I stopped watching Netflix’s Jessica Jones four episodes in. Don’t get me wrong: I like the show. Hell, I think the cast is phenomenal, but I was really frustrated by the inconsistent pacing. I had a number of trusted–not to mention bewildered–friends tell me that things really picked up in episodes five and six, but all I could think was I shouldn’t have to wait so long.
I tell you that story so I can tell you this story; the tent posts of Nintendo’s Wii U holiday lineup, Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival and Xenoblade Chronicles X, (though very different games) both make players wait, and sometimes even struggle, before revealing an excellent pay-off.
I came to Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival with a few fairly heavy preconceptions: that it was likely just a Mario Party clone, that it was another clever ruse by Nintendo to sell even more amiibo figures, and that my family would love it nonetheless. It turns out I was wrong–mostly.
Amiibo Festival takes the core tenets of Mario Party, specifically “play a virtual board game” and “no, now play this themed mini-game,” and divorces them. When you first load the game up your only real option is to scan in an amiibo–the game currently ships with two, siblings Isabelle and Digby–and begin your board game adventure.
Now, not every player needs and amiibo, but the current double character pack-in means that you and a friend, spouse, or child can both take full advantage of all this title has to offer right out of the box. Multiplayer supports up to four people, and those without easy access to a compatible amiibo can play the game as generic human villagers–which, my daughter discovered, can actually be manually renamed. (This is how our characters acquired such delightful monikers as “Twinkle Toes” and “Dookie.”)
While there’s some flexibility with the multiplayer allowing for two, three, or four real, live folks to play without padding the board with computer-controlled competition, single-player will only allow you to play against a full slate of three other AI Animal Crossers. But no matter the number or type of contestants, Amiibo Festival‘s board game plays out the same.
The ultimate goal is to collect the most Happy Points and Bells (that standard Animal Crossing currency). Of course, the latter is actually used at the end of the game to–you guessed it–buy more Happy Points. Game board spaces generally increase or decrease one or both values, with short animations playing out to explain a player’s wise investment, good luck, or poor planning that lead to such a windfall/loss.
Players roll virtual dice by passing around the Wii U GamePad, moving Game of Life-style around a board that, at times, branches off to allow for multiple paths. A single game lasts one month in “Animal Crossing time,” but you’re looking at about an hour of real-world time for a full four-player experience. Having fewer players can naturally shorten the game, but you can also set a timer if you’re concerned about lollygagging.
As the month progresses, familiar faces from the world of Animal Crossing show up to supplement gameplay. Crazy Redd makes regular appearances to sell cards that can affect special game spaces or be used to determine movement in place of rolling the die. Katrina, the fortune-telling cat, will pop up to tell you your future, thus increasing or decreasing the Happy Point and Bell values of the spaces, and there are regular holidays, seasonal activities, and fishing tournaments just like in the game proper–all of which exist to provide players additional opportunities to earn happiness and filthy lucre.
Sow Joan arrives every Sunday selling turnips, and the Stalk Market element–in which turnip values fluctuate daily, making for a volatile in-game economy–also arrives pretty much intact.
At the end of a month of play, points are tallied, and your happiest player wins. Experience garnered from wins can be saved to the corresponding amiibo, unlocking in-game outfits and emotes–things that, while likely not enticing to some, are perfectly tailored rewards for the Animal Crossing faithful. But that’s not the only progression.
After successfully completing your first play-through in the current calendar month, all twelve months open up, allowing for play in different holiday seasons and natural environments. Also shortly unlocked is a mini-game plaza, wherein compatible amiibo cards–there’s a trio of them packed in as well–are used to compete in madcap scenarios like attempting to safely land falling neighbors on a moving platform or rotate them to win a rock-paper-scissors style contest.
The common element here is placing and lifting amiibo (cards and figures) at the appropriate time for the appropriate result–be it rolling a die or completing a mini-game task–and that alone makes for a fun, cute, but fairly vanilla gameplay experience. The depth comes both from unlocking new elements, from outfits to mini-games, and in the great care with which the Animal Crossing property was translated into this new medium.
The sights, sounds, and lovable characters from your favorite AC games arrive in Amiibo Festival untainted by the jump to this new game type. This results in an experience that, rather than just feeling like a re-skinned Mario Party, comes across as another proper Animal Crossing experience–perfectly tailored to the hardcore fans it seeks to court.
Amiibo and amiibo card implementation also comes across as more inventive than gimmicky. They don’t appear tacked on as an afterthought; they instead feel like an integral part of the gameplay. All this combined makes for charming, slowly evolving virtual board game experience where the mini-games are a fun bonus as opposed to artificial padding to the core offering.
I did get one thing right in my pre-play analysis, though–the kids and I do indeed adore it!
Xenoblade Chronicles X, however, isn’t child’s play. While certainly not outright objectionable with regard to content, it does touch on some weighty topics, like war and political manipulation, that may hit a little close to home in this time of heightened terror alerts and pre-election year fervor. The ESRB rated this one T, and, while there is some minor swearing and innuendo, the big thrust of the title is combat. Lots of combat.
It’s likely impossible to look at the opening cinematic of Xenoblade Chronicles X–not to mention its later gameplay–and not see shades of Gundam or Robotech. In fact, its military sci-fi and space opera leanings are elements that help power the property forward, even as it gets bogged down in its own grand narrative.
Still, it sets the stage nicely–the Earth of old is caught in the middle of a war between two seemingly all-powerful alien civilizations. Even the human race’s escape plan, fleeing the crumbling planet in massive Arks, is hampered by these warring titans. The fleet is reduced to but a single craft, the White Whale, which lumbers across the cosmos only to crash-land on the distant planet of Mira.
The character creation phase that follows seems quaint when compared to that of contemporary standouts like Fallout 4, but it does allow for a fair amount of customization. Sadly, it also points out some of the game’s graphical shortcomings: specifically, the character models’ faces and hands, which are, if I may use a bit of technical jargon, butt-ugly.
Once your player character is rescued from stasis by Elma–the white-haired warrior who introduces you to BLADE (the military wing of the new ad hoc government), New LA (the human city that survived the wreck of the White Whale), and the mostly unexplored wilds of Mira itself–you get a clear picture of where XCX‘s visuals succeed. The landscape is alternately lush with alien flora and fauna or exquisitely textured in cold metal, but it is always expansive, and lives and breathes in the best way possible.
You’ll soon learn to love this new world, not to mention fear it, and in order to assure humankind’s continued success you’ll need to explore and map additional territory. Helping to expand the scope of FrontierNav, the system that gathers information about newly explored areas, will be a major part of the game early on–even if you choose a specialized BLADE division other than Pathfinder, to whom the job of deploying Data Probes ostensibly falls.
Each division comes with its own purpose and perk–Mediators are like cops with expanded combat prowess while Prospectors have high defense and collect natural resources–but no matter which you choose you’ll likely spend the first sizable chunk of gameplay getting the lay of the land, which is both useful for the novice player and tonic to the theme of human exploration. In your travels you’ll also encounter and be forced to subdue multiple massive, powerful life forms, Indigens, as well as equally massive, even more powerful iterations, Tyrants.
Combat with these creatures (as well as the more humanoid enemies you encounter as the story progresses) is via a real-time system of automatic and special attacks. You chose a foe and, depending on your exact weapon and whether it’s ranged or melee, your character will perform normal attacks at regular intervals. Along the way you’ll fill meters for your individual Arts, distinct attacks and buffs that can be set to and chosen from a vertical combat menu. Art attacks are powerful, but each requires cool-down time, meaning you’ll often find yourself sticking and jabbing as you await your next opportunity to unleash hell. Oh, and there are dialog-prompted quick-time events too–know in-game as the Soul Voice system–just in case you thought you’d be able to mindlessly waltz through all this alien carnage.
Among all this setting up of probes and Indigen combat, Xenoblade Chronicles X steadily ekes out new characters, new gear, and new plot hooks. Honestly, a number of them are pretty convoluted and many more seemed like your textbook Japanese sci-fi/fantasy tropes. The story here is dense and includes political intrigue, not-so-veiled questions about the morality of human expansion in an alien world, and the rigors of war. But it’s not so much the story XCX tells so much as the way it tells it.
The world of Mira is grand and organic and dangerous, and your character, with the help of his party members, will quest and level up and–if you’re anything like me–die frequently. It took me until around the four-hour mark to finally begin to figure out what I was really doing in Xenoblade, and even then I continued to get slapped around with some regularity. But along the way I began to piece together both the narrative and the strange, beautiful logic of Xenoblade Chronicles X.
First, I was in awe of the game world and its cleverly varied zones–and I finally learned how to navigate and use the GamePad’s persistent map to my advantage. Then I was taken in by the vast customization options available for my character and party–complete with weapons and armor and collectibles and a specialized Class system. And then came the Skells, massive mech suits that, though teased from the game’s earliest chapters, only become available after a couple dozen hours of proving your mettle among your fellow BLADE members.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a study in contrasts. It’s a big, open world game with a fairly linear (if meandering) story. It’s a frustrating mess of commands and tactics and punishing enemies that always somehow manages to let the player score a big, meaningful victory. It’s an epic, mature, monster of a tale told on this generation’s most unassuming console. Moreover, it’s a game that expects you to wait and struggle and scratch your head, even though it’s got all the time in the world.
All that adventure and otherworldly real estate come at a price, though, and that price is storage space. While downloadable copies of Xenoblade Chronicles X come with all this goodness baked right in, players of the disc version can (and should) download no fewer than four data packs–totaling around 10 GB in size–to cut down load times.
Sadly, none of those files seemed to make the in-game menu text any more legible. (Perhaps I need to download the “Embiggen Font Size” assets?!)
Let that be the big takeaway here: in this, perhaps the most JRPG-y JRPG of this generation with all its weird beats and blocky hands and seen-it-before backing cast, that’s my only real complaint. Things were hard to read from a comfortable distance away–both on my flat screen and in GamePad-only play.
Because the big ol’ world of Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t just teach you patience, it also teaches you irony… and forgiveness.
And to answer the question that’s been lingering for around 2000 words or so: yes, I went back and finished Jessica Jones. It was excellent. Did my stepping away from the show help or hurt my viewing experience? I don’t pretend to know–just like I can’t say that the slow start to Amiibo Festival or XCX genuinely contributed to my ultimate enjoyment of those titles.
What I do know is that the nights are getting longer and colder, and there’s never been a better time to have a rewarding, slow burn of a game in your console. And, for the first time in a while, Wii U owners have an undeniable wealth of new quality content to choose from.
Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America