Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

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Another sequel to a fifteen year old movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is a pale shadow of the original. But the original was a pretty great movie, leaving a lot of space for this one to be a pretty good follow up. Again, it has to do with the sword Green Destiny and the attempts of various people to gain control of this powerful sword. The only returning character from the first movie is Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien and the rest are new, though many of them have connections to characters from the first movie. Sword of Destiny lacks much of the previous film’s complexity, being a much more straightforward melodrama. The finely choreographed fights and some beautiful scenery help to buoy somewhat leaden dialogue. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is weightless but attractive.

Released via Netflix on February 26th, Sword of Destiny continues the story of the Green Sword. After its protector dies, Yu Shu Lien comes to pay her respects to an old friend. While there, an attempt is made to steal the sword. Two thieves, Snow Vase and Wei-Fang, fight over the sword and end up captured. He is sent to a cage and she begs Shu Lien to train her. Finding out that the evil Hades Dai is after the sword, Shu Lien’s presumed dead, by the hand of Hades Dai no less, ex-lover Silent Wolf recruits a group of warriors to help protect the sword.

The story is melodrama and not especially deft melodrama, but it is reasonably effective. Sword of Destiny is at its worst when it is deliberately echoing the first film, since it can only suffer from direct comparison. However, it soars when it steps out of the first movies shadow. The scene where Silent Wolf goes looking for recruits is a highlight, playing out with a more comedic bent as it introduces a quintet of idiosyncratic martial arts masters. It turns into something like a riff on Seven Samurai. However, the repeated tale of thwarted love feels lacking. The same goes for the recitation of the younger protagonists’ tragic pasts. That Sword of Destiny coalesces into a more straightforward action story, while slightly disappointing, is to its benefit because it succeeds on those terms quite well.

Sword of Destiny smartly keeps the action coming quickly, spacing out some of the limp drama with very well-choreographed fights. The aforementioned recruitment scene is a highlight, as is a three way fight on a frozen lake that sees all combatants sliding around on the ice. Again, I don’t know that the fights are quite as good as the first movie (I can’t say for sure because it’s been a decade since I’ve seen it), they are all highly entertaining.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny seems stuck in a miserable place. It likely only got made because of its connection to the highly successful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but what is most damaging to this movie is the inevitable comparisons to the easily superior original. It will be judged against that movie and be found wanting. Judged on its own merits, it is still not spectacular, but it is a fun, lightweight movie. I don’t know, I know it is an inferior movie, but I am having a hard time separating that fact from how much I actually enjoyed watching this.

***

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25 SNES #5: The Death and Return of Superman

The plan was for the next entry in this series to be an RPG, either the fairly lengthy one I am no halfway through (Lufia) or the relatively brief one I’ve queued up next (Super Mario RPG), but by the two thirds point of the month it was clear that wasn’t going to work out, so instead I switched to another brief game; The Death and Return of Superman

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When I went searching for some SNES deep cuts to help get me to twenty-five games for the year, the one really surprising game I occasionally saw on best of lists was The Death and Return of Superman.  Most of the others I was familiar with even if I hadn’t had the chance to play them. This was a licensed title that had completely slipped past me. Usually that sort of thing does bode well, but Death and Return of Superman is a perfectly fine game.  It is very much of a product of the 90’s and hasn’t aged particularly well, but there is plenty of interest here and the game plays just fine.

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Like the majority of licensed games in this era, Death and Return of Superman is a beat-em-up. Superman goes left to right and punches dudes until he gets to a boss; repeat as necessary. It has some of the usual flaws with this sort of game.  The levels aren’t particularly interesting and there simply aren’t enough enemy types.  It eventually gets old traveling through similar looking enemies punching the same 5 guys in the face.  Still, there is something satisfying about it as well. The best sorts of beat-em-ups don’t overstay their welcome, being both fairly brief and fast paced.  The Death and Return of Superman’s levels tend to go on a little too long, but the game itself is about the right length.

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In some ways it feels designed with home consoles in mind, in some ways it feels like the worst sort of quarter munching arcade game. One point against it is that it is single player only.   Likely a concession to making it play well on the SNES.  There isn’t much slowdown and the sprites look good. As I said earlier, the game could do with more enemy types, but the ones here look pretty nice.  The game also has five different playable characters, giving some variety to the game.  Unfortunately, the different characters all play just about the same.  They have the same basic set of moves and there doesn’t appear to be any difference in their strength or speed.  It mostly just ends up being different sprites.  Another problem is just how repetitive the bosses can be.  They can level the player in a few hits and don’t really do anything interesting.

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Still, it is an enjoyable experience if a flawed on.  I really liked how the game actually tried to tell a story.  In fact, I prefer this telling to the comics.  While the comic story this is based on is a famous one, it is not a very good one.  It is a better idea for a story than an actual story.  That is why the player changes character so frequently.  You start as Superman, who runs through a couple of levels before fighting Doomsday and dying.  Then four replacement Supermen show up to try to take his place: Cyborg Superman, Superboy, The Eradicator and Steel.  The comic played it as a mystery of just who was the real Superman, only for none of them to turn out to be.  The game runs through the plot in a handful of levels, with the player taking the role over whatever Superman is necessary at the time.  It works, and makes for an interesting set up.  It also helps that Superman feels like Superman. He may go down like a chump to the bosses, but he flies and punches with power and has his heat vision.

It is a good game.  A run through of takes no more than an hour and a half to two hours and it is decently entertaining the whole time.  It could really do with a two player mode, but I don’t have a second player to play with anyway.  It might be the best Superman game, but that says more about the other games to bear his name than anything about this one.  The Death and Return of Superman is a serviceable beat-em-up that at least appears to be trying to do something interesting even if it doesn’t completely succeed.

Deadpool Review

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Deadpool released to acclaim and massive success, I assume surprising anyone who watched any of its dire trailers. The reception is a bit mystifying to me. Deadpool isn’t a bad film, but it really does nothing that viewers haven’t seen before. Maybe that isn’t quite true; viewers haven’t seen a superhero movie that quite earns an R rating like this one, other than maybe Watchmen. The rest follows familiar threads with a star that is somewhat more violent and interested in telling jokes before.

Aside from all the foul language, blood and some nudity, this is essentially the same superhero origin movie you’ve seen a dozen times before. While they attempt to disguise it with some flashbacks, this is the same plot as Batman Begins and Iron Man, among others. Wade Wilson is a former Special Forces operative who is diagnosed with cancer. To spare his girlfriend having to watch him waste away, he joins up with a group that claims they can cure his cancer and give him superpowers. When they unsurprisingly turn out to be bad guys, Wade engineers an escape and sets out for revenge. It executes that plot well, but it is a tired one. It also tries to hang its hat on Deadpool’s jokes, which isn’t that novel either. Being a joker is pretty much Iron Man’s whole shtick. Deadpool’s sense of humor tends to be more of the Family Guy non sequitur variety, but it is the same dynamic at play. It is significantly more bloody and violent than other superhero movies, which I guess could move the needle for some people.

Where the movie succeeds is with Reynolds take on the titular character. The material occasionally fails him, but he delivers his lines with some great comic rhythm and timing. The movie is at its best in the action scenes, with Deadpool in costume living up to his reputation as the “merc with a mouth.” Unfortunately, that takes up a surprisingly small amount of the runtime. Much more time is wasted on showing who he was before he became Deadpool, an unoriginal and uninteresting story. Still, the fighting is largely very good. The only real part where the fighting falters is with the fact that the important combatants are basically invincible. Deadpool, the villains Angel and Ajax, and the X-Man Colossus all wail on each other to little effect until the plot calls for it.

Colossus is another point of contention. He looks terrible, and the part they have him play isn’t much better. The special effects are mostly unobtrusive, except for one big silver cartoon on the screen. They really could have pulled any X-Man out of a hat to play that role, which is just to be the butt of some of Deadpool’s jokes, and they really should have chosen one that wouldn’t have looked so cheap and just plain bad on the screen.

Still, Deadpool kind of works. Most of that is due to Reynolds, but it delivers enough laughs and excitement to not be a complete waste. The fawning reactions it has garnered will continue to baffle me, but I can’t say it is completely undeserving.

**1/2

Codename STEAM

I don’t think I could love the setting and look of a game more than I love that of Codename STEAM. Set in an alternate 19th century, it stars a variety of characters from tall tales and literature, who team up using steampunk weapons to fight cthulhu monsters. All led by Abraham Lincoln and his Lincoln mech. The characters designs are reminiscent of Jack Kirby (actually, it might be more like Mike Mignola) comics and the graphics are some fine cell shaded goodness. It is such a shame that the game is chore to play.

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Really, it comes absurdly close to being excellent. There are just a few problems that derail the whole experience. In theory the game plays much like Sega’s PS3 masterpiece Valkyria Chronicles. It is a strategy game where each character’s turn plays out a little more like a shooter. It doesn’t translate perfectly to the 3DS’s one stick set up (I don’t have a New 3DS, which might alleviate this small problem) but using the touch screen for aiming is functional. The first big problem is that the game features no map. In Valkyria Chronicles the game gives the player a map of which to formulate strategies. Even Intelligent Systems’s, the developer of Codename STEAM, other strategy game Fire Emblem let’s players see the whole map before making their moves. Codename STEAM only lets the player see from each unit’s perspective in a tight over the shoulder view. It makes it all but impossible to determine the best course of action.

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That is a small problem and one that can be overcome with just a little bit of annoyance. The real problem is with the game’s turn system. It is set off of each party member carrying a steam tank on their back. They can store and use only so much Steam. This means that the player has to balance moving and attacking and storing up steam for counterattacks or the next turn. The only problem is that holding enough steam for counterattacks means barely moving on your turn. Enemies seem to be able to move much farther and attack more often than the player. To have any chance, the player has to plan around counter attacks, which slows the game to an intolerable crawl. This is made worse on maps with the little drone enemies that call in mortar attacks on squad members close enough to attract their attention. That means moving as far as possible, which means no counterattacks.

When the system works, it works really well. There are maps where it just clicks and provides a tense, strategic experience. Each character is unique enough that knowing them and their individual strengths helps to inform the player’s strategies. For example Lion, the Cowardly Lion from Oz, can perform a jumping attack that gets him around certain obstacles. That allows for pincer attacks and the like. Tom Sawyer can fire his weapon many times, though it only does a little damage. That makes him great for scouting and stunning enemies. Too bad things do not work smoothly all that often. Often situations spiral out of control with little the player can do to stop them. It ceases being about making good tactical decision and becomes about already knowing what is coming next.

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Despite all of its flaws, I still think I kind of like this game. I am putting it away for now, a little over halfway through, but I expect to come back to it after the spring rush of 3DS RPGs is over. It is a noble experiment for Nintendo to invest in a new property, too bad it didn’t work out as well as Splatoon did. It seems unlikely, but I would meet a sequel to this game with open arms. The problems with this game could easily be fixed with just a few tweaks and then Nintendo would have another strategy series to set next to Fire Emblem and Advance Wars.

Zoolander 2

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Comedy sequels are by rule pretty unnecessary; Zoolander 2, a comedy sequel that comes 15 years after the original might be the most unnecessary of all. Ignoring the question of why, Zoolander 2 isn’t an unenjoyable movie. Stiller and Wilson are a solid comedy duo and there is a significant uptick in energy when Will Ferrell’s Mugatu reappears. The whole thing ends up feeling drawn a little thin. There are some good jokes, and some good call backs to jokes from the original, but eventually the callbacks and the overused cameos overwhelm everything else. Zoolander 2 has just enough life to it to not be the complete waste that it seemed almost inevitable that it would be.

The plot, such as it is, is about Zoolander and Hansel stepping back into the limelight after more than a decade away; both sent away by the same disaster that helped reset the status quo from the first movie’s happy ending. After some initial awkwardness the two blatantly state their character motivations to each other and team up. They are soon joined by Valentina, a member of Interpol’s fashion police, who helps the duo get to the bottom of who is killing the world’s most beautiful pop-stars.

The films kind of putters along, making jokes about how Derek and Hansel are stupid and shallow and old, until it gets to the third act and Mugatu is revealed as the mastermind behind everything. Which of course he was. After that it has a stronger sense of purpose as it builds to its climax. Ferrell’s Mugatu has a much stronger presence than the other villains, who were still playing coy about their allegiance.

What good jokes the movie have end up buried underneath way too many celebrity cameo’s that amount to little more than moments of look who it is. The ones that work are actually worked into the plot, like the bits with Justin Bieber, Sting and Billy Zane. There is a sense of diminishing returns, as each comes out to less surprise and less purpose as the movie goes along. That is strange against the somewhat understated jokes in the movie. Near the halfway mark they meet Sting who imparts on them some important information. It is a deliberate call back to a similar scene with David Duchovny from the first movie, but it is also closing the mystery of who is Hansel’s father. Hansel has been looking for his father and it has been made very clear that it is Sting. In the scene he is disguised as a priest, so Father Sting waits with anticipation for Hansel to realize that he is his father. He doesn’t and movie just lets it go for the moment.

Zoolander 2 is a movie without a purpose. Most of its good material was used in the first film, all the jokes it could make about the ridiculousness of the fashion industry and celebrity and Zoolander’s stupidity have been made. All that is left is a trio of characters in Zoolander, Hansel and Mugatu who have just enough life in them carry viewers out of the theater with a grin on their face.

**1/2

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

The Mario RPGs, both of Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi sub-brands, tend toward being tedious at times. I love them, but there is no denying it. The Mario & Luigi games tend toward condescending tutorializing and Paper Marios tend to feature funny bits that are just a chore to play. Those are blemishes on otherwise very good games, though the degree to which those flaws derail the experience varies. Nintendo combining the two series was on it’s a terrific idea; it had the potential to be one of the best games of the year, but it also runs the risk of flaws compounding to make one of the most frustrating game experiences imaginable. While Mario & Luigi Paper Jam is not quite the best case scenario, it luckily strays far from the worst case scenario.

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Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam is not really a combination of the different stands of Mario RPGs, it is just a Mario & Luigi game with the Paper Mario characters tossed in. That in itself is one of the better gimmicks in the series, less tiresome that Partners in Time’s babies or Dream Team’s dreams. The Paper Mario stuff is just a flavoring added on to the usual M&L goofiness. They didn’t go quite far enough with the paper stuff, but they got some good use out of the paper doppelgangers. It clearly made it easier to come up with enemies, since they could double up on the Mario staples and have to lean less on new, and generally less interesting, original baddies. I would say that the lack of original characters is a flaw, but the only truly interesting character this series has ever come up with is Fawful. Instead, the game just lets the slightly different Bowsers and Peaches play off each other for some really fun scenes.

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Comedy has always been a big part of these games’ appeal. That is true of both Paper Mario and M&L. True comedies are rare in games, and even rarer among RPGs. That fact that these games have been consistently funny over almost ten games. While not all of them have been great games to play, they’ve all brought the same sense of wacky irreverence. The two series combined are maybe funniest yet. This is quite an accomplishment for a games with three protagonists, none of which talk. The best bits are the Bowser parts and the seeing the two Peaches outwit the two Bowser Jrs. It never really strays from the conventional Mario cast, but it does really good work with them. Really, the Paper Mario stuff helps sand down the flaws of the previous M&L game. Dream Team, while not a bad game, was interminable with the tutorials and not especially funny chatter. That is cut down quite a bit in this one. There are still some annoying minigames, but they are less frequent and less onerous.

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Despite all that this game does well, I still can’t quite say that I love it. I’m not really sure why; it addresses almost all of the problems I had with the previous game. It also brings some much needed challenge to the bosses. They might actually go a little too far into difficult. The story doesn’t do anything special, but it is funny and fast moving. It might just be that the addition of Paper Mario to the team is just too much for me to handle. I can’t manage three separate characters as once. Really, it is just as fun as the game is from moment to moment, it all feels belabored and pointless in the end. What Mario is actually doing is never particularly interesting; he is just going through the motions that make up a Mario game; except this time the gameplay is not as outrageously good as it is in the platform games. When it stops being funny it starts being a drag. Still, those moments are relatively few. Mostly the game is a joy.

Hail, Caesar! Review

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The Coen Brothers’ movies tend to share a certain nihilism. Even in the comedies tend to be rather bleak affairs. Hail, Caesar! might be the brightest, sunniest affair they have ever produced, but in the end it still shares that nihilism. The characters in this film do not face as dire of consequences as the characters in many of the Coen’s movies, but their efforts still produce the same results. In the end, nothing the characters do matters.

Hail, Caesar! lets the Coen’s riff on all varieties of classic cinema. It stars Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix, a fictional version of a real person, who works a fixer for Capitol Pictures. The movie follows him for roughly a day as he tries to keep the production going of all the movies in production for the studio. Their big picture is a bloated biblical epic also title Hail, Caesar. The star of that movie, played by George Clooney, is kidnapped by communists calling themselves the Future. While Eddie tries to keep his stars disappearance under wraps, he also has to deal with emergencies with other films. There is an aquatic musical which has to deal with the fact that its star, the wholesome imaged Scarlett Johansen, is pregnant out of wedlock. There is a dinner party drama where the singing cowboy star is having trouble adapting to a new role. He’s also got a pair of twin reporters, played by Tilda Swinton, snooping around. And he’s got a job offer in another industry.

Most of this just exists to let the filmmakers toy with some kinds of movies that they could never actually make. While there is a strong central thread that ties it all together, most of these bits exist in their own little universes. Cameos and bit parts abound. It is fun to see Hobie Doyle, former rodeo stuntman, try to play an aristocrat. It is just as fun to watch him do lasso tricks are inappropriate times and play a singing cowboy.

Unlike most other Coen films, there isn’t much darkness here. There is a ransom, but kidnap victim never seems to be in much danger. The biggest danger to most is that their shameful secrets will get out. The villains are more intellectual and ineffectual than actually dangerous. But ever with its fairly low stakes premise, it still holds that essential nihilism. No matter what anyone does, nothing changes. This is the best case scenario in the Coens film: everything goes back to the way it was. Really, for all intents and purposes the good guys win, but if it can even be called a victory it is a hollow one.

This is not a weighty film, though; it is just a comedy that is not stupid. It is funny. Hail, Caesar! will have attentive viewers in stitches for most of its run time. Sometimes it is just for the absurdity of the situation; sometimes it is because characters have funny accents. So many actors give great performances, so many little jokes and bits land, it really leaves you wanting more. By the time it circles back around to where it started I was ready to take the ride again.

****1/2

25 SNES #4: Joe and Mac

The Joe and Mac series is one of those small blips that litter video game history. They were moderately popular for a few years before disappearing without a trace and without much thought to where they went. They are not unlike Gex or Onimusha. Not bad games necessarily (I have a lot of good things to say about Onimusha someday), but not the most memorable one either. I only know Data East’s Joe and Mac because I had a friend in grade school that swore by and I heard about it on Retronauts. Having never played it, I added it to my list for this SNES explorative endeavor. I almost wish I hadn’t.

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Joe and Mac shows its arcade roots. I was expecting something more like Mario, but the game shares more with Contra. There is some light platforming, but most of the game is a prehistoric run and gun. Only a run and gun without good shooting ahem, throwing options. There is a bone, a boomerang and a fireball. All of take more than one hit to kill an enemy. In the time I spent with the game, no more than the hour or so it took to finish it, I was not able to tell if there was a power difference between them. It seemed like it only changed the speed and trajectory of the player’s shots. While the overall it was much like Contra, it lacked that series’ tight levels. Joe and Mac feel sloppy and half formed. More accurately, it feels like an arcade game designed to eat quarters hastily remixed to play decently on a home console. There are a lot of cheap hits and deaths, but the game gives players a life bar and plenty of health pick-ups. That just serves to make a lot of it feel inconsequential. There is little penalty for getting hit.

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What I missed, and what I am sure was the true draw of this game back in the day was the coop. I didn’t have someone to play with and this feels like a game that gets a lot more fun with a little cooperation and/or competition. It isn’t bad single player, but there are so many better games to play on just the SNES that I can’t recommend it. But coop can change things. If there is some fighting you to get to the health refills or to rack up the most points, a lot of the inconsequential stuff can feel more important. But even then, it is not like the SNES is lacking other coop games. I know the system was flooded with beat-em-ups.

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Joe and Mac is a relic of a bygone time. Being forgotten to history is probably a kindness to it. It was never good enough to be called great and time hasn’t done it any favors, but it certainly isn’t bad enough to be worthy of any great scorn. It is just a mediocre arcade port from 1991 and it plays like it.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Despite my general disdain for zombies, I had some hopes of enjoying this film. While shambling corpses do little to interest me, classic literature does and I found that zombies tend to be tolerable in a comedy setting. Look at Shaun of the Dead; I could give two craps about the classic zombie movies it’s riffing on, but the comedy kept me more than entertained. Pride and Prejudice is at its heart a comedy. Yes, Elizabeth Bennet deals with some very serious issues, but foibles of those around her are exaggerated to comic proportions. With a title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies there is really no place to go but to comedy. This makes it a shame that this movie resists that call so much.

It still has plenty of comic elements, and those elements tend to be its best. Matt Smith plays Mr. Collins as obsequious to the extreme. He almost feels as though he has come from a different, much better version of this movie to lighten things up. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet act much as they do in the book, the lack of change works for a pair of already comedic characters. Unfortunately, the real fault lies with Darcy, who is played as charmlessly serious. While it isn’t a bad interpretation of the character, it doesn’t feel right for this movie. Lily James is better than this film deserves as Elizabeth, which works for her as the center of the film. Still Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is too serious for a movie as patently silly as it is.

It does add some competent fight scenes to the mix, but it doles them out at odd times. Some changes to the book are inevitable in any adaptation, but this movie stick to the book oddly closely at times while going completely off the rails at others. The best one is at the ball at the beginning, with all five Bennet sisters showing their competence at zombie killing. The movie seems as though it is setting up some sort of point about the differences in where the upper crust learned their fighting styles, either in Japan or China, but that is dropped about the midway point. Many of the other fights are either too short or shot in too close to have much of an effect. Still, the battle between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth during his first proposal is excellent, allowing them to show their emotions with more than just dialogue. The great shame is that the film builds to a big climax and them barely lets either character do anything during it. All the pieces are there, much time was spent showing how competent of fighters they are, but the last big fight is not so big and not much of a fight.

Other than that, the film is just littered with ideas that dropped almost as soon as they are mentioned. There is something about the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse to lead the zombies against the humans, but not much comes of it. There is the whole Chinese or Japanese training segment. Lady Catherine de Bourgh looks fearsome in a couple of scenes, but she doesn’t even fight in the one scene it is all but necessary that she do so. Some zombies are able to avoid eating humans by never having consumed human brains, but no one other than Elizabeth seems to care. The whole thing seems half-baked and just reeks of squandered opportunity.

I didn’t hate the movie, though. There was just enough there to enjoy that made it sting all the more how fleeting those enjoyable moments are. This could have been an excellent, schlocky mash-up, but instead it is a tepid mixture of ill-fitting parts. Maybe they did need to go for the extra gore and the “R” rating; that may have helped. The real problem is that it had too many ideas and wasn’t smart enough to sift the good ones from the bad.

**1/2

Xenoblade Chronicles X

I was shocked about how much I enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles X. I am not, in general, a big fan of sandbox RPGs. Bethesda’s output has never done anything for me. In fact, it has actively repulsed me. People often describe all the great things they do in Fallout or Elder Scrolls games and while those descriptions are great, actually doing those things tend to be dull. They are simply not fun the play. I am also not remotely interested in exploring their giant worlds. I do like the idea of exploration, but most Western RPGs I’ve played have not strayed far from the well-worn territory of Lord of the Rings influenced fantasy or generic post-apocalyptic (I am undoubtedly doing a disservice to Fallout, but that sort of setting does absolutely nothing for me) wastelands. Xenoblade Chronicles X, despite coming from a completely different gaming legacy, scratched the itch for me that those sorts of sandbox games did for seemingly everyone else. It did this by actually being fun to play and providing a world I actually wanted to explore.

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One thing that had been missing from a lot of JRPGs lately is any sense of exploration. I don’t mean anything crazy, just something on the level of SNES Final Fantasies. Even that level of exploration is hard to find. Look at FFXIII. That game was intentionally aping popular corridor shooters, but it ended up creating a world with a very novel setting that didn’t allow the player to have any sense of how this amazing world fit together. Then there is the largely delightful Bravely Default, which crammed a 40 hour game into 15 hours’ worth of game world. There have been exceptions, like Dragon Quest VIII and the first Xenoblade Chronicles. Xenoblade Chronicles X took the original game and did the world just a little bit better.

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XCX starts the player as one of the few remaining humans, who have escaped the soon to be destroyed Earth and crashed on the alien planet Mira. The player character then joins an organization tasked with exploring and taming this alien world. Mira is hands down the best video game setting I’ve encountered. The player starts in the relatively normal area of Primordia. It is a rocky plain with a variety of plains creatures running around. Even in this first area there are several different landscapes. There are beaches with dangerous crab-like enemies and flying mantas. There are wide open plains with boar-like enemies and prides of giant cat-esque creatures. There are also rocky hills and tranquil lakes. In the sky about all of this are floating plateaus that taunt the player with their inaccessibility. Enemies range in size from dog-sized beetles to brontosaurus looking monsters that are a hundred feet tall. Just running around exploring this one continent can take dozens of hours. Even late in the game, after I had played for nearly 100 hours, I was still finding new nooks and crannies in Primordia. After that, the player goes to Noctilum, a densely packed rain forest and swampy area. Again, this one continent has enough to explore to keep a player busy for a longer time than some games last. After that there are still three full continents to explore, each as varied and interesting as the first.

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The best part is that, after the prologue and tutorial, nearly the entirety of the world is open to explore. If the player so desires, he can run to the fifth continent as see how far he can get. It won’t be too far, the enemies are tough, but it is possible. This lets the game keep players exploring. In all the 120+ hours I played of this game, I never felt like I was repeating myself. There was always some place new to go and some new sight to behold. And the best part is that any place you can see you can go. There are some restrictions, places that require a skell, the game’s names for its mechs that player’s party can pilot, to reach, but many more just require creative use of the landscape.

Those Skells are worth a mention. The player can see other character using them from early on, but the player doesn’t get a license until a good bit into the game and it isn’t until late that it gains the ability to fly. When that flight ability opens up it leads to one of the most exhilarating moments in video game history, as the player seamlessly flies out of the city into Primordia, up into the sky, landing on one of those floating plateaus, and able to look down at the human city and most of the continent below. It is amazing.

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None of that would matter if exploring itself were a chore, but the game wisely facilitates exploration and experimentation. The player’s primary task is to place probes on the landscape. Those allow for more information about the surrounding area. They also serve as checkpoints. The player can warp to many of those probes once they are laid and dying simple kicks the player back to the most recent one, with no loss of experience of money. The lack of penalty for stumbling onto a super strong monster lets the player be bold about the paths they take.

Then there is the battle system, which is complex and active, but not particularly difficult. Most battles can be won with persistence, but there is depth to it if the player wants to find it. That holds true for most of the rest of the game. The income players can derive from placed probes can be manipulated to obscene heights, but the game only requires the minimum effort to be overcome. The story is there. It is told sloppily and without much care as far as pacing and tension, but it is built on some solid ideas and concepts. It doesn’t do anything egregiously bad, but kind of over explains itself since it assumes players have forgotten what’s up with hours between story missions. In contrast to the failings of the central plot, the characters, in aggregate if not each individual, have interesting stories. Each party member has a handful of mission specific to them that helps explain who they are and what they want. All of them are skippable. In fact, other than the handful of party members forced on the player at the start of the game most of the party is skippable. But those stories are reasonably well written and occasionally quite touching.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is not a perfect game. It is big and messy and often obtuse. But the things it does well it does so well to completely overshadow its missteps. It can be annoying to have to track wayward party members down each time you want to change the line-up, for example. That is an odd oversight for a game that does the busy work on collection missions for the player, not requiring them to run back to town to get their rewards. Overall, though, the game does more right than it does wrong by a long shot and so much of what it does well is not done well by any other game. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a singular experience, the kind of game that only comes around once in a great while and is not a game to be missed.