Have you ever gotten into a fight only to have the guy you backed totally embarrass you right after he wins?
I wrote a piece last year on Operation Rainfall, a fan-based movement to get Nintendo of America to lighten up on their draconian localization habits. In case you don’t remember, Nintendo was being Nintendo, the Wii was being the Wii, and the hardcore gaming crowd was being unhappy. This is only different from every other second of Nintendo’s existence because these gamers were slightly louder and more organized than usual, which led to a minor amount of teeth-gnashing turning into an honest-to-Mario movement.
It was a good fight, but it wasn’t the hardest one to pick. Nintendo is well into its third decade of pulling that stunt on the Western gamer. Operation Rainfall may have picked the Wii generation to make its case, but the ill will they worked with stretches back to the NES era.
But guess what? They won. Pretty handily, too. Two of Rainfall’s three advocated games—Xenoblade: Chronicles and The Last Story—were picked up for publication in America, and Operation Rainfall has now become a catch-all source for news about promising titles in the Asian gaming market that might otherwise be ignored outside of Japan.
But I’ve played Xenoblade: Chronicles now, and let me tell you, as far as I’m concerned, Nintendo’s Japanese market can have it back.
Chronicles wants to be a literal interpretation of the man vs. machine conflict. Imagine a world in which everything you’ve ever known consists of the corpses of two dead warring gods. Not in some half-baked metaphorical sense, mind you—you are here on the corpse of God A, and a race of bestial mechanoids bent on your utter destruction are over there on the corpse of God B. Every now and then, you get the idea that building up armies and running down the length of your gods’ eternally clashing swords would be a great way to spend a Thursday, so you do just that.
Pretty epic and pretty weird, right? It’s nice to see a narrative that dares to dispense with subtext and writes the message on the wall so clearly that the wall itself is the message in giant carved letters. You are here, they are there, and everything over there is the handiwork of a giant dead superbeing whose only purpose is your utter annihilation. Now get rid of them before they do the same to you.
Or it would have been nice, if any of that epic weirdness had actually played out. Chronicles’ premise writes checks that Chronicles itself never really bothers to cash. Chronicles is unapologetically, irreversibly old-school, relying too much on tropes and mechanisms designed decades ago to counteract the inferior hardware of those times. Back then, your visuals, your storyline, and the general sense of scope you were able to evoke as a developer were all limited by the puniness of your primitive machinery. So you compensated: You built stories through text as your ancestors had done and you set up your world to operate on simple, mostly turn- or timing-based sets of mechanics.
And so Chronicles compensates—a full decade or more after the need has passed. It’s a game of fits and starts, with pauses to its action necessary every few seconds to adjust a setting, or to participate in an outdated combat sequence, or to convey some simple point that a better game would work into itself on the fly.
All the multisensory experiences that Chronicles should be giving the player are instead buried under a morass of obsolescence. It relies on one storytelling method while its modern contemporaries use several; it never seems to move forward because, compared to so much else out there right now, it never really does.
How utterly, exquisitely, tragically appropriate, then, for Xenoblade: Chronicles to take place on the back of a dead god, as the game itself is a monument to a dead god of its own. Its self-imposed stylistic limitations are a censer swinging above its head, trying and failing to appease a once-powerful ideal that has long since passed into memory.
I feel cheated. Not so much because Xenoblade: Chronicles is a horrible game or anything (it’s just horribly outdated), but because this is somehow the best example of what the Wii needed. This is not what Nintendo needed; it’s what Sony needed (and had) a couple of Playstations ago.
Maybe it would be different if I was a hardened Xeno series fan, choking down some mediocrity in the name of an overarching story that I loved, but I’m not. We can build better worlds. We have the technology. Xenoblade: Chronicles simply refuses to use it.