Xenoblade Chronicles was last year’s Wii success story for Operation Rainfall, but it could’ve just as easily been another addition to the pile of PlayStation 2 JRPGs released over a decade ago. A by-the-books execution of that old model, it features all of the genre’s familiar tropes – and even looks the part! Melodramatic dialogue? Of course, with more sudden gasps than you can imagine. A “Save The World” fantasy story with silly words? From “Mechon” to “Monado,” we’ve got our bases covered. And how about the battle system? Straight from Final Fantasy XII and an endless number of MMORPGs. Ironically, Xenoblade is anything but the definition of “xeno.” While I’m finally beating the last bits of worthy breath out of my Wii, these first few hours inside XC left me with essentially nothing new.
At the same time, I couldn’t put it down.
Xenoblade Chronicles knows what it is without needing to draw attention by showing off. No unique Wiimote waggle motions to memorize for commanding the video game crew of the future. No experimental combat setups that are only cool for the first fifteen minutes. None of that. Instead, Xenoblade is satisfied with being a plus-one, an extra example on a long list titled “Great Action-JRPGs.” It accepts that with a smile and runs with it. That “it,” in this case, being refinement. Because of said refinement, XC eradicates the risk of falling on its face from unceremoniously testing out an idea included strictly for the sake of claiming innovation.
That would be disingenuous, and Xenoblade Chronicles wouldn’t dare.
Doesn’t that all look lovingly familiar?
On the flip-side, though, does the game play it safe? Certainly, yet doing so isn’t an automatic problem. The same is said about the Call of Duty franchise, although after selling a bajillion-or-so copies every year while still receiving impressive review scores across the board (much to the disdain/denial of the Internet at large), maybe Activision is on to something. Maybe innovation isn’t the answer, but rather one of many valid approaches to achieving excellence.
What’s wrong with “the same as last year, only better” if last year was already awesome? Would anyone argue if 2014 began with two similar titles to BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, both sporting notable improvements and fixes? Actually, I’m sure some of you would, even if these hypothetical releases truly were superior to the material they spawned from.
That’s a mindset we need to replace.
Why is it okay for Animal Crossing to refine while others are crucified for it?
I’m guilty, too, just as much as (or even more than) you are. Remember when I criticized Nintendo for announcing nothing new at E3? Yes, that was me. But like I said months ago, Nintendo is nostalgia and that’s okay. We’d be wise to remember that, because it’s okay to retread solid ground if it’s flawlessly paved and the alternative is ruggedly uneven. In other (literal) words, it’s okay to take inspiration from incredible games and tweak a few aspects in the creation of another.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a blast because it calls back to the many JRPGs that ate up my life in the last generation, a gametype that’s unfortunately fallen to the wayside in the Western world with the rise of local competitors and the intriguing concept of emergent storytelling. Yet sometimes – or, in my mind, all times – someone else’s carefully-crafted story is better than any makeshift hodgepodge I could stumble into. As cool as it is to upload a YouTube video of a mammoth fighting a giant fighting a dragon, such a thing can never feel as focused, sequential, or urgent as the traditional JRPG, melodrama and all. Xenoblade understands this fact, saw a timely market gap, and leapt to fill it, carrying only the essentials while leaving its excess baggage behind. It’s not particularly fresh, unique, novel, innovative, or any other buzzword that has become synonymous with “new.” Still, Xenoblade is excellent nonetheless, and so it succeeds.
New Internet Rule: If you’ve thought it, Jim Sterling’s probably said it better in a video…
In the end, great games depend upon isolated instances of satisfaction. Whether that’s derived from exciting and fun gameplay or a narrative that brings forth a strong emotional response that only this medium can, why should anything else matter? Who cares if last year’s Game of the Year did it first? Who cares if “if you liked the last one, you’ll surely enjoy this” statements ring true? Who cares if, when totally removed from all external influences, the game in front of us is just a great game? Not I, ladies and gentlemen, and neither should you.
Now cut to me this December where I slam Super Mario 3D World for being uninspired and lazy. When that hopefully-not-inevitable event occurs, I encourage you to call me out as a hypocrite. Until then, try to enjoy a thing or two.
Image credit: Wikia