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Monolith Makes Worlds: An Analysis of the Xenoblade Series

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 Monolith Makes Worlds
   In the days of the Super Nintendo, Squaresoft and Enix provided the JRPG support and helped tell wonderful stories, among others. But much of that support dwindled in the fifth console generation, leading Nintendo to push for further support through other developers, such as Intelligent Systems, Camelot, and a particular studio named Monolith Soft. While I never did cross paths with the Baten Kaitos duology, Monolith came to my attention in the wake of a peculiar video on Youtube during the Wii era. In seeing the field exploration for their title Xenoblade, I was enthralled, and subsequently delighted to see the efforts of Operation Rainfall convince Nintendo that the title should be brought over to the United States. Ever since playing the first installment in this seemingly ongoing series, I have become fascinated with the way that Monolith Makes Worlds.
   With the recent release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and its swift ascension into the upper echelons of my list of favorites, I felt it was time to finally take a closer look at this developing series as a whole in order to identify what makes each entry unique despite the similarities in their foundation. While each successive title has made improvements, they are wholly different kinds of experiences and represent Monolith Soft's prowess in identifying the best and worst aspects of the genre and their own titles in order to make swift improvements with new entries. What better way to chronicle the Xenoblade series than by doing a deep analysis of each title? So, in order to understand why the latest installment is as good as it is, we'll start at the very beginning, with Xenoblade Chronicles. If you are looking to skip to a particular section, input these numbers into your search bar:

Xenoblade Chronicles: Brimming with Character
Part 001: Setting the Stage (Motifs, Cycles, and Core Mechanics)
Part 002: Warring States, and the Topography of a God (Setting and Design)
Part 003: Good Heavens, Look at the Time! (Characters and Combat)
Part 004: I Can Change the Future! (Narrative and Side-Missions)
Part 005: Relationship Management (Systems and Customization)
Part 006: A World Without Gods (Release and Final Impressions)
Part DE1: Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? (XCDE Enhancements and Impressions)
Part DE2: The Weight of the World on Your Shoulder (Future Connected and Bionis Shoulder Design)

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Man's Search for Meaning
Part 007: A Lot More Than We Can Manage (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 008: Not Even a Distant Land, We're Stuck On a Whole Different Planet (Setting and World Design)
Part 009: We've Been Tasked to Protect and Take On Ghosts (Characters and Combat)
Part 010: Standing as Long as We Can Until We Get All Dolls Up (Skells and Equipment)
Part 011: The Key We've Lost (Story)
Part 012: Just Try to Live Your Life (Final Impressions)

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Organic and Addictive
Part 013: Stripping Down (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 014: Inside and Out (Setting and World Design)
Part 015: We'll Show You What Me and Pyra Can Do! (Characters and Combat)
Part 016: Gotta Catch 'Em All (Story and Side-Missions)
Part 017: It's Not Perfect (Organic Discovery)
Part 018: What's In a Name? (Final Impressions)
Part 019: Really Passionate Gaming (Epilogue)
DLC Part 020: We'll Fight for Our Future! (DLC Musings)
DLC Part 021: Give Them What They Want (Lots of DLC)
DLC Part 022: I really, REALLY like you two. (Torna: The Golden Country)
DLC Part 023: Looking to the Future (Conclusion)

Xenoblade Chronicles 3: The Best of Both Worlds?
Part 024: The Beginning of the End (Hopes, Dreams, Fears)
Part 025: One Step Forward (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 026: One Step to the Side (Setting and World Design)
Part 027: A Section at War (Characters and Combat)
Part 028: The Endless Now (Story and Side Missions)
Part 029: It's About Time (Design Failures)
Part 030: The End of the Beginning (Final Impressions)
DLC Part 031: Fixing What is Broken

Keep in mind, these reviews will delve deeply into the narratives of each game and contain spoilers which will be telegraphed beforehand, but I will do my best to censor aspects of each game that are worth discovering on your own.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Brimming With Character
Part 001: Setting the Stage (Motifs, Cycles, and Core Mechanics)
   As a storyteller, I tend to focus on the narrative details of games before looking at the underlying mechanics- it's something I am hoping to overcome through this process of deeper critical analysis. However, in revisiting Xenoblade Chronicles I was surprised to see how much groundwork the first installment laid for the series to come, and how much of these elements embody what I enjoy about Xenoblade. Let's address the most obvious aspects first.
   The -blade series encourages exploration through large-scale environments in a number of ways, utilizing landmarks that are both contextual and logical. While these environments are expanse, the sense of scale also means that getting from one place takes a great deal of time- in that sense, fast travel is encouraged and discovery becomes an even greater incentive because landmarks have a dual purpose as fast-travel waypoints. Traveling is not always safe, as enemies of varying levels can be found in every biome, which means that gaining specific materials will require a return trip. Material collection points are scattered throughout these areas in the form of glowing spots- we'll be focusing on these a lot- and the environments themselves are almost always wacky in appearance but straightforward in execution. The games utilize an active-selection combat system with auto attack and positioning elements and a central motif, usually based around the main story element. Progression is constant, and in many forms- not only is the save system accessible at any point, but failing enemy encounters will boot you back to the last-visited landmark with no loss of experience or currency, leading to a very smooth experience. Character customization is immensely in-depth, with subtle intricacies masked by more obvious builds and benefits, as well as an affinity system that is  tied directly to both gameplay and exploration. side quest completion is a mixture of more generic tasks and story-themed narratives. While this is a very basic and bland explanation of a Japanese role-playing game, it is an immensely unique experience, and the way these mechanics reoccur in every game makes for a reliable and satisfying feedback loop that feels wholly unique.
   I have heard a number of people refer to the -blade games as “offline MMOs” similar to Final Fantasy XII, and at times the comparison feels apt. Combat occurs in real time and the “holy trinity” of healer/tank/dps is both present and encouraged, as well as a number of basic and menial chores appearing as side quests. The active-selection system is similar in nature to a hotkey user interface, and positioning is used as a qualifier in select circumstances. It is how Monolith elaborates on these elements and modifies them to fit into a single player experience that is truly compelling, however, and I feel that players with a history in MMOs may find the experience to be enjoyable because of the additional options and layers presented. If many developers use the turn-based format to dictate their design and add complexities atop it, then Monolith does so with the active-selection style of gameplay to equal success.
   What Xenoblade Chronicles- henceforth abbreviated as XC- also establishes is the series' roots in science-fiction, with an origin story both fantastic but futuristic in nature. The two titanic gods Bionis and Mechonis are locked in an endless struggle, both dealing fatal blows simultaneously and leaving life to eventually form upon their husks through the flow of ether, the series' equivalent of magic. This setting also reinforces the contextual nature of the environment, as the player's journey takes place on these two bodies and evidence of their location can be found through observation of their surroundings. With all of the core elements addressed, we can now look at them in greater depth.

Part 002: Warring States, and the Topography of a God (Setting and Design)
   In terms of the literal setting of the title, the first entry is the most imaginative and takes advantage of its locale in many ways. The two sides at conflict in the first entry present two distinct aesthetics, one organic and the other mechanic, which creates a clear-cut indicator for the real antagonistic force in the story. As denizens of the Bionis, the party primarily consists of organic characters, although a point of contention is how there is much more variety in their design in contrast to the inhabitants of the Mechonis. The Bionis is a world teeming with ecological variety, from the Homs and their technological prowess, to its more fantastic and primal wildlife ranging from exaggerated versions of real-world animals to dinosaur-like creatures. In addition, several other species possess varying degrees of sentience, such as the High Entia, an ether-based civilization with its own share of problems, and the primitive and peaceful Nopon, an odd rabbit-bird-potato race with a strange manner of speech. Aside from that, there are also the less-civilized yet still intelligent species like the Tirkin and Igna, and other ancient races like the mysterious Giants. In comparison, there seem to be only two or three variants from Mechonis: the Mechon, who are squarely positioned as the evil, invasive species waging war against Mechonis, the human-like Machina, who scrape out a meager existence apart from the industrious nature of the Mechon, and a few less-sentient types of mechanical creatures. Many of these creatures share the black-and-gold aesthetic of the Mechon and therefore feel as if they should be lumped together, although the variety of builds found among the mechanical creatures are just as unique. Still, the game's lore does not implicitly state that these more simplistic mechanical creatures aren't related to the Mechon, but the uniformity of the creatures of the Mechonis may be an intentional choice in contrast to the variety found on Bionis.
   Just as Bionis possesses a number of creature types, its environments are also diverse, which leads us to one of my favorite portions of this critique. While the science-fiction elements of XC are apparent, the biomes represented in its world design are mostly basic. Colony 9, Guar Plain, and Colony 6 are all rather straightforward lush, green areas, although Tephra Cave and the Ether Mines provide a nice bit of variation. Grassland, Caves, Marshes, Jungle, Sea, Snow, Canyon, and Island biomes are the most familiar types to be found in XC, but even with a critical path, Monolith explores the nature and interpretation of these locales in different ways. While their name more than often implies the central element of their design- Guar Plain, for example, having few changes in elevation and mostly open space- Monolith gets their mileage out of their “shoulder” content.
   Guar Plain highlights a theme we will see throughout Monolith's world design, which is that they utilize fairly basic elements in different combinations in order to create drastically different locales. For example, nearly every biome on Bionis, where roughly three-quarters of the game takes place, features a central body of water. While this may not seem remarkable, this is one of several topographical elements that Monolith alters slightly in order to change the face of their biome, and affect the way the player progresses through it. While many of XC's biomes are vast, most can be generalized as “wide path” designs, with an entrance and exit point. Some exceptions include Makna Forest, which features a whopping two exit points, and Colony 9, the origin point of the narrative. So, that Guar Plain features a critical path with an open plain, a lake featuring mushroom-like towers and  a bridge, a narrow canyon, and another plain with a boss area as well as a waterfall is not very surprising. But this critical path has expanse “shoulders” with other elements- two mob lairs, another narrow canyon leading to a high-set secret encounter and area, an NPC encampment, and two caves, one narrow, and the other accessible from the higher plain at the end of the critical path and featuring much more dangerous enemies. The higher plain also has several shoulders of a more precarious nature, but leads to similarly fruitful rewards.
   Contrast this with the area after Guar Plain, Satorl Marsh- starting with a shallow-water marsh which could more or less be equated to a plain, it slopes out into a dry plain and up a wide, winding canyon to another shallow marsh and a vertical climbing segment. This area is bordered by poisoned ponds, two rushing rapids, a vertical narrow canyon section, and and optional dungeon structure. Again, viewing maps of these biomes drives this critical path concept home further, and it may sound discouraging, at first. In the first third of the game, this type of environmental design is heavily emphasized, with Makna Forest stripping away potential water hazards for a more dense and narrow jungle sequence with a larger plain at its exit, but the arrival to Eryth Sea is a breath of fresh air, and signifies a marked variation in design moving forward.
   Let me take a moment to state that, while I may be breaking down XC's topography into basic terms, I do not want to understate the aesthetic element of these biomes. While Guar Plain and Satorl Marsh possess similar qualities in design, their appearance is day and night. Guar Plain features bright blue skies and the looming threat of the Mechonis overhead, its sword still driven into the Bionis. Its green fields are contrasted with dusty caves and crystal waters, whereas Satorl Marsh is murkier in textures, but makes up for it with dazzling ether lights. Their soundtracks produce different feels that match their biomes perfectly, and while many enemy models appear in multiple locales, certain areas feature specific enemy types that further enhance their diversity. However, as we move further into the list of biomes, we start to see more drastic variety in their design.
   Eryth Sea, Mount Valak, and Sword Valley all possess vastly different design that helps push the narrative into more unfamiliar territory and towards the looming Mechonis threat. Eryth Sea's water “hazard” is massive in scope, but its floating island structure is a marked change of pace that allows for exploration in a different way. The critical path here is direct, as the island teleporters allow the player to venture off into other regions, but correspond to their direction in a logical fashion. Particularly adventurous types can journey to the sea below and visit several islands, or tackle the daunting task of filling out the map. Mount Valak appears to be linear in the same way as previous biomes but benefits from narrow pathways and an extremely vertical nature. Sword Valley, on the other hand, is straightforward, as its dead ends do not offer much experimentation, but its tight corridors and more rigid structure give a more industrious and mechanical feeling.
   Progressing further through the game offers insight to several of its more dungeon-like sequences, and the nature of Monolith's dungeon design, in general. At its most delightful and satisfying moments, XC's dungeons are directly integrated with its world design. Exile Fortress, for example, not only bears significance as one of the first areas where Giants are mentioned, but it is also a part of Satorl Marsh's map. There are several other examples of these sorts of structures, but they are ultimately very few and far between. An important note to make about XC, and the -blade games in general, is that the world is inherently dangerous in a number of ways, sometimes in ways that discourage access to certain areas until the party has reached a sufficient level. In XC, fall damage is a constant threat, so navigating areas and being mindful of placement during battles is key, as are the natures of enemies, who will aggro to the party if they are of a higher level. Simply put, the dungeon in the traditional sense is not something that Monolith considers unless it would add depth to the environment or a make sense logically within the narrative. This is a revelation that I considered somewhat surprising, but upon reflection, felt was rather obvious. With the low amount of towns and safe areas within XC's narrative, the entire world feels threatening, and Monolith gets much more mileage out of player exploration than anything else. However, because of XC's design and it being Monolith's first attempt at a certain structure, it is also understandable that traditional dungeon structure may have fallen to the wayside.
   That being said, the dungeon-like areas that do exist are similar in nature to the overworld. The Ether Mines, an area appearing after traveling through Guar Plains- previously unmentioned for its particular characteristics- is an extremely vertical segment littered with Mechon, and must be completed in order to progress the narrative and gain a new party member. The High Entia tomb, on the other hand, is narrow and linear in nature, but is one of the first few indoor combat sequences in the game. Galahad Fortress is another example of a more architectural design. All three of these areas are some that must be completed in order to progress the story, and feature boss encounters at their conclusion. However, there are a number of boss encounters that occur in the overworld, so that these areas possess their own unique title is really the only way we could designate them as a dungeon.
   Another aspect that may have proven difficult to integrate was that dungeons often possess elements of interactivity, which is something that XC lacked, in particular. The only truly interactive elements found in the environments are its NPCs, Material drops, Ether Crystals scattered around environments, ladders, and the treasure chests dropped by enemies. While this may be a result of the vast environment, there are a few specific ways in which Monolith alleviates the lack of dungeon gameplay by focusing instead on exploration, a topic we will touch upon later.
   Following Sword Valley, the party finds themselves on the Fallen Arm, a clever extension- pardon the pun- of the concept of the setting. While the first portion of this area is straightforward and spliced with story beats, the second is much more open, allowing the player to explore and fully appreciate the sense of scale in the game. That each finger of the Mechonis is integrated into this area's design is a neat trick in itself, but climbing them is even more enjoyable. However, aside from a slew of side quests given here, there is little else to appreciate about this biome, other than its blend of science-fiction elements. What follows upon the Mechonis feels alien and opposite to the biomes of the Bionis, however- Mechonis Field, Central Factory, and Agniratha all have rigid structure and are extremely linear in nature, and the lack of narrative beats means that, aside from a few side quests, these areas are sparse in content and feel designed to be progressed through without deviation. Given their narrative function, however, this design choice is understandable, as creating biomes as unique and diverse in design as the Bionis' own would have likely been too great a task. Aside from the haunting, quiet nature and atmosphere of Agniratha, there is little to say about these locales other than that they reflect the idea of rigid dungeon structure in its purest form, feeling more like a gauntlet than any other portion of the game.
   In conclusion, the most unfamiliar territory of the entire game is likely the interior of the Bionis, an oddity in design and aesthetics, which reflects the bizarre nature of the setting. However there is also an unsettling logic to its design, as each of its locations corresponds to the composition of an organic creature. The dangerous and winding pathways found within are fantastic, and serve to further highlight the nature of the setting. However, this area largely serves as a story set piece, and contains little other content. The second version of Prison Island, like the other dungeon-like structures, is straightforward and fitting for a final dungeon, especially with its high-level enemies and relatively unfamiliar architecture in comparison with the other buildings found in the game.

Part 003: Good Heavens, Look at the Time! (Characters and Combat)
   What would a world be without the characters that inhabit it? While XC has ties to concepts found in Tetsuya Takahashi's previous Xeno- titles, it also possesses species and ideas wholly unique to its own series. As mentioned prior, there are a number of sentient species within the world of XC- Homs, Mechon, Nopon, High Entia, and Machina. Each of these species gets its due within the narrative, but it is the main cast whose arcs are most satisfying. In fact, when looking at the -blade titles, I find that I can very easily categorize them with three overarching key words:

With Xenoblade Chronicles, the word is “Character.”
With Xenoblade Chronicles X, the word is “Exploration.”
With Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the word is “Combat.”

While the title of this section utilizes two of those words, it is important to understand that, from a narrative perspective, the combat of the -blade titles is always directly tied to the central motif of the game. With each installment of the series, the central motif has always been directly tied to the literal “Blade” within the title, as well as the same fundamental elements. I feel it is important to delve into the combat system of the game in this segment because, like its key word, combat in XC is directly tied to its characters.
   As stated prior, XC's active-selection system is all about auto-attacking while waiting out cooldown on specific combat Arts, which can be selected via the directional pad. For those of you who have the chance to play XC on Wii or Wii U, I strongly recommend using a Pro Controller, as the additional camera control in combat and overworld traversal is highly preferable to the Wii Remote and Nunchuk layout. Each character also has a central Talent Gauge that is based around their character traits, a defining element of the game's systems. In addition to increased damage, status effects, buffs, and debuffs can be executed through Arts, with the series' staple status chain of Break-Topple-Daze being an important combat option. As players execute Affinity prompts successfully and raise their battle tension, they build meter on the Chain Attack Gauge, which can be used to revive fallen partners or, when maxed out, can initiate a Chain Attack. Three party members are active on the field at once, and the player has free reign over which singular character they wish to use during travel and combat.
   Shulk, wielder of the Monado, has access to a number of powerful tools atop his already position-based DPS role, which solidifies his unique title as the game's protagonist. As an all-out attacker, his combat Arts are something of a mixed bag. He possesses the ability to quickly fill his Talent Gauge, which grants him access to a slew of story-unlocked Monado Arts, abilities that are extremely effective against certain enemy types or beneficial to other party members. As a character able to deal consistent damage and play a support role, Shulk is one of the few that can operate on two levels within battle, but his opportunistic Monado Arts can prove tricky to execute, especially for a player coming to grips with the combat system. However, his Monado Arts are also one of the more unique Talent Gauge options in the game, which can make him an appealing choice as a playable character.
   Reyn, Shulk's best mate and resident meathead, serves as the primary slow tank of the game. His absurd shield-gun-lance can draw aggro in a number of ways through physical attacks, as can his access to auras. His Talent Gauge ability grabs the focus of a singular enemy and can be modified with by other Arts, and he has the curious ability to revive himself if he should be overwhelmed as a tank. His access to area of effect moves means he works well in group battles, and can also inflict status effects reliably without the help of others. In this sense, it can be rewarding to play as Reyn, but I personally found his play style to be unappealing, as it often relies on a static position and very committed builds based on specific Arts combinations. In a number of ways, he feels like the most familiar play style to an MMO build.
   Sharla, the healer of the group, embraces the science-fiction aspect of the setting as an ether rifle user. Her Arts are primarily heal and buff centered, with a few offensive techniques that work best against flying mobs. Each of her Arts will build meter on her Talent Gauge, which is actually a limiter more than anything else, causing her to pause to Cool Down her rifle so that she cannot continuously spam her abilities. While this is a fascinating way to balance a healer, there are many ways to subvert it and maximize her abilities to benefit the party. Because of her unique weaponry and the number of ways to exploit her Cool Down mechanic, I found Sharla to be immensely enjoyable to play as in the mid- to late-game when said exploits became available, but I featured her in my party for the early game for her obviously strong role.
   Dunban is the badass of the group, a man who was so hardcore that he was able to wield the Monado despite its degenerative properties, until it messed up his sword arm so much that he had to learn to use a katana with the other. His offensive Arts are able to inflict a number of status effects, but their most unique function is the way they can combo into one another. His auras draw aggro and maximize his damage output, serving his role as a high-agility tank with excellent offensive options. He possesses one of the best skill tree benefits, which allows his agility to skyrocket if he isn't wearing any clothes, and therefore should be the only character that you ever play as, ever.
   Melia is a High Entia mage, and her playstyle is so vastly different from any of the other characters that she receives her own tutorial segment within the narrative in order to introduce players to her tricks. Her physical Arts are extremely situational, but her ether-based arts summon elemental spheres that grant passive buffs to party members until discharged as attacks, then inflicting debuffs or damage. When she's used enough spheres to attack, her Talent Gauge shifts into a Burst mode, allowing other Arts to be accessed or drastically increasing the strength of her normal sphere discharges. Melia is by far one of the most enjoyable characters to play as, and in the hands of an individual who knows how to use her, can be extremely effective.
   Rikki is a lone Nopon in a crazy world, and utilizes debuffs and buffs in order to diminish the power of mobs. His greatest strength comes from dealing immense damage upon removing debuffs with a single offensive Art, but he mostly serves as a support member with strangely comedic abilities. His Talent Art allows him to steal things, which might make you think he's a thief. I personally found Rikki's combat prowess to be a bit unreliable, but upon investing a proper amount of time in a specific build, he became enjoyable to control. Despite this, I still wouldn't recommend him.
   Fiora is one of the first- and last- party members the player receives, and functions as an alternative DPS member, albeit one focused on high tension. She has a unique trait based on her equipment, which actually changes her Talent Art into one of four different abilities. She has one of the fastest auto-attack animations in the game, and because of her high double attack and critical hit rates, can be hard to utilize purely as a DPS role. Many have cited that she can operate just as well as a tank because of her traits, which was how I tended to use her. While her offensive output is impressive and it can be immensely fun watching her tear through Mechon mobs, I ultimately decided against controlling Fiora, as she can operate well enough as an AI party member.
   While the method of selecting Arts is similar enough, each character plays very differently, and serves a unique role within the story. Because of this, when I think of XC, I most frequently recollect the time I spent not playing as Shulk, but every single party member, because of their unique traits and enjoyable gameplay. Thus, I decided to gift XC with the keyword character, primarily for this reason, but also because of the character of the setting. Although XC can feel somewhat unsteady in regards to its combat, the in-game dialogue that sounds during exchanges is full of character, a result of its European dub, and it was one of the first JRPGs I played with a heart-to-heart mechanic of its kind. While party chat has existed in other series, it was simply something I had not come across in my experience, and the way that characters operate in relation to one another and even assist one another is a huge part of building an efficient party. More on that later.
   There is one aspect of combat that I have not yet mentioned, and that is the way the Monado, the titular -blade of the game, factors into combat, and that is the Future Sight mechanic. While one might think this function would be exclusive only to Shulk, it is available for every playable character, but contextualized through the Monado's ability to see- and alter- future events. Essentially, if an enemy is queuing up an attack that will kill one of your party members, another member has the chance to use any one of their Arts in order to prevent this from happening before it executes. Specifically with Shulk, it maxes out his Talent Gauge and activates his Monado Arts, which have the ability to grant buffs to specific party members. It is a novel idea, but it ultimately works best when integrated with the story. For example, when fighting against Egil, he is able to target the Bionis while controlling the Mechonis, resulting in a Future Sight that shows him dealing an unlimited amount of damage to the other god and causing an immediate death for the party, unless you destroy the terminals around him first. It's a thrilling way to mix narrative and gameplay, and during the segments where Shulk is unlocking the powers of the Monado, it is used to similar effect. However, outside of scripted sequences, it can result in multiple chains of future sights should the player be unable to stop a bad situation from getting worse, and ultimately feels superfluous, especially if the player has performed sufficient character progression. Which, mind you, is not that hard to achieve. Again, we'll touch on that once we get to character progression. While the Monado's powers are expanded upon in story sequences and its usage is given meaning outside of Future Sight alone, this feature's integration in combat is the weakest of the three existing titles.

Part 004: I Can Change the Future! (Narrative and Side-Missions)
   While XC's setting is fascinating enough by itself, it is the numerous layers of lore that lie beneath the surface that make its main narrative so much more satisfying. As mentioned prior, there are moments where landmarks hint at later revelations, such as the Giants who end up being a central part of the conflict. What is more impressive, however, is that XC manages to give almost every character in the main party a significant and fully-realized arc, with the exception of Rikki, who is comic relief in its purest form, and Reyn, who never faces any particular conflict within the narrative outside of one that is implied, and even then, he is completely blown out of the water. Shulk's transformation from a vengeful character unsure of his powers to a confident and determined individual with good intentions for all people is given room for growth, and his role within the story has multiple worthwhile twists. Sharla is given a logical reason for joining the party and has a surprisingly fulfilling character arc, if only because her relationship with Gadolt is expanded upon in a way that is completely unexpected, yet contributes to one of the most satisfying gameplay sequences in the game. Dunban's arc is tied to both his allies from prologue of the game, as well as Shulk and his sister Fiora. Melia has an incredibly dense storyline that integrates her narrative into Shulk's own, and gives her a unique role within the story. As mentioned, Reyn's story is directly tied to Shulk because of their friendship, but he grows very little over the course of the story with the exception of his interactions with Sharla, even when she is experiencing a moment of critical growth. Rikki is just a Nopon. He has some optional characterization that is satisfying in some ways, but his role is minimal and serves as one of the more bizarre diversions in the game.
   Almost none of the real mysteries in XC go unanswered, and almost every aspect of the main narrative is given some sort of succinct conclusion or explanation. Wondering why the Mechon are attacking Bionis? There's a good reason. Wondering why certain Mechon have faces? Well. There's a reason. Wondering why there's weird ether dinosaurs in the game and how they're born? Yes, there's a reason for that, as well. Wondering why there's pretty aura lights during the evenings in the marshlands? Yes, there's even a reason for that. Takahashi's world feels fully realized even in its most minute details, and the narrative that unfolds feels as it has been going on for some time.
   For a story of such great scope and scale, however, it is also one that feels intimate in nature. Because so much of the plot revolves around its core cast and the relationships they have built with others within the world, a sense of scale is somewhat lost. If the world is truly 1:1 scale, then the Bionis and Mechonis, although large, are not truly gargantuan structures, and although places like Alcamoth and Angiratha cheat slightly with their sense of scale- only representing a portion of a larger city- the total population of these worlds is debatable. With the number of plot conveniences that revolve around the central cast, that number may be small- this is another reason I feel the focus and keyword of this game is character. Yet there are instances where large numbers of combatants are featured, so it is difficult to ascertain the true size and population of the world. There is evidence of another biome created for the Bionis landscape, which featured a village setting that would have presumably been populated by the Giants. However, much as the dungeon-like structures of the game, it was likely cut in order to service the plot of the story, which only hints at this race and needs no further explanation. Although traveling to this biome may have offered a greater playtime and shed light on another facet of the world, it is hardly necessary.
   While later games would feature a broader focus and more characters, XC's conflict is tiered, in a sense that new races and their importance to the plot are slowly introduced and integrated. Because of the sense of discovery and the unfamiliar setting, it is perhaps better that they are given the time to justify their existence within the world. Whereas the setting is easily understood and contextualized with the way the opposing God can be seen in its skyboxes, the way the characters fit into the narrative requires a more thoughtful approach. In this sense, it is somewhat disappointing that the Nopon play such a minimal role within the story, acting as traveling merchants and having a small plot diversion dedicated to their race. The proximity of Melia and Rikki's introductions are extremely close, which gives the latter little time to serve as anything more than a comedic role. However, the way Nopon are expanded upon in the future iterations more than justifies their inclusion, in my opinion.
   Most of the content regarding Nopon, and many of the races and characters outside of the main cast, is done through side quests, which brings us to one the the less-appealing aspects of XC. The game takes some marked steps forward in its approach to side quests, such as: highlighting quest-specific materials in red on the field, giving tally reminders every time a quest-related material is collected, highlighting quest materials in the inventory, marking timed quests in the quest menu, and even some instances of auto-completion. However, mission objectives are more often than not collection- or combat-related in the most bland of ways. Finding (x) amount of material or slaying (x) amount of mob, without the proper narrative motivation, can prove boring at times, especially when doubling back to complete unfinished content. More often than not, I would attempt to find the characters giving out quests in a certain biome as soon as possible and complete them before moving on to the next area, although this is not always a wise strategy, seeing as some quests can put you in the way of mobs that are higher level than your party at the time. Still, doing so can allow the player to fully appreciate some of the side-narratives taking place in the game, one of the most prominent being the Colony 6 rebuilding effort. This area is given so little focus during the main narrative that one might miss the physical space that it occupies, however, a great number of collection and event quests are related to its reconstruction. Likewise, there are smaller narratives, such as the stranded Nopon in Satorl Marsh, that feature a number of objectives, but also result in small world-building details. Likewise, there are a number of event mobs and encounters that are only accessible through side quests and can prove to be rather enjoyable. Once again, an enjoyable feature of XC is the way the Monado factors into side-content, as blocked collection quests often have Future Sight visions when an item has been collected before the quest is taken. Other quests feature Shulk and the party attempting to change a Future Sight vision they have witnessed regarding NPCs- these quests are few and far between, but help contextualize the game and its themes further.
   One of the more clumsily designed features in the game is its Affinity Chart, which logs how many NPCs the player has met in each region and establishes their relationships. Certain quests will be blocked until this chart is properly filled, and depending on how players choose to complete certain quests, relationships within the chart can change block off quests and events even further down the line. While this means there is no “correct” way to progress through XC's side-content, it also leads to ambiguity in more than a few ways, as certain characters and quests will unlock after certain story events and require backtracking in order to be found. Likewise, a feature of the Affinity Chart is that is shows when certain NPCs will be available to speak with, as this is a “living” world with NPCs having daily routines. While this is a lovely concept in nature, it also means that pinpointing the exact location of a character in order to complete or receive a certain side quest can be a tricky goal. While I applaud Monolith for attempting to create a natural feeling world, I would have preferred a more precise system that doesn't make player wait around to meet someone. Future titles would improve upon the Affinity Chart system in a number of ways, which we will eventually touch upon later.

Part 005: Relationship Management (Systems and Customization)
   If combat and side-content are the way the player actively experiences and proceeds through the game, then its systems are the way they passively influence the gameplay. While many of these system have been touched upon in earlier segments, we will discuss them in more depth here, as well as address previously unmentioned elements.
   In the recently released special edition for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Takahashi mentions that the original XC had its equipment assets created before the characters themselves, which required the work of external artist Norihino Takami's design for completion. While this is simply a neat fact that will later factor into the analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, it also highlights the importance of equipment in the series' first entry. While each character has a default design that was used for promotional art, they are able to wear a number of different types of equipment. These can be split into three weight classes, which certain characters can equip based on their inherent character traits, but can also be equipped thanks to the Affinity Coin system.
   Equipment, or Armour grants a number of bonuses, so many that, upon management, it can be somewhat daunting to sort out what benefits matter most. While they more often than not raise or lower the physical defense and ether defense of the character, their weight is also subtracted from the agility stat- a logical concept, especially when considering the Naked Dunban build (which, by the way, is the only way to play as Dunban and if you think otherwise you're wrong). However, equipment can also possess slots that allow for additional customization via gems.
   While finding a full set of equipment for a character may require some dedication, it often results in a set geared towards a specific build. However, XC's Arts and skill systems often boost certain stats for a character, but throughout the main quest, it can be difficult to find an equipment build- or even a skill tree- that optimizes a specific stat for a min/maxed build. This is partially where slots can come in handy, as they can help maximize an element of a certain build to an even greater degree. However, the accessibility of the title and nits numerous character growth and gem retrieval methods mean that players rarely have to invest much time in stat manipulation outside of equipping higher level Armour as the narrative progresses. These systems are best utilized for a completionist, or at least, an individual who is determined to defeat the end game unique mobs. Equipment comes in five different flavors, with one in particular affecting the attack stat: head, torso, arms, legs, and weapon. The best weapons often possess more slots than other equipment, and an important note is that standard, store-bought equipment is less effective than unique equipment dropped from mobs- another way XC and Monolith encourage dungeon-like gameplay in exploration.
   The economy system in XC is influenced by a number of different elements, although the Affinity Chart often has the most sway. As players become more familiar with NPCs and complete quests in certain places, they raise their reputation in an area, which lowers the pricing of items and allows more trading options. There are a number of materials that can be sold in the game, as Armour, field materials, and mob drops all have certain tiers that affect their pricing. Materials found in the field from collection points are affected by drop rates, so a specific collection point can often yield different types of materials. These can be used to fill out the Collectopaedia, a system that categorizes and records materials from certain biomes and gives rewards based upon its completion, or they can be used in gem crafting. Similarly, mobs can drop materials which can be traded, sold, or utilized in gem crafting as well. The game allows players to choose what items they wish to take from a fallen enemy, but the system is somewhat clumsy compared to later releases.
   The gem system is a multifaceted one, which helps bolster the customization of character builds even further. Gems can be obtained from the Collectopaedia, fallen mobs, as quest rewards, or crafted through a machine in Colony 9. This is an extensive subsystem that has party characters playing different roles in order to complement each other and factors in party Affinity in order to maximize its effectiveness. For the player who is determined to obtain the highest-level gems, investing time into understanding this mechanic is paramount, but wasting materials- which will often require more grinding to obtain- may come across as an unappealing sacrifice. Likewise, the way Affinity has a marked effect on the process means that the player must invest a large amount of time in combat and exploration before being able to maximize gem products. However, using multiple materials during a single round of Gem Crafting can result in multiple products, which can be resold or stacked upon one another to boost specific effects. The idea of a many layered equipment bonus system is one that will endure across the series, but here, the process of creating Gems is the most involved and perhaps the most reliant on player investment.
   At this point, it is important to note that XC, like all of the -blade series, is a title that does not stray from introducing a number of mechanics and concepts via brief tutorials that, in some ways, cover the basics of a system, but merely hint at the depth of their possibilities. When acquiring new party members, unlocking new abilities, and introducing a previously unmentioned feature, these games will offer the player a brief explanation- which can often end up being three or four pages of on-screen text. While this may feel like an awkward method of presenting information, it should be stressed that exploiting these systems requires a much deeper usage and understanding of them, which can only be obtained through player experience or through the knowledge of others. While it isn't the most graceful method of introduction, it is the most straightforward means of accomplishing the goal, and while XC has a number of systems that it takes pains to detail through this method, later games would ease off of this concept, or at least, attempt to alleviate it via narrative integration.
   Exploration is encouraged via experience systems, as landmarks and secret areas gift experience in a number of ways upon discovery. The amount of landmarks in XC is relatively high in comparison with its spiritual successor Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which means the former often encourages on-foot traversal much more than its sequels. As mentioned before, landmarks also give players the ability to quickly move from place to place, allowing them to reach quest locations with greater ease. Fast-travel has another use, however, which is arguably its most important one- it resets all of the mobs and collection points in an area and has the potential to change the weather conditions, as well. In material and experience grinding, this mechanic is absolutely crucial, and considering it has remained in every -blade title since, Monolith understands that it is a system worth acknowledging and exploiting. Weather is another curious facet of exploration, as particular mobs will only show themselves in specific weather conditions. This can tie into certain side quest objectives, as well.
   The experience that landmarks and enemies grant comes in three forms- Experience, Arts, and Skill Points. Experience relates to level, which raises all basic stats upon level-up, but Arts allows each specific attack in a character's arsenal to be leveled up individually. While this helps them deal more damage and inflict secondary effects with greater ease, it is also somewhat muddled by the way Arts unlock based on player growth via Experience. Imagine a player investing a great deal of effort in leveling their Arts, only to discover that a later skill has even greater benefits or works better towards their goal. This can sour the Arts leveling process somewhat, and is something to be aware of during a first playthrough. Skill points are related to character Skill Trees, of which there are four, with an optional fifth for each party member that can be obtained via side quest chains. Each Skill Tree raises a particular stat as more Skill Points are invested into it, but they also have secondary benefits, and each of these unlocked “badges” has a particular shape.
   This factors into party Affinity Coins, which allow party members to share specific badges with one another by using their collected coins. These Coins are obtained by defeating the limited number of Unique mobs that exist in the world, which feature specific and sometimes-silly titles and the occasional special trait or mechanic that contributes to their individuality. The customization options within this system are not unlimited, as party members can only have a certain number of badges of a certain shape, but it does allow players to bypass limitations such as equipment weight, as well as grant other abilities. Their access to certain shaped slots on their shared Skill Trees is unlocked via Affinity growth, which is another staple of the -blade series that, in its first outing, has mixed results. As party members raise their Affinity via their participation in side quests and combat, or through gifting items to one another, their Affinity Level will rise. This means that they will perform more efficiently in combat, and gain access to Heart-to-Hearts, cutscenes that flesh out relationships between characters and shed light on their backstories. While completing these Heart-to-Hearts is optional, Affinity ties into so many other aspects of the game that its development is encouraged in almost every way- but insufficient Affinity Levels also lock out certain benefits, and experimentation can only truly be maximized by putting a huge amount of time into material gathering for gifting, battling for prompts and assistance, and completing side quests. While the tight bonds between the party are a clear aspect of the gameplay, this focus on Affinity and its benefits is yet another reason I consider “character” to be a huge element of XC. Without it, a great amount of its dialogue and features could potentially be avoided, leading to a much less character-oriented experience. This may allow the player to become deeply invested in the narrative, or have a negative impact, depending on how greatly they care for optional content being a part of their experience.
   With all of this being said and done, I believe we have covered just about every aspect of the game's design.

Part 006: A World Without Gods (Release and Final Impressions)
   Before its release, XC went by a different name- Monado: The Beginning of the World. With the central weapon being such an important aspect of the game, it is an understandable title. However, Takahashi's dedication to completing the game and his previous work on Xenogears and Xenosaga pushed the team to rename the game in his honor, and thus, Xenoblade was born. In my opinion, the title switch was a wise move, as it signaled to previous Xeno-title fans that this game was something of a spiritual successor in some ways, and the Xeno- forename is just a bit more alluring. That large X has become a symbol to new and old fans alike, and while I am surprised to see that the -blade surname has stayed, I am impressed that Takahashi and Monolith have managed to develop unique scenarios based off of the concept. Xenoblade was released to extremely positive reception in Japan, and the European audience enjoyed its localization with an English voice cast. However, XC would not be released in North America until two years after its Japan release, during which an outpouring of RPG fans would express their interest in the title, as well as two others, in a movement known as Operation Rainfall. Upon its North American release, it would receive similar acclaim due to the streamlining of its side quest system, vast exploration, and imaginative world. The sales of an RPG on the Wii and the strong following that developed led to Monolith's eventual Wii U and Switch titles, and all was right with the world.
   To me, XC was something of a revelation. As a newcomer to the active-selection battle style, I found its intricacies atop the moment-to-moment gameplay to be somewhat overwhelming, although this did not stop me from investing an absurd amount of time into the title. My initial playthrough clocked in at around 120 hours, fiercely determined to complete Colony 6 despite taking on the task in the late game, which would end up being something of a sore spot, for me. In a game about exploration, I was a bit surprised and disappointed to find that Mechonis vanished completely in the third act of the game. On the other hand, the title takes great pains to warn the player that content would be locked out moving forward, and offers alternative, albeit tedious methods of gaining materials that would be necessary for quests like the Colony 6 reconstruction. Likewise, I had played a number of RPGs in the past, but I was more prone to stick to the main narrative rather than complete side quests, so the ease of access in taking on- and managing- that element was one of the first times I had ever invested so much time in a JRPG, and would dictate the way I completed games in the future. In short, XC inspired a completionist sort of spirit in me- not to the absolute, as I would decided to finish the game before closing out a chunk of menial tasks- but a desire to explore every inch of a title before giving my final opinion upon it.
   However, looking back upon my experience with XC, and my subsequent revisits before tackling this analysis, I find a diminished sense of nostalgia for the title. While I was blown away by the experience upon my first playthrough, I would follow up the title with further exploration of the genre, completing games like Chrono Trigger, Etrian Odyssey, and The Last Story, another Operation Rainfall title, and appreciating them for completely different reasons. While I will always respect the thorough craft that XC's world possesses, I came to enjoy the straightforwardness of other narratives, as well as the intimacy of scale. In many ways, however, XC is an intimate game- its character-oriented gameplay style and numerous Affinity systems tell an extremely tight narrative about its seven main characters- again, with the exception of Rikki. This is why, if I were ever to recommend XC to a newcomer to the genre or even a seasoned RPG player, it would come with several disclaimers:
   This game is a unique one within the genre, taking cues from MMORPGs but modifying them for a single-player experience. If you wish to appreciate it, you should try to invest yourself in the characters as much as possible, and experiment with their play styles and builds as much as you possibly can. Try to clear out as much side-content as you can before moving forward, and don't be afraid to explore. While there are hazards and road blocks, punishment for discovering them is low, and with enough tenacity and investment, you will eventually be able to overcome these elements. Should you wish to push the combat and customization systems to their limitations, you will find a slew of enemies to challenge in the late-game. New Game+ is not a punishing experience, but allows you to experiment further with the characters in your party, although you will have to start back at square one with town development and material collection. Do not worry about making the right choice, but be mindful of the timed quests.
   When I think back to the conclusion of XC, there is a mind-blowing element to its world-building that alters much of the player experience. While the main narrative deals with the intricacies of possessing Future Sight, or even believing in such an idea, the notion of gods- and the nature of the gods that the story takes place atop- is brought into question and given a bizarre explanation, one that relates to the nature of video games. At its core, the world of XC is a game, in its most recent incarnation, where the player is controlling an NPC who no longer wishes to be at the whim of the designer. The simulation that Alvis describes is an experiment- an attempt to make a new world, and to control its fate. While this is a purposefully-forced interpretation, it is fitting that, at the end of its narrative, Shulk and his friends look forward to an uncertain future, one without the player controlling them. They have overcome the limitations of player control, able to carve a path of their own- a future without gods.
   But leaving these characters is bittersweet, because the systems and design of XC emphasize them. They demand your attention. Almost each of them has a story that you feel invested within, and they often don't end pleasantly. So starting the cycle again begins your journey anew, stronger than before, but with a diminished set of challenges ahead. Eventually, your control over these characters will wane, and you'll leave them to move on to the next form of entertainment. That's how it should be. But, will you continue towards a more hopeful future, with exciting new characters and a combat system that emphasizes their differences? Will the world you encounter next be as inviting to explore? Will it attempt to build on the character of this game, or will it reach new heights?
   Well, if your next JRPG is Xenoblade Chronicles X, then don't go in with too much hope. Instead, get ready for a masterpiece of a different kind.

Part DE1: Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? (XCDE Enhancements and Impressions)
   ...Well, this has been a long time coming.
   I had initially believed that, upon the release of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition (henceforth titled XCDE), I would jump right into the Future Connected material in order to offer a “comprehensive” overview of that new content, washing my hands of Xenoblade for a while before Monolith introduced their next title. As I began playing, however, I quickly realized how old XC1's combat felt and how jarring the game's art style felt. Somewhat disillusioned, I set the game down, promising to return to it at some point to give it more of an old college try.
   As it turned out, I wanted to share some of the important parts of my life with my current partner, and as daunting as it might sound, the story of Xenoblade and its impact on not only myself but Nintendo was one aspect I considered worth sharing. Because I had not yet played the main campaign on Switch, I decided to boot it up and expose her to a story that I had loved more than a decade ago. This led to not only a re-evaluation of XC1 as a whole, but my first complete playthrough of Future Connected, as well.
   Now, as someone who previously put at least a hundred hours into the original version of XC1 plus revisits during the composition of this series, you might find it baffling or at least odd that I should go through the entirety of XCDE. You aren't alone in that regard- I also asked myself if I was willing to put the same amount of time into a game that I already knew inside and out. That is why I mercifully bumped my difficulty settings down to casual for this run-around- but this does raise some questions. Was I able to fully appreciate the time investment and design featured in XCDE while playing on a more accessible difficulty mode? Would the scale of its world and the hostility of its enemies still feel palpable? Was I missing out on the full XC1 experience? With all of these considerations in mind, I did everything in my power to complete the quest log to its entirety upon reaching each new biome, as well as upon the completion of each chapter. By taking the time to explore the world for material and challenge quests, I felt I lived in Bionis and Mechonis thoroughly enough to give XCDE its due diligence.
   What I will say about casual mode is that the pacing of battles and story felt far smoother than it had in any other -blade title I had experienced to date, save perhaps XCX due to that game's increased focus on side-quest narrative content. One curious note is that I only began equipping and experimenting with Ether Gems towards the endgame when fighting extremely high-level monsters, but that degree of customization was almost never needed for any fight, which is perhaps a consideration made for casual mode, but also something of a failure. There were parts of the game where I still did have to stop and level up, in particular, moments where the world design shoehorns the player into multiple engagements that can alert nearby enemies and create exponentially larger threats. As a result, the world was less threatening, but the amount of content to get through was still substantial. In addition, the enhanced side-content tracking systems allowed me to pinpoint objectives with much greater ease, making any sort of collection- or numbers-based quest a far more streamlined experience. There were still some issues that I found with the amount of fast travel landmarks, however. I would regularly need to return to a fast-travel point and take the exact same route as I had previously simply because making a bee-line to a particular area that then needed exploration was such a common occurrence. While I don't necessarily think XC2 does fast-travel points much better than XCDE, I will say that games like XCX, Breath of the Wild, and other open-world experiences like Immortals: Fenix Rising have perhaps spoiled me somewhat with their density of checkpoints. I had postulated the idea that XCDE would be a great opportunity for the inclusion of faster movement systems, such as sprinting, which had enhanced the pacing and satisfaction of exploration in the aforementioned titles. That was perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on my part considering not even XC2 implemented such measures. In the same way, I had hoped that XCDE would attempt update XC1's battle system, which was novel for its time, but completely overshadowed by enhancements made in XCX and XC2. This was also likely a steep ask, and can probably be waved away by XCDE being something of a stopgap release between XC2 and XC3.
   The reality of XCDE is that its changes are largely aesthetic. Character models were given drastic updates, textures improved, and music re-orchestrated, while also getting a few quality of life improvements in the form of smoother loading times and better quest tracking and user interface navigation. As someone who played the original version of XC1, the aesthetic changes are... contentious, to say the least, stripping the game of the authenticity of its art style and making questionable changes to the original soundtrack that don't always sound as intentional as the original audio. There are many who would likely argue the case of whether or not XC1's original character models were aesthetically pleasing in any regard, and I'm not here to debate that matter. What does surprise me is how faithfully Monolith was able to replicate the art styles of many Japanese artists in XC2 but chose to create some vaguely generic character models that don't reflect the promotional or in-game illustrations of the original at all. To put it bluntly, some characters lose all sense of charm in the transition to their updated models- Reyn and Dunban in particular lack any sort of aesthetic appeal althogether, and Melia in particular feels like her facial design was abandoned at some point. In the same way, the original soundtrack of XC1 seems to have deliberate mixing and even instrumentation due to the sound palette utilized, but the new instrumentation clashes with and creates dissonance with the original compositions at points. I found myself using the original OST for battles and the updated music for cutscenes and exploration, as the softness of the new instrumentation is not as excitement-inducing as the original versions. This is perhaps entirely a matter of taste, as many people swear by the new versions of the music, though I am not quite sure I can ever come to terms with the character design updates.
   Any other major takewaways from XCDE will be discussed in later sections. For the most part, the experience was a well-paced return to one of my favorite stories from Monolith Soft. While I dabbled very little with the Time Attack mode, I can see and appreciate its inclusion as something of a side-step of and improvement to the Challenge Mode from XC2, in that ranking allows players who are unable to grasp the finer points of XCDE's battle system a chance to track their success and acknowledge what elements might be beneficial to improving their play in the main game. The resources for sale from the Archsage can also expedite some of the more aggravating elements of some long side-quests. I can say with certainty that Colony 9, Guar Plains, and Satorl Marsh are some of my favorite -blade biomes, and still feel with a great deal of certainty that Eryth Sea and Mount Valak are some of the worst.

Part DE2: The Weight of the World on Your Shoulder (Future Connected and Bionis Shoulder Design)
   So, does Future Connected truly feel like a proper bond between the past that is XC1 and the more modern conventions and improvements of XC2? In some ways, this does feel like the case, but in others, Future Connected feels like an extension of XCDE in all the worst ways, amounting to maybe one of the worst condensed -blade experiences in the entirety of the series. This might seem like a hyperbolic statement, which might be caused by the exhaustion I have come to feel regarding some of Monolith's persistent design choices regarding quest design. That they remain so firmly committed to these choices in 2020 after some relatively strong decisions in Torna two years prior makes me wary of what XC3 will feature.
   Future Connected drops the player almost right in the middle of the area known as the Bionis Shoulder, a place that had been previously inaccessible to players of the original version of XC that Monolith decided to rather smartly reuse for this story expansion. While its topography has long been out there for people to analyze, it had never been given narrative context, and although there had been some hint at this being the home of the giants in the original version of the game, that has since been stripped away to tell a different sort of story. The story conceit for Bionis Shoulder remaining is the existence of Floatstone, a resource mined in order to make the Imperial Capital of Alcamoth hover above Eryth Sea, which is also a location visited in the epilogue. While stranded on the shoulder, Fiora takes the lead with Shulk supporting in order to make sense of the threat of the Fog King, a creature that has emerged from a dimensional rift and poses a risk to the now-displaced High Entia. Through some relatively roundabout events, Shulk is able to power up his new fake Monado in order to combat the Fog King and Melia unites the fractured High Entia clans in order to take her rightful place as the Empress of her people. Hooray!
   The story has some twists and turns, as well as returning faces outside of the two playable cast members, but it feels largely inconsequential. With the Fog King defeated and the dimensional rift closed, we might assume that this creature will have nothing to do with XC3 in any regard. Yes, Melia is deserving of more screentime and will get it in XC3, but this story feels like nothing more than filler in both content and tone. New party members Kino and Nene, both children of the much more memorable Heropon Rikki, add little to the narrative and also utilize arts from Sharla and Reyn respectively, which begs the question of why, outside of bringing back old voice talent, that those characters didn't also make a return.
   There are some new mechanics presented, but what have been removed is more in-line with XC2's somewhat simplified design: the loss of Future Sight and skill trees means things are a bit more straightforward. The strangest addition is that of the Ponspectors, a group of Nopon who will help attack enemies in battle and are able to execute Union attacks in place of traditional attacks. Union attacks require a great deal of precision in order to maximize damage, but they also feature egregiously stupid cutscenes that are impressive in animation- as Monolith has proved with more recent titles- but tonally absurd. The inclusion of a token system for purchasing higher Arts ranks as a result of defeating Named and Fog-inflicted enemies is one of the key ways that Future Connected keeps players engaged in combat rather than running from enemies, but several side quests allow the player to level up their collection abilities.
   An odd decision are quests that ask the player to collect a specific resource from a specific location, which puts them right in the line of enemy aggression. While these quests can be extremely easy to complete, the intention here is perhaps to demand player interaction with enemies, though none of these quests will force you to diversify your play style in any meaningful way to tackle the enemies in the area. It feels as if Monolith understands the frustrating nature of collection points in this -blade iteration, but doesn't know how to address it- something that might explain several choices with this expansion.
   As is the case with all of XC1's previous biomes, it is now time to delve deep into the topography of Bionis Shoulder, which is very much rooted in the traditional environmental design of the game in question. This is understandable, as it is unused content from the original game, but what stands out about this biome is how strong it is in terms of design when stacked up against locales like Mount Valak and Makna Forest. On one hand, I can understand why, from an aesthetic standpoint, Bionis Shoulder might have been cut: it is not terribly unique in color palette or distinguishing features. There are land bridges similar to those found outside the Ether Mine at Colony six, a pair of modest-sized bodies of water and overlapping arches similar to those found Guar Plains. If given a fresher coat of paint (like the one found in the Cinnibar Plateau, albeit a bit more liberally applied), this region could appear more visually striking in contrast.
   In terms of its features, it uses a similar sort of structure to many of the other XC1 biomes, though its primary gimmick are the inclusion of caves, although all are noted as ruins by their label on the map. It is surprising to me that ruins here have such diversity in their design, yet also seem to feature elements that Monolith barely takes advantage of when considering cave design. There are exit points that don't necessarily tie into other parts of the topography, as is the case with Agni's Skygarden and Barouh Ruins. Gran Dell features similarly ruinous design, but works better than any other piece of ancient architecture due to its exploitable terrain, which can be used to access new parts of the area, though lacking in reward. The Shoulder also has a number of other intentionally-designed structures, such as the Nerthris Necropolis and Zekr Marga Quarry, that give hints of environmental context in positive ways, but other areas, like the entirety of the space around Gran Dell and Companion's Cape, fail to offer anything outside of a sense of scale and wonder. As XC2 would take more time to carve out the interiors of some of its biomes in order to create a greater sense of density, I can't help but think that some of the scale on the Shoulder is just that: scale for the sake of scale.
   It is difficult to speak of the Shoulder in the same way that I approached other biomes, primarily because it doesn't have the same critical path design of other biomes, which might again call into question its rightful place as an XC1 biome. Second, the starting point of Bionis Shoulder is technically the Purifying Falls, where the Junks crash lands at the start of the game. I'll do my best to divide Bionis Shoulder into its East and West sections, starting with the latter.
   The Purifying Falls siphons players further West over to the Navvir Highland, which features the aforementioned land bridges similar to Colony 6 and a small grassland that connects to the Clear Sky Bluff. In a bit of disappointing design, there's only one route up to the Clear Sky Bluff and its slightly claustrophobic, which begs the question as to why the Nerthis Necropolis, which is located at the end of this route, would have such a small road leading to it, but the bluffs do drop off into some smaller plateaus that hearken back to the Western bluffs in XCX's Primordia. The Highland empties out into Companion's Cape, a small and honestly bland area with a large landmark and little else.
   If the player ventures East of the Junks, they are siphoned into the Cragmaw Caverns, a small and straightforward cave that truly highlights what Monolith must assume differentiates “ruins” and “caves” as topographical elements. Ruins often have holes and exit points to outside views, where caves are usually completely subterranean, a contrast I wish was not so exclusive. The Cinnabar Plateau gives us the splash of color this biome needs, but it is small in scope. To the North lies a small forest that leads to Xen's Thoroughfare and the only route to the upper plateaus and regions of the Shoulder, which can become a bit frustrating when the player wants to return to quests found in this region. There are three fast-travel points found running down the large mountain ridge in this area, but they are all inconvenient and highly specific access points, some safely feeding into certain areas while others present the risk of hostile enemies. Either way, passing through Xen's Thoroughfare either takes you further North to climb the ridge, West towards a small forest and Teelan's Lab, or South to a plateau that overlooks the Purifying Falls.
   This is what comprises the Western part of the region, although a glance at the map might make you question that statement. In truth, there is still the Forbidden Hushland and Zekr Marga Quarry, but these locales are only accessible once the player has reached the Eastern portion of the Shoulder, as any attempt to reach them will result in fatal fall damage. This is an element that I actually rather enjoy about Bionis Shoulder, as it forces players to thoughtfully explore and weigh their approach, though some systems and gameplay mechanics from other -blade titles would likely circumvent this. Moving to the East, we get the dividing point between both halves in the form of Barouh Ruins, a pleasantly-lit and open area that can either take players North towards Whisperwind Crossing and access to Alcamoth, or push them further East towards Gran Dell and Fyme Lane, a large land bridge that curves back underneath the mountain ridge and into the Forbidden Hushland. This is an exciting area featuring a number of large creatures that can be previewed from above and encountered upon reaching the area. The conclusion of this route is the Zekr Marga Quarry, which is small, but is clearly artificial in design and has a few branching paths to give a sense of intention behind its design.
   One could argue that Thulles Way is the true dividing line of the region, as it cuts off access to Gran Dell until the player progresses the narrative to a certain point, but that would be vastly over-valuing the amount of content in Gran Dell and its adjacent areas. Passing through Thulles Way leads to Agni's Skygarden Ruins and the Halcyon Wheats, the former being a pleasant diversion with a vertical design and a pleateau with some valuable resources, and the latter being... open fields. I mean, don't get me wrong, I like the idea of a large open space, but there's nothing really to do in this area, other that explore the forest to the far East or head South to reach Gran Dell, the Tranquil Tarn, or Heroes' Rest, which is a somber cemetery that paints a picture similar to Fonsett Village.
   While the amount of space present in the Gran Dell region of the map is nice, there's no indication of life here outside of the ruined “town” structure itself, even the spare few NPCs out in the Wheats or by the Tarn seemingly venturing out only briefly. Although this is topographically very different from anything else found in this or any other -blade game (the exception being the rice paddies outside the Urayan capital), it does feel a bit like wasted space lacking personality in what is featured within it. I might solve this problem with my amazing game development skills by placing a unique sort of enemy, collectible, or smaller grouping of structures here, but of course, I likely don't know more about environmental design than Monolith staff, themselves. The inclusion of a wide open field might be a moment of empowerment or excitement... for someone who has the ability to sprint across it, of course. As it stands, this part of the map feels barren.
   In closing my thoughts on Future Connected, I don't find it all that surprising to be underwhelmed with the sort of content that it features: this biome is relatively low on interactive elements, but benefits from having a design that loops upon itself and is vertically tiered in a variety of ways in order to maximize exploration and quest completion. I bemoan the placement of fast travel points here, but it doesn't surprise me that the game is slight on them- that means you need to take time to actually go from one place to another. This buffs playtime, but only slightly. If Monolith wanted to make a serviceable epilogue to the game without creating as few new assets as possible, they accomplished this- but only just barely. If this content or biome could have been integrated into the main campaign in any way, I think it might have worked better, because just as a region of a dead god floating in the middle of the sky, the whole thing seems a bit... ridiculous.

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Man's Search for Meaning
   The announcement of Xenoblade Chronicles was a surprise and delight. Having become one of my favorite titles on the Wii and one of my favorite RPGs, period, I was fully prepared to get lost in a new world. My anticipation spiked within roughly a minute of my awareness of its existence, however, with the reveal of one crucial element: the mech gameplay that would augment exploration and combat. As a huge fan of Japanese mecha, this entry felt primed to become one of my favorite games ever. The wait for Xenoblade Chronicles X (henceforth referenced as XCX)- revealed in February 2013 but released in December 2015- felt unbearable, not only because of the anticipation, but also because of the sorry state of its platform, the doomed Wii U. As the game neared release, more information about its systems and scenario were revealed, and I began to realize that this game would act as a spiritual successor to XC in only a few ways. This was not designed to be an accessible JRPG, nor was it a game with a structured narrative. Rather, it was a game about exploration- of the unknown, the unfathomable, and the nature of existence and humanity.
   In reflecting upon XCX as the game neared release, Takahashi stated that he felt he had finally created what he had wanted to since founding Monolith Soft. I find it surprising that I discovered this statement during my revisit to the game, because through my own experience, I came to feel that XCX was a masterpiece of the genre. While my initial reception to the game were lukewarm because of its structural differences from its predecessor, I quickly grew obsessed with its design, systems, atmosphere, and content. With an initial save file far outclassing my original playtime for XC, clocking in just shy of 200 hours and with plenty more content to complete, I stepped away from XCX beyond impressed. Since then, I have returned to the game in preparation for this analysis, and I have come to realize how much I truly appreciate its design. It is not a perfect game, as there are still some quality of life changes that I feel could be made to its systems in order to make for a more fluid experience, but I personally believe that, of the three -blade titles, it stands out as a title that honors its roots and introduces new elements to create an unforgettable experience.
   But what is it about XCX that is so fantastic? As we move into the meat of this analysis, I caution those who have not played the game that I will be spoiling major plot points, and if not for the limited amount of Wii U's out in the wild, I would recommend that any fan of the genre go out and pick this title up. Without further adieu, let us discover the wonders of Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Part 007: A Lot More Than We Can Manage (Core Mechanic Variations)
   From the opening moments of XCX, a markedly different tone is established. Its raging, dark soundtrack- composed by Hiroyuki Sawano- coupled with a bleak introduction detailing the destruction of Earth sets players off on the right foot, and offers some initial clues into the nature of the narrative. The USS White Whale, for example, is more than just a reference to a hunted beast. A few months after crash landing on the potentially hospitable planet Mira, the crew of the White Whale begin to put the pieces of their life together, searching for the Lifehold and other parts of their ship, as well as separated crew members.
   As mentioned before, XCX is focused on exploration rather than following a set narrative. This is enforced by how each new chapter unlocks- via quest completion and discovery rate per region. The player can explore the world as they see fit from the very start of the game, although it is recommended that they enter New Los Angeles (NLA) in order to begin choosing quests. However, although there is no particular pressure to complete the main narrative (despite the big ticking percentage on the face of the BLADE headquarters), I would personally recommend completing some of the opening story segments in order to get a feel for how the world functions and certain systems that will be important.
Speaking of these systems, we will be approaching this analysis in a slightly different order. Despite its less-linear design, XCX still implements many of the systems of its predecessor, modifying them in certain ways to fit this title's design. Because it seems fitting to tie the two titles together through addressing these modifications, we will be front-loading the analysis of systems rather than splitting it into different segments. Landmark and Secret Area (now called Scenic Viewpoints and Unexplored Territory) discovery is still important, although the player is now tasked with “planting” their own fast-travel waypoints in the form of Research Probes, linking them to the FrontierNav, a crucial system that ties into map and region development.
   FrontierNav is the primary use for the Wii U Gamepad, a touch-sensitive map of the player's current region that displays the terrain of Mira in hexes. More often than not, these spaces are occupied by quest markers or Data Probe sites. Installing a Data Probe unlocks the information for the hexes that surround it, which sometimes offer a hint at what sort of quest will need to be completed. Data Probes act as passive gathering spots, collecting money, materials, and the precious resource Miranium for the player to use. There is also a set “chain” of Data Probes that are linked together, and using similar types of Data Probes in a row increases their ability to gather. Utilizing this gathering system is paramount in developing NLA, as many shops and quests will require their fruits in order to complete or rank up. Special Data Probes are unlocked via completing quests, so maximizing FrontierNav is dependent on questing, and vice-versa.
   Questing also factors into the development of each district of NLA, and it is important to be mindful that the BLADE terminal, a lovely screen where players can access a slew of side quests, is not the only place where quests can be acquired. Exploring the city itself and hearing what citizens of NLA have to say can unlock more content, so it is important to skim over the entire area as you progress. Similar to the revisits of XC, but a bit more centralized- but only just. Stalls for developing armor, weapons, augments (XCX's equivalent of gems), and more are present in the BLADE district, so most shopping and questing can be achieved from the most-frequently visited area, but they will require development, much like the towns of XC. Augment crafting is not accompanied by a mini-game, which is a notable detail about XCX, in general- there's just about one thing you should be doing, and that's questing. The game does not expect you to have time to do much else. The Affinity Chart returns, in all its convoluted glory, however it is much better at keeping track of NPC locations and is largely used to catalog NPCs and their relations, not keep track of development levels.
   A few other, minor elements that are changed from the previous title are the way time is altered and some exploration elements. There are specific BLADE caravans scattered around the five accessible continents where players can change the time of day, as well as a terminal in the BLADE Barracks, where story-related quests can be accessed. While this may seem like a strange choice, it is likely due to the demands that the open-world places upon the game engine. In terms of exploration, quest markers still exist, but an added Follow Ball allows players to find the most direct route to their current goal- although “most direct” is sometimes questionable. Likewise, they can send off the Aerial Cam to scope out their surrounding area- a feature that ultimately becomes superfluous after a period of time. One of the more enjoyable modifications is that players can sprint, vault, and no longer take fall damage- the last trait possessing interesting ties to the story.
   With a number of systems that continuously offer positive feedback loops to the player, and an expanse variety of exploration tools at their disposal, we can finally take a look at the world of Mira itself.
   And oh, what a world it is.

 Part 008: Not Even a Distant Land, We're Stuck On a Whole Different Planet (Setting and World Design)
   Mira is one of the best open worlds I have ever experienced. That being said, I have admittedly limited experience with open worlds in general, so your mileage may vary with that statement. However, I have played a game called Breath of the Wild, and although its Hyrule is expanse and enthralling, Mira outshines it in more than a few ways, one of them having direct ties to the legacy of JRPGs.
   If you haven't read any of my previous analysis of JRPGs or the genre itself, I would direct you to a particular article I penned in attempting to create a lexicon of terminology for JRPG analysis. Within it, I detail the idea of the Travel Cycle, a reoccurring element that dictates how content can be divided and introduced to players in the design of the overworld. Seeing as the -blade titles are essentially ALL overworld, they often rely on enemy level and aggression as a means of establishing critical paths and unsafe areas. While Mira is an incredibly hostile world, one of the more threatening I've experienced in my time playing JRPGs, the player's expanded movement options mean that running is always an option. Well, sprinting is, really. In order to combat this, Monolith decided to implement Travel Cycle mechanics into Mira's design in order to emphasize vertical design, tier content, and generally make traveling the world a much more amusing experience.
   There are a number of areas that are purposefully positioned above the maximum vault height, as well as terrain that is simply too hazardous to navigate, which can be overcome by the first movement enhancement. Likewise, there are a number of enemy encounters and locations inaccessible to the first movement enhancement, which are finally circumvented by the second movement enhancement. This is not to say that players must stick to critical paths- there were a number of occasions where I found myself vaulting along the rocky sides of canyons in order to avoid the enemy encounters below. But it does mean that the player feels a marked sense of progression as they access more and more areas of Mira during their journey, one that leads to a positive feedback loop of empowerment and discovery. That XCX possesses this facet of environmental design while lacking any sort of climbing mechanic is one of the primary reasons I would rate Mira as Monolith's best world. It doesn't need a slew of interactive elements to be accessible and enjoyable to explore- it just is, and that is quite a triumph.
   In terms of Mira as a setting itself, the open world is full of mystery and wonder. The more fictitious aspects of its topography- blue fields of grass, ancient metal rings buried in the sand, rocky canopies over canyons, and massive spores- awe in ways that outshine some of the best the XC's biomes had to offer, even with Mira's more muted color scheme. The unexplained surrounds the player, and the only familiar place to be found is NLA itself, walled off from the rest of the environment for the people's safety. Mira is a haven in more than one way, rescuing the White Whale from an endless search for hospitable terrain among the stars, but also providing a home for a host of alien life forms, some familiar, others nothing of the sort. A rather impressive aspect of XCX is that its wildlife design is completely different from that of XC- while many developers reuse enemy assets, Mira benefits from having an entirely new cast of dangerous creatures to avoid. Its more fantastic and disturbing aspects are best saved for the story segment, so we'll move on.
   Each of Mira's continents- which roughly equate to its biomes- are extremely unique in ways that complement one another and exhibit Monolith's prowess even further. Mira was estimated to be five times the size of the combined land mass of the original XC, and the variety within singular continents alone stands as a testament to this. As I mentioned during my review of XC, I would use “exploration” as a keyword for XCX, which may seem obvious at this point. However, when thinking of the way each of Mira's continents contrasts one another, it is best to consider them each as separate characters themselves, as I think a great deal of XCX's identity comes from its locations. In brief summation:

Primordia is largest in surface area, but extremely diverse, featuring small portions of elements found in other continents.
Noctilium is a continent with great aesthetic diversity. It is more vertically tiered, but also more strictly segmented in terms of its features.
Oblivia has the most flat, open space, as well as the greatest density of Ganglion outposts. It also features persistent weather damage.
Sylvalum has open space, is much more hostile thanks to its enemy types. It also has vast subterranean space, and benefits from a livelier nighttime appearance.
Cauldros has the unique feature of a massive artificial section, and a large amount of hazardous terrain. It also features the most aerial combat and persistent weather damage.

   Primordia is as close as you can get to a familiar grassland biome, but its appearance defies this in many ways. The previously mentioned stone canopies loom overhead, hiding higher-level encounters in their shadows. A series of waterfalls slopes into one of the title's larger lakes to the Northwest of NLA, while another large body of water, a decent to the shoreline, and several plateaus are bordered by higher mountain ranges to the Northeast. If Monolith made the most of reusing topographical elements in XC, they do an even better job in XCX, with Primordia being the first area that maximizes diversity with a few simple features. The region features three zone exits- to Noctilium, Oblivia, and Primordia's Waters- as well as several subtle critical paths which lead to nestled Ganglion Bases, caves, and the aforementioned exits. Each of these paths takes the player down diverse topography that will be mixed to produce different effects in other regions, thanks largely in part to the varying degrees of elevation the game features. If there is one slightly disappointing aspect of the exits to Noctilium and Oblivia, it is that they are claustrophobic and abrupt. The exit to Primordia's Waters and therefore Sylvalum benefits from a healthy coastline on the Northern ridge of the main continent, as well as several land masses on the way to a similarly small entrance to Sylvalum. While this may seem like a major flaw to some, it is subverted in a rather excellent way, which we will discuss as we continue our analysis of each region.
   Primordia is so massive, the player may neglect to return to the area in which the narrative begins- a small tutorial area tucked away West of NLA. Likewise, they may not discover some of its caves, landmarks, and details for a long time. Its mixture of early, mid, and endgame monsters ensures that it remains continuously threatening, and the tops of its stone canopies, as well as a few other hidden areas, are only accessible after the Travel Cycle is completed. It is an excellent starting area, and rivals Guar Plain in that regard.
   Noctilium, on the other hand, utilizes its geography in a completely different manner in order to produce a number of different effects. Should the player enter this area for the first time at its chronological story mission (Chapter 4), they will be treated to one of the best dungeon-like experiences one can find in the -blade series. This journey comprises roughly one-third of Noctilium's landmass, specifically, its opening area. The continent itself is narrow and long, opening up more in its Northernmost portion, but from its entry point, players are treated to a lush and dangerous rainforest aesthetic, featuring high cliffs and dense trees with a watery floor. Winding through this area leads out to a more open forest, but a BLADE caravan warns of a fork in the road and the relative safety of both routes. The player will eventually end up in a boss battle before closing out the chapter, only having witnessed a fraction of the region. Should they explore the continent before that point, they will still have to progress through this area, which holds a number of natural and satisfying encounters, but Monolith's usage of complex world design in order to facilitate a narrative is clearly evident in this area. We will see more examples of this sort of design in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but it is clear that it found its start here, in Noctilium.
   Regarding the rest of the region, there is even more lovely topography to be found. I don't wish to come across as some sort of map fetishist, but man, Noctilium is fantastic. Its swampy start opens up into a larger forest (with explorable canopy!), followed by blue grass fields, a large lake bordered by steep canyons, and a long, shallow river. A Ganglion outpost makes up another thickly wooded area, which leads off to remote domain of the Tainted. At the end of this continent's Travel Cycle, the player will find the Divine Roost, boasting high-level enemies and the endgame Tyrant. Noctilium has plenty of ground to cover between its Southern dense flora and wide, exposed Northern region. It is particularly enjoyable to return to once the player has established a Data Probe in the middle of its land mass, but its most distinguishing feature is its excellent critical path within its opening.
   Opposing Noctilium geographically and conceptually is Oblivia, a desert wasteland with its own unique features. While Noctilium's opening critical path is aesthetically pleasing and unpredictable, Oblivia's is barren and bland. From its entrance, the player can take a Southern route to some cliff-side danger and high-level Ganglion outposts, or the safer Northern route, which is capped by mountains. Oblivia's first cave is well-telegraphed and perhaps the first chronological indicator that the player should be paying closer attention to their surroundings, and the Northern path leads into a trench area with some higher cliffs and canopy before opening up into its vast wastes. High-level mobs announce their presence from afar in this region, and the lack of cover or ledges to catch pursuing enemies can spell doom for the player. While its opening is somewhat boring, the rest of this region is anything but, a pounding soundtrack emphasizing the sand- and electromagnetic storms, which can manifest in persistent weather damage. The Northern route leads to a beach and a route into a large Ganglion base, while the Southern route follows a river that veers off to the East and hints at several dangerous areas, while further South yields one of Oblivia's distinct Rings. The Southeast yields a large grotto and a chain of islands, the last of which can only be accessed through the first movement expansion. In the Northeast, there are a series of floating islands that require completion of the Travel Cycle in order to gain access.
   One of Oblivia's more interesting details is “The Hole,” the only bottomless pit in any of the regions. While it causes the entrance route to veer off in two different directions, it is a unique feature that can be subverted with the complete Travel Cycle. Another enjoyable aspect of Oblivia are the nature of its smaller Ganglion outposts, which are situated in smaller, sandy structures and burrows. One note I would like to make about Mira's continents is that they all possess their own unique ecosystems, with certain enemies being present only in specific regions. While there are also regional variants, this aspect helps drive home the distance and diversity between each continent, Outside of these aspects, however, There is little else that stands out about Oblivia, although it is still a fascinating continent with its fair share of unique encounters and topography.
   More than halfway done, next is the sandy, silent Sylvalum. This region succeeds in having a similar aesthetic to Satorl Marsh and Mount Valak from XC, in that it becomes more engaging and alive at night. Early on in my exploration of Sylvalum, I found the region to be rather bland. However, much like the final region Cauldros, a tenacious spirit will seek out the best aspects of Sylvalum and be rewarded for doing so. It is a mostly flat continent, however there are several examples of extreme elevation that allow access to its true treasures. Sylvalum features one of the most extensive subterranean areas in the game underneath its Western mountain range, which is topped with high-level mobs. The massive Noctilucent Sphere is host to its own denizens, and the Cavernous Abyss opposes it at the peak of the Western mountain chain. Although its ground level is open, several species of wildlife will constantly pester the player, as well as some massive machines. Sylvalum is also host to one of the more powerful endgame Tyrants, as well as one of the game's most titanic boss encounters. What Sylvalum lacks in color, it makes up for in diversity of its terrain, which is surprising, considering a majority of it is sandsea, but the constant threat of higher-level enemies makes exploring this continent a very different experience. Like Oblivia, there is little space to hide, but enemy density is higher and their maneuverability is superior.
   Finally, Cauldros is the most hostile-looking continent, and has several unique features that set it apart. Its lava fields are one of the few hazardous terrain types in the game, as is its psychedelic spring in its Western region. However, the critical path to its artificial structures- the largest in the entire game- is relatively straightforward and safe, and the player will have likely unlocked the proper movement enhancements to overcome any of the terrain hazards. This is not to say that the enemies here are not suitably dangerous- there are numerous Ganglion bases, and the artificial structures are teeming with higher-level mecha and infantry. The vertical nature of Cauldros is one of its more distinct features, as it has a few tight paths up its Northernmost mountain range and several narrow artificial paths interlinking its large structures. Likewise, it features arguably the highest density in aerial enemy types, in addition to one of the more massive enemy types. Finally, it features persistent weather damage in the form of brimstone rain and electrical storms.
   This, of course, neglects to mention the several small islands that lay off the coast of each continent, often featuring a unique encounter or rare material. While none of these are large enough to, say, appear on the map, they exist for the brave explorer to uncover. When considering this aspect, it is surprising that Monolith chose not to include an archipelago style area- the closest we get to this is the area in between Primordia and Sylvalum- but this would counter the idea of each continent being a substantial land mass. Likewise, the positioning of these continents is odd- there is a significant amount of open space between Noctilium, Sylvalum, and Oblivia, for example. This was likely a result of allowing proper loading while traveling at maximum speed between them, however, and given the frequency and convenience that exists in fast-travel, it is hardly an issue.
   Some of the more intimate content in XCX's world design is often its best. When players have the freedom to sprint off upon drawing aggro, there is often little cause for alarm, unless an enemy has particularly great range or speed. But XCX's Ganglion Bases and caves are all unique in design, even though they reuse a number of the same assets. In comparison with a game like Breath of the Wild, which strips down enemy encampments to series of small platforms and an occasional skull structure, Ganglion bases have interlocking catwalks, structures with multiple levels, areas with livestock, and even more dangerous, inaccessible points. Caves, on the other hand, will often have gimmicks, such as tight bridges, vine-like structures, and water or lava hazards that the player must avoid in order to reach their deepest point, sometimes delicately. It is somewhat shocking that XCX has as much diversity as it does in these areas, which can be approached with stealth or platforming in mind, but they shine the most when integrated with quests, where a narrative beat occurs within their pits.
   With such a vast and varied world to explore, one would assume that, given XC's impressive character development and combat, the main cast would be just as fascinating, correct?
   Well. Here's the thing.

Part 009: We've Been Tasked to Protect and Take On Ghosts (Characters and Combat)
   The goal of XCX was to create a more exploration-focused gameplay experience with a diminished emphasis on narrative. With this in mind, the way the characters in the game as designed and function is not surprising, however this should be a clear indicator that the level of complexity among them rarely reaches the levels of its predecessor.
   This is one of the more difficult aspects to reconcile about XCX, as the previous title told an intimate story with overlapping layers in a much more cinematic way. Each of its characters had a distinct visual appearance and a central combat motif that made their gameplay compelling. The small cast size meant that each member of the party was given time to grow. In almost every way, XCX's design opposes this, with a larger cast of recruitable characters whose roles within the central narrative are relatively small. Likewise, combat has been altered in significant ways that result in characters having distinguishable, yet superficial traits that separate them from the core cast.
   In fact, the phrase “distinguishable, yet superficial” can be used to describe most of the characters in XCX. A quick overview of the playable cast:

Elma is the game's protagonist. She takes care of business, is really smart, and trusts few people. Probably because she's secretly ugly.
Lin is her sidekick. She is really, REALLY smart, but in engineering. Her parents are dead.
Tatsu is a lone Nopon in a crazy world. He is a useless piece of ****.
Lao is the leader of another BLADE group. He's really sad, but he's also really skilled.
Doug is a pilot and a good guy. He's also a bit of a meathead.
Irina is a no-nonsense, hard-hitting gal who can- and will- beat you up. She idolizes Elma.
Gwin is some punk-ass kid who wants to be as cool as you. He also has the hots for Irina.
L is a stupid alien who misinterprets almost every idiom known to humanity. He's tall.
Frye is a loud-mouthed, boisterous Killer Ostrich.
Phog is his absent-minded brother.
Hope is hopeful.
The Murderess is a sultry, status-obsessed backstabber with a heart of gold(?).
Nagi is your boss. No, your OTHER boss. He's a badass with a cool demeanor.
Celica is a dainty alien who doesn't like to fight, but will certainly do so if the situation demands it.
Mia is missing in action!
Cross is you. You are Cross.

   This is over-simplifying, of course, and does not factor in the additional four DLC characters, included with the base package in the game's Western release. These characters have deeper motivations and harrowing backstories, and often struggle with the nature of their circumstance in the only way they can- by teaming up with Cross to go kill indigenous wildlife. However, even without those additional party members, creating unique personalities and interactions between the fourteen base party members is a daunting task in itself. Understandable, then, that only a portion of these characters directly contribute to the main narrative, although it does raise the question of why there is such a high amount of them in the first place. In my opinion, the game could have easily gone without Doug, Hope, L, and Gwin- although this stems mostly from my own preference, as I feel these characters contribute nothing to the main narrative, and that their side quest related content is barely worth mentioning.
   Also, screw Gwin.
   But the lack of character- or rather, the odd way characters choose to express themselves- means that most of the player's focus will remain on questing. While there are Heart-to-hearts, the more important factor in boosting party member affinity is that, upon completing their related quest chains, you gain access to their unique combat Arts. In a way, knowing that you have gained access to a quest involving one of the party is more exciting than actually getting to know the party member themselves, with a few exceptions. Even with a majority of duds, there are a few shining examples: Lao's character arc is the best in the game, as he explores survivor's guilt, humanity, and the futility of existence in fascinating ways. Irina has her own troubled past and a gruff demeanor that is ultimately more charming than anything. Nagi is pretty hardcore, especially once you realize he's more than just a higher-up barking orders at his subordinates, and the Murderess has a number of great moments that are bolstered by her interactions with Irina. Celica is one of the more unique party members and her quests have a nice and honest tone to them, something that XCX seems to lack.
   If XC's characters were brimming with enthusiasm and trust, Monolith seemed determined to steer themselves in the opposite direction with XCX. Almost every member of NLA is a piece of **** in some way. I don't say that simply for laughs, this portrayal of humanity is particularly biting in its honesty because of how utterly indecent it can be. Even as the last members of a near-extinct race, they never cease trying to class up the place with racist bigotry, assassination attempts, general laziness, and a lust for profit. When the question of why every one of NLA's citizenship isn't a BLADE member came to mind, I realized how unfit a large majority of the characters were for a relatively decent line of work. Even then, there are still a number of BLADE members who exhibit some scummy behavior.
   One of the only redeemable characters in the game is- no, not Elma- the player avatar, Cross. Since, you know, he takes on an absurd amount of busy work and mingles with the underbelly of the community of NLA, taking on the greatest threats on Mira with grace and aplomb. In all seriousness, though, this is just an excuse to talk about Cross' design, or more particularly, the avatar creation system. There's an immense amount of options for the player to explore, in ways that don't make logical sense within the context of the game, but damn if it isn't fun as hell. While in-game avatar customization is locked behind- you guessed it- a side quest, the process of creating a single design can be exhaustive, and rediscovering the option in the mid-game is a sort of breath of fresh air. If, you know, you're into that sort of thing. The art style of character designer Kunihiko Takana is well-represented in all of its weirdly inhuman qualities. While it doesn't mesh perfectly with the world design, it has a great deal of character, and the big foreheads help you think about the vastness of space.
   Jokes aside, the avatar creation is really fun.
   But an analysis of character would be incomplete without a look at where XCX truly shines, which is in its alien species. The “Xeno-” in this series is in full effect here, with ten unique races eventually taking residence in NLA, humans included. Each of these races has their own unique physiology, culture, and lore, which are fully explored in- yep, you guessed it- quests. With only a handful of these races being directly mentioned in the main narrative, the player also has the potential to miss them for an extended period of time due to their introductions being hidden by seemingly innocuous quest titles. However, I can say with certainty that players will likely meet the majority, if not all of these races in a single playthrough of XCX, and that they introduce fantastic and bizarre content that is truly the heart and soul of the game. Discovering the reproductive cycle of the Orpheans and the strange effects that Mira has on them, finding a suitable source of food for the Zaruboggans, freeing the Definians from servitude, and many more mundane and bizarre side stories play out during the course of life on Mira. Becoming locked into a specific species' narrative out of simple and enjoyable curiosity were some of my most fond memories. The way the xenoform element eventually integrates into NLA provides one of the more alien locales and themes, serving as a hub for some of the most absurd side quests of the game. While not every aspect of these alien species is likable, they aren't necessarily supposed to be, which is one of the more honest and strangely immersive elements of the storytelling in XCX.
   If there is one regret I have regarding these races, however, it is that only a fraction of them are playable. Those who are fit under the same class archetypes as the human characters, and hey, that's as good a reason as any to take a look at combat.
   While XC's active-selection battle system and Arts palette return, some core modifications have been made to character progression and roles within combat, to the extent that, although the game has fundamental similarities, its faster pace and moment to moment gameplay feels entirely unlike its predecessor. In order to fully appreciate how different XCX is, there are several key elements that must be addressed first, as they inform other aspects of combat down the line. While the color system from XC returns (a previously unmentioned aspect of XC's combat system, in which specific colors of Arts inflict certain kinds of status/debuff effects), there is an additional layer of complexity based upon player weaponry.
   You always have access to two weapons- one ranged, one melee- and each possesses its own slew of offensive and defensive Arts. However, players will find using only one weapon type to be unwise, as both have their benefits. The clearest balancing act is that melee auto-attack damage accrues higher Tension Points, the game's equivalent of mana/MP, at the cost of defense due to their proximity to the enemy. Tension Points can activate specific Arts that deal even higher amounts of damage. While Arts cooldown ensures that spamming abilities is not possible, there is another, opposing aspect to Arts selection, one unique to XCX's combat- secondary cooldowns that offer stronger effects or immediate reuse of an Art. Tertiary cooldowns can be accessed via Overdrive, which is something we should probably get into.
   Overdrive is XCX's combination of both Talent Arts and Chain Attacks from XC. By building up TP to 3000, players can initiate this mode, which enhances Arts power, can give a number of bonuses, and give Arts access to tertiary cooldown, which can boost their power or consecutive reuses further. Overdrive has a number of strange color combination aspects (used by chaining Arts of specific and respective colors together) that can push the mode to even higher levels, and cause even a mid- to late-game player to extreme heights. While its features are not explicitly described to players- and its tutorial in Chapter 5 barely scratches the surface of its potential- Overdrive may not be a mechanic that a player can take advantage of in the mid-game, but dedicating a build to maximize Overdrive potential can have absurd benefits that can help overcome extremely difficult enemies.
   Any party member can activate Overdrive, but its mid-game introduction means that earlier combat relies heavily on class builds. The player avatar Cross is the only character able to switch between classes, while other party members remain locked into their initial build, but each party member has their own unique Arts that Cross can access once he has finished their Affinity Quests. Starting with the primary, introductory Drifter class, options branch out into three intermediate classes, with two additional branches possessing their own two tiers. Each class has its own weapon set, with high-class weaponry being exclusive and possessing some of the best Arts in the game. But, each class also specializes in specific elemental damage, so applying the class skills- unlocked by gaining experience though ranking up- serves to increase the effectiveness of a specific branch even further. However, the goal of maxing out classes is being able to utilize different skills and weapons within different classes. Or perhaps, finding the perfect, most devastating combo possible. Starting a new intermediate tree sets you back to square one in terms of weapon-specific Arts, so you're either stuck with using limited options while exploring a new class, or using the same weapons in a new class. It doesn't feel like the most elegant solution, and class experimentation is encouraged in the late- or post-game, when a number of exclusive combat simulations allow you to boost their level far faster.
   What is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of XCX, however, is its lack of a dedicated medic class. This choice was made, apparently, because Takahashi and Monolith felt that players did not enjoy playing as this type of build. I personally find this surprising, as Melia and Sharla, two healer-centric characters in XC, were some of my favorite to play as, but with the way XCX's combat operates in its current state- even without Soul Voice, the medic mechanic replacement- I think that a buff and healing class would likely be slower and more passive, in general. In the place of healing is Soul Voice, which simultaneously functions as an Affinity building and attack buff system. When certain events occur within battle, such as an enemy receiving a debuff or a party member falling under a certain HP value, they will initiate a dialogue box that requests a certain type of Art. If the player responds with the correct Art type, a bonus will be applied. While certain builds can apply passive healing benefits and specific Arts do have healing effects, the frequency of Soul Voice and Cross' particular custom options involving the mechanic allow for steady healing intermingled with offensive options. It is almost surprising how well XCX's combat operates without healing, although it is very rare that a battle escalates to a higher level, which we will encounter later in the series. Aggro is still in effect here, but because of Mira's more expanse world design, players can have intimate skirmishes without drawing the attention of larger threats.
   Monolith makes little attempt to vary weapon classes within XCX's combat system. While sniper rifles have greater range than others, for example, I feel that classes could have leaned more heavily on certain weapon types to diversify them more. On the other hand, the unlocking of high-tier weapon classes is an example of this philosophy, somewhat. With its faster pacing, multiple interwoven systems, and the ability to travel and fight with four characters in contrast to XC's three, one may think that this combat system is already extremely in-depth, requiring a great amount of investment in order to master and maximize.
   Except, you would be neglecting the giant robots.

Part 010: Standing as Long as We Can Until We Get All Dolls Up (Skells and Equipment)
   We're rather deep into our retrospective journey across Mira, so it makes sense that we should gain access to Skells at this point. Although they feature front and center on XCX's box cover art and can be seen on numerous occasions in the early and mid-game, access to a Skell is not granted until after Chapter 6 of 12, and even then, they are not the god-mode that one might assume them to be. While they do add some layer of complexity to combat, there is also a sense of stripping away that occurs. If there is anything that Skells truly contribute towards, it is exploration of Mira.
   Skells feature their own combat Arts, equipment, Tension Points (renamed Gear Points), and Overdrive, and though each of these is roughly a 20 level buff atop their license level, they are more simplistic in nature than the mechanics of their pilots. Arts are determined by the weapons equipped to the Skell, with specific equipment mounts for certain types of weaponry. Each Art costs fuel, which is in limited reserve determined by Skell frame type. Some Arts generate GP, with auto-attacks being a more consistent and reliable option, but the most-frequently beneficial state to utilize is Binding, which can occur when a Skell staggers an enemy. Binding gives players the chance to freeze an enemy in place and regain fuel and GP through button prompts, which is really quite nice. Their Overdrive negates fuel use and grants some passive benefits, but there is no Overdrive counter like their pilots possess. There is a neat little thing called Cockpit Time that can happen, but its highly randomized because of its obvious benefits (resetting all Arts cooldowns).
   Their somewhat structured and straightforward approach to combat befits their construction and role within the story, which is minimal and lacking personality. While different frames have their own appearances and specific benefits, they function very similarly within combat, even closer than normal characters of differing classes. They can grant buffs to party members fighting without a Skell, but that specific character is likely going to be the first to fall, no matter what. With their mechanical nature, they do not grow in level like normal characters, rather there are three tiers of each design, at level 30, 50, and 60. See, even when the player receives their first Skell, they are still very susceptible to getting wiped out during exploration, simply because they are piloting a device that augments their character's combat potential roughly to level 50, nothing more. When gifted your first Skell, you only get one, and buying more, as well as the equipment to maximize their construction, is extremely cost-intensive. Like, I can't even begin to explain it. Chances are, you'll probably end up wrecking your Skell, and then you'll have to either use a ticket to save it from the scrap heap, pay for repairs yourself, or scrap it.
   I hope you don't scrap it.
   This is where a great deal of the currency grinding from FrontierNav comes in handy, in fact, this is probably the reason currency can be gathered from FrontierNav probes. Skells, their equipment, and party equipment cost is extremely high in XCX, to the point where almost every choice feels like an intense commitment. While there is a great deal of materials and equipment that can be found in the field and much of it can be sold for a fair price, the way equipment options grow from within NLA based on alien species acquisition and your own investments is a much more appealing- and cost-intensive. Skells, in particular, will cost you a pretty penny, and if you aren't good an ejecting from them properly, repairing them can cost you even more.
   But as I said before, Skells are also hugely beneficial to the exploration of Mira, as they comprise the second and third tier of XCX's Travel Cycle. Skell jumps overcome a number of the intentional height limitations found in the world design and their ability to hover over water gives them the ability to reach many places a normal party member could not, and their flight modules allow the player to push their traversal to its vertical extremes. While there are a few areas that are extremely high in Mira, the flight module is mostly used for uncovering areas where there are no walking paths, such as hidden caves on the sides of mountains, or areas that would be just out of reach for other means of access. Fulfilling the traditional roles of mounted travel with their vehicular forms (which can satisfyingly launch smaller enemies into the air) and airship travel with their flight module, Skells give this open-world title a much more familiar feel to a traditional RPG than expected.
   While Skells feel like something of a downgrade to normal combat, the feeling of empowerment that comes with them adds another layer of exhilaration to exploring the landscape and taking down even larger foes, some of which are extremely hard to tackle even with higher level party members. They can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a boon, especially when traveling in particularly dangerous areas where they are at risk of being destroyed. But, like normal party members, Skells have their own forms of sprinting from danger, which can often be utilized to circumvent unwanted engagements.
   As a final, cursory note, basic equipment is very nice in this game. From utilitarian humanoid loadouts, to more alien aesthetics, and even “sexy-type battle suits” (Takahashi's words, not mine), each style of armor encompasses three different weight classes that benefit specific play styles, while also offering their own unique benefits. Quests unlock a number of gear types that, although gimmicky in nature, often work best with cosmetic application. The option to layer over specific types of gear for aesthetic quality in a cosmetic function exists in XCX, so players can experiment with making their characters look fancy while also focusing on specific builds. As mentioned previously, each new alien race that joins NLA offers up their own brands of weaponry and equipment, which further adds to the game's character. Augments also exist and can be applied to equipment, and for a significant investment, you can even add slots to equipment in order to push their potential further. It all adds to the depth that can be found in the game's systems, and is missing somewhat from its main narrative.

Part 011: The Key We've Lost (Story)
   As we've mentioned time and time again, XCX was developed with questing in mind, and that is largely where its more engaging narratives and characters come out. However, while its central narrative doesn't immediately grip the player like in XC, it is very evocative of the game as a whole, touching on its themes lightly at times and directly during others. In short, XCX's storyline is about the perfect and flawless Elma taking an even more perfect and flawless Cross under her wing as they search for the Lifehold, a device that contains all of NLA's humanity, in a number of ways. A ticking clock atop BLADE Tower tells the residents how much time they have left before the Lifehold loses power, which would effectively leave NLA out of luck. See, all of the human characters in XCX are actually Mimeosomes, devices created to allow humans to experience their surroundings while their body was held elsewhere. So the Lifehold carries the source of the human consciousness, something that the Ganglion- the antagonistic force in the narrative- desperately wants to destroy.
   That's the general gist, but there is also the curious nature of Mira itself, which allows numerous alien species the ability to converse with each other despite obvious language differences. There's a fabled mech buried somewhere, a giant guardian of the planet named Telethia, and some other curious aspects that shouldn't sit right with the player throughout their journey, and even up until the very ending moments, the game throws plot twist after plot twist at the player. While each new revelation is treated as fact, the overall narrative paints a picture of ambiguity. Not only do the characters often have trouble trusting one another, but its never really the way that they interact with the player avatar that sparks curiosity, rather, it is Elma who tends to make these sorts of executive decisions. As Cross is the only direct link players have to the game, his role as a secondary protagonist causes something of a disconnect. While this focus on avatar customization developed from the game's meager multiplayer functionality, it doesn't really feel justified, as it causes the main narrative to suffer.
   However, if the player is meant to feel like a cog that turns the wheels of NLA, then their role is much more justified. The only problem is, that you are the one who is completing a majority of the quests while Elma takes credit for them. True, you are taken under her wing and she does outrank you, you are the catalyst for all of the success her team eventually has. In a grand gesture, she completely overshadows any sort of importance you might have held in the game's final moments, which, to be honest, caused a bit of animosity to develop within me regarding her. Her actions are justifiable within the plot on a number of levels, but it doesn't make up for the fact that, when it all comes down to it, Elma is the only character who is able to come out alive in the end.
   Characters like Lao and Lin receive the better part of dialogue regarding the will to survive and its cost on one's humanity, and this is truly where the game shines. When it isn't concerned with being very “HOO HAH HUMANITY,” the game can be very sentimental in the way that it values human life- to an extent. While much of the game tricks the player into believing that the human race very much has a second chance at existence, the way the narrative reveals the best and worst of their choices and nature. It is a thoughtful and sad look at how a struggle for survival would occur, and very telling at the same time.
   On the other hand, when the game is indulging in its “HOO HAH HUMANITY,” it is very enjoyable. The sequence in which the player must defend NLA, as well as what is arguably the grand dest boss battle across all three games, at least in scale, are absolutely fabulous, and the cutscene leading up to the final chapter is enough to get anyone determined to save humanity. It's equal parts a celebration of human brute force and aggression, as well as their delicate emotions. This is especially evident in Affinity Quests, which reveal the softer side of many of the military personnel you encounter during your journey.
   XCX's main narrative only sets the foundation for what will be explored further in its quests, which deal much more with the implications of faith, decency, and allegiance. This is why I personally feel that an analysis of its main narrative simply doesn't allow a player to appreciate all that it has to offer in terms of story content. After characters are introduced within the central storyline, they are embellished much further in quest material, which allows the player to better appreciate their appearance. Likewise, many of the best characters and races make no appearance whatsoever within the main narrative, which may be a strike against the way that story is told. However, a game is a complete package, main and side content, combat and exploration, and where one of these aspects may fail, another may vastly overcome expectations. But as it stands, most of XCX's narrative content dwells on the darker side, offering little hope for the survival of our species outside of extraterrestrial intervention. The way this title concludes is one of the more grand carpet-sweeps I've seen in a JRPG, period, and while it begs for a sequel, I believe that XCX on its own serves as a satisfying enough look at what Takahashi believes of humanity.

Part 012: Just Try to Live Your Life (Final Impressions)
   As gargantuan a game as XCX is, there are some aspects where it relies a bit too heavily on its nature as a JRPG in order to pad out content. Although the game has more precise functions for finding quest-related locations and NPCs, the nature of its party recruit system is somewhat baffling and aggravating. Whiel just as organic a world as the first game, party characters will only be present for recruitment in certain places at certain times, and their Heart-to-heart locations are sometimes extremely precise. Much like the first game, XCX's material drop points have a percentage rate, which can be meddled with much in the same method as the first game. Enemies also have multiple target points, and breaking particular parts of their body increases the potential for certain drops, so material grinding can be more of a process. Many of its side quests still equate to tedious gathering or mob slaying grinds, while others are highly specific requests, like wearing a certain type of equipment and using it in battle. Despite its large amount of complex and narrative-driven quests, there's still a whole lot of stuff that makes playing the game feel more like a job than anything.
   But, once again, I believe this was the intended effect. During one of the very first chapters, the player is tasked with choosing a guild within the BLADE organization, which specializes in certain types of quests, and offers increased BLADE rank experience for the player upon completion. While some of these are straightforward and much easier to accomplish (for example, there is a mob-slaying guild and a mineral-collection guild) others have more nuanced functions like helping NLA citizens or acting as bodyguards. In the end, XCX is a game about exploration and living life in a world that is extremely hazardous, fitting themes that pair well with its narrative. It's about making, spending, and investing money. It's about discovering new people and their traditions and seeing them integrate into society. It's about contributing to a mission larger than the individual, which is likely the reason for its diminished focus on character. In that way, a game that feels like a job, and a world that feels like it grows and changes thanks to completed quests and increased familiarity is something of a success. While I don't believe that concept will sit well with everyone, it is something that makes a great deal of sense when looking at the product as a whole, and I believe that it is a prime example of a game using its genre to accentuate its message and motif.
   My first impressions of XCX were very lukewarm, finding the faster pacing and increased complexity somewhat inaccessible. However, as is the case with many JRPGs, learning the systems is part of the experience, and with that learning process in XCX also comes familiarity with its world. I will admit that I stuck to a number of the more basic quests at the start of my first playthrough of XCX, but upon discovering the more extended narratives found within, a quickly learned to appreciate the game a great deal more. When I think of XCX, I am reminded of its strangeness- some Ma-non who are obsessed with pizza and others who want to start a lingerie business, the creepy Cantor who end up taking over the Biahno Water Purification Plant, helping the Orphean gain a new gender, and the absurd antics of rival Prone clans. There is very little that I loved about XC present in XCX, except perhaps its sense of scale, but I think my love for this Wii U title has encompassed its successor. There is a ton of truly unique content to be found in between its more tedious quests, and with a dedicated goal and informed perspective of the game and its systems, players can feel a continual sense of growth as they seek to overcome Mira. In gaining the endgame Skells, players can begin their hunt to take on the worst that Mira has to offer, but those attempts will take a lot of living- and a lot of dying- in order to complete this gargantuan game.
   In returning to XCX, I was intimidated by the amount of content I would have to cover. In conceiving this series of analysis, I wanted to focus solely on the world design in the -blade games, with this game in particular being my most anticipated subject. While there is still so much more I could say about the design of Mira and its many rewards, I eventually decided that only covering XCX's world would be a disservice to the experience that it provides, which lead me to expand my analysis to the other areas of these games. Although XCX does not offer something as concise or satisfying as the narrative arc of its predecessor, or a combat system as approachable and enjoyable as its successor, it is a extremely well-crafted title, one that stands out against its contemporaries and even the games that flank it.
   One final note to make, and something that has long been a point of contention regarding this title, is the source of all the segment titles for the coverage of XCX. Hiroyuki Sawano's Original Soundtrack for this game has always been something of a mixed bag, with its odd lyrical choices and grungy, rustic atmosphere. While I am certain it will not resonate with everyone, I believe that this soundtrack pairs with the game extremely well, with moments of subtlety and quietness intermingled with its pulsating, epic battle themes. The day and night themes for each of the five continents are extremely diverse and fitting, and even its tracks with vocals have surprisingly contextual lyrics. More than anything, however, Sawano's soundtrack suits the more serious tone of the game, with a comedic track that still subdued in nature. While I love the unique boss theme from XC, I cannot deny that I adore XCX's, as well.
   With what was the largest Wii U game under their belt, featuring depth that rivaled the other open-world title on the system, Breath of the Wild, Monolith began work on their next project immediately, hoping to go for something with a unique visual flair in comparison with their previous efforts. It would be a title with a relatively smooth development process, benefiting from multiple character artists and a more focused vision. Would the next -blade entry build upon the complexities found in this open-world title and learn from some of the more glaring concerns regarding quests and ease of accessibility, or would it take a different direction entirely?
   We wouldn't have to wait long to find out, and the result would be something that would combine some of the series' staples in different ways, streamlining its design in ways that would create a wholly unique experience.

 Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Organic and Addictive
   Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not a perfect game, from a technical or mechanical perspective. Upon launch, it had a tendency to crash, its map system, specifically regarding fast-travel, was extremely convoluted, its voice acting is far more of a mixed bag than either of its predecessors, and it has a number of additional oddities that can very well dissuade a first-time player of the -blade series, or even a seasoned JRPG veteran. And yet, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) is the first game of the series that I have clocked over two-hundred hours into on my first playthrough, and is a title that surprised me in so many ways despite its flaws.
   January 11th was the night of the first in-depth press conference for the Nintendo Switch, and I remember jokingly telling my friends at the time that I would likely hold off on buying the new system until Monolith Soft announced their first title for it. Imagine my surprise when I saw the first, bare-bones teaser trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that very same evening, with a tentative release date of 2017 attached. I reined in my expectations in the months to come, knowing full-well how XCX had taken such a long time to develop, and how little of this new title we had seen. News that the original soundtrack had just finished recording before E3 did not give me much hope, but the game would be featured there and given a release date in the same holiday time-frame as XCX. Shocked and now enthralled, I began to listen more intently to how the game's mechanics would work and play. While the Treehouse demo was informative, it had only a few instances of exceptional play, which made me wonder whether or not the game's heavily modified combat system would work. But when I finally started to play XC2, I would realize that my previous fears were not justified.
   Having sunk as much time as I have into the game, and still looking forward to the future DLC installments (which I will likely cover in a separate article/installment), and also having recently done some intense revisiting of the previous -blade titles, I feel that I have a very clear idea for what XC2 accomplishes, as well as what it fails at achieving. Although my initial focus for this series was on world design, there are other aspects of XC2 that are far more rewarding to discuss. As is the case with both of the previous titles, we will cover every aspect of the game here, but particular emphasis will be placed upon the defining keyword of this game: combat.
   If you've made it this far, you're likely aware that I don't particularly enjoy being specific about spoilers in a game, but several important plot points will be directly integrated within the analysis of combat in XC2. Because of the proximity of this analysis in relation to the game's release, I strongly advise that players complete Chapter 7 before reading that segment, as they will have discovered the majority of the combat mechanics at this point.
   Onward, to Elysium, then.

Part 013: Stripping Down (Core Mechanic Variations)
   One of the more surprising aspects of XC2's adherence to the series' core mechanics is how much it streamlines a number of the complexities found in previous entries. Some of these likely contributed to the faster development period, while others seem to have been altered in order for balance and simplicity's sake. Either way, I feel that this game is more accessible and easy to grasp from a mechanical standpoint in comparison with the accessibility of story in XC, and the freedom of control and exploration found in XCX.
   Because of the setting, maps are now far more segmented, in more than a few ways. Each Titan has its own map, sometimes with multiple levels based on the density and vertical limits of each environment. Landmarks and fast-travel points are not always mutually exclusive, but there's a much lower amount of fast-travel points per region in comparison with XCX. Towns are directly integrated into world design, often sandwiched within or layered atop environments, which creates a very different feel from the segmented nature of XC, which only possessed one instance of this sort of design on the Fallen Arm. Town development has additional features that are meant to streamline the process, but it sometimes interferes with the economy of the game. In addition, development level is also directly and bizarrely tied to specific aspects of character progression.
   Unique mobs can now be battled again at any time upon being defeated, as they create a tombstone that allows them to be summoned on cue- this works even if they initially required specific weather conditions in order to be encountered. This system is similar to the modifications made regarding material drops, as they are now specific points that drop multiple items upon interaction. These can be reset upon fast-travel, in the series' tradition, but certain drops possess context-specific materials- for example, a drop located by a cliff will likely contain minerals, or a drop in water will possess fish. The rarity of the drops found can be manipulated thanks to specific field skills equipped upon characters. This is rather huge.
   A curious aspect of Heart-to-hearts is that they can be found in the field, but contribute little to boosting Affinity levels. They often add flavor text and very rarely appear before the player is able to access them- although this is also a result of how certain Affinity links occur. In fact, there is no inter-party member Affinity system, only between the party members and their Blades, which we will touch upon later. The quest marker system not only marks multiple story-related objectives, but will also mark new quests while roaming the world. It also signals the elevation of each objective, which can be beneficial in towns, though not always in the field.
   There are a number of additional elements that have been altered so heavily that they actually affect the normal structure of this review, so we'll have to cover them here. Equipment, especially that which grants aesthetic changes in the field, is no longer present, likely a result of the emphasis on unique character design. In its place are accessories and item pouches, which have a maximum of two slots each. Accessories are extremely specific in function and can, at maximum, alter a single character statistic around 30 to 35 percent. Accessories can often grant passive bonuses, but a single type of accessory cannot be stacked- two accessories that lower enemy resistance to the Break status cannot be equipped on a single character, for example, or two accessories that boost a specific statistic by a certain percentage. However, an accessory that boosts a statistic by a certain amount of points can be paired with one that boosts by percentage. It's weird.
   Pouch items are Monolith's way of making sure you have a low amount of money, at least until you unlock Sheba. There are an absurd amount of pouch items, appearing in the form of food (signature dishes, meat, fish, vegetables, desserts, and drinks), cosmetics (makeup and textiles), and trinkets (books and games). Some characters gain the ability to create certain pouch items through Affinity building, but more than often, you will be buying these from the many, many.
   Shops in the game. Like material drops and accessories, they come in three tiers of rarity, and you better bet your sweet Blade that they get more expensive. Pouch items have the ability to raise Affinity levels if your bonded Blades like them, but you need to learn which categories they like, or actually pick specific items if you are looking to get their favorites. Outside of boosting Affinity, however, pouch items also grant specific passive bonuses in combat which, though nice, aren't truly beneficial until you start equipping the highest-tier types of items. And yes, like accessories, you cannot put doubles in both pouches.
   In terms of weapons, well, that's an entirely separate story. However, Weapon Points, used to level up specific Arts, can be obtained by maxing out Affinity with your Blades, which is why you should try to do so as often as you can. Experience not gained in battles (via side-content) can be applied to each party member while they rest at an inn. This is also the first of the -blade games to have an inn-resting feature, and it is specifically for this, and one other purpose.
   Regarding these alterations, my only assumption is that Monolith designed XC2 to be more accessible than previous entries, with distinct character designs that would stand out against one another, and more limited in application, but broad in concept accessory design. When paired with a number of the combat mechanics, which also factor into customization, the game's systems are much more easily learned. Despite this, there are still a number of in-game tutorials that will appear as text boxes, but they are much more straightforward than those of previous entries. In fact, this ease of accessibility and understanding means that Monolith does not stop offering tutorials to the player eight chapters into the game, with tiny additions that add a few more layers to the established formula. Because of this, XC2 has a brisk pace and a focus on action that is translated through the speed of its new introductions rather than the actual pacing of its combat, although that too eventually becomes a mad dash in its own right.

Part 014: Inside and Out (Setting and World Design)
   The world of Alrest is inhabited by a number of races, a mixture of familiar species and new additions to the -blade series. Its populace live atop Titans, massive creatures able to bear all different kinds of life. This means that each biome is isolated and their concepts are heavily inspired by the architecture of the Titan itself, allowing for large, uninterrupted space an a variety of unique spaces. Although Takahashi has stated that XC2 has roughly the same amount of surface area as the original XC, and after looking back at each of the biomes, I can safely say that I agree. Though there are areas like Gormott, Uraya, and Tantal which have large surface area and vertical space, other instances, such as Mor Ardain and Leftheria, are narrow and packed together. Others still are nothing more than linear spaces with even less shoulder space than the original XC. Fortunately for this analysis, this segmented world design means that each biome is immensely unique, offering plenty to discuss, while also sharing some climate similarities with previous titles in the series.
   Gormott, for example, shares aesthetic similarities with Guar Plain, but that is more or less where the comparisons end. The area players first encounter is in the underbelly of the Titan, a narrow, swampy area that steadily leads uphill. This leads to the right upper level, one of the more sprawling and open areas in the game. While not particularly surprising, it is impressive that Gormott's layout and distinguishing characteristics are completely different from Guar Plain. It's central features are two massive trees and the waterfall between it, but there is so much more dense content to be found in and around this area. While there are a number of smaller sub-sections, or vignettes, so to speak, strewn about this area, there are really only two critical paths- one leading towards the town of Torigoth, and the other towards the left upper level. The left upper level is relatively barren and lacking much of the variety of its counterpart, however, with only a sloping plane bordered by a high narrow cliff and a large set of trees. It feels lacking in personality compared to the rest of the region, which ditches the idea of “shoulders” that we saw frequently in XC for a design that feels far more looping and open. While the vignette design of these regions- featuring smaller scenes that utilize Monolith's usual bag of topographical features in unique ways- is still familiar in a sense, the Titans of Alrest feel as if they are siphoning the player in a particular direction far less than the regions in XC.
   I would be remiss not to mention the first example of truly stellar dungeon-like design in XC2, which is the Titan Battleship found stationed in Torigoth. Players are tasked with accessing this area from below, climbing through its interior in order to free a party member from its depths. The Titan Battleship is so labyrinthine that I was unable to access all of its secrets- as it features two hidden unique mobs- until much later in the game, when tasked with finding them. However, all of these areas can be accessed upon its initial run through, even if one of the two unique mobs is much higher level than the player. There are a number of switches, valves, and doors to unlock within this area, which allows Monolith to tier the action and engagements in a methodical manner. This is a shining example of Monolith's increased comfort and prowess with dungeon-like design, although we'll find even more examples later in the game. What is important to note, however, is that this area is given story context, as well, which allows the developers to approach it in a more linear fashion. With JRPG design favoring dungeon quest lines more than anything, it is surprising to see the more exploratory Monolith try- and succeed- at integrating the concept into their latest game.
   There's a great deal of consistency of space to be found in Gormott, as it is one of several areas where players can rest to raise and lower the tides of the Cloud Sea. If a player should fall off an edge at high tide, they will not find themselves falling to their death, but saved by the Sea level and able to explore the limits of the area. On the other hand, raising the tide also cuts off access to the lower level, which isn't much of a setback, considering the lack of content there. But even when the tide is low, you'll find plenty of places where you can slip from the upper level to the lower one, although few of these feature proper backtracking. Players will find that they can only uncover certain secrets through exploiting the tide-changing mechanic- but this mechanic is short lived, as Gormott and Mor Ardain are the only two Titans whose designs utilize this feature. Seeing as there are thirteen areas to explore, I had hoped to see this mechanic reoccur more often.
   The reason it does not, however, is because of the nature of Titans, which can house life atop their bodies and within them, as well. Uraya is the next biome, a strange one because it fails to fit any familiar environment. Its opening area is a strange set of ridges circling a narrow valley that evokes the design of the Bionis' interior, but it leads into a small town before its paths branch, heading further skyward, or down towards a series of cliffs that border the massive stomach of the Titan. This opening area, which I would lump Garfont into, feels more like a set of smaller linked floors, each possessing a small body of water and some running space. They work well for the sort of linear, story-centric objective they are related with, and it's no surprise that the enemies here are of the same level, as it is one of the less-frequented areas in the game. Where Uraya truly shines is its stomach area, open in space, and possessing a lovely blue and orange color scheme. The cliff side that borders this area is anything but narrow, featuring some nice vignettes that mesh with the overarching “small pool” design found elsewhere. There are a number of ways to scale this cliff, one of which takes the player into the center of its marshes and leads back upwards towards Fonsa Myma, Uraya's more substantial town. While Uraya is the closest example to the shoulder-like design of XC that can be found in this game, its shoulders and many vertical tiers create a vastly different experience, and although it can feel like a linear progression to the story entrance point to Fonsa Myma, there are a number of shortcuts and interlinking paths that make this region much more open than its first impression implies.
   Because of its numerous shallow pools, we should probably address an ability exclusive to XC2- exploration-based Field Skills. Blades can have numerous Field Skills that allow players to raise their chance at obtaining higher rarity materials from material drops. However, unique Blades- those acquired through story and side quests as well as through luck-based summoning- will often possess a tier of rare Field Skills and their own unique Field Skills. These rare Field Skills- diving, leaping, superstrength, lockpicking, etc- can be used upon finding an area in field exploration that requires them. If the player has enough Blades equipped to meet the requirements of a Field Skill check (a check may require Earth Mastery, a common Field Skill, and Leaping), they will unlock a shortcut or passageway to a treasure chest. This is a fine addition in concept, as it encourages the player to summon common blades, whose elemental Mastery skills will bolster the rare Skills of unique Blades, it is somewhat flawed in execution. There is no way to check the cumulative Field Skills of your party members, which can lead to attempting- and failing- a Field Skill check numerous times. One might argue that Monolith should have just factored in all available Blades and their Field Skills for unlocking these checks, but once again, the idea is sound- having to equip the proper skills on your party members in order to achieve the right combination is a novel idea. But the check animation is simply too slow- even when sped up- which can prove aggravating. Many players will find that they simply cannot unlock some of these Field Skill checks upon their first encounter, which is just fine, as a number of them are side quest-related, and can always be revisited. There are several particularly annoying instances where the player will have to complete two checks in rapid succession, with the second having higher requirements than the first, which means the player will have to enter their menu to equip the proper replacements. As the player progresses through the main story and grows their ability to pull higher-level common Blades as well as their collection of unique Blades, however, this problem is circumvented.
   While Monolith's environmental design is the main highlight of their -blade series, the towns of XC2 are similarly unique, with Gormott possessing a port-like design and bustling market, while Fonsa Myma has a multi-tiered city design. While none of these towns are as expanse as NLA from XCX, they maximize their area with many different buildings to climb and secrets to uncover. You will find yourself performing jumping puzzles and Field Skill checks even when within towns, which further enhances the feeling of exploration.
   Next up is Mor Ardain, an area I have particularly conflicted feelings about. As the craggy, industrialized biome of the game, it is extremely claustrophobic, much more so than I assumed it would be. However, within the context of the game, Mor Ardain is positioned on the left shoulder of its Titan, and the entire surface area is based around this concept. This results in an area that is narrow in size, flanked by two shoulders teeming with late-game mobs. Likewise, it feels as if there was underutilized or undeveloped content in Mor Ardain, specifically in its Ether Processing Plant, an area teased as only accessible through a lift system, but upon utilizing this system, offers no substantial environmental design.
   What redeems Mor Ardain are its intense vertical limits and high density of content in three particular areas- Alba Cavanich, the town of the region, the Old Industrial District and its neighboring Abandoned City of Teddim, and one of the finest dungeon-like designs in the game, the Old Factory. When reflecting on these features, they actually make up the majority of Mor Ardain itself, so my negative feelings stem more from what the biome lacks in surface area rather than its actual features. The rooftops of Alba Cavanich act as a dungeon-like sequence during its first visitation, and though its map appears to be two intersecting avenues, there are a number of catwalks and hidden areas to be found on its Western face. It is not the largest town in the game, but it is effective in utilizing its space. The Old Industrial District, on the other hand, is a maze-like series of rooms and floors with holes, multiple exits, and a number of treasures to be found. That it features its own set of keys and links to a number of other areas makes even its hollowed-out interior feel like an extremely well-realized structure, and I found myself discovering new portions of the area late into my first run through. This area is linked to the Abandoned City of Teddim, a dangerous area because of its high-aggression mobs and vertical nature. The Old Factory is such a fantastic dungeon that Monolith sees fit to reuse the area twice more in side quests- its numerous air ducts, mechanical devices, interlinking rooms, control towers, and catwalks make it feel more like a town than Alba Cavanich does, at times. It has a number of instances of one-ways doors that can be unlocked from within and allow for more freedom of exploration, and is one of the few areas that actually has a dungeon hazard in the form of its incinerators.
   As noted before, Mor Ardain is the second of two areas where the Cloud Sea tides can be manipulated, although it is used very sparingly, even in this instance. I would recommend keeping the tide low as much as possible. It is unfortunate, because Leftheria, the following area, seems primed for exploitation of such a system. As an archipelago, it is one of the more unique areas in the -blade series, featuring floating islands high in the sky as well as smaller shores closer to Sea level. My feelings of Leftheria are also very mixed- while it does use a number of smaller traveling bodies to create shortcuts and passages to smaller islands, the main chain of islands are very small in both number and surface area. There is also a strange set of passageways that separate the Rigitte Waters from the Fonsett Waters- a choice I can only assume was made to reduce loading times and extreme draw distance. Despite their small size, however, Leftheria's islands are not bereft of content. The islands on the Eastern side of both Rigitte and Fonsett have multiple accessible levels, revealing their own unique mobs, while the Western islands are dense with monsters, each one featuring their own population of unique creatures. Fonsett, Leftheria's town, is also small in size, but purposefully so within the context of the game. While light in content, it fits its cozy, quiet nature perfectly. Leftheria is a curious biome, one rich in lore and often revisited in side-content, but offering little to discover because of its openness.
   It is necessary to address Leftheria's truly distinguishing feature, an extensive dungeon known as the Spirit Crucible Elpys, which is accessible from Fonsett, but occupies its own division on the world map. As a subterranean area, there is little to say of the Spirit Crucible, which has a great deal of variety to offer within that context, but is far more interesting from a mechanical standpoint. There are several poison swamps, collapsing bridges, bottomless pits, and other variations on the theme- an ancient hall, and a webbed-up area similar to that found in Tephra Cave from XC. Its design is extremely linear in nature, but its critical path is actually suitably difficult to discern, making it a somewhat stressful, yet ultimately rewarding experience. Even when creating a gauntlet like the Spirit Crucible, Monolith takes care to add several hidden paths and areas that offer access to new treasures, enemies, and hazards. The collapsing bridges found within are another one of the simple, yet effective obstacles utilized to give the area its own personality. The intricacies of the Spirit Crucible's mechanical twists will be covered later.
   There isn't much to be said about the Indoline Praetorium, an area of contextual importance, but rigid structure and wide swaths of empty space. Featuring a small port and market, a refugee camp, and the illustrious sanctum of the Praetor, the civilian area has some interesting conversations to be found and a few Field Skill checks to be made, but its long hallways and relatively bland aesthetics make navigating the area tedious. The sanctum, on the other hand, features an impressive mural, and... that's pretty much it. There is a story-related aspect as to why this area is ultimately forgettable, and once more, its backstory is much more fascinating than the environment itself. However, Monolith utilizes sharp corners and a lack of color to create a pristine, immaculate appearance that contrasts heavily with the other populated areas within Alrest. The Praetorium is also redeemed by a somber choral tune, setting its mood perfectly. The port here is used in order to facilitate a second encounter with the Titan Battleship, although this repeat visit is much more brief in nature.
   Leftheria and the Praetorium, and finally Temperantia comprise what could be considered a lackluster second act of XC2 in terms of environmental design. Once again, Temperantia is context-rich and possesses a sprawling amount of surface area with a number of very successful vignettes, but its effect is ruined by a repetitive and grating tune that has no day-to-night transition, meant to evoke a constant state of high tension, but instead inspiring feelings of tedium. Because of its openness similar to Leftheria, Temperantia has huge draw distance, and its multitudes of large mobs- including some frightful level 90 dinosaurs- mean that a sense of carefulness and danger is established from its very first impressions. Temperantia is also home to an extremely unique boss battle atop a massive weaponized Titan, but this creature's presence is somewhat diminished by its reuse in the tucked-away Ruins of Judicium in the region's Southwest corner. What's worse, the additional two Titans stationed here mean that the area lacks the presence of other mobs. You can't even engage these other Titans in combat, which makes this wide area feel like a waste of space. The sooty, craggy nature of Temperantia offers some additional instances of poison swamps, as well as a few more mob lairs, canyons, and dangerous encounters, and the relative lack of vertical levels means that the area feels like a death trap with little safety of its own.
   Luckily, Tantal presents a striking contrast to these three areas, with a number of unique features that offer up a familiar feeling to previous -blade biomes, but with a wholly different aesthetic. Tantal's docks lead upwards towards Theosoir with a narrow path. On its own, Theosoir is not very large, with about half of its content allotted to Theoscaldia Palace, but the concept sells itself when you realize that the entire structure is suspended above the Tantalese Wastes. The player eventually leaves Theosoir and must descend to the Wastes via a number of large pillars. These pillars have a number of Field Skill checks and some surprising multi-tiered design. While the Tantalese Wastes do have some variety, all of it borders a central frozen lake and uses the large expanse to spread its content out. A lack of fast-travel points means that you'll often have to walk a great distance in order to get to where you want to go. However, there are very few quests that have you delving into these wastes, which comes around cyclically, as there isn't all that much to do there. It's a shame, because its more fascinating, story-related vignettes like the Aegis War battlefield are aesthetically engaging, but have little content within them. If there were more to do and a few more fast-travel points here, Tantal would likely place a bit higher on my list of locales.
   The next areas visited are the Cliffs and Land of Morytha, two biomes with very different aesthetics, but the same primary function. Both are linear areas with barely any shoulder-space to be found. The Cliffs are a dreary area with sine vegetation and a mixture of enemies seen in other biomes, with a critical path that, while hidden within the Titan itself, is not at all maze-like in comparison with the Spirit Crucible. There are some dilapidated structures here and there, but most of the action takes place on, you guessed it, the cliffs, which are very narrow and offer little in terms in content. The Land of Morytha, on the other hand, is derelict in its own way, although it resembles the ruins of a real-world city. This area has some more shoulder space that the player may not notice the first time around, in particular, the ruined streets at the start have much more to see and do than the later deceased Titan. However, the unique mobs found in this area and the slow foreshadowing of the true nature of the World Tree makes this area more suspenseful and mysterious in relation to the other biomes of Alrest.
   As for the World Tree and Elysium, both share a futuristic, technological aesthetic that feels completely alien from the rest of the game. Cold and sterile, its architecture is linear and straightforward much like the Indoline Praetorium, but the use of elevators and drastically different mob composition give the area a distinct lack of humanity. There are a number of scripted enemy appearances that allow the reveal of its more bizarre designs. However, for the most part, the World Tree is a linear affair, with a number of set pieces that contribute greatly to the increased momentum of the narrative, but aside from some unique mob encounters and a surprising side quest or two, the World Tree is not a standout. Elysium itself is saved by the jarring aesthetic change and narrative twist that it presents, but it is a large space littered with several treasure chests and not much else.
   There is one final environment left to cover, however, and that is Argentum, the large market and home of the Nopon. Argentum is one of the first areas the player encounters, and does not leave a particularly strong impression. The Goldmouth is actually the area available for exploration, a large ship hanging underneath the Argentum Titan, and its first two floors are initially the only place accessible. This is mostly storage and a small market, as well as several docks, while the second floor is a small canteen area with an inn and two food stalls. However, as the game progresses, so do the accessible portions of the Goldmouth, resulting in a residential area with an impressive amount of variety and plenty of questing to be done. Although it is not as large as other Titan biomes, Argentum is one of the larger towns in the game, and its excitable scoring and high number of side quests make it an enjoyable location to revisit.
   XC2 offers a mixed bag in terms of world design. While its opening act offers a vast amount of content and variety, it seems to slowly taper off into concepts that, on paper, sound interesting, but falter somewhat in execution. What impresses me most about XC2 is its improved dungeon-like design and towns, while the environments that they partner with all possess strange quirks that make it hard to say whether or not the design has improved.
   I can say with confidence that Gormott is one of my favorite biomes of the -blade series, however, and that I find Mor Ardain and Tantal's ideas to be exciting and different, despite their questionable execution. But while XC2's world design doesn't feel quite as strong, there are a multitude of quality of life improvements that have been made elsewhere, and its combat is an improvement on an entirely different level from other entries.   
Part 015: We'll Show You What Me and Pyra Can Do! (Characters and Combat)
   XCX differentiated itself as a game with a greater emphasis on questing in comparison with XC's focus on narrative, and XC2 returns to this narrative-driven experience with a plot just as, if not more complex than XC's own. This also means a return to character, which XC2 has in spades. With a more whimsical air present in some of its core cast, each character has their own quirks that make them distinct from each other. I was surprised to see how this game's "blade" factored into character development, especially in regards to the main cast, as each of them presents a unique fold upon the established lore that allows them to serve a purpose within the plot.
   Rex and Pyra are the central characters of the game. Rex is a rookie salvager, a deep-Cloud Sea diver who finds sunken treasures and cashes them in to make a living. His design utilizes stylized scuba gear as a motif, and many of his contextual characteristics make an appearance in gameplay. An essential method of obtaining mechanical material drops is by salvaging off of docks and points forund throughout Alrest, which triggers a quick time button input that will increase the chances of receiving better materials. Rex's grappling anchor is also one of his signature Arts, which eventually gains the ability to inflict Topple status later in the story. He is an enthusiastic and benevolent character with some combat potential, but is unable (or rather uninformed) about the nature of Blade resonance, the ability to activate Core Crystals and awaken the Blade within. He is your standard protagonist, thinking of bettering the world for others rather than himself, and promises to bring Pyra, the fabled Aegis, to Elysium in return for saving his life. As the Aegis, Pyra is a Blade far exceeding others in potential, able to retain her memories after the death of her original Driver Addam. She has her own motivations for reaching Elysium that don't quite match up with Rex's, as she's seen a fair bit more suffering in her time than many others. Pyra's more unique feature, and one that actually goes unexplained throughout the narrative, is her split personality and element, able to transform into the brassy, bossy Mythra whenever she wishes. Both personalities are closely interlinked, but Mythra is one of two Blades in the entire game with the Elemental Mastery of Light, making her invaluable in creating certain Blade Combos.
   Before continuing to the rest of the party, I would like to say that Rex is one of the more rewarding protagonists to play as within the -blade series, not necessarily from a narrative standpoint. While Pyra's ability to switch to Mythra grants him access to a fourth crucial element, her weapon type makes him a position-based DPS attacker at his core. However, because of the nature of class-building within the game, this is only one of several roles that he can play, and within Chapter 7 in particular, he is granted the ability to function as an entirely different class archetype due to a narrative twist. Even after this chapter, he is able to switch between the two with ease, his bond with Pyra ensuring that he can act as an attacker, but his bond with another Blade granting him the ability to act as a healer. In fact, his ability to consistently Anchor Shot for HP potions means that, even with Pyra in his loadout, he can still function as a healer. In addition, he gains a unique ability in Chapter 7 that not only increases his Blade Combo potential, but allows him access to a myriad of other combat options. Even if I wasn't playing as Rex, I almost always featured him on my team.
   Nia and Dromarch are the second pair of recruits, with Nia not only being the best character in XC2's narrative, but also being one of the best character concepts from a gameplay perspective. Scrappy and sassy, she belongs to the Gormotti tribe, a race of human/cat hybrids exclusive to XC2. Initially assisting the antagonist, she has a change of heart and decides to team with the idealistic Rex. Dromarch is the only unique beast-type Blade in the game, granting his Driver Twin Rings, and offensive healer-based weapon class. Stoic and faithful, he has some knowledge of ancient history, but is mostly there to be a big, cute white tiger. While his character arc is tied to Nia's own, he does not receive nearly as much character development as her.
    She is arguably XC2's crowning achievement in terms of blending story concepts and gameplay, a bold statement that can only be justified by spoiling part of her character development. That is something I intend to do right now, so if you don't want to hear those spoilers, skip to Tora's entry.
    Nia is a Blade Eater, a Core Crystal infused with the genetic material of a human. Unnatural in nature and considered unclean by the Indoline Praetorium, Nia joins the only group that would accept her and hides her secret from the rest of the party until late in the main narrative. Upon the revelation of her true form, Rex is able to equip her as a Blade, and she grants her own unique weapon class as an offensive healer. As if this weren't neat enough, you can also switch her back to her Driver form when outside of combat to have her function as a pure-healer archetype. This is one of the more novel aspects of XC2's gameplay, and I was surprised and delighted to see that Monolith would offer Nia playable in both forms. While XC2's combat system features some aspects that detract from the ability to create unique play styles for each character, the variety of play styles found in customization methods is ust as rewarding, and hearkens back to the unique nature of XC's party members.
   Anyway, Nia's cool.
   Tora is the token Nopon of the game, serving a very different and more intellectual role than previous Nopons. I mean, for a Nopon. Unable to resonate with Core Crystals, Tora has completed the work started by his father and grandfather and built Poppi, an Artificial Blade. Poppi may be mechanical, but she isn't heartless- she experiences the world with the mind of a young, subservient, and knowledgeable child. Tora might be a bit smarter than most Nopon, but he still has his own odd quirks. The pair get a fair amount of character development, and although Poppi is only one Blade, she can receive two form changes that have their own unique weaponry exclusive to Tora. Although her first two forms are variations on the Tank role, each individual form's element, function, and various passive bonuses can be altered with a unique system called Poppiswap. Blueprints for parts and capacity to increase Poppi's potential can be gained through the Tiger! Tiger! minigame, an absurd arcade-style experience with its own scoring system and weird mechanics. It's kind of crazy.
   Tora shows an almost absurd amount of dedication on Monolith's part to make sure that a single character is unique as possible. The only problem is, that Tora's versatility is somewhat hindered until the final portions of the game because of his inability to access a number of options until the late-game. While this means his endgame potential is high and he will likely prove useful for the eventual challenge mode release from the Expansion Pass, he will likely be shelved for the superior option.
   And Speaking of the superior option, Morag and Brighid may appear as antagonistic forces early in the game, but they join the ranks as an evasion-based Tank build. Morag is a high ranking Ardainian Special Inquisitor, and Morag is a Blade who has been passed down through the royal family, given special privileges along the way. Because of this, she is one of the rare Blades with some form of memory retention in her own preserved diary. Although Morag is one of the more reserved characters, she has some nice moments with the Emperor of Mor Ardain, and her unique position allows her access to information the other characters would have no knowledge of. Like Rex, Morag receives her own story-exclusive Blade in the form of Aegaeon, which pushes her Tank-build further. Other than the unique weaponry of her main Blade, Morag has few other differentiating traits, but her position as one of the most powerful Drivers in Alrest makes her an impressive addition to the team.
   Zeke and Pandoria are the final pair that comprises the party, though their attempts to obtain the Aegis may make you think otherwise. Zeke's exclusive, impressive weapon is known as the Big Bang Edge, and grants its bearer a number of absurdly-named Arts. Although he is fought three times as an event boss during the events of the story, his role is to test the power of the Aegis as it draws closer towards the Indoline Praetorium. Zeke is a wanderer, disappointed with the state of his domain Tantal, though he has gotten into a fair bit of trouble. Pandoria is aware of this, and after a particularly gruesome encounter, takes their bond a step further in a way that is different from a Blade Eater. Their bond is meaningful from a story context only, however, and ultimately, Zeke is about as unique as Morag from a customization standpoint. His role is that of a high-critical rate DPS attacker.
   In terms of additional, ancillary characters, there are a few standouts. What struck me as surprising, however, was the lack of engaging aesthetic design from Torna. While the mysterious Jin sports a nifty mask and appealing outfit, the other members of Torna all wear relatively bland-looking, samurai-inspired garb. The fact that Jin has two extremely cool-looking forms makes me wonder whether or not he was meant to be the main antagonist of the story rather than the actual villain, whose design is so painfully bland, I wonder who gave it approval, and for what purpose. The main cast themselves all have very distinct aesthetics and characteristics, so this adherence to the samurai motif in Torna is bewildering, to say the least.
   But one thing that is immensely enjoyable- and also the cause for grief in certain circles- is that XC2 is something of a character designer's dream title. Although the main cast was designed by Masatsugu Saito, Tetsuya Nomura contributed the designs for all the members of Torna, and a melange of other artists developed the designs for the other obtainable unique Blades. Fortunately, Monolith seems to have taken great strides towards improving the accuracy of their character models, to the point that almost every single unique Blade matches their 2D character art almost exactly. Though this leaves the game looking a bit muddled in regards to aesthetic consistency, the sheer variety on display more than makes up for this, with some truly awesome (and bizarre) designs to be found. Because of the Affinity system's exclusive application between Drivers and Blades, each unique Blade also has the potential to unlock exclusive side-content by being utilized in battle, which further emphasizes their use in battle and creates stronger ties to each of them. While their personalities are nothing overly complex, that there are around thirty unique Blades to find with their own side-content greatly expands the amount of time a player can sink into the game.
   But enough of that, let's talk about content.
   One of my favorite JRPGs of all time is one that not many associate with the term “JRPG,” and that is Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. I love this game because of its atmosphere, its heartwarming story and characters, and most of all, its combat. Although on the surface, it is nothing more than a riff on the combat motifs of Super Mario RPG, featuring action commands that increase attack damage, there are additional layers of complexity available that allow a skilled player to efficiently progress through the story and endgame content. The Mario and Luigi titles feature action commands that are focused around a single button, which is tied to one of the two party members, but the Paper Mario RPGs focus on adding personality to party members through the placement of their action commands on the controller as well as the kinds of attacks they can execute. What I'm saying is, Intelligent Systems needs to ditch the current Paper Mario Action-Adventure gameplay and get back to the series' roots.
   But the concept of adding action commands to a turn-based battle system enhances the experience, as it requires more attention and engagement with the game than simply selecting an attack for execution. There is an inherent urgency to the system, and selection of certain attacks has the added layer of its ease of execution. That the Thousand Year Door also features an interactive audience, who will throw helpful and harmful items at the party depending on their consistency, as well as stage and set design that factor into the environmental effect of specific attacks, only adds to its depth.
   How does all of this apply to XC2's active-selection system, however?
   The brisk pacing of XCX's combat has been dialed back, with characters having much more exaggerated auto attack animations. Each weapon type has a specific combination of attacks, with weapon size often factoring into the speed of the auto attack combo and movement speed when positioning a character. These chunky animations serve multiple purposes, as cooldowns for combat Arts are no more. Instead, Arts become accessible for use when their gauge is recharged by a certain number of completed auto attack animations. This number is not always a complete “cycle” of animation, which is broken into three stages, so careful attention to the recharge number, which can be found on the Arts information page, as well as the actual gauge itself, which can be found on the right side of the screen. Once an Art is recharged, it can be executed by pressing the corresponding face button at any time, however, players looking to build up their Special Gauge, which executes an elemental-based attack, must synchronize their input with the ending of an auto attack animation, “canceling” the auto attack into a combat Art. If a player cancels during a later stage in the auto attack animation cycle, they will charge their special gauge even further.
   The cancel system is something of a revelation for the -blade combat system, a method of justifying the cooldown that occurs between Arts so that they cannot be spammed, as well as a mechanic that adds multiple folds to the gameplay formula. Upon progressing a party member further in their own skill tree, players can gain access to specific Arts at the start of combat, allowing them to build special meter faster. When players finally gain the ability to cancel Arts into one another, they can begin learning the ending of Arts animations in order to chain those inputs together to build meter atop that. Blade switches, the period where a player is changing weapons, can also be canceled, as can the execution of Specials themselves. There are a number of accessories that can boost damage based on cancels, as well as increase the period during which a cancel can be executed.
   The reason precision canceling is an important layer of finesse, is that Special attacks start a countdown before they lose the ability to be stacked upon. This stacking is part of Blade Combos, where the elemental attacks of three Blades can create certain combinations that inflict massive damage and specific debuffs upon the targeted enemy. Not only that, but a successful three tier Blade Combo also generates an Elemental Orb, which can be shattered during a Chain Attack in order to extend the duration of the attack. Of course, this all relies on the ability to cancel attacks and build meter, which a relatively skilled player can do with a single character on their own, or utilize the meters of their party members.
   There is only one way to prevent the Blade Combo countdown from depleting, and that is through the Status chain, making its return from previous games and adding some new tricks as what the game labels a Driver Combo. While the original XC had Break-Topple-Daze, and XCX had Stagger-Topple, XC2 goes full on anime with Break-Topple-Launch-Smash, where each successful status inflicted will add a chunk of time back to the Blade Combo Gauge. Performing Driver Combos during a Blade Combo will also grant specific benefits to the party. If this all sounds difficult to envision, a much more aesthetically pleasing battle UI ensures that you can catch all of these rapidly diminishing gauges, buffs, and future options. XC2's user interface is as friendly- or as transparent- as you'd like it to be, and customization is encouraged, as the game allows you to switch out and re-position Blades, Arts, and party members where ever you'd like.
   Because of the Blade system, players can also assign specific roles to their party members based on their weapon loadouts. Each weapon type has a specific class assigned to it, lumping them into the following categories:
Attack: Spear, Axe, Gunner
Healer: Bit Ball, Dual Rings, Knuckles
Tank: Katana, Hammer
   Each of the Blades unique to a specific character also have their own classes, which results in the Tank class having fewer weapon types, as the two  canon tanks have three unique weapon classes between them. While, in concept, this allows party members to switch (snap!) between combat roles while fighting, the benefits of fully committing to a class type are far more lucrative, so once again, the min/maxing philosophy shines through here. However, these weapon types have their own functions within their class, for example, a Katana Blade is geared more towards evasion-based tanking, while a Hammer Blade is more suited for sturdy, HP tanking. While Morag can function well enough in both roles, other party members may benefit from evasion-based mechanics. Rex's Aegis Blade is something of a jack-of-all-trades, however, in that it possesses position-based Arts as well as one of the more reliable Topple Arts, which also drops valuable HP potions, a new mechanic introduced in XC2 that encourages movement in order to achieve healing. In this way, Rex can function as a DPS position-based attacker and an extremely competent healer, thanks to one of his other story-unlocked Blades.
   With such systems in place, however, one might wonder why Blade variation is necessary at all. Why would I want to have a Katana and Hammer on Morag, when her unique Blade Brighid is clearly primed for evasion? Well, it depends upon what a player is looking to accomplish when in combat. The three combination-based mechanics encourage a mixture of Blades, and each of them feed into one another or into one of the game's other systems. Each character is able to utilize specific Arts to further the Driver Combo chain, which, when executed properly, gives a brief period of respite from enemy attacks and also knocks mob-specific drops for collection. If a player wants to utilize a specific set of party members, they need to organize Arts in order to further this chain, while also paying attention to their elemental loadout for Blade Combos. Computer-controlled party members will prioritize specific types of combinations when the situation calls for them, so you have to get a feel for what member to operate as in certain situations. When a player is operating a character, for example, they can maximize their potential as a certain role in a way that a computer-controlled party member would not.
   I could go on and on about XC2's combat system, but an important note to make is that, like other -blade games, multiple types of experience factor into character progression. If a player fails to capitalize on the progression-unlocks that tap into the full potential of cancel-chaining and combination mechanics, they will find the opening hours of XC2 to be something of a slog. In between battles, Arts that are not primed to execute at the start of a battle through character progression will require recharging with each new encounter, and drawing multiple enemies into a battle in order to subvert this can often be difficult and time-consuming. If a player wants to fully appreciate XC2's combat, they need to understand that the cancel system is its central feature.
   Of the three -blade games, XC2's combat clicked the fastest, for me. It is also one of the rare titles in which a prolonged enemy encounter was something that I enjoyed, rather than feared. While its slower pace means that a longer battle will often occur, there are many times when a player can successfully navigate an escalating conflict through smart Blade-switching and combo-building, and since combat is by far the best element of the game, having long engagements is something of a delight. If there is anything that Monolith should carry over from XC2's design, it is the cancel mechanic.
   It's just that damn good.
Part 016: Gotta Catch 'Em All (Story and Side-Missions)
   Now that we've covered what is actually decent about the game...
   I'm kidding, of course, though the tone of XC2 is something of a curious matter. I have become fond of the term “tonal whiplash” as of late, as it occurs in many ongoing series with new installments, and in relation to previous games, XC2 has a mixture of dramatic highs and absurd lows that result in a very different mood from previous games. While there are some absolutely fantastic thematic elements in the latter half of the narrative, the opening is a mashup of odd comedic beats and complex politics that some might find inapproachable.
   I can recall my concern, or rather lack of interest, regarding XC2's narrative upon viewing its first story-related trailer before release. The number of Titans with their own unique governing bodies and their respective alliances is difficult to explain, but their gradual introduction within the narrative is  handled well enough. The Ardainian occupation of Gormott is the only exceptional case of a governing body having control of more than one Titan, I feel that the idea would have had greater impact if the Ardainian Empire's reach extended further. This would likely require more biomes and more development, but I feel that Leftheria could have at least been included in the Ardainian territories, considering its relatively peaceful nature. This would work against one of the later side quests of the game, however.
   The game swings between comedy and drama a great deal, more than the original XC, likely as a result of its earlier introduction of a Nopon party member. Let's face it, these potato-rabbits are very hard to take seriously, and even during a surprisingly in-depth family plot in Chapter 4, Tora provides a great deal of comedic relief. Zeke is another example, although upon joining the party, his comedic role diminishes substantially. There are many other examples of the game's humor in XC2's side-content and Heart-to-hearts, but what is most surprising is how quickly and effortlessly the game is able to switch (snap!) between drama and comedy, exhibited rather well in the main subject of its narrative.
   One aspect of the -blade series I have championed in my analyses so far is the integration of its namesake, and XC2 is no exception. I would go as far to say that, of the three games, the -blade in XC2 is best integrated in both combat and story, as the nature of the Monado and its ability to change the future is somewhat muddy, and the BLADE organization is a bit forced as an acronym. The concept of Blades is fully fleshed out within XC2's narrative, semi-immortal constructs whose memories die with their Driver. However, there are multiple variations upon the idea that blur the line between Driver and Blade, as well as what a Blade is able to achieve on their own. The only somewhat ill-defined concepts in the game are the nature of Pyra and her dual personality Mythra, and Jin. The former would make a lot more sense if Pyra/Mythra's canon opposite had the same sort of situation going on (but he doesn't), and Jin would make more sense if there was some sort of contextual evidence of his particular circumstance elsewhere in the world (but there isn't). These are the only two complex layers atop the previously established Blade lore that don't quite fit, but Jin's circumstances are at least explained within the narrative, even if they are extraordinary.
   Another aspect of XC2's story that isn't covered in full is the nature of the Aegis War, the conflict that occurred 500 years prior to the events of the game. There are numerous revelations that occur which offer some context towards why these events came about, but the nature of the antagonist of that particular conflict and his independence, or lack thereof, from other characters in the game is muddled, ill-defined. It is used to paint the Aegis in an unfavorable light, but also as a device of immense power. In any case, its best to continue powering through the narrative in order to reach its mind-bending conclusion, which raises some ponderous questions about some elements that aren't in the game, if you catch my drift, while also tugging at your heartstrings.
   If there is one thing that XC2's cinematic sequences and story-related content have going for them, its an effective score that highlights the melancholy, tension, and absurdity of its plot points. Its soundtrack matches the cutscenes with great ease and impact, in a manner that seems similar to the original XC, where music was deliberately synchronized with the action and pacing of the cutscenes, to great effect. However, the recording of XC2's soundtrack was not finished until late in the game's development, which does raise some questions.
   Anyway, it's important to understand that XC2 is not a literal sequel to the original XC. And, that's all I have to say about that.
   Blades are elaborated upon further in side-content, as are the complex nature of Alrest's politics and cultural context. In terms of streamlining the inane, grinding nature of the series' previous side-content, XC2 is yet again a marked step forward, tying material collection and mob-slaying “quests” instead to Blade progression. While these elements still exist, they can be circumvented in the “nursery” mechanic, Merc Missions, or performed directly by the player by equipping Blades in combat. Common Blades will often rely more heavily on executing Blade combos and lower-commitment collections, higher-rarity Blades will demand more of the player in a number of ways. There are a great number of unique Blades that, as mentioned prior, possess specific Field Skills, but also possess their own Heart-to-heart interactions and extensive quest-chains, to the point where, while none of them are particularly fleshed out in any deep manner, they function well as side-content material that adds more charm to the game.
   But the non-Blade related side quests are, for the most part, much more streamlined and narrative-driven than either XC or XCX's, featuring portraits that accompany them and much more direct hints and information that assist in their completion. While it does feel as if there are much fewer than in previous games, this is likely a result of the relegation of more tedious quests to Blade progression. There are a few quests that can be available simultaneously, however, which will require the completion of one in order to further the other, a curious, yet surprisingly extensive idea that can sometimes generate some frustration. Which is a perfect segue for our next segment...

Part 017: It's Not Perfect (Organic Discovery)
   2017 was the year of organic exploration, at least, in Nintendo's case. Players were encouraged to discover new elements of gameplay, environments, secrets, and characters through the freedom of movement and the overlapping of various systems. We stumbled across Shrines in Zelda, we scoured the world for Moons with Mario, and in Xenoblade Chronicles 2...
   We summoned.
   XC2's unique Blade system is luck based, in a way that I can only imagine works like a roulette. If there are 15 spots for Finch, an Air Hammer, on the roulette, then each time the player resonates with a Core Crystal, the main method of obtaining Blades, there is a 15 in (x) chance of receiving that Blade.
   Now imagine this roulette has 100,000 spots. Welcome to XC2.
   Takahashi has admitted that the rare Blade selection method is entirely luck-based, although there are two particular statistics that can apparently influence the odds in the player's favor. Each party member has an Idea Chart, which will grow if they unlock skills from Blade Affinity trees in combat. The “in combat” part of that is important, because you can grow Blades in Merc Missions, but because they are separate from the party member during these, they do not grant Idea points upon completing parts of their tree. The higher a party member's number in one corner of the Chart, the more likely they are to summon Blades of that type. Likewise, by cashing in materials obtained while salvaging or releasing excess Blades that will no longer be of use to the player, they can gain Boosters, which add more points to the corner of the Chart that they are invested in.
   Also, you can boost your Luck stat.
   Now, there are a number of players who have found that they unlock a number of unique Blades in certain chapters, and there are many instances of players drawing unique Blades from low-level Idea Charts and Cores, of which there are three types. This is likely because of the nature of a roulette system. Even so, there are a number of Blades that have a higher frequency of being drawn, like Finch, who very often will show up early in playthroughs. When these Blades are drawn, however, it seems as if their “spots” on the roulette wheel are replaced with common Blades, which is what you get when you don't summon a unique Blade. This means that the frequency of drawing common Blades rises, while the frequency of drawing unique Blades stays the same.
   Basing a summoning system like this on luck is no revolutionary technique. We see it in mobile gaming apps a great deal, but that is to generate more profit and time-commitment from those kinds of titles. I will say that, at the point when I completed XC2's main narrative, I had about six unique Blades that I had not acquired. However, I had spent about 15-20 hours before ending my story playthrough on grinding cores in order to obtain two or three Blades before then, and I found out that two of the six I had not yet summoned were actually side quest unlocks. Since finishing the game, I have spent around 10-15 additional hours grinding high-rarity Legendary Cores, which are supposed to grant a higher chance of obtaining a unique Blade. In short, a great deal of my time spent with XC2 was completing side-content, but a great deal of time was spent trying to exploit a luck-based system in order to obtain MORE side-content, as there are a number of Heart-to-hearts and quests that are locked behind unique Blades. This is a surprisingly artificial way of increasing the amount of playtime for a game, and while I'm a bit disappointed in this design choice, there have been minuscule percentage systems in previous -blade titles. It has just never been this blatant, because unique Blades are the core of what makes this title unique and enjoyable, no pun intended. The scramble to acquire Core Crystals and summon in the hopes of getting Blades that would benefit my party composition was constant, pushing me to explore areas more thoroughly, and complete more side quests. There's a subtle, addictive quality to Blade acquisition, and while it does mean that no two playthroughs will ever be the same, it's a bit of a hollow victory.
   In terms of other imperfections, there is a strange feeling that XC2 like a rushed product, unlike the previous -blade titles. Upon release, the game featured bugs, a map/fast travel system that was a pain to utilize, and some voice loops that were... less than enjoyable, to say the least. That might be debatable, however, seeing as a number of people have expressed disappointment that these lines have been patched out. But there is more to this claim, I believe, especially when looking back at my experience as a whole. A number of environments are extremely narrow in design and sparse in content. The Blade summoning system is an artificial and luck-based method of locking away side-content. The expansion pass, which adds an additional 30 dollars atop the base price, has offered very little in terms of content so far. While we are still early in its life, the additional side quests that have been released have unlocked features that should have already existed within the game, such as the ability to craft Premium Cylinders for salvaging at a high cost. While XCX did not feature a New Game+ function because of its ungodly amount of content, the original XC did, and XC2 shipped without one. It is on its way, and will feature some additional content that I will likely be sinking some substantial time into, but my real question, and perhaps the question on Monolith's mind, is whether or not acquired unique Blades will be carried from one save file to the next. If not, then I can safely say that I will grumble and complete the New Game+ without investing an atrocious amount of time into completing it 100%.

Part 018: What's In a Name? (Final Impressions)
   The -blade series is currently a massive trilogy, filled to the brim with side-content, unique features, and a distinct personality that makes Monolith Soft's efforts feel substantially different from other JRPG developers. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that leaves the series in unsteady territory, however, for reasons both good and bad. While I can truly say that I have found it to be immensely addictive, featuring advancements in the series' various formulas that are more than welcome and unexpectedly delightful, I also feel that it is the weakest of the three existing titles in terms of world design, soundtrack, and side-content. This may sound harsh, but we are comparing this title to two others that are extremely solid in their own rights. If the systems on display, such as canceling, the new field material drops and field skills, and greater focus on memorable and contextual side quests, were carried over into a game with as cohesive a world as XCX, featuring a travel cycle similar to that game, I think I'd likely be looking at the ultimate JRPG, one that I should probably not imagine for fear of ultimate disappointment.
   When I reflect upon XC2, I think of the personality that its unique combat mechanic brings to ever other element of the game. While three of the five characters have progression systems that bring it some healthy variety, it doesn't stack up to the seven unique play styles and five solid narratives that XC possessed in combat alone. Its world is unique, but it doesn't have the same “wow” factor as XC's twin gods, or the immaculate travel cycle mechanics of XCX. At its heart, Alrest wouldn't be as compelling as it is without its Blades. The environments offer new discoveries, and the side quests have more heart, but even they wouldn't pack as much of a punch as they do without the nuance and lore behind its central mechanic. Blades are the heart and soul of this game, and I want to play as much of this combat system as I can before I am compelled to move on to other JRPGs, other games, because it is one of my absolute favorites. It combines party customization in real-time with precision inputs, it justifies positioning and the urgency of utilizing auto-attacks, and features more straightforward approaches to combat Affinity and application. I can imagine how I would replay this title, to put limitations on myself, to push and pull the boundaries of its addictive combat, and I know that its randomized, organic summoning system would offer me surprising twists.
   XC2 was released in the first year of the Switch's lifetime, and it is the first of the existing -blade titles that I will have to create additional content for as its DLC expansion is released. I don't imagine that this expansion will feature any more environmental design for me to cover, but hey- if it does, I'll be pleasantly surprised. However, this also leaves Monolith Soft with some amount of freedom as the Switch's narrative continues on. Rumblings of acquisitions with experience in multiplayer-oriented titles may give hope for another shot at more substantial online functionality, and I do wonder what elements would carry over from this title to their next offering. I also wonder where Monolith Soft could take this -blade series, or even if they should continue forward with it. As it stands. XC2's narrative ends with something of a question mark- not a cliffhanger like XCX, but instead a diving board. The potential to create something even more compelling, a mixture of sorts, lies on the tip of the -blade series' tongue, but I do also wonder if such a venture would be worthwhile. Either way, Monolith Soft has established a niche among Nintendo's library, one of exploration and character progression, somewhat similar to the route that Zelda has taken, but much more imaginative and expansive in scenario. Where ever they should travel next, I will be there, uncovering every corner of their journey and reveling in the way that Monolith makes worlds.

Part 019: Really Passionate Gaming (Epilogue)
   I am sitting at a laptop with a document that is, at the moment, on the last line of its 41st page. Over a month of work has gone into composing the actual script for this series, and a rather embarrassing twenty-one days of collective playtime went into the analysis of each game's systems, narrative, and world design. So as I review this series and make some final edits, I wonder: where do I go from here?
   The most obvious answer would be to walk away from video games forever. You've played enough, honestly, its not worth any more time. But there is also a part of me that enjoys this process very much, a part that has made new discoveries upon the revisiting of these titles. There is a part of me that loves role-playing games because of their worlds, their narratives, and their systems. Video games are one of the few forms of consumable media that allows player choice, that instills a feeling of accomplishment for participating in the narrative that unfolds. I think that this medium has a great deal of developing still to be done, but I also think it is worth acknowledging what currently exists with some form of analysis. And so, I am convinced that this type of analysis will endure, although it will remain reflective in nature. Although I don't expect to be able to cover every title within the genre, I intend to continue this series under the title “Really Passionate Gaming,” with the hope that I will be able to translate this series into audio form, and in the long run, acquire the resources to add video to this content, as well.
   Like any form of review for any kind of media, however, I hope that this series will inspire players to reflect upon their experiences and share what elements they like, or dislike, about a series. I also appreciate any and all recommendations regarding series I have yet to cover, but I hope that my own analyses will surprise and intrigue you, should you continue to read them. Please, feel free to leave comments, feedback, or your own impressions!

DLC Part 020: We'll Fight for our Future! (DLC Musings)
WARNING: The following segment contains major spoilers for the ending of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Do not read ahead unless you are fine with knowing what transpires in the final hours of the main narrative.
   Because of my undying faithfulness to the -blade series, I purchased the Expansion Pass about a month into my playthrough of XC2. While the first two parts of the pack have already been released, I would like to voice my opinion on what already exists, as well as what is to come in the future. There are some curious possibilities that exist for the future of this game, and it gives me a rare chance to look at DLC practices from a developer who possesses drastically differing strategies from others in the RPG genre.
   The first two DLC packs have been a mixture of helpful in-game items and new quests to be tackled, however, there is no indication that either pack will be the “only” addition of its type. Each pack has been labeled numerically, and the expansion pass description on the product page lists the quest pack as something “starting” in January 2018. I sincerely believe that this will be the case moving forward, as there are only five new quests available in the supposed first quest pack. If this were the only pack of quests being released, I would hope that the remaining content would be substantially larger, as these quests, although enjoyable, only amount to about an hour of playtime, especially for a player who has reached the endgame. The helpful items that have been released are aptly named, as the game is extremely ambiguous regarding its “favorite items” affinity unlocks, giving players the category of items that the Blade in question enjoys, but nothing more. This results in a great deal of trial-and-error, leading to wasted resources. These helpful items are an immediate subversion of this aspect, although they are still limited in application. In addition, the player is gifted with a number of salvaging cylinders, which are especially useful in gaining currency early-game, and are required for certain quests. Considering the extremely high cost of Gold Cylinders in early development levels, this can be something of a boon.
   The quest pack features five quests that are unlocked via story progression, which have players retreading certain areas of the game with certain limitations and event enemies present. Again, for an endgame player, a number of them possess little challenge- there are some intense field checks here and there, as well as a few mission objectives nestled in high-level mob lairs, they grant the player with a number of benefits. Pyra's cooking skill is a tedious affinity unlock, but one quest grants her an additional recipe. Another gifts the player with a much more consistent, cost-intensive method of obtaining Premium Cylinders, arguably the best addition of the five, and something that feels curiously absent from the base game. If these are some of the quality of life additions that Monolith would include in the first pack alone, I look forward to seeing what should come in the future. That a number of these quests are available as the story progresses is also a welcome feature, as a number of them will assist an expedited second run, as some of them allow for currency and experience power-leveling. On the flip-side, a number of them take place in areas that are difficult for a lower-level player to overcome, and may require a delicate touch. It's a delightful little balance, that overall adds to the content of the base game in a worthwhile manner.
   This brings me to another curious aspect of the DLC of both XC2 and that of Breath of the Wild, which is that these additions often serve to enhance a full playthrough of the game, and not necessarily exist as endgame content. In the case of Breath of the Wild, the final DLC installment is endgame content in its purest form, but can be completed by a player relatively early if they wish to prioritize Divine Beasts over Shrines. XC2's additional content serves to enhance a playthrough with additional content and challenges found around the map. We'll have to see whether the future DLC is specifically endgame content or not, however, which brings us to our next subject.
   There are three remaining DLC packs yet to be released, and although one is likely endgame content, its bookends are still up for debate. The Challenge Mode Pack will likely be some sort of arena-style combat simulations that grant players healthy rewards, but require extremely specific Blade, Aux Core, and Blade Chip setups, similar to the system found in XCX. While I never delved extremely deep into the challenge mode in XCX, it also offered rewards that boosted experience and affinity for characters, which would be another worthy incentive for players. Because of the combat system, I look forward to this mode a great deal, as I believe that environmental hazards and specific enemy combinations and types could offer a healthy dose of difficulty and customization to the game.
   The New Rare Blade Pack, as well as the New Story Content Pack, are something of a conundrum. Numeric implications are a huge part of this, as there are a number of possibilities for the former, while the latter could serve as prologue or epilogue material for the base game, with a worst-case scenario being an additional chapter within the main narrative. I find that highly unlikely, however.
   The New Rare Blade Pack, if taken literally, could contain a singular unique Blade design, tied to some extensive quest unlock similar to Praxis, Theory, or Vess. If this were to be the case, there are two obvious candidates for this slot, but the explanation for these choices, once again, possesses some extreme spoilers for the main narrative. I would assume that this Blade would feature some sort of unique function, similar to Pyra, Mythra, Poppi, or Nia, for its inclusion to be separate from the main narrative. Likewise, I would expect that its release following the base game would mean that it is something that exists separate from the main narrative, a conceptual “maybe.” Therefore, the worst-case scenario would be that this Rare Blade would be Malos, who fights with his Monado in Chapter 7. Malos could possess some sort of form-changing mechanic or destructive Dark Mastery abilities to counter Mythra, perhaps even featuring a Pneuma mechanic of his own as Logos. However, I have a great suspicion that Malos will be accessible via the New Game+ function that is being added to the game in a few weeks' time at the point of this segment's composition, where he will lack these sorts of unique functions because of his inclusion alongside other new unique Blades. If that should not be the case, however, I would like to let the record stand that this is a likely possibility.
   Should Malos be included in the New Game+ update, that would lead me to the most obvious second choice, which may come as a surprise to some. That would be Alvis, the computer simulation from the original XC, and the possible third Aegis Core Ontos. While this is something of a leap of logic, Alvis' immense power and revelation as the Monado of the XC universe leads me to believe that he is the third Aegis Core that was drawn into the dimension existing parallel to that of Alrest. Were he to appear as a unique Blade in XC2, this would solidify the tentative hints Takahashi drops at the conclusion of XC2's main narrative. There are several pieces of evidence that could counter this point, specifically Alvis' existence as an emerald light at the end of XC's narrative, which shares too close a similarity with Pneuma's own Core Crystal, as well as his nature as the program Klaus used to access the Artifice. However, his lines the indicate he is at the beginning and end of XC's universe lead me to believe that he is the Aegis that disappeared in a time rift. He could add some unique mechanics that hearken back to XC's combat system, and provide some narrative closure for the XC duology. However, given Takahashi's tendency for ambiguity the exact opposite could occur and we could receive absolutely no answers.
   If I am completely wrong, and the New Rare Blade Pack features more than one unique Blade, well then. That's that, I suppose. A number of additional collaborations with Japanese character designers would be more than welcome, although I pray they won't be tied to the luck-based summoning system and are quest unlocks instead. There are a number of weapon and element combinations that are not yet explored, and the game could use more than two light-based Blades. Please.
   Also, Akira Toriyama should design a Blade.
   The New Story Content Pack, on the other hand, could explore one of two very important points in the main narrative, which both open up the potential for new locations and characters, but also could feature previously created assets. In terms of chronology, our first option could be fleshing out the Aegis war more thoroughly, which is a conflict that is explained with ambiguity over the course of the main narrative, yet has a number of characters who appear in the main narrative. In particular, Addam's appearance remains cloaked throughout the narrative, yet there are clearly designs for the character. Lora is another character design that remains underutilized, and both characters possess Blades that appear in the main narrative for them to utilize. An opportunity to explore the Tornan Titan could offer a new area with a number of its own secrets, offering its own dungeon-like design and an eventual confrontation with the antagonist of the Aegis war. However, a story segment based entirely around these characters and their Blades would add context, but nothing meaningful that isn't already covered in the main narrative. It could be a nice look into Addam, but he is not a particularly fascinating individual, and his own narrative arc is completed within the base content of the game.
   On the opposite end of the spectrum, some post-game content could tie up a number of narrative loose ends that exist within the XC duology, and offer exciting cohesion to the universe while still existing within the environmental context of the Titans. At the end of the game, each Titan is shown merging with a new, unexplored continent, which would allow for their designs to be reused, but the nature of this new continent could be explored further, perhaps with its own landscape that could offer new space to explore. The most appealing aspect of this idea is that this continent could be directly related to the place inhabited by Shulk's universe, and as we have already seen from the main narrative of XC2, there is an HD Klaus model ready for use. Having Rex and his party meet the XC characters would not only allow players to use the party they built within the game's narrative, but it would offer a sense of closure to the duology that would perhaps allow Takahashi to move on from the -blade series. This concept could just as easily be explored in a future installment, but depending on Monolith's- or perhaps Nintendo's- dedication to the Xenoblade name, it could also be the perfect chance to put a succinct period on the series.
   A great deal of this is baseless speculation, with the exception, of course, that the universes of XC and XC2 are inherently linked. There are other clues hidden within the Expansion Pass information page, such as its emblem being that of Torna's itself, that lend more credence to the entirety of the DLC to be centered around the Titan and the organization than anything else. Still, the potential for a tie-in, especially with the notion that DLC is often a gift to fans that fulfills their desires, is undoubtedly present and possible. An aspect to consider, however, is that Monolith Soft has already utilized DLC practices for XCX, and we can perhaps look to that game as evidence for what to expect in regards to XC2's Expansion Pass.
   Each of the four DLC characters in XCX are modified versions of preexisting classes, each possessing their own Affinity missions and signature Arts for Cross to utilize. This DLC also featured three unique Skell designs that were unlocked upon completing their characters' respective Affinity missions. While none of these characters featured drastically different character designs (all were humans), their Affinity missions offered unique enemy encounters, and their combat Arts did possess unique functions. All four were caricatures somewhat, although nothing more extreme than the other party members from the game. Their Skells, while powerful and unique in their own ways, were capped at level 50, slightly short of the endgame level 60 Skells that possessed a high level of potential. Taking this into account, we should not assume that XC2's Expansion Pass content should offer anything that is marginally different from the preexisting norms of the base title, similar to Breath of the Wild, in a way.
   Role-playing games possess an edge, however, which is that, aside from giving new textures to mob designs, they have a variety of abilities that they can expand upon and combine in order to make a variety of previously-unseen encounters in their additional content. Other developers have exhibited entirely new environment and boss design in their DLC, one of the finest examples being the Dark Souls series. Monolith's ambitions for their own Expansion Pass start slowly, but rapidly ramp up- adding more Blades could require a great amount of effort, which is why they may have tentatively announced only one. Additional story content offers a swath of options for exploration, the only caveat being that it cannot exist nestled within the main narrative, which is already strictly plotted in terms of cutscenes, not necessarily in linearity. With the New Game+ update being added soon, I have no doubt that I will be returning to this segment in order to reevaluate some of my claims, as well as hopefully addressing some unexpected surprises, however, as it stands, the remainder of the Expansion Pass content is certainly something to look forward towards, if only because of the exciting possibilities that it will offer.

DLC Part 021: Give 'Em What They Want (Lots of DLC)
   As of writing this section, all of Xenoblade Chronicles 2's DLC save for Torna: The Golden Country has been released. Although I did originally draft several installments regarding each addition, from the first Rare Blade pack to the Challenge Mode additions and beyond, I decided to hold off on them, as each would have likely contained a fair bit of speculation regarding the subsequent installment, which would have likely turned out false. As you can probably tell from the previous section, I can be pretty damn wrong when I let my mind wander, and erred on the side of cautiousness for the remainder of these DLC installments.
   Instead, I would like to give my comprehensive perspective on this wild and crazy ride known as the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Expansion Pass, as well as a few remarks regarding New Game+ in its current state. New Game+ was distributed as a free update, which amuses me a great deal, because most of its content is essentially worthless unless the player has purchased the Expansion Pass. While the ability to obtain the Torna members as Blades is fine, their execution is somewhat flawed. While each of the Torna members and their Blades are variations on the standard weapon archetypes, they appear on the Arts upgrade page as their own unique weaponry. A quick recap:
Sever is an air sword tonfa tank Blade that utilizes knuckle animations.
Obrona is an electric dual katana attack Blade that utilizes twin ring animations.
Perdido is a fire gunner attack Blade that utilizes gunner animations.
Cressidus is a stone mech arm tank Blade that utilizes knuckle animations.
Akhos is an electric scythe healer Blade that utilizes axe animations.
Patroka is a stone bardiche attack Blade that utilizes spear animations.
Mikhail is a dark fan tank Blade that utilizes twin ring animations.
   There is also T-elos, but despite her using a scythe weapon, she still adheres to the axe animation and Blade Arts menu slot. While some of the New Game+ Blades occupy interesting and different niches within their respective element and combat types, it is their special abilities that truly shine, giving them a great deal of personality and character. At least, in the case of the actual Blades, and not the Flesh Eaters. While the actual Blades have fantastic affinity trees that play up their traits- Sever having a back-stabbing ability, for example, while Perdido has a guaranteed double attack mechanic- the Flesh Eaters have extremely powerful abilities that don't really speak much for their personalities. If there is any choice that is particularly baffling, its Akhos' awkward transforming scythe- a slow and unwieldy device in the hands of a Driver with animations that don't mesh well with the healer archetype. The harshest aspect of these New Game+ Blades is their trust requirements, however, which are still high-numbers that can be somewhat subverted via the reset quest-chains, but really only benefit from the additions made in DLC quests.
   The way New Game+ uses experience points and inns is absolutely brilliant, should a player wish to go out of their way in order to create devastating team layouts for beating the endgame superbosses to a pulp. Traveling bards will gladly convert any bonus EXP- which can be taken from party members by lowering their levels at inns- into valuable items that can break the game's customization options further. While this is fantastic for players who missed out on rare Blades or items for specific characters during their first playthrough, it benefits an Expansion Pass players the most, as these broken combinations truly factor into the insanely difficult Challenge Mode the most. Outside of being able to obtain some tough-to-find items, New Game+ exists almost exclusively as a waiting lobby for the Expansion Pass, and a somewhat aggravating one, at that. The game rudely strips the player of all previously obtained checkpoints and map information, meaning they will still have to travel great distances to skip cutscenes and reach the point where certain Blades and characters become available. It is one backwards choice in an otherwise inoffensive and mostly entertaining mode.
   That's not the worst of it, however.
   An aspect of the Expansion Pass that I previously mentioned is its ability to exist as an enhancement to the base game- there are quest-chains the player can encounter throughout their first playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles that will grant them invaluable tools for Trust grinding (the most aggravating form of grind in any Xenoblade title to date), currency grinding, and general combat situations. In attempting to make a band-aid that would soothe some of the main game's rougher patches as well as reward endgame players, however, Monolith created a menagerie of quests, Blades, and challenges that will very easily bore one camp just as much as they might infuriate another. While the quality of life improvements and genuinely novel scenarios and that come with the DLC quest-chains are more than welcome, the Rare Blade pack is a huge pile of wasted potential that offers two extremes: a novel quest that unlocks a fast trust-scaling Blade upon summon, or freely distributed Blades with similar trust-scaling and little-to-no reason for acting as DLC additions. There is a third option, but that has more to do with the Challenge Mode, which we'll cover later.
   The three non-Challenge Mode DLC Blades are strange. Poppibuster is accessed through a genuinely delightful and odd challenge, requiring the player to equip certain Blades and defeat enemies in order to analyze their combat information. Poppibuster is also the only Blade of the three that is truly a unique scenario- a mechanized device that contains a duplicate Poppi, artificial in nature, but immensely powerful. Crossette, on the other hand, is a fire bit ball- an exclusively rare element- with the ability to cook like Pyra, but no other traits in particular that make her combat ability appealing. The last of the three, Corvin, has a fabulous and completely exclusive combat ability, but exists as yet another light-based Blade, which dampens his impact, as he is the sixth Blade to feature an element that was once in very rare reserve. Still, he makes up for it with a very flashy and different set of abilities otherwise.
   Part of me wonders, however, if these Blades were unfinished concepts from the base game, their mechanics, quests, and affinity trees added afterwards simply to justify the existence of the Expansion Pass. In terms of unique mechanics, two of the three are fairly standard, but in comparison with the Challenge Mode Blades, they are hardly unique. In a way, I am not certain what makes these DLC Blades worth the title- they present little new or different, and have mechanics that could have easily been added into the base game. While having more quests and more characters to interact with is never a bad thing, per se, it feels a bit cheap that only Poppibuster has an acquisition quest. The rare Blades that truly stand out, for better or worse, were those with quests associated with them- these felt earned, rather than a result of some randomized roulette. Even Wulfric, a Blade obtained via a story cutscene, has some involvement and interaction with the world- Crossette and Corvin are simply gifted to the players, perhaps out of respect for their time. I personally would have found an acquisition quest more satisfying, but that does not detract from the heart-to-hearts and quests associated with the Blades themselves.
   The more unique, and in my opinion, deserving of their title of DLC are the Challenge Mode rare Blades. In a spectacular and somewhat bewildering move, Shulk, Fiora, and Elma can be encountered within the exclusive arena, many of their affinity unlocks being tied to specific challenges. Though Fiora doesn't feature any unique mechanics like Shulk's future sight or Elma's Overdrive, she is still extremely powerful once she has had some time invested into her. The other two retain their mechanics from XC1 and XCX respectively, offering unique twists and additions to XC2's strong foundations. The surprising aspect of adding Shulk and Fiora, of course, is that XC1 already has canon ties to the XC2 universe, so the meeting of these characters could have some canonical significance. Or not, since the Challenge Mode is very much an exclusive addition to the game. Either way, Shulk and Fiora must be obtained for exploration of Alrest via a very difficult challenge, while Elma must be defeated twice in a pair of duels that are sequentially more brutal.
   And speaking of brutal, the challenges of this DLC mode are very much that, designed to test the individual who has acquired the strongest abilities and knows how to utilize and exploit them properly. For some, these challenges are the pinnacle of XC2's combat system, requiring know-how that layers atop some of the most difficult encounters faced in the base game. For others, particularly those who are primarily interested in obtaining the mode's many outfit options for the playable characters and the mode-exclusive rare Blades, this mode is a minor annoyance. The easy set of challenges is still demanding enough that any casually invested player will find them difficult, the normal set being extremely unforgiving. It is at this point that the added difficulty options are worth discussing. Throughout the Expansion Pass updates, the option to raise the difficulty to a higher, Bringer of Chaos level was added, as well as the ability to modify the difficulty to one's specific preferences in a custom mode. For those simply looking to obtain Shulk, Fiora, and Elma without investing what is likely another thirty to forty hours into the title, these custom options are the way to go, with the ability to scale enemy attack rates, HP, and the party's own abilities to specific degrees. Although these options do make the acquisition of the Challenge Mode Blades easier, any specific mission completed on this difficulty only counts towards a list of custom accomplishments, while the easy, normal, and Bringer of Chaos missions will remain incomplete. Something to work towards, I suppose.
   In a way, it feels like these options were made to appease all levels of proficiency and ability, commitment and dedication. Some people don't particularly need to subject themselves to the abuse present in these challenges, some may be ready to do so once they have acquired and maxed out the trust for these Challenge Mode-exclusive Blades. It's nice, though it leaves the Expansion Pass in a strange predicament. While some of the DLC quests are clearly made to enhance an initial playthrough (although they do not diminish in their usefulness once New Game+ rolls around), the Challenge Mode at its normal difficulties features content that some players might not be prepared for in the least. Where much of Breath of the Wild's DLC content felt like logical additions to the late-to-end game, Monolith's alternatives require hours of commitment for any player to truly appreciate. It is surprising, considering XC2 was the most accessible of the three Xenoblade titles so far. The Challenge Mode requires specificity and diligence that players can only find from going above and beyond the mechanics, exploiting them to their greatest effect. This turns a game that once felt very much like a power trip into something else entirely, which is fine, if you like that sort of challenge.
   However, the challenge in XC2 is more gating than anything. Trust levels stop Blades from realizing their full potential. Gathering spots require time and investment and repetitive use in order to gather the proper materials. Pouch item use is limited and loses effectiveness after a certain amount of time. Aux Cores require both a blueprint and materials to craft. These are all ways of buffing the game's playtime further, and although the cancel-chaining system does add the most reflex and skill-base gameplay in the series, there is no shortage of time-consuming, veiled mechanics and tasks that serve to extend the game's playtime beyond that which is necessary.
   Which brings us, to Torna.

DLC Part 022: I really, REALLY like you two. (Torna: The Golden Country)
   The question on everyone's lips is this: Is Torna: The Golden Country worth half of what Xenoblade Chronicles is?!
   The answer: Only half of it.
   I toyed with the notion that someone could theoretically buy Torna separate from the base game and enjoy it as a stand-alone Role-playing Game before the actual release, yet although this story expansion exists in physical form separate from XC2, I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would suggest playing it first. Not only do Torna's enhanced combat and user interface options feel like a marked step forward from the base game, but its narrative severely undercuts the pacing and revelations of XC2 in addition to introducing new and confusing elements to the story. The former of these two points sounds like a positive, and trust me, it is. Save for one extremely odd new combat element, all of the improvements made to gameplay in Torna are extremely satisfying, and well-worth a look, if only for the chance to see how much more smoothly XC2's combat could function. Yet, there are still odd sidesteps that feel unnecessary, unplanned, or just ignored in order to turn this small chunk of ten-to-fifteen hours of RPG into a twenty-to-twenty-five hour affair.

   Because of its length and stand-alone nature, I will be reviewing it in a condensed format similar to the other Xenoblade titles. Therefore:

Part A: “More corpses to be!” (Core Mechanic Variations)
   Torna features a revamped combat system that utilizes new mechanics, resulting in snappier battles with more valid reasons to switch between characters and play with different combat styles. The most noticeable change is that humans and Blades use their own weapons respectively, and that the player is able to take control of Blades during combat and exploration. In combat, each character is able to use five Arts, with three operating similarly to the Battle Arts of XC2, one of two Switch Arts dependent on the individual in the Rear Guard, and one Talent Art (this is a big deal, people). Like in the base game, the Battle Arts and Switch Arts can be canceled into one another unlike Talent Arts, which are usually buff- or status-oriented.
   Switch Arts are a revelation that, because of the extremely centralized cast, allow for the preservation of momentum through their insanely reliable Driver Combo capabilities. Switch Arts are crucial to the flow of combat in Torna because of their added ability to recover “bleeding” damage, which is another new mechanic unique to the expansion. When attacked, characters can lose a proportional amount of recoverable HP, which refreshes itself during a Switch Art. This function is shared between the shared HP meter of the Driver and their two Blades, and it also manages to find use in new kinds of Aux Cores, which can boost damage and other stats while recoverable HP is present. Talent Arts are meant to function similarly to those present in XC1, which often had very specific properties that made each character feel very unique, but those present in Torna lack the personality of, let's say, Monado Arts, Cooldown, or





   Which is a shame. But outside of their personality, they do have very beneficial functions that fit the characters very well. All in all, the variations on XC2's combat system are stark and fluid, making combat feel familiar, yet exploitable and faster-paced than the base game feels even when having maxed out skill trees.
   There are a few differences regarding gathering points, as there are now gold and purple points that will net greater rewards, with the latter of the two needing to be unlocked via field skills. A new type of mechanical collection point also exists to mitigate the lack of salvaging present in the game, but access is gated behind a side quest and then a crafting ability, which brings us to another huge aspect of this expansion: the ability to craft pouch and key items through encampments. This is performed by setting up at certain camp points around the two maps and using collected materials akin to what Pyra, Vale, and Crossette can do in the base game. This is mainly due to the fact that Torna has no shops to speak of, and that it also enjoys wasting your time with inane bullshit.
   The problem is, that with nine party members, the brutal grind of Arts experience and Trust (Trust... ugh) starts all over again in an isolated narrative such as this one. Arts experience is at least an inexhaustible resource, but collection points and enemy drops require the typical Monolith Soft amounts of grinding. What better way is there, you ask, to gate certain side content and pad out the playtime of this little package than to lock certain Affinity Rewards behind crafting items and the like? The answer is: there is none. Of course, some of the recipes for crafting are locked behind side-content, so maximizing the potential of the party is hindered by this element in a very unavoidable manner. Players have to grind to craft in order to complete side-content in order to unlock the ability to grind to craft in order to complete MORE side-content, and the addition of this little mechanic- or rather, an increased emphasis upon it, results in a more tedious, plodding feel to progression that more or less exists to pad out the playtime of the campaign. But we will cover side-content a bit later, because there's one more aspect that must be addressed and it deserves its own section.

Part B: “Not such a bad place...” (Setting and Design)
   Two thirds of Torna are really quite nice.
   Most of what will be discussed in this section is the Tornan Titan, as Gormott is relatively unchanged with the exception of a few minor overworld elements (coughTorigothcough). The latter of the environments needs nothing more than a brief overview in order to highlight its changes, and although it is nice to have an additional Titan to romp around, there is little to do there outside of challenging some tougher enemies and completing side-content. While its inclusion is connected to the narrative, its usage is a bit lackluster.
   On the other hand, the expansion's namesake is quite a treat, featuring a number of biomes and some design more akin to XC in some places and XCX in others. Torna's three regions each serve different purposes, so it is key to address each separately:
   The Lasaria region is designed with the intention of giving players a decent tutorial, and as a result it is very linear. The closest comparison would be the underside of Gormott, where Rex and Pyra search for a downed Azurda. There is nothing but critical path in this region, which feels a bit like wasted potential. There are a few areas with some shoulder-space, largely involving beach-like biomes that are mixed with some Temperantia-style cliffs and Fonsett-like architecture. Its an odd mish-mash of aesthetics that gives Torna as a whole a sort of alien feel, vaguely similar to other Titans but unique in its topography. In all honestly, a good portion of Torna is reminiscent of the Bionis, whether it be Colony 6, 9, or Guar Plains.
   The evidence of this can be found most in the Aletta region, a wide-open plain with greater vertical limits. Though this plain has elements of water, its mostly grassland with a great deal of Armu, really conjuring that image of Guar Plains. The lower level has more space, but following the critical path takes the player to a bridge leading to a higher plateau with a short path to a small village and some slight shoulder-space. There are several small paths and nooks that can be found scattered about the lower level, as well as a few skill checks and a side-content related Cavern of the Seal. One of the nicer details is the inclusion of a cliff side Tirkin base that is actually deceptively hidden. Aletta also hosts Addam's base of operations, which is a decently-sized village that raises questions about the smattering of houses nearby. It doesn't break immersion all that much, as things in Xenoblade games always have a sort of modified sense of scale, but it does seem odd that the two wouldn't be merged via some sort of stairwell or the like.
   The Dannagh region is the star of the show, featuring the most varied terrain and something that was surprisingly missing from the base game: a proper desert. Although Mor Ardain's rocky cliffs evoked a sense of blistering heat and dust, Dannagh gives us a desert broken up by several plateaus, a large, but shallow oasis, and most curiously, a nature reserve close by. There is no real critical path, as the space is wide, with three lanes cutting through on the way to the royal capital. The central route has a rare steep hill that causes a sliding state, which is noteworthy only due to its rarity. Dannagh is also the region where most of Torna can be put into perspective, as there are several points where one can spot Addam's Aletta militia base, the capital of Auresco, and the remains of a village in Lasaria that would have made for a nice little shortcut, but is purposefully wiped out in order to preserve pacing. Dannagh's plateaus hide creatures both beneath their depths and atop their form, with the Turquos (yes, you heard that right) Plateau offering the most XCX style scenic view in all of XC2.
   Finishing off Torna is Auresco, the capital city and a place where some people are doing things. It possesses an eastern flair in its architecture, with a nice wooden bridge, an unreasonably large zen garden, and some archways, and things. Auresco's most prominent feature is the climbable guard tower that enables access to the rooftops of the city, but that's pretty much it. There are a few crates to push around here, treasure chests to open, and quests to nab. The shopping district gives a serpentine route to the palace, but only until the main gate opens up, which is a far more straightforward route.
   As an afterthought, Gormott's right shoulder appears in a less-developed form, with a number of trees in infancy, and a lack of Torigoth for reasons related to the narrative. Nothing is so drastic that the area feels unfamiliar, but some of the hidden parts of the base game Torigoth are no longer present, and all civilization is absent, save for the dock where an Ardainian battleship sits. Its inclusion is impressive, but raises some questions: why hasn't Mor Ardain improved the technology utilized in their Titan battleships?
   The world design of Torna is strange in many ways. While the Tornan Titan does feel large, the Lasaria region is so painfully separated from the rest of the Titan that it feels a bit baffling. Even if one were to use Malos' attack as an excuse, one would assume that some sort of alternate route would have been developed in order to circumvent this, rather than leaving a small port cut off from the rest of the world. Lasaria also just feels like a series of set pieces used primarily to establish the narrative. While this might seem necessary for a small expansion, Aletta also offers plenty more exploration while serving much of the same purpose. Dannagh is large, but not much more than the Brionac occupied area in Mor Ardain, in comparison. All together, Torna is a decently-sized Titan, though in its entirely it only rivals Temperantia in terms of surface area. It makes up for this with density of content, but that can also end up being a double-edged sword.

Part C: “I am who I am. I do not change.” (Characters and Story)
   One aspect not covered specifically during the core mechanics segment is how this game handles fusion combos, which is equal parts good and bad. Whenever a character performs a Blade Combo, they add an elemental orb to the targeted enemy, and building Fusion Combos in any order can be a great way to bump up the number of orbs on an enemy. In an effort to clean up the user interface, however, the Fusion Combo flowcart was done away with, meaning the specific labeled combinations that have bonus effects and a cutscene are not telegraphed. While this might seem like a minor complaint, it means that the special effects that come with these abilities are much more difficult to utilize, and it comes as a bit of a surprise, given the much more transparent presentation of the base game. While hints are given as to which combination is executable thanks to the labels associated with each stage, but even for someone with around 300 hours of playtime in the base game, I had trouble which combinations would grant the proper bonuses to defeat named creatures. As mentioned before, being able to add elemental orbs greatly increases the pace of battle, allowing for more devastating combinations and chain attack damage. The elements of battle (no pun intended) flow so well, that it's a bit disappointing to see how things falter in just about every other area.
   The core cast of characters in Torna are an odd trio, each Driver backed by their own pair of rare Blades. The Drivers in Torna only share their Blades' weapons when executing level IV Blade combos, opting for their own weaponry at all other times. Though each character starts with their own unique elemental affinity that they can use in special attacks (think a Blade special, just without the Blade), one can purchase some alternative equipment that allows them access to alternate elements. While one might think a story taking place during the Aegis war might revolve around Mythra and Addam, they are not the main focus, with the narrative instead focused on the relationship between Jin and his side-piece, Lora.
   Lora occupies a strange archetype, a helpful mercenary with a martial-arts-style of combat that utilizes a whip. If you want to go for a deep cut, she is able to keep strong Fusion combo pacing in combat with a Battle Soul-like Talent Art that refills all of her Battle Arts. Because of her elemental affinities and equipment, she can easily craft complete Blade combos with her two rare Blades, Jin and Haze. Lora is a pretty passionate young lady who turned out okay after seeing her father's arm get cut off in her younger days, and she is more or less just a delightful and oblivious young lady. She flirts with Jin on several occasions and seems to take a more maternal role with Haze, but that's just about the extent of her characterization. She frequently complains that she isn't as strong as her fellow Drivers, which is strange considering she has the Paragon of Torna kicking around in her party and is actually the first ever person to utilize Blade weaponry in her fighting style. That's right, you heard it here first: Addam and Hugo learn how to share Blade weapons after watching Lora do it, which I can only assume caught on like wildfire once Addam started touring the other Titans and lead to the way that all of the characters fight in the base game.
   I'm not going to lie, the vanguard/rearguard combat system of Torna is really neat, but because of how effective it is, it seems bizarre that an entirely different kind of combat style would be adopted as the years went on. Perhaps its because of an increase in Core Crystal distribution that the new style took off, but... I find it very hard to believe that Lora is the catalyst for all of this. The previous cutscene from the base game where she and Addam spar is used to enforce this context, however, and to be honest, it just makes the whole thing feel even less believable.
   Jin is a moody, quiet, stupid Blade who loves cooking and is extremely protective of Lora, even though he apparently doesn't like fighting all that much. Because he serves Lora, however, he kind of has do go along with her crazy lifestyle, and ends up protecting her from harm on many occasions. I heard a fascinating theory that claims Pyra is Mythra's response to spending time with Jin, as she is also complacent and an excellent cook, having a very strong bond with her Driver. I like to think this is the truth, but Mythra seems to have missed the mark when emulating Jin's cold demeanor. He is the least-talkative Blade of the group, and rarely partakes in any of the amusement the others share. Much of what Jin does in Torna ends up raising more questions about Blades than it answers, as he seems to have broken the mold in several instances. He experiences a strong sense of deja vu when visiting the home of one of his previous Drivers, which should be impossible due to the nature of Blades and the memories they lose upon returning to their Core Crystal. While one might brush this remark aside, it very strongly conflicts with the arc of Praxis and Theory, two rare Blades from the base game. Additionally, Jin stumbles upon the diary of his previous self, which reveals to him the secret of becoming a Flesh Eater. Sort of.
   Look, I'm not going to lie, there are a lot of moments throughout XC2 that require you to make some leaps in logic. How Jin could come to know about a semi-organic means of creating Flesh Eaters (in comparison with the mixed Core, artificial Flesh Eaters that come from Judicium) is beyond me, but the fact that they never explicitly state how he could come to know this information is rather disappointing. Even a quick note saying that his previous Driver had been stationed in Judicium, or a journal entry about those experiences, would have clarified a great deal rather than leaving it all up to assumption. Even so, the semi-organic method of creating Flesh Eaters seems to be absurdly effective, seeing as it results in a Blade that can cancel the powers of an Aegis and allowed Jin to avoid aging and all the negative effects of being a Flesh Eater that Minoth experienced. Flesh Eaters and their traits vary, of course, but Jin's method, which I'm now officially dubbing a CRIMSON BLADE EATER, just adds one more weird aspect to the mix.
   As for Haze, the only competent healer in the party, things are a little bit more bare-bones. Haze is, in many ways, an echo of Lora. She looks similar, but has a slightly sweeter demeanor, and is a bit more childish and indulgent of Lora's feminine side. She can be a bit innocent erring towards ignorance, but she's a pretty bland cleric-like character who rarely gets he chance to shine.
   Addam is the leader of the bunch, you know him well. He's got Mythra as a partner and he's a very enthusiastic fellow. He has a very controlled fighting style where he uses a longsword with mixed light and heavy blows, inflicting statuses with great ease. If Lora is effective at Fusion Combos, Addam excels at Driver Combos, as both one of his vanguard Arts and his Switch Art inflict Driver statuses. Always looking out for others, Addam just seems to be too good for his own good. Trust me, he's really good. Everyone who works under him loves him, and he's eager to help just about anyone. He's enthusiastic to a sometimes-grating level, but much of what he does is for the greater good of others, and anything that seems to be unfortunate for those around him is upsetting to him. There's not really much else to say about Addam- most of the time, he's just being a nice guy. Its not in the sort of spunky way that Rex handles things, being a bit more rough around the edges, Addam just genuinely seems to have others' best interests at heart.
   His relationship with Mythra is actually quite nice, and the way they interact really gives some meaning to the way she speaks about him in the base game. He is a bit more of a guiding light, as she has a bit more spunk and defiance in her, being unfamiliar with working with humans. She doesn't really seem to have time for small talk or minor problems, but is dragged along due to how much Addam likes to help out. Addam attempts to teach her lessons on occasion, but she often learns through experience, as you'll discover from the many many many many many many many many side quests.
   Addam's second Blade is both alien and familiar. A young Minoth, the Urayan writer, appears as a Flesh Eater, wielding twin daggers that can also shoot things. Minoth is pretty no-nonsense, boastful when he wants to be, but just as much tortured and introspective. He is pretty clearly affected by his relationship with Amalthus, who is a big dumb evil person who can't help but be big and dumb and evil. Minoth isn't like that, and so, he values Addam's company more than anything. In truth, he's been wandering for quite a while so when he's given the opportunity to join up with Addam and the group, he decides that things are serious enough to entertain the thought. Unlike Haze, Minoth gets a good amount of characterization, both in cutscenes and side-content.
   The last Driver is the least expected, and that is the young Emperor Hugo. He's also a nice guy, as you would expect from the protagonists of your favorite Role-playing game. Hugo and Addam have loads of context and memories together, which is likely why they seem so similar. While Addam has a little bit more cheer to him, Hugo takes things seriously and with more formality. It makes sense, considering he's the Emperor of an entire Titan. Although his inclusion is explained away with “I like being on the front lines so I decided to come to the front lines,” he really shouldn't be a playable character because of his status. Addam is somewhat expendable due to the nature of Tornan politics, Hugo is not. He fills the role of a tank extremely well, playing more similarly to Tora, while his Blades play much closer to their base-game archetypes.
   Filling out his role are the Ardainian crown jewels, Brighid and Aegaeon. Both function in similar roles to their base story counterparts, while receiving some new dialogue and animations, serving as critical- and evasion-based tanks. In terms of story, there is very little that they contribute, other than operating separately from Hugo for a short period as a display of strength. Both have very similar dialogue, with Brighid being very loyal, yet with a bit of an edge, while Aegaeon is the straight man. The Ardainian trio as a whole is the most formal and least-developed, and while this distance can be seen as the result of a military alliance alone, they just end up feeling a bit superfluous. There are a few moments where Hugo shows a bit of compassion as a leader, but that's mostly it. He gets his “moment” towards the end of the experience.
   There are a few other characters that complicate the matter, such as Amalthus, the Tornan King, High Prince Zettar, Gort, and Milton, but they all serve very stock character roles and are more or less chess pieces being placed into their proper positions. The Torna-exclusive characters are surprisingly given fairly little development, which is something you might expect from a story expansion. However, Takahashi has explicitly stated that Torna's mini-narrative was meant to take place in between chapter 7 and 8 in the base game, eventually growing too grand in scope to afford. This makes much more sense considering the character and plot development in this expansion, but there are still aspects of the narrative that do not gel comfortably with the base game.

Part D: “An uncommon foe!” (Amalthus)
   With Torna taking place in the past, there's a great deal of talk about Praetor Amalthus, despite  his influence on the scenario being underdeveloped. I would like to take a moment to note a few key moments throughout the narrative of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Amalthus' narrative arc that don't sit well with me, and offer some revisions to the narrative in order to justify and strengthen his role. Keep in mind, I am not saying that I know how to write a narrative better than Takahashi, but I do feel that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a rushed product that suffered in multiple areas, some of which received band-aids in the form of free updates, while others were supposed to be smoothed over in Torna. The problem is, Torna focuses entirely too much on the relationships between Jin and Lora and Addam and Mythra, when it should put more emphasis on the complicated story of Amalthus and Malos.
   In the base game, it is stated that the character of a Blade is strongly, though not entirely influenced by their owner. While Malos and Mythra represent two sides of the same coin, however, Ontos, the third Aegis core, doesn't necessarily fit into the equation neatly. Even if you consider that Ontos has some command over time, Mythra already exhibits similar traits. Mythra's desire to fight against Malos seems pretty much directly influenced by Addam's willingness to protect others, even if her own innate qualities seem to conflict with this idea. Therefore, the destructive capacity and personality Malos exhibits seems to be directly influenced by Amalthus. One might even call them a reflection of his Driver, which should lead us to believe that Amalthus more or less wants to either rule the world, or destroy it.
   As a result of the impression Amalthus had upon Malos, Mythra was awakened by one worthy of bearing her. With her innate personality being more defiant despite her task being protective, it seems she would be the one at conflict with her Driver more than Malos, who seems to have gleefully inherited his Driver's sensibilities. The main problem for Amalthus seems to be that Malos doesn't want to do things his way. I suppose? Malos seems to be fine with killing Titans, but he doesn't have any specific method of approach. Aside from that, the two of them seem to be on the same page.
   But if you have a Blade of such immense power who is more or less doing exactly what you want him to do, what need is there for deception and diplomacy as an Indoline Quaestor or Praetor? Why allow Mythra to be summoned at all? Amalthus seems to truly despise “humanity” and their selfish nature, but he serves an extremely passive role throughout the story. The question I must ask is, what is Amalthus' endgame? Does he wish to control the world, or destroy it? There are so many inconsistent actions performed on his part, such as his slaughter of hundreds of refugees in order to either attempt to kill Addam, or color the opinion of the public towards Aegises for... no real reason, considering he was more than willing to welcome Rex and the party to Indol after a five-hundred year span? Does Amalthus allow Rex to live because he wants to see if the Architect will reveal himself to Rex? If so, why does he get into his Almost-Final-Boss armor and attempt to kill Rex and the party?
   While one might consider Amalthus a master manipulator, he appears to be anything but, despite having performed a few key actions over his extended lifetime. First, he made some drastic scientific discoveries- sorry, he pirated some scientific discoveries from the folks of Judicium. Next, he established and blackmailed the Kingdom of Tantal into existence, then using technology in order to create a reliable way of controlling Genbu and supplying Indol with a proper amount of Core Chips. Here are the things that would have made his plan better:
1) After doing this, retcon Amalthus' Core Crystal cleaning ritual into a way of purging the ability to transform into Titans from a Core Crystal, or explicitly state that he is able to use Fan La Norne's Blade powers to prevent this ability.
2) By doing so, Amalthus either gradually ensures the death of Alrest by preventing Titans from being created, or essentially controls all forms of land acquisition, allowing him to grow and expand certain nations in whichever way he chooses.
3) He can either ruthlessly control the Urayan monarchy and Empire of Mor Ardain by limiting their resources in this way, or actually go about destroying the world in his own fine way, considering he likely isn't sure if Malos is dead or not.
   I honestly feel that tilting Amalthus more towards the destructive supports the tendencies of Malos much more and gives greater justification for his actions during the 500-year gap that takes place in between Torna and the base game, as he would likely be sitting on his thumbs waiting for Titans to die off so that he could facilitate his own endgame. If you err on the destructive side, it also gives a LOGICAL EXPLANATION for as to why Rex is upset about Titans dying, since it should be common knowledge during his era that Blades become Titans. Unfortunately in the base game, as it seems that, during the 500-year gap, most of “humanity” seems to have forgotten that Blades become Titans. EXCEPT that's bullshit, because “humanity” is already aware that Titans BIRTH BLADES, as explicitly stated by Vandam and likely a fact that Rex's own Titan AZURDA knows about. Either way, the convoluted nature of the story, and the split antagonist of both Malos and Amalthus, makes for a very messy and poorly presented narrative. What's worse, Monolith seems to think that these two destructive juggernauts aren't worth explaining and opts instead to justify Jin's motivations, which are honestly dumber and less-warranted as a whole.
   I would sympathize with Jin a great deal more if he would own up to his own fear of death, and the self-loathing that comes from this. Drivers clearly don't have a huge impact upon the personalities of Rare-to-common Blades, seeing as those like Jin and Theory were able to make choices that directly conflict with their Drivers' beliefs. Simply put, I cannot fathom why Lora would willingly let Jin eat her heart unless she were actually a terrible person. Most of Torna seems to imply otherwise, and the notion that Lora finds it sad that her Blade will forget her is something pulled out of her ass at the last second in order to make him feel bad and justify the bizarre knowledge that he seems to have come across in his own journal, a coincidence I find absurdly convenient for narrative purposes. If Torna had focused less on the relationship between Jin and Lora and more on Jin's descent into the cowardly choice he made, I would be able to get behind his actions as a character, but it doesn't. He spends time with a woman who clearly understands the weight of death and the cycle of rebirth that comes with Blades. It seems that Jin is the one who cannot accept this, which on one hand, makes his motivation slightly more human and understandable, but on the other, has no place in the narrative of a character who had a Driver that was a good person.
   ...I'm done.

Part E: “Think you'll manage?” (Side Missions)
   Is it fair to consider the majority of Torna's side-content as such, considering it ends up being mandatory in order to pad out the length of the expansion?
   In an odd move, the Community Chart makes its triumphant(?) return, as a means of keeping track of unfinished side-content and... the amount of NPCs in the game, I suppose. The only reason this feature exists is to gate off story content behind completing a certain amount of quests. For the most part, the side-content isn't too unbearable. There's a nice mix of collection, crafting, exploring, and enemy killing hidden behind some relatively charming dialogue that manages to say very little about the core cast of characters and breathe some much needed life into the NPCs. The problem is, the scope of many of these quests is so limited and inconsequential in comparison with the main threat that Addam taking time out of his day in order to answer the call. He has the AEGIS, he shouldn't be cleaning up the trash that appears on an old woman's walk.
   This is explained away as wishing to calm the people in preparation for and as a reaction to Malos' attacks on Torna, but I do feel that the people would be much more calm if the Aegis hadn't stolen the device maintaining Torna's docile state and brought it to the Titan's core. That's honestly just me. As a means of fleshing out the issues that the Tornan nation faces during the Aegis war, however, this side-content is fine. Just fine.
   The more enjoyable side-content is the discovery-based material, as it introduces PvE mini-arenas, scouring the world for barrels and hidden areas, and the very nice Cavern of the Seal,
 where the more legitimate challenges in the expansion can be found. As exploration and wolrd design are Monolith's strongest suits, these challenges are compelling reasons to discover all the nooks and crannies present in Torna. Likewise, while the Nopon-keystone side-content from the base game felt overblown and tedious due to its vast scope, condensing these challenges to a specific Titan helps them flown and maintain momentum throughout the experience. Aside from that, much of the side-content in Torna is similar to the base game in some of the best and worst ways, from gated skill-checks that are thankfully redeemed by a set party, to inane collection quests with little payoff. Many of these quests grant party members access to new crafting recipes, however, which is another way that Monolith makes this side-content integral to gameplay, as Blade Affinity Charts often require the player to craft every single one of their recipes. It pads the run time, essentially, so make of that what you will.

Part F: “All that chatter will get you killed!” (Final Impressions)
   Perhaps, after three hundred hours of XC2, I have finally reached my breaking point. My main problem with Torna is that there is some content that I feel is genuinely needed in order to make the entirety of XC2 feel complete, as well as some quality of life and plain old upgrades to the base game's formula that I wish had been implemented sooner. Both of those are positives, so the negative is that in order to get to this material, one needs to slog through more of the most problematic aspects of XC2's design and narrative content that adds very little to the game as a whole.
   Once again, I return to the notion that, once a game comes along that uses all of Torna and XC2's best ideas and improves upon its weaknesses, I will have very little reason to return to this title, the Torna expansion less-so. Its combat is absolutely sublime, but there's only so much challenge and content to be had on the neutered Gormott and skill-check-rife Tornan Titans. Likewise, the Community Chart does little more than offer a progress meter for the advancement of the narrative, a series of dramatic beats that, though not lacking in emotion and featuring better voice acting on the whole than the base game, could have been told in the span of eight-to-ten hours rather than fifteen-to-twenty. If there is one thing that Monolith is good at, however, its a bit of systems and content bloat.
   The Golden Country is not a title I believe is worth the full price of the expansion pass, and I also do not think any player would get all that much from it by buying it as a stand-alone title. What makes the expansion pass so worthy is Torna combined with the Challenge Pack, as these two modes offer a substantial enough difference from the base game to feel like half a new game on their own. That is worth praise, though. The difference between the Expansion Pass for XC2 and that of Breath of the Wild is that the former has a number of additions that feel custom-made and like an added bonus to the title, while the latter's DLC feels as though it fleshes out the content of the game.
   While Torna pushes the combat options established in the base game a bit further, it just shows how a hypothetical party-based system could be expanded upon and improved in later installments. The Switch Art mechanic is a novel way of increasing the complexity found in party layout and experimentation, so if it were expanded to more character archetypes and Talent Arts per team, the system could offer the kind of possibility that XC2's base game hints at, despite having very rigid character types. Although Torna doesn't necessarily damage my impressions of the base game, it condenses what I would consider to be Monolith's greatest strengths and weaknesses into a smaller package. Whether or not it makes those aspects appear stronger or weaker is very much up to the player.

DLC Part 023: Looking to the Future (Conclusion)
   Over the course of this analysis, I have taken a hard look at almost all of the elements that make up each of Monolith Soft's -blade titles, and come out the other side with a far clearer idea of what makes their games both appealing and intense time sinks. At their best, they use multilayered character progression systems and customization options to reward creative and exploitative players alike. They create fascinating environments with unique landmarks and aesthetics and back them with iconic soundtracks that shift from day to night. Despite numerous attempts to contextualize basic, grind-heavy tasks, however, they still struggle with padding out their exploration-based titles with bland side-content. I am personally in the camp that a smaller amount of well-crafted side quests trumps busy work any day, but I suppose if the journey to what you need to find or kill or craft is worthy enough, you may feel otherwise. Narrative has never been Monolith's strong suit, but I do feel that they use narrative context in order to inform their game mechanics in ways that other Role-playing games fail to do so, and I can respect them for that.
   All in all, Monolith Soft makes a unique breed of Role-playing game, and though playing each title back to back may damage one's opinion of their craft, the wait in between their titles is unbearable due to the sheer delight they offer in discovery. Because of their complexity, I don't feel that they are very approachable, though if a newcomer were to start with any of the three, XC2 is the most user-friendly and straightforward of the bunch- even with its numerous flaws. It tells a less nuanced story but has much more engaging core gameplay, and the added content, while feeling detached from the base game, allows for a very tangible and direct form of endgame content. XC2's endgame superbosses are also only accessible during its final chapters, further enhancing this feeling. Picking favorites with a Xenoblade game is tough, however, as each title excels in a specific area in which another may lack. I have heard many others profess their love for XC2 and scoff at my own passionate defense of XCX, though I don't believe I've heard anyone decry the original game. If Monolith Soft should continue with this method of presentation and style of gameplay, however, I would prefer that they take as many steps forward necessary so that they do not end up backtracking on the issues of previous titles, such as XC's over-complicated customization system, XCX's lackluster main narrative, and XC2's simplistic environmental design. Torna has done a great deal to show that Monolith is looking to improve the combat in their titles, but it doesn't necessarily give me confidence in the way that they make worlds.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3: The Best of Both Worlds?
Part 024: The Beginning of the End (Hopes, Dreams, Fears)
   I had originally intended to preface this final(?) installment with a summary of how I was feeling about Xenoblade Chronicles 3 prior to its release, but... time ran away from me, and I found myself putting together a podcast about Xenoblade Chronicles X, of all things. This turned out to be a terrible thing, because returning to that game in preparation for this latest installment was... setting up some unrealistic expectations, to say the least.

   So what did I expect from Xenoblade Chronicles 3? Well, it's hard to say, since the shifting release dates resulted in an information dump that explained a great deal of the game's base mechanics and structure. Before that information had dropped, here are some elements that I would have highlighted as priorities for making a “superior” game to XC2:

-Stronger and more cohesive world design, from a topographical standpoint
-Further refined combat, taking the lessons learned from Torna
-More cohesive aesthetic design
-A matured narrative, delivering a satisfying conclusion/cohesion to the previous titles

   Now, if you've been following the game's released information, reviews, or if you've been playing the title, a few of these hopes were rendered irrelevant near immediately. In a somewhat misleading move, the characters of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 share the “racial” aesthetic traits of their respective universes, but none of the lore characteristics. Spoiler-heavy discussion of the nature of the narrative will reveal its nearly-inconsequential nature when considering it a “sequel.” The battle system, while offering some new functions that will be discussed momentarily, is very much a spiritual “merging” of the systems featured in XC1 and XC2. And while the world design is certainly more cohesive, it still offers some bizarre design decisions that either speak to another rushed development cycle or a team dealing with the frustrating limitations of the hardware platform.
   In short, XC3 feels less like a step forward and more of a game rooted in the last decade of Monolith's work, excluding XCX because we can't have nice things. If Monolith is going to shamelessly retread the composition of previous titles, then so too shall I:

   While XC has ties to concepts found in Tetsuya Takahashi's previous Xeno- titles, it also possesses species and ideas wholly unique to its own series. When looking at the -blade titles, I find that I can very easily categorize them with [four] overarching key words:

With Xenoblade Chronicles, the word is “Character.”
With Xenoblade Chronicles X, the word is “Exploration.”
With Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the word is “Combat.”
And now, with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the word is “Theme.”

   While I have enjoyed many characters from Monolith's -blade series, I have only ever truly loved XC1's narrative. It accomplishes what it sets out to do with multiple twists and turns and is respectful of player investment. I thought that, perhaps, it would remain unchallenged due largely to its nostalgic significance, though I can confidently say that XC3 matches and perhaps exceeds it in some ways. XC3's themes are explored with a great deal of maturity and focus throughout its main narrative and side quests to a degree that borders on hyper-fixation, although it does seem reasonable given the lore justifications. With a topic as all-encompassing and relatable as “life,” there is plenty of mileage to be covered, and the game does so very well. It is a strong, thematic title, arguably the only Xenoblade trilogy title worthy of that label. Again, that is excluding XCX, because we can't have nice things.

   The only problem, and it is far from a small one, is that darned gameplay side of things. XC3 is so willing to throw all of its weight into telling a story that it refuses to be brave in terms of gameplay, resulting in a game that feels middling, mediocre, and infuriating.

   But if a game doesn't make a player feel things, is it really doing a great job? Hopefully, it makes the player feel those things on multiple levels concurrently, as when a game's mechanics facilitate the narrative it hopes to deliver. XC3 is not a great example of that, though if you do want a more effective analysis of the idea, there's a big, ugly Breath of the Wild retrospective that you can read up on. Even so, if I was less frustrated, or invested in Monolith Soft on the whole, I wouldn't be here, explaining why I care so much and have such high expectations for this developer. And in spite of its flaws, I do think I love Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but that is a declaration that comes with many caveats.

So let's get to it, shall we...?

Last updated 9/18/2022. Added Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Part 024.

I'm not reading this just yet because I've had trouble really sitting down to play Xenoblade 2 hard, but I am excited to do so when I do really get into that.

Updated with Xenoblade Chronicles X analysis! How many words can one man WRITE?!

Updated with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 analysis! You don't want to know the total page count...!

I love it. Taking a run at (and probably beating) my Super Mario Galaxy takedown opening post.

I haven't played this game yet but I've done my part and own the Special Edition of it. (I also own the Special Edition of Fire Emblem Warriors. Switch Games: 2, Actually Owning a Switch Console: 0.) Given how much there was to learn and keep track of in XCX and how much I read of the manual, I'm glad this exists as I'll probably want to reference it as a bit of a guide when I do actually get around to playing this.


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