Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles

It was easy to miss the original Xenoblade Chronicles game when it first came out, so I’m really glad Nintendo brought it to the eShop. It’s a good RPG and a great way to keep the spirit of the newer Wii U game going if beating that one left a hole in your heart. It’s probably not entirely fair to go from the Wii U game to the older Wii game, though. It does feel like a step back, not just graphically but in everything, as you realize Xenoblade Chronicles X improved on a lot. But the Wii version manages to stand out on its own, too.

For one, the story and characters are more interesting. Yes, it’s a typical JRPG where the “chosen one” spends most of his time dramatically grunting and yelling his friends’ names, and nobody really dies in very non-surprising twists. But the end goal was clearer, and the story didn’t hit as many lulls. I also really liked the game’s character management, how you’re free to switch around active members (even taking main hero Shulk out of the picture altogether), and how characters’ affinity towards each other allows them to share skills. Building the perfect team is quite rewarding.

The side missions, however, were pretty lame. That’s something XCX did much, much better. As for the battle system, it’s fundamentally the same but does enough differently to not be a total bore if you’ve already seen it. This is one of my favorite battle systems of any RPG, after all, so it was great to be able to experience it again in an alternate universe. I just wish the last several hours weren’t all fights against the same robots. It’s no surprise, then, that the Wii U version is still the better game, but I’d recommend newcomers start here so they can appreciate the progress the series is making. And if you’re not a newcomer, check it out, anyway.

Cornerstone: The Song of Tyrim

Cornerstone

This is the kind of game that’s frustratingly shy of being great. With just a little more polish and a slightly bigger scope, it could have easily become my Game of the Year. As it stands, Cornerstone is merely “good.” It’s another island-based adventure game that will undoubtedly be compared to Wind Waker, which is also why I’m so enamored with it. I can’t stress enough that Steam needs more Zelda-like games, although Cornerstone does more to differentiate itself than the other indie homage I recently played, Oceanhorn. But it also amplifies some of the same shortcomings.

For starters, it’s easy to get lost. Not every task is put on your “to do” list, making it feel like the game has glitched out when said list turns up empty, and yet you have no idea where you’re supposed to go next. Blaming it on glitches is totally valid, by the way, because Cornerstone is full of them. Tyrim will randomly start grunting like he’s stuck on a wall, and one boss in particular had a habit of disappearing from the fight, never to return. The controls aren’t great, either, and the combat system is about as simple as it gets. Block, parry, repeat, only with the added confusion of weird button mapping choices.

But enough with the complaints. I do like the way they’ve set up the world/islands and how everything revolves around crafting from four set materials. Swords, shields, bombs, and parachutes are all conjured on the fly and can wear out and break over time. I only wish this aspect of the game were stronger, because the most enjoyable part of Cornerstone is finding a new crafting recipe and experimenting with what it gives you. I even liked the story, which is rare for me, though the way dialogue is presented is rather stale. Again, this is so close to being a truly awesome game, but even a less-than-stellar Wind Waker “clone” is still pretty cool.

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas

Oceanhorn

Steam has an abundance of almost every game genre now, but one thing that PC gamers are still missing out on are good Zelda clones. I seriously don’t understand why these types of games aren’t a dime a dozen. I suppose if they were, though, then Oceanhorn would not be as charming as it is. Basically, this is Wind Waker if Wind Waker had been done by an indie studio. Depending on how you feel about indies, that probably sounds awesome or terrible to you. I will admit, the game is a little rough around the edges. Your character’s movement is clunky, and some of the models and animations are cheesy. Nonetheless, this is a great homage to the Legend of Zelda series.

Well, you could argue that it’s more of a rip-off than an homage. So many things are pretty much copy and paste, right down to the silent protagonist, inability to jump, dungeons with master keys, bomb and arrow pickups, heart containers, and real-time sailing between islands. But it actually does some things better. Sailing isn’t as tedious, the achievements are fun, and the game doesn’t hold your hand nearly as much as Nintendo likes to. Sometimes I felt like I was stumbling across the right path by accident, although I kind of liked that approach. The number of islands you can explore—and the way they are introduced—help Oceanhorn feel like a true adventure. It’s still a bite-sized adventure, but any Zelda fan turned PC gamer will enjoy it.

Never Alone

Never Alone

From a cultural standpoint, Never Alone is pretty cool. I like that the story is based on real Alaskan folklore, and in respect of that, the narration is even performed in the storyteller’s native tongue. As a game, however, it’s just not very good. The platforming is sluggish and stiff, and I often fell to my death for no other reason than crummy controls. Furthermore, as I got closer to the end of the game, glitches became more rampant to the point where I was getting stuck in walls or disappearing altogether. I can only imagine how troublesome the AI would be when Never Alone is played… er… alone. Fortunately, I tackled it co-op, which was fun for a while, but the second character’s role changes drastically halfway through the game. From then on, it wasn’t even fun to be the fox anymore.

So despite the game’s beautiful presentation and heart, I would be inclined to write it off completely… if it weren’t for the DLC. Honestly, the Foxtales DLC is better than the original game! It tells an alternate story with the same girl and fox, only this time the fox remains intact for the whole episode. Much of Foxtales is also based around navigating a boat and solving puzzles to get said boat moving again. Of course, this means diving underwater a lot, and I hate underwater sections in games. But the DLC overall is really entertaining and well-done and does a better job of merging puzzle-platforming with tall tales. It’s just too bad you have to have the base game first to enjoy it, because, again, the base game is pretty overrated and disappointing.

Xenoblade Chronicles X

Xenoblade Chronicles X

An RPG’s battle system is more important to me than its story. That’s why 2003’s Baten Kaitos was one of my favorite RPGs. Coincidentally, co-developer Monolith Soft is also responsible for Xenoblade Chronicles X, which is quickly becoming another one of my top picks. The real-time battles here are very engaging and surprisingly complex as you dig deeper into them. I love that you can target and destroy a monster’s appendages, thereby eliminating some of its abilities. When you also take into consideration the size of the monsters and the fact that so many of them—hostile and otherwise—freely roam the world, Xenoblade starts to feel more like the game Monster Hunter 3 should have been. Yes, I know, Monster Hunter is different on many levels, but damn… Xenoblade is just so good at what it does.

The scope of the game’s world, for instance, is enormous. This feels like a genuine planet with its own ecosystems. Running around the world of Mira is like exploring a national park. The environments are gorgeous, and there are few limits as to where you can go. You can head straight into the most dangerous parts of the world during the first chapter if you so choose. I also appreciate that you can jump, which means you’re able to scale tall mountains and can sometimes find shortcuts to important areas with some clever ledge hopping. You will have to play with the Wii U gamepad, though, in order to fast-travel between locations. Running on foot may give you a better appreciation for the game’s details, but most missions require a good amount of backtracking, which can get tedious if you forget about the fast travel option.

The only thing I don’t like about the game (aside from the tiny text that forces me to sit closer to the TV) is that, once you’ve accepted a story or “affinity” mission, you can’t cancel it or take on any other missions until you finish it. Some of the affinity missions, however, send you on ridiculous scavenger hunts without giving you much guidance on where those resources are located. Similarly, story chapters can turn out to be much harder than anticipated, and it would be nice to fall back on the affinity missions as a non-grindy way of leveling up. I almost quit while on the final chapter for that reason, which made me terribly sad, because there were still many more affinity quests I wanted to do. Seriously, Xenoblade is the most fun I’ve had charting a digital world since Wind Waker, and I honestly don’t want it to end.

Skylanders: Swap Force

Skylanders Swap Force

I avoided the Skylanders series for a long time. I didn’t want to get sucked into buying a bunch of plastic. But now that I’ve dipped my toes into Swap Force, I finally understand the appeal. Yeah, you can think of the characters as nothing more than expensive DLC, and if you’re not careful, you could wind up spending hundreds of dollars on this thing. For collectors at heart, however, it’s fun to have a tangible version of an in-game character. The tech behind these games—how the toy and game sync up—really is impressive. Swap Force is particularly cool, because you can interchange the top and bottom halves of the characters, which works seamlessly and creates some interesting combos.

You do have to level up the characters a little bit, though, before they’re actually fun to use. And if you’re not willing to spend the money on extra figurines, you’ll be annoyed at just how much of the game is locked away. While you can still play the full story mode and discover a lot of secrets with the three pack-in characters, there are many more doors that only Skylanders with certain attributes can enter. The upsell is obvious, but I’ll admit that it worked on me, and I ended up buying three more characters. I drew the line there, though, because I know all I’m really missing out on are a few more mini-games and treasure chests. Still, Swap Force’s “swappable” nature does make it harder to resist…

As for the game itself, it’s a decent, kid-oriented action game that plays very similarly to the LEGO games. In fact, I think the game itself would be better off without the toy gimmick, if all of the character swapping was digital and instantaneous. But then Skylanders would be a rather forgettable experience. The cutscenes are annoying, the in-game puzzles are way too easy, and the platforming/jumping mechanics are barely functional. It’s mainly the combat that holds it together. Some of the characters’ abilities are a lot of fun to use. Which, again, makes Swap Force stand out from other games in the series, since you have a little more customization at your fingertips. Now if a future Skylanders adds interchangeable arms and legs, then I’m in trouble!