III. Bionis’ leg bone connected to the…good part.
A pretty view was only gonna get you so far, Xenoblade. I had remembered that breathtaking vista, and was expecting it. It was pretty much the highlight of my past few times trying to play the game. Still, it’s to the game’s immense credit that the first time you step out onto Gaur Plain, it nearly knocks you on your ass again. Seeing the field stretching out before you is like what you remember as a kid when your eyes first glimpsed the ocean. How can anything be that big? We’ve all played sandbox games. We’re all of roughly the age of seeing 3D open-world games come into their own; if your mind wasn’t blown by the scope of Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, then it was by Liberty City in GTA3.
But Gaur Plain? That’s on some other shit. And so it was this time. This is where Xenoblade begins to feel limitless, the first clue that you’re not gaming in a town, or a city, or state, or an island. It’s truly a world. The Plain feels like a small continent, with nooks and crannies and cliffs and land bridges galore. You can hike, or go to a pond, or get eaten by a pack of roving wolves. David Attenborough should shoot a special here.
And this time, I even wanted to go around and kill some stuff. The battle system had begun to click with me a bit here, and although I still had some moments of somewhat unfair glass-jawed knock-outs, it was a touch more tolerable. If you scour for loot, you can even get some not-100%-sweaty-papier-mâché-in-August armor. Just avoid the giant level-80 dude walking around like he owns the joint. On my first three tries of playing Xenoblade, I remember digging this area, beginning to appreciate the game here, liking Sharla, and hating Juju. None of that changed on this play-through.
What did change is sticking around post-Xord.
XBC kind of lets you muddle along up to this point. It gives you a gigantic, multi-tiered field to explore at your leisure for hours. Then it Sharla-smacks you with a difficulty spike against some fetish, tentacle-porn robot. In two parts, because of course. Even a touch under-leveled? Your armor ain’t gonna help much. So you do some odd jobs and some grinding, and are rewarded with a giant Cockney-bot that you can’t hurt. Because of course. Cockney-bot wants you to follow along to the next Colony, but nah, you’re going to go back through a cave. A thoroughly uninspiring, maze-ish, don’t-call-it-a-dungeon cave.
The Ether Mine was such a letdown on my first few playthroughs that I never got past it. The Bionis’ Leg was so badass that going into another cave felt like a terrible waste. It kinda felt that way this time, too. But…I had a better hold on the combat. And here, for the first time, I felt like I had begun to pick up armor-loot that didn’t doom me to “blink and you’re out” deaths. With the glass cannon sweepstakes at their end, I stuck around. Xenoblade managed to get its hooks into me in my least favorite part of the game (and it still is my least favorite environment). It all clicked together here for me. I wasn’t running away from battles – I was instigating them. Maybe I had to throw a rock at a Mechon and get them to come to me separately from their enemy group, but I was confident in nearly every encounter. The fights I lost began to feel fair. It’s amazing what a few good pieces of armor can do. That alone transformed the game for me. Before I knew it, I was gaming for hours at a time, raving to Alejandro that this time I was finally starting to like it.
…maybe even love it? Ah, but we come back to Xord, who puts the cock back in Cockney. Dying is bad enough, but dying to this taunting bastard was sure to sour me on the game all over again. Right?
Wrong. I didn’t die. Oh, I had to resuscitate my power bottom – err, good friend, Reyn – once or twice. But I had sharpened up my combat skills on plenty of Mechon en route to the boss arena. I had taken my time to practice (enchant, break, topple, chain, repeat), even started taking on multiple enemies around my level – which would have been suicide earlier in the game (again, I can’t overstate how important non-crap armor is to turning this game around for me). The combat by this point had gotten damn entertaining, something I never thought I would say about this unholy MMO-à-trois. Popping last second heals, warning Reyn and Sharla, casting shields, initiating chains, resuscitating the fallen after scoring criticals…this was fun. Again, something I never thought I’d say about this combat system.
Xord fell. And fell again. And the tendrils of a greater plot began to unfurl.
Then, somehow, Xenoblade decided to have a full-blown Phendrana Drifts moment on me.
(Continue to Part IV.)