This is partially true. Quests provide a substantial amount of experience, items, and money. You do not gain money from battles, but often find items that can be sold. If you avoid quests, most gamers will be forced to grind in order to keep levels high enough to progress. If you avoid battling, you'll have to make up for it by doing quests. But so many of the pointless quests require battling anyway, so you're effectively forced to do it all in order to balance things out. Though I never felt that I had to spend hours grinding (generally, this gets you very little experience anyway due to the tiered experience system), it will occasionally be required to get a rare item. In extreme cases, a rare item can be difficult to obtain, especially when a fetch-quest requires half a dozen of them. Out of fear of missing something spectacular, I did virtually all of the possible quests. Never once was I awarded with anything that made me truly feel like it was worth all of the effort. Most of the best weapons are gained from drops during battle anyway. This actually negates the need to generally buy anything except for skill books.
Questing is so incredibly tedious that it just simply ruins the gaming experience. The extent of 3/4 of the quests is literally so absurd as "I dropped a pencil on the road. Can you find it for me?". People in this world are so helpless and the quests are so mundane, it really takes a lot of enjoyment out of the game. By comparison, Nier (a game that I loved) had a similar questing system. People complained about it, but I enjoyed it. In Nier, you were rewarded with witty and unique dialogue, with smart responses from the characters. These showed true compassion among the characters and really helped to build the story and make the characters likable. In Xenoblade, virtually all responses are canned. Sometimes you'll get unique dialogue if you have a specific character in your active party, but there never is any real value in it. Most of this serves to just build affinity among characters to gain access to additional quests or comments. Frankly, however, 99% of the time, people just seem artificial and there is no depth to the characters and the world. For a game that is supposed to be so revolutionary, it feels like I am still playing an RPG from the '90s.
Back to item collection... By the end of the game, you will have dozens of pages full of items. Most of these are useless for any reason other than to get paid to finish a fetch-quest. Even more annoying is the fact that you *will* run out of space for weapons, items, and ether crystals. You are forced to sell many of these to make space for new items or wastefully throw things away.
Character designs are generally not interesting and are cliche'. You have the heroic teen that learns of his special powers and mysterious past, the muscle-head friend, the love interest, the war hero, the sexy and sassy older woman, the strange bunny creature, and the "magic user", etc. None of the main character models looks particularly unique, and their back stories are just as equally disinteresting. A nice touch is that weapons and armor change, but most of these look ridiculous and are mismatched palette swaps that you'll get used to seeing over and over again.
The English voice localization is very good, and features a great cast, but it's still rather weak when compared to some of the top-notch jobs in many of today's games. Voices are repetitive and become grating, especially in combat. But as a whole, the cast is pretty good and I didn't find any voices that were poorly done.
The battle system is excellent in the respect that it is real-time, but there is simply no depth to it. Most of the combat is automated and the real strategy is limited solely to buffing characters with some sort of defense (Monado shield) and using the correct attack to possibly avoid becoming the direct target of a strong enemy in boss battles. There is nothing fun or beautiful about the combat. It feels clunky and uninspired. Care must be taken in selecting a party that works well in combat. You can either go for a support route or try to build a party that overwhelms the opposition with shear speed and strength (I found that I enjoyed a party of Shulk, Dunban, and "Seven" the best). Combat in an aggressive scenario generally involves incapacitating your foes temporarily while you abuse them with a string of chains. But nothing about the battles system ever feels rewarding or challenging. The opponents are tiered so that they can easily be beaten if you are within 5 levels of them. Enemies are are equal to your level are always a pushover. In contrast, other RPGs really require strategy and skill to complete the battles. I know of one "Arc Rise Fantasia" where I absolutely loved combat and found many of the battles to be challenging. I just don't enjoy the battle system in this game. It isn't an issue of being real-time vs. turn-based. It's simply because it has no depth and is not challenging.
Finally, the story, while decent, is the same old (SPOILER) Takahashi "humanity vs. god". It doesn't have the depth or excitement of Xenogears, and nothing ever surprised me with regard to the characters and plot twists. I truly loved the concept that the people lived on the backs of "gods". It was truly just predictable and unexciting.
Xenoblade is a game that tries to merge elements of traditional turn-based RPGs with MMORPGs. It fails at being great at either form of the genre. If this were an online game, I'm pretty sure that it would be incredible. But it just pales as a single player game. It's a tedious and generally boring experience that tries very hard to make up for it with very rare "wow" moments to the predictable plot. Its redeeming quality is simply in how massive it is, but I just can't see myself ever wanting to play it again a second time. The game was just too tedious and long to be enjoyable, and the truly rare rewards made me feel like I was being punished by forcing myself to play. I had high hopes for this title after all of the rave reviews. It's not that it doesn't deserve high marks. It truly is great in many respects. The designers' ambitions were perhaps just great that it never feels like anything grand is achieved with regard to the gameplay and story.
I truly do *like* Xenoblade, but I don't feel that it will ever deserve a place among the best RPGs I've ever played. It's a game that has unfortunately been a victim of the hype and eager anticipation for a localization. Perhaps it just came a bit too late. Maybe if we had a localization within a reasonable timeframe, it wouldn't have needed the hype of the Operation Rainfall campaign in order to get it localized.
In a nutshell, Xenoblade is a long game because it simply can be, not because it needs to be. It is so artificially inflated to appeal to a gaming audience that wants nothing more than to find pointless items and do pointless things for hours. This sort of gaming just doesn't appeal to me. In spite of its grand achievements, there is still simply a level of unrefinement that has nothing to do with the console it is on, and everything to do with its design goals. I would certainly say that I got my money's worth from the game, but I just don't feel that it was 110 hours of enjoyable gaming. Rather, it was 110 hours that I could have spent playing other games instead. There are so many of them to choose from these days, across all consoles and portable gaming platforms.