V. God’s trachea, puffy Ewoks, and dinosaurs with electric basketballs.
Before going forward, it sometimes helps to take a step back. I’ve glossed over some of the finer plot points of Xenoblade, which become important very soon. Xord, a giant talking robot, casually dropped a tantalizing clue in the Ether Mine. Soon after, our heroic crew managed to escape from a battle that they had no business surviving, mainly due to the timely intervention of a Bon Jovi roadie/PETA troll riding on the back of a hologram-stingray that ate a flying carpet. Then you walk into a forest where the trees glow, and from there take a brief jaunt into God’s trachea.
Like one does.
I only paint the picture above as a reminder of how normal and natural this is in-game. It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest. From Satorl, you are directed to literally walk inside of a giant god. Monolith’s sound designers found a wicked squishy sound effect that makes every step feel rather disconcerting; it is exactly what I imagine walking inside the bronchial tube of a titan deity would sound and feel like. Again, normal. In retrospect, I have no idea why the fourth wall held up so well all of this time, but held it did. I was invested in this exquisite imagined land.
And then I walked into a rain forest populated by dinosaurs with electric and fire shooting from their backs and was reminded, “oh yes, this is a Japanese Role Playing Game.”
If there were a rail guiding the progression of Xenoblade, Makna Forest is the location where its edge shows. This is an area Monolith made because they could. It’s like their 1960’s double album, where no outlandish idea was left on the shelf. The only answer Monolith seemed to have for the question of “Does a giant waterfall make sense here?” was to reply with another question: “Does it matter if it makes sense?” That’s how you end up with horse-elk hybrids that have horns growing from their heads and their asses. It’s how you create dinosaurs that inexplicably have neck glands that produce flame and electric currents. It’s how you end up with spike damage.
Dev 1: “Well, what else can we teach players in combat?”
Dev 2: “It’s kind of hard to beat break and topple.”
Dev 1: “That’s it! We’ll punish them for toppling a monster!”
Yeah, not a fan. I mean, I get the idea behind it, but it’s kind of silly to spend 20 or 30 hours treating the party gauge as an important tool to manage, but then decide to arbitrarily punish players for cashing it in due to some electric basketball bouncing around. However, it at least finally gives you a reason to move around on defense. In a perverse way, it frustratingly works, like dipping a french fry in a milkshake. Still, it’s yet another ingredient tossed into combat (fittingly done so in the area of the game where “making sense is for plebs” is the running theme), and at this point I began to wonder if Monolith would ever just leave well enough alone. They finally got me in; they finally hooked me. Yet they weren’t interested in pleasing me. At several points in this game, I attempted to wrap my arms around Xenoblade, to bury the 5-year hatchet between us. Xenoblade kept me at arm’s length, though, demanding that my appreciation from a distance be as important as the embrace.
So, incongruous fauna, yet another combat frustration, fourth wall breaking…why is Makna Forest worth a damn?
The top of the waterfalls? You were there. If you were to pan the camera left, there would be a little speck in the distance, barely visible. That’s the rope bridge you first cross when entering the forest proper. I foolishly thought “nah, there’s no way I can jump down there and get to the other end.” Yeah, you can. You can swim the entire thing. Is it a bit of a false sense of scale, since there’s so much cliff edge you won’t climb? Is it pointless to have so much lake with so little to do in it? Is it a sensible use of the area?
Does it matter if a waterfall on the shoulder of God makes sense?
Makna Forest simply is, man.
Of course, this is a double album, so weird fire-dinosaurs chilling around a giant waterfall isn’t the end of it. There’s also a race of fluffy cuddle balls that speak like Yoda, were he repeatedly punched in the face by Muhammad Ali. Apparently Monolith had a water-cooler discussion on things that need to live and die in modern RPGs, and decided that there is one trope definitely worth preserving. Listen, I get it. The Nopon, and characters like them, are cute. And we’re all going to deal with them until my generation, the one that grew up with “Return of the Jedi” as our first Star Wars movie, dies off. We can’t quit Ewoks, and I don’t know why.
Then again…does it matter when they live in a giant majestic tree house that is probably half as big as a Zelda dungeon, and designed as well as one? Frontier Village would be the highlight of most other games, but in Xenoblade? It can’t be one. It’s part of a long line of amazing sights, and it’s not fair for it to be surrounded by this much badassery, but it is. If you are having a bad day, though, do yourself a favor and boot up your save file and visit this place. “Winsome” isn’t a word you get to use much when discussing modern videogames, but it fits here.
Like a clever rhythmic motif, Makna Forest revists its first and middle bars as you exit the area. When our heroes arrive, they are tasked with saving a strange girl who hails from a strange place. Around the mid-point (if you swim a lot), Shulk is introduced to our strange Bon Jovi roadie (Alvis), who so happens to also hail from the same strange place. Of course, I had no idea of what land I would be traveling to when I left Makna, but Monolith had really given me the hints of where I was going.
But not what was about to happen.
(Continue to Part VI.)