Saturday, May 2, 2015

XENOPATHOLOGY Letter Seven: Will, April 10

Note for readers: As of this entry, Michael and I will be digging into the game proper, and we'll be discussing plot points as they come. If you're terrified of spoilers, be cautious.


It's April 10th; I picked up my copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D earlier today. So far, I've played roughly 4.5 hours, making my way through what feels like an extended prologue, right up to the point where plucky heroine Fiora gets stuffed into a big, tank-sized fridge. It seemed like a good place to stop for a bit and get some initial thoughts on paper.

So, the good news is: I really like this game! I imagine you're almost as relieved to read that as I am to write it; what a drag it would be to devote all this time and energy to a sub-par game. But so far, I find Xenoblade Chronicles to be well-written, interestingly designed, and possessed of a combat system I feel excited to sink my teeth into. It's not all perfect, but I'm happy to say that I'm anxious right now to get this letter done so I can get back to playing.

Buff me baby, one more time

So, about those imperfections: Good lord, Michael, but there's some ugly art in this game. I'm not "a graphics guy," but some of these textures are just UNFORTUNATE. (It's hard not to compare the game with Majora's Mask 3D, a remake of a game ten years older than the original Xenoblade that looks several times crisper than what I'm playing now.) While I find myself delighted by how damn BIG the areas in question are (Colony 9 is staggeringly huge, it took me a long time to come to terms with how much damn space I was being offered to explore), it's hard not to look at Shulk or Fiora's face and think someone has remade Vagrant Story with characters based on a dewey-eyed Britney Spears. My friend Gary has remarked before that cel-shading is like bomb-proofing for 3D graphics - it turns things wonderfully evergreen. I find myself really wishing Xenoblade's designers had taken that tack.

That space daunted me at first, too; Shulk and company felt far too slow to explore such a massive environment. Eventually I stumbled onto the fast travel options, which eliminated my concerns, but there were some moments when I could feel the bile rising in my throat as I slowly plodded around the map. 

My only other quibble at this point is that the giant enemy names tend to obscure the actual fighting when I'm going up against multiple opponents, especially small ones. I really wish there was a way to shrink them or turn them off.

This is maybe half the explorable area of Colony 9

And that's it. That's all my gripes so far. It's not a very long list.

Rather than detail everything I like so far, I think I'd rather devote the rest of my space to talking about the moment I alluded to at the top, and why it (despite my snarky description) felt pleasantly shocking: Fiora's death.

Now, RPGs have been killing off initial party members for years; Biggs and Wedge get X-Zoned, Private Jenkins takes a laser blast to the face, poor old Daveth chokes to death on monster blood. (Bioware really, really likes this trope.) It's a way to raise the stakes, while giving players a chance to mess around with character classes and builds they otherwise might not be seeing for a few more hours. Most of those deaths happen much more rapidly than Fiora's, though, with fewer resources spent on the "guest star" character. Fiora feels fully fleshed out - my version of her was level 13 when she met her final fate, equipped in a custom set of gear and well on her way to developing a unique set of Arts and Skills. All that's to say, I had started to invest in Fiora, and it makes her death carry more meaning than it otherwise would. (I was honestly expecting Dunbar, with his non-available skill tree, mentor-trappings, and a sword I knew would end up in Shulk's hands, to be the sacrificial lion - and I'm pretty sure that was intentional.) All that brings me to a few thoughts on the grand dame of dead RPG party members: Good old Aeris. (Or Aerith, depending on where you fall on the great dogma wars of 1997.)

Looking back, it's kind of staggering how ballsy a move Square made when it killed Aeris off half-way through Final Fantasy VII. Not because of the plot impact; there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to killing off pretty love interests to drive heroes forward in their quest for revenge. But wiping out a party member, one who the player was fully invested in at that point, that's a hell of a thing. (Everything related to Aeris' final Limit Break, which you're only ever going to see if you specifically go looking for it, speaks to how the game hides her upcoming loss - you're not allowed to prepare for it, and her development arc isn't rushed to completion - it just ends, abruptly. The only thing Square could have done to drive the idea home even further would be to continue to provide equipment for her through the end of the game, although that probably would have had the conspiracy theorists literally frothing at the mouth). 

Fiora doesn't go to quite that extreme. But nothing about her design suggested to me that she was merely temporary, and it means I'll be a little more nervous the next time one of those metal-faced Mechon bastards rears its head. (Even if, realistically, this feels like a trick the game can only get away with pulling once.) Well-played, Xenoblade. You made me feelings with my feelers, and that's half the battle when it comes to getting me to care.