GOTY

Balladeer's Game of the Year: Xenoblade Chronicles X

As the calendar ticked gently over from 2015 to 2016, and your writer was busy singing singalong "Let It Go" with a bunch of similarly mature people, his playtime on Xenoblade Chronicles X stood at about twenty hours.  Respectable playtime for a game, right?

XCX has heard about respectable playtimes.  Once.  In the far-distant past.  Maybe from across the other side of its map, its map that spans five continents and takes a liberal dump on Wind Waker's Great Sea from both a size and a stuff-to-size-ratio perspective, the words "respectable playtime" whistled across on the wind. 

XCX briefly raised its massive head.  Then it went back to crafting a game that, now, your writer's sixty hours into without having seen half the stuff on offer.  He's just, perhaps, reached the big USP.

I'd barely seen any of this game in 2015.  How can it have been my game of the year?

Because it has unicorns!  And auroras!  And... I didn't see any of these in 2015, they're second-half-of-game material.  Never mind.

Because it has unicorns!  And auroras!  And... I didn't see any of these in 2015, they're second-half-of-game material.  Never mind.

Epicturesque

XCX starts slow, there's no two ways around it.  You're shuttled through character creation, down a path, through some battles.  You talk to the most personality-free woman in the world.  Thus far, it could be Final Fantasy XIII.  (It's also dark, ugly, and pissing it down.)

But the game's toying with you.  It knows what you want, especially if, like me, you thought the original Xenoblade Chronicles was one of the best games of last generation.

So eventually, your female comrade-in-arms takes you to the top of a giant rock.  Clouds shield what's below you.  She turns to you, smiles.  "I promise, you're gonna love this."

The sun comes up.  The rain stops.  The fog clears away.  The music kicks in.  And...

BAM!  Open world all up in your face.

BAM!  Open world all up in your face.

It's the moment they showed off in all the trailers, with good reason.  That doesn't make it any less special when it happens to you, and you know, having played its predecessor, that you'll be able to go anywhere you can see.

That's before the dinosaur head rears up from below you.

Everybody Walk the Millesaur

By that point, I'd already played around with the combat system.  Again, it comes from Xenoblade, in a case of "If it ain't broke then put the hammer down, quietly, and come with us."  At their most shallow, battles are a case of running around exchanging fireworks with Planet Mira's "indigen" beasts.  But there's so much more going on under the surface than that.

I basically only dabbled in Arts at the time.  I've had to learn Gear, Augments, TP, and Overdrive as I've played.  XCX's battle system is a nuanced beast that rewards patience and research (at least until you get a robot and become able to ruin an indigen's day very quickly). That's a kind way of putting it, although parts of it are so non-intuitive that you're better off asking the Internet for help.

But what's blindingly obvious is that you don't challenge the level 49 dinosaurs whose toenail you don't bother with your level 3 party.  Xenoblade played this trick to perfection, its mix of level-appropriate and higher-level monsters giving a real feeling of a whole ecosystem.  XCX turns that up to eleven, and I love it.

You can kill these wretched Mortifoles all you want, though.  They love to disguise themselves as innocent flowers, then jump out at you - a practical joke to which the only appropriate response is a face full of gun.

You can kill these wretched Mortifoles all you want, though.  They love to disguise themselves as innocent flowers, then jump out at you - a practical joke to which the only appropriate response is a face full of gun.

Travel's wonderfully fast too, even before you get your hands on a robot.  Your party's very athletic, bounding and running along - not that that'll save you if you bother a level 49 dinosaur by accident.  There are also liberally spread fast-travel points to help make the gigantic world a bit less intimidating.

That's all before you get into Neo Los Angeles.  The game may only have one city, but that matters less because it's absolutely flipping huge.

You know, like the rest of the game.

Monado, Show Me The Way!

Despite all this, it's true that I barely scratched the game's surface in 2015.  At the turn of the year, I was just beginning to warm to the cast.  Your main comrade-in-arms Elma stays fairly dull throughout, but mechanic loli-prodigy Lin, her potato-shaped foil Tatsu, dour Lao, and L, the indigen who gave us the greatest insult to butcher the English language, hold up their ends of the bargain.

What I couldn't have foreseen was the quality of some - no, a lot, of the side-missions.  The main story is fine, but the stories around it border on exceptional at times.  There's some harrowing stuff there, along with comic moments and everything in between.  (I still won't stop going on about what went down in the Biahno Purification Plant, for good reason.)  And while the game's message of "humans and aliens can work together" can get heavy-handed at times, it can also be touching or bleak at others.

Although I challenge you to listen to the Ma-non without wanting to take a fork to your ears.

Although I challenge you to listen to the Ma-non without wanting to take a fork to your ears.

And while I knew that the robot action was coming, I couldn't possibly have foreseen how, sixty hours in, I'd be going "WHEEEE HEE HEE HEEEEEEE!" as I took to the air for the first time.  Nor how both unlocking the robots and, later, unlocking their flight, opens up whole new parts of the world yet again.

But I could see a game with the potential to do those things.  They were not beyond the realms of possibility in 2016.  And what I was playing in 2015 was all but impossible to tear myself away from. 

That's XCX's greatest feature, and simultaneously its biggest problem as a player.  A world with new enemies and features around every corner, and the ability to save anywhere, has chronic and debilitating "just one more thing" syndrome.  Fifteen minutes' playtime quickly turns into an hour or more.  I'm surprised I made it to my Frozen singalong.

Wii-Utiful

Look, I'll be frank: 2015 wasn't great for me on the games front.  I'm a Nintendo-only gamer who doesn't like online gaming or user-generated content.  Bye bye Splatoon, Monster Hunter 4, and Super Mario Maker, then.  Not much was left.

But what was left was a game which would have done any console proud in any year.  Granted, as I played on I found flaws - a lot of flaws in fact.  But they get lost in the overall size of the game.  For any few minutes of disappointment in XCX, there's another hour of things that will make you gasp, and cheer, and yell, and go slightly moist around the eyes.

And anyway, this is an opportunity to celebrate the good things about the greatest game I played in 2015.  I plan to do a full review on Gintendo, giving a more balanced viewpoint, when I finally finish the game.

So, see you all in 2018, then?

WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE HEE HEE HEE HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE HEE HEE HEE HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!