The train to Super Crazy Town is now boarding, final departure. (SPOILERS)

19Jun12

Last night, I finally finished Xenoblade Chronicles.

It had reached a point where I wasn’t just doing the side quests to be a completionist, I was actively working to forestall the end of the game. Never mind that I had reached maximum level with one of my characters, and was close with every other. Also ignore that I had spent time raising everyone’s affinity to the maximum level, and seeking out every special side conversation. I was this close to looking up achievement criteria and grinding those out as well, anything to keep from getting to the end and having to say I actually beat the game. Partly because I had just flat out enjoyed playing the game, both for the gameplay and for the characters and story. But I was also worried it was about to fall flat on its ass for the final stretch.

After all, the plot had changed from “stop the evil machines” to “kill evil God.” This is basically the plot beats for every Japanese RPG of the last 15 years: fight the evil rampaging horde, until you discover they were either really trying to kill a much bigger evil, or had been created by the person you considered to be good. It has been ground down to a nub at this point, to the point where I wanted to be disappointed. And yet, I thought it was appropriate for the game, and I think it’s a testament to the execution and characters.

For the first time in a long time of playing JRPGs, I was controlling a group where I liked everyone in it. There was no character I dreaded using at the end; even Riki, the legally mandated “cute and cuddly mascot,” revealed hidden yet appropriate depths, without becoming so serious as to betray his origins and concept. Dunban may have been a grizzled warrior by the party standards, but he was young enough to seem appropriate on the battlefield, while nursing an old injury that put him on the level of his younger comrades. Sharla seemed to be jaded enough to match her harsh experiences trying to unsuccessfully defend her home and keep her fellow colonists alive, but not so jaded that she was unlikeable and unrelatable. And while Reyn, Melia, Fiora and Shulk were all young, they were on the right side of being teenagers; young enough to be naive and foolish, but old enough that I could believe they were ready to fight, and could understand the ramifications of a problem. They weren’t 13 going on 10, but 16 to 17, even if the ages were never explicitly stated.

Even more, they liked each other, and had reasons for it. Reyn and Shulk really did feel like old friends from the very beginning, occasionally arguing but familiar with each other at all times. Shulk and Fiora might have seemed like an obvious love match, but that didn’t preclude Fiora getting annoyed with him. And Sharla toying with Reyn’s denial was done in an amused but affectionate manner. As for Riki, he was just great all around.

Finding out that Everything I Knew Was A Lie, then, felt like it meant something. In most games, it’s easy to pick out the Evil pretending to be Good. Here that wasn’t the case, at least for me. It’s hard to say that others wouldn’t pick up on Dickson being on the Bad Guy’s side, but I’m pretty sure finding out that the main character was intended only to be a host for the evil God’s rebirth-not since the start of the quest, but basically for over a decade-blindsided most people who’ve played the game. It certainly surprised me. And it meant that when Shulk seemed to be killed by Dickson, and left behind as an empty shell by Zanza, I was left wondering if we would lose Shulk entirely, or at least be presented with the choice of whether you wanted him back or not, much as we had with Chrono back in Chrono Trigger. It didn’t work out that way, but for a little while, it was possible. And I knew I wanted him back if I could get him, because there was no way I was going to give him up.

I can’t say Xenoblade is the next evolution of the JRPG. A lot of its differences came from aping parts of MMORPG mechanics, such as skills with cool downs and auto attacks, or managing who in the party the enemy wanted to attack. That’s not a critique of the game, but as someone who is fairly experienced with MMORPGs, I may be in a fairly specialized niche to enjoy the game. However, if it has a core benefit to the game, it’s very simple: it feels like it was made by people who liked the game, and wanted to do their best work on it. It’s well executed on every level, and we don’t just get stock characters. They feel like people you care about, even if you don’t go and get every Heart-to-Heart conversation. So when you face down the Evil God that erupted from you (which is a very interesting way to look at religion in general), you want to win not for some generic version of being good, or to save “the world,” such as it is in this case. It’s because he hurt you and your party, and they are royally pissed at Zanza’s arrogance and lack of empathy. It may still be a cliche, but it’s both that and an example of why things become cliches: because when they’re done well, they are powerful enough that you want to use it yourself.

There is still a lot of hand-waving going on in the plot. It’s not clear if Zanza is lying or telling the truth about going through destruction and rebirth cycles many times in the past, or how he and Meyneth became the gods of the new world; it’s clear enough how that new world was created, but not why those two survived and turned into the creators. And I will admit that I was not expecting to find out one of Zanza’s lieutenants started out life as an AI, working on the station where Zanza (Klaus in the past) blew up the universe; it’s interesting, but raises the question of whether Zanza’s other disciples came from the same station or not. In the end, I’m willing to forgive all of that, because I liked the game a lot. And I’m glad that there was no serious question of whether or not Shulk would act as the new god of the world, even if it made the fact that Alvis kept asking more annoying.

Xenoblade is just a damn fine JRPG, and if you ever enjoyed the genre, you should pick it up and play it.

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