I'm a 26-year old English writer, formerly known on the CBlogs as Xandaça. I've been an avid gamer since I was a wee lad, gripping a NES controller in my hands and comprehensively failing to get past those infuriating Hammer Bros on Level 8-3 of Super Mario Bros. I've stuck with Nintendo since then (not for any animosity towards the other console makers of course - Nintendo just make games I enjoy and have grown up with), apart from a brief sojourn with a Sony PlayStation, several woeful attempts to play Half-Life 2 using a laptop touchpad and sporadically wrangling a turn on my sister's beloved Sega Saturn.
In addition to burping out the occasional novel, I'm a passionate critic, writing reviews and articles of films, book and games for my school magazine and university newspaper, for which I created and edited its film section. In addition to starting up my own blog, covering television, games and movies, I am also a writer for Destructoid's cine-geek sister Flixist. While primarily a film geek, the evolution of the games industry over the course of its short lifetime has fascinated me and provided vast quantities of content for some incendiary pieces of work - perhaps a few more might spring up on here?
My Favourite Games of All Time (because who doesn't love having a few Of All Time lists?) are GoldenEye 007 (which I still play through at least once a year to remind me of its glories), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Bros 3 (I don't know who told Shigsy Miyamoto-san that raccoons could fly, but I'll love them forever) and No More Heroes.
I hope you find great enjoyment in my many scribings, and please keep an eye out for upcoming news on my novel(s) and do pay a visit to my blog sometime. And yes, the Dtoid community's 'no copy and paste' rule will be fully respected!
A week has passed since Nintendo failed for the second time at E3 to convince gamers how the Wii U will rectify the mistakes of its predecessor. The problem seems to be that while Nintendo is telling everyone still listening that their console has a clear purpose in improving the gaming experience, they seem unsure of what it is. With the Wii, Wii Sports translated physical motion into in-game action, communicated in absolute terms by asking players to swing the remote as they would a racket in order to play tennis. Nintendoland requires explanation in order to understand the rules of each mini-game, where Wii Sports engendered immediate understanding between player and game, with the controller function bridging the two. The Wii U game may put the gamepad's various uses to action, but unequivocally fails when it comes to communicating any core concept underlying the console, other than it having loads of features, but no defining identity.
The console also marks Nintendo's attempt to build an online social hub akin to Microsoft's XBox Live or Sony's PlayStation Network. The result, the strenuously named Miiverse (how could a corporation as big as Nintendo not feature a single employee to suggest putting a 'U' in front of that name?), appears a similar mishmash, something involving gathering your friend's Miis around pictures of games they are playing, on an otherwise blank screen. It looks both half-hearted and slightly baffling, shoehorning an entire online network into the Mii plaza with none of the warmth or fun Nintendo take such effort to otherwise include in their games. Had they been willing to dedicate a little more time to their online social service, they might have realised the answer had been waiting on their doorstep all along.
Of the many, many games sadly absent from Nintendo's conference, Animal Crossing was the most surprising. It's a title almost everybody seems to love and perfectly suited to where Nintendo initially stated they were aiming the Wii U's library: friendly to core and casual, a familiar licence unlikely to steal gamers away from the big third-party titles, yet notable enough to attract interest. Whilst its friendly visual style may not make the game a natural showcase for the transition to HD, certain areas of the game - water effects, lighting, texturing - would stand out with a makeover from a more powerful console. It's a game Nintendo could almost certainly have turned out quickly and relatively inexpensively for launch.
iIf its omission on that basis alone were surprising enough, even moreso is how, with greater thought, the game would seem an absolutely perfect fit around which to base the console's online social hub, rather than the uninteresting Miiverse. The game's most fundamental conceits are perfectly in-line with the roles an online hub is supposed to fill: it encourages communication, is highly personalised and revolves around the idea of community. In other words, it's what PlayStation Home could have been, only with huge dollops of Nintendo charm and a title as immediately communicable to new gamers as old-school Nintendo players, a perfect incentive for all to check out the console's online functions in a friendly, familiar environment.
In an ideal world, this Animal Crossing hub would not just operate online, but form the framework for players to interact with the Wii U's every function. Nobody was particularly fond of the Wii front page and its bland 'channels', and the Miiverse seems intent on repeating the same mistakes. People like Nintendo because their image is warmer and less corporate than its rivals, yet their recent obsession with a wipe-clean iMac aesthetic is anything but. Instead, let's imagine each of those 'channel' windows as a house. Each house becomes part of a small town for players to wander around, entering a new building to access various functions. (Naturally, a menu alternative would have to be in place for people wanting to get started faster). All games could be accessed from the player's 'home' - where they start upon the console's activation - perhaps by activating a console in front of a television. Digital games, downloadable content and Nintendo points could be bought from Tom Nook's emporium, immediately transferring to the player's console at home upon acquisition. Achievements or trophies could be displayed at a local museum.
Better yet, certain achievements could yield items to personalise your town, while upcoming games could be promoted by limited time festivals or changes to the town's landscape. A crop of Pikmin could appear in a nearby grassy patch, for example, either as pure decoration or with a more practical purpose: players could uproot a pikmin to follow them around town for a while, or play a mini-game to unlock a prize, like a demo or a small number of Nintendo points (which are already given away through the star system). For a game like Mario Galaxy, or perhaps Mario U-niverse, nighttime play - as per Animal Crossing, a day-night cycle linked to the internal clock is a must - could yield a spectacular display of shooting stars and perhaps the plumber himself coming to town for a promotional visit. Or to sort out the plumbing. While a cyber-café could allow players to learn of friends' recent activity or engage in a more immediate chatting service, a train station could allow access to other towns, with gifts in tow. Were certain items specific to each town, players would be incentivised to use the service to its fullest.
Free games like FarmVille show how successful this model can be in attracting new players, while teaching the basic rules of interacting with the controller, such as using the analogue stick to navigate a character around a 3D environment, sometimes stated as an obstacle compared to the less complex control systems of 2D games. (Hence the tutorial DVD which came packaged alongside Super Mario Galaxy 2). The town could also help players get used to the various functions of the touchscreen, by using it to type and receive letters, perform tasks around town - navigating menus at Tom Nook's game emporium, for example - and take photographs with the camera, before transferring them into the game to be manipulated (art studio house?), displayed (at home, or in competitions at a gallery?) and shared (sent via a post office). The pad's NFC capabilities could be used for branded toys to be digitised into the player's home. If Nintendo were looking for a proof-of-concept for their controller, this would seem more elegant than anything shown in Nintendoland.
The restrictions, as far as I can see, would be that Nintendo would need to have a full version of the town available for offline play on the console, taking up a hefty chunk of memory and driving up the price. For the online version, Nintendo would need to employ significant staff to manage, update and police the towns in a manner more akin to an MMO than a more traditional hub. These seem relatively minor obstacles, though, for a service which could perform many of the tasks Nintendo are currently struggling with - conveying a clear vision for their new console, becoming a distinctive and attractive presence in the online console space, and remaining welcoming to new gamers whilst re-engaging long-term players' attention.
Nintendo has a remarkable aptitude for being all things for all people, yet over the course of its two E3 presentations, the Wii U has seemed increasingly uncertain of who it is aimed at and what has to be done to attract them. The abandonment of the Wii remote as primary control scheme, heralded as gaming's next leap forward as recently as Skyward Sword, shows a company desperately trying to change itself and its values in pursuit of an audience, rather than allowing its long-held reputation as a uniquely welcoming purveyor of innovative gaming experiences to do the work for them. The E3 presentations may have been a disaster, but everyone's still talking about Satoru Iwata's ridiculous on-screen antics (and he's their CEO!) with Non-Specific Action Figure, Pikmin, and Reggie's weirdly compelling dual roles as monotone spokesperson and amiable doofus ('I like French food!'). People like Nintendo, and want Nintendo to be Nintendo: the Miiverse is another step in the wrong direction, where the possibility for something more magical existed all along, easily in reach.
Animal Crossing as the Wii U's social hub is just one idea, and perhaps infeasible for reasons I haven't yet realised, but if nothing else represents a direction the company could take, by looking inward to the company's strengths rather than attempting to emulate the competition, a position Nintendo should never be in. The Wii was a wonderful console, let down by poorly-directed cost-cutting and third-party indifference. (All those shoddy ports and they still blame Nintendo for their lousy sales?). Nintendo have made great strides in showing willingness to engage the concerns of third-parties, and players enjoying the extensive services offered by their rivals' online networks. If Nintendo forget who they are in the process, and why they hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, that's when the battle for the next generation becomes a less appealing prospect for all concerned.
NOTE: This post has been published here at roughly the same time as on my blog. If you'd rather I only contribute original stuff on my CBlog, just say so in the comments. Thanks for reading!
PIKMIN 2: NEW PLAY CONTROL Format: Wii Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Players: 2
Pikmin 3 was one of the few parts of Nintendo's conference at this year's E3 to be well received, so the long-delayed release of the series' second game on the Wii could prove a canny publicity manoeuvre, perhaps enough to salvage disillusioned fans' enthusiasm for the Wii U while filling a gap in its predecessor's increasingly barren release schedule. Funnily enough, the game proves equally well-timed in terms of storyline, with Olimar returning to the Pikmin planet (never explicitly named as Earth, despite the obvious similarities) with companion captain Louie in order to help save his freight company from going broke due to predatory debtors. Somehow, the game's charm is only enhanced by its vision of a recession able to be reversed by a hunt for fruit and assorted amusingly named tidbits. Between this and last year's Boom Street, Nintendo seem to be on a single-handed mission to make the financial crisis fun. In that context, the coin-oriented gameplay of New Super Mario Bros 2 seems pure wish fulfilment.
Moving on from its amusing timeliness, the game is an excellent fit for the Wii. Little King's Story was an excellent game, but its refusal to use the remote's pointer - dishearteningly abandoned from the Wii U's main controller - looks a strange decision in light of the speed and ease it brings to commanding your army of carrot people around the undergrowth. A little twitchy when responding to a tilted controller, perhaps, but boding well for the Wii U iteration.
Less effective is the removal of the time limit from the Gamecube original, requiring players to reach the end within thirty in-game days. The restriction added the need for the player to take risks in order to achieve their goals within each precious day. While this made the game fairly short by the standards of the time, with the thirty days comprising roughly seven hours of gameplay, the threat of a ticking clock added to the otherwise lukewarm difficulty, forcing players to strategise and adapt to new situations on the spot. Without it, the sequel feels lethargic, lacking an impotus for the player to face new threats and unknown environments without being fully armed with maximum-strength troops and ample reconnaissance beforehand. The original game's weak enemies had greater shock value when the player was often forced to confront them either on the first or second encounter, rather than making repeated journeys to survey the battlefield, assess weak points and return with a full-strength battalion. The addition of powerful purple pikmin and a spray with the ability to multiply attack damage makes these encounters little more than a formality.
The ability to command two captains at once, theoretically doubling up your productivity whilst reducing legwork, is an intuitive addition, one further developed for the Wii U sequel (where four captains will be on hand, and able to assist each other navigate obstacles), but again feels like it would have been better suited to the first game's time restrictions. This is a game which practically demands you waste time, so a mechanic helping players conquer multiple tasks at once is welcome, but hardly required. There's a great deal of treasure to collect, but with no restrictions on how long the player takes to do it, the system's strategic potential is barely touched upon. Each day still lasts roughly fifteen minutes and any pikmin left unherded by sundown will still be devoured by the most adorable predators ever seen, but this is nothing more than a minor inconvenience now there's no reason to leave any pikmin without a protective captain on-hand.
The game's other notable addition is the presence of caves, essentially a succession of obstacle rooms, where the player has no access to new pikmin and no warning of what is to come (other than symbols indicating the types of pikmin required, such as red to defeat fire enemies, yellow for electric, and so forth) once the challenge has been accepted. These underground sections are an uncomfortable fit for a series which counts exploration of lush environments among its key delights: while each cave has a distinct visual style, finding vast subterranean rooms designed like a child's train set, to give one example, shatter the game's conceit of exploring the earth from the point-of-view of a microscopic adventurer. When the game offers a more realistic, no-frills representation of an underground environment, the colourful visuals of the outside world are missed. It's a no-win situation, especially since they are not challenging enough to be worth the sacrifices.
The decision to halt the passage of time when inside the caves proves another poor choice: had the fifteen-minute limit remained, forcing the player to surface in time for sunset or lose their pikmin, the additional challenge could have made these thrilling tests of the player's aptitude for adaptive strategy. What's left is further proof of how removing an unpopular gameplay mechanic does not always lead to a better experience: few claimed to enjoy the original game's time limit (despite it being quite generous), but the formula loses spark without it. Fortunately, the original game got so much right that even the loss of such a subtly crucial ingredient does not prevent the sequel from being consistently entertaining. It's full of those little moments of joy that Nintendo have made such a speciality, such as the transmissions from friends and family back on Hocotate (Olimar's home planet) or the exquisite names for each new 'treasure', giving the same charming spin to everyday objects as the game affords its garden-like world. A slight shame, then, that the environments are so similar to those from the first Pikmin, and actually fewer in number.
The new competitive multiplayer mode, an elaborate variation on 'capture the flag', show the game at its manic best, forcing players to juggle the need to rapidly build up an army, protect their marble (flag), navigate dangerous surroundings and sabotage the enemy. Despite the temptation to lead your troops into a full-force confrontation with the other player at the first available opportunity, it's usually wiser to do so when faced with a losing position and no choice but to try and slow your competitor down. Leading the charge into a massive pikmin skirmish against a friend is every bit as thrilling as it sounds, but winning the game requires a more restrained, strategic command, especially with AI-controlled monsters waiting to gobble up the remains of your squadron. (There's a sadistic pleasure in intercepting an enemy pikmin carrying a treasure back to base, only to bash its head in and take the bounty for yourself). Though the limited co-operative option is less interesting, cross every finger for Nintendo to retain these modes and take them online in the Wii U sequel. Pikmin 2's single-player may not live up to its flawlessly balanced predecessor, but as a multiplayer game it shows levels of inspiration with the potential to topple Mario Kart as Nintendo's premier competitive experience. [ 7 ]
Hello again, Destructoid! How I've missed you. A few of you have toddled over to Flixist and our own nascent Cblog community, and what a delight it has been to welcome you. Luckily, it's E3, that time of year when gamers are blessed with a fresh catalogue of games to look forward to, but cursed with idiots like me barging in with ridiculous predictions that will inevitably look ridiculous come Tuesday afternoon. I'll try and be slightly helpful though, so for anyone who hasn't got one imprinted on their eyeballs yet, here's a timetable for this year's conferences with both PST and GMT.
MONDAY JUNE 4th
- Microsoft 9.30am PST (5.30pm GMT)
- Electronic Arts 1.00pm PST (9.00pm GMT)
- Ubisoft 3.00pm PST (11.00pm GMT)
- Sony 6.00pm PST (June 5th 2.00am GMT)
TUESDAY JUNE 5th
- Nintendo 9.00am PST (5.00pm GMT)
It's also only fair that I point out that the content below will be republished on my blog in about five hours' time (10am GMT), so as usual, if that's considered to go against the Cblog spirit, let me know and I shall cease and desist faster than a PokéMon fansite. Snarky jokes aside, here come the predictions...
Since Microsoft will once again be the first to hold their conference, I'll start with them. The company has had a rough ride at E3 in recent years thanks to their overwhelming focus on the Kinect, which has brought them impressive sales figures but damaged their reputation as the go-to console for the old-school gamer. Last year's attempt at proving how the device could work with traditional games didn't go well, with its implementation in titles such as Mass Effect 3 looking more like hamfisted additions than vital control evolutions. Nevertheless, I'm expecting Microsoft to push on with their Kinect-centric habit, with most of the new titles announced to be compatible with the device at the very least. While the 360 is coming to the end of its life, the Kinect is likely to stick around, possibly into Microsoft's next console, so it's in their best interest to keep the device well supported with first-party titles, and leaving third-parties (with Black Ops 2 likely to feature on the Microsoft stage again, probably with more timed exclusive DLC) to cover the interests of gamers preferring more old-school controllers.
We haven't seen a new game from Rare in a while, and with them having creating the XBox Live Miis... sorry, avatars... and developed the Kinect Sports games, which have proven among the most popular and well-received Kinect releases. Interestingly, Rare were recently revealed as advertising for staff with experience developing FPS': with the company having not released a traditional, adult-audience game since Perfect Dark Zero, could they have a more hardcore, Kinect-focused game waiting to be unveiled? It's unlikely to be the game they've been recruiting for, but if any team have the credentials to convince traditional gamers of the device's potential, it's probably them. An unofficial Skyrim mod showed the game being controlled with Kinect, and my long shot this year is that Rare might have an ace up their sleeves. If not, it will be up to Halo 4 to provide the 'wow' factor as Microsoft's big reveal. Further details on their 360 subscription buying scheme, and maybe an overall price drop, is also likely, along with more corporate partnerships aimed at furthering the console's transition from dedicated gaming hardware to media hub. Sigh. A mention of their new console isn't out of the question, possibly thrown in as part of an Unreal 4 reveal, but an actual sighting is extremely unlikely.
Where Microsoft will continue to push their motion controller, Sony's Move has for the most part disappeared without trace. I'd certainly be astonished if it was given much attention at this year's conference, although a handful of the presented games are likely to be compatible with it to avoid completely alienating those few who made the investment. With Eurocom's GoldenEye Reloaded having been a relatively high-profile Move title, their next Bond game, 007 Legends, could also be one of those compatible. It's unlikely that any of the major titles will take notice, though, with The Last Of Us, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale and God Of War: Ascension (both exclusives likely to get serious time at the presentations) certain to bypass it in favour of the reliable DualShock.
The PS3's time in the spotlight is likely to be tightly controlled, though, in favour of giving the ailing PlayStation Vita a chance to recuperate its dismal start at retail. Expect focus on the ability to share information between the handheld and the console, counteracting the novelty value of Nintendo's Wii U, and a serious glut of games in all the major franchises. With Grand Theft Auto V likely to be presented under Sony's roof, my long shot would be a Vita entry for the franchise with some sort of communication link with the PS3 game. Otherwise, it'll be Vita entries for Killzone and Gran Turismo, with a nod to Sly Raccoon: Thieves In Time for diversity. Sony have already denied the chance of the PS4 making an appearance, and even a mention seems less likely than Microsoft. The PS3 still has some sales momentum, and Sony are likely to wait and see what Nintendo have to offer before showing their hand. As mentioned, the Vita - PS3 cross-play abilities are the company's best chance of casting a shadow over Nintendo's moment in the sun, so there's no need for them to hurry into the next generation just yet.
Ah, Nintendo. Always the gaming industry's beloved but slightly batty aunt, sitting in the corner and telling ridiculously weird stories to anyone who will listen. The Wii U has everything to prove this year, and my honest feeling is that it will make it. Nintendo took a serious slap in the face with having to cut the 3DS' price cut so soon after launch and they've been making sensible decisions ever since. The 3DS is building a nice head of steam now, so expect it to have a decent showing, with New Super Mario Bros 2, Paper Mario, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (already released in Japan), Luigi's Mansion 2, Ninja Gaiden 3D and Animal Crossing doing most of the heavy lifting. A new handheld Zelda is unlikely, not least as they tend to be revealed at smaller events, but not impossible.
The Wii U will be the centre of attention, though, correcting the issues from last year's conference with an official unveiling of the redesigned controller (with analogue sticks instead of circle pads) and a formidable roster of third-party games including Rayman Legends (to show off the NFC, as per the leaked trailer), Aliens: Colonial Marines (Randy Pitchford may take to the stage, since he's already said the Wii U version will have enhancements), an EA Sports demonstration, announcements for Resident Evil 6 and Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2 ports, plus Killer Freaks From Outer Space and Assassin's Creed 3, the latter another possible demo. Nintendo have three first-party games in development, one of them already announced as a Mario game likely based on New Super Mario Bros Mii (to work alongside NSMB2 on 3DS), and the second almost certainly the long, long awaited Pikmin 3.
The third game is probably a new game from Retro Studios, and while fans are hollering for a new entry in the Metroid Prime saga, I'm not so sure. While the franchise is a good fit for 'hardcore' gameplay and as a graphical showcase, Retro have previously stated being finished with Metroid for the foreseeable future. A Donkey Kong Country Returns sequel is surely off the table to avoid clashing with the NSMB games, so my long shot will be for an original title. Nintendo have said they want to start building up some new IPs, and Retro represent a strong choice of studio to produce one with strong Western appeal. The longest, maddest, but oh-god-I-hope-so shot would be for an Eternal Darkness returns, what with Silicon Knights needing some cash to pay their legal bills. Don't expect specs, as that's not Nintendo's style (although the first party games should be appropriately stunning for a rough evalution of how much more powerful the console is than those already on the market), and price and date have already been denied. My jaw will drop if the original Wii gets so much as a mention, though.
- - -
That's my lot! Remember to bookmark this page so you can come back later for much pointing and laughing. I expect it will take a miracle for 2012 to be anyone other than Nintendo's year, but it should be a terrific show no matter which side of the console divide (rap, yo) you fall on. Will this be the one that finally melts teh internets, or just NeoGAF (again)?
As a final note, remember to give the Flixist Cblogs a go if you're interested in writing about movies for a change. (I know they don't have analogue sticks, but THEY DESERVE YOUR LOVE TOO!) We're trying to build up our community and have a wonderfully eccentric manager in the slinky shape of Liz 'The Yellow Dart II' Rugg. Several of our more regular Cbloggers have already been recruited as front page writers, so it's definitely a 'happening' place to be. See how groovy we are?!
DISCLAIMER: This article will be posted on my non-Dtoid blog in about four hours.
I intended to write this eight months ago, when the game launched in the UK. I'm not averse to writing a review when still a little way short of completing the game in order to get the article out in a reasonably timely fashion: as long as the bulk of the game has been completed and its important details revealed, there's nothing wrong in my eyes with passing judgment on it, even if an hour or two remain unfinished. It's unlikely the end-game material will impact greatly on the review, not least for fear of spoilers.
In Xenoblade's case, I was about fifteen hours in by the time it was do-or-die for the article. As a JRPG novice, it's fair to say I wasn't quite prepared for the odyssey that had been undertaken and progress had been, let's generously say, leisurely. Lots of questing, exploration, general larking about, not quite so much movement in story terms. Checking a GameFAQs guide to see how near I was to the end revealed there was still, if continued apace, roughly one hundred and twenty hours of play to go.
Turns out Xenoblade Chronicles is all kinds of colossal.
Had the game been reviewed at that point, the first plot twist would have barely elapsed and virtually none of the party with whom the majority of the game would be spent were in my company. The gameplay mechanics were still extensive and baffling, the camera still causing frustration and well over half the game's features remained untouched. My verdict might have been something along the lines of impressive in size, but unwieldy to handle.
That's not far away from how I feel now, but the difference is that where the game was then defined by my annoyance at the many niggles that are part and parcel of the experience, now it is looked back upon as my favourite gaming experience of 2011 and easily one of the best on the Wii, a console I have greatly enjoyed despite its undeservedly negative reputation. Fifteen hours into a game like this, little irritations take on significantly greater importance than they do after fifty, even less after ninety. It's as much that you get used to them as the awe-inspiring scope of the game renders them more forgivable with every passing minute.
The camera, for example, is horribly wonky when left to its own devices and requires constant adjustment to stay in an acceptable position, especially when navigating indoor areas. After thirty hours, though, keeping it under manual control is not only second nature, but preferable to leaving it alone: the gorgeous landscapes demand to be examined from every possible angle and, even if by accident, the game trains you to do exactly that without breaking the flow of play. There's something majestic about swooping the viewpoint around Shulk as he runs through a vast field, overshadowed by hanging cliffs, creatures many times his size, glistening lakes and soaring birds. Had the camera been programmed to function adequately on its own, pulling off that thrilling little flourish would have engendered the same pernickety annoyance as when having to get to grips with it the first time. Instead, it's the most effortless thing in the world.
Other issues, admittedly, do not yield such long-term rewards, but the game's length gives you time to work everything out long before the going gets seriously tough, and there's no question each is a price worth paying for taking part in such a huge adventure. Mechanics like gem crafting, the affinity system and how to use characters such as Melia, a mage, in combat go woefully underexplained, while the volume of moves and counter-moves to remember in combat can be overbearing at first. (Early on, it feels as though something new is added every hour). It's never less than enjoyable, but the lack of adequate explanation for the numerous mechanics can feel as though you're being held back from plunging into the game's tantalising depths. Time and experience tidies these up, but they can make the game alienating in its first twenty hours, when it needs to be easing you in. Paper Mario, this ain't.
The only issue which lasts from start to finish is the lack of information on NPC locations for the extensive array of sidequests. If a quest isn't completed within a short time of receiving it, it's easy to forget where the person you're supposed to be talking to is and the time at which they'll appear on the map. Rudimentary information is given on the affinity map - where you build relationships between townspeople by helping them, another system rendered more annoying than fun by a dearth of information - but nothing anywhere near sufficient to remember what to do after the console has been turned off for the night. Quests requiring specific items to be collected can also be annoying, since their location is randomised and the trading system is so low-key, many players may not even be aware it exists until long into the game.
If the sidequests often require more detail than the game is able to convey, other areas are expertly streamlined. The usual frustrations of navigating a gameworld of this scale are alleviated by allowing players to warp instantaneously to any of the map's many markers, effectively eliminating backtracking. The combat system loosens up the stiff RPG turn-based structure into something more dynamic, with free movement around the area, context-sensitive hits (one of Shulk's more effective moves requires him to be positioned behind the enemy to deal, yes, massive damage) and a single controllable lead character - who can be swapped when out of battle - assisted by two AI partners adept at unleashing the right move to combine moves in helpful ways. Chain attacks, wherein a more traditional turn-based format is adopted for extra damage, allow you greater control into the minutiae, even if not being able to select the order of the attackers makes it difficult to execute pre-planned tactical sequences.
The storyline, too, moves in all sorts of bonkers directions (for starters, the entire gameworld exists over the bodies of two petrified titans) but almost never feels padded in the way that so blighted Skyward Sword, a game roughly a third as long. Plot twists arrive with mischievous frequency, and while this makes proceedings far too circuitous to properly keep track of by the end, all the pomp (and silly jokes, especially between the party) is infectiously compelling.
There's a constant sense of forward motion, with new locations opened up every few hours - ignoring the side-quests, ill-advised in practice - many of them foreshadowed early on and each with a distinct colour palette and visual identity. While the game is technically a little clunky, with intermittent framerate drops in vast areas and crowded combat, and considerable fade-in, few titles demonstrate and embrace the importance of art direction in such a vibrant, evocative way. The starry night sky above the Bionis leg doesn't tax the hardware much, but by golly is it breathtaking.
That sensation is Xenoblade all over. There are plenty of little problems to pick at and wrinkles in need of ironing out, but in the end, the grandeur and ambition will hold your heart even while your fingers are struggling to keep up. Considering the game's size, Monolith deserve unreserved credit for the absence of any major bugs, putting to shame companies like Obsidian and Bethesda who ship games bursting with problems, content in the knowledge of being able to patch them later (for players with online connections, anyway) and demanding forgiveness because of the scope of their creations.
Xenoblade invalidates that excuse. It is an exquisite achievement in game design, fiercely loyal to RPG tradition whilst refining it in clever, helpful ways. If its ambition sometimes exceeds the execution, you can't help but admire it for getting as much right as it does, a perfect example of an experience all the more engaging for its flaws. The game may have taken its time reaching American shores, and this review delayed by over half a year to accommodate its insane scale, but everyone lucky enough to be preparing for their first steps onto the Bionis are about to have that wait paid back in spades. [ 8 ]
If you enjoyed this, you can subject yourself to more such ramblings on my Facebook and Twitter accounts! Don't forget Flixist either: we have pterodactyls there and were recently taken over by, ahh, Jeff Goldblum. Such shenanigans! Also, these '10 Things About Me' posts are brilliant, I'll try and find time to do one of my own sometime soon.
DISCLAIMER: This review is up on the CBlogs at (roughly) the same time as my blog. As much as I love writing for the Dtoid Community, it's pretty hard to find the time these days to cover all my bases, including Flixist. If you'd rather I no longer posted these reviews/articles, just say so in the comments. Thanks, and enjoy!
Most gamers out there will already be aware of Michael Thomsen's withering assessment of the hundred-hour fantasy game, Dark Souls, wherein he questioned whether a game of such length could ever be a worthwhile endeavour when the time (he surmised) could be spent much more effectively elsewhere. As happens far too often when members of the older generations write about video games, Thomsen quickly descends into judgmentalism, his thesis proving little more sophisticated than a suggestion games are not as worthy of a person's time as other activities or media.
It's tempting to write a full rebuttal, but Edge Magazine's Jason Killingsworth (if ever there were a more appropriate name...) got there first and did a better, more extensive job than I ever could. It's worth a read if you have a considerable amount of time on your hands, which you probably do if you're a Dark Souls fan. I kid, I kid! For all Thomsen's righteous indignation, one criticism he levelled did ring true and is something which has been bothering me for a while: gaming's continuing disregard for building consistent internal logic into its worlds and gameplay systems.
Apologies if that's the most pretentious sentence you've read so far this year. It's a difficult point to phrase more elegantly, though, so I'll use Thomsen's quote to illuminate my point:
"In more than twice the time it would take to read Tolstoy's historical fiction, Dark Souls leaves one's head overflowing with useless junk like the difference in attack stats between a Great Axe with a fire bonus versus a Great Axe with a divine bonus. These bits of occult nonsense don't have an internal logic. In one early section, you'll fight a pair of gargoyles who live perched high up on a bell tower in a castle. These gargoyles, you discover, are especially vulnerable to lightning damage. Why a creature that lives on the medieval equivalent of a lightning rod should be vulnerable to lightning damage is not explained. Every victory in the game is built on a similarly dumbfounding bit of nonlogic."
Disregarding the needless invocation of Tolstoy, Thomsen actually makes a very solid point about how little care many games seem to put into the internal consistencies of a game world and the demands it makes of the player. There's nothing wrong with fantasy, but few games seem to recognise the genre as more than a set of Tolkien-esque aesthetics. Fantasy writers for books, movies and television are notorious for going to ridiculous lengths to define every variable in the worlds they create, from class systems and royal hierarchies to the co-existence of different species and the sometimes anarchic effect magic can have on all those rules. Fantasy works best when the authors fill in every nook and cranny so intricately that the worlds seem as real and lived-in as our own. Only, you know, with dragons and that.
The lack of internal consistency in Dark Souls, as Thomsen describes, is a serious problem throughout gaming. In his rebuttal, Jason Killingsworth suggests this is excusable because it is akin to a game inviting the player to learn a kind of language unique to the experience, aka determining an enemy's weak point and using the appropriate bonus effect against it. This argument falls down on the fact that language relies on internal consistency more than any other human endeavour: if grammar, syntax and conjugation were defined by the illogical rules making up the foundations of many games, composing a single sentence would be an act of brain-destroying difficulty. Sometimes this incoherence can involve an enemy inhabiting a location completely nonsensical relative to their physical weaknesses, as detailed above, or it can be that their weakness simply appears entirely an entirely random choice.
You can see this in many different games, spanning all genres. It isn't just a matter of some games not thinking through their mechanics well enough, either: in everything from gameplay to world design, there's a noticeable lack of coherence in the way many games send messages to the player. I recently reviewed The Last Story on my CBlog, a game which features many of the cited issues in all aspects of its design. One of the most startling is the design of a castle which plays an important part in the game. I'll avoid important spoilers, but at one point the lead character manages to attend a royal event in the castle's ballroom. It's all very lavish and impressive, until you realise that the ballroom doesn't actually have a front entrance.
It's the room in the castle hosting the game's most vital ceremonial event, yet the only entrance is a tiny, narrow staircase behind the royal throne. Not only that, but to reach that point from the entrance, you have to climb a flight of stairs, make your way around the balcony, cross an exterior bridge to the opposite side of the castle, then locate the most innocuous of little staircases, more suited for allowing servants quick access between floors than ferrying dignitaries for a royal reception. Myriad other questions are raised about the design of the castle if you think about its layout for more than a minute. Many would argue that I'm nitpicking, but what does it say about the gaming medium's ability to tell worthwhile stories and build cohesive worlds if the developers are not even willing to consider such a fundamental absence of logic in a game's layout?
That's a problem with game spaces in general, which are designed to be exactly that - locations designed around the needs of a game, rather than worldly logic. The Resident Evil 2 police station is a classic example, yet while that game wears the ridiculousness of its environment on its sleeve - becoming endearingly hokey in the process - many other game environments are no more effectively designed as logical spaces, even if they try to disguise it through less conspicuously bonkers aesthetics. Half-Life 2 gets a great deal of praise for its world, yet still blocks players' paths with ridiculous obstructions and is laid out in a manner antithetic to any kind of convenient existence, with ridiculous 'puzzles' to clear and irritatingly circuitous routes designed to artificially prolong the player's time in a certain environment. All that is gained as a purpose built game space is immediately lost in creative credibility. Who cares about saving a world so obviously built around a single person, the player, rather than a logical outcome of its inhabitants' existence within their environment?
The same problem exists on a micro level too: why, in Xenoblade Chronicles (a game I love, incidentally), do the requests for rebuilding materials for one important side-quest bear no relation to what is being constructed? Okay, so it would be ludicrous to ask the player to ferry about hundreds of bricks and gallons of cement at a time, but if (for example) the project in question was the building of a house, could the architect at least ask for - say - a certain kind of rock and some kind of adhesive substance, rather than six feathers, three blades of grass and the hide of a mountain wolf?
Here's another: how many games highlight important locations with floating arrows, or circles of light, rather than attempting to communicate with the player through less conspicuous, illusion-breaking means? Again, such a criticism might appear pedantic in the extreme, but it's emblematic of the kind of shortcuts taken by game designers spanning the entire medium. David Lean didn't put a glowing arrow over Omar Sharif's head to mark his character's entrance in Lawrence Of Arabia, he subtly constructed the image to draw the viewer's eye to a certain point on the horizon. Assassin's Creed, on the other hand, lays down glowing cones of light to guide/force the player along a certain path, rather than finding a more appropriate method of direction. Considering how few game spaces are designed to be logical in their own right, the deployment of such techniques is nothing short of shambolic, illustrative of a medium lacking the communication language of the illustrious peers with which it so often demands equal billing.
Fiction works when it is based around a set of recognisable, relatable rules in logic and presentation. In taking such shortcuts, gaming is underselling its own capacity for telling stories and building worlds, with the medium being more suited to excelling in the latter category than any other. In gameplay terms, tighter design consistency allows more effortless communication with the player, in turn leading to more satisfactory experiences. If an enemy's weak spot has been arbitrarily decided, the player is merely following an order to quickly overcome an obstacle. The success is not theirs. If the enemy's weak spot is a logic extension of their design - shoot a bird in the wings to ground it, for example - then the player is able to gain greater satisfaction from being able to work out and implement the solution for themselves.
The same is true for all areas of design: an environment created solely for the purpose of hosting developer-set tasks will never be as inviting or fulfilling as one where the player feels part of a fully realised world. One of fiction's many pleasures comes from the redeployment of the familiar in exciting new ways: fantasy with its roots in medieval history, for example. If the seams are so obvious as to appear unreal, be it through illusion-breaking methods of signposting or nonsensical architecture, the user's relationship with that world can only operate on the most superficial of levels, as little more than an external participant in a game, rather than explorer of a new world. This matters less in abstract spaces (hence the mad construction of the Aperture labs being so much easier to accept, for me, in the barebones Portal than its narrative-driven sequel), but even the most far-fetched imaginative space must be defined by a set of rules clear to both designer and player. While Mr. Thomsen's snippiness in his critique of Dark Souls is uncalled for, if games are ever to be taken seriously as a worthwhile cultural endeavour, it is about time they started to take themselves more seriously as well.
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THE LAST STORY Format: Wii Developer: Mistwalker Publisher: Nintendo Players: 1, plus online multiplayer
DISCLAIMER: This review is up on the CBlogs at (roughly) the same time as my blog. As much as I love writing for the Dtoid Community, it's pretty hard to find the time these days to cover all my bases, including Flixist. If you'd rather I no longer posted these reviews/articles, just say so in the comments. Thanks, and enjoy!
If ever there were proof that Nintendo no longer has any idea what to do with the Wii in its final year, it is that virtually all its important 2012 titles are JRPGs. The publisher has a less than stellar record when it comes to promoting the genre outside its Japanese shores and took some convincing before allowing Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story to head States-ward. The Last Story was released in Europe last Friday, with Xenoblade having already been warmly received in September 2011.
While my Xenoblade review will be arriving in time for the game's US release, I'm confident enough in saying that it raises one hell of a standard for The Last Story to meet. Fortunately, on hand is Hinorobu Sakaguchi, creator of the original Final Fantasy and a man in search of a new hit for some time. In title, The Last Story makes a none-too-subtle nod to its creator's most successful creation. In execution, it has to prove the ailing genre still has the capacity to adapt for a modern generation of gamers seemingly where Western studios and design aesthetics dominate the cultural landscape.
Cards on the table, my knowledge of JRPGs is extremely limited. So limited, in fact, that unless the Mario RPG / Paper Mario series somehow counts, Xenoblade Chronicles represented my first proper foray into the genre. Even with my limited familiarity, Last Story's experimental streak is clear from the beginning. There is certainly no shortage of the familiar elements most commonly associated, by vets and noobs alike, with the genre: for one thing, the plot involves a floppy-haired boy, innocent to the ways of the world, discovering his hidden power, falling in love with an ethereal princess and heading out to save the world. So far, so many boxes ticked.
It's in the gameplay, though, where the game starts to take liberties with the established formula. As usual, the protagonist is part of a team which gathers experience points in combat, although where this would typically involve fighting as many enemies as possible in a relatively non-linear environment, Last Story takes a more Western approach to proceedings. The path through the game is tightly controlled, with only the city hub of Lazulis Island offering much in the way of freedom to explore. Whilst there are plenty of enemies to dispatch in each environment, harvesting extra experience has to be performed at certain pre-set points on the map (represented by a red symbol on the ground), where enemies can be summoned as many times as the player desires in order to ascend through the levels.
It's a streamlined approach, removing the annoyance of having to continuously traverse a wide environment to find enemies worth fighting, but its convenience comes at the cost of satisfaction. The traditional method of JRPG grinding may be in need of some work, but the labours required make its rewards all the sweeter when each new landmark is hit. Heading out into a new world to practice your skills is an important part of players immersing themselves in a world where their skills grow in tandem with those of the character they are controlling. It's a chore, but brings with it the pleasure of achieving an aim through hard work. Abandoning the need to hunt for prey does not make the fighting any less of a graft - it merely removes the legwork - but makes the game's world feel smaller, too centred around the needs of the player to fully immerse in the fantasy. It's a hollow convenience, tidying up one of the genre's minor annoyances but accidentally taking down a key pleasure with it.
Fortunately, changes to the traditional combat system are more successful, albeit implemented somewhat clumsily. Fighting takes on a form more similar to a third-person fighting game à la Prince Of Persia, with moves enabled through context rather than menu selection. Attack from cover to activate a more powerful strike, with a further damage increase if the enemy is confused as to the player's location. If near a wall, it's possible to activate a jumping stab. The concession to the genre's menu-based roots comes through Zael's ability to command his teammates (otherwise controlled by the AI) once his skill bar is full, selecting a sequence of moves to gain a tactical advantage. It's a slick system, undermined by how rarely it is needed: only later boss fights pose any serious challenge to all but the most haphazard players, who, with five lives at their disposal, can quite easily survive the game using only the most basic commands.
The crossbow is another neat tactical device - albeit disgracefully forcing Wii remote users to use analogue aiming rather than the infinitely superior pointer - allowing players to take out mages from afar and identify vulnerable spots in the environment to be destroyed, increasing the chances of a successful fight. A brief overview of the battlefield is offered beforehand, allowing players to form a rudimentary strategy and sometimes spot hidden pathways to gain a positional advantage.
It's an idea never used to its fullest, partly since the environment rarely makes a difference to how a battle plays out, but also because team-mates shout out the solution almost every time it does. Its main purpose ends up being to identify the different enemy types and select which to attack first (healers and mages, basically), reducing a potentially vital addition to a merely handy one. The online modes, based around players fighting each other or bosses from the single player, demonstrate the system's versatility, even though the multiplayer modes themselves soon lose any tactical edge to the human tendency to run around aimlessly and hope for the best.
Party members are chosen automatically ahead of each new scenario, in theory a good idea to force players to adapt to different styles of play, but in practice involves a rotation of characters with essentially the same skills. This approach also has the side-effect of unbalancing the team in the first half of the game, with some team members achieving levels way above the others, unless taken to the Lazulis Island combat arena to bolster their stats: Syrenne, the game's most charming character (armed with a filthy sense of humour and mildly arousing Lancastrian accent) is barely used at all until halfway through the story.
The game's frustrating inability to spot the potential in its own mechanics is further established by its habit of increasing difficulty - in all but the boss fights - merely by increasing the size of enemy hordes, or gradually strengthening foes without requiring any new strategies to overcome them. Large groups of enemies become doubly frustrating due to the game's technical shortcomings: the framerate slows to a chug whenever the action grows to anything involving more than a handful of characters at once, while the use of the analogue stick to control both movement and aim automatic attacks (this can be resolved by switching to manual) makes it quite possible to become unable to move when surrounded. The camera requires manual control at all times and is prone to jerking into inconvenient positions when left to function independently.
Framerate problems might have been slightly more forgivable were the game to give off the impression of taxing the console to any degree, but while sometimes graced by agreeable images (Zael and Lisa watching a display of shooting stars on a purple night sky), environments are small and texturing on enemies and scenery frequently blurry. Brown and grey colour schemes dominate, combining with the low-quality character models to make Lazulis Island a particularly dreary hub to navigate (the lack of signposting and worthwhile reward for sidequests, meanwhile, only encourages them to be ignored).
A further quirk is how, despite the game's muddy visual quality, it seems to have been designed for large televisions: on smaller screens, the icons indicating which character is equipped with what weapon or armour is almost indistinguishable, with no text offered for assistance. Certain bosses, meanwhile, require players to note small details, such as glowing red eyes, as a guide to success. The shambolic graphics make this a task requiring superhuman observational skills, leaving the player relying on pot luck or the purchase of a larger television to progress. Even for the Wii, that's an expensive peripheral too far.
The game steadily improves as the player adapts to its issues: battles become a tad more challenging and require greater tactical consideration, while the twenty hour length keeps the storytelling focused and accessible for those not able or willing to commit to a Xenoblade-esque eighty hour extravaganza. The lead characters are an engaging bunch, with their regional British accents an easy fit for the rural trappings of the fantasy genre (not a trace of sci-fi on show here) and the excellent localisation never shy of deploying an amusing colloquialism or two. Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu's score only produces a handful of memorable tracks, but is of consistently solid quality. A pity the same cannot be said for the game as a whole, its most exciting ideas let down by uneven execution. The Last Story is far from a write-off, offering enough potential to hope for an improved and title-defying second instalment, but as a first chapter it is a bit of a bungle. [ 5 ]