My first four hours with Xenoblade: exceptional. It’s been a mashup manticore of Monster Hunter, Majora’s Mask, Dragon Quest I, VIII, and IX, Ys I, and a hint of Chrono Trigger.
I’ll start with what I can’t talk about:
- The characters. By my choice, I haven’t spent more than two minutes with any of them.
- The story, for the same reason. Other than the story-opening scenes and taking my first party member back to town, which I think was mandatory, I haven’t met the goals to see a single cutscene.
- Item creation, again for the same reason. The machine that creates orbs to slot into my equipment teases me by being broken and I don’t believe I can do anything yet with materials gathered from killing monsters. I assume I’ll eventually run into in-depth item synthesis.
- The battle system. Since I only have one character right now, I don’t consider it fair to judge. The power of various Arts depends on the hero’s positioning behind or to the side of enemies, but with no other characters around to distract monsters, I’ve only faced them head-on except for a single strike from behind to initiate the battle.
Even without those factors, I’ve already found at least twelve things to love to death.
Explore it all. Every last step on land and every last kick of the legs at sea.
- 1. The greatest fantasy game environment I’ve ever had the honor to play. Every hour I’ve spent with Xenoblade Chronicles has only been in the starting area around Colony 9 and even though I’ve only been slaughtering small-scale monsters like rabbits, mosquitoes, flamingos, and armadillo-cows, the seamless world around them is as awe-inspiring as any area of Dragon Quest VIII, which featured possibly the most impressive overworld in gaming until now. Every piece of land clicks; every untraveled pathway invites. Ever heard people say that they believe in a creator because nature has such a majestic quality that they can’t believe it came about by chance? I don’t find it logically convincing regardless of my personal belief, but I perfectly understand how it can be emotionally convincing.
- 2. Ubiquitous instant warp points. For two and a half hours, I didn’t realize that every Landmark—a point where a fallen Shulk will respawn—was also an area that I could warp to in about three seconds at any moment I pleased. When I found out what I’d missed, I didn’t curse myself for my ignorance; I had no reason to. Every minute to and fro on foot had shown me a new path to travel, opened item collection possibilities I didn’t imagine, and wowed me with gorgeous scenery. Even so, the freedom of open teleportation across a supersized landscape doesn’t settle for boggling the mind; it expands the mind. True freedom unfurls the welcoming carpet of potential—not a red carpet, but white, an empty canvas across which the brush of the pioneer spirit cannot help but sweep, for the heart cannot long tolerate it to remain blank and must begin its strokes, each more thickly layering on a paint crafted from the liquid mix of dreams, ideals, and the soul.
- 3. Music that I could and did listen to for hours on end. When I say that the world is magnificent, I’m speaking of the world as a cohesive unit—I’m speaking of the entire experience, which includes the Colony 9 theme up above. I can’t get enough of this music. The rhythmic drums and acoustic guitar chords push me forward and give Xenoblade a feel of simplicity and naturalism that I can only liken to my first experience with Ys I. That game felt relaxed despite the fast-paced music because Adol killed enemies by walking into them; Xenoblade feels relaxed because of its music and its synergy with its environments.
- 4. A consistent and tangible sense of progression. Every monster can drop several different items appropriate to its species, such as hairs from rabbits or milk from the Armus (those would be the armadillo-cows), which serves two beautiful purposes. The first is that the regular flow of rewards provides a strong drive to continue.
- 5. The intricate ecosystem. The second benefit of the item drops is that they establish the staggering variety of resources in the wilderness. Aside from treasures earned in battle, glowing blue orbs are randomly scattered about the world; players pick them up to collect plants, stones, and other natural non-animal materials. The numerous items create the feel of a deep world in which humans invent uses for every material that nature offers to them. Even if there’s no Monster Hunter-style item creation like I’m convinced there must be, shops still purchase the dozens of materials I’ve already collected, which would already suffice to give incentive for exploration.
- 6. Monsters with a sense of self-preservation. If I attack an Armu, nearby Armus run in and aid them in the fight against me; if I attack a Bunnit, nearby Bunnits hop to help out; if I attack a Caterpile, nearby Antols go about their daily hive mind business. Monolith Soft knew that there was no good answer to the question “Why would ants save caterpillars?”
- 7. Pushing my personal limits in a fully open-ended world. Even though I talked up the freedom aspect, I appreciate linearity too when done right. More on that another day, though, because right now it’s time for non-linearity to shine. My favorite segment of Final Fantasy VI is the World of Ruin, my favorite segment of Chrono Trigger is toward the end when sidequests open up in every area, my favorite segment of every Pokémon title is the post-game when I’m free to do whatever I please, and my favorite segment of the original Dragon Quest is the entire game.
Since I haven’t gotten any party members in Xenoblade because I haven’t advanced the story, DQI is my best point of comparison. Things may change later on, but just as in DQI, my first four hours have been an open struggle where the only boundary to the hero’s adventures are how far his stats allow him to survive. I swam out and got OHKOed by fish who dealt over 4100 damage when I had 800 HP; I climbed Anti-Air Battery 3 and the Dark Murakmor, a massive level 37 bird, stabbed its beak through my skull; I reached a distant shore and drew the ire of a level 37 Gentle Mother Armu who became anything but when she spotted me near her babies, and likewise for the level 40 Gentle Rodriguez. Never trust a monster with “Gentle” in its name. On a more successful note, I’ve sneaked past level 72 monsters while at level 8 so that I could collect rare items on the ground behind them; I leveled to 11 and defeated the Verdant Bluchai, a giant caterpillar, and then leveled to 12 and defeated the Evil Rhangrot, a giant squirrel, both with nothing more than my trusty Junk Sword in hand.
There’s even more at work than the fights. I’ve jumped off railways in town and into the untamed ocean below. The average game would have placed an invisible barrier in my way, assuming that I didn’t want to “accidentally” leave safe haven. Yes, Xenoblade, I do want to jump seventy feet down into the dangerous ocean. Thank you for allowing me to do so! Yes, Xenoblade, I do want to reach the clifftop Tephra Cave and jump off to commit a horrible and ugly suicide. Thank you for allowing me to do so and even granting me an achievement for it.
- 8. Achievements. Achievements allow players who can’t get enough of a game engine to wrangle more playtime out of it. They also show that we’re not alone and that other gamers perform the same obscure actions that our twisted minds dream up. I welcome achievements as the evidence that we all have a lovable psychopath inside of us.
- 9. No battle screen transitions. I love separate battle screens, but doing without is historically more rare and I welcome it when I see it. This is the small pinch of Chrono Trigger I alluded to. I find a soothing and natural flow to the way that a simple sword-unsheathing or sword-sheathing animation begins and ends a battle; it conveys that exploration and battles are a unified experience, neither one meant to be inferior.
- 10. NPCs with lives. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask exceeds all other Zelda games in the depth of its interactions with NPCs. Link can identify the daily routines of dozens of characters and build relationships with them to earn useful masks to help him in his quest. Even this early on, Xenoblade looks to be implementing an even more detailed incarnation of that idea with a logbook that profiles several villagers and their relationships with each other. I look forward to caring about every side character no matter how minute, just as I did with Dragon Quest IX when I solved the world’s problems. Treating no character as a throwaway is more valuable than many realize since the ideal game wastes no time with anything that’s worthless.
- 11. Xenoblade was released. I won’t recap in full because this isn’t news in April 2012, but anyone somehow reading this in April 2019 may not know how desperately North American fans of the RPG genre hoped to have this game in their hands and how bleak the chances looked. Xenoblade was a surprise miracle release and its quality demands no less.
- 12. A Japanese language option. Games like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Wario Land 4, and WarioWare, Inc. have Japanese options or some Japanese music in them, but more recently Nintendo axed the option from Super Smash Bros. Brawl and, while some of the foreigner NPCs in the Japanese version of Pokémon Black and White spoke English (among other languages), the English version didn’t reciprocate. I can understand this; it’s easy for a company to consider the option worthless because of the relatively small percentage of Japanese speakers in the USA and Canada, but I very much believe in implementing as many already-made options as possible to tailor the experience to each player. Even if only for originalists, purists, and the few native Japanese speakers, this move earns a thumbs up from me.