nowPlaying: Xenoblade Chronicles

You might remember how, for a few months, I was a staff writer for a Nintendo fan site. The site is gone now and the admin vanished, but my love for writing, video games, and writing about video games is stronger than ever, so I’m happy to continue doing it on my blog. I’ve also decided to extend my reviews/analyses outside of the gaming world (with music and films in mind), but for now, here’s the first in my nowPlaying series: Xenoblade Chronicles, developed by Monolith Soft, for the Nintendo Wii.

All images taken from the official site, not owned by me.

When you ask people about the greatest video games ever made, there are a few titles that’ll come up on almost every list: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Half-Life 2. Resident Evil 4. In a perfect world, Xenoblade Chronicles would be one of them. It’s near the top of mine.

Released for the Wii in 2010, this one took a while to leave Japan. It didn’t reach America for nearly two years, coming out shortly before the Wii’s successor, the Wii U. The game received a limited printing, so a copy is going to cost you anywhere between $60 and $80, but it’s worth it.

The word “epic” is overused these days, but it fits this game perfectly. The story opens with two titans fighting each other in an otherwise empty ocean. They strike fatal blows at the same time, but their lifeless bodies remain standing, and from these spring forth all living things.

You play as Shulk, a young boy who grew up on one of the titan’s knees. Did I mention the game is epic? The whole world consists of the bodies of the titans. At any point you can look into the sky and see their arms, their heads, you can look across the ocean and see most of the other titan—all but the part that extends beyond the clouds.

An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance.
An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance, and its extended sword hovering above.

This game is huge. Everything about it is massive: Open-world areas in the same vein as Bethesda’s latest games, seamless combat (nearly all of the game’s loading screens are just there to load cinemas, only a few places require a loading screen transition), character customization; everything you’d expect from an action RPG, but bigger. My final play time, for example, was 75 hours. There were still dozens of side quests I hadn’t done, and I could have sunk another few hours in to level up and have an easier time with the final bosses (because a game this big can’t have just one).

The graphics are good, for the Wii. You can find screenshots, but they don’t do it much justice. The wind blowing through the grass, the people and creatures going about their lives, the ever-looming titans, you have to see it for yourself. It’s a Wii game, so by today’s standards it’s dated, but even as such it looks good.

Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.
Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.

 

The characters you face are, for the most part, lovable. Off the top of my head, only one enemy character comes to mind who I could describe as one-dimensional, and she’s not a major character. Everyone else is a well-acted, well-designed being, complete with their own motives and reasons, and this adds to one of the game’s running themes: Existentialism.

Your run-of-the-mill game can be pared down to “Find the bad guy and kill him”. You’ll be doing a lot of finding in this game, and you’ll be doing your fair share of killing, but you won’t want to. Instead of faceless “baddies” that only stand in your path, the game presents your adversaries as people who happen to be on the other side of the coin. Shulk, the main character, begins as a naive kid with a desire for vengeance, but transforms into a strong, noble man, one who tries to reason before ever lifting his sword, and who understands his enemies. I have a feeling the game’s director, Tetsuya Takahashi, might have been influenced by the works of Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin: Before Shulk defeats his enemies, he has to know and love them, and he feels every loss along his path.

The game’s story goes on to tackle the idea of what it means to be part of a Universe in which you aren’t the only inhabitant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do this before. There are often moments of depth, often strong characters that you feel for, but Xenoblade takes it to a new level. As big as the game is, it must also be described as “deep”.

The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.
The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.

Some of the plot points are trite, but most are unpredictable. The game threw a lot of curveballs. In most cases I had no idea what was coming until the second it happened. It does suffer from some overly-descriptive and repetitive dialogue (sometimes the characters just plain talk too much), but it’s nothing you won’t find in the average video game.

The gameplay itself is fun, but a lot of people seem to have trouble with the battle system. Unlike most games, you won’t be mashing the A button to obliterate everything in your path. Characters (there are several in your party, and you get 3 on-screen at a time and may play as any of them) auto-attack. Your job as the player is to choose where they go. Some attacks are more powerful from behind, some from the side, etc. You also have special attacks called “Arts” that you choose from, giving combat a layer of strategy comparable to that of a turn-based RPG, but the battles won’t wait for you, and timing is everything.

Another word I might use to describe the game is “exhausting”. The last ten hours or so started to wear me down. I did get a little tired of running around fighting random creatures and fetching items for NPCs. The game’s design is relentless, every new place you find is as large and as full of things to explore and do as the last, but by the time I reached the last handful of areas, I just wanted to skip them and go straight into the main quests. I never really wanted to stop playing, but if there had been another ten hours of main story, I might have.

The upsides far outweigh the downsides, and in the end I’m so glad to have played through this game. It’s one of the most original and unique stories I’ve ever encountered, especially in the world of video games.

In January 2013, Nintendo revealed a trailer for a game by the same company, Monolith Soft, that is very heavily implied to be a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this time around. The possibilities are limitless, and I’m looking forward to what will surely be one of the richest gaming experiences offered this generation.

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Small Update, and a Review of 11/22/63

I found a healthy way to lengthen my scifi manuscript. It’s still on the short side, but I think it’s solid, story-wise. I’m working on querying, now.

My last post mentioned editing an older project for self-publishing, and that has gone very well. Hopefully I’ll have something substantial to post in the next two or three weeks. I’m pretty excited.

I have another review, this time of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

11/22/63 is probably my favorite non-Dark Tower Stephen King novel. I say this loosely, as almost every one of his books ties into that series in some way, and this one is no exception. It’s not a horror novel, although the elements of it are there. It’s a gripping story, and a heavy one.

We live in a world that all too often demands a happy ending. I admire King’s ability to ignore this demand, but for the right reasons. It’s easy to write a tragedy for the sake of being contrary, but King doesn’t do this. Instead, his story is tragic, but hopeful, and shouldn’t it be? How often does life tie up all the loose ends, pack them into a gift-wrapped box, and send them to us on a sunny day, with all of the “good guys” alive and unscathed and all of the “bad guys” locked up or dead? More likely, the outcome of an event is apt to be a little good and a little bad (and usually a little more of one than the other), as are the people involved.

11/22/63 tells a fantastic tale that, because of the way it’s told, could just as easily be about real people and real events. Few authors do this as well as Stephen King, and while some of his craft decisions leave me scratching my head or even rolling my eyes, I always walk away grateful to have read the book and spent that time with his characters and stories. This one gets five stars from me.

As a side note, this is my first experience with an audio book. I think I prefer the print, but Craig Wasson’s reading was superb. Each character came to life in a unique but not over-the-top way. Sometimes he read things differently than I would have, but I could hardly call the different perspective a bad thing.

Check out more of my reading activity on my Goodreads page.

Small Update, and a Review of Three Hainish Novels

Since the last few posts have been reviews of other people’s work, and that isn’t what my blog is meant to be about, I thought I’d give a quick update before posting my latest review.

I’ve finished the second draft of my latest manuscript, a scifi/cyberpunk-ish novel called The Foreland. Thanks to the wonderful people at QueryTracker’s forums, I think my query letter is ready to go. I’m not querying agents yet (though I am making a list of them); I’m worried my manuscript might be a little too short. I’m currently exploring ways to lengthen the story without adding fluff or nonsense. I only need to add a few thousand words to get it to the “ideal word count” I’ve read about on so many other blogs, but if I can’t do it well, I won’t do it at all. I think I’d rather have a good story be a little short than have a fluffy story be the ideal length.

I am, as always, working on writing my next big project. I have a few ideas in the works, but few far enough along to talk about right now.

I’ve also picked up an older project for another round of editing, this one more likely to be self-published. Depending on how much of that I get done in the next few weeks, you’ll probably hear a lot more about it very soon.

On to the review:

Three Hainish Novels is, as the title suggests, a collection of three of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books, these ones set in her science fiction Hainish Cycle.

Rocannon’s World is Le Guin’s first novel, and the first in this collection. A lovely tale, science fiction at its finest, and wonderfully told. Some of the paragraphs run on a little long and the story begins to feel exhausted toward the end, but it doesn’t wear itself out and instead comes to a clean, beautiful close. 4/5 stars.

I’m not usually a fan of flowery prose, but in Planet of Exile it’s done so well and in such moderation that it only adds to the story. The story and the writing are both beautiful. Le Guin perfectly captures imagery and poetry in prose form, and this builds up to some moments later that gave me chills and could put most of the horror novels I’ve read to shame. The first few chapters were slow but very much enjoyable, and once I got to the last third or so of the book, I couldn’t put it down. 5/5

The final book, City of Illusions, is the longest, though still not a very long book. I had a little bit more trouble with this one; it’s very wordy, and I had to read over a few sentences a few times to get their meaning, especially when they were full of mythos and things from other Hainish Cycle books that weren’t immediately clear to me. Just as it begins to feel like it’s dragging on, the story takes a sharp turn, and all of that journey leading up to that point becomes clearer, more important. The moral dilemma faced by the main character, Falk, is astounding; page after page I dreaded what would become of him.

This is possibly the first of the three books in which it becomes clear that while the stories in the Hainish cycle take place billions of miles and hundreds of years apart, they are very much a part of one story. It was interesting to see a pebble cast by a character in one book lead to ripples the size of species in another, and there was a very strong thread of emotion connecting characters hundreds of years apart, never knowing each other or their stories, but somehow working toward the same end.

Each book in the Hainish Cycle is like a snapshot, a capture of one moment, one story, only a glimmer of the whole, expansive tale of mankind throughout the millenia. It excites me that there are more Hainish Cycle books to get to, and I can’t wait to see how they fit in. The series being written in one order and taking place in another means that once I’ve finished reading them in the order they were written, I can go back and read them in the order in which they take place, and start to see things new again.

Overall: 4/5 stars. Be sure to check out more reviews on my Goodreads page.

Review: Scott Pilgrim

When Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World came out, I had never heard of the comics. I watched the film, being a huge fan of Shaun of the Dead, and I loved it. I took the next logical step and decided to read the comics, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This might sound strange coming from a writer, but I usually don’t have a problem with film adaptations of other media. Often I like them as much as or more than the source material. For the first volume or two of Scott Pilgrim, I didn’t think I’d like the comics as much as I liked the movie. Around Volume 3 I was proven wrong, and once I got to Volume 4 I couldn’t stop reading.

I still love the movie, but I love the comics in a different way. They’re a lot deeper and a lot more personal, and in retrospect I think the film would have been even better as a trilogy. But I tend to see film adaptations and their source material as separate entities, and I’m comfortable being in love with both.

There were moments in the graphic novels that made me laugh out loud, which doesn’t happen often when I’m reading. I appreciated the style and humor of the comics, the frantic and exciting imagery, and especially how straightforward it was. The biggest problem I have when reading comics is that I sometimes have to stare at a panel for a long time to figure out what’s going on. I was rarely confused this way when reading Scott Pilgrim, but I found myself staring at the panels anyway, taking in the minute details and pop culture references Bryan Lee O’Malley hid throughout. In some ways Scott Pilgrim does right what I thought the FLCL graphic novels did wrong: there is a distinct method to the madness that demands the reader visit the story again and again to pick up on the things they missed the first time through. Scott Pilgrim has the added bonus of lovable scenarios and characters worth revisiting.

The final panels of the final volume were breathtaking in their beauty and simplicity. I wasn’t sure how the comic was going to end, but I wasn’t disappointed.

Final rating: 5 out 5 stars.

For more book reviews, be sure to check out my Goodreads page.

Review: The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin

In April I finished the first draft of my latest manuscript, and almost immediately after, a friend asked me to look over one he had recently finished, which I was happy to do, as I like to put some time between drafts of my work. After finishing his and starting on mine, I started to feel like reading something else. I don’t tend to read a lot while revising my own work, but I had spent too long away from the pile of books beside my bed. It was around that time I decided to pick up The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, thinking a short story collection might make for easier reading while I worked on my own writing. This proved to be a miscalculation, as I had trouble putting the book down.

Mentioning Le Guin’s work will most often draw to mind her fantasy, namely the Earthsea Cycle, which would pave the road for the likes of Neil Gaiman, Hayao Miyazaki, and J.K. Rowling. Perhaps less famous (but equally as influential, not to mention good) is her science fiction work, most of which falls under the Hainish Cycle. What most people won’t think of, however, is horror, which is a pity because she is perhaps the best writer at it. I’ve read books and found them disturbing, perhaps creepy, but never have I seen them as more than words on a page, which are not inherently horrific. Some of the stories in this book changed that for me. I would be hard-pressed to argue that the point of any story on the book is to be a work of horror, but there’s no doubt that Le Guin has managed to capture fear. I’m not talking about the gruesome and grisly, or the idea of some grotesque creature coming to “get” you, but the real horrors: Madness, isolation. The realization that you are not alone in a dark room, the comprehension of that which renders us infinitesimal.

“Semley’s Necklace” opens the collection. A short story on its own, it also happens to be the first chapter of Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World. Reading that novel was probably my first experience with the horror Le Guin is capable of writing: At first a mild science fiction work, it slowly works its way toward a terrifying realization. It was the perfect way to open both books.

“April in Paris” offers an immediate change of tone, being a more light-hearted fantasy work. “The Masters” presents the idea of persecution of the scientific, a theme that will recur in many of the author’s works, and contains one of my favorite passages in the book. “Darkness Box” is another fantasy piece, and one I enjoyed. Only a few pages long, it presents a world more rich than ones I’ve visited for entire novels.

“The Word of Unbinding” and “The Rule of Names” are both part of the Earthsea Cycle. The latter has elements of dark comedy, and in the last sentence returns the horror theme present throughout the collection. “Winter’s King” takes us back to the Hainish Cycle, and while a strong story, I thought it might have been better if it were extended into a full novel. Entire revolutions are passed over in a paragraph, which I assume is because they are perhaps not directly related to the central character’s internal story, but seeing years go by in a sentence was inescapably jarring.

“The Good Trip” provided a nice change of pace, being a short speculative work between two larger science fiction pieces. Following this is “Nine Lives”, one of my favorite stories in the collection. After this is “Things”, another short but very rich piece, and another favorite of mine. “A Trip to the Head” is a much less “conventional” story, being speculative through and through, and I appreciated the story it had to tell and the way it was told.

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” marks the point at which I couldn’t stay away from the book for more than a few hours. Another science fiction piece and part of the Hainish Cycle, this one stands perfectly well on its own. In this story were passages that gave me chills; perhaps for the first time, reading a book terrified me. Yet the story is not gloomy; it is beautiful even at its darkest, perhaps when it is darkest. This is not only my favorite in this collection, but easily one of my favorite short stories.

“The Stars Below” runs parallel to “The Masters” but is perhaps more enjoyable. “The Field of Vision” is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever read, and one of the most interesting. “Direction of the Road” offers a change of pace, another dark comedy and one of the most imaginative things I’ve read.

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was the first of Le Guin’s works I read. After a few years, it holds all the power it did when I first read it, and I was glad to re-visit it. I could write at great length about this story, but for now I’ll just say that I hold this one close to my heart.

“The Day Before the Revolution” solidly closes the collection. It might make more sense to me once I read The Dispossessed, but I did enjoy the story.

Nearly every story left me wanting to start the same story again, so this is a collection I look forward to coming back to time and again. It only grows more relevant with time, and I hope to read it over every few years, noticing things I hadn’t before, taking away lessons that passed me by the previous time. I can tell already that it has a lot to teach.

For more book reviews, be sure to check out my Goodreads page.