Of all the magic woven by storytellers, immersion has to be one of the most precious threads. How wonderful it is that we can pick up a book, or play a game, or sit in a cinema, and be transported into another world! The people who write bullet points for video game boxes know this, which is why “immersive” is one of their favourite buzzwords. So is “visceral”, which I find telling. To be immersive, it seems, a work should have us on the edge of our seats: tense, excited, ready to feel its characters’ pain as if it were our own. But there’s also another kind of immersion – think of the proverbial warm soak. An immersive world can be utterly relaxing, an invitation for us to kick back and lose ourselves for an hour or two. Nearly 20 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles, I can say it exemplifies the latter.
Xenoblade is an RPG for the Nintendo Wii – a platform exclusive, as a matter of fact. It’s a party-based JRPG that bears a striking similarity to 2006’s Final Fantasy XII, in that there are no random encounters and no distinction between an overworld, area maps, and combat screens. Rather, like a Western RPG, monsters are clearly visible – and combat takes place – in the field. Combat is real-time, and the player only controls one party member at a time, chosen before battle starts; the rest of the party is controlled by a generally competent AI. Since the chosen character will auto-attack enemies, the player’s job is to manage aggro, special abilities, and cooldowns. (Not items; there are no potions, stimpacks, antidotes, or the like in this game.) I’ve heard this compared to MMO gameplay, and it’s certainly different from what I’m used to.
Rather more familiar was the game’s initial premise. Xenoblade’s setting is the kind of science fantasy mishmash we know and love from Star Wars, FF12, and planetary romances going back a hundred years. Its villains are giant invading killer robots. Its hero is a flaxen-haired youth with prophetic powers and a lightsaber! And honestly, at first that familiarity disappointed me. Where was the original clever urban fantasy of Persona, the mythology-laced dark fantasy of Valkyrie Profile? But once I told myself to accept Xenoblade for what it is, I realised that the game actually does a pretty decent job of executing on those tropes. There are lots, and lots, and lots of infuriating teenage heroes – but the brave, earnest, and generally sensible lads and lasses of Xenoblade are not amongst them. And when the villains come on-stage, the game all but winks at the audience – Peter’s Rule of the Ridiculous at work. We’ve seen killer robots before. We’ve arguably seen killer robots that feed on people before – The Matrix – though here, it’s literal. But this has to be the first time we’ve seen giant killer robots urge their followers into battle by yelling, “COME ON, BOYS – DINNER’S READY!!!”
However, neither the story nor scenery-chewing villains have been the focus of my time with Xenoblade. That honour goes to the scenery itself. The coolest part of Xenoblade’s setup is that its world is perched atop the fossilised body of an ancient, gigantic god; and the splendour of the game’s environments lives up to that premise. Xenoblade is not an open world game: there’s a linear progression from area to area, with new areas being unlocked as the player progresses through the story. But each individual area is vast and expansive, filled with landmarks to discover: nooks, caves, switchback trails and mighty cliffs, rivers and waterfalls and ruins. They teem with life – remember monsters are visible on the field? In fact, most “monsters” are simply the local fauna, which will leave you alone unless provoked. And much of the time, I’m happy to return the favour while I simply admire the surroundings. Despite the Wii’s hardware limitations, they are beautiful (and set to equally gorgeous music)! I’ve jumped off a cliff near the starting town, splashed into a lake, and emerged on the bank of a hidden meadow. I’ve marvelled at the towering statues of two ancient sisters, as water coursed between their stone fingers and into the lake at their feet. I’ve clambered onto plateaus and looked out to see the evening lit by ghostly blue lights, while a giant bird made lazy circuits in the sky beneath the party.
At the same time, the game strips away so many of the annoyances that would otherwise hinder my exploration. Its attitude towards death is a great example. In a game where the landscapes are secondary and the challenge is primary – say, Demon’s/Dark Souls – a death penalty makes sense: it’s a way to keep players on their toes. In Xenoblade, where the landscape is primary, a harsh death penalty or a Game Over screen would just be annoying. And so, there is no death penalty at all! Neither is there a Game Over screen. If I die, whether because I jumped off the edge of the world (yes, you can do this), bungled my strategy in a boss fight, or simply bit off more than I could chew, I just reappear at the last landmark I visited. There’s no need to re-watch cutscenes. No hassle. And minimal loss of my precious time. I can simply walk back and try again, or perhaps just fast-travel back to town to buy or craft better gear for myself. Speaking of fast travel, it doesn’t just go from town to town – it also allows hopping to and from locations in the field, or individual hotspots in town. This is a huge help when looking for That One NPC or That One Monster! Yet another helpful feature is the way the game handles side quests. While unfortunately the quests tend to be generic “collect 5 monster pelts” fare, they usually give out their rewards immediately upon success! I don’t have to break the flow of my adventure by returning to town and hunting for the quest-giver – a little convenience, but one that helps me stay immersed.
The result, so far, has been the National Geographic of video games. I don’t play Xenoblade for a nail-biting challenge or innovative characters and plot – though, since I’ve only scratched the surface, that could well change. I play it for it for the joy of roaming across an (imaginary) wilderness, rich in aesthetics and unglamorous-but-effective polish. I play it to voyage somewhere pretty, and often, I play it simply to unwind. I hope the rest of the game will live up to the sights I’ve seen so far.
All screenshots taken from Nintendo’s official site.