Game Ramblings #160 – Xenoblade Chronicles 3

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch

It says a lot about a JRPG that I still want to play it when I finish. It says a lot that despite playing 80 hours I never felt like I was grinding. It says a lot that I was doing side quests just for the sake of exploring the new spots that they would lead me that you would otherwise never see on the golden path. It says a lot that changing your party to other class types was so fun that I was actively trying to complete the roster. This is just a fantastically good game that is worth going out of your way to play.

There’s a lot to cover about this game but I want to start in a specific place. This game is incredibly streamlined for a Xenoblade title. I mentioned in my ramblings for XB2’s Torna expansion that it felt like they were starting to embrace a bit of a less is more notion and that feels like it’s continued here. In this game you’re down to three main forms of experience: XP for leveling, CP for leveling your classes, and SP for leveling a skill tree tied to a story thing that I’m not going to spoil. This also fell into a balance curve that felt fair the entire time. Xenoblade 2 and X both had really weird difficulty spikes at the end that felt more like unfair mechanics than any inherent difficulty. Xenoblade 3 on the other hand just generally felt like it was trying to be fair across the board and ramping difficulty as made sense, rather than throwing some BS one shot mechanics at you to finish the game.

What this gets me for XB3 is that I spent a whole lot less time in menus and a whole lot more time just playing the game. About the only time I was going into the menus was when I wanted to change the class setup of my team, either because I wanted to try something a bit differently or because someone hit the class level cap and I wanted to start leveling on something else. There’s some other mechanics like skill mastery and some light gearing (accessories and gems ONLY) but for the most part it’s incidental and I was only changing it at the same time as changing my classes, so it was all done in a single pass. In playing, this felt a lot more in line with the remake of XB1 than the over-complex XB2 set of systems. You’re rewarded for playing effectively, you’re rewarded for leveling up, and you just go.

And boy do you just want to go. Combat in this game felt like another high point in the series. The base combat has luckily brought over XB2‘s hot key selection where your attacks are simple button presses when ready on the d-pad and face buttons. It worked far better than XB1‘s scrolling menu and it’s good to see if return. However, that’s not the main point of interest. Without getting too spoilery, the core plot point of this game is that it’s smashed the two universes of the first two games together into one. What you end up with is some party members that use the time-based skill recharge of XB1 and some party members that use the attack-based skill recharge of XB2. This is where classes come into play.

Classes are earned by completing hero quests and using those classes starts to unlock the ability to equip that class’ arts while it isn’t actively being used. The main restriction is that you can only equip arts of the opposite universe. For example, if your active class is earned from a character in the XB2‘s world, you can only secondary equip skills from a class earned from an XB1 character. There are inherent power advantages to activating skills from BOTH at the same time, but because they are on different recharge mechanics you’ve got to be a little more patient with your timing that just hitting the button that is glowing and ready. There’s also some inherent advantages with mixing skills from different class archetypes to broaden what a member could do at any time. This gives XB3‘s combat its important feel.

What I started really getting in-tune with was seeing how many XB2 arts I could activate within a full XB1 art recharge period. If I could optimize my movement to get in three arts instead of two between dual-arts, then I just increased my power curve. If I could chain XB2 arts to cause them to recharge faster, then I just increased my power curve. Those all contributed to a really solid rhythmic feel of a fight as I found class combos that I really enjoyed. If I mixed some healing arts onto a tank, then I could go with fewer healers in my active party and power through with more damage. At the same time, I could use a DPS’s aggro reduction skill on a healer to reduce their incoming damage and give them more time to actively heal others, again allowing me to focus on more damage. It’s these types of things that let you to increase your power curve and ultimately your skill level that allowed them to get rid of all sorts of systems from XB2 and allow you to just be good at the game.

Luckily the streamlining also generally applied to combat. Chain attacks from XB2 are still there, and they’re still fun. However, elemental orbs are gone. The distinction between driver and blade arts is gone. Swapping blades is gone. What you’re doing is basically the following:

  • Apply your artes properly (ex: bonus for hitting a specific art from the back of the target).
  • Use the bonuses to charge up a chain attack meter.
  • Activate the chain attack.

That’s it. It takes the core fun of the big numbers and dramatic sequence from the XB2 chain attack system and gets rid of a bunch of complexity to just keep that part that worked the best while getting rid of some of the RNG nature of XB2’s orbs.

Story DLC aside, if this does end up being the end of the Xenoblade story they sure nailed it. This feels like a culmination of the story, but more importantly it feels like a culmination of the gameplay. It’s got things that worked from both of the previous mainline titles while getting rid of a whole bunch of extraneous nonsense. It results in a game that doesn’t get tiring despite its length. It’s one of those games that despite the Switch being old and underpowered compared to the current gen of consoles, it’s worth going out of your way to try out.

How’d It Age #2 – Star Ocean: First Departure

More Info from Square-Enix

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: PSP
  • Also Available On: PS4, Switch
  • Originally On: Super Famicom

This is definitely one of those games that kind of got away. It didn’t come out in the US until the PSP, and I completely missed the boat on that. It coming out again a couple years ago on modern consoles reminded me of its gap in my library, but it still took until now for me to finally get around to picking it up.

It’s been almost 6 years since the last Star Ocean in my playlist, and the benefit of hindsight shows so much of how that game ended up where it was. My likes playing that one basically read like a laundry list of my likes here.

This is a relatively short game, clocking in at under 15 hours. Because I finished around level 75, you can get a good guess about how quickly I was leveling up. The other benefit is that this allowed me to power through the skill list extremely fast. That in particular is one of my favorite things about leveling in this game. Ya, you get your leveling stats, but the skills are key. Want to load all in to offense with random armor breaks and offensive boosts? Go nuts, load into those skills. Want your healer to just spam heals to support your glass cannon shenanigans? Go ahead and load into skills that reduce cast and cooldown times. Take all of that and load into skills that reduce your point usage and increase your EXP gain and you’re just flying through the game. The customization possibilities there are a lot of fun and really end up being the focal point of a core metagame that still really works well 25 years later.

The combat also still manages to be fun, despite its relative simplicity. There’s definitely been games that have done it better in the years since, not the least of which are newer SO titles let alone series like Tales Of. However, this works well enough to allow me to just forget about how modern action-focused JRPGs have gone. The simplicity of having movement, an attack button with a fixed chain, and a couple of skill hotkeys is such an easy thing to fall into. I’m not remembering combos and weaknesses and anything extraneous. I’m just watching out for attacks, dodging them when I can, then spamming the hell outta my attack button to kill things. It combines with some of the skill stuff above (hell ya random dodge chance!) and the short length of the game to really just be enough to keep me going.

The things I do end up missing though are some of the little modern features that just aren’t here. The first of these is really just a lack of direction, and I don’t mean that quite so literally. Every story cutscene ends with a point where you’ve kind of got a random chance that they actually tell you something useful about where to go. More often than not I was just aimlessly wandering. Sure, people will complain about being handheld, but having a blip of like just generally go around here goes a long way to letting me explore and check things out while still eventually knowing the right way to head. I also just severely miss autosaves. Again, I think a lot of people will go “well, they make the game too easy” but I would argue just the opposite. Autosaves allow games to be much harder without wasting the players time. Save often, make individual combat situations difficult, and let players die without time loss. Modern JRPGs have started leaning into this a lot and I much prefer having a quick retry / reset to just before the fight to regroup option because a lot of the general fights in this game were just needlessly easy.

This is stupid, but I also just hate the town layouts. Why are the shops and inn so far apart from each other in pretty much every town? Why are the layouts all mazes without central squares? This was made more frustrating by the fact that you run faster in straight lines than diagonals, so navigating towns was just a slow process.

So then the question is less of a did it age well, because it did. It becomes more of a is it worth playing now? I think it’s a yes, perhaps with a bit of hesitation. If you’re kind of on the edge for the genre, I’d perhaps steer you to something modern likes Tales of Arise. If you’re a heavy JRPG fan, absolutely. There’s enough here to be fun, it’s short so it won’t waste a bunch of time, and it’s still entirely modern enough in combat feel to not be distracting. I may recommend waiting a bit for a sale, but even at its current price of $21 on PSN/Nintendo eShop, that’s not too bad of a deal for a pretty solid piece of gaming history.

Game Ramblings #156 – Pokemon Legends: Arceus

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Adventure / JRPG
  • Platform: Switch

Look, this is a rough game. It’s hideously ugly. It still for some reason has Pokemon boxes without auto sorting. Balance is often entirely vague even with Pokemon 10+ levels apart. However, I can’t stop playing it. The core gameplay loop is so fundamentally changed but it works far better than I expected it to and in doing so represents a path forward for the series that I couldn’t have expected when Diamond/Pearl came out 3 months ago.

This game got ruthlessly shit on from the trailers, and frankly it isn’t entirely undeserved. This game is ugly more often than not. The Pokemon models are fine, and at least generally consistent. However, their art style doesn’t really match the world’s art style, and the world is atrocious. However, it doesn’t feel like laziness to me – it feels like a failing of technology. This is pretty clearly using some variant of the Sword/Shield engine stretched beyond its limits. The unfortunate thing as a developer, especially on an experimental title like this, is sometimes you just shoot yourself in the ass and this is one of those times. You get to a point where you can either delay a game by years and restart the core tech or just ship it with what you’ve got and move onto the next thing instead of cancelling a title. It’s time for this series to either move onto Nintendo’s own in-house engines or move to something stock, because it’s clear that Game Freak would be better served focusing on the games, rather than the engine.

However, once you get past that the game is a lot of fun, and it comes down to the core loop just really working. Rather than being gym-focused, the entire focus of the core game loop is research. You’re basically going out into the field, catching as much stuff as you can, and returning. That is the core of building the Pokedex here. The relatively non-linear nature of it means you can kind of wander off wherever you want, whether to focus on new areas or completing the entry of a specific Pokemon. The ability to fast travel back and forth to town means your play sessions are basically as long as you want them to be. The ability to craft (!!!!!!) Pokeballs, potions, etc means that as long as you’re collecting resources, you aren’t having to go shopping. If you run out, you just bring up the crafting menu and seamlessly keep your stock together.

It’s the type of loop that just works on the Switch in the same way that Breath of the Wild did. Your play sessions are as long as you want them to be and it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a 30 minute or 3 hour block. In both cases you’re making appreciable progress that you can drop back into at any time. It’s a loop that just keeps you engaged and playing in an unexpected way.

Even within that loop, the changes work well though. The simple act of being able to catch a Pokemon without starting a battle while still earning XP for it is tremendous. It so completely speeds up the act of traversal that it allows the new gameplay push to just catch EVERYTHING to work. In the old style, the game would otherwise be a slog.

Even if it’s ugly, the environment being so open is also a huge change. Its openness isn’t quite BotW, but it’s also more than Sw/Sh wild areas were. From a gameplay perspective it’s a huge success. Different areas are visually distinct in a way that’s interesting on its own, but also allows for obvious placement of different types of Pokemon in a natural way. Bugs like Combee or Weedle live in the forest, which makes sense. Things like Spheal or Octillery can be found hanging out on the beach. Your Abomasnows are up in the mountain tops and your Magmars are by the volcano. It’s both obvious AND enjoyable. It’s not that they didn’t try to do this before, but it feels even further down the line of making the Pokemon world more natural than it even previously has been.

It’s also a nice change that the player is FINALLY ACTUALLY IN DANGER. You get attacked by Pokemon in the wild. You have boss fights where you as the player are physically attacking Pokemon and they’re spectacularly fun. It’s one of those things that for the past 25 years everyone has been going “well, why is the player immune?” and it finally happened.

That said, despite the big change to the core gameplay there’s a lot of rough edges here. I complained about it during Sword/Shield but the existence of boxes, let alone no way to auto sort them is still baffling. Even more so when your Pokemon are literally being sent back to an open pasture to live their best lives. A lot of the side content is fine in its existence and kind of attempts to drive completion of the Pokedex, but there’s very little variety or necessity to it. The combat that is there is fine, but I’d like to see the new core loop adapted to a game with a more traditional level of trainer battles.

Frankly, balance is also incredibly vague. One of the core changes is that all battles are now speed-based. Speed can mean that Pokemon go first, but also that they can go multiple times in a row. That alone can easily result in your Pokemon often getting one-shot before taking a turn, even when they aren’t at a type disadvantage. Pokemon 15+ levels below your active one can still do significant damage as well, so I spent a lot of time outside of battle healing or going back to camp to rest against things that really shouldn’t have been a danger. It feels like it was tuned to be difficult, but it instead comes across as odd, because type advantage is still the king and the changes made just make the exploration slower, rather than making the individual trainer battles more difficult.

If this represents a new path forward for the series then all the rough edges don’t really matter. It has its problems, but this pushes a new gameplay archetype for the series that just works. It’s familiar enough, but far more active and far more fun than the JRPG slog that the series has really become known for. If it’s instead just a sidetrack between entries, then hopefully it’s at least a lesson to them that it’s time to take a serious look at their tech stack moving forward. However, after how much I’ve been enjoying this one, I think it’d be a huge loss if this doesn’t represent the direction the series will be sticking to going forward.