Righto! Time for an update!
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Released at the very tail end of 2017, I honestly thought for sure that it'd end up getting delayed into 2018. Surely there's no way that Monolith Soft could possibly crank out a full sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii and Xenoblade X on Wii U (See! I didn't forget about it!) in just a hair over 2 years!?
Well it turns out that they kind of didn't...
This game was buggy as fuck when it first released in 2017. Tons of crash bugs and memory leak issues reared their ugly head. While Monolith Soft managed to rush the game out just in time for Xmas, it came at a price. And with a mountain of DLC & bug fixes on the way? It was then that I decided to skip playing it and to just wait for them to eventually finish the game and get it into a decent state down the line.
It's now 2023 and the game has received many, many updates, additional DLC content and fixes. Surely it's now a much better game than it was back in 2017 right? Well, yes and no.
Throughout my time playing the game, I had precisely one hard crash while playing and lost roughly 2 hours of progress because of this. Now that's much better than the constant crashes that plagued the game upon release, but unfortunately that's just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to the game's technical and design problems. Ultimately, I feel that Monolith Soft simply bit off more than they could chew with this game.
Let's not sugar coat things. This game is a bit of a technical disaster on Switch. It runs very poorly and has fucking AWFUL image quality. In handheld mode? It legitimately might well be one of the ugliest games I've ever played, it literally can look worse than some PS1 games; and that is NOT an exaggeration! Here's a couple of screenshots I took while playing in handheld mode that represents just how bad it can get...
MY EYES!!! THE GOGGLES DO NOTHING!!!!!
Honestly? I would not consider handheld mode to really be playable. It's such a soupy mess that I literally can't tell what's going on during a fight. It's hard enough to tell what's going on while playing on the TV, but when you're dealing with a HD game that is being squashed down to just barely above 3DS resolution? Yeah, it's basically unplayable. Oh, and the framerate is donkey shit too to boot!
I'm not one to really rag on about technical performance this much usually, but this really is just unacceptable; especially as an important first party production. And to think that this is after all of the billion and one updates that the game has had!? Fuck me! How bad was it back in 2017!? Monolith Soft simply had all the wrong priorities when making this game, it really does seem like they developed the game primarily for more powerful hardware than the Switch and then tried to squash it down to make it work. Sure, it technically runs on the machine, but when it's basically unplayable in handheld mode, you've kind of defeated the point of even making a Switch exclusive in the first place.
So how's the game itself? Well... it's very much a mixed bag... but ultimately it's a gigantic step down from the original Wii game in every single way.
Let's start with the good. The battle system is actually quite fun... eventually. Building on the combat system from the first Xenoblade, it's focused around a new elemental combo system whereby chain attacks can be generated by continuing down a predetermined chain of elements. Use the right attacks in the right order and you can unleash powerful combo moves; a bit like Chrono Cross actually. You also have the same set of Break/Topple combo attacks as in Xenoblade 1, now augmented with the new Launch command (which comes with a hilarious animation of your launched foe spinning around like crazy that always makes me laugh). Unfortunately, it takes a really long time for the game to actually allow you to really take advantage of the combo system as it simply doesn't give you the tools you need to unleash the combos on offer until a good way into the game. Speaking of which... another problem lies in just how much of an utter slog the first half of the game ends up being because everything is a massive damage sponge. Until you finally get the ability to cancel arts into arts (which happens about 20 hours in or so), everything takes a fucking eternity to kill, and levelling up takes bloody forever. A further problem is that the battle system ultimately ends up being a very restrictive one trick pony by the end. Once you gain that ability to cancel arts into arts, there's very little further development with the battle system (save for one cool thing that is a spoiler), and every battle basically devolves into a race to activate your elemental chain attack over and over again. It's all very one note and rote by the end, with little room for real experimentation or player expression, and it does become quite dull.
The level design is also a big step down from the original Xenoblade, though to be fair, that's a real fucking high bar to achieve; so I can't complain too much about this. It's still a big step up over most other 3D RPGs (especially HD ones), but the landmarking and setpieces fall way short of the Wii game, as environments become disorientating and confusing to navigate without a guide. Now here is where I talk about a system that sounds great on paper, but falls well short of its potential in practice... the Field Skills.
Oh how this broke me...
I love Golden Sun. One of the very best things about Golden Sun was how your psynergy skills could be used not just in battles, but also in the overworld to solve puzzles, remove obstacles and traverse the world around you. So when I heard about the idea of Field Skills in Xenoblade 2? I was really excited! Using your characters' unique skills to get around the world and destroy obstacles!? That sounds like Golden Sun!!! Oh boy!!!
And then it ended up being tied to the absolute worst thing in the world... The Gacha Machine...
0.1% chance baby!
This mechanic has no place in a full-priced retail game. There is no reasonable justification for its inclusion. It absolutely ruins all exploration in this game because progression is tied to your ability to get lucky enough with the gacha to pull the right Blade that has the field skill that you need to progress. And unfortunately? These field skills are mandatory to progress. It's absolute shite, I hate it. I hate everything about this system. It makes me honestly question if Xenoblade 2 was originally planned to be a F2P mobile game before it was moved to Switch after it ended up being a surprise success; it would honestly explain a lot about the design choices behind this game if that were the case. You know what makes things even better? The paid DLC comes along with free spins of the gacha, it's literally taken straight out of the evil F2P mobile handbook. And at that point? I gave up. I literally asked @Glen-i to grind for me, because I couldn't take any more of this game's stupid shit.
Speaking of stupid shit, the amount of utterly superfluous mechanics in this game is just mindboggling. There is so much utterly unneccessary shit in this game that serves no purpose but to waste your fucking time that it's absurd. All the crafting crap, per-character AND BLADE skill trees (oh, and you have to manually trigger them in the menu; can't be having them passively activate now!), Meowster Hunter ripoffs, useless sidequests that don't passively complete as you play the game (nah, that was just too good an idea in Xenoblade 1 to carry on with), every single fucking thing involving Poppi (including a minigame that should be fun, but is turned into a PTSD nightmare through sheer grindy repetition). It's all busywork timewasting crap and bloat that doesn't serve the main gameplay whatsoever. ALL of this should've been exorcised from the game, it would've been far better off without it. Oh, and just to make my life even more miserable? The map is completely and utterly useless, with completely misleading topography, icons that don't represent anything, landmarks not visible, a Fast Travel system where everything is nested in endless menus (making your desired location a nightmare to find), elevation not being accurately or clearly defined... How on Alrest they managed to fuck up the map when they had it perfect with Xenoblade 1 is absoutely beyond me! When you have such large scale maps as well? The poor quality mapping system makes the world an utter chore to navigate! Thank you so much @Glen-i for helping me get past all of this crap. Without you being there to grind this stupid crap for me and helping me to figure out where I was supposed to go? I honestly would've just dropped this game and watched a story recap on Youtube.
Oh... there's a story? Could've fooled me...
Cue the porno music!
This is Saturday Morning Xenoblade. The entire game is basically like a series of cartoon episodes strung together, with none of the gravitas, philosophical exploration of morality or interesting character development that defined the original Xenoblade. I'd even go so far as to say that it's outright insulting that this is the (kind of... spoilers though!) follow up to that game. The story starts off stupid and goes downhill from there; and there is almost zero noteworthy character development, as each character gets reduced to a series of recycled anime tropes (Including Rex himself, who is a complete wet tissue of a character). It's a mess of hodgepodge concepts, cartoon villains and anime tropes that belong moreso in a Tales of game than a Xeno title. And fuck me is this game horny! I'm sure you're all aware of the online discourse surrounding this game, but it really is just as bad as its made out to be. This is a game designed by dirty old men, for dirty old men. It made me feel outright uncomfortable playing this game, and I love Bayonetta for Jubileus' sake! Save for one single thing (spoilers for that below), the story, storytelling and character development is utter wank (pun most certainly intended)...
Xenoblade 2 is a mess. Its story is a mess, the game design is a mess, and its technical performance & game engine is a mess. That's what happens when you try and rush out a large scale HD RPG for a brand new console in just 2 years though. But it really is shocking just how little confidence the game's own designers had in their own game. The fact that they added difficulty sliders for every single facet of the gameplay in a DLC update really is the most damning condemnation of all though; because it shows that they gave up on trying to craft an ideal experience for the player, in favour of asking the player to design the game for them. It's such a shame to see, because for all of my misgivings with this game, it actually is a real miracle of a production. It's a full-scale HD sequel to one of the most ambitious and critically lauded RPGs ever made, and it was done at a breakneck pace in just two years; while Monolith Soft were also helping Nintendo EAD to make Breath of the Wild. I admire the ambition on display, and the result is still better than almost every other HD RPG out there not published by Nintendo. But when even the game's own director acknowledges that Xenoblade 2 falls well short of the original game? You know that it can't be anything other than a massive disappointment... Still, Xenoblade 2 does have a lovely soundtrack, and it did give us this utterly wonderful little gem; so it's not all bad.
Let's hope that Xenoblade 3 finally does justice to the original Xenoblade when I eventually get round to it.
The seminal FPS game on consoles... actually no it isn't, but it may as well be. After almost 26 years, the impossible finally happened and the impossible license to release once again became the license to kill on both Xbox and Nintendo Switch! I played it again via the NSO service and what a treat it was!
The impossible finally happened... The NSO border is finally gone!!
Goldeneye 007 receives some real tangible benefits from its Switch re-release. The game is now rendered in full 720p (including full support for the game's original widescreen mode, newly added to the NSO emulator!), greatly improving the image quality and visibility of in-game objects & enemies over its original 240p N64 release, while the framerate sees a massive bump up from its original unstable 10-20FPS to a now solid 30FPS. Coupled with an official N64 NSO controller? This means the Goldeneye now plays better than ever before, and the bump in performance really makes a difference in how nice it feels to play. And it runs just as well in portable mode as on the telly. What a welcome change from Xenoblade 2 eh?
Anyway, I won't dwell on the game itself too much because you all know this game inside and out by now anyway. But suffice it to say? I love this game. Not as much as Perfect Dark mind you, which improved on its predecessor in basically every single way (framerate aside! Man, I can't wait for that game to come to Switch!), but Goldeneye 007 is every bit as good today as it was 26 odd years ago. The mission-based game structure is still utterly enthralling and sorely missing from modern brainless FPS games, the soundtrack is timeless (and makes the best use of a single repeated song ever!) and the gunplay is utterly superb. There's a reason why it spawned one of the longest running speedrun communities of all time, and it's because it's a cracker of a game; impeccably designed from top to bottom (ok... maybe the landmarking in the Statue level could've been better) and rightfully one of the most influential and important games ever made.
The Murder of Sonic The Hedgehog
See Glen-i's writeup here. I played it together with him and I have nothing else to add that he hasn't already said. It's a surprisingly solid little gem of a game!
Professor Layton And The Azran Legacy
Keep an eye on that puzzle count... it's gonna be important for later...
So I have a confession to make. I have played through every single mainline Professor Layton game... except for the last one. After playing 5 very similar Layton games back to back, I had just simply had enough. I couldn't take another puzzle. Much like with the original Mega Man series, the series had become pretty stale at this point. Sure, the quality of the puzzles was still there, and the production values and stories were still fun, but there's only so much Layton a guy can take before they just need a break.
So I took that break. And the break carried on... and on... and on...
It took almost 10 years, but following the announcement of Professor Layton and the New World of Steam? I finally felt ready to conclude the professor's story.
God I wish I hadn't...
Still one of the best comics they ever did
So things start out just fine. I settle back into the saddle and I'm enjoying seeing our wonderful Perfect Gentleman and his dodgy companions back in action again. The game starts out with impressive production values (God I forgot just how utterly gorgeous the visuals of the 3DS Layton games were!), a wonderfully baroque musical score and some perfectly fine puzzles. There's even a rather clever one involving a birthday present sent inside of an ice cube (yeah, that's pretty typical for Professor Layton And His Garbage World) that I really enjoyed solving. The story starts out innocuous enough, with the discovery of an archeological site housing a frozen girl and some sombre tones. We have the makings of a trademark Layton mystery!
... except that it turns out that there is no mystery. She really is a girl who was magically cryogenically frozen in ice, who has amnesia and magical powers involving Azran artefacts. Ok.
So some nasty dudes called Targent are after her because they want her magic powers for themselves, and naturally you run away with her because... you want her magic powers for yourself... fair.
From here though, the story kind of... stops? You're tasked to run around the world and collect a bunch of plot souvenirs in order to unlock THE AZRAN LEGACY: THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN 2! And from this point onwards, the game turns into a level select where you go to different areas and run through little mini stories that may or may not involve a mystery? (Spoilers... Save for one of these little vignettes, there is no real mystery. Sense a running theme yet?). Structurally, this is actually quite a welcome change of pace, and I appreciate the change in approach. After all, I previously lavished praise on Octopath Traveller for this very same thing! Unfortunately, the execution ends up being woefully lacking, because this is a series that is designed around presenting lavish and ridiculously convoluted mysteries; it's literally half of the series' appeal! (Even the original game's boxart agrees with me!).
Your reward for collecting these plot souvenirs? Well...
It is deeply unsatisfying as a "conclusion" to Top Hat's story, and it lacks half of the entire appeal of the series. So what about the other half then? Oh boy...
Remember how I said that the game got off to a good start with its puzzles? Take another look at the game's boxart above (go ahead, I'll wait). Does its focus on quantity bother you? If it doesn't now? It will in a few minutes...
As I'm playing through the game, a sense of deja vu starts to kick in... Wait a minute... haven't I already done this puzzle before? Hmm...
Ok, this is the 3rd time I've done this bloody clown puzzle, I'm getting pretty sick of... wait, WHAT!? THERE'S A FOURTH VERSION!?
Oh my God... ANOTHER FUCKING SLIDING BLOCK PUZZLE!?
This... this is just Pentominoes! It's just another thinly veiled varient of fucking Pentominoes! No... this can't be right...
THE SAME FUCKING ARRANGEMENT PUZZLE AGAIN?! Am I... am I going insane!? SURELY previous Layton games didn't feature THIS many recycled puzzles!?
So I dug in. I did the math. As soon as I finished the game, I cross-checked the Professor Layton wiki for all 6 mainline titles to figure out how many puzzles were rearranged/recycled/duplicated across all 6 mainline games. And the results will SHOCK you...
HOLY FUCKING SHIT! I knew I wasn't crazy! Literally 48.7% of ALL puzzles in this game are duplicates!! That is outrageous! I couldn't believe it! Azran Legacy alone has almost as many duplicate puzzles as the rest of the entire mainline series combined!
No fucking wonder the series was put on ice after this game!! The puzzle designers at Level 5 were clearly spent. And this game even happened to enjoy the longest development cycle of any Layton game with 2 years of development under its belt! (Ok, granted, Level 5 were also making Professor Layton vs Ace Attorney at the same time... and also Layton Brothers for mobile phones... and also the international versions of both Last Spectre and Mask of Miracles... ok, maybe Level 5 had stretched themselves thin a bit after all...).
But ultimately, a Layton game where the puzzles are complete shite doesn't really hold much appeal anymore... When the entire point of the game is to present high quality brainteaser puzzles and you can't deliver on that? There really isn't much point. This is the worst game in the mainline series by a country mile. A massive disappointment that emphasises quantity over quality. I can only hope that the 10 year hiatus and the injection of new blood in the form of Quizknock can result in Professor Layton and the New World of Steam being a far better game. The Professor deserves better.
A game so ice cold that it put the series on ice
And with that?