Western RPGs can learn a lot from Xenoblade Chronicles

I know I'm going to catch flak for this, but I am not a fan of Dragon Age: Inquisition. As someone who enjoyed the focused, more personal tale of Dragon Age 2, I feel like Inquisition made a hard left over-correcting 2's biggest flaws. Inquisition features big, open spaces to roam and countless side quests, each one rewarding you with a few experience points and some new items to help you on your way. The citizens of Thedas are bizarrely incompetent, relying on the Inquisitor to help them slay bandits or gather herbs. Sure, it makes sense that the Inquisitor's probably the best person to ask if you need a dragon killed, but to wrangle a druffalo back to a cattle herd's ranch? Twice? Please, the entire world hangs in the balance here. I have better things to do.

There's a meaningful story to discover and fantastic characters to interact with but they're surrounded by hours upon hours of busywork, all in the name of filling the game up with content. For some, this abundance of Things To Do was a godsend, an embarrassment of lore-filled riches to slowly chip away at for hours on end. For me, I couldn't wait for it to be over.

Contrast this with the dozens of hours I've spent enjoying the hell out of Xenoblade Chronicles. Interestingly enough, it features many of the same mechanics and gameplay decisions that Dragon Age does. It's literally set on the shoulders of giants, as you and your crew live on and explore the dead gods Bionis and Mechonis, and their massive bodies host vast caverns, wide rolling fields, deadly swamps, and more. In addition to the main story, there are hundreds of additional quests to pursue, most of them not much deeper than 'go here, kill these monsters, and collect these items'. And yet, where Dragon Age: Inquisition was a total bore, I'm absolutely enamored with Xenoblade's world, and can't wait to discover more. So why is this the case?

A lot of this has to do with how Japanese and Western RPGs build and maintain momentum. JRPGs are all about focused linearity, sometimes to a fault (see Final Fantasy 13's one-way corridors for a prime example). The story takes precedence above all; I mean, there's usually some evil sorcerer or some other villain trying to find a mysterious artifact and blow up the entire world, so it makes sense that you wouldn't likely seek out and explore every single kobold cavern you come across. Sometimes there are side quests, but for the most part, you're ushered by the story from location to location, occasionally backtracking as the narrative permits.

Western RPGs, on the other hand, value freedom of choice above all. You get to decide what to do, where to go, and how to do it. You can specialize in magic, or swords, or bows and arrows, you get to design how your character looks, and you become the ultimate arbiter about how the story progresses. Because of this, the overarching plotline takes a back seat to the moment-to-moment thrill of discovery. Games like Skyrim or Dragon Age are less about finding and hunting down the ultimate evil (though their presence informs most of your play), but rather about carving your own path to the endgame. Many times that means ditching the plot completely and simply wandering the landscape, helping random passersby with their problems.

These structures directly influence how a game in each genre is paced. Since JRPGs are all about forward momentum, they don't concern themselves with things like inventory management or encumberance. Who cares if you're carrying 99 potions and 27 different swords? Just keep plowing through the story. Western RPGs focus on choice and personal character development, so they tend to adhere more rigidly to realistic constraints. Inventory's full? Gotta truck back to town and sell your unwanted gear, maybe check in with your team or the local tavern for more quests while you're there.

This is where Dragon Age: Inquisition falters. A typical play session goes something like this: Start off in Skyhold. Check on your War Table, receive the rewards you've earned from your last actions there, and set up your followers with additional tasks. Talk to your party members (who are, of course, spread out across the castle). Sell off any unnecessary equipment. Fast travel to a location. Talk to a quest giver. Go out and kill X Y's for them. Trudge back (or fast travel) and turn in the quest. Oh, your advisor at the War Table's finished with their mission, so head back to Skyhold and get your reward. Might as well sell off some stuff so your meager inventory doesn't fill up… And so on.

Dragon Age: Inquisition kills off all sense of forward momentum by constantly forcing you to backtrack to places you've already visited and people you've already talked to. Want to swap out your party or refill your potions? Schlep back to camp. Want to sell your junk? Head back to town. Turn in a quest? Find the person you talked to. And since the game is filled with so many side quests, hidden caverns, and other distractions, that means there are an equal amount of times for it to derail you from finding those things by filling the rest of your time with unnecessary busywork just to get to the good stuff.

Xenoblade Chronicles, on the other hand, is a damn near perfect fusion of Japanese and Western RPG. You've got the linear drive provided by the narrative, as you head to each hotspot on the map to unlock the next cutscene, but you also have the wide-open spaces and sense of wanderlust provided by the best Western RPGs. And it melds these two things together seamlessly by cutting out all the bullshit.

Your inventory, while not an infinite bag of holding like most JRPGs, can go an awful long time before it ever gets to a point where you need to directly manage it and sell off your junk. Many side quests are provided en masse by various citizens, as opposed to being dished out one at a time as you turn them in. And speaking of 'turning them in', you don't have to. 90% of the time, if you kill all the required monsters or collect the needed items, the quest is completed and you get your reward instantly.

It's astounding what that simple change does for Xenoblade's overall pacing. Now, instead of hustling out into the fields to kill enemies, then hustling back to town to let them know the deed is done, you can just keep hunting. Loading up on quests is now much more palatable, because there's no stopping at any point. Simply continue doing what you normally would do (that is, murder basically every single beast that looks at you funny), and you get rewarded for it. It may not make a lick of sense as to how they're able to wire your reward to you (maybe Bionis has some kind of credit union that offers electronic bank transfers?), but it doesn't matter when it exponentially improves the game's flow.

And in those rare times when you do have to go back and talk to someone to continue a quest? Load times are virtually non-existent, fast travel points are everywhere, and you can change the time of day at will, instantaneously. Xenoblade rewards exploration and completing quests by giving you more time to explore and complete quests, and it's exhilarating how much this simple change vastly improves the overall experience.

That doesn't mean that Xenoblade and other JRPGs are flawless exemplars of the genre. I'd much rather listen to Cassandra and Sera's banter or hear the war stories of Iron Bull over the grating shout of "It's Reyn time!" for the umpteenth time. The stellar writing and well-written, deep characters of Dragon Age: Inquisition should be held as a gold standard for the genre going forward, and JRPGs would do well to look to them instead of developing yet another amnesiac 16-year-old protagonist with a chip on his shoulder. But while it's all well and good to have characters you want to spend time with, they should be an accompaniment to an already stellar and well-paced experience, not the reward for having to sift through hours of trudgery.

While so many things in Dragon Age: Inquisition fight for your attention and pull you out of your adventure so you can tend to a million different matters, Xenoblade Chronicles simply wants you to go forth and explore. By stripping away all of the layers of detritus that have built up in the genre over the years, Xenoblade can have its cake and eat it too, throwing rote fetch and kill quests at you while still allowing you to live in the moment and maintain a breathtaking sense of forward momentum. It's a wonder more RPGs, Japanese and Western alike, haven't copied many of its ideas wholesale. They totally should.

David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.