Double Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X/Trails of Cold Steel Chapter 1

A double game review is an odd prospect, especially on an anime blog, double especially given the length of the two game adds up to a solid week straight of playing without rest, and triple especially as these came out the past holiday season and are yesterday's news. I think it's important to give these at least another look if nothing else because they take so long, I don't know how many of the people who spear-headed the discussions actually finished them. Xenoblade Chronicles is on so many greatest and most essential RPGs of all time. And it deserves it. It is a glorious combination of Western RPG conventions with JRPG aesthetics, incredible music, a wonderfully imaginative setting, and addictive gameplay with a ton of exploration and almost thousands of quests. The one thing people neglect to mention is the last two hours are one of the most insane string of revelations ever seen. It doesn't so much go off the rails as the rails are vanished into another dimension and the train is placed in a limbo of last-minute R.L. Stine twists. Don't worry about me spoiling a five-year-old game because even if I gave you the direct text, you would punch me in the face and say the beginning of my fan fiction where I'm trying to warp time and space to get Fiora to bang my Mary Sue character needs a shit ton of work. It's on the Wikipedia page if you must know.

This isn't really a criticism as I pretty much love it when writer/director Tetsuya Takahashi's projects go completely mental. Xenosaga Episode III is one of my top five games of all time because it let go of the middlebrow anime space opera Namco wanted to make mad cash off of (...It didn't really happen) and became a story where Mary Magdalene's body is given a upgrade to evil cyborg with a breast cannon that requires her top be unhooked to use. The American censorship even takes it to another level where young Shion is shouting, "Put it back!" as she holds a ripped out body part of one of her parents... only THERE'S NOTHING THERE! It's amazing and I find the ending to Xenoblade Chronicles similarly enjoyable as a "?!" punctuation to a remarkable game.

My point is: Do you ever hear anybody bring the ending up? Think if Chrono Trigger had the revelation that Lavos is actually the warped body of Crono after a time machine accident sent him to the darkest corner of space at the beginning of time and its entire mission was to delete his horrid existence while simultaneously creating it by mistake. The power of the, "What the hell?!" shouts would register on the Richter scale. The speed in which the modern world takes, processes, and leaves behemoths that take 80+ hours to complete misses out on some rather important details, and I'd like to bring a review where the player actually got to the plot point where they explain why the aliens are trying to exterminate humanity.

So, uh, what's with Coldy over there? Well, Trails of Cold Steel is the follow-up series to Trails in the Sky, part of Falcom's ambitious (and confusing) Legend of Heroes family of games. The first chapter of Trails in the Sky was released to near universal praise, plenty of press, and made more than a few best-of lists for the year. All of that said, it makes perfect sense that when its sequel series that refines the aspects that made its sister series a hit while at the same time implementing aspects from acclaimed franchises like Persona... it was completely buried by an avalanche of holiday releases and scarcely heard from. You know that list of RPGs you MUST play that's been bothering people on Facebook? The website put Trails in the Sky on the list and didn't even LOOK at Cold Steel. Right. I think it deserves far more than that.

Back to the 130-hour leviathan...

Early reaction to Xenoblade X was similar to when Xenogears transitioned to Xenosaga with a bold, weird JRPG that blazed new trails with the follow-up that tried to be a more mainstream space opera while simultaneously keeping some of its weird edges to mixed results. It's hard to argue when the game starts. The basic plot involves a future where an alien armada shows up on Earth's front door and annihilates the planet. In an effort to escape, Earth sends out massive starship arks across the universe to save mankind. Your particular ark gets chased to a distant star system where it crashes onto remote planet Mira. Your avatar is pulled out of a pod by no-nonsense Elma and is taken to New Los Angeles, the residential unit from the ship that has somehow survived. The experience afterwards can be best described as a slow burn as you're given a job to help establish the last of mankind on this alien world through your work. You become a BLADE, a makeshift army with divisions that manage everything from exploration to policing the locals. You choose a division that rewards you more for the activities you most like doing, but you'll be doing a bit of all of it regardless.

The charm of the original Xenoblade Chronicles is classic JRPG. It takes a cast of tight-nit characters that get on well with each other and throws them into an epic quest. You have your gorgeous new locations connected by towns and slowly build up to a grand conflict that has been slowly simmering. Getting the full breadth of what Xenoblade Chronicles X is doing takes a little more explaining.

If you boil it down to traditional RPG aspects, X appears a little lacking, if not disappointing. The main cast can be pared down to three characters (four if you include Tatsu, the party's constant tag-along): The customized stand-in for the player, Elma, a confident colonel who rarely speaks more than the most essential of dialogue, and Lin, a young engineering prodigy in the maintenance of Skells, the mechs of this particular Xeno project. They're not bad, but unfortunately Lin's qualities are watered down as she often banters with Tatsu. The Nopon, a race of tiny, furry merchants, are carried over from X's predecessor, and while party member Riki in the original is a brave and noble little guy fighting enemies many times larger than him for the sake of his adorable family, Tatsu is far more straight comic relief. And BAD comic relief, at that. Most story chapters start with a tedious joke where Lin will treat Tatsu as a cooking ingredient to Tatsu's frightened or annoyed response. Short jokes in Fullmetal Alchemist didn't get this old. There are other party members-about a dozen or so in fact-but most of them feel like NPCs coaxed into main roles. Even one of the most interesting is not exactly "likable." There's a BLADE nicknamed Murderess who formerly came from an exceptionally wealthy family that was broken apart by a serial killer. She's trying to get back into her posh ways by any way possible, regardless of morals. At the very least, it's kind of neat to have a gray character not trying to be the silly kind of despicable to sand down the rough edges.

Progress is seemingly straightforward with story chapters that are accessed after passing a few baseline quests. To be powerful enough, though, you'll have to dive into Mira head first. This puts you square in the role of an explorer of this truly alien world, trying to carve out some kind of existence.for mankind. There are an abundance of missions,gathering collectible items, hunting the dangerous beasts, or whatever random citizens on the streets of NLA would like you to do. It's as standard as the modern RPGs get, but this is where the mindset of the makers starts to come into focus. Yes, most of what you'll do is menial work, but slowly, the quests paint a picture of a varied population with many different opinions, ideas, and actions building a home in ecosystems they don't belong in. Eventually, aliens who are facing oppression from the same people trying to annihilate mankind immigrate to NLA, and it opens up a whole other dimension, from aliens discovering the wonders of pizza to former Earthlings scamming the new population with what they don't understand and vice-versa. It's like the concept of the eighties movie Alien Nation except it actually explores its ideas instead of being a generic buddy cop movie.

The main story itself is built on reveals that have an inverted pyramid of shock value. Surprisingly, the earliest twists are the most potent, giving an urgency to the mission it didn't already have (Well, before game logic kicks in and you wander off and do nothing for 20 hours to no consequence, of course). Learning what the number on the top of the BLADE Tower means, for instance. Later on, the twists become more expected and surprisingly sensible given the ending of the last one. The reason for this is perhaps because X is expected to not be a standalone, but like Xenosaga, this is the beginning of a larger story where the true insanity will lie with later volumes (Hell, there's a gigantic reference to Xenosaga hidden in plain sight the entire game). This is a complete episode with an entire story, but it does end on a cliffhanger with questions dying to be answered. Everything's solid all around, save the villains. The Ganglion are the typical sci-fi baddies who enslaved a whole bunch of other races and are hellbent on destroying humanity when they didn't have to be so simple. Through the course of the game, we learn they are essentially slaves to a higher race from long ago trying to escape bonds made eons ago, which would make an interesting and strangely sympathetic antagonist. Sadly, the leader in this one is Luxaar, as obvious bad guy with a puffed up neck waddle who hangs out in dark spaces and mumbles about the Great One (Anyone else thinking a Stay Puft Wayne Gretzky was going to show up eventually? Just me?). His henchman include the typical anime evil girl villain with shrill laugh and Klingon knockoffs.

You'd think all of this keeps the game hovering around the good level, but there's a truly wondrous experience here. Mira is a living and breathing world that is a thrill to explore, and the makers manage to weave in the exploration with the storytelling and the world building while still giving the player the ultimate control in what they want to do. There are five regions in Mira that are best described as radically different ecosystems. The earliest one is the least impressive as Primordia comes off as a training ground with a prehistoric vibe, but this seems like it was meant to get the player out and exploring the rest of the world fairly quickly, Whether you turn left or right at that point, it's hard to go wrong. Noctilum is a rain forest with glowing plants, massive canopies, and busy wildlife including spider-like creatures that will jump down from the trees while you're walking by (sweet dreams...).  On the east side of the continent is Oblivia, a desert with ruins from a lost civilization. It's all incredibly realized and there are vistas, caves, hollowed-out volcanoes, and plenty of secret hideaways to behold. Once you get through the initial boot up and perhaps download a data pack or two to bring down the load time, it all runs smoothly, even when you get flying skells which can transverse the massive world in minutes. The trade-off is there's plenty of pop-in, especially if you utilize fast travel a bunch. Say you directly travel to where one of your party members is and you spawn five feet away (There's no centralized hub where the party can be swapped out willy nilly, so you have to go to where they are and add them). It can take 20 seconds for the person to even appear so you can talk to them. If you travel to an area with a lot of animals, ones that are territorial can spot you and attack before you're oriented.

When combat eventually occurs, the more you know about the previous Xenoblade, the better. With battle, you have a class that dictates what distance and melee weapon you use, and what special abilities called arts you can equip and use on a menu at the bottom of the screen. They don't use magic points or anything like that (Unless you count skell special abilities that expend fuel), but each one has a cooldown period after use depending on how powerful it is and how much it's been leveled up. This is basic Xenoblade Chronicles, but X's system is far more involved and complex. Not only damage and element (Including more sci-fi elements as "beam" that will probably leave you scratching your head), you have to consider ammo, gravity, and the amount of Tension Points gained. Tension Points allow you to go into overdrive mode that speeds up art recovery and can also allow you to revive fallen teammates. Using ranged weapons doesn't build up much TP, so you'll have to jump in with your sword or dual swords or shield (the last is surprisingly more effective than you'd think once you build up some arts). The branching classes allow you find what weapon sets are to your liking and gives you the option to mix and match as you master each of them. Oh yeah, and remember the repetitive voice acting in Xenoblade Chronicles where most of the battles get flooded with shouts of,"It's REYN TIME!" and, "AQUA!?" Well, the shouts are now a part of the battle system with the Soul Voice addition where you can tweak what the party says to each other and if you use a corresponding art when they say certain phrases, your team can get bonuses like opportunities to regain hit points. The voices get cluttered, but the art you need to increase party chemistry usually starts flashing. It probably needs mentioning that there are an expanded amount of voice clips to keep from having the same problem as the original. That's not to say it doesn't get old with over a hundred hours of gameplay. I simply do not have phrases from this game hammered into my mind and forced into memedom from Stockholm Syndrome.

Yes, it's a boatload of aspects to keep in mind when the battles are fast. I wish they had printed some physical manuals instead of having to stop the game to look everything up, but it's still a worth a read. And even if you don't get the many MANY finer points, the battles are mostly picking a fight with a creature or they pick a fight with you and slugging it out with all of your arts. Don't fight beasties with significantly higher levels and watch your spread attacks so that you don't accidentally cheese off a level 90 brontosaurus who can wipe your party in a single shot. Liberal use of your skells will also help immensely when you get into a jam. After a certain story chapter, you can be licensed to solidify your party with giant mechs. They usually come as a "cheat" for a battle. In fact, there's a certain snobbery in the social aspects of the game for those that use them. To that, I say you get to pilot freakin' mechs and it's a joy to do so, especially when getting the flight enhancements. Picking out the right weapons can be expensive with hundreds of thousands of credits to try out a single heavy arm, but oh so worth it when you slice through one of the larger menaces like butter.

Moving along to perhaps its most divisive feature: The music. Its predecessor had a straightforward, pretty soundtrack with a dynamic day-night setting. The changing of the music depending on the time of day is still there, but this soundtrack is radically different in tone and approach. Composer Hiroyuki Sawano is relatively new to the game composing, but has had a respectable career in anime soundtracks (Most notably Kill la Kill and Attack on Titan). Sawano not only brings pulsing electronic vibes to cover the sci-fi angles, he brings a ton of vocals and how much you love them depends on how you like cheese. Plenty of the Japanese music is doing "cool" things that would come off as lame to us delivered with such confidence that it's kind of awesome even if you don't want random people catching you singing along to them. This goes back to the says of the Streets of Rage soundtracks that pretended C&C Music Factory was never completely denied as the future of music. The first two Streets of Rage soundtracks are some of the best in gaming history, so that approach isn't necessarily a bad one. Xenoblade X takes that to the next level. If you have the patience to not immediately select the single campaign or multiplayer campaign, you're treated an Evanescence-esque song with zero irony. The most famous (Or infamous) example is the battle theme "Black Tar" with rapping lyrics such as, "Please wake me up/Not to sound cliche/But this world sucks!" It is an amazing tune with its only weakness being high-pitched shouts of, "It's all out war!" But yeah, it's not exactly besting Jay-Z any time soon (Not to mention the song was written before some revisions to the game's story were made, so it features ideas and terms that didn't make it to the final game).

If you have to have your pulse on what's cool in music, you probably won't buy what this title is peddling. I love it. The music for the various areas is fantastically grand with a few wrinkles like Ganglion base themes to change up the mood. As much as many of the choices come out of left field (A whole song in German because why not?), they all strangely fit into this game's futuristic-yet-modern feel and fly by in a delirious fever dream with how the various themes flow in and out of each other depending on what you're doing. I can say it's a smidge annoying to have the skell flying theme constantly restarting if you say, accidentally hit a piece of solid land while you're exploring. Oh, and I would feel a twinge of embarrassment if a stranger saw me playing during New Los Angeles' night theme with silly grunts of, "UH! YEAH!"

Finally, the opportunities for multi-player should be noted. How much other people are involved in your business is up to you. The world is dotted with other people's characters and greetings as well as messages scrolling at the bottom about mostly nonsense you won't care about. You can register your avatar and have someone rent your character for some credits and experience, or you participate in contests between the branches of BLADE to see who can get the most points with winners getting some pretty nice consumables like being able to completely heal your entire party once. You can even participate in conquest multi-player missions. The key reward for most social aspects is tickets. They allow you to buy whatever enemy body part drop the game has to offer without actually farming for them. This doesn't sound impressive at first, but it is a godsend for quests where you need five or more of a certain enemy's drop and they just won't give it to you after even 15 minutes of work. If you don't want to work with others to get tickets, the hourly hunts where the game points out a few select enemies for everyone to roast for tickets will work just fine.

For how easy it is to point out the awkward pieces of Xenoblade Chronicles X, what's left out is how the game completely nails the experience of traveling to a far off planet and doing everything you can to keep from dying out. It succeeds at being a more advanced version of the original in its gameplay while at the time braving an entirely new experience. It may not be the JRPG people signed up for, or it may only be that occasionally, yet it's still provides many mesmerizing experiences both big and small. It's to a certain degree a sandbox game with purpose, featuring a huge planet that's actually worth exploring from getting caught in a pollen storm to standing on top of a 300 ft. tall ring from a dead civilization. It's an amazing accomplishment even if may not always be in line with what's expected and it lacks the insanity I know its creator has it inside of him. But this also lacks episode titles that name checks works by Neichze, so maybe with the higher mindedness comes the madness.

But let's say you want a more typical JRPG that's about as good. Well, I do have a title for you. Falcom isn't a game company many come to for originality. In fact, you might take a look at the nuts and bolts of the game design to their current franchise, Trails of Cold Steel, and only see other games. from the setup of spells and skill systems of Final Fantasy VII to borrowing of the social bonding of the recent Personas. They don't have the budget either. Yet they do know how to make a exceptionally solid games from their Ys franchise and their Trails in the Sky trilogy showed they could do some damn fine world building, character making, and storytelling as well. Trails of Cold Steel continues this tradition in both its limitations and virtues.

You play Rean Schwarzer, an adopted son of nobility in the Erebonian Empire, a fantasy world set up approximately like WWI Europe, give or take a few technological advances (I don't think our great grandparents were big into hoodies).Think slightly earlier Valkyria Chronicles and your'e pretty close. Rean is enlisted at Thors Military Academy in Class VII, the first ever class that intertwines nobility and peasant classes. As it happens, this is occurring in the middle of a quietly intense situation where the commoners are starting to gain control through industrial cash and reformist government, and the nobility obviously doesn't care for this.This makes tensions simmer a bit at first for the ragtag team of Class VII that will eventually be your rotating party members;It's an especially bitter struggle for Machias, a son of one of the heads of the reformist government, and Jusis, a member of one of the four great families of Erebonia (In ways that makes certain member of fandom shout, "Just kiss!" every time they interact). Other classmates include Alisa, the assumed canon love interest from new money, Elliot, a musician who doesn't seem fit for the military life, Laura, a solemn sword wielder from a renowned family, long-haired Gaius from the boonies, Fie, the youngest and surprisingly most experienced of the group as she spent her pre-teen years as a mercenary, and Emma, the polite, unassuming, and intelligent president of the class. Their instructor is Sara, whose carefree and booze-swilling ways hide a talented and powerful former freelancer.

These characters don't stray too far from their archetypes, but like a lot of Falcom, there's plenty of love put into them to make something more than their standard origins. The first couple hours or so sets up some really eye-rolling situations, like when Rean accidentally falls on Alisa and winds up in a slightly compromising position. They have that awkward anime thing where every interaction for a period of time goes back to that scene and it's a lot of needless fighting and blushing. Once it gets beyond the cliche, your classmates begin to gain texture. Everybody has a past, interests, and their own web of relationships at the school, and these bring about a greater attachment and appreciation for them than first impressions. Alisa turns out to be a person who has to go head-to-head with the nobility who don't accept her (Almost literally on the lacrosse field with her rival Faris) and she also doesn't seem to have the support of the commoners since she's not quite one of them. It's not just larger issues. One of the pleasures of Cold Steel is the little day-to-day things at the high school. Emma trying to mold her senior in the literature club's obsession with trashy gay male fiction into credible literature or Fie attempting to become a gardener. The copied and pasted students in the opening moments do no justice to how surprisingly well written the classes are. From a lesbian biker to the snobbish upper class and their individual servants, you can peek into the lives of just about everyone at the school and in the surrounding village to see the little changes throughout the year. Spearheading it all is the cutest and incredibly capable student council president, Towa. You will believe a five-foot girl could run the nation better than the most cunning politicians you meet in the game. Sadly, they also picked up the cliche of the overweight girl who tries to hit on all the guys as comic relief used to look down on her. Everyone, please drop this already. It's grotesque and sick.

Story progression is very rhythmic, starting with school business and then moving to the various field trips for Class VII as they dip their toes in the world they'll soon be trying to protect. You get jobs to do in the area from finding lost cats to defeating gigantic monsters blocking the highway. Once you finish the required ones, the story progresses. The main two threads involve a mysterious schoolhouse on Thors campus with a secret in its basement and a terrorist group working behind the scenes to create chaos with an unknown agenda. A small synopsis does no justice to how involved the storytelling is. Everything is connected in gigantic ways and small ways down to meeting the families of NPC students. There's a peripheral student named Mint with a mother named Vanilla and a cat named Milk. Granted, my memory is enhanced by the fact that thre's an optional quest involving them, but that I remember so much is a credit to Falcom's extensive world building creating memorable characters.

Social bonding is one of the most recent additions to the franchise. Taking off with the shipping craze, it allows Rean to get closer to whomever you'd like. You get bonding points on your days off and you can spend them with the students who aren't busy at the moment. These aren't as involved as Persona 4 and are mostly used to further leveling up personal connections in battle to unlock extra abilities. I like Persona 4 setup much better as it feels like you're watching an actual relationship between characters, but Cold Steel makes a solid effort, giving the player the opportunity to single out one person as special and have extra scenes with them. It even allows that special person to be male, though how far the game lets that go still remains to be seen in the sequels. I had the opportunity to have a special scene with Rean and Elliot, and it avoided a dancing sequence you normally get to see with the female characters and more establishes which females at the school are fujoshi than it says anything about the relationship.

When you're on one of these field trips, you'll eventually need to fight monsters, terrorists, or anything in-between. Now Falcom hasn't really re-invented the wheel on battle since their early Ys days when you had to literally run into enemies to attack them, but they do make an effort to create the best damn wheel money can buy. Here we have an evolved version of materia that allows you to be granted abilities and stat bonuses by installing little orbs on your person. The battlefield itself is a modern version of Grandia and Lunar where the location, range, and scope of your attack are taken into consideration in a turn-based format where various physical assaults and magic take their own amount of time. There are handy pictures showing whose turn is coming up like Final Fantasy X with the turn events like Xenosaga Episode One where if someone is in a certain slot, they can unleash a critical hit, recover life, or instantly cast magic with no time penalty. You can sneak into a certain slot if you don't want the enemy gaining the advantage by building up points and jumping in with a special attack, but they also delay the turn of your character and take a decent amount of time to build up afterwards, so use those wisely. Your social links help you in battle like Persona 4 in the higher level you're at, the more your social link will do for you such as instant healing after certain attacks and being able to perform combo strikes. Again, it lacks originality, but it's all very easy to understand, well laid out, and incredibly rewarding and fun when everything's in full swing. The later battles do tend to be weighed down by over-reliance on massive amounts of hit points and cruel status effects. A couple times, the only valid strategy is playing the battle to see what incredibly crushing status effect the enemy can lay on the entire party at once and then re-loading the previous save and getting accessories that block the status effect.

Falcom won't be winning many beauty contests at this point. It was made for PS 3 and Vita and it's not even close to the best graphics those consoles have to offer. There are flashes of graphical prowess in plush carpeting, a river current, or random designs. Character designs are standard and the monsters are the usual bunch of palette-swapped baddies with weird flourishes (You're not just fighting owls, you're fighting owls with massive tail feathers!). It's only adequate, but don't let that be any kind of deterrent. Faring much better is the music, which is done by the famed Falcom Sound Team jdk. With an 80+ hour game to cover, the wide swath of tunes don't quite hit like the much more compact Ys games, but they have more than their fair share of highlights and most town and area music is pleasant enough for the lengthy time you'll be spending listening to all of it. However, only a few ending dungeons get to the addictive beat and intensity of Ys' highest highs, and sadly, some of the finale, which is based around music, doesn't have the budget to give the proper vocals and live instrumentation to pull it off.

Trails of Cold Steel is definitely for those who want a classic RPG done well. It loves its characters, it has a good enough story within its structure to be worth making through to the end, and manages to do enough with its battle system, quests, and other odds and ends to not wear out its welcome. If Xenoblade X strays too far past the JRPG path and you want something that feels immensely comfortable (Not to mention its sequel is already out, so you know for sure you'll be getting something past the cliffhanger ending), this underappreciated gem is here for you, even if it doesn't have the most impressive trimmings in the world. I like Xenoblade X more as it feels like a wonderful experience I haven't gone through before, but it is very difficult to go wrong with either unless you just plain want nothing to do with JRPGs.

Xenoblade Chronicles X Rating

Trails of Cold Steel Rating


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