Xenoblade: First Impressions

I say First Impressions because, despite putting 6 hours into it so far, I haven’t actually left the first town and have barely started the story.  But I can certainly comment on some of the mechanics!  And when I’m done, 200 hours from now, I’ll have forgotten everything I was going to say anyway, so I may as well start now.

I was in the mood for something RPGish and needed something engaging to do while using the recumbent bike, so a console RPG seemed like a perfect fit.  Our Wii library is pretty anemic, and Xenoblade has been coming up in a lot of conversations, so it seemed like a safe bet.  So far it was the correct choice – my hour on the bike disappears, and then I just keep going to finish up whatever I was doing.  If only my butt didn’t go numb, I’d be in amazing shape by the end of this game…

My first tip: Get the classic controller.  Get it now.  Do not attempt to play this with the wiimote and nunchuck.  I started out that way and the controls were pissing me off to the point of wanting to drop the game.  The camera, especially, was making me fly into a rage every time I turned around (literally!), and I felt like I was fighting the controls every time I wanted to look at someone’s equipment or open any menu at all.  Then I remembered we had a classic controller stuffed in a drawer somewhere, and once I plugged that in I was able to start thinking about the game and not which trigger button I was supposed to use to make the camera fucking follow me again.
The classic controller has a few of its own annoyances – I still dislike the camera, but it’s more of a “I wish I was using mouselook right now” sort of thing.  Every time the god damn camera gets stuck on a wall, or floats off to stare at the ground, or lazily floats in the wrong direction because I nudged the stick the wrong way, I wish I was using a mouse and keyboard.  I’ve always hated controller cameras, but at least I have a modicum of control over it now, as opposed to the wiimote version of “control”.  I just wish my control over it was more “crisp”.  It feels sluggish and floaty.
I also find it a little weird that b is the bottom button.  a is the right button, and you use a to make all your selections.  b, of course, cancels them.  But since it’s the most accessible one, I end up cancelling a lot of my choices by accident.  I’ll get used to it, but I feel like the controller is mapped oddly… but the SNES was oriented that way too.  Damn you 360 and your corrupting ways.
It also bothers me that they use lower case letters to label the buttons. >:(.  But anyway.

The first (and often only…) thing people mention when they talk about Xenoblade is the graphics.  You do not play wii games because of the wii’s reputation as a graphical powerhouse.  In general, I’m pretty tolerant of graphics.  I’ve played enough pixel-style games and I usually drag my hardware along with self-repairs until it shoots itself to end its suffering, so I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really notice when AA is turned off.  I also don’t really mind when you watch a cutscene in Xenoblade and it’s really obvious that the facial textures (particularly the eyes) are a flat texture plastered onto a polygon.  Sure it would be great if they were bright beautiful crisp graphics, but I know the wii isn’t capable of it, so it doesn’t bother me.  I can still see what the game is trying to convey.

What does bother me are the times when I can’t see what the game is trying to convey.  The cutscenes are all pretty clear, but when you’re running around in a crowded area with a lot of things going on, like towns, or – more disturbingly – intense combat… sometimes you literally can’t make out what is going on.  There are a lot of flickery graphics, lines wavering around, screen tearing, blurry shit, and because of the low power of the wii, a lot of the graphics tend to “pop in” when you get close which often means I run past a blurry thing that pops in, and then realize belatedly that it was actually the person I was trying to meet up with.

It’s especially a problem in combat because it’s real-time and a lot of your moves are positional.  You need to be in front/side/behind your target and activate the appropriate move for best effect.  Sometimes things are fuzzy enough that’s it’s not always obvious what your orientation is.  I’m hoping this doesn’t become a huge issue later, when I start fighting really tough things.

Perhaps of note here: I am currently using the RCA cords on the wii.  We never bothered to buy component cables for it because it is a wii.  But after playing this game, I checked and it turns out component cables are only 5 bucks, so I ordered them!  If there is a drastic change in visibility when I start playing in “HD”, I will edit this entry.  I’m not holding my breath though… I’m sort of expecting that the standard signal is acting as a bit of native “AA” and the HD cables will only result in highlighting the worst parts of the graphics.  As I’ve already said, though… jagged lines don’t really bother me.  Not being able to tell what the fuck is going on is what bothers me.  There is a chance the HD signal will solve those problems for me.  We’ll see!

[UPDATE]: The cables came and they helped a bit, but it wasn’t a magic bullet.  It pretty much did what I expected.  What they DID do though was port the game’s sound through our stereo system instead of the AV on the TV and oh my god.  The soundtrack is so good when properly portrayed. [/UPDATE]

Now that I’m done talking about the mechanics, we can talk about the game!  I’m not going to talk much about the story – if you’re interested in this game it’s probably because you’re already interested in the Final Fantasy/Xeno___ style games.  Suffice to say if you like the stories in those games you will like this game.  I’m quite interested in the story and I’ve barely seen any of it yet!

I’ve already mentioned the combat is real-time.  I find that a bit unfortunate, just because the combat is so fucking complicated that I’m feeling lost already.  You have “arts” which you spend your exp on to make them more powerful, and at a certain point you are going to have to make choices of which arts to equip people with, and which arts to buy upgrade books for so you can level them up even more.  Then you have “skills” which are learned naturally over time.  You can choose which skill tree a character is using/learning at a given time but it just sort of does its own thing most of the time.

Your attacks are positional, so you have to know which attacks require you to be standing where before you set them off.  Further complicating it, there are attack “chains”, in that if one character applies “break” to a monster, the next character can apply “topple” to it (via an ability that will NOT apply topple unless the target already has break, you see).  Once toppled, another character can come along and apply “daze”… but you only actually have control of one of these characters.  You can ensure the NPC controlled characters have those abilities equipped so they try to use it, but it’s not a guaranteed chain all of the time either.  And then there are even more combos, some of which actually do turn the combat into a sort of turn based thing, where you can actually instruct your teammates to use something.  On top of all of this, you have a party morale mechanic.  If your buddy misses their attack, you have a chance to cheer them up and prevent them from losing morale.  You use the morale to set off certain events and abilities (and also to revive people if things go badly…).  FURTHER complicating things is the non-combat “affinity” your characters have between each other, which basically means the more they like each other the more potent your combos and abilities will be.

Seriously, I had no idea what the fuck was going on, so I went and read a “beginners guide” about it and my eyes glazed over by page 2 (of like, 16…).  I’m most likely doing a terrible job of describing it, so I suggest you go find one of those if you want more intimate details.  I’m just hoping the combat doesn’t become so difficult later that I need to know every scrap of this inside out, because oh god.  I feel like I need a semester worth of classes to fully understand everything that’s going on.

The affinity is an interesting one.  Everything you do in the game seems to rely on affinity to some degree.  Everything you do in the game affects your affinity.  You take a quest and the party members who help you with the quest start to like each other better, AND the town the quest is located in starts to like you better.  Higher affinity unlocks more quests, and more options in the shops.  It’s kind of a neat way to “level” areas, except it’s also the reason I’ve spent almost 7 hours in the first town.  I go do a bunch of quests, people go “yay we love you!” and then I get a whole whack more quests unlocked.

The vast majority of these quests are things like “kill X of these”  “bring me X of those”.  It’s very similar to playing a single player MMO style game, in that respect, and it’s probably one of the weaker aspects of the game.  Fortunately I was in the mood for some old fashioned grinding so I’ve been enjoying it, but I’m honestly not sure what would happen if you went “fuck that” and skipped all the fetch questing in favour of the main story.  You’d lose out a lot on affinity with the areas, but would it matter?  It might make gear a bit harder to get, but honestly all the gear I’m using came from killing monsters so far.  The rewards from the quests haven’t been overwhelming so far, so maybe it’s entirely skippable.  It might make your party less effective overall too, but I’m not sure how influential that is yet.

Each area has collectable items.  Many of the items are also available for trade with NPCs who have started to like you.  You can complete collections and get rewards for it.  For completionists like me it’s pretty exciting to run around finding sparkly shit and scouring the trade lists for items I haven’t seen before.  Once again, I’m not sure if skipping all of this would make much of a difference.  The rewards have all been gems so far, and since I just unlocked gem crafting I’m barely certain how good those rewards are.

The gem crafting is another thing that blew my mind.  I haven’t looked up a guide for it yet but I’m thinking I’m going to have to.  On the surface it seems fairly simple… you combine gems to make bigger gems!  But then there’s a bunch of other shit like requiring multiple characters to perform different roles and some characters are better at roles than other ones, and the affinity between the characters changes the outcome, and then there are vials of shit too.  I’ve barely experimented with it but for the min-maxer it promises to be fun.

The affinity stuff tends to be a bit… odd… too.  There are events scattered around the world called “Heart to Heart”s.  You bring a pair of characters there, once they like each other enough, and it unlocks a short cutscene.  The first one of these I went through I didn’t realize I was actually choosing the response options (I did notice the text was blue and thought it was oddly worded but just hit “next”… WHOOPS), but you are supposed to be choosing the response that will be most likely to make the characters bond for a huge boost to affinity.  These scenes are probably quite endearing once you’ve really come to enjoy the characters.  Right now it’s honestly kind of sappy and makes me roll my eyes (and or /vomit).  Making things worse is the fact that the icons for these scenes are every-fucking-where but when you click on them, 99% of the time it goes “You cannot view this scene yet”.  Because our affinity isn’t good enough, or maybe we have the wrong characters in this party or something.  My point is, why are the fucking icons on my map if I can’t view it?  Put that shit away until the requirements are met.  You’re cluttering my map.

Quests!  The saving grace of the incredibly boring quests is that you can run around collecting them and once you trip over enough of the items/kills to complete it, yay you completed it.  No need to go back to town and hand shit in, you just get a little window and then you get paid.
Which makes it really glaring when you have a quest that DOES need to be handed back in.  For example, one quest was “I need thingys for my crafts”.  You find three fangs or whatever, quest completes, yay you win.  Another quest was “I need medicine for my back.”  You find the medicine (3 pots of it, off monsters, really no different from finding 3 fangs for crafts), but the quest updates to “give the medicine to him”.  So now you have to go back into town and wander around, remember where it was you saw this guy, and talk to him again.

What complicates things is that the game runs on a 24 hour clock (not realtime! Thank goodness), so NPCs only show up at certain times and will move from place to place.  It’s cool for wandering around a city and being rewarded for exploring at different times of day, but not so great for having to re-find that person later. Fortunately the game is forgiving in letting you mess with the clock to set it to a certain hour (in game, even… you don’t have to hack your wii to change the clock…) but you still have to remember where they are going to be.  I had some difficulty with this because the journals are not informative.  I really wish more games would be specific about where you return to.  This journal is specific about where to GO, but not where to RETURN to.  I think designers seem to take it for granted that we will play a game all at once stretch and be like “oh yeah now I will return to that person I just talked to”, which completely ignores those of us who wander off for a week and get distracted by something, then come back and are like “who the fuck is this guy again?”  You do get a big red exclamation mark over the people you need to return shit to, but because of the way the objects load, the marks only appear on the map when you’re right next to them and can see them.  So it’s not as helpful as you would hope.  Fortunately the internet has guides on when and where NPCs appear, but it would be nice to not need external sources for that kind of thing.

One thing that I’ve noticed but not explored much of yet, is that I’ve stumbled across some big scary monsters in a number of places.  There might be quests associated with these, and maybe I will come across those later… but it was pretty crazy to be like “hey that’s a big bird, I wonder if it can talk to … HOLY SHIT IT JUST HIT ME FOR 400 RUN AWAY RUN AWAY”.  There are definitely unique monsters scattered about in ways that let you easily skirt them, but once you’re powerful enough you can go toe to toe and see what happens.  Also nice is the ability to fast travel to any location instantly, so you can pop back and try your luck at any point in your adventure without losing much.

For better or worse, the game has a lot of depth to complement its excellent (so far…) story. I really want to see what happens next, but I’m too busy collecting bugs and flowers to advance the story.  What that says to me is that there are bits of the game that will appeal to different kinds of gamers, from collectors to min-maxers to people who just want a good story, which means it’s worth a shot for all sorts of people.  If you are even mildly interested, you should try it.  But don’t bitch about the graphics – we know.

-Read Second Impressions Here-


About tagracat
I am not a professional, I don't get paid to review shit, I am just opinionated and I seem to have some sort of disorder that results in spewing my opinions onto the internet. I enjoy writing long-winded posts about things and sometimes I like to pretend people want to read them, so a blog seemed an appropriate place to stuff it. But mostly I just like writing about things.

2 Responses to Xenoblade: First Impressions

  1. rika9 says:

    I haven’t played this (I fancied myself too hardcore to buy a wii..) but this makes me laugh because I bitch about a lot of the same things in games. Not being able to tell what the hell the graphics are supposed to represent is a big one for me, and I never hear anyone else mention it. I don’t know if everyone else has just accepted that they can’t tell what is what and stopped caring, or if my eyes are broken.
    I also have been disappointed to find combat is real time in games before… And I also really really wish they’d give thought to making games easy to pick back up if you don’t play for a stretch.

  2. Pingback: Xenoblade: Second Impressions | Tagra Reviews Things

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