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.


Xenoblade Chronicles comes to Europe!

March 31, 2011

Sorry for the long break, but anyways, great news: Today, Nintendo of Europe announced that Xenoblade will be released in Europe this year under the new full title “Xenoblade Chronicles“. The Monolith Software-rpg for Wii has been permanently praised for its vast, open game world and has been voted number one-rpg of this current generation of consoles by a certain Japanese hardcore-rpg-fans´ website. A release date isn´t known, neither if the game will see a US-release. But it certainly would be stupid to release both this and Zelda: Skyward Sword at the end of the year, so maybe we´re in for another pleasant surprise soon?


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?


The Calm before E³ 2010 – Crazy Prediction Time

April 23, 2010

Another year passed by, and the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2010 is approaching quickly. From June 15th to 17th, we´ll get this year´s biggest, cumulative media blowout, with conferences supposedly taking place starting with June 13th. While sporting a bunch of interesting titles nonetheless, the past couple of E³s have been lacking. These expos never fail to gather a lot of hype, but rarely is that hype justified. E³ 2010 ramps up to be different – or to be its old self, for that matter. Remember E³ 2004, when Nintendo revealed Twilight Princess? Yeah, it´s going to be that kind of E³! Like last year, I´m focusing on predictions and expectations regarding Nintendo, as the two competitors simply don´t interest me that much. That´s more fair than making up stuff. So, let´s start with the FlyingFisch´s predictions of E³ 2010!

Fanboy´s favorite: Nintendo


Nintendo hat a pretty damn good start in 2010, with games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or the now released Monster Hunter Tri. Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Metroid: Other M are underway, too, so a good first half of the year is well covered with games. So what´s being released in the latter half of 2010? Despite the higher amount of great games compared to 2009, it kind of feels as if third-parties stopped trying. There´s only one third-party title I´m going to mention…maybe another one, though that one´s more likely to be revealed at Tokyo Game Show.

We´ll definitely see Warren Spector´s Epic Mickey. The dark, adventurous platformer, starring the new Mickey-design, will get a lot of focus at its publishers booth. I´d say it´s safe to assume that not only will there be videos, but it´ll be playable. As far as as I know, it´s supposed to be released at the end of the year, so now´s the time to start the Mickey-hype machine. First screenshots were pretty disappointing, but everything you read about the game sounds just so promising. We´ll see how that one turns out. The other high-quality third-party game that might be shown, but, most likely won´t, is Dragon Quest 10. I don´t have to explain how this is the biggest traditional JRPG-franchise in Japan. Which is exactly why it´s more likely to be shown at this year´s Tokyo Game Show (if at all). Considering that Dragon Quest 9 for Nintendo DS will be released in the US and Europe this July, it also wouldn´t make too much sense to announce the next instance of the series now. There´s a really slim off-chance, but I´d rather bet money on some of the upcoming crazy predictions than DQ10 being shown at E³ 2010.

Which leads us to Nintendo´s first-party offerings. Honestly, I don´t know what other awesome stuff I should predict, when we already know of the two most important things of this year´s E³: Zelda Wii and the Nintendo 3DS. Really, just rename “E³ 2010” into “Zelda 2010”. It´s going to be all about Zelda Wii. Sure, I´m personally hyped, but you´d be a fool to deny how much weight, how much importance rests on this game´s shoulders. It´s kind of staggering and hard to believe just how little we know about the new Zelda. Which is…nothing. There´s an artwork we got at last year´s E³, but that´s it. We know that it´ll use MotionPlus, and Eiji Aonuma talked about introducing a new overall structure of the game, which could mean a lot of things. There´s basically three options for Zelda Wii: 1.) Devolving into some kind of Phantom Hourglass/Spirit Tracks-like game, featuring top-down camera-angle and wiimote pointer-based controls, 2.) yet another Ocarina of Time-like Zelda, like Twilight Princess, or 3.) a truly new, fresh adventure-experience, that finally manages to jump out of Ocarina of Time´s shadow and become its own classic, impacting the future gaming industry again. I fear for 1, hope for 3, but believe we´ll get 2. Which will be disappointing, too, but at least nothing too bad. Then again, I think Zelda Wii is going to be the definitive experience of the next 10 years to come. That´s what it should become. But there´s so much stuff that Zelda Wii “should” do, it´s hard to believe that Nintendo´s going to be able to get it all right. But no matter if they fail or not, Zelda Wii is THE game of E³ 2010.

And when there´s a game of E³, there also has to be a hardware of E³ 2010. There are only two contenders, but if we go by historic importance, then Nintendo wins this one, too. This will be the first time when Nintendo´s going to show the Nintendo 3DS in public, and probably lets E³-visitors get their hands on the true DS-successor. We know that it has some kind of 3D-capabilities and that the screen size will be smaller than 4″. Rumors have it that the 3DS will feature GameCube-like graphics, but that was never confirmed. Even though that much should be possible in 2010, it´s silly to take it for granted. But I can understand that the thought of a portable version of The Wind Waker in 3D sounds daring. Yeah, if Nintendo continues their tradition of remaking an older game for a new hardware´s launch, I´d want that one to be TWW. But let´s see what the 3DS really will be like. It´s supposed to be backwards-compatible to the DS, so some kind of 2-screen-design is obvious. But there´s a lot of possibilities within that frame. Another hardware that´s likely to be shown is the Vitality sensor. But I have no idea how that one´s coming into play.

And then there´s the two Nintendo-funded JRPGs, Xenoblade and The Last Story. While the former looks promising, even though graphically not too special, it is The Last Story that might surprise a lot of gamers. Seemingly, Hironobu Sakaguchi is behind that game, and it´s him as well as the known artworks that make it appear as if this is meant to be a Final Fantasy-competitor. But, again, we have no idea about the game, except for some vague combat-system details. In the end, a high-profile JRPG should also look high-profile, so what many gamers ask themselves, is: What is The Last Story going to look like? Personally, I´d love to see a gorgeous cel-shading style featured, similar to TWW´s. Just have it more detailed. But I won´t complain about a good-looking realistic game. Just make sure it looks “round”. Xenoblade suffers from that.

So, prediction time, eh? With Zelda Wii dominating the Wii´s lineup, there´s not much that could impress equally. But if we assume that Nintendo finally figured out how to use motion controls in a singleplayer-adventure to its fullest, it has to be another MotionPlus-game. Three games would greatly fit that new control-style. First one is Kid Icarus. Yeah, a popular, recurring speculation, but with his bow and arrow, Pit is a perfect match for MotionPlus. Imagine a platformer that closer to Zelda than Mario, and you have it. Another franchise I really want to see anew is the StarFox-series. I´d go against the serie´s arcade-feeling, but I finally want a flight-game that uses the wiimote (and motionplus) as if you´re holding a flight stick. It would control like the flight-game from Wii Sports Resort, but you´d be holding the wiimote vertically instead of horizontally.  The last fitting game is a crazy wish that I had last year, too. Give me a Berserk-game (great anime/manga). Have it use MotionPlus for Gut´s sword strikes. Have it be a mixture of Zelda and Monster Hunter. Have it sport gorgeous cel-shading. And thus, attempt at making me forget Zelda Wii. Ha!

A new hardware obviously needs some new games. Surely, the 3DS will get its own version of Wario Ware. And there´ll be a remake/port of an older title, which I want to be The Wind Waker. But what for new games? We haven´t heard of RetroStudios in quite a while. We should hear from them at this year´s E³. With Zelda getting all the spotlight on the Wii, I cannot imagine that they´d like to start a fight there. Instead, I believe they´re working an the 3DS first killer-app. If the GameCube-level graphics rumors are correct, it would grant RetroStudios a well-known developing environment. There, I expect to see Metroid Prime 4 exclusively for the 3DS. I´d prefer a Metroid-game that continues the story after Fusion, though. There´s also going to be Pokemon Black and White. I´m pretty disappointed by how small the visual upgrade from the last games came out to be, but maybe we´ll get 3DS-support at the least. If not canceled, Golden Sun DS will be fully covered, as well.  Depending on how the 3D works, I also believe that Nintendo will introduce a movie-watching ability for the 3DS, starting with James Cameron´s Avatar. It´d be just too perfect of a marketing move.

As I told you initially, predicting is hard when we know of the best stuff already. Maybe there´ll be Pikmin 3, a new F-Zero-game, some WiiFit-like title. Capcom might finally port Resident Evil 5 to the Wii. Perhaps, Konami makes Zone of the Enders 3 for Wii. And how about a real home console-Pokemon? The heck, I could even imagine that Nintendo´s showing or at least talking about the Wii´s successor, even though there´s the 3DS. If Zelda remains a 2010-release, as well as all the other games, Nintendo won´t have any games for Wii except for Dragon Quest 10 somewhere down the road. We have had two Mario-games by then, another Zelda-game won´t be finished that quickly. And there´s nothing else that can fill the hunger for big, epic, adventurous games like these two. Or, even more crazy, maybe the 3DS is much more important than everyone thought until now. Maybe the 3DS marks Nintendo´s future business, being a hybrid handheld-home console. We know that 3D needs more power, so how about GameCube/Wii-level graphics when you´re not at home, and when plugging the 3DS into the TV, you´ll be able to play HD-quality games, a Wiimote connecting via bluetooth. Who knows. E³ 2010 is looking like it´s going to a Nintendo-show. But when there´s a lot of promise, there´s also a lot potential for disappointment.

Microsoft´s effort-machine


There are two things that highly interest me on the Xbox 360. One is Natal. And no, I´m not interested in that one because of controls. I believe that completely hand-free controls don´t feel good. After all, I had EyeToy, and you just need something in your hands. But I´m totally interested in A.I.-focused games, so that´s Milo for me. Of course, it´s Peter Molyneux. That means: Lots of awesome sounding announcements, lots of terrible shortcomings. But what the showed with Milo last year was…revolutionary. I´d like to see two “games” for Natal. One being a pure A.I.-based simulation-game. Maybe replace Milo with a girl, too, so a nerd can learn how to socialize. As for the second game, create a RPG that makes use of Milo-like interaction. That´s where I see the possibility for a revolution regarding Natal. You´re still using the 360-controller, but all the communication-part of the game is done by yourself. If Microsoft and Molyneux manage to do that, they´ll have their own killer-ap. A game I´d also love to see some first bits and pieces of is BioWare´s Mass Effect 3. I haven´t followed the developer´s recent news-announcements, so if they already said there would be no ME3, too bad. But this third and final part of the Mass Effect-saga is hyped-worthy, no matter when they decide to show it. On the note of surprises, maybe Microsoft finally got their hands on a Metal Gear Solid 4-port.

The Third Place: Sony

I´m (not) sorry, but i just don´t care.

Conclusion:

Phew…E³, eh? The true christmas of every gamer. No better time in the year. I think every gamer, no matter what you´re a fan of, will see a lot of great stuff. Aside from all the stuff I already talked about, it´ll be most interesting to see gamers´ and developers´ reaction on the 3DS. Will Sony announce a new handheld to counter Nintendo? Will the 3DS be too freaky for a lot of developers? Or is it going to be a much more important hardware than “just” the next handheld of Nintendo? Time will tell. But predictions are big part of each year´s E³, so let´s see how much of the above turns out true. Just one advice for next year: Please, Nintendo, don´t spoil all the fun by announcing the two biggest things beforehand. Where´s the fun in predicting a new Kirby-game when you already know of ZELDA being shown. Not that I blame you.


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


A simply enjoyable adventure: First details of Xenoblade

February 17, 2010

The latest issue of Famitsu did not disappoint. It features a multi-page article on Xenoblade, the upcoming JRPG of Monolithsoft. The magazine features some definitely gorgeous screenshots of the world of Xenoblade – a rather interesting world. The game is supposed to take place on top of the bodies of two frozen-in-motion deities. These two deities once fought each other. Now, each of their bodies is populated by a different culture. The hero´s Deity marks the home of organic life. The other giant body is inhabited by mechanic life. The story starts by mechanic life stirring up organigc life´s peace.

Besides the already interesting setting and story, the actual gameplay bits sound even better: The whole world is one seamless world that Tetsuya Takahashi, director of the game, said he wanted the player to explore. And indeed, taking a look at the new screenshots totally makes me want to explore that world. Part of what makes the scale of Xenoblade that fascination is its similarity to MMORPGs that Takahashi himself mentions. Not only is the world´s scale supposed to be like that of a MMORPG, also the combat-system sound a lot like World of Warcraft. Enemies are visibly running around on the overworld. Once you engage them in a fight, your character will fight automatically. You as the player have the option of choosing special attacks, recovery skills and other special abilities. Nearby enemies even will join your current enemy, something  I only experienced in Etrian Odysse. If that´s still not enough great news, then let´s tell you that Takahashi mentiond how the game will take supposedly 50-60 hours to complete – without endless grinding or cutscenes.

Xenoblade is shaping up to be a very promising game. And no matter how it turns out in the end, the fact that Tetsuya Takahashi himself said that Xenoblade is supposed to be a simply enjoyable adventure, a return to the origin of RPGs, is a great realization that most, if not all, modern developers are missing. Let´s hope that everything comes well together…and please no circle shadows, Mr. Takahashi.


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