First, thanks so much for doing this with me. As I sit here writing on the 22nd of March, I'm excited to have a project, and especially one where I get to talk about games with you. Let's dive in!
So, as a long-time fan of Eastern RPGs, why didn't I play Xenoblade Chronicles when it first came out? To answer, you have to trace my history with Tetsuya Takahashi and the Xeno series, all the way back to 1998's Xenogears, which I played as a 14-year-old Square fanboy willing to call a 60-hour chair-sitting-simulator a genius masterpiece. But I kid! I love Xenogears.
That being said, the game was a tipping point in a path that Square had started on with the more esoteric elements of Final Fantasy VII, the moment the company got too obsessed with creating "games as art," full of religious symbolism (often cribbed from anime) and plots that were complex for the sake of complexity. (Chrono Cross, which came out the next year, is the ultimate expression of this trend, converting one of the most optimistic games of all time into a quasi-nihilistic expression of human hopelessness. It's probably not a coincidence that Final Fantasy IX, a pretty clear refutation of the trend, came out the next year.)
But being the vanguard in an arguably bad trend doesn't make Xenogears a bad game. For all its pretension and the swift right turn it takes into what TV Tropes would call (not coincidentally) a Gainax Ending, XG has some great plot twists, likable characters, and a really fun battle system. (Plus, the robot Battling fighting game, because if there's one thing late '90s Square was good at it, was designing mini games I would have paid money to get as a standalone game). It's not perfect; besides the notoriously slapdash second disc, the plot has a nasty tendency to ignore most of the game's cast once their individual plot sections are over, usually to the detriment of interesting characters. But it's a game that I have a lot of fond memories of, and if I've never revisited it, it's because I'd like to keep them intact.
Xenosaga was a whole other story, though. A "spiritual sequel," everything about it felt off-brand. I know I shouldn't put much stock in the name Square (or Square-Enix) any more, but the publisher switch threw me a bit, putting me on a weird footing. From there, Xenosaga Episode I seemed to capture everything I didn't like about JRPGs of its era; an overreliance on long cutscenes, a plot that danced around giving the audience information less for artistic purposes and more to obscure how pedestrian everything was, and that same 1999-esque reliance on symbolism and religious allusions at the detriment of storytelling. Even worse, the game had a generally plodding feeling that's my least favorite thing to encounter in an RPG. Out of all the genres, this is the one that I need to be FAST; menus have to be responsive, load times have to be minimal, and rewards need to come quickly. Xenosaga Episode I didn't respect my time, and I ended up discarding it roughly 20 hours in. When the sequels came out, I happily ignored them.
So when Xenoblade Chronicles was released, I'd been primed to ignore anything with the Xeno name. It didn't help that I was completely ignorant of Project Rainfall, although I'm always in favor of weird Japanese games making their way over here (he said, shoving his ROMs of Mother 3 and Retro Game Challenge 2 discreetly out of sight). More than that, by 2010 I'd completely written the Wii off as a gaming platform. Too many years of shovelware had given me a massive blindspot where Nintendo's console was concerned. Instead, my attention was on the DS, which had built up a frankly incredible lineup of titles, including some truly great RPGs, in that same time. So I skipped Xenoblade, and never looked back. Until now.
Why return to Xenoblade Chronicles in 2015? Part of it is your enthusiasm, Michael. I trust your taste in games, so I figured this one deserved its day in court. Beyond that, I'm just in love with the 3DS (especially my beautiful red New 3DS XL), and I'm only mildly ashamed to admit that the game's status as the first New 3DS XL-exclusive has my interest piqued. I've just finished the Majora's Mask remake, and, while Monster Hunter still sometimes pulls at my attention, it's a hard game to marathon. I want something meaty and narrative to sink my teeth into.
What do I know about the game? Almost nothing. I don't even know if the combat is real-time or turn-based! If it wasn't included in Smash 3DS (Shulk, something called the Monado, some kind of chicken man), I'm completely ignorant. I don't have an Amiibo (I'm still waiting for proof that the concept is a DS, not a Virtual Boy, Nintendo-idea-wise). As to the length, my social life is of variable activity, as is my work schedule. I tend to binge on games on the weekend, so that'll be when most of my play time is done. As for opening thoughts... I'm excited. The 3DS has been extremely spotty for me in terms of RPGs; the best of the lot is probably Persona Q, and even that's failed to hold my attention. Beyond that, we have titles like Shin Megami Tensei IV and Bravely Default - interesting, ultimately badly flawed games. I need something great to carry around with me; I'm hoping this'll be the game.
In closing, is there anything I need to know before I dive into this game? Any prep work I should be doing, gaming wise, or anything I should avoid so I'm not tainted by similarity? Are my expectations too high? Should I track down one of these damn Amiibos? I eagerly await your response.
PS: I assume that will make sense eventually!