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‘Xenoblade Chronicles X’ marks the spot of my return to RPGs

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I’m mentally steeling, making plans, buying up canned food and bottled water, ready for the long winter that lies ahead. Xenoblade Chronicles X is looming on the horizon, a hulking behemoth casting a large shadow over December and I’m sure many more of the months ahead. What started out on my radar as a pretty but unapproachable RPG (for a guy who’s been out of that game for a while now) has slowly, over the course of many trailers and gaming expos, turned into my most anticipated title of the year. I can’t wait for X. It’s totally in my league, I know it, and I’m going to go for it. I can’t wait to wander the seemingly endless open world of Mira, where I’m sure to get lost, eke out higher levels by repeatedly killing the same inferior beasts, and go blind staring at all the incomplete quests I’ve accepted from the helpless citizens of New Los Angeles but will never fulfill. It’s been a long dry spell since I was last excited by this kind of gameplay, but X has managed to achieve that with its beauty, promise of depth, and great timing.

I’ve had a long history with RPG games, J and otherwise, but most of that history is stuck well in the past. A free giveaway of Dragon Warrior for the NES with a subscription to Nintendo Power started me off, obsessed with gaining experience and excited by every new town approached. Somewhere during the transition from the charming pixelated warriors of classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger to the clunky polygonal 3D heroes of epics like Final Fantasy VII though, the genre lost me. After a nostalgic trip through the 16-bit masterpiece that is Earthbound, a game I had previously missed out on, I was prepared to say goodbye, to never form a party or grind for experience points ever again. It’s nothing dramatic. We simply grew apart, for whatever reasons. This happens. For years now I have sat idly by on the sidelines, envious of the beautiful worlds others got to experience, but for the most part unmotivated to enter them myself.

However, like with everyone else who plays video games, seeing can turn into wanting, if it’s the sort of thing that catches your eye. Some people may gravitate toward No Man’s Sky, others to Final Fantasy XV, but there’s something to the arching, grassy rock formations of Xenoblade Chronicles X that speaks to me. The green blades of Primordia, the first continent, swaying in the breeze, blanketed by a bright, blue sky reflected in shimmering pools of water, the white trees and colossal leviathans of Sylvalum, and the ancient alien ruins of Oblivia all trigger some childhood sense of exploration that is indefinable. I don’t really care that much about the story of the fugitive human race crash-landing and setting up shop on a distant planet, still hunted by the warring parties that shot them down. Maybe it’ll be good, maybe by the end I still won’t care. It’s the sheer amount of vistas on display over the course of the many trailers have chipped away at my resistance, convinced me that a long vacation in Xeno-world is exactly what I need.

The only hitch in this giddy-up comes from the fact that when Xenoblade Chronicles released for the Wii, the aesthetics of its similarly fantastic world also captured my imagination. On a console that lacked brute strength, Monolith Software managed to finesse elegant design. Based solely on what I was seeing, I was again prepared to give this genre another go. That’s the power visuals have over us all; like any animal we’re still attracted to shiny things. The problem is, once I had this particular bauble it still didn’t satisfy. Again. As someone who had over the years grown accustomed to merely pressing A to jump in the latest Mario platformer, the gameplay of a modern RPG was overwhelmingly complicated to me. Keeping track of the various skills and meters and cool downs and collectibles scattered every which way I turned made me dizzy with information overload. The enormity of the world, something I would’ve once been enthralled by, now just reminded me of how long this was going to take, and the sidequests, my god, the sidequests. Completing one seemed to just open up three more, like a chore list turned Hydra. I had other stuff to play, having just purchased both a brand new Wii U and 3DS, so after about 8 hours or so, an early boss whose battle was meant to teach me a new technique proved frustrating enough that I ended it by giving up, dooming one of those precious physical copies of that beloved game to simply collect dust on my shelf, waiting for a completion that will most likely never come.

So what has changed? As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Xenoblade Chronicles X is supposed to be even more massive, with similar combat and an even larger list of things to do, but the difference, I believe, is that this time I’m better prepared. Having recently enjoyed Earthbound (after listening to the NXpress crew tout it) I knew I could RPG on a small scale, but it was the 60-plus hours of tough bosses and cartography in Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight that really honed my patience. Not only did I end up enjoying the late nights walking back and forth to build my stats through random encounters, but being forced to familiarize myself with the concept of buffs, debuffs, Grimoire Stones, elemental strengths and weaknesses, seemingly thousands of pieces of statistically different armor, weapons, and items to choose from, and the intricacies of running a restaurant, from collecting ingredients and creating dishes, to figuring out the right budget for advertising to maximize profits, convinced this old-schooler that there’s an immense amount of fun to be had from this kind of deep immersion and micro-management, and with the right mindset even I can have it.

Experience with the franchise is also a major factor; I won’t have to learn as much, having already experienced the flowing, MMORPG-style combat. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to scare anyone off who may be new to the franchise, but if you haven’t played a game like this in years, just know that things have changed a bit from the attack/spell options of old. I know how positioning around enemies matters, with the new addition of bonus damage or healing sometimes given out for well-timed blows, as well as planning special attacks around cool downs and keeping an eye on hurting teammates who might rush in like idiots regardless of how awkward their death will make my life. Xenoblade Chronicles X supposedly has better AI to help out with that, and for those intimidated by getting up close and personal with the sometimes gargantuan foes, ranged attacks are now possible via lasers rifles. So when I team up with B.L.A.D.E. (Builders of a Legacy After the Destruction of Earth), I won’t be quite as much of a rookie as my custom-designed character will, though the enhancements seen to make it even more user-friendly will nevertheless be very welcome. Choosing a class may produce some initial fretting, but with only three available (enforcer, striker, and guerilla), deciding a path that works for my simple and cautious style shouldn’t take too long.

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The above features hope to make this new Xenoblade the best version yet, and with the Wii U gamepad organizing the infinite quests I’ll probably be obsessed with early on until I start blowing them all off, and fast travel accessed by placing probes around newly discovered areas and/or acquiring a Skell (flying mechs), things are looking far more efficient and manageable. In a world where I have other things to do in life, this is a good thing. Use of those mechs won’t be opened up until later in the game, unfortunately, through earning a license and paying for insurance (way to make flying a giant, weaponized flying robot oddly pedestrian), but plenty of post-game content will at least make getting one worthwhile, for those interested. I’m not sure if that’ll be me, but you never know. Despite my enthusiasm and eager anticipation, I know my gaming habits. Putting 300 hours into something just isn’t going to happen. I’d still like to experience a good chunk though, as smoothly as possible, and these features, while not exactly turning X into a pick-up-and-play “Nintendo” game, go a long way toward luring in not only someone like myself, but hopefully others who have never tried the series as well.

Lastly, the arrival of Xenoblade Chronicles X could not come at a better time. The holiday season is looking a little more sparse for Nintendo these days, at least in terms of AAA releases, and while yes, I know that Star Fox Zero wasn’t likely to consume my every waking hour for long, its delay makes me feel better about being able to really sink my teeth into an epic journey without looking over my shoulder at what other game I’m supposed to be playing. So we have a time-consuming game releasing during winter, when the percentage of hours spent indoors skyrockets, and nothing else competing with it for play. There hasn’t been a coinciding of these crucial factors on a Nintendo console for quite some time, mostly because these days they don’t get a lot of RPGs, period. Psychologically speaking, this is a big deal for me, and knowing that I’ll essentially be playing just one game for at least a month or two eases any fears about having to plow through. RPGs aren’t made to be rushed out. They’re not a snack; they’re the next six months’ rations, and you’ve got to pace yourself to truly savor the full experience. Otherwise you’ll just feel empty after, looking again for that next meal, and who knows when that will come? Instead of being disappointed in Nintendo’s announcement, I was actually a bit relieved. I’ll be able to tackle X, and probably still have a few minutes to spare for human contact to boot. Win-win.

And that’s how simple it is, how a guy who hasn’t really bothered with role-playing games for many console generations is suddenly ready to rekindle a lost love. Well, at least for a fling. Regardless, I’ll be back in the game, proving that this guy’s still got it, so don’t be surprised to see a necktie on my door come December 4th.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

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Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

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The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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