Xenoblade: Is it Revolutionary?

A few days ago, Xenoblade was released in North America leading to the latest ongoing argument. Some are claiming that Xenoblade is revolutionary, changing the face of JRPGs and is a game that cannot be missed. Meanwhile, others are calling it “just another JRPG”.

So, is it revolutionary or not, and if so why?

Well as with most situations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Xenoblade Chronicles is far from just another JRPG, but it is not revolutionary in and of itself. Rather, it is part of a revolution. A revolution started quite possibly by Final Fantasy XII and includes Magna Carta 2 and White Knight Chronicles as well (meaning one on each system).

…and if that just made you cringe, you need to go back and give FFXII another chance.

You see, between FFX and FFXII was the MMORPG FFXI. Square wanted to dabble in the world of MMOs and in the process they discovered that the MMO has many incredible features not seen in JRPG as standard issue. Things like a massive open world to explore, rendered in 1:1 scale, tons of sidequests, armor that appears on characters, battles that occur on the field. The list honestly goes on.

So, when they began work on FFXII they felt they should try to incorporate these features into a single player JRPG experience. The problem is, JRPG fans don’t necessarily like MMOs and many lashed out against the game because of this. However, rather than merely condemning a game because it’s MMO-esque, let us look at why some people hate MMOs and how an offline game can fix these flaws.

#1) Gratuitous Level Grinding

This is an easy fix. Most MMOs are boring grind fests because they want to keep you playing. You pay a monthly fee and if you ever feel you’ve “beaten” an MMO, then you’re likely to quit. So they often make leveling take waaay too long. But, in the case of an offline single purchase experience, there is no reason to make players grind and as such leveling in FFXII and similar games is quite normal.

#2) Little to No Story

Another side effect of the online experience. With so many players, everyone can’t be the hero and as such big world changing events seldom happen. There have been games that have tried to work around this but even then it’s nothing compared to the flashy cutscene caked JRPGs we all know and love. Again though, this is an easy fix. With no other players to gum things up, MMO inspired JRPGs are free to pile on the cutscenes and dramatic storylines all they want.

#3) The Battle System

Here, however, is the big one. Combat in the average MMO sucks and can basically be described as “Click on Enemy. Wait for it to die”. I’m still not entirely certain why this is the go-to style of combat in MMOs. I think it has to do partly with server load and the fact that many MMOs were played on dial-up and partly because that’s how many Western RPGs (especially Ultima) played at the time. This, again, can be fixed but is where many games get a little strange. So, we’re going to have to look at this in greater detail.

In FFXII’s case, characters do automatically attack enemies when you click on them and you can even program auto0battle routines called Gambits. However, when you press the X button, the game will freeze time and you can issue commands to all of your party memebers. These commands overwrite whatever automatic actions they were taking. In order to try and prevent the game from “playing itself”, they made the enemies extra difficult so player intervention was frequently required and they made the amount of EXP you gain from each enemy drop drastically as you levelled. This attempted to force players to continue ahead into more and more difficult battles rather than level grinding their way to victory.

To make a long story short, FFXII’s combat worked because rather than controlling only one character, you did control the entire party.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a bit different. It also has auto-attacks and this time you do only control one character. However, the battle speed is rather high and the game makes player positioning and paying attention to your party’s actions very important as different techniques chain together. Then throw in skills that recharge between battles, a large number of extra strong special monsters, and a generous continue system to balance that out, and you have a game that again requires a greater amount of player input than the average MMO.

Though, admittedly, the lack of direct party command is going to be divisive. As I said, skills link into one another and their combined effect is so great that actually commanding the whole party is considered a Super Move. But normally you can’t, meaning you have to wait around and hope the party does what you want them to. The idea being that it’s all about the power of Teamwork and that players have to work as a team with their party; it does keep players on their toes as they have to pay close attention to their party’s actions. However, players used to controlling the whole team and unwilling to accept the somewhat strange dynamic will find themselves filled with rage.

But, I am getting off-topic. The Korean made Magna Carta 2 avoids the issue by not having auto-attack and actually allowing the player to have direct control over their character and switch characters on the fly. Meanwhile White Knight Chronicles also allows direct character control but…well…I was not a fan of that game (which sucks because it’s why I bought a PS3).

So, while on it’s own Xenoblade Chronicles is not revoltuionary, it is part of a revoltuion. A revolution that looks to make JRPGs bigger, more open, more free, and more able to compete with their rising Western counterparts. While their battle systems still need a bit of work compared to many of their less MMO-esque counterparts, they are far from as bad as the average MMO and I’d still personally rather play them over 90%* of all Western RPGs.

*games in the 10% include Mass Effect and Kingdoms of Amalur because they know how a freaking battle system works. Good combat is kind of important.

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