Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Live to Fight and Fight to Stay Awake

Alright, so that subtitle is a bit misleading. I didn’t find Xenoblade Chronicles 3 boring (rest assured I would not have stuck with it if I did), I just found it very, very comfy. I’ve already touched on this thought in my other writings that can be found in various corners of the internet, but a good JRPG is like a cosy duvet and a fluffy pillow, pyjamas and slippers and warm milk, and gentle rain pattering on the window. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has a very long run-time, it has a battle system that, if you’re a bit over-levelled, can require very little input from the player, it has expansive, dream-like landscapes and an otherworldly ambient soundtrack. All of these factors and more combine to make it impossible for me to play this game for more than a couple of hours at a time without drifting off, controller in hand, as my chosen character idles in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by monstrous fauna. It’s alright though, because the rest of the party will take care of them, and the victory fanfare will usually wake me up.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a very typical JRPG in some ways, but completely does its own thing in others. The story follows a small group of soldiers under the banner of the nation of Keves, who soon get thrust together with a similar group of soldiers from the opposing nation of Agnus. The world is locked in a seemingly-eternal battle in which opposing sides kill to fill their “flame clocks” with the life energy of their fallen enemies. The people of this world seem to have a ten-year life span, appearing as a young teenager and “ascending” in their twenties, if they survive that long. These ten years of life are dedicated to a mysterious queen, and that’s about all you’ll know for quite some time. There are no traditional RPG towns, almost every settlement you come across is a military base inhabited by personal from one of the two major factions, and almost every NPC you’ll meet is a soldier in the never-ending war.

The battles are very flashy, with spells and effects going off everywhere. I found that the offensive classes were the most fun to play as, but others might prefer defence or support.

Noah is the main protagonist, and is an off-seer, a soldier tasked with playing those slain in battle off to the next life with his special flute. His role handily sets up the game’s contemplative tone, but the world is very slow to reveal its secrets. There’s an opening scene that initially seems barely linked to the rest of the story, and it’ll be ages before you even know who you’re fighting against. The story is definitely a slow-burner, but it’s okay because there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Huge areas to explore, extra-tough, bonus monsters to fight, side quests galore, and equipment and class systems that give endless scope for build-tweaking and customisation. If, like me, you’re not into all that min-maxing stuff, there is a handy auto-equip option that will get you through the main game absolutely fine.

The six main characters run the gamut of decent to extremely likeable, with the roguish Lanz and Eunie and the occasionally prudish Taion being my personal favourites. Each of these characters comes with a character class that fits into one of three categories; attack, defence or healing. They don’t have to stick to these classes though, and can be given another character’s class with the press of a button, gaining new weapons and a new move-set. This means that studious healer Taion can become a longsword-wielding damage-dealer, or front-line defender Lanz can be converted to a back-of-field support and healing role, should you so wish. Certain skills from certain classes can be carried over to new classes too, giving even more scope for customisation. There are numerous “hero” characters that you’ll encounter throughout the game, and these guys take up the seventh slot in your active party. They bring whole new classes to the mix which can also be equipped to your main party members, and there are loads of them in the main game and even more in the post-game, resulting in a galaxy of options when it comes to fiddling with character and party builds.

The battle system feels like it was pulled from something like World of Warcraft, with various skills available that slowly recharge after use. Initially, the battles are simple, consisting of standing your chosen character (you can control any of the main six) next to the enemy and letting them auto-attack, then activating special attacks as they become available. As you advance, the combat system becomes more intricate, adding layer upon layer of complexity with attack-types that can be chained into other attack-types, moves that can be cancelled into other moves, special abilities that can be activated by building up a metre, and other special abilities that can be activated by building up other metres. Positioning is very important, as certain attacks are more effective from certain angles, and you’ll charge your chain attacks quicker if you attack from the right direction. The chain attacks, once activated, tee up a kind of interactive, anime-style cut-scene event where everyone gets to do their cool moves in an order that you define. Even this is complex and multi-layered, as you’ll need to balance the build up to the finishing move in such a way that you boost your damage multiplier as much as possible. Also, characters can merge to form a single, extra-powerful being, which will open up even more options and approaches. Remember, if all of this seems too much, just stick to the basics and you’ll be fine. That is totally what I did.

Being able to turn into big, angelic robot things is just one of many wrinkles in a complex battle system.

The world is large and mostly open, with huge, bizarre structures and rock formations looming on the horizon that you might eventually find yourself climbing over later in the game. There are various boss enemies and supply caches hidden about the place, but if you’re not too into the crafting and stat-maximising side of the game, the containers you can find won’t seem like much of a reward. The world can feel lifeless despite the number and variety of monsters roaming about, but this is likely a deliberate attempt to communicate the war-torn nature of things, with the only humanoid denizens belonging to the various military colonies that are hidden in ravines or behind waterfalls. The creature design is very interesting, from buzzing wasp-type enemies to gigantic, thundering colossi that are probably way too high level for you to even contemplate going up against. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is not afraid to sprinkle its low level areas with high level enemies that you’ll be expected to come back and defeat much later in the game. This can occasionally result in you getting one-shotted by a rogue, high level monster that has snuck up on you while you were occupied with something else. Don’t worry, the party will just appear at the nearest safe area with nary a scratch on their pretty, anime faces.

Speaking of which, the characters are interesting and well-designed, with their outfits having an understated quality that eschews the over-the-top fantasy/steampunk clothing you might expect from games in this genre. The voice acting is mostly on point, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 continues the series tradition of making almost everyone sound like they’re from Dickensian London, although there are definitely some Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Australian twangs in there, too. Again, my favourite character here is Lanz, whose exclamations of locating rare “doodahs” out in the field have become something of a meme in my household.

Even though I really enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles 3, there are things about it that can make it difficult to recommend, especially to those with less experience in the JRPG scene. The battle system that initially seems barely interactive is the foremost of these stumbling blocks, but if you come in with an open mind, or you’re an RPG veteran, you’ll soon realise that there is a wealth of depth and strategy on offer. Despite these options and details, the battles rarely felt especially epic, even with the majestic visuals and stellar musical accompaniment. If a battle is too difficult for you, it doesn’t feel like there’s much you can do about it other than grind a few levels. This isn’t true of course; you can change your party composition by adding healers or defensive classes, or tweak your moves and equipment, but it’s all preparation and no skill, all science and no art. I also found that I became over-levelled after a chapter or so, and started to breeze through the story missions and most side-quests. I didn’t really need to pay attention during the battles, and that’s when the sleepiness set in.

The grand vistas offer clues as to where this is set in the Xenoblade Chronicles timeline. They also look all majestic and stuff.

I knew what I was getting into with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but it still had its surprises. The story, though winding and very introspective, is interesting and has some surprising moments, the main characters are endearing, and there are some highlights among the secondary hero characters, too. The villains are less memorable, but they do the job. There are some awesome cut-scenes and some great vehicle and robot designs, and some gorgeous exploration music joins one or two memorable and epic battle themes on the soundtrack.

I enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles 3 a lot. I enjoyed it, and then I got used to it, and then I took it for granted, and now I can’t play it without drifting off to dreamland. There is post-game content, but I think I’ll save it until the next time I’m suffering from a bout of insomnia.

Dragon Quest Builders 2

Dragons, Quests, and Builders, Too!

You’d be forgiven for taking one look at the blocky visuals of Dragon Quest Builders and rolling your eyes at the thought of a Square Enix helmed cash-in on Minecraft’s success. However, while clearly taking cues from the cuboid phenomenon, this is much more than just an Akira Toriyama-themed skin pack. Personally, I came into Dragon Quest Builders 2 with relatively little experience in the Dragon Quest series. I nearly finished Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, and finished Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age, and haven’t played any other games in the series’ extensive back catalogue. Despite their wordy titles, though, I enjoyed both games immensely. As for Minecraft, my experience there is almost non-existent. I’ve tried it once or twice, but always found myself unable to get motivated to build for the sake of building in the open-ended, low-res world. I found myself getting much more involved with the 2D building of Terraria, thanks to its progression, bosses and neat graphical style.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 obviously borrows visually and stylistically from Minecraft, but does even more than Terraria did when it comes to adding focus to the sandbox. It features a lengthy quest that sets it apart from more open-ended survival/builders and a story line that, while fairly basic thanks to a silent protagonist, throws up its fair share of twists and turns. The ongoing relationship between the player-created character and his or her amnesiac companion Malroth is often interesting and occasionally moving, and the vibe can shift from upbeat and irreverent to surprisingly foreboding or hauntingly melancholy at a moments’ notice. Observant, old-school Dragon Quest fans may also recognise the name Malroth from Dragon Quest II, and will already have an inkling that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. The story chugs along nicely and, despite some slow sections, concludes in satisfying fashion, too.

The quest is split into numerous distinct parts, set on different islands in a vast, unknown sea. While undertaking the story missions on these islands, you won’t be able to leave them. Upon completing that part of the quest, however, you’re free to go back and forth between your home base (known as the Isle of Awakening) and almost any island you’ve already completed. Once you go to a new area and get stuck into the next story mission, you’re locked in again. The split nature of the world allows you to keep different projects handily separated, but can result in frustration later on when you find yourself spending far too much time propositioning the quirky Captain Brownbeard to take you from island to island, and experiencing the loading screens that are part of the deal.

There are also island types known as “Explorers’ Shores”. These randomly generated holms, cays and skerries offer up enjoyable orienteering activities in which players can unlock infinite reserves of certain resource types. You can also find optional boss fights, pick up various villagers and helpful NPCs to take back to the Isle of Awakening, and gather handy resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t bother building anything, though, as the place will be swallowed by the ocean mists when you leave, never to be seen again.

Farming forms a very large part of the early game. See that hat-wearing worm in the background, there? He’s indispensable for growing crops. He was also raised in the deepest wilds of rural Dorset, if his dialogue is anything to go by.

Each main island will teach you different aspects of the building, survival and management elements of the game. The first island introduces you to farming and meeting your villagers’ basic needs, the second area demonstrates mining and entertainment, and so on. Complete the main quest and you’ll be armed with the knowledge to build the fantasy metropolis of your dreams back at the Isle of Awakening once the post-game opens up.

Nearly. The game keeps a lot from you, and completionists looking for all the items, cooking recipes and room types on offer will have a gigantes-sized task on their hands. The story quests will only tell you so much, the rest needs to be uncovered by following NPC hints or through a bit of good old trial and error. This is welcome, as it gives the game a wealth of content for enthusiastic builders to uncover long after the end credits have rolled. However, the game’s obliqueness can occasionally go too far, and frustrating occurrences are a little too common. Room-types not registering with no clear indication as to why, villagers ignoring your newly built facilities with no visible explanation, and a lack of clarity when determining how far out into the map you can expand your settlement are all examples of problems I encountered. All of these are understandable limits, but it would have been nice if the game attempted to explain them a bit.

Combat is basic. Swing your sword until the enemy dies, occasionally pausing to dodge obviously telegraphed power attacks. Level up and craft better swords to hit harder. That’s pretty much it. Combat isn’t the focus here, despite there being plenty of it, but variety is injected through the use of companions. Throughout most of the game you’ll be accompanied by Malroth, and you can rely on him in a lot of the battles. There will also be occasions when your party grows to four or more, and later on whole armies can be thrown into battle at your behest, though I never used this feature outside of the story mission that introduced it. While visiting the aforementioned Explorers’ Shores, you can choose up to three companions to take with you, and this adventuring party can eventually include tamed monsters. These monsters add another wrinkle to the resource-gathering, combat and exploration aspects of the game, as many of them can be ridden and used in various helpful roles.

I’ve not played the first Dragon Quest Builders game, but from a little bit of research it seems that the sequel added such a wealth of gameplay tweaks and quality of life changes that I’ll probably leave it unexplored. Having said that, I did read somewhere that Dragon Quest Builders has a double jump. Dragon Quest Builders 2 could really do with a double jump…

We can forgive it, though, because Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a thoroughly charming, content-rich and surprisingly deep game. Bright, fascinating and bizarrely pun-obsessed, the building gameplay mixes perfectly with the questing, and for the most part the balance between hand-holding and letting you do your own thing is weighed perfectly. Despite enjoying previous Dragon Quest titles, I partially dismissed Dragon Quest Builders 2 as a cash-in on the popularity of Minecraft that was squarely aimed at kids. An opportunity came to play it (it was a gift for my daughter) and I was quickly enlightened to the fact that, while both of those things are true, this is still an excellent game that will keep you coming back again and again. I want more of it, despite it having a 50+ hour campaign and near endless post-game content, and that’s a sign that something is definitely working. As far as Dragon Quest spin-offs go, this one’s built for success.

Played on Nintendo Switch

Triangle Strategy

Actually Full of Squares

The grid-based, strategy role-playing game has always been a favoured genre of mine. My first experience was with Shining Force III for the Sega Saturn. I bought it off the back of playing and enjoying dungeon-crawling RPG Shining the Holy Ark, and honestly wasn’t expecting such a significant shift in gameplay. I loved it, though. The bright graphical style, the multitude of cool characters to recruit, the depiction of epic, fantasy battles in grid-based form. I’ve since played the earlier games in the Shining Force series, as well as the likes of Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Luminous Arc and more, but to me, Shining Force III is still the pinnacle. Let’s see if the genre’s newest addition, Square Enix’s Triangle Strategy, can knock it off the top spot.

First off, as mentioned in my recent look at the demo, the game is visually exquisite. The retro-styled locales and battlefields portray a lush and enticing fantasy world of the kind that escapists long for. Fires glow warmly in hearths, foliage appears thick and verdant, and water glistens captivatingly in the background. The sprites are pleasing and echo the personality of each character’s portrait. As the game progresses, the protagonist’s allies can be promoted to a more powerful class, and the character sprites change in kind, subtly increasing in grandeur to reflect the character’s growth.

The music compliments the world well. A few of the tracks are epic and memorable, and the rest are in-fitting with the setting and exemplify the atmosphere. However, while the dialogue is fine, the voice acting comes across as very pedestrian. Strangely, main protagonist Serenoa was saddled with the most uninspiring voice performance, but the ponderous drone of advisor Benedict comes a close second, his slow delivery of lines begging to be skipped. The voice acting in general lacks life, and comes across as generic and lacking in character. It might be best to turn the speech volume to zero and read the dialogue yourself. You’ll act it out better in your head.

The battlefields are almost as intricately detailed as the lore.

The story is complex and multi-layered, and designed to present the player with difficult decisions at pivotal points. It’s serious and political, concerning high-profile members of a medieval fantasy society making important decisions that affect the trajectory of a coming war. When it’s time to make a decision, protagonist Serenoa puts the question to his most loyal followers, and a vote is undertaken. Interestingly, Serenoa, and by extension the player, does not get to vote at all, but has the ability to speak to all of his companions before a decision is made, hoping to swing them to his way of thinking. How well this goes can often depend on how much the player explored and how many NPCs were interacted with in the build up to the pivotal moment, as such interactions can unlock crucial conversation options that can change the opinion of an ally. Fail to gather enough information, and risk leaving the story’s direction to chance.

These grand decisions are Triangle Strategy’s most obvious innovation, but there are also interesting intricacies in the gameplay that set it further apart from its competitors. As with all games in the genre, positioning of allies is incredibly important to your chances of victory, but there are various abilities and environmental effects that take this even further. Back-stabbing critical hits, consecutive attacks on surrounded enemies, and spells and abilities that can move opponents make for interesting tactical options. As do flammable, freezable and electricity-conducting terrain types. In an arena with high drops onto spike traps, wind magic becomes invaluable for knocking your enemies to their dooms below. If it’s raining and there are puddles forming, then lightning magic becomes devastating. That is, unless someone used ice magic to freeze the puddles. Still, you can always use a fire spell to turn the ice back into water again. There’s a depth to the game mechanics on offer that lends itself to experimentation and replayability.

The large roster of combatants available to find and recruit also helps in this regard. While there is a core group of plot-significant characters that you’ll want to make sure are appropriately powered-up at all times, there are plenty of secondary characters also willing to fight for the cause, and each one of them brings something different to the table. There’s a wandering shaman who is able to change the weather, heightening the affects of certain spells, and a clever merchant who can turn enemies to your cause with the offer of riches. There are even characters that excel in item use, meaning that pretty much any play-style is covered. Although there are a multitude of replayable training battles, you’ll need subsequent play-throughs to really get to grips with everyone. Good thing there’s that massively branching storyline, then.

The story was clearly important to the developers, and is taken very seriously. Numerous optional scenes are available throughout the campaign, dropping in on characters in distant lands as they discuss their plans for conquest. There are long periods of story-building and scene-setting between battles. If you’re into it, it’s great. If you’re less invested, but still feel like you need to understand what’s going on and refuse to skip any dialogue, you’re in for a bit of a slog. For me, personally, it was a mixed bag. Certain characters felt deserving of the time spent on illustrating their involvement in the story, while others seemed superfluous or predictable, and occasionally my attention drifted.

There are no monsters, either. That’s right, not a single goblin, no ghosts or zombies, not even a wolf. Even Game of Thrones (which is almost certainly an influence on the fantasy/political tone of the game) had dragons. Your enemies consist of the various opposing heroes and generals you’ll encounter, and a few different types of soldier or magic-user, reskinned in the colours of their national affiliation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t help if you’re finding the game’s tone a little too sober. I would’ve liked a wyvern cave or two to explore. The battlefields and story scenes are accessed from a map of the continent. This is fine, and gives off the impression of moving pieces around a military map, but also takes away from any sense of journey or discovery. It becomes apparent early on that there are no mysterious new frontiers to explore, you’re just going to be hopping back and forth between the three established nations throughout the campaign.

As such, what we’re left with is a mechanically and visually fantastic strategy RPG that just lacks the flair, personality or variety that the likes of Shining Force or Final Fantasy Tactics can offer. If you come in knowing that, and you become invested in the story, you’re going to have a fantastic time, and likely won’t put your Switch down for hours on end. If, like me, you find yourself harbouring that nagging thought that the story twists and character beats are not quite as effective as the serious tone requires, you might find yourself thinking that the game, like it’s title, needed a touch more personality.