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.

Game Ramblings #114 – Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: JRPG
  • Platform: Switch
  • Originally Available On: Wii, 3DS

So, this is admittedly the third time I’ve played this game. I knew I would enjoy it, I knew it would take a long time, and I knew what the experience would be like. However, it was interesting playing it after Xenoblade 2. It didn’t necessarily make the remake better or worse, but the big changes in combat for Xenoblade 2 are something that I think I now appreciate more having gone back to the older combat style. My ramblings here are generally going to reflect seeing the changes the series has gone through now that I’ve played the two book ends sort of back to back.

Combat in the remake is the same as it was in the original. Your artes are lined up in a row to be used. Some artes are attacks, some are buffs or debuffs, some are defensive maneuvers, etc. Some of them are based on positioning (ex: bonus damage if attacking from behind). Some are used in tandem to effect the enemy (ex: Break -> Topple -> Stun). The basics that are there are the same that have been in the Xenoblade series the whole time.

What surprised me going back now that I’ve played Xenoblade 2 is how much I wish they’d have applied that game’s combat system to the remake. Ignoring some of the features that are definitely tied to the Xeno 2 story, the core change to that combat is that instead of a bar of artes that you scroll through, each attack is tied to a hard button – either on the d-pad or on the face buttons. This would have made the combat in this remake so much more fluid. You’ve got 8 buttons that could be used, 8 artes that you can assign anyway, and then a center activation on each character that could easily be applied to one of the shoulder buttons. Instead, you’re stuck doing a scroll to get to the arte that you want to use, while at the same time trying to juggle movement.

It also caught me a bit off guard that I never hit a point where I really felt a need to grind. I’m not sure if this is just because I’m generally familiar with the game, or if they did a rebalance pass, but balance was almost always in line with my expectations. Bosses felt reasonably balanced for where I expected to be in the game. If I was hitting a point where I was feeling a bit pressured, there was generally enough side quests around to give me boosts. I was generally collecting enough general stuff to keep up with money needed to grab the relevant current set of gear. It was just kind of a nice level playing field for the bulk of the game. I admittedly dropped it down to easy at the end, but not because I was frustrated of the grind like 2 or X. I was simply at a point where I wanted to see the remastered finish and epilogue content, rather than go through a boss gauntlet I’d already been through before.

On the other hand, boy do I really not miss the complexity of the systems in place in Xenoblade 2. That’s not to say that this game was ever really that simple, but it still only has three real forms of progression – XP for levels, AP for leveling up artes, and SP for leveling up passive skills. This is a far simpler game than the Excel simulation that Xeno 2 ultimately became. If there’s anything that really is still a bit of a chore to manage, it’s the amount of side questing involved.

That said, the overall UX for this is much improved over the original game anyway. Getting to your quest list is super fast (d-pad down). The in-world indication of where quest items or quest kills are is significantly improved. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more obvious what I should be doing at any point, and far quicker for me to change my focus to a different side quest with a few clicks.

There’s also some bonus points for how easy it was for me to change the cosmetic look of the party in the remake. Buying a piece of gear once permanently allows you to equip its cosmetic look to the characters it applies to. This is a super nice change, since your party can very rapidly turn into a multicolor shit show with all the random gear you’ll end up finding. I set my party’s look pretty early on to be consistent with roughly where they started, with a few minor color variations that I preferred, and stuck with it. On the surface, this may seem like a small feature, but I was always more of a fan of the numbers behind gear in JRPGs, and typically less of a fan of the visual impact in games that supported it, so finding my look and sticking to it is one of those things I really appreciate.

However, the real reason I suspect most people will want to replay this is for the Future Connected epilogue. This one was interesting in that it’s substantial, but not nearly as substantial as the Torna expansion for 2. It provides some nice story closure specifically for Melia, but not much else for the rest of the gang. It adds an interesting mechanic with the Nopon Ponspector horde that replaces chain attacks, but also significantly scales back your party flexibility. I suppose ultimately, it was a nice way for me to wrap up my gameplay of the remake, but it left me wanting to see more of what happened to the rest of the party. There may be some potential for them to add more of these epilogues to the game if they need to stretch the schedule before whatever Xeno project comes next, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend playing through an entire long JRPG again unless you’re really as big a fan of the series as I am.

Remakes are always a tough one, but in cases like Xenoblade I’m pretty happy about it. Beyond exposing the game to a much different audience than the previous go arounds, it’s just nice to hop into a game I loved in a way that is significantly better looking. This has continued my sort of run of JRPG remakes that I’ve been doing lately, and this is probably the safest of my recent bunch, sticking to the original framework entirely – FF7R was a distinct explosion, and Trials of Mana was similar in gameplay, but much different in visual style. However, it being safer didn’t make it worse. The game largely still works great. Would I have liked to see them take some risks and make combat smoother with lessons learned from 2? Ya. Am I glad to see that they didn’t add heaps of new systems? Even larger ya. This game wasn’t accidentally a 92 metacritic its first go around, and that shows. This game has aged remarkably well, and with a fresh coat of paint it’s still going to be worth playing for newcomers, and returning players may just take it as an opportunity to revisit a game they loved.

Game Ramblings #62.1 – Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna ~ The Golden Country

More Info from Nintendo

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a fairly enjoyable game overall. It had a great universe, enjoyable story, fun characters, and a ton of depth. However, it wasn’t without its issues. The game, like its predecessors was somewhat grindy. The UI was often in the way of streamlined leveling. Overall, despite its depth, the game often felt like it was pushing for more for the sake of more.

Torna however feels like they really embraced the idea of less is more, and the experience is much better as a result. This is an entirely standalone experience, billed as an expansion. It’s a much shorter experience with a significantly streamlined story, rips outs a whole bunch of extraneous systems to focus the leveling aspect, and narrows you onto two main titans. Some clever changes to the battle system really finish up the tweaks, and the total package ends up being much better than the base game, despite the reduction in bullet point features.

Welcome to Torna. After hearing so much about this land in the original game, it’s nice to finally be able to run around on it.

The most obvious immediate change is that almost all of the blade collecting, and therefore a lot of the metagame leveling is gone. You only get blades that are important to the story, and each party member ends up having two blades of different types. By the end of the expansion, you’ve basically got exactly what you need to finish the game with the full suite of ability types. There’s also no longer any special blades, no multi form blades, any robot blade replacements, and no mercenary guild to level up. This all sounds like a lot of removal, but that also meant that a lot of the tedious grind simply went away. It’s entirely addition by subtraction.

The rest of the leveling setup is maintained. You get XP from kills and quests, weapon points from kills, skill points from kills, and various things can be activated in each blade’s affinity chart. As a core set this ends up playing a nice balance between having a nice range of systems without having too many, and also gives you some specific subgoals to focus on, particularly with respect to the blade affinities.

Combat should feel extremely familiar to XC2 fans, though it has some tweaks.

The battle system has also been tweaked to generally feel more streamlined, as well as a fair bit quicker paced. For the most part, people familiar with XC2 will drop in quickly and feel right at home, and I suspect they will like the changes in place.

The first big change is that blade swapping is used as a way to switch the active passive attacker, and swapping between the blades and the driver activate an attack on swap. This is used to inflict a number of status effects, particularly things like topple or smash, as well as providing a full recharge of the blade artes. In practice, it basically means that you can do a combo as follows:

  • Activate Break on one character while using all of their artes.
  • Swap to another character to inflict Topple and quickly use the full suite of artes.
  • While this is happening, the AI will typically inflict Launch
  • Swap to the third character to inflict Smash, finishing a full chain combo.

This pattern is done way faster than any similar combo would have been done in the original release. In also having the blades be the primary attacker, there’s a much more direct feel to the swap, instead of it simply being the blade out of frame swapping out.

The elemental orb / chain attack setup has also been tweaked a bit to reduce clutter. There are still orbs applied on successful blade artes, elemental orbs can be broken in a final combo attack, etc. However, the elemental chaining no longer is used to seal attacks, so a big UI element that I generally ignored is no longer there, and honestly I didn’t miss it at all.

This is still a spectacularly gorgeous game, especially for an open-world Switch experience.

So in the end, this is both a great expansion on the XC2 universe, as well as a way to generally improve on the overall gameplay at the same time. As a prequel, this covers a bunch of story that was hinted at throughout the original game in a way that only improves the universe. On its own that’s enough for me to recommend it to fans of the original. However, the gameplay improvements definitely clinch it for me. This is a much better experience than XC2, and it’s clear that the dev team is learning some lessons from their past releases. Here’s to hoping whatever comes next continues that improvement.