Xenoblade Chronicles X
Release: 4/29/15 (Japan)
Developer: Monolith Soft, Nintendo SPD
Xenoblade Chronicles X is the sequel to Monolith's 2010 Xenoblade Chronicles. Ostensibly, it is the spiritual successor to Squaresoft's experimental PS1 classic Xenogears. These games are sequels to Xenogears in the same wink-and-a-nod way that Bandai's Xenosaga franchise was, sharing in many philosophical and thematic elements, as well as carrying much of the same staff across cames. Fans of the Xeno “series” stepping in to the previous Xenoblade, however, may have been disappointed by the lack of the series' iconic RPG mech action. That's where X steps in.
Perhaps the biggest draw for fans of the series, X reintroduced mech combat to the gameplay. Mechanical design goes to game and anime industry veteran Takayuki Yanase, who's previous work can be seen Metal Gear Rising, Mobile Suit Gundam 00, and Ghost in the Shell: Arise. But don't jump in the cockpit just yet. You'll have to slog through at least 20 hours of on-foot gameplay before you get your hands on one of X's “Skells.”
The story starts in the year 2054 when alien forces suddenly arrive in Earthspace and begin to war with each other. With the world's population getting decimated in the cross-fire, the Coalition of world governments launches Project Exodus. Massive ark ships launch into space to find a new home for humanity among the stars. Unfortunately for one ark – the White Whale from Los Angeles – they were pursued by one of the alien forces. Forced to crash land on the alien world of Mira, humanity must now make a go of it. All the while they must to find the crashed remains of the White Whale's “lifehold,” the segment of the ship that contains the cryogenically frozen survivors from Earth.
When you launch the game you are greeted with a character creation screen – a new thing for the Xeno series. Yes, in a franchise known for its rich and interesting characters, you will be playing a generic silent protagonist. Character creation has the standard array of sliders, and a decent number of options to customize your avatar.
I personally found the art style to be jarring, though. Kunihiko Tanaka has provided character art for the franchise since the early days of Gears. I've always found his art to be lovely, but it does not seem to transition to polygons very well. In the PS2 era this could be written off as the relatively low power of systems of the time. In 2016 and in 1080p, however, the characters look like the alien monsters they're struggling to escape.
Game play is serviceable. Characters auto-attack with either melee or ranged weapons. Your only input during combat will be to target enemies, position your character for best effect, and to select special abilities. Other than the numerical challenges presented by taking on enemies more powerful than your party, the only real challenge to combat comes in making sure that you time key abilities to launch in combination with abilities performed by your party members.
Despite my issues with the way character design is implemented, the world of Mira is visually stunning. Beautiful and exotic vistas abound featuring titanic stone arches, silver salt wastes, and lambent jungles. Monolith attempted something very interesting with enemy placement, too: The wildlife of Mira is designed to give the appearance of a natural ecosystem. High level monsters are positioned along side low-level, with predator and prey relationships. However, while I respect what they were trying to accomplish, the end result is a game that is often frustrating to play.
X is already far too reliant on level grinding. They try to alleviate this by giving large amounts of experience for “mandatory” side-quests, but the types of quests you will be performing are limited to only a small handful of the most basic fetch quests and bounty hunts. I cannot count the number of times I found myself trying to perform a quest that was ostensibly my level, but found I was blocked by monsters in my path that were twenty or even forty levels stronger than me.
In the end, I'd had to fall back on old tricks learned in my EverQuest days: Things like creative sneaking around a monster's aggro radius, and clinging desperately to zone walls. When I'd done these things in EQ it was my own fault for wandering into a zone that was far too high for me. In X, though, it was purest frustration. Having to perform actions that border on exploitation in order to proceed with the game feels like poor design.
So how about the characters? As I'd mentioned before, this is a series that is known for strong characterization. Sadly, I felt very little of that here. On the plus side, you gain access to a large number of potential party members. Unfortunately, it seems most of them have little to no personality – and in the cases where they do, it's the barest hint of archetype and stereotype. The biggest surprise here was Tatsu, a little winged potato looking mascot character. Typically mascot characters drive me up the wall, however Tatsu was genuinely the most likable character in the game.
In the end, would I recommend Xenoblade X? I'm not sure that I would. If you're a diehard for the Xeno series, then you may find this entry a disappointment as it veers away from many of the things that have drawn fans. On the other hand, if you're a fan of JRPGs but are unfamiliar with the series, then it could be worth at least a look. If nothing else, X stands out as an interesting study in a genre that the Wii U didn't see much of. The game tried to do some interesting things, and I can't fault it for that, even when I feel like the attempts ultimately didn't work out.
- The world of Mira is beautiful to behold, really taking advantage of what the limited hardware can do.
- The soundtrack: Many of the scores in this game are amazing, and there is a good deal of Jpop for various combat scenarios.
- It just feels great to walk around the terrain in a skell. You really get a feel for the weight and size of these machines.
- Characterization is weak, with little in the way of interesting personalities or enthralling interactions and stories.
- The Soundtrack: But seriously, there's also a lot of music in this game that's just awful. By hour three you'll be sick of hanging out in NLA for the music alone.
- Level layout of the Miran wildlife is all over the place, making the game unnecessarily frustrating. It would have been better served with a traditional gradient of enemy difficulty.
- You don't get access to a Skell until at least 20 hours in. Why that long, Monolith?
Ratchet & Clank
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: 4/12/16 NA, 4/20/16 EU, 4/22/16 UK
Review: J Patrick Allen
This is a weird case, and it's been talked about numerous times on other websites already. But I think it bears repeating. Ratchet & Clank is a game, based off a movie, based off a game. The last time I can recall something happening like this we ended up with Street Fighter The Movie The Game. Now you can fight streets as Jean Claude Van Damme himself! But no, as cringeworthy as this might have been in the late 1990s, Ratchet & Clank is the brilliant successor to a glorious age of gaming history.
The game is the latest member of a storied, and dying genre: The 3D character platformer. But it is also, perhaps, one of the best examples of this. Just as Rayman Origins helped re-establish the 2D platformer with a level of polish and shine that hadn't been seen from a AAA developer in years, Insomniac has stepped forward and given this alt-pseudo-reboot of their classic franchise all the love it deserves.
If you're unfamiliar, the Ratchet & Clank franchise stars the titular heroes, the Lombax mechanic Ratchet, and his robotic companion Clank. They travel alien galaxies, doing their best to save the world, all the while shooting interesting badguys with even more interesting guns.
The series has always been a half-step between games like Super Mario 64, Beyond Good and Evil, and Jak and Daxter, and the third person shooters that really came to prevalence in the last console generation. The platforming functioned admirably, with smooth controls for movement and jumping, and in this regard the 2016 R&C is no exception. But people play these games for two reasons, mainly: The crazy guns, and their shooting thereof. This latest iteration in the series takes everything that Insomniac has learned about game design in the twelve years since the series debuted and applies it beautifully. Despite being a little different from games like Uncharted and Lost Planet the controls take relatively little effort to pick up for first timers. In no time, you'll get the hang of the smooth targeting and shooting. Add that with the superb platforming controls and you have fantastic potential for amazing battles.
“But what about those guns?” I hear you asking. This newest edition is a love letter to the series' favorites, including the Sheepinator, the Bouncer, and the Groovitron. In addition, you'll have some amazing new weapons like the Pixelator, which turns enemies into functional 32bit sprites, before they collapse into a mess of wayward pixels. Old fans will find their favorites loaded and waiting, while new fans will have so much fun to discover.
Graphically, enough cannot be said about this game. It is, without a doubt, the most visually stunning entry in this series to date, taking advantage of the PS4's enhanced hardware and a symbiotic relationship between Insomniac and Rainmaker Entertainment (the animation house producing the new movie). Assets have been freely swapped between the two companies, creating a game that is as faithful to the movie as the movie is faithful to this storied franchise.
Overall, we have a game that has nailed is gameplay and mechanics and is graphically beautiful, catering to old fans and presenting a solid experience for new players. If you have a PS4 and are a fan of colorful, frenetic gameplay, then I cannot recommend Ratchet & Clank enough.