Strike three, out! – Most certainly not

November 12, 2011

I´m sitting in some comfy chair in front of my PC right now and I can´t stop feeling overwhelmed. Simply overwhelmed by the “game” that was Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii. I´m hesitant to just call it a mere game, because that´d put it into the vast ocean of, well, other video games. Crude joking aside, this right here is what has gone missing since the SNES/PS1-era, maybe including Dreamcast-era: An epic (“epic” used in the actual meaning, not in gaming journalism-lingo) adventure, an expansive, lengthy journey, and a wonderful, charming cast of characters. I´d like to say that the last JRPG that had me feel this emotional, involved and captivated, was Skies of Arcadia Legends, and don´t ask me which one I favor, because I couldn´t answer that question. Not now, anyway.

But while Xenoblade is truly their finest masterpiece, developer MonolithSoft has already delivered two fantastic role playing games before. Both Baten Kaitos and Baten Kaitos: Origins gave a glimpse into the skill set and creativity of the now Nintendo-exclusive development studio. Where Baten Kaitos gave us a first look into an unique fantasy-world and an innovative card battle-system, Origins one-upped that and offered detailed insight into the politics of that same universe, succeeding in telling a story that Square Enix´ Final Fantasy 12 failed at.

What is most astounding is the consequent improvement in MonolithSoft´s game design philosophy. To make this not an overly long and in-depth article, let´s just look at the evolution of surficial changes between their three games. Baten Kaitos offered a creative, original combat system that relied on cards, but also used these cards outside of battle to transport any kind of item. Each character in your active party had his own card deck. Health could only be regenerated during combat, by rare, expensive healing items or at save points. Said save points weren´t always put fairly and defeat meant re-starting from the last save point. This brings us to Baten Kaitos: Origins, where not only save points were always within close reach, but the player was freed from having to pay attention for healing, too. Health was automatically filled to max when not fighting some monsters. The addictive card battle system got an overhaul as well, removing character-exclusive card decks and having the whole party share a single one, which really helped the micromanagement process. However, just like its predecessor, traveling the world was still rather slow. And thus we arrive at Xenoblade, where fast travel means lighting fast travel. Once reached a new check point on the ginormous world map, players need to simply click the minus-button, choose their destination, confirm with the a-button and … are wherever they intended to be. It is only between completely different areas when load times take a several seconds wait, but looking at how big just one single area is, that is still an unfathomable achievement in game design. As for the masterpiece´s combat system … it could be said that it is some kind of evolution of the previous games´ card battle, but I guess that would be a little too far-fetched without proper evidence. However, disregarding the cards-or-not topic, Xenoblade made sure to proceed the mission of BKO, creating a most comfortable, user-friendly environment. Health regenerating outside of battle was a given, but not only has you Xenoblade forget all your worries about unnecessary item management (while still offering plenty of customization), it also features stuff like granting experience points for individually beaten enemies. So even if you fail to beat a group of enemies, you get the points for the ones you actually did. And what happens should you fail? Restart from last save point? Watch a lengthy cutscene over and over again? Of course, not! Being wiped out means that you´ll restart at the last map check point. No loss of experience, no loss of anything. And cutscenes cannot only be skipped, they won´t even start a second time when re-approaching the “bitch that kicked your ass“.

MonolithSoft seems to have researched each and every complaint JRPG-fans had with various games in the past and put all of that to heart, resulting in the most user-friendly, frustration-free experience ever. With the exception of a little quick grinding here and there, should you grow tired of doing the endless amount of sidequests, Xenoblade is as smooth of a progression as is possible in terms of game design. Which leads me to the most exciting part of it all and the reason why I wanted to share these thoughts with you: The next game.

With the Wii U entering the HD-era and MonolithSoft being one of Nintendo´s technically most capable teams (as was found out, they even helped with Zelda: Skyward Sword), whatever their next project is gonna be, it´s an instant Most Wanted-title for anyone that enjoys great video games. The big question remains: Is it is even possible to surpass the magnificence of Xenoblade? Well, yes it is (sorry). While many of those that played Xenoblade agree that it is one of the best JRPGs ever and THE best JRPG of the current generation, it´s easy to find room for improvement. Not the kind of improvements that were missing due to incompetence, but because at some point, something just cannot be implemented anymore due to the sheer vastness of content. Having finished Xenoblade in 91 hours only means that I´ve beaten its main story. I could probably put in another 90 hours to do and see everything – it´s that much content. Now, if I had to pick just one aspect of the game that I would love to improve on, it´s character dynamics and detail surrounding them. Xenoblade puts our heroes in this grand adventure and we grow to love them, but maybe with the exception of hero Shulk, none of them is ever fleshed-out particularly well. Which, again, isn´t a huge fault here, since we´d be looking at a 150 hour-campaign otherwise. But the point stands and is reason why I´d like for MonolithSoft to take the opposite approach for the next project: An adventure and story small in scale, but featuring an enormous, fearsome amount of care for detail. A story that is character-driven, rather than following the limits of some almighty villain. A combat-system that completely makes away with grinding and introduces an intelligent mix of strategy, puzzle and attentiveness. Maybe to the point where losing a fight not only doesn´t just put you right in front of it for another try, but actually incorporates the loss into the further progression of the game, thus never leading the flow to a halt. MonolithSoft has shown how they love to put some real-world tangents into their fantasy worlds – maybe they should turn around that approach and make a JRPG that is set in our current, modern world and whatever fantasy is only creeping in an ominous, far away background, slowly coming closer as the plot unfolds. I´m having Death Note or Durararara on my mind right now, if you happen to know these anime shows. But anyway, I have no doubt that the game after Xenoblade will be devoid of frustration, feature an even more motivating combat system and present another rich, creative universe. If it´s me, I´d like to see MonolithSoft´s fine skills used in a small scale-character driven title, but I´d lie if I claimed that I wouldn´t also love another big, epic journey.

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