And then there’s Xenoblade Chronicles. There’s only three games in this series (more if you count Xenogears, which I played, and Xenosaga, which I skipped—but I don’t count these.) It’s a short series but each game is rich, dense, and extremely long. I love them. And I hate them. And I want to steal ttrpg stuff from them. That’s what I’m going to talk about today.
It took a coordinated campaign to get an English-language release of this game on the Wii. Right from the start you know it’s going to echo classic JRPGs but also be quite different. Our protagonists live in town which is a small spot on the hip of a massive statue, called Bionis. It is frozen in mid combat with another massive statue, called Mechonis. These two statues are the whole world. They’re huge— vertical continents which you will explore over time. XC takes you on a journey through massive, interconnected landscapes and nothing’s exactly what it seems.
The environments are great—their size and scale make the open world feel full of possibilities. Final Fantasy has tried to capture this feeling, but never quite manages to achieve the richness or sense of possibility. For example both Final Fantasy XIII and XV have big outdoor environments but still manage to feel like sprawling, weird dungeons.
It isn’t just the space which creates a unique feel, but the Xenoblade’s wildlife as well. Within an area you can generally gauge the “level” of the creatures, but you still have to be careful. There are no low level zones. In one area might be things you can deal with easily, but you have to watch for much tougher creatures who wander or named ones who might be alerted by a nearby combat. It sounds off-putting, but in play it’s a satisfying challenge requiring you to learn the map.
Xenoblade has great and unusual monster designs, but they make sense in context. Nothing feels weird for weirdness’ sake. Different versions of monsters don’t feel like palette swaps; instead you feel like you’re facing a more dangerous species. You learn how these work at lower levels, and that gives you an advantage when you get to their more potent relations.
All the characters have rich, interesting backstories and motivations. Each of them has a striking story arc, even the comedic one. Xenoblade has two distinct “love triangles” and they’re handled subtly and roll out over time. The game’s “Heart to Heart” scenes activate if you go to certain places with certain characters in the party. Unlike the Tales series which has these, they’re not used for comedy but for real development. I adore all of the characters and especially how rich and varied they’ve made the interactions between them. The English language voice acting is top notch and they use different regional accents for effect.
While the game rewards you for learning the combat system, it will take a chunk of time to get the hang of it. That can put you at a disadvantage for early fights. It’s an active time battle system, like in many MMOs. You have a set of talents which you activate and wait for cool downs, even as you maneuver. Overall fights are wild and filled with choices. You have to choose your main character will do, make sure what skills they have set, work out the synergies, and much more. It’s deep but also overwhelming and exhausting in places. If you put it down for a while, it will take some time to pick it up again.
The game has tons of wonderful side quests, but many, many involve running all over the enormous maps to find things. Yes, it can be a pleasure to explore, but the 8th time you’re sent back to the same area to pick up an obscure collectible is a pain.
I mentioned that zones have monsters of varying level. That’s mitigated a little by being able to see their level easily. But there will be monsters much higher level. They will kill you. You’ll walk into their zone of awareness and they will smoke you. You have to learn to watch, which is a cool challenge. But there are high-level named monsters who will wander around and then *boom* you’re in the middle of a fight when a level 80 flying lizard with a strange name absolutely comes in and one-shots you. And beyond that the levels on those named monsters are lies. You need to be either amazingly skilled or ten levels above them to even stand a chance.
The biggest things to steal from Xenoblade Chronicles is the biggest thing in the game: the landscape. The maps and movement are as much vertical as horizontal. Early on you’ll be in a flat zones, but then make your way up cliffs and levels to reach another new plateau biome. Throughout you climb a massive statue—at one point crossing a giant land bridge which is one titan’s swords stuck in the other. In the second half of the game, the verticality extends to the zones themselves, with multiple different levels, series of cliffs to ascend and more. I think any fantasy ttrpg could benefit from switching the axis of travel and exploration.
This game is completely unrelated to the first one—and that’s clear out of the gate with the more realistic look to the people and environments. Earth has been destroyed by an alien coalition for unknown reasons. Your colony ship manages to escape and crash land on a hostile and unknown world. You have to figure out how to live here and prepare yourselves for the eventual arrival of your pursuers…but not everything is as it seems.
I dig being able to make up your own character, rather than playing with a set protagonist. XCX has a solid character maker program. It does mean you get some generic reactions and voices for your character outside of combat grunts, but I like having my own head canon about who I am. Plus you’re surrounded by a large number of interesting and not so interesting characters. It takes a page from Dragon Age, with each of these fleshed out with side stories and missions. Choosing your team and swapping them around to see how they interact is fun.
It’s a little thing, but you can jump and fall from any height and not take any damage. I can’t tell you how great that is, especially in a game with so many different levels and vertical environments.
The storyline has real stakes and combines that with a solid sense of exploring a place no one has been. You can set out in any direction at the start in your exploration and your experience will vary depending on where you head first. The stakes escalate throughout the game and weird stuff keeps building up, but it always feels in genre. Plus there are several twists I didn’t see coming, including one moment early on which had me gasp (though Sherri had figured it out already).
Eventually you get mechs. This comes past the midway mark of the game and it’s kind of perfect. You’ve explored all over the place and hit spots you couldn’t reach or which had too heavy opposition. Your mech opens up the world though not completely. But then a chapter or two later, once you’re getting used to your mech, you get the ability to fly and that changes everything again. Add to that immense customization for your mechs—with different frames and different roles. You can have multiples and assign them to your NPCs as you see fit.
I love paper-dolling characters. The first Xenoblade has this, but Chronicles X amps that up. You have tons of great armor pieces to find, craft and then mix & match. But many of the armor designs, especially for the ladies, are questionable at best. Some of the male sets have bare midriffs and open shirts, but their sexualization pales next to the number of skimpy women’s outfits. Oh, and most of the women’s outfits (and the designs for any humanoid female aliens) feature high heels. Why?
There are several, maybe even many plot points—especially for many of the sidequests-- which make no sense whatsoever. There’s a whole set of stories with villains motivated by greed and human avarice. Which, I repeat, makes no sense…like there is no place to spend stolen goods. It gains you absolutely nothing. Take just a minute to think about the situation you’re in: steal a cache of lost treasure does you NO GOOD AT ALL. So dumb.
I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say the ending is unsatisfying. You achieve your major goals and there’s a good resolution to the main plot, but then the game presents a twist which changes things up. It leaves many questions that feel like they would have been answered in a DLC release…which never came.
The combat system is even more involved than the first Xenoblade. You have lots of paths for development—rather than having classes, each weapon has a track with different skills. But they are long tracks and while it is worth learning all of them, you’ll find yourself choosing one weapon and sticking with that rather than switching around.
There is such a thing as too much customization for gear.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a hexcrawl. It’s a huge, wondrous, open world hexcrawl. The map is literally done in hexes. On the Wii U pad controller, you always have access to the map and can fast travel to certain beacons. Each hex has a variety elements and monsters—some you’ll be able to take on and some you have to avoid. And you can avoid those beasts in part because the game displays icons showing how it senses foes: visual, motion, noise, etc. It pushes you to learn and engage with the environment.
The map provides the outline of each region and as you explore you get further little markers—indications that you might find something in this hex, but you have to get there. There’s always something further out to explore and uncover. The risk and reward set up within this is dynamite.
So yeah, a colony sci-fi hexcrawl is a very cool thing.
Despite the name, there’s no substantial connection between this and XC1 (or XCX). That’s a missed opportunity and a smart choice that keeps the original story fully intact. The world of XC2 echoes the first, with all of the towns and lands perched atop massive titans who move through something called the Cloud Sea. But titans die, they take whole peoples with them. As the game starts several have died and are reaching the end of their lifespan. That pushes a struggle for land and resources. The protagonists gets caught up in a conspiracy not to save the world, but to destroy it.
You have five party members by the end, of which three can be in the active party. That’s a classic jrpg problem. XC2 tweaks that by giving each person three helpers, called Blades, who each party member can switch through. You only control one party member, but the AI does a decent job of swapping through Blades. Different Blades have different skills, special attacks, elements, and voices. And you end up with many Blades. While you can tweak your character with some level ups and equipment, most of the powering up comes from developing your Blades.
Blades come in two types: Common and Unique. Common Blades share a look, but differ in element, weapon, and form (male, female, animal, giant). These are randomized when you get them. (I’ll talk a little bit about the nature of these Blades in a bit). Unique Blades are just that: uniquely designed characters with novel skills, voice acting, cool character design, and sometimes new weapons. Each of Unique Blade has been drawn up by a different artist so you get wildly divergent looks among them. Gathering Blades and playing with them is a real joy in the game.
There’s a ton to do in XC2. You want to talk to everyone. Each town has a development level based on effort you put into it (mostly by spending money). As that increases, new stories open up and you can invest in individual shops (which give passive benefits). Every town and locale has sidequests and new ones pop up all the time. Plus each Unique Blade has a short mission arc exploring their background and personality. You have to track these down and they’re all fun and different.
The game has interesting sprawling environments, though they don’t feel as connected as in the other two games. Some of that comes from the loading screens. But some of the lands are inside the Titans and some of them are on a Titan’s back, with legs and other appendages in the distant horizon. It does a great job of providing a distinct feel beyond “this is the snow zone,” “this is the jungle level,” etc.
The navigation marker in the game will send you into rages. There’s no specified north. When you get a marker location, a little wheel pops up with a distance in it. If there’s an arrow, it shifts around but doesn’t indicate anything. Instead of pointing to the direction you need to go, it only marks if the location is above or below your present site. So sometimes, no a lot, you have to do this weird triangulation movement to figure out where you’re going OR you have to pull up the big map which moves you into a sub-menu and then you have to back out of that. In fact the button/menu choices throughout are sub-optimal.
The Blades are cool—getting new ones is cool. But except for some story-driven moments where you get new ones, obtaining Blades is randomized. It is, in fact, a kind of gashapon game. You spin the dial and maybe you’ll get a Unique Blade or maybe you’ll get a weak Common Blade. The Cores you find which create Blades have three different rarities, but you can end up burning through a ton of them and not get what you want. Which send you back to farm for more. It’s especially frustrating when you need a certain Blade type to help out with a mission or interact with a feature.
I like a rich, crunchy character development system. I’m a Final Fantasy vet so I’ve attached items to learn abilities, worked through an interconnected job track, filled out sprawling boards, and drawn magic from creatures all in order to level my characters. Xenoblade 2 ups that by having a multi-track development tree with 20-50 nodes for each Blade. These don’t level up with experience. Instead they open up when you do certain things: collect X things, use this ability X times, view this conversation, kill this monster. And most of the time, later nodes don’t register those things until the earlier ones have opened. Meaning for each Blade you enjoy, you might have to spend hours running around and backtracking to finish their chart. It is overwhelming.
BUT the biggest, most glaring, most prominent problem with XCX is this: women’s bodies don’t work like that. The weird, unnatural breast design happens on several of the female characters, including the set ones you have to have in your party. There’s a lots of hypersexualization, which is especially incongruous given that the main hero is coded very young and the general aesthetic is brighter and more cartoony than the previous two. It’s Bayonetta+ level in some places. And there’s no equal opportunity for male characters as in the previous games. Dudes have cool clothing, women get breast-hoisting outfits.
There’s also a running gag with the comedic character and a robot Blade he dresses in a maid outfit which gets weirder and more gross as the game progresses.
The existential implications of the Blades are striking. I’m heading into some spoiler territory here. Blades come from Core Crystals. If someone with the talent to be a “Driver” touches a Core Crystal, they resonate with it and transform it into a Blade. That establishes a connection between them. It doesn’t seem like the Driver controls the Blade, but there are some hints that the Driver’s personality may impact the Blade. But we do see Blades disobeying Drivers or even killing them, as well as Blades doing evil at their Driver’s behest. We also learn that there can be romantic relationships between Blades and Drivers, which is a whole can of worms.
The game shows that Blades come into the world with fully formed personalities, super distinct in the case of the Unique Blades. It doesn’t explain how these come about. But the most important thing here is the question of memories. Blades have a personality but start as blank slates and are aware that they have no memories. But it is a little darker than that.
Blades are connected to their Drivers. When a Driver dies, the Blade seemingly “dies.” But actually the Blade reverts back to being a Core Crystal. And when someone re-bonds with that crystal, the Blade has no memory of their past lives. They’ve forgotten everything and often they know how much they have lost. Several times in the game, allies or enemies die and leave behind these crystals which you then add to your party, with no memory of all that.
It’s striking and moving and sets up a really different relationship between the PCs and the NPCs and followers. I’m not sure exactly how you’d translate that into an rpg, but it’s worth exploring. It’s some amazing world-building with deep implications.
Here’s a bonus thing I’d steal for a TTRPG: eventually you become in charge of a mercenary company in this game, less a military group and more a problem solving one. You get to dispatch Blades you aren’t taking into active play. Missions they go on have different requirements, so it incentivizes having lots of different kinds of Blades. I love this idea and set up—a kind of community building phase which you could add to something like FitD. It would be cool to write this up as a sub-system for play.