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5 Reasons I'm Addicted to Xenoblade

It's frankly amazing I could take a break long enough to write this

Last month's E3 convinced me of two things: (1) I'm getting a PS4, and (2) Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii-U is my most anticipated game of 2015. While I save up to buy the Playstation 4's Destiny bundle in September, you'd think I'd spend the meantime with Mario Kart 8 or one of my many awesome Wii-U games, but you'd be wrong. Ever since E3, I've been replaying Xenoblade Chronicles for the original Wii, because of all the great games showcased at E3, nothing got my attention more than Xenoblade Chronicles X.

For those who never played Xenoblade Chronicles, I can appreciate a certain amount of confusion on this point. The E3 preview for Xenoblade Chronicles X isn't exactly Earth-shattering in its awesomeness: the graphics aren't stunning, the plot seems like a convoluted mess, the dialogue is apparently non-sensical, and JRPGs haven't been terribly relevant in America since Final Fantasy VII. However, for those of us who gave the original Xenoblade Chronicles a chance, that preview--combined with the extremely long gameplay demo you can watch here--is the best reason yet to own a Nintendo Wii-U.

This is because the original Xenoblade Chronicles is a nigh perfect game, possibly the greatest JRPG thus far. I've poured well over 200 hours into it and none of the luster has been lost, and even though I can admit to never having played its spiritual predecessors, Xenogears and Xenosaga, I consider myself an avid fanboy. For those who have played the original, you might wonder if I've gotten sick of the endless fetch quests, gem crafting, collectable hunting, or affinity boosting. The answer is no, and here are five reasons why:

The Plot is a Serious Mind-Bender

Xenoblade Chronicles
You, uh, lost your hand there, big guy

Most JRPGs are so convoluted that trying to make total sense of them is sheer madness, and on the surface, Xenoblade Chronicles is no different. However, without spoiling too much, there is a brief flashback shown very late in the game that seems to explain absolutely everything. All the weirdness--the sparse setting that involves two dueling "worlds" on an endless sea, the off-kilter spelling of common words, the inhuman races, the war between biological life and mechanical life, the "ether," the true nature of the mysterious antagonist, etc.--is shown in a surprisingly revealing light. Things that you should never have any right to think could ever be put into a rational context are actually made relatable and explicable.

But, again, this happens very late in the game, practically at the very end of the main plot, which comes after a minimum of 60 hours of gameplay. By then, virtually all American players will have written off the "plot" as a series of JRPG tropes. What this means is that, once everything is explained, the game is essentially begging its players to go back and witness the entire story again, this time with a better idea of how it all fits together. If you do that, you'll find that this is a game that takes a bunch of seemingly silly JRPG ideas and makes them part of a deeply philosophical narrative with a cool, sci-fi undercurrent.

In other words, the plot requires some serious time to digest, study, and contemplate. Not many video games can offer that, and even after so much time playing the game, I still feel like there are amazing things to uncover in Xenoblade.

The Game Mechanics Hit the Sweet Spot

Xenoblade Chronicles
It's only confusing for the first ten hours or so

I consider myself something of a Final Fantasy afficianado, and if you get any fan of that series talking, you'll discover a wealth of opinions about which gameplay mechanics work and which ones don't. For example, while few fans will cite XII as a favorite, many will tell you that the "gambit" system is sheer genius, and even though it is almost universally accepted among serious fans that VII is ridiculously overrated, there is near unanimous agreement that the "materia" system is unmatched. However, tread lightly when discussing such hated things as the "job" system, "junctioning," or the "license board." What I'm getting at is that there is a fine line between an RPG mechanic that keeps players engaged and one that is seen as tedious busywork, and even after three decades of tinkering, the most well-known JRPG franchise has yet to get it completely right.

Amazingly, though, Xenoblade Chronicles manages to do what no Final Fantasy game has yet done. There are many different systems at work in the game, but they all work really well. There is enough variety to keep players from getting bored of any one mechanic, but each is relevant enough to the overall gameplay that it is worthwhile to spend hours upon hours on each. There is no "perfect" set-up of characters, equipment, skills, arts, and gems, but there is plenty of incentive to explore and tinker. For example, while most RPGs with multiple characters tend to be unbalanced in favor of a specific arrangement (with less useful characters constantly relegated to the bench--I'm looking at you, Cait Sith), Xenoblade Chronicles has an affinity system between the characters that urges you to constantly switch them out, find new combinations, and spend time mastering characters you'd be generally inclined to ignore. Ultimately, while the first three characters you control (Shulk, Reyn, and Sharla) tend to remain favorites, you will grow to appreciate all of them.

Every game mechanic is expertly balanced like that. In addition, the mechanics are deeply entwined (for instance, the more affinity two of your characters have with one another, the more passive skills they can link together), and it is immensely rewarding when you achieve a temporary harmony that turns your team into an unstoppable force of nature against a certain kind of enemy. Of course, once you move on to the next area and face new types of enemies, you'll find yourself having to tinker some more, but you won't mind doing it.

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-e. magill 7/23/2014

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