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First impressions: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Posted by Matt Demers on

Note: the gfys in this post are bugged due to something on the end of Gfycat. They should display at the proper crop after a loop or two.

I’m likely going to be doing a video on this later, but I thought I’d write down a couple thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles X, since I picked it up yesterday.

So far, I’ve played four hours of the game and gotten past the first few story missions. I’ve just unlocked the main “go off and have fun on your own” portion of the game, where it lets you pick the main story back up at your leisure. It’s also just opened up the ability to do co-op missions with friends, so I’m about to dive into the meat of it.

After going through the character select screen, I basically tried to make my guy look un-anime as possible. I was a little disappointed to find out that our protagonist is silent, but I’m starting to enjoy his ugly mug.

If you’ve played the first Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, you’ll know that a large part of the game is the expansive environments that feel alive. This is the Gaur Plains/Bionis’ Leg intro from that title:

The same thing exists in Xenoblade Chronicles X, but things have been enhanced due to a greater draw distance and detail that the WiiU can provide. To be honest, I’m not going to hide that the WiiU is very underpowered compared to the other consoles in its generation, but at the same time I haven’t experienced any major slowdown when viewing scenes like this:

Xenoblade also boasts a “if you can see it, you can go there” system, which I haven’t quite had a chance to explore yet. This kind of exploration is a huge contributor to my enjoyment of JRPGs, as Dragon Quest VIII has a similar system and I really enjoyed that game.

While I haven’t got any of the Gundams/Skells that the cover of the games boasts, travel has been great in the sense that you can sprint without any repercussions and jump around like Spider-man due to the (presumably) lower gravity of the planet Mira. This makes traversing around the map really fun, and the speed at which you can do it, combined with the awesome vistas, gives me a number of moments where the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

This article seems a little overly-praising so far, but while streaming there were a number of moments I noticed where I was genuinely grinning ear-to-ear. I know that sounds a bit corny, but I need to highlight how absolutely rare that is with AAA titles for me these days.

I feel like I’ve fallen out of a lot of mainstream games because they just do nothing for me. There’s no sense of wonder or catching me unaware: either I know pretty much what the game has to offer, or the premise doesn’t interest me to the point I’m cool about missing out.

However, Xenoblade Chronicles X surprised me because I expected some kind of trashy anime of a JRPG. The writing is surprisingly funny and sharp at times, and the voiced characters have a decent enough cast behind them that they aren’t reduced to blob stereotypes that you’d find in a hastily-translated English offering.

The character of Lin looks like someone I would dislike a lot in a video game. As a 26-year-old dude who isn’t a complete weeb, you’d have to forgive my first negative impression:

However, despite her being a huge ball of sometimes-annoying pep, her lines have been delivered in such a way that she seems to have way more personality than a typical demure little-sister stereotype. When I figured this out I was so happy to be wrong about my impression, because it means I wouldn’t be spending the game wishing she wasn’t there.

When you can immerse yourself in all of the game, it makes it so much better than clawing through parts you hate just to get to a part you actually want to play.

Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most is the massive amount of distractions that the game seems to have set up. Expanding the map requires finding sites to bury probes in, which in turn look to make hunting monsters and mining that much easier. As someone who loves the exploration/climbing sections the Assassin’s Creed franchise has you do to expand the map, I can see this inflating my play time considerably.

It looks like Monolith Software has set up for players to experience a “single player MMO” with a lot of side elements that involve other players in small ways, like contributing to daily rewards or co-op quests. As someone who doesn’t have enough time to dive into an MMO proper, I’m definitely excited to give Xenoblade a ton of my attention.

I’ll likely be doing a video about my thoughts on this game as I get deeper into it, but for now, I’ll be happy to experience more moments like finding this huge-ass monster. I just wonder how long it’ll be before I can take it down.


Matt Demers is a Toronto writer who enjoys eSports, hip-hop and tea. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Twitch.

Video Games

On the (possibly grim) future of Overwatch

Posted by Matt Demers on

Blizzard’s FPS title Overwatch is probably one of the most hyped titles this year due to a couple different factors:

  • Vibrant characters give personalities for players to gravitate towards
  • MOBA-like mechanics mean that there are cool things for players to do besides aim and shoot well
  • People saw the success that first movers on Hearthstone were able to get with streaming and eSports

Naturally, this led to a bit of a gold rush and disappointment when Blizzard first handed out closed beta keys. Targeting streamers and YouTubers, the focus on marketing left a bad taste in a lot of peoples’ mouths, but this past weekend Blizzard opened up a stress test to a larger amount of applicants.

While not everyone got in who wanted a key, I did.

Basically I spent five hours with a group of five other players in a Skype channel playing in a fully-stacked group. Here’s what I found:

Learning is easy

Blizzard has learned from the design of Team Fortress 2 in the sense that there are a lot of prompts to do things in order to limit the amount of learning that needs to be done beforehand and the information that needs to be remembered.

Routes to attack and defend are highlighted on the ground before the map starts, giving people a chance to see where enemies might come from. This is great when learning new maps, as you need to be able to move between points of interest at a moment’s notice. I found that playing as a Defender meant that I needed to go through all areas of the map from the initial spawn, giving me a chance to familiarize myself with where I’d eventually be falling back to.

Things like hovering icons on the UI let you know where important objectives are, and a flashing marker on respawn re-contextualizes where your current objective is as a gentle reminder. I liked this because the last thing I wanted to think was “what am I supposed to be doing right now?” when winning or losing the map could be on the line.

A quick hit of the F1 key also gave me a screen that showed me my key bindings and the skills assigned to them. This was great for learning new heroes easily; I also loved how when you died to a hero the game gave you tips on your death screen for beating them next time. Getting mowed down by a hero who could turn into a stationary turret prompted a reminder that that hero can’t turn 360 degrees, meaning he could be flanked.

The game also reminds you when your composition of heroes lacks a certain role, meaning that you (in theory) won’t be completely steamrolled because you won’t have a tank.

All in all this is really important from a design perspective, because Blizzard wants to be able to introduce new and casual players to a traditionally unforgiving gametype in an FPS. The last thing they want to happen is for someone to balk at the amount of learning to do when starting up, or dismissing a good opponent as “cheap” and not booting the game up again.

Teamwork is important

I probably had the best time with Overwatch due to the fact I was playing with five other competent FPS gamers. I cannot imagine the chaos of solo queue, and preferably, I never want to.

Being able to co-ordinate class balance is amazing, because I never ran into the Team Fortress 2 problem of five people wanting to play Sniper and no one claiming Medic. Sure, the opening few games were just people trying out a bunch of classes, but once people found their comfort zones we actually went on a fairly huge streak due to being organized.

Having at least one healer is so essential due to the length of spawn times and the travel time getting back to the main warzone. Tanks soak damage and often have valuable disruption abilities that let damage dealers or assassins to work. Even snipers have a role due to Widowmaker’s completely broken Infra-vision ultimate that lets you see a red outline of all alive opponents for a short time.

I can see this game being similar to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive where communication is essential, but for a different way. You need to be able to adapt to information on the fly and feed it to teammates who may not be in the know. Things like being the only one to notice that someone snuck behind us to capture the point directs the whole ship to success.

Like I said, I did not spend any time in solo queue, and sadly I ran into a friend as an opponent in a match who was doing so. We steamrolled them particularly badly, mostly because we could co-ordinate mass revives, pushes and defenses where they couldn’t.

Depth is needed

The one thing that worries me about Overwatch is that need to balance the new player’s experience with the ability to actually have long-term fun. Despite 21 heroes, I feel like there will be a tier list that develops soon enough, and optimization is a quick way to kill the experimentation that lengthens a game’s life.

I can hear it now: “Why did you pick Reaper when McCree is so much better? We would have won if you had picked Mercy, she’s so OP right now.”

I want to see more game types, more map designs that favor multiple approaches, and strategies that benefit from having a distinct hero composition. That’s the kind of depth you usually see from a MOBA like League of Legends or Dota 2: creative risk is rewarded.

Right now, I can see Overwatch running into a pitfall where as new heroes get released, they will either succumb to the same MOBA power creep problem (where old heroes are not adapted to new playstyles, and fall out of favor) or maps will become painfully exploited as new mechanics are introduced for which they were not originally designed.

In trying to combine a FPS base with MOBA elements, Blizzard may have introduced themselves to a combination of problems inherent to both genres, as well. I hope they have the talent on hand to recognize and fix those problems.


I had fun with Overwatch, but with a $40+ price tag without the promise of free map packs or modding tools, I don’t see myself investing into it as heavily as if it were free-to-play. I do not have faith in Blizzard to not charge high prices for new heroes like Heroes of the Storm, and I honestly don’t feel like grinding for access in order to have the fluid lineup you need for success.

Edit: I’ve been informed that Overwatch devs have said they won’t be pursuing a HotS-esque pricing model, and that they don’t want to restrict people’s access to the 21 heroes. However, the wording is very specific to the “original 21”, so the strategy when it comes to new heroes may change.

Seeing that stationary hero turret from before and realizing that I haven’t unlocked or paid for the hero that is his counter is going to suck. Seeing pubs or casual players being limited to a free hero rotation (invariably leading to very bland lineups) is also going to be a problem.

These are all assumptions, but I wish that there were more information to keep me from making them. As it stands right now, all I have to go on is previous business practices and the tendency for games to try to nickle-and-dime as much as possible for add-ons, even when you invest for the base product.

I hate even calling it a “base” product because I feel like I’m resigning to the fact that multiplayer games can’t just be games anymore; they have to be franchises and money-mills for their parent company. While some monetization methods are okay, they’re accepted because they make a relevant, “fair” trade-off: the game will be free with only cosmetics buyable, or essential stat-boosting elements won’t be accelerated by payment.

However, I’m really nervous Overwatch is going to just say “screw it, people are hyped enough for our game already, we’ll just do all the monetization and the majority won’t complain because we’re Blizzard.” Then people will buy it anyway in order to play with friends, fueling the perception that that kind of model is fine as long as you can weather initial outcry.

Gamers are impatient and their passions are fleeting. They’ll find something else to complain about by another company tomorrow.

Maybe this whole wrap-up has been a bit unfair to all parties involved. I’ll try to keep some optimism for Overwatch, because in the end, I’d like to enjoy it.


Matt Demers writes about eSports, gaming and culture. You can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, Facebook and YouTube. He writes a weekly newsletter about the above topics every Monday.

Video Games

Thoughts on Kero Blaster

Posted by Matt Demers on

One of the most beloved video games of all time is Cave Story, a labor of love by one Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya. Developed over the course of years, it was initially released for free, and eventually ported to consoles like the Nintendo 3DS and WiiU later.

Basically, if someone wants an example of a passion project that turned out amazing, you go to Cave Story. It’s pretty much the best freeware game of all time.

It took a while, but Pixel eventually released Kero Blaster, his next title, to a Western audience through a digital download, and on November 11, it hit Steam. I bought it, and beat it last night.

Fans of Cave Story will be happy to note that Kero Blaster is really similar to it. You jump, shoot and platform to kill enemies, complete stages and defeat bosses. Along the way you get money that can be used for permanent weapon and health upgrades; unlike Cave Story, you unlock four weapons as the game progresses, and each can be upgraded three times.

The game also differs in that it uses a traditional lives/Game Over system, which can be really unforgiving. Each hit you take docks you one heart from your meter, and you start out with two. After all your lives get expended, you start at the beginning of a level with all the money you collected still intact. To an extent, this means the game is grindable.

Unless Game Over-ing, you save your progress each time you enter a new room, and will spawn at the beginning if you die. The game mixes modern mechanics with challenge that I think gamers are looking for these days; Kero Blaster is unforgiving in Boss patterns, but it’s really rewarding when you clear it.

It’s not really the Dark Souls of platformers, nor is it just unfair like I Want To Be The Guy or Kaizo Mario levels.

Like Cave Story, the art style and the music are top notch. There’s a decent amount of exposition by characters that feel like they have personality despite minimal graphical complexity and chances to speak. It’s a fun, silly game that doesn’t have too much of a plot to it, but it doesn’t feel neglected.

Where Kero lacks is its length: you can beat this game in about 3 hours, including the grinding it may take to beat bosses. After finishing the game, you can open up a New Game+ mode with three collectibles to find in already-existing levels and a Boss Rush, but besides that the replay value will likely be taken up by Speedrunners or people looking to break the game.

For $10, this might be something that’s best left on your wishlist to wait for a sale, but supporting it means supporting one of the best philosophies in gaming: make something good, put your heart into what you make, don’t take your audience for granted and don’t be afraid to be weird. I’m cool supporting that in Pixel, because despite Kero Blaster not being revolutionary, the work he put into this and Cave Story (the latter over five years) seems worth rewarding.

Maybe that’s me mythologizing him a bit, but I think in this current age of gaming it’s healthy to examine that builds loyalty and how we respond to it. For me, Pixel’s story is one a lot of people can learn from, and his work ethic puts mine to shame.

Kero Blaster can be found on Steam or Playism. You can play a free demo called Pink Hour on Steam or Playism for a sampling of the mechanics.


Matt Demers writes about video games and eSports from Toronto, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter and Twitch.