What did I like about Xenoblade Chronicles? Nearly everything. The sheer scope of the world is deserving of the description ‘epic’, approaching the scale set by games such as Skyrim (and by ‘such as’, I mean ‘the one and only’). If you’ve just come from my WIHILA Xenoblade post, then I can confirm for you that this is a JRPG through and through, but one that shows the genre can keep with the times, evolve and innovate.
But you know what’s really great? I sat and played for upwards of 130 hours and loved every minute of it. I didn’t just explore the nooks and crannies of the world, I wanted to. So let’s talk about what I’m going to call the ‘good pacing’ in Xenoblade Chronicles, which is to say the spread of engaging gameplay throughout the game.
Perhaps that sounds horribly obvious – to make a good game, it should be, well, good for the whole game. But I can think of plenty of games (which are still worth the time) where a large amount of my playing is spent doing something distinctly less engaging than the promises of the game at its best. Maybe it’s for an achievement, a badass piece of equipment, or to get a better ending. Maybe it’s just to see what happens when you do the thing the game seems to want you to do (or the thing that the game is telling you not to do with a wink and a nod like some puffed up kindergarten kid on the playground betting you that you can’t climb any higher).
When a game is well paced, I’m doing what I want when I want to as often as possible, the game keeps me coming back, and ultimately I get the most I can out of the game (side note: sometimes the designer is a better judge of what I ‘want’ to do, so I’m fine with being compelled to do something, as long as I enjoy it when I do it). Done poorly, a game forces me to spend a lot of time doing things I don’t enjoy in order to ‘enable’ the game, I incidentally waste a lot of time not getting at the heart of the game because I don’t know what I/the game wants, or I lose interest in the game or parts of the game because other elements are distractingly uninteresting or needlessly repetitive.
Time to get less anecdotal and more concrete – how did Xenoblade Chronicles accomplish this for me? To begin with, as a role-playing game, Xenoblade has a variety of activities to offer the player. In Dungeons & Dragons (the still-kickin’ great-grandpapa of most modern RPGs, tabletop or video game), a strong case has been made for ‘three pillars’ of gameplay – exploration, combat and roleplaying. A similar kind of mix is common in video RPGs: there is a world and some game mechanics to explore, foes to vanquish, and people to interact with and assist in their troubles (and probably some kind of epic destiny to live up to – the life of a hero is busy). This variety can backfire on a game, though, when too much choice is taken out of the player’s hands. If I’m looking to bash some heads in, and instead I’m stuck listening to dialogue to get to the next battleground (or equally if I want to explore the forgotten corners of an area but am forced to repeatedly fight off enemies, etc.), then it certainly doesn’t enhance the experience.
To make a long story short(er), I didn’t find this to be the case at all with Xenoblade Chronicles. Using a no-transition combat system similar to Final Fantasy XII meant that if I wanted to run around and not fight, I could avoid enemies. Even necessary scripted battles never felt like a slog – when they were below my power level, they ended quickly and without much fuss (allowing me to get back to more directly enjoyable things), when they were a bit above my power level, they were interesting and dynamic.
Highly convenient instant travel back and forth to anywhere you’ve been meant that no matter where I was, if I suddenly decided I wanted to be somewhere else (say, to go back to the main story from side questing or back to town to chat with the locals), I lost no time in doing so. Clear markers told me what I was doing and where I was going when I wanted to get back to the main storyline, so I wasted no time wondering what the game wanted me to do. In addition, an indication as to which side quests could suddenly disappear in the future helped me gauge the urgency of each and go to the tasks I wanted to without risking being disappointed by suddenly losing out on content just because I felt like moving on for a bit. The design touches go deeper than that though.
The game uses a standard-looking level-based experience system: you beat up enemies, you get more powerful, you can compare your power level to the enemies by just looking at the numbers (or the handy colour-coded neon sign above their head that might as well say ‘You don’t want to mess with this guy right now’).
However, you get non-negligible experience as a reward for completing quests or exploring areas to find hidden niches. As a huge fan of exploration myself, this was a welcome change from what I feel is the norm (but if you want to show me up in the comments, go right ahead). It meant I felt like I was making real progress (getting stronger, gaining new options, preparing for upcoming battles, generally not wasting my time) my way as I gallivanted about, and was genuinely happy to help the locals find their umpteenth random enemy drop since the reward was more than just another collectible or percentage point of completion (and I don’t just mean experience points – more on that later).
Even more than that, the designers maintained a tight balance of ensuring experience was plentiful when I wanted it, but that I didn’t get much when I didn’t need it. When the enemies had a sudden jump in levels, what could have been a grind actually resulted in only a couple intense (and, frankly, really fun) battles, giving me everything I needed to bridge the gap in power. I’m going to take a moment to bask in that – if only every several-hour-long-grind of mindlessness to get to the next task could be replaced by a single interesting and challenging encounter (obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s a lovely dream).
Moreover, when I spent plenty of time on the side getting in the good graces of the numerous NPCs, I didn’t end up so over-powered that the game became a meaningless coast to the finish line (thanks to small fry enemies just leaving you alone when you’re strong enough and there being challenges for all levels, not just at discrete jumps).
Okay, so there are all these measures to let me choose what I’m doing within the framework of the game (this isn’t some treatise on non-linearity, by the way – we can all have a nice chat about the pros and cons of linear versus non-linear gameplay some other time or in the comments below). In order for this freedom to be satisfying, though, I need to have interesting gameplay from which to choose.
The world of Xenoblade is vast and full of texture – figuring out which monsters live where and at what times can be a pleasure (though I respect the opinion of anybody who got tired of it and felt it repetitive – which makes it all the better that you can just choose not to do it), and the distinct visual styles and beautiful soundtrack kept the world fresh throughout. Each side quest revealed another small piece of a vast world (remember those additional rewards I mentioned?).
The flavourful dialogue between party characters even as you battle kept a smile on my face and enriched their roles in the story and world, and whenever I got a bit bored of personally doing the same sort of stuff in combat (or even just a specific character’s voice), I could simply switch to a different character or swap the team around, and it was often like playing a completely different game because each one was interesting, well-developed and unique. If you’re a combat nut, there are plenty of battle challenges scattered all throughout the game (even all the way past the level cap) to keep you occupied, both in the form of individually strong stand-out enemies and areas catered to characters of any strength. All this is just a long way of saying ‘There was a lot of content to make Xenoblade worth playing’.
Still with me? Recap time: Xenoblade spaces out its variety of gameplay well across the entire playthrough by giving the player control over what aspect of the game they explore next as well as through high quantity and quality of content (both in the setting and in the player-controlled mechanics). Letting the player go where they want instantly, avoid repetitive gameplay (especially combat), and balancing incentives so the player rarely, if ever, feels like they’ve ‘chosen wrong’ all contributed to keep me engaged, not merely playing. If the game has learned from past game design ‘mistakes’, it has learned well, and if it can inform future game designs, then let this be a start. What do you think? Let me know in the comments whether you agree or disagree, what other games come to mind as you read this, and how you’d like to see this applied in future games!
Thanks for reading.
There’s a ton of great material in this one post. I plan on quoting a few paragraphs here and posting on them at Lost Worlds in the next couple of weeks.
Please do, and I look forward to reading it! As is probably obvious from the article, I think many of these points can be transferred to a D&D context in addition to digital RPGs, even if it’s not the same sort of medium. Thanks for the kind words.
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Pacing. Definitely a quality worth celebrating. I find that many games start off with really interesting game play as they introduce you to the game, and then the game flattens out. Diablo II is a good example. I loved the first act, and felt that the first act was well paced. But as soon as I got to Act II, much of the variety of game play that I had enjoyed in Act I was replaced with long stretches of no variety.
For someone so keen on praise over criticism, I sure keep griping on Blizzard games. I don’t have a wealth of computer game experience to draw from, so I’m having trouble coming up with a counter-example of a game with good pacing, except for vague memories of Chronotrigger.
How does pacing translate to tabletop games? For a game like Dungeons and Dragons, pacing is as straightforward (complex) as the pacing of a novel, but what about more conventional board games. Perhaps it’s a function of the variety of player choices and the length of a play through. Or perhaps it’s in how a game achieves replayability.