Needlessly Obtuse Game Design

Recently, I’ve been playing Monolith Soft’s sprawling, shiny new JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on my much-adored Switch. As a long-standing lover of the genre, I have largely enjoyed my quest to reach Elysium thus far.

The combat, for instance, is fantastic. It’s similar to Final Fantasy XV‘s stellar action-RPG system, but with a much-appreciated dose of added depth. The world is also gorgeous, dense and constantly surprising. So far, so good, right?

However, much to my disappointment, I haven’t found myself able to love it in the way that I’d hoped I would. This can be put down solely to what may be politely referred to as a host of ‘game design quirks’. Alternatively, if we were to be somewhat more realistic, the correct phraseology would simply be ‘god-awful game design’.

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All Mapped Out

The first thing to address, as it is  the most painful to my mind, is the frankly atrocious navigation. I’m just going to come out and say it – the map system is laughable. Originally consisting of a near-microscopic minimap, a patch has added the ability to blow it up to a hideous in-game overlay. Yay?

While this satisfactorily serves as a rough guide for direction, it is completely lacking in any form of detail. There is no clear indication of elevation for higher paths, for example. When the radar informs you that a marker is above your current height, and expects you to figure out how to reach that altitude on your own, this is less than helpful. The game is impressively vertical, but the map system doesn’t accommodate for that.

Quests are thankfully marked, and differentiated in colour between side and main quests. But important points of interest such as shops and inns are all marked as unlabelled pale blue dots. You can’t set waypoints, but even if you could, they would be no use when you don’t know what the thing you’re being pointed to is.

Shop ‘Til You Drop Dead

So, any time you wish to go shopping, a frustrating search awaits you. You will have no choice other than to desperately hunt for the market stall you want amidst a sea of market stalls. When the distinctions between what each of them offers is also fairly unclear, it can all seem pretty hopeless.

There is also no way to access the location of a quest from the quests menu. This forces you to scour your ugly-as-sin map overlay for the marker in question. But the possibility that it might not even be in your current area is always there.

If that’s the case, you will then be forced to open up the ‘Skip Travel’ menu. Once there, you must manually comb through the numerous separate map areas, searching for your desired marker. It’s downright painful.

To make matters somehow worse, quests markers frequently overlap on the radar. So if you’re headed towards a main quest and then an available side quest becomes in-range, and is in approximately the same direction, good luck trying to figure out which is which.

When one of the main elements of the genre is exploration, poor resources to aid in doing just that are unforgivable. Several times I have been dangerously close to quitting, after spending a good ten minutes poring over the indecipherable, unnecessarily baffling maps, desperately trying to figure out where the hell it is that I’m meant to be going.

“Everyone’s getting fired up!!!”

Another regular annoyance is repeated phrases in combat. While overall the English dub for the game is actually surprisingly good, this age-old JRPG quirk is one thing about the game that I hate.

Even where I am now at just 10 hours in, the repetition has already started to grate. You can realistically expect to hear the same lines of dialogue at least ten times in a long battle, but probably more. And when some of them place at the top end of the cringe meter, it soon becomes utterly hair-tearing. I can only hear the words “We’ll win, through the power of friendship!!!” so many times before wanting to bash my head against a wall.

Yet another thing which makes absolutely no sense relates to the Affinity Charts. These allow members of your party to automatically unlock stat buffs and such by achieving strong affinity with them. It’s a great idea, and a strong incentive to build your fighting relationship with each character.

However, in order for these buffs to take effect, you have to check the Affinity Chart menu for each individual character. This is buried under several other menus, and since they unlock fairly regularly, you have to check them constantly. If this sounds like a good recipe for copious amounts of frustration, that’s because it is.

It’s a terrible shame, because I really did want to love Xenoblade Chronicles 2. And all of the flaws aside, underneath lies one of the deepest and most engaging RPGs I’ve ever played. But the fact remains that these are issues that simply should not exist in 2017.

If you still want to try Xenoblade Chronicles 2, pick it up here.

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