Monday, August 22, 2011

Game Diary: Xenoblade Chronicles impressions

It's time to share with you all some of my initial thoughts about Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, which was just released in Europe this past Friday. I have managed to put in just over 20 hours of play time over the weekend, which I feel is plenty long enough for me to comment on the game so far.

First off, the game looks fantastic. The areas that you will be exploring are huge, colourful and extremely detailed, with grass blowing in the breeze, creatures both small and gigantic roaming around the environments, and a very impressive draw distance. It really does show off just how powerful the Wii actually is under the hood, and is also a testament to the programming and design skills of Monolith Soft.

Next, let's get on the game play. For those that have played Final Fantasy XII, then the way that Xenoblade plays should be quite familiar to you, though it lacks the ability to program your AI companions. Basically it is a lot like playing an MMO without an online component. Within a given area there will be a safe town or other such settlement, full of NPC's with dozens of quests to dole out. These quests typical involve killing things, gathering a certain number of resources, or seeking out a particular item hidden away in the zone. Then you will venture out with your party into a wide open expanse of countryside, populated by wandering wildlife that is both benign and openly hostile to you. The game world really feels like a living, breath ecosystem.

Of course there is a central plot that runs throughout the game and you could just ignore the 300 or so quests and stick to that, but where would the fun be in that? Plus you get the benefit of cash, loot and levelling up that comes with carrying out these tasks. Speaking of the plot, it would seem that Monolith Soft have reigned in the complicated narrative that typified the Xenosaga trilogy and delivered something that is much simpler to follow, with cut scenes that rarely run over 10 minutes (which may seem quite long, but scenes from Xenosaga could go on for up to an hour). That's not to say there aren't plenty of twists as you progress through the game, but it would seem the game mechanics were the main focus here, and the game is all the better for it.

I have no idea how far through the game I am at this point, but it wouldn't surprise me if Nintendo and Monolith Soft have delivered an RPG as huge as Final Fantasy XII (which I easily spent 111 hours on without getting bored). I'm now really looking forward to the upcoming Bank Holiday weekend where I can sink a whole load more time into the game (as well as Deus Ex: Human Revolution which is out this Friday). Anyone from the US who happens to read this and is angry that Xenoblade hasn't been announced in their territory could import the game (with or without the optional red Classic Controller Pro) from or (and I really wouldn't blame you, the game is worth the inconvenience and Nintendo of America should really get their act together and release the damn game already).

Below is part one of the Nintendo produced and spoiler free Let's Play series for Xenoblade.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Game Diary: Tales of Fantasy in the Sky

It's been a little while since I've posted anything, and that's mainly because I've been immersing myself within several fun RPG's at the same time. I am nearing the end of one, just past the half way point of another, and have just cleared the prologue of the third. First of all, we have Tales of Legendia, a game I picked up on a recent eBay RPG spending spree. I have been meaning to pick this game up for years now, way back since around the time of its release in fact. I had heard all about how it was different from the rest in the series due to being developed by a different team. It seemed that people either really liked it or they hated it, and it has become the black sheep of the Tales family over the years.

Having invested over 35 hours into it so far, and with sizable chunk of the game to go, I am of the decision that it is a decent, enjoyable RPG, yet lacking in several respects compared to the stronger entries in the series, such as my favourite, Tales of the Abyss. Instead of making use of the 3D battle engine that has now become the standard, Legendia regresses back to a single plane like the first game in the series, Tales of Phantasia. Random battles also make an unwelcome return, and puzzles are largely absent from dungeons (apart from a single "puzzle booth" per dungeon). This makes the dungeons fairly dull affairs, as you trudge around looting treasure chests, mashing the attack button whenever a battle is triggered, and then actually having to use your brain a little bit when facing the boss.
What saves the game from complete mediocrity are the characters.

Throughout the course of the main story, which covers roughly the first 25 hours of the game, you are introduced to the cast of Tales of Legendia. Most of them have some unfinished business in their past or in the case of Grune are just a complete mystery to everybody, and this plot threads don't get resolved until you have saved the world from certain doom at the end of Chapter 7 and have progressed on to the character quests. Each character gets their own turn in the spotlight, where the party helps them work through their issues and achieve some kind of closure, and by this stage in the game you have actually begun to know and care about these guys. The only disappointment here is that the game expects you to go back through the exact same dungeons you've already visited in the first half of the game, except with harder monsters and new treasure chests. This does make completing the game a bit of a chore, but I will get to the end eventually and I am glad that I have finally got hold of a copy of this game.

Next, I have
been replaying Final Fantasy X, and am on the home stretch now. What has really struck me is how good this game looks and sounds even today. It was something of a landmark release for the PS2 when it came out, as it featured cutting edge graphics a leap above the already outstanding work that Square had done on the original PlayStation, combined with fully voiced characters. What has also struck is how the main criticism of Final Fantasy XIII could also be applied to X - the game funnels you down a linear series of corridors for the most part, only opening up during the final hours of the story. It also did away with levelling in the conventional sense, and introduced the "sphere grid", with you earning the right to move along the nodes and plug in various types of spheres that are dropped during combat. The basic premise of the game and the way the story is told is quite simple yet very effective. You are told very early in the game that a powerful entity known as Sin is laying waste to Spira, and the only people who can stop it are the summoners, who go on a pilgrimage to every temple throughout the world to gain the power of the Aeons before a final showdown amongst the ruins of Zanarkand. Every step you take in the story takes you one step closer to that inevitable battle, and by putting you in the shoes of "man out of time" Tidus' as he comes to grips with what the journey will mean to him and the people he's travelling with, it really makes it easy to identify with him. Much as I enjoyed Final Fantasy VII, VIII and IX, I can't say that I really identified with their protagonists or even really liked them that much. Tidus is one of the better lead characters of the modern FF era.

Next, I have also started playing the PSP title, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky over the last few weeks, and I am really loving it.
I have reviewed one of the games in the series before, but as it turns out the original creators of the game, Nihon Falcom had nothing to do with that game. They were hands on with Trails though and the difference really shows, the graphics are decent (even if they are a little dated due to the fact that the game originally came out in Japan about four years ago), the music is absolutely fantastic and really funky to boot, and the battle system is fun and challenging. XSeed Games have done a really good job with the localisation (if if the game can be a bit on the verbose side at times) and have further cemented themselves as the go to company for solid handheld RPG releases. The only company that compares to them is Atlus, who lavish an equal amount of care on their games and usually pack in freebies such as soundtracks with their games. Anyway, I've just finished the prologue and am about 7 hours into the game, and I will continue to play my way through during my daily commute over the next few weeks (or months).

I was planning to replay Final Fantasy X-2 after finishing the first part, but the current lull in the release schedule is about to come to an end so I may put that on hold for a while. At the end of next week, Xenoblade Chronicles is released in Europe for the Wii. Comparisons have been made between it and Final Fantasy XII, a game which I absolutely adored. I am really glad that at last other RPGs are coming along that feature a huge open world full of optional areas and quests - The Last Story, the next game by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Mistwalker, is another such game. That one hasn't been confirmed an English release yet though so I'm going to avoid learning too much about it to try and avoid the disappointment of it never coming out in the west. As soon as it should be announced though, I will be gobbling up every bit of media I can find about it.

Then the week after we have the next entry in the Deus Ex series. This game is being released in no less than four different editions: Standard, Limited, Augmented and Collectors. I am toying with the idea of going for the Augmented edition (at £50), but there's no way I'm paying £90 on the Collectors edition because I actually want to play the games I buy and the minute you take the seal off the value will have diminished greatly. Regardless I am looking forward to playing the game and I think it will be a big improvement on the disappointing Invisble War that came before.
That's all for now, I do intend to return soon with reviews of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Tales of Legendia (once completed) and a retro review of Final Fantasy X. Until then, keep on gaming!