II. Colony 9 – Just like your hometown, if Scranton was located on a frozen titan’s rotting corpse.
It’s just as big as I remember.
There’s probably no more aptly-named developer in modern gaming than Monolithsoft. You could make a decent sandbox game utilizing only Colony 9 and a bit of the surrounding countryside. The opening hours of Xenoblade were never my problem with the game; they were always the most magical part. Cut scene, intro battle, field. Glorious, glorious field. For once, I didn’t even spend an hour murdering Hand Bunnits (getting soft in my old age, I know). Taking in the surroundings was enough. Yes, it’s a 480p game on charged up PS2-era hardware. But the design, my friends. The design of this world is something to behold. The topography and layout is as good as anything ever made.
However, like my previous tries, I soon bogged down. This battle system, man. This damn battle system. It marries the RPG tradition of guaranteeing you’re gonna get hit, but instead of placing it logically in a turn-based system, it places the mechanic squarely in real-time gameplay where defensive positioning should, y’know, help. But it doesn’t. Out of the way? Doesn’t matter, you’re hit. Out of range? Doesn’t matter, a lowly bat will throw some death spike at you. But wait, there’s more! Although your movement for defense is useless in this scenario, your offense is 100% tied to it. So you end up with most of the offensive benefits of an action game, but without any of the agency of real-time defensive movement within such a game. This unholy MMO-meets-RPG-meets-action method is like the platypus of combat design.
And that’s before the difficulty spikes hit you. The opening hours of Xenoblade are the glass cannon sweepstakes. Oh, you can score critical hits and put up some damage, but heaven help you if you’re facing a foe even one level above you. The promise of the elaborate combat system (which in theory sounded like you would have an extra layer of strategy to be creative, and skilled with, to take out enemies)? Doesn’t matter. Set foot in Tephra Cave and try to take on something even remotely higher leveled than you, and you’ll be chopping and chopping and chopping until you can’t heal anymore and die, strategy and skill be damned. Practicing is almost useless. Enemies under your level will easily fall, anything else won’t. There is no learning to be had. Valiantly fight, hit that last-second heal, revive your fallen, no matter. Just run.
You run, and come back to your first set piece. Mechs! This should be awesome! It looks amazing! But then you have to fight them. With new tactics. And, oh boy. Yeah. About that…
That’s literally like 7 minutes of game. During a tense combat set piece, where you have to fight every fiber of your being to not spam buttons to get through menus so you can return to the action. Because if you do, you’re more screwed than a snowman in July and will have no clue how to win the fight that triggers the end of the siege. Luckily, I vaguely remembered the system well enough to limp through.
So, plot? Early on, not bad. If there were a heart-to-heart conversation to encapsulate Xenoblade’s early story, it’d be like this:
Shulk – Giant robots fucked up our shit again and jacked my girl.
Reyn – I know, right? You want to go kill them?
Shulk – Yeah, I think so.
Reyn – Cool!
I thought it was actually kinda refreshing to kick the game off this way. This works. For all of the philosophical musings that Takahashi-san can sometimes spoon out, he figured out here that the easiest way to hook you into a world of giants and myth is the simplest of all impulses: revenge. It’s a sturdy emotion. You understand it, and you therefore understand Shulk, even if he’s meant to be a cipher.
So we set about our epic journey by putting our hero and his bondage-armor-wearing male escort in a…cave. For some reason, this kinda bothered me more than the last three tries I made at the game. There’s a gorgeous world out there, full of exquisite cliff sides and rolling hills, but that’s not where our adventure truly begins. Nah, we’re in a nondescript cave fighting spiders for a few hours. We’re also getting time travel abruptly shoved into combat while fending off Shelob’s cousin, because hey, why not?
But a funny thing happened this time. I started to get a better feel for the combat system. It started to make a bit of sense to me. After dropping all wishes for what I had hoped Xenoblade’s combat could have been, I began to at least get an idea (if not an outright appreciation) for what the designers had in mind. Despite making an effort to finish more quests and to grind on the monsters I could defeat, I still felt under-leveled. I still felt like a glass cannon. I still felt like this game was a dozen-plus hours of purposeful inaccessibility. But something shifted. For the first time, I wanted to exploit what was possible with my arts wheel.
And then I walked outside.
(Continue to Part III.)