The real time combat in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is quite the cinematic spectacle, thanks to that game’s impressive production values. But as the game itself soldiers on, the spectacle wears off. Eventually combat is just a formality. Battles in Final Fantasy XIII-2 are speed bumps between the cutscenes. Filler. Busywork that isn’t even much work. When combat is one of your primary ways of interacting with the world, you better get combat right. You hear that RPGs? You hear that Final Fantasy XIII-2? You hear that Skyrim?

After the jump, Xenoblade Chronicles hears that

At any given time, your party in Xenoblade Chronicles consists of your choice of three characters. During battles, you control one of them and the AI controls the other two. Characters each have an auto-attack, but they also have eight “arts”. These are spells, or active abilities they can use (the word “skills” is used for your character’s passive abilities). Each art is on its own cooldown timer. There is no mana. There are no potions.

Combat is real time and often very positional (i.e. some characters get specific bonuses for attacking from the side or behind, and some arts are based on an arc in front of the character, or an area of effect). The basic model here is the “holy trinity” from MMOs. A tank holds aggro and soaks up damage. A healer keeps the tank alive. A DPS actually does the work of killing the monster.

But that’s just the basic model. Xenoblade Chronicles gives each of your characters a variety of possible builds, with various ways to contribute to the “holy trinity”. Characters aren’t classes, such as warrior, cleric, and archer. They are instead themselves, each with various options for how they play and develop.

Like Guild Wars, a character equips eight arts at any given time, selected from a list that grows as he levels up. Each art can be upgraded, which is part of the longer-term character build. Reyn is your basic tank, but are you going to put your points into Reyn’s attacks, or his auras, or his aggro gathering abilities? And which ones? Will you improve them equally, or push deep to get a couple of them extremely powerful? Will you commit Reyn to a single build, or spread his points for flexibility?

The kernel of each character is a gameplay mechanic called a talent art. These are unique for each character, but they’re always portrayed as a big button that sits in the middle of your eight equipped arts. That button basically reminds you, hey, here’s your character’s unique power. These start out pretty simply with the core characters, who power their talent arts by fighting with their default auto attacks. For instance, as Shulk fights, he gradually lights up that central button. When it’s fully lit, you can press it to choose one of his special abilities. When Reyn’s central button is lit, he can activate it to draw aggro. When Fiora’s central button is lit, she can do a fancy butterfly attack.

But as you meet more characters, these talent arts get more tricky. The sniper character’s talent art is actually a limit. As she uses any of her eight equipped arts, which are things like attacks, buffs, and healing powers, the talent art button fills up. When it’s full, she has to vent heat from her gun, which means she’s vulnerable for a while. Basically, it’s an extended reload animation. As I’m playing her, I have to ask myself whether to push ahead with her powers, or whether to look for a safe opportunity to vent heat.

Right now, my favorite character is a magic user named Melia who can queue up to three elemental powers that will float over her head as colored orbs. These powers confer a passive bonus, but only within a certain radius. For instance, three wind elements will improve everyone’s agility, and therefore dodging skill, by 60%. So unlike the sniper character, she needs to stay close to the party. But the choice for Melia isn’t just which elements to queue up, because she can attack with her queued elements, flinging them at the enemy as magical attacks. If she flings enough of them, she’ll enter a focused state where her attacks do more damage. So playing her is a matter of deciding which elements to equip for which situations, and when to trade the passive bonus for an attack. And with the copy elemental art I’ve just unlocked, I can equip an element a second time without having to wait for its cooldown timer.

For a difficult battle, my opening move is a water element, followed by two wind elements. This is a cocktail of one part health regeneration followed by two parts agility boost. When it comes time to switch to the offensive, I fire off the two wind elements as area attacks. Then I leave the water element in place — I still want that health regeneration, especially if I don’t have anyone on healing duty — and either queue up a second water element for more healing, or a pair of lightning elements for a hard hitting attack against a single target. In all instances, she has to be very careful about drawing aggro, which is why Reyn is a natural companion.

In fact, Melia and Reyn are getting to be pretty close friends. In addition to upgrading your character’s arts, each character has a tree of passive skills. As the game progresses, you build relationships among your characters. Relationships are an important part of your character build, because as characters get close to each other, they open slots where they can equip each other’s passive skills. The affinity display, as it’s called, looks like a diplomacy chart in Civilization. Reyn and Shulk are fast friends. Shulk and Sharla are pretty cordial. But Reyn and Sharla are a bit standoffish at this point. If Sharla wants to avail herself of Reyn’s skill tree, and vice versa, they’re going to have to fight and quest together more often. Or at least exchange gifts.

Right now, Melia is on the verge of being close enough to Reyn that she can use one of his skills for extra hit points. If they get really close — and by really close, I mean whatever that smiling pink heart at the top of the chart indicates — Melia will be able to equip heavy armor. She can basically become a tank mage, thanks to her relationship with Reyn. That’s far more more interesting to me than a clumsily edited cutscene of a space marine having sex with a blue alien.

Of course, gear is an important part of character development. There isn’t a lot of fiddly gear in Xenoblade Chronicles. Instead, some instances of gear have slots where you can equip gems. This is where Xenoblade Chronicles gets crazy fiddly, and not just for the values you can tweak with gems. Gems are the product of the game’s ridiculously deep, drawn-out, addictive, and relationship-based crafting system, letting you build your characters further in specialized directions. For instance, since I managed to craft two powerful gems that improve electrical damage, I’ve put them on Melia’s staff, making her lightning elements among the hardest hitting attacks I’ve seen in the game. It’s a perfect storm of gameplay systems coming together in one shocking attack that does over 10,000 points of damage.

Tomorrow, Skittles penguin totoros
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