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.


New Famitsu-scans of Earth Seeker

September 9, 2010

Wow, this game looks like a winner. As you can see in the scans below, Earth Seeker for Wii seems to go for a rich atmosphere, set in a uniquely designed alien world. The screenshots show some combat-action as well as strange locations. What´s kind of saddening is that this is yet another great-looking RPG for Wii that we have to put on the “ugh, hopefully it´ll be released over here“-list, next to Xenoblade and The Last Story.


RPG and…RPG

May 25, 2010

In a recent argument on the web, fans of RPG-games heavily argued about what makes an RPG an RPG. That typically developed into the usual WRPG vs JRPG-discussion. Each of these, western and eastern RPGs, feature very different contents, focus on totally different key aspects. But what is it that makes us call them “role playing games”?

Most popular example on the WRPG-side is Mass Effect 2, the second act in the ME-trilogy, released earlier this year. The argument started when some people criticized Mass Effect 2 for having abandoned most of its predecessors RPG-traits and devolved into just another action-shooter. It´s needless to say that JRPG-supporters hopped onto that opinion. That lead me to thinking about what it actually is, this…”role playing game”.

In my opinion, role playing means that I am actively playing part in a game. For example, where in a shooter like Call of Duty I´m just following scripted events, in games like Oblivion or Mass Effect I´m actively influencing how the game proceeds. I can change it. Make decisions. Some bigger, some smaller. That´s what role playing, to me, is about: Creating your own adventure by playing a role within the game.

JRPG-fans now seem to have a completely different view at things. There seems to be a connection between the term “RPG” and these typical minigame-like combat-systems that JRPGs have. And stats. And grinding. And random encounter. And so on. Here, RPG describes game mechanics. However, there´s also some JRPG-fans that would explain “role playing” to mean “playing the role of a pre-defined character”. Like “you cannot influence anything, you are just playing this character and guide him though his role”. Both of these views are heavily flawed as far as I see it.

Tying certain gameplay details to the term RPG is turning the term ad absurdum. RPG means role playing game. There is absolutely no connotation of what kind of game mechanics that means. Secondly, calling the guiding of a pre-defined character through a set story role playing also ridicules the terms meaning. If that´s what a RPG is, then almost all games out there would be RPGs. See Call of Duty. It still can see how someone could use the term RPG in that way, coming from tradition. But where it gets really ludicrous is when people try to take away that term from a game like Mass Effect 2.

I think I´ve never before played a game where MY decisions allowed me to experience an adventure that individualized. When a player reaches the end of ME2, everything up to this point will have been his personal experience. There is an overarching story, sure, but it is all the different attitudes you can choose from that really bring your Shepard to life. It´s true that ME2 left a lot of ME1´s typical RPG-mechanics, and I hope we´ll get back some of them for ME3, but at the same time, ME2 was such a great role playing-game in the very meaning of this term that I couldn´t care less. In ME2, I became Shepard. I influenced how I talked to people, how I proceeded the story, how I changed the story depending on my very choices. I think I wrote that in my ratio-article about ME2, but ME2 really felt like a “true” RPG. Because IF there is any kind of game mechanic that should be associated to the term RPG, it is choice.


Exploration a la Xenoblade

May 6, 2010

You never can be sure when developers praise their own games. In the case of Xenoblade they didn´t lie. “We want the player find a certain spot and simply enjoy the look of the environment“. From simply watching the following trailer, called “Field Introduction“, this appears to be proven now.

Xenoblade-Field Introduction – trailer

The scale of Xenoblade´s world is enormous. Not only is it big, but it looks alive, natural. And enemies aren´t mindless attackers, no, they seem to actually live, walk around, and ignore you. The game isn´t an all around fine looking game, but where you see short comings in the character-models, you see where Monolithsoft spent their resources on. And even though I realize that I´m getting annoying: Will Zelda Wii be able to top this sense of exploration?


First gameplay-screenshots of The Last Story

April 27, 2010

The time has come, and wow, does it look good! The Last Story, a Nintendo-published JRPG, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, was featured in this week´s issue of Famitsu, and we can finally see ingame-screenshots of the promising game. And what can be seen on the following four scans is indeed promising. See for yourself:

I´m sorry, Nintendo, but by now I´m about to give up hope that between Monster Hunter 3, Xenoblade and this one, Zelda Wii can somehow manage to do anything better in terms of building up an adventurous atmosphere. Please look at the one scan where the main character walks on a narrow town street…EXACTLY what I always imagine when I´m talking about a lively, moody city for Zelda Wii. It´s simply incredible what Mistwalker and Sakaguchi are doing here. I´m still happily playing Monster Hunter 3 and will be for a long time, but here I´m already totally hyped for another adventure to experience. Until now, the upcoming E³´s major factors were Zelda Wii and the 3DS. But now Nintendo has one more high profile-title that everyone can look forward to.


3DS in October and new Xenoblade-trailer

April 21, 2010

Who´d have thought that? Apparently, Nintendo´s next handheld-generation, called 3DS, will see its launch in October…in Europe. Prior to this information that an UK-retailer gave, people supposed that the 3DS would be launched this year in Japan, and some time early next year in Europe and the USA. Looks like we´ll get our hands on the first 3D-capable handheld-system sooner than expected.

On another note, Nintendo published a new trailer of Xenoblade, Monolithsoftare´s upcoming JRPG. This new video is really nice, showing lots of new characters as well as letting you listen to the great music the game seems to feature. Graphics definitely aren´t the game´s strengths, but it reminds me of other traditional JRPGs that I played in the past, like Skies of Arcadia, which is a good thing.

Xenoblade – Trailer #3


New JRPGs for Wii announced

January 31, 2010

Many hate it, some love it: Nintendo´s new announcement policy. There wasn´t any kind of special conference, yet Wii-gamers got two new titles to look forward to. Both of the are JRPGs, a genre that had been lacking on the Wii.

Both will be released in 2010, with Xenoblade making it as soon as this spring. Xenoblades is technically no new game, as it is the game formerly known as Monado: Beginning of the World. The Monolithsoft developed JRPG has only been shown in one trailer, presenting a game world that looked a lot like Final Fantasy 12. The new artwork shows two giants, one of them possibly being a battle mech, the other one looking more organic. It is unknown if the game uses any kind of motion controls or if it is completely classic.

The other announced JRPG is The Last Story, developed by Mistwalker that are known for their Blue Dragon-game. Hironobu Sakaguchi is working on it, with seemingly Nobuo Uematsu working on the soundtrack. Release date is some time in 2010 as well.

If you follow the links to these games´ official websites you can hear nice pieces of music. Really beautiful tracks, especially the Xenoblade one.

The Last Story – Official Website

Xenoblade – Official Website