Historically I’m not a big fan of RPGs because of their time-consuming, life sucking aspect, but given the unusual circumstance of having the European translation of a major Japanese title before even an announcement of a release date for North America I felt duty-bound to pre-order this game and give it a shot. Besides, how could I pass up a game with a fantastic setting like the body of a long-dead god?
Xenoblade Chronicles stands-out generally because of the focus on story: not only the setting, but the progression of the tale from one of revenge to a deeper philosophical discussion. I was quite impressed with the maturity of not only the themes, but the characters themselves: their development and inner struggles ably conveyed by the excellent voice talent employed in the British localisation (Japanese audio with English subtitles is also available).
Of course games are more than stories and here Xenoblade Chronicles also impresses, using a hybrid combat system that mixes realtime and turned-based aspects implemented with a simple control scheme. Controls are limited to buttons and analogue stick, with neither motion or pointer put to use. The Classic Controller is supported, but I preferred the more flexible posture afforded via the traditional Remote + Nunchuk scheme.
The unconventional combat is a bit jarring at first, but you’ll quickly get into the swing of things: realtime character movement is used to change which part of a monster you face for the use of different attack types, but has little meaning in terms of defence. Standard attacks happen automatically and build up a store of points which are expended to carry out special attacks that are divided into categories that have further effects on enemies when used in a certain sequence. These attack sequences are primarily put to use during “Chain Attacks” which allow for the selection of special attacks used by the otherwise AI-controlled members of your party.
In addition to statistics which are enhanced via levelling-up characters (experience is earned through combat, exploration and quest completion), there’s a large number of skills and skill trees which affect gameplay. Your active party is limited to three out of a selection of up to a half-dozen or so characters, so developing these is dependent upon which characters you choose to play with over any length of time.
Skill development, quests and the different combat strengths and weaknesses of your party mean that you’ll be changing your roster regularly in the course of play. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the the way various characters control in combat because it’s fairly different from the main character Shulk. Shulk has an additional range of powers courtesy of the Monado sword he wields which is central to the plot of the game and though you’ll be tempted to use him exclusively there are moments where you cannot and the transition will be quite jarring if you haven’t tried using any of the other characters as your primary one previously.
The game world is vast and enhances the story’s epic feel, supported by a terrific cinematic score. Each section of the game world is cleverly designed to largely eliminate the need to pause for loading or limit viewing distance. The trade off is that monsters will pop-into view long after you’d have been able to see them in “real life,” but given the breathtaking vistas stretched out before you, it’s well worth it. There’s so much to explore and so many characters to talk to that I couldn’t adequately cover it all even in a dedicated review.
If I have anything negative to say it’s that the game world is so vast that sometimes finding locations you’re directed to in various quests can be really challenging. You’re often tasked with collecting items that are freely available (marked by glowing blue dots visible from quite a distance) and also items dropped by certain monsters. I would strongly recommend not throwing away or selling anything you pick up casually as I learned the hard way that some of these items are extremely rare. You can trade with NPCs for some of them, but you won’t know that until you’ve chatted with all named NPCs and carried out most of the quests for that part of the world to increase your “affinity” with them. Needless to say I consulted FAQs A LOT towards the end, but if you’re a bit more patient than me and enjoy exploring every little corner of virtual game worlds, you’ll get on fine.
Suffice it to say it’s probably the deepest game I’ve played in terms of character customisation and exploration. The side quests are numerous and interesting and there’s additional character moments to unlock in various parts of the game world. It’s a welcome change from the normal level-grinding that typically marks the path to progression for this style of game. Even after clocking 140hrs. of play before the end credits rolled I feel like I’ve only experienced 2/3rds of what was on offer and I’m already looking forward to replaying it someday. If the only reason you haven’t purchased this game is because your Wii needs a service to read dual-layer discs, shame on you – get your machine fixed and buy it!
escapeVektor Chapter I (WiiWare)
It’s no secret I enjoy a good old-fashioned arcade-style game; the crustier the better. Nnooo appear to have the same not-so-secret love that I do because they’ve delivered a WiiWare game in the same class as the Bit.Trip and Art Style series in what is billed as the first in a trilogy of games that combines the simplicity of the early arcade with modern special effects and a terrific soundtrack into a lovely package.
The bright pastels and simple geometric shapes (you control a white arrow on a series of grids) remind me a lot of ancient games most people won’t have heard of like Targ and sequel Spectar, and the gameplay strongly echoes Konami’s classic Amidar. The over-arching story has you taking on the role of a person trapped in an old video game, a la Tron, working your way through various levels to piece together your memory of how you got there.
The gameplay is basic, but the developers have added enough clever twists to keep the formula fresh. Players are tasked with guiding their white arrow through a series of white grids, changing the paths to a pastel green in the process. Once the grid is completely repainted the level is cleared and you move on to the next.
Roaming about the grids in pre-set patterns are enemies to avoid that will speed-up once they catch sight of you, so you really can’t just go blundering along – although early on you’ll gain the ability to put on some extra speed for a limited time to escape the baddies. Later levels feature towers which send killer pulses down nearby lanes at set intervals and lethal electrified barriers which get enabled or disabled as you cross circuit paths. There are also free-roaming enemies that spawn from gates when you trip pathways that require a bit more strategy and skill to avoid.
Without some kind of offensive weapon the later levels would prove nigh impossible (though presence of a reward for clearing a level without using weapons, suggests that it can be done), so thoughtfully you can earn charges that will destroy all enemies in the vicinity. Despite your extra abilities escapeVektor is still quite challenging and unforgiving. The difficulty ramps-up such that by the second “world” the gloves are definitely off. Arcade veterans will find this is a game every bit as tough as those classics of yesteryear.
The core game mechanics are sound and entertaining; I wouldn’t bat an eye at seeing this in an arcade upright even today. The visuals are simple, but there’s some interesting background effects happening that make your grid appear to be a 2D structure floating in 3D space. It looks really slick without being overly flashy or distracting. Calling the playfield a “grid” doesn’t really do it justice, as this isn’t a simple sheet of graph paper. Rather there’s a symmetrical pattern of connected squares and rectangles which changes from level-to-level. During play the camera is kept zoomed-in on the currently occupied section of the playfield with your arrow in the centre. Given the repeating patterns which compose the levels it’s easy to get lost sometimes – not to mention making it hard to avoid hazards, so the ability to temporarily zoom-out for a full view of the playfield to reorient oneself is welcome.
The combination of visuals and gameplay make this a solid addition to the WiiWare line-up, but what puts it amongst the elite is the brilliant ambient techno soundtrack. There’s a nice variety of tracks which brilliantly complement play and I was really happy to see it available for download on iTunes.
If you’re a fan of early arcade classics or know and love the Bit.Trip series then you really owe it to yourself to check this out. I sincerely hope we’ll see future series chapters from Nnooo; hopefully they’ll live up to this brilliant debut.