Review – Xenoblade Chronicles X

XCX

The day of judgment is finally coming. After the great Xenoblade on Wii (to some the best JRPG of the PS3 era), many started to believe that the JRPG genre belonged to Nintendo. But with the withdrawal from the WiiU of all the main JRPG publishers, nothing remains but Monolith Software’s champion to defend the title.

snipe a

Xenoblade Chronicles X starts pretty well because it immediately raise the stakes (mankind’s future is in your hand after Earth has been destroyed by unknown forces) and gives large freedom and possibilities of gameplay after a few hours. As pioneers, you’ll have to survive and take advantage of the planet on which your gigantic ship (which also happens to carry an entire city, New Los Angeles) has made an emergency landing, called Mira. You quickly come come to be familiar with the very diversified fauna : the monsters’ level go from 5 to 50, their size from 30cm to approximately one of NLA’s district. No doubt, the progression margin is immense and you’re here for a while.

arms

Much to your delight, you have 13 classes that you’ll unlock progressively. Every class lets you equip a firearm and and CQC weapon. The enhancement system of weaponry and armory is quite rich as you can either improve their statistics directly or attach external modules giving extra skills or bonuses. All this goes through military engineering firms, which you unlock during the story or by completing side-quests. Each company develops its own design and models, and you’ll have to provide them resources if you want further innovations. The game will also have you choose between some “unions” (explorer, Doll pilot, hunter, etc.) but this particular aspect didn’t change the gameplay or my progression in any way. You’ll receive a salary regardless, in the form of several items to choose from, some being extremely helpful in tough fights.

quest

Graphically speaking, Xenoblade Chronicles X is uneven. The city isn’t really appealing (noticeable clipping, aliasing, late textures and failed collisions are rife), nor it is very large. Its only point is to list the various quests you’ll have to complete on the field. NLA is divided in several districts (industrial, commercial, etc) rather empty, except for the “Blade” part (from the name of your military organization) which benefits from a much better design. The character modeling is at least 10 years late : the main characters reminds us of the early PS3 era, and NPCs are even worse. Facial animations are non-existant and gestures are stiff. This is not next-gen at all.

doll car a

That said, you just have to peek outside to see it, because this is where Monolith’s title displays its true self. The nature is beautiful, the fauna is astonishingly lively and the lush flora clearly impress. But beyond that, it is the scale of planet Mira that gives the wow effect : five continents, each one immense and with its own theme and wildlife. Every change of environment is a magical moment. Every plain, every valley, every mountain path has its little surprise, good or bad, architectural or living, which are wonders for the player. The weather effect are no less amazing : should it be the thunderous storms of the Forgotten Continent, the meteor showers of the Continent of the Black Steel, or especially the snowstorms of the Continent of the White Tree, so thick that the player has to stop or return to base, everything is splendid. The general design of Xenoblade Chronicles X is also of fine quality. The weapons and the technology in general (particularly some very classy sniper rifles) gives a unique feel of a whole new and coherent universe, not to mention the sense of grandeur given to the landscape.

snipe b

Let’s go into actual gameplay. Xenoblade Chronicles X has a rather shabby user interface with a flurry of menu screens in which character font is blatantly too tiny : maybe it will be OK in western alphabet, but believe me, reading difficult kanjis in font size 7 is quite a hassle.Skills description is not very clear and there is no tutorial to help you. You therefore have to build your character a bit empirically due to the lack of structure in the battle system. The gamepad is inconvenient in real-time gameplay, mainly because the buttons are too small and too far from each other. I had a hard time going through some battles, notably because of not so responsive targeting and an ill-designed item menu. On the other hand, navigating on the world map is perfectly thought as you always have all the information and all the destinations available with little browsing to do.

doll car

As good explorers, you’ll work to subdue the (hostile) environment around you, starting with its resources. Millanium is used for a bunch of things : deliver it to NPCs, make R&D progress or refuel your Dolls. For this, you’ll need to reach certain places a set a drill. This is the big pleasure of Xenoblade Chronicles X, as the hilly landscape provide a exhilarating exploration like it never had been before. There is often the need for crazy diversions or climbing to reach your goal. Xenoblade stays the absolute master of exploration, far surpassing Final Fantasy XV Duscae in terms of level design. Once your drills are set, you’ll need to manage them. There are various types of plugs you can use to change your output : extraction plugs to maximize production, search plugs to improve profitability and stock plugs to get a higher ceiling. Up to you to define your current priorities, but do not forget some drills provide high-value minerals. Aside of that, you can loot certain items on the field by using field skills. Those capacities you have to upgrade regularly allow to interact with some elements here and there : mechanical knowledge allows you to take scraps from abandoned vehicles, biology makes you able to harvest from unkown plants, etc. It does keep you busy, but it’s still very average looting.

The problem is that in the end, that’s more or less all you have to do in the large world of Xenoblade Chronicles X. True, there is a big hunting part due to the diversity of the fauna, but the open world of Monolith’s game is pretty far from delivering the same density of activities as WatchDogs for example. The experience in Xenoblade Chronicles X is hampered by one of WiiU’s issues : the lack of trophies. Once the story is cleared and all the drills under control, raoming dozens of hours killing local species just for personal satisfaction is not very motivating, especially if you’re accustomed to be rewarded by a social system like trophies.

snipe e

The other snag in Xenoblade Chronicles X is combat. The battle system is directly inherited from Xenoblade, but losing the time travel lore at the same time. All that remains is casting skills on after another, which makes it incredibly passive and dull. Worse, in my progression in the class tree, I’ve never had a single healing spell! The only recovery means I’ve had throughout the entire game are the Soul Challenge and Soul Voice. Whazzat? The Challenge materializes in a B icon to tell you to press the corresponding button within a short time. The Voice is a party member asking you to use a certain type of skill (gun skill, physical etc.) immediately. Needless to say, such an unmethodical healing system is nightmarish and prevents you to establish any logical battle plan. If the enemy focuses on your main character, you’re good to restart from the last checkpoint because there’s little you can do to survive, and condition to revive one character are long and difficult to meet. I lost countless times and wasted a considerable amount of time because of that. Fleeing is extremely tricky too as monsters can hunt down for kilometers, and that of course doesn’t help. This game simply needs you to grind your way to the end, without any elaborated features. You can “rent” the avatar of another player via the internet, which makes fighting a bit less annoying, but it’s not like it’s making miracles either. All this nothing more than a sub-par battle system, neither dynamic like the recent Tales of games, nor strategic like Atelier.

doll cb1

Dolls are an excellent feature. Of remarkable design, those mechs aren’t mere war machines but real partners like in Evangelion. A lot of little animations makes you feel close to it : the one by which your main character enters/leaves the cockpit or whn the Doll transforms itself in a flash to switch to vehicle mode. The Doll can be be brought anywhere, even in the middle of the city! While fighting, the game sometimes switches to cockpit mode, which makes it even more immersive. The is quite a wide range of models and the best ones will ask you to save some crazy amount of cash. This effort is necessary, because upgrading is the only way to keep up with the bosses in the last chapters. You can manage the equipment of your mechs as you whish and there are plenty of weapons to choose from. I’d need hours hours to detail all the stuff surrounding Dolls but let me tell you one last anecdote : this feature is so detailed that the Dolls have different driving patterns! Only drawback of your steel companions : they’re surprisingly fragile. In fact, the Dolls doesn’t hold longer than your foot soldier against powerful enemies, which is kind of a letdown. The really annoying thing is that from a certain point, the game will ask you to foot the bill for repairs. Expensive Dolls need an insane amount of money to be fixed and you soon a to give all your savings. And given that you can be OHKO by just stepping on a lvl 50 monster hidden in the sand, it quickly becomes unbearable and you have no choice but to restart the game over and over.

Rin

In terms of characters, again Monolith’s work is unbalanced. 13 year-old (!) Lyn is quite good in her moe/kawaii role, her voice actress Mariya Ise (who also voice Riko from Aria the Scarlet Ammo) has the right tone to make her funny. But you won’t enjoy that because Nintendo isn’t bringing the original dubbing. Beyond that, no character stands out, even Elma is quite shallow until the very end. The others have almost no screentime, let alone a convincing showing, but the game had a surprise…

Celica b

The character unlocking order is exceptionally silly. I got this wonderfully charming little lady, called Celica (yes, like the Toyota) after almost 80h! A good character like should be the first to join the party, not the last!!!!!! And if she weren’t under-leveled, it would have been cool too…

dragon

Let’s finish by the tricky topic of narration. You can forget all that you’ve experienced in Xenoblade Wii : the epic quest, the heart-braking moments, the separation etc. it’s not for this time. It’s a shame because the base scenario had the potential to make a great story had it been better told. The first thing is that here you create your own character. Although the character creation system isn’t as detailed as in Samurai Warriors 4 for example (kinda lacks some types of hair & faces), it takes a very good initiative in offering numerous voices sorted by voice actor/actress and personality (tsundere, ojôsama, etc. but here again you’ll only have unrefined English voices in the western version). This choice of the developer does impact the narration, as your character is mute in dialog phases, like in Tales of Xillia 2. But while Ludger was, despite his silence, an emotive and expressive character, the main character of Xenoblade Chronicles X has absolutely no facial expression! From Xenoblade to Xenoblade Chronicles X, you trade the valorous Shulk for an soulless avatar which makes your adventure a bit impersonal, which might disappoint many.

Elma

Last point, the main story is divided in chapters that you select as if they were sidequests, with often very strict unlocking conditions to have you grind for hours. The vast majority of those are weak events with little coherence and antagonists aren’t introduced or developed jackshit. On the other hand, some side-quests have interesting mini-stories that would have been welcomed in the main one. The player is actually in the middle of an erratic story with bits of scenario here and there which never takes the form of a proper narrative. There’s a lot too much artificial grinding doing quests in which dialogs feel far too long for what is said, and always revolve around hunting and finding items. We’re far, very far from the inventive quests of Lighting Returns for example. The humor is so lame that Xenoblade Chronicles X rehashes the same joke at every chapter. The excellent soundtrack do live up the mood with astonishing electro-country or other more classic but appealing melodies, but remains oddly used during the game : the game tends to overuse epic music even in bland dialog, which feels strange to say the least.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a large RPG but not so much a great one. Exhilarating and fascinating in its wild nature, it is much less so in others aspects. I wonder if Monolith Software, too busy to build the immense world, has forgotten the elements that make the historical RPG. The mediocre battles, the casino healing system and the upside down story weight much on the general experience. Basically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is the same as Final Fantasy XIII, but reversed : one is story-driven, without a world to explore, the other is world-driven, without anything interesting to tell. In both cases, a good RPG with definite qualities, but not one of the great. Because a safari, however beautiful it may be, cannot pretend to be a great JRPG.

1st half 2012 – software sales analysis

Half a year has passed. Time to see what happens on the economic side of the gaming world.

Worldwide top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Diablo III (PC)

  2. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  3. Pokémon B/W2 (DS)

  4. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  5. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  6. Ghost Recon Future Soldier (X360)

  7. Max Payne (X360)

  8. Resident Evil Operation Racoon City (PS3)

  9. One Piece Pirate Warriors (PS3)

  10. Mass Effect 3 (PS3)

You can see the full top 100 on Vgchartz. Games released in 2011 remainded praticularely vivid as few 2012 games managed to steal the spotlight : in the top 20 games, only 6 were released in 2012, being Mario Party 9, Mass Effect 3, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Ghost Recon, Pokemon B/W 2 and Diablo 3. The rest of the top 20 is composed of long sellers such as Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 or evergreen casual games. I can’t deny that Mass Effect significantly overtook Final Fantasy as a leading RPG IP (if Mass Effect is still and RPG, that is). Mass Effect 3 beats Final Fantasy XIII-2 by 2 to 1 in the West and still sells more even if Japan is taken into account. FFXIII-2 nevertheless outpaces ME3 on PS3 and outsells its 360 counterpart by 2.5 to 1, proving that the audiences of the two systems are very different. FFXIII-2 on PS3 is also showing some legs : it has been staying between the 40th and the 60th rank for several weeks now. There are several DS/3DS games, but only one Vita game which is Uncharted. Two Japan-only games cracked into the top 10, showing that the Japanese market is far from dead.

USA top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  2. Diablo III (PC)

  3. Ghost Recon Future Soldier (X360)

  4. MLB 12 : The Show (PS3)

  5. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  6. Max Payne (X360)

  7. Kingdom of Alamur Reckoning (X360)

  8. Kinect Star Wars (X360)

  9. Twisted Metal (PS3)

  10. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

You can see the full top 100 on Vgchartz. Here again 2012 games fail to perform well : 6 out of 20 were released this year. JRPGs are struggling as Tales of Graces f only managed 193K so far and the much awaited Xenoblade stalls at 260K. Those are really horrible figures. I hope they still profit so that it doesn’t deter publishers for future localizations. At least, ToGf must have met Namco’s expectations since the translation of Tales of Xillia is already in the works. The casual audience still heavily dominates the Nintendo platforms : there’s no Resident Evil Revelations or Metal Gear 3D in sight.

Europe top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Diablo III (PC)

  2. Mass Effect 3 (X360)

  3. FIFA Street (PS3)

  4. FIFA Street (X360)

  5. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  6. Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3)

  7. Max Payne (PS3)

  8. Max Payne (X360)

  9. Mass Effect 3 (PS3)

  10. Kinect Star Wars (X360)

Again, only 6 out of the top 20 games were released in 2012. There are two funny things in this European chart :

  • Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is the only figthing game in the 100, neither SoulCalibur V nor Street Fighter X Tekken manged to chart. Those series are declining at breackneck pace, which logically calls for new contenders.

  • PSVita put up quite a fight for it places three games in the top 100 (Uncharted, Rayman Origins and FIFA Soccer). Uncharted shots up at rank 38th, beating all the recent 3DS games.

Japan top 10 (2012 releases only)

  1. Pokémon B/W 2 (DS)

  2. One Piece Pirate Warriors (PS3)

  3. Dragon Quest Monsters : Terry’s Wonderland (3DS)

  4. Mario Party 9 (Wii)

  5. Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

  6. Resident Evil Operation Racoon City (PS3)

  7. Dai-2-Ji Super Robot Taisen Z Saisei-hen (PSP)

  8. Pokémon Nobunaga’s Ambition (DS)

  9. Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)

  10. Kid Icarus Uprising (3DS)

3DS dominated this first half of the year in Japan. It sells to most games despite its developping install base. Generally speaking, handhelds are still big in Japan, where even a slowing PSVita has 6 games in the top. PSP games keep reaching good figures, which in reality are even better since Vgchartz doesn’t track digital sales (and those ones have surged since Vita released). PS3 confirms its position as the top home console : it flattens Wii 3 to 1 and X360 20 to 1. On the software side, PS3 sells nearly 6 million games when Wii barely manages 2 mllion. Xbox software was non existent as usual as no game charted. This time, most of the top games are from 2012 (16 out of 20, most probably 17 or 18 with the digital sales), which suggest both a wider game offer and a more quickly renewed demand than in the West. In short, the Japanese are more active gamers than westerners. Other noticable fact, Modern Warfare 3 outsold Zelda Skyward Sword at home. Japanese gamers seem increasingly interested in western gaming (Skyrim and Battlefield 3 also make it in the top 100), even if it means ditching well-established series like Zelda.

So, what’s next in 2012? Or more precisely WHO’s next? Yes, Nintendo is next to fall. It failed to convince gamers with 3DS outside of Japan (see next post), its Wii business is collapsing like and sandcastle and its WiiU line-up is close to nothingness. WiiU is the first ever system to be released at the end of the generation it indents to compete into, which means it will face cheaper competitors with comparable specs and far richer game libraries. PS3 and X360 have gained the gamers’ faith and respect while Wii only brought frustration, defiance and anger. The former will have countless exclusives such as Hitman Absolution, Tomb raider, Dead or Alive 5, Persona 4 Arena, Medal of Honor Warfighter, Dishonored, Halo 4, The Last of Us, Crysis 3 just to name a few. WiiU will have to battle with super-late ports and TANK! TANK! TANK! If Nintendo cannot prevent casual gamers from shifting to Kinect, web browser games or cheap Iphone games, WiiU will be discontinued as soon as 2013.

Review – Xenoblade

Best-rated RPG of this generation, Xenoblade was reason enough for me to consider getting a used Wii. But was it worth this investment?

The first contact with Xenoblade is disappointing. It’s nothing very serious, but the SD graphics and the clumsy character modeling hurts the HD-conditioned eye. However, when you get accustomed to it, you realize that Xenoblade deserves your praise : Monolith Software transcended the Wii hardware and achieved beautiful backgrounds. The developers also made wonders in the animation department because the ingrated a lot of small details that makes the whole thing astonishingly lively : just watch Sharla reload her bolt-action or cool it off and you’ll understand why Xenoblade, even though on Wii, is pleasure for the eye. It is also a pleasure to hear, sound & music are very cleverly chosen throughout the story, and the OST is pure joy.

The storyline, mixing revenge and theology, isn’t very complex or remarkable in itself, but it remains effective as “classic” JRPG story. Understand by this that it has this little thing you could feel in old Final Fantasy games, the one you can’t put into words but which makes a story truly unforgettable. The epic cutscenes clearly help : I was really stuck to my screen during the critical events and few games actually felt that great to watch. Not to mention the great care put in character design. Xenoblade has some of the most charismatic villains in JRPG history, the Mechons, cruel, cynical and unforgiving. The good guys are extremely nice as well : I especially fancy Sharla and her Barrett-like sniper rifle, Dunban is admirable, Fiora’s destiny is touching, Melia and Riki were a huge laugh.

Xenoblade is a bit more inconsistent when it comes to gameplay : the first half of the game is really easy. By leveling and completing quests, you become too strong for bosses (let alone normal enemies) and they just keep missing you! Because of that, it’s hard to appreciate the subtle battle system. But once you reach Valak mountains, the difficulty suddenly increases tenfold and from there it takes a great deal of patience to progress. At the end of the game, the difficulty crosses the borders of sanity : bosses need 10,20 or 30 tries to beat, even after doing hours of XP. Exhausted in both my body and mind, I threw the towel when I realized I could barely hurt the final boss. This schizophrenic difficulty setting is easily the weakest point of Xenoblade, because it’s nothing but frustration. However, the advantage of this is that you come to enjoy making strategies by mixing the various abilities of your characters, and make a correct use of the foreseeing capabilities of the Monado. Your sword, Monado, can tell you when one of your character is going to fall because of an enemy’s attack : up to you to cast a protective spell, heal your character or launch a preemptive attack to change the course of events. The IA of your allies is little weak, which is a shame, because they rarely use the best art to adapt the situation (i.e. the one you would want them to), and even wouldn’t do anything at times… The accessory system is also a little annoying, the best items available sometimes make your character look ridiculous. That said, some of the oufits are truly great, like Fiora’s Mecha-armor or this one of Melia’s above (^o^)/

But the most striking trait of Xenoblade is its IMMENSE world : every environnement takes hours to visit entirely and has tons of sidequests. The world in Xenoblade is roughly 2 or 3 times bigger than the one in FFXII! Monolith’s game takes exploration farer than any game I know : environnements are not just vast, they also have a complex design, with treacheous cliff paths and unbelievable slopes. Walking around in Xenoblade just feels awesome and you can’t stop exploring until you reach the end of the line. The world in a whole is extremly rich but yet very coherent, featuring different tribes, some impressive towns, a flurry of NPCs and a remarkable fauna.

The answer is clear : Xenoblade is worth buying at least a dozen of Wii. Colossal achievement in its story and art direction, it revives the classic JRPG genre and by that might simply be the best of this generation, even if it’s one of those games I couldn’t finish. Here you have it guys, hurry up and make Xenoblade a success!

Xenoblade gaminglive and first impressions

This one is kind of late, because I recorded in early september and just finished editing. The thruth is that I went to Japan a few days after recording and came back with Hyperdimension Neptune Mk2. So Xenoblade had to wait. 

I know it’s a little rude, given how famous Xenoblade has become thanks to top marks and wide coverage of Operation Rainfall, but I personnally. The new RPG from Monolith has lot of qualities : graphically speaking, the overall design and the wonderful environments makes you forget the awful feeling of playing in SD. Day and night, as well as weather chage in real time, the characters’ animations are extremely detailed, music and sound are near perfect, making Xenoblade a truly immersive experience. 

However imho, gameplay lacks depth : whatever the character, you input the same skills ever and ever, with sometimes Shulk seeing a comrade’s death in the future, making it possible to prevent it. Excellent at first, I find this system a little vague as you progress in the game. Add to this a difficulty set too low (I hardly had any problems against bosses), and you have why imho Xenoblade won’t set new standards or become the new reference for JRPGs. 

Xenoblade still has a classic but powerful scenario, the most immense world of any JRPG in game history and a flurry of sidequests which makes it a lot of unrivaled pleasure for dozens of hours.

 

I bought myself a Wii!

After years talking trash of this system, I ended up purchasing this thing I loathe so much : the Nintendo Wii. It now stands on my rack below my PS3 (yes below).

Because that doesn’t mean I consider it equal to PS3, or that I am going to stop criticizing Nintendo’s lousy strategy. I had the precaution to buy it used, so that not even a penny goes in Big N’s pockets, and to avoid that my purchase shows up in official figures.

Moreover, setting this system is a real pain because of that junk you call Wiimote : I had to check the troubleshooting website to find out how to synchronize it, not to mention the terrible detection bar… Fortunately I have the Classic Controller that was included with Xenoblade, and it’s working very well. Those Mii things are irritating as ever (but lucky as I am the previous owner took care of the creation for me) and the channels look pre-school level… when they do manage to load (excepted for the really well made news channel). This was meant to create a generation of noobs, I’m sure of it!

Nevertheless, I couldn’t resign myself to overlook a major RPG like Xenoblade. I’ve been playing for 4 hours now and I do believe it’s worth buying at least a dozen Wiis! That’s how I gave up to my irresistible need of JRPGs, and ended up in serious contradiction with myself. I will punish myself every time I turn it on to play Xenoblade, I promise.

My letter to Reggie

7/2/2011

object : Operation Rainfall

Dear Reggie,

As a fan of JRPGs, I was extremely excited about the reveal of Monado which was later retitled Xenoblade. After it’s reveal at E3 2008 it quickly became one of my most anticipated games for the Wii, and as more information, screens, and trailers were released my interest only expanded. I am deeply concerned that this game has no North American release planned, especially considering the sparse lineup on the Wii in the next year. And yet Xenoblade sits completed, and soon to be localized for Europe in English.

This decision is completely senseless : you are not unaware that North America has become a huge market for JRPGs, with titles like Tales of Symphonia – Dawn of the new World, Hyperdimension Neptune or Atelier Rorona performing even better in the Americas than in Japan, their home market. European sales, in the other hand, remain sluggish. Therefore, if Nintendo of Europe considers that Xenoblade can be profitable or advantageous to widen Wii audience, I can assure you that it will be at least fourteen times more in America! I don’t own a Wii myslef and and I’m not even a big fan of Nintendo, but I have tried Xenoblade at Japan Expo in Paris and those 10 min of gameplay convinced me to by the game and the system on September 2nd.

Third and most important point : every hour passing without an official release window fuels anger and resentment in crestfallen gamers, and diminishes the number of potential early-adopters for your upcoming WiiU. Please look at what the competition is doing : titles like Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2 or Resonance of Fate are localized within 3 or 4 months, uniting fans all over the world. You should know by now that the casual gamers you’ve been relying on of late are not likely to massively acquire the system (the current level of 3DS sales clearly demonstrates that). Hardcore gamers are clearly your best bet, so you should consider addressing them with a clear and strong message : localize Xenoblade now!

Sincerely,

Thomas FROEHLICHER