Tuesday, April 14, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Three: Michael, March 23


Beginning with the end: a little surprised that the not-his-catchphrase didn't register, as it became something of a runaway train in "internet memes that instantly get old" terms, in reference to Shulk saying one of his many battle phrases in the Smash Bros trailer - which, as many of them were, was full of in-jokes and references for the fans (I wonder a bit, offhand, if Shulk's voice actor Adam Howden had any say in what he spoke, because his lines are not the same as the lines used in the Japanese Smash Bros, as I've heard (and this may be apocryphal) their original Xenoblade had slightly blander dialogue. Though, doubtless we'll get back to that later, as we're playing the game. It's fascinating to me, though, how crossover properties like Smash Bros can be the primary source for a wider audience in character interpretation. For many, Shulk's existence, rightly or wrongly, is defined by a spare few catchphrases, like a doll with a pull-string. 

I appreciate, truly, your faith in my opinions of this game. I hope that this faith proves well-placed, but a series of letters like this can be equally rewarding if you find my interest misplaced. As I've been quick to state, I have a number of issues with this game, but most of those issues are difficult to discuss without revealing more about the story than I'd be comfortable with prior to your turning the game on. Which brings me quickly to the topic of spoilers. 

As prior readers of my own site are well-familiar, but your own readers will not be, I'm not much for spoiler warnings in critical discussion. I'm perfectly happy not revealing all the plot twists to you in advance - that's a common courtesy - but for the purposes of critical analysis, rather than cursory review, twists and endings must be discussed in the same breath as beginnings and outlines. To do less is a disservice to this work. That said, Xenoblade is fairly notable in how its fan community is often very, very adamant at twists not being revealed - up to and including twists that occur very, very early in the story. I think, genuinely, that this is to some degree misguided. Endings are one thing, but a game this obscure requires a degree of forthrightness, in that if you don't tell someone what a story is about, they may not necessarily find a reason to be interested. Many of the 3DS edition commercials have been quick to give away things up to the game's... I want to say halfway point? And Nintendo's perspective on this issue has made some people angry. There are trophies in Smash Bros that some people (not me personally) find downright story-ruining. What's funny about that is that there are many beats in the story that I don't think are all that unpredictable. Some well-delivered, some maybe less so, depending, but a twist for a character and a twist for a reader/watcher/player are two different animals, if you follow me. 

But as you don't appear to know much of anything about the game, I plan on respecting that and letting you take the lead in discussing parts of the story as they come up. There's plenty more to the game besides the direct narrative beats, so I won't be lacking in discussion topics. 

I came late to Xenoblade myself, for much the same reason as you: Xenosaga, in my mind, essentially killed the respect that the American general gaming audience had for Eastern-developed RPGs all but singlehandedly. Obviously, the true and complete story of that time is far more complicated and nuanced, but I feel like that trilogy was in retrospect a sort of defining moment for the genre. Final Fantasy X was less unpopular when it first came out than it was a bit later, but Eastern-made games of that era continued to go in its direction (consider the response as well to Metal Gear Solid 2, for instance - another game where reaction was complicated by a lot of factors) until with Xenosaga it hit a sort of critical mass. It's ironic, in its way, because Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne were coming out in that same relative era and are two of the greatest games of the genre, in my own opinion - even after everything that's been done to milk those franchises absolutely dry (Boy did I give up on Persona Q early with no regrets).

Tetsuya Takahashi's games are most notable for always having ambition that far, far outstrips the capabilities of what he's actually producing. The differences lie in where exactly the fractures appear and what the exact failures are. I love Xenogears unreservedly; it's a game that means a great deal to me, but it's an 80-hour slow-motion car wreck, and the crash starts happening long, long before people think it does. I want to talk more about this game as these letters go on - I don't want to overload this introduction - but these are things it's worth stating before we begin the closest thus far he's gotten to "doing it right this time" (and Xenoblade Chronicles X has the potential to get even closer, at early glances, but we'll absolutely see when the time comes). 

In the case of Xenosaga, however, he had many of the same problems as Xenogears in that staff left, budgets dropped, etc. but while in Xenogears still has the shape of a game that could have been something special before Final Fantasy VIII and Chrono Cross cannibalized it (and you can see beats of it in those games, like taking staff wasn't enough, they needed to begin feasting on the ideas as well), Xenosaga seems predicated on bad ideas even before the problems set in. RPG developers had a hard time adjusting to the "3D" era of the Playstation 2 - earlier generations, where dialogue was read, were able to (for instance) get away with long monologues during dramatic sequences, but when voiced that pacing just does not work. Xenosaga is the worst of it, constantly undercutting its own intentions at every turn because people can't stop talking when things are exploding - and we can get into the sorts of things that they monologued about some other time. It's worth mentioning right off the bat that Takahashi made a point of saying during Xenoblade's development that he regretted the previous series' reliance upon endless cutscenes and wanted to make a game that was an antidote to that idea - a game where exploring the world was the experience, and the story was something you played rather than watched. We'll see if he succeeded in that goal. 

Certainly Nintendo of America has spent a lot of time shooting itself in first one foot, than the other, over and over again regarding the home console titles that make it here. I think the last two years have been interesting in that they seem desperate to right the ship, and there's been some real promising movement on that front. But it's true, the DS and its brethren have been the gaming platform of choice, especially for RPG fans. The 3DS maybe a little less so - I enjoyed the upgraded version of the first Devil Survivor, and I think that if you have the mindset for "quirky, overly-Japanese" releases, Denpa Men 3 was a surprisingly solid little time-waster for a downloadable. But Xenoblade - an entire Wii game, and one whose draw was an enormous, expansive world, is a real surprise. 

There are two types of people in this world: people who looked at the facial rendering of the Wii Xenoblade and decided the graphics were subpar, and those who looked at the rest of the game and were amazed at the visuals of the world that had been created. Will these work on a portable system, where everything is shrunk to the size of a credit card? Will it be a downgrade or an improvement? How will the 3D affect this judgement? I'm not someone who values "graphics" heavily when it comes to the criteria for a good game, but this is sort of a unique circumstance, and something I'll be assessing as we play. 

I haven't cracked open the package of my Shulk Amiibo yet, actually; I've built up a Mario one in Smash Bros, but I'm playing that game a bit less at the moment, so I haven't had an urgent need. I plan on taking the little guy out when Xenoblade arrives. As far as whether you need to get one, though, I don't think you need worry unless you do happen to fall in love with this game. Its only purpose here serves in interacting with outside-the-game extras: a music player, a character model viewer, etc. It helps you unlock those features faster, but provides no assistance with the actual gameplay, which is unchanged from the original. I like this game's soundtrack, though, so being able to listen to those songs on the go more quickly (without draining my phone's battery that is, obviously) is reason enough to use the Amiibo I already own. 

When it comes to other prep, though... things to do or not do or think about before you begin... Let me make a remark first. As this will be my third go-round, there's an element of efficiency I'll likely be introducing into my own playstyle that will be in opposition to yours. So as not to spoil, I might use another game as an analogy: If we were both about to play the same Zelda title, I'd be sequence-breaking to maximize hearts and items early and quickly as you're figuring things out, based on prior knowledge, so as to gain a lot of power and advantage quickly so that I can rush on to the "good bits" and get a bit ahead of you in the same amount of time. I fumbled through my first time, the same as you will, but this is only natural. I would not give you these kinds of hints and ideas, because I want you with your new eyes to explore the world you're given naturally and give me honest reactions. But there's certainly tips I can give both now and along the way. 

To that end, I'll ask you a few questions. 

1) Is challenge more important than flow? 
2) Are world and story more important than pacing? 
3) Would you rather be the best and most powerful, or would you rather have a dramatic struggle? 
4) If you're enjoying a game, how much does completion matter to you? 
5) And, hey, what did you think of Final Fantasy XII

In anticipation, 

 P.S. "Chicken man?" How dare you!

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