Xenoblade Chronicles X (First Impressions)

It seems a little silly to say “First Impressions” when I’m 50 hours and 10 chapters in, but this is Xenoblade so all my work thus far means I am finally allowed to start the story.

You may remember, or you may bother to scroll back far enough through my blog entries to notice, that I really really really fucking loved Xenoblade for the Wii.  One of my top games of all time, primarily because the story blew my mind.  I loved the characters, I loved the world, and the gameplay was merely okay but it was still cool.  The ending.  So good.  So naturally Xenoblade Chronicles X was a day 1 purchase.  I bought a Wii U almost solely for this game (also Mario but that’s a given).

Xenoblade X is… disappointing so far.  It’s still got a lot of potential and I’m eager to actually get this story rolling because they have me intrigued, but god damn can we get on with this already?  I’ve been playing for 50 hours and I’ve only really advanced the story once.  The rest has been what is essentially a tutorial.  That said, there are SO MANY FUCKING MECHANICS in this game that you NEED 50 hours of tutorial to get acquainted with all of them.  Is that a good thing?  … depends.  If you’re super into customization and tinkering with optimizations then you’ll like the systems at play here.  My husband finally gave in and abandoned Fallout 4 to start playing after watching me upgrading a million billion different things to optimize my team.  He loves that sort of shit.  If you’re just in it for the story, then I hope you’re patient.  I’m patient but this is really starting to test my limits.

The game feels like it is trying VERY VERY HARD to be a single player MMO.  If you enjoy MMO style gameplay and exploration, that might even be a good thing, but if you don’t enjoy MMO style dragging out of story and objectives… weelllll…

It’s even got online components.  Sort of.  You join a division and then certain tasks contribute toward your division getting points, and then everyone in that division gets goodies.  Not exciting goodies, but goodies.  And you feel kind of like you’re part of something, I guess.  You can also hire other player’s characters to join your party and come help you with stuff, and next time they log in they’ll have goodies waiting for them from that, too.  There’s also chat and achievement announcements and stuff but the very instant it popped up on my screen I fled to the settings panel and shut all of that shit down because fuck that.  Who the hell thought that was a good idea.

The problem is, almost nothing happens for 50 hours.  The game starts, the story is literally nothing but “Earth was destroyed and we’re on Mira now.  Go learn about Mira.”  You run around and explore shit (and the world is FANTASTIC to explore, with big epic creatures wandering around and cool formations and stuff), you learn about the factions within what remains of humanity, you find some cool stuff on the planet… annnnd nothing really groundbreaking happens. There’s a little blip of coolness in Chapter 5 that ups the ante a bit, but you need to get to Chapter 8 before shit starts happening, which is somewhere around 30 hours in.  I burned myself out on side quests in the first Xenoblade so in this one I skipped them all and rushed to unlock the story quests, wanting to dig into the story before I exhausted myself this time.  Turns out if you’re not level ~35 by Chapter 9 you get your ass handed to you repeatedly for an hour before you go hire a max level player to clear it for you (*ahem*.  Not that I speak from experience or anything.)  Now I’m kind of stuck.  I’ve almost unlocked the next chapter, but… maybe I should level a bit more first?  But… ugh.

See, the problem is, and this is fucking stupid: Once you take an affinity or story mission, you cannot take another one.  You’re stuck on that quest until it’s done.  And you cannot drop it.  I learned this the hard way early on when I took an affinity mission that led to a continent I had not explored yet (and therefore did not have a travel point to).  At a certain point in the game you get flying which would make travel there simple, but I was pretty far from that, so I looked up how to get there the old fashioned way.  Turned out the answer was to spend 40 minutes swimming across the ocean, and then run past a whole bunch of level 50 monsters until I got to my level 20 quest zone.  It was pretty awful.  But hey at least the game has auto-run?  :/

There are many questionable design decisions like that in this game.  Things that unlock before you’re ready for them are somewhat forgivable, but locking you into them is kind of shitty.  Even more shitty is the lack of options for sound and music volume.  If you read any review on the internet they’ll have mentioned this already, but, the music volume is really loud, and the music often contains spoken lyrics that are sung at the same volume as the characters who are speaking in a cutscene.  Fuck off.  NO music volume slider?  Really?  And then some of the music tracks are simply unbearable.  I will tolerate pretty much every kind of music except rap, and there are (at least) two rap-like tracks in the game.  One is the track that plays the entire time you’re in the main city which is a significant chunk of the game.  The other is the ground-combat track.  Which is a significant chunk of the game.  And they wouldn’t even be bad tracks if it weren’t for the inclusion of lyrics for god knows what reason.  WHY would you include lyrics.  You can listen to instrumental music for hours on end and barely notice anything but atmosphere, but if I hear that fucker singing “ON A WHOOOOLLE DIF-RENT PLAN-ET” during combat one more fucking time… at least the city track is just an irritating series of grunts and moans that you can largely ignore, even though you may be doing it with your face in your palm.  “YEAH YEAH.  HONH HONH.” I’ve turned the volume on my TV down to almost nothing, which really sucks because the REST of the music is absolutely phenomenal.  Although, there is also a different track when your Skell takes flight, which overrides whatever music is playing in your current zone (so needless to say, once I unlocked flying I started flying everywhere in town – but I probably would have done that anyway because flying), BUT, when you land on the ground it goes back to the zone track.  So if you do a lot of hopping around it’s actually really fucking annoying.

In summary: the sound designers for Monolith need to be fired for their monumentally bad decision making.

But ALSO.  I HATE the party management in this game.  HATE it.  You can have 4 peoples in your party at a time.  Certain quests require you to have certain people with you.  Certain quests require certain people to be with you and like you.  You can boot people out of your party at any time, that’s not an issue.  The issue is getting the fuckers back into your party.  As soon as they leave your party they fuck off to their preferred locations in town and you can go there to ask them to join you again.  The little tablet screen gives you a checkmark to let you know where they hang out, BUT there are plenty of other things putting checkmarks around which mean you have to click on the checks to see which are for characters.  AND, completing segments in town can trump the checkmarks and you’ll no longer know which symbols hide character locations.  AND.  Even when you can see the checkmark, the character location changes based on time of day.  AND if you’ve unlocked certain events, they’ll fuck off to somewhere new and wait for you there.  Will you know that until you hunt around for them and waste 15 minutes of your life?  Probably not.  I know it’s great to have characters out there using the world and things changing based on time of day is cool and MY IMMERSION and whatnot, but would it really be so awful to give me a selection screen to add them back in from wherever the fuck I want?  Make it from the barracks console only or something, I don’t care.  Or at least a menu where you’re like “I want this person” and it goes “Okay, they are currently located at…”  This system is irritating as fuck and it makes me skip affinity quests that require me to shuffle my party.  That is not good design.

And speaking of the party system… I have almost no justification to even use the rest of the characters so far because they are all gigantic assholes who have invited themselves to my party without my permission – in fact sometimes expressly against my wishes as laid out by my dialogue choices.  FYI dialogue writers: Illusion of choice in dialogue only really works if it’s ACTUALLY an illusion, and not a thin smokescreen.  Now, the thing I loved about the original Xenoblade was the character development, so I know these characters will all have deep and interesting backstories and they’re all being set up as superficial assholes to make those discoveries even more rewarding… BUT… you’re laying it on too thick, guys.  Seriously.  If one more fuckface walks up to me and is all “hey you, you seem like a pushover and I agreed to do this thing but I don’t wanna do it because I’m a dickhead so now you’re going to do it for me” and then I respond with “no, fuck you” (or the closest Nintendo equivalent which is not nearly as satisfying) and then they go “ha ha you’re funny let’s go get my shit” and then I just get the quest with no further complaint… fuck off.  Or worse, the character who literally betrays you as an introduction and then *bing* they’re in your party whether you like it or not.  What the fuck.  At least have a little more of a transition there…

But secretly I am worried that the characters will not actually have deep and interesting backstories at all.  Because the writing in this game does not seem very solid at all so far, and I am not nearly as confident as I was in the writing of the first game.  Very worrisome.

But anyway, I’ve bitched enough.  How about GOOD design!  I really love how the Wii tablet is used for the game.  The touchscreen on it isn’t quite sensitive enough, but it gets the job done and in a cool way.  Bonus marks for being able to play the game like a handheld if someone steals your TV away from you (but that’s just a cool Wii U feature in general).

I already mentioned I LOVE the world.  The creatures wandering around are epic and it’s great to explore.  I like that the monsters aren’t sequestered in handy level-appropriate chunks and you can wander through a kaleidoscope of creatures and difficulties to get where you’re going. It would be less cool if A) you couldn’t port anywhere you’ve been instantly and B) getting randomly stomped by a level 90 actually had any consequences, but since you can and it doesn’t, the world is awesome.

I also actually like the combat this time around.  In the first game the textures were muddy and strategy was difficult because you couldn’t really tell what’s going on.  In this one it’s much easier to see what’s going on (with the exception of the camera being ass.  The camera is slow and floaty and made of ass.  But I said I would stop bitching…), AND they added the incredibly handy feature of a little readout telling you where you actually are located around the creature.  So when you’re trying to get off a side or back combo, you don’t have to look at the alien blob on your screen and go “is THAT its back?  No wait this looks like a tail so… no, maybe not…”.  It’s so simple it really makes you wonder why the fuck the original didn’t have one.  Also combat combos are really interesting with a ton of variety, not just with your character but with everyone else.  The combos are complex, but not difficult to understand, so it’s not hard to set everyone up with complementary skills and make sure you focus on the right sorts of power-ups.  At least… so far.

I’m really hanging in there because it feels like the story is about to take off soon, but… it’s getting to be a bit of a slog.  And even worse, I know I’m only half-way to the level cap.  So there might be some exp grinding in my future before I can even tackle the story quests.  I dislike that… but I’m trusting it will be worth it.  I also like that it doesn’t hand-hold, even though it makes things seem super obtuse.  It may have 30 hours of tutorial, but at least you need them.  It also kinda has that “old school EQ” charm of “This took a lot of effort therefore it was worth my time to do it”.  Effort Justification, bitches.  Please stop designing gameplay around Psychology biases :(

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Wild Tales

I picked “Wild Tales” out of the Netflix lineup mostly at random, by virtue of being the first thing to scroll past that didn’t look awful.  Predicted 5 stars (not that the Netflix rating prediction system ever seems to have any correlation with reality), Oscar nomination, tales of revenge… sounds pretty good!

Now that I’ve watched it I am reading some internet reviews of it and wondering what I missed.  It was certainly entertaining, but I feel like if that was getting award nominations the competition must have been pretty slim.  I ended up awarding it 3 Netflix stars but the heaps of praise it’s getting are leaving me head-scratching.  Maybe it’s an ‘art’ thing.  I’m terrible at ‘art’.

The movie is a foreign anthology of short stories, each revealing a story of revenge.  It’s labelled a dark comedy, and most reviews seem to label it with words like ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproarious’.  I chuckled a few times, but, uh… ‘uproarious’ seems like a bit of hyperbole.  There were some funnier ones for sure, but there were also several stories that, in my opinion, didn’t even really attempt to be funny.

In fact, I wasn’t really sure what the aim was with most of them… which was sort of the problem.  They were each interesting, and they entertained well enough, but when they got to the end it was more like “Oh.  Is that it?” There were no twists (well, the first one was a little clever I guess, though it pops that early) and most of the time you figured out what was going on twenty seconds into the skit and then it would play out predictably.  Like, not even in a “I bet this is the twist” sort of way – there were no twists.  It was like “This guy here is going to get revenge” and then he does.  The end.  I was entertained and also bewildered at the same time.

The “Is that it” problem was compounded by the lack of transitions between stories.  There isn’t even a really noticeably longer pause between the end of one story and the beginning of the next, it’s just like “REVENGE annnnnd who is this guy now?  Oh ohhh new story.  Got it.”  It’s a good thing the description specifically mentions that it’s multiple tales, or you might be very confused.  A little black screen with a title indicating a new story would be nice.

I’m going to attempt a spoiler free overview of the six stories (titles taken from IMDB):
1) “Pasternak”: Great way to open things, setting you up with expectations for the rest of the movie, which are ultimately not fulfilled.
2) “The Rats”: I’m so confused.  When I said the transitions are rough this is a really good example.  I feel like someone badly edited the ending and forgot to include a few closure scenes somewhere…
3) “The Strongest”: Finally something that lives up to the black comedy label!  I chuckled several times during this sequence, although I wasn’t precisely sure who to root for because jesus christ you’re both assholes, and stupid ones to boot.  It all works in the end, though!
4) “Little Bomb”: So incredibly predictable but somewhat satisfying nonetheless.  Kind of an odd message to send to society, though…
5) “The Proposal”: By this point I was just about ready for the movie to end.  I didn’t get much out of this story, I’m afraid.  And then it was another “Is it over?” victim and it left the story feeling flat and lifeless.  There was only like 5 seconds of revenge in this, punctuated by 15 minutes of whining.
6) “Until Death Do Us Part”: The movie ended on a strong note at least, with more black comedy (if anything even remotely resembles “uproarious” it’s probably this one, but it’s still extreme hyperbole), but damn.  wtf.