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Monolith Makes Worlds Part 1: Xenoblade Chronicles

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)

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, wheras 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. 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 altogether, 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 takeaways 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.

Please feel free to post your own impressions of Xenoblade Chronicles, or of this analysis, below. I will gladly accept and encourage any discussion of its segments in greater detail, if necessary. I hope you have enjoyed this first segment, and I hope that you will give the rest of the Monolith Makes Worlds series a look.


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