VI. Meet the High Entia – like the elves from Lord of the Rings, but with escalators, public transportation, and fewer overall f***s to give.
The first view of the great Eryth Sea is a humbling experience.
Bathed in an eerie glow, it’s a marriage of the most ancient substance needed for life at your feet with unspeakable science fiction floating in the air above you. If Makna Forest was Monolithsoft showing off by throwing ideas against a wall, then Eryth Sea, and the city of Alcamoth above it, must have been the product of many nights of careful planning and crafting. This is the type of area that you play videogames for. No writer could possibly do it justice on paper or a computer screen; this is something you have to experience for yourself. Like Satorl, I could go on writing and writing about the little details, but I would only fail at the task of doing justice to the achievement Monolith shaped into being. Sometimes you just need to listen.
Extant adjectives don’t do this area justice. In a game full of “I can’t believe I’m seeing this“-moments, this might be at the very top. You are given what might be the largest lake ever burned to a disc (up to its point in gaming history) to explore, complete with sights you can actually, y’know, go to. It’s truly massive, and it kind of made me feel like an explorer (minus the whole “wantonly destroying the native population”-part). Swim far enough and there’s a fantastic little island filled with enemies you won’t be nearly leveled up enough to deal with, but it’s all the more reason to keep it on your to-do list. And we haven’t even talked about the exquisite city right above you.
Mainly because you’re kidnapped, stuck in a room, and forced to watch what seems like all of the cut scenes that Takahashi-san had to shelve when Namco decided to cut Xenosaga short. It’s the cruelest of all ironies that an area this huge devolves early and often into a “watch cut scene, walk 20 feet, watch another cut scene, walk back to your room, watch another cut scene“-sort of rhythm. One of those scenarios is bad enough; it unfortunately becomes a bit of a habit for Xenoblade at this point in the game. The pacing is excruciating, and to put it mildly, an editor was badly needed here. That said? All of the momentum-killing, hackneyed plot dumping is done in the service of flipping a very specific switch. In the capital of Alcamoth, Xenoblade stops trying to be a part-time MMO. Henceforth, it’s a JRPG.
And a damn good one, at that.
Sure, it’s delayed gratification, because it always is in this game. En route to our JRPG destiny, we probably learn a bit too much about the High Entia. I get it, they’re above – quite literally – all of the fighting and devastation the Homs have endured, and they just couldn’t be bothered to help out defending the Bionis. These useless bastards couldn’t be more self absorbed unless their high heads actually were up their own high asses. It’s hard to blame them when they live in a soap opera, though. There’s a king, his daughter (Melia, the strange girl you save in Makna), an odd path of succession, a secret religious cult, promises made to be broken, general melodrama, a laughably forced love triangle that never even forms, and escalators. Again, you could spill a few thousand words on all of this and not cover everything to make it sound coherent. But once all of that starts to exit stage left, there’s also some amazing combat highlights – and equally painful difficulty spikes. The first is a fight with a Telethia (a pearlescent jelly fish which will become even more important in a few dozen hours) and a human assassin in the High Entia Tomb. In short, kill this fight with fire. I wanted to stick with Shulk as my lead, because I wanted to hit Aural seal – the only Monado art that allows you to damage Telethia – on the regular. This means not being able to damage the assassin, since the Monado will not harm humanoids. If Satorl Marsh is where I would happily spend my purgatory, then this boss fight is one of the deeper levels of my personal hell. The Telethia is a bastard in its own right, but the assassin going around and killing your squad is some next-level bovine excrement. It took repeated tries (at least six or seven) to put the Telethia down…then I died because Shulk couldn’t hurt the assassin, and my party gauge wasn’t high enough for a revive. The next day, a few more tries later (and swapping strategy to exclusively revive, heal, and seal on the Telethia, followed by heals-only on the assassin portion of the fight, and no chain attacks at any point on either foe), I finally cracked it.
Which soon provided me the gift of unlocking Prison Island. Doing so hinged on invading two areas that are downright mean. I got angry enough that I had to put the game down. But then I remembered, “oh yeah, gems are a thing in this game.” I had played probably 30-plus hours without even bothering to craft gems, or to use the fast travel system. So I went back to Colony 9, did some smelting, traveled back to Alcamoth and then promptly almost died, anyways. These twin mini fortresses were filled to the brim with enemies; their top floors were just wave after wave of near-death-experiences (“whew, that was close, glad I’m almost- WHY ARE THERE MORE OF YOU?!”). Still, I had just enough skill with the combat, just enough higher-level armor, and just enough crafted gems to see me through. I was thoroughly exhausted finishing them up.
And then I got Phendrana-ed again.
Seriously, I could’ve stood there for hours watching the stars shooting. Quit it, Monolith. You shouldn’t be allowed to jam so many moments like this into one game. I even forgive you the questionable pacing and cut-scene nonsense that initially greeted me in Alcamoth, because this moment made it all worthwhile. What follows this moment is nearly as good. Go ahead, watch it again. Really, that’s cleverly done. There’s so much going on – family, young love, imploring and quarreling amongst forces yet to be fully understood, bargaining, the set-up of a much larger plot. Most importantly, we meet Zanza, who announces himself as the creator of the Monado, and bequeaths its full power to its heir – Shulk. Zanza is then run through with a spear, but destroying his flesh is apparently a good deal easier than extinguishing his spirit. This is the moment the switch is flipped. We’re out of MMO mode and we’re into JRPG mode.
Up until now, Xenoblade could feel almost leisurely. I had thought I was closer to the end than I was. Turns out I was closer to the mid-point. But the pacing of what was to come would feel breakneck in its delivery. I wasn’t ready for what this game was about to do.
(Continue to Part VII.)