Xenoblade Chronicles – “A Poor Man’s Epic”
Videogames paved with cultural references are a long-standing tradition in Japan, with a constant mix of popular and high-brow, western and eastern citations being a mainstay not just in our medium but also in manga, anime, music and film. “Xenogears” mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi (executive director, concept and writer), upholds this logic wholeheartedly, making it a defining theme across his career. In fact, perhaps even more than with others, we can easily judge his merits solely guided by which authors and artworks serve as inspiration for his stories and design. Based on this, we can instantly understand “Xenoblade’s” greatest fault – its appropriation of good and bad in equal measure, with apparent blindness over which is which.
A long standing disciple of George Lucas’ space operettas and his Campbellian mono-mythology, Takahashi always strived to embody that unique sense of magic and faustian spectacularity in the interactive means. “Xenoblade” is, first and foremost, a baroque fantasy novel, devilishly ornamented with meticulous arabesques that spin the plot round and around, with quick and mad turns that make your head spin and tingle in anticipation of their insights and feel tremendous pleasure at the unfolding of their complex revelations. Dismally, unlike in his defining masterpiece “Xenogears”, Takahashi chose the easy way out for his newest release, catering to a larger audience by avoiding his trademark labyrinthine, overwrought philosophical ramblings which added much-needed depth to the lush, but inherently superficial exterior of his tales. You can still find subtle nuances to some of his most cherished obsessions, from classic science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick), to Norse Mythology to Jung, but you find these so subdued and diluted it pains to see them written in with such levity.
It’s not just that the narrative is too much “Star Wars” and too little “2001” but that the aesthetic framing embitters its unfolding, with Japanimation antics robbing dramatic charge out of nearly every cut-scene. The fact is that “Xenoblade” ventures equally as often into “Evangelion” as it does to “Gundam” and “Super Sentai” territory, never managing the right equilibrium between its serious fictional background and the action-frenzy, humoristic silliness which is inherent to anime. Even more terrible is that this ill-fashion is deepened by its interactive fluff, which speaks the same base language. Vehemently criticize it we must for its ludomaniac tendency to cater to videogame sugar-junkies and their needs of excessive longevity, number of quests and achievements and customization and mechanics, inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”. The game manages to somewhat balance that off by embracing Matsuno’s “Final Fantasy XII” semi-naturalist tactical combat and copying the socio-temporal dynamics of unjustly forgotten and still sole 3D “Zelda” masterpiece, Koizumi’s “Majora’s Mask”. The largely artificial gamification-driven architecture so becomes a tiny tad more human and genuine thanks to that astute addition, meaning you’re not just grinding your way up the statistics ladder, but being rewarded with snippets of insight on major characters and inhabitants, their world’s lore, personal stories, daily lives and relationships.
But the ‘coup de grace’ that just manages to save it from redundancy and utter lack of taste lies in the most welcome of citations to Ueda’s second masterpiece, “Shadow of the Colossus”. Herein, that sense of scale and vast unhindered exploration is taken to whole new levels, exponentiated in a clear exercise of exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in). The whole of the game-world is, quite literally, on top of two giants, with each scenery representing a small anamotic part of them, from the knees to the arms to the torso to the heads to the internal organs. “Xenoblade’s” geo-architectural venture baffles the mind for its scope, but it is the minutiae of its characterization that brings about admiration for the virtuosity involved. Technologically, it is a feat that deserves praise, with a rich aesthetic treatment (led by Norihiro Takami) gently pushing you to explore that insanely large world. Each setting has its own unique sense of visual and aural style, forming a body of eclectic work covering several different themes, from warm naturalist pieces with nigh absurd texturization detail, to gentle dream-like landscapes with soft, hazy light (again Ueda), to more traditional, industrial science fiction and bright sweet fantasy pieces. These are all accompanied by a profuse mix of musical tracks very in line with what’s expected from J-RPG canon – symphonic opuses, j-pop melodies, Black Mages style hard-rock, etc. The diverse variety in composers (ACE+, Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota and Yasunori Mitsuda) elevates it just slightly above standard fare, with some astute echoes of Sakamoto’s YMO work and Hisaishi’s melancholy making it shine in a few tracks.
Like its references, “Xenoblade” walks the fine line from genial to menial with uncouth bravado, leading to a confluence of pleasure and disgust that perfectly exemplifies the current state of its genre and even the medium itself. Bittersweet though it may be, we easily concede it to be one of the most fascinating epic adventures we have encountered in the recent past, it just pains us to also see it as one of the worst when it comes to delivery. In the end, we must look elsewhere to justify our verdict, and here dismay is the word of choice: “Final Fantasy XIII” is pathetic to say the least, “Fallout“, “Mass Effect” and their peers are all US, all muscle, no heart. “Lost Odyssey” is superior, but remains too classicist, too close to 90’s “Final Fantasy” to be understood as new. Truth of the matter is that traditional trope-constrained RPG’s have been on the decline, and whilst progressive ventures – “Folklore“, “Demon’s Souls“, “Yakuza 3” – have made the genre grow, propelling it towards the future, it would be dishonest not to admit we missed a nice, cozy little genre piece to keep us warm and comfy and dreamy and naive and childish at night. May “Xenoblade” be just that – a new and technically marvelous but fundamentally safe J-RPG. The popular and consensual reference for a generation where once none stood.
P.S: A small error was found by a user, concerning the name of J-RPG band, “Black Mages”. I apologize for the mix-up.