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had a blast with this. what it perhaps lacks in presentational polish, it more than makes up for with rough-hewn charm and what i think might just be the deepest, most satisfying combat i've ever encountered in a 2d platformer. sincerely implore people to try this one out, the demo is free so there's no excuse to sleep on it. really looking forward to the full release!
this 40 year old piece of software, made up of 4 kilobytes of code, is a better distillation of what makes explorative action games fun and intriguing than what you're likely to see from the vast majority of modern attempts at the genre. this has a built-in randomizer! an early slice of video game perfection.
The Wonderful 101
Taking notes from the Tokusatsu flavor of Japanese capeshit, Hideki Kamiya didn’t just want to blow the roof off of his last superhero game, he wanted to blast a hole in the ozone layer and cruise on the border the farthest reaches of the cosmos. He’s never been content with just shooting for the stars, but this title more than any other feels like the truest expression of what he’s wanted to achieve with his games. Having a massive team of action game legends and publisher money from Nintendo all but ensured that the final product would come out with a Platinum-like sheen of creative polish, but as far as I can tell, The Wonderful 101 still managed to impress almost anyone who gave it the time of day in a way nobody was really expecting. There’s a reason the game is still, generally speaking, regarded as one of the highlights of the Wii U. In 2020, it even managed to conjure over $1.5 million in an effort to port it to modern platforms, absolutely crushing the goals set by its Kickstarter.
Naturally, it crashed and burned on release.
The game bombed hard. I don’t envy the position of trying to market the damn thing to general consumers, but on top of the comparatively-niche appeal of the action genre and an aesthetic that repulsed many who laid eyes on it, The Wonderful 101 also didn’t make the experience of getting into it very easy. It wasn’t universally panned by critics or anything - in fact it reviewed pretty well considering how low its sales were - but it’s fair to say most people didn’t get it. Speaking personally, it took me multiple attempts on two different platforms to get past the on-ramp, and even beyond that point it took some time to really click with me.
It’s a real shame having so many of its players bounce off the experience before they can even experience a fraction of what it had to offer, but I almost don’t blame them, at least in retrospect. It's a title that gives out what you put in, possibly more than any other game I’ve ever played. Not everyone is gonna be willing to sit down and give something this mechanically-abrasive a chance, especially if it wears the façade of being nothing but a kid friendly Nintendo romp. Late-teens dudebros aren’t gonna give it their attention, and It probably isn’t a game for grandma either, I get it. Having said that, I don't want this piece to scare anyone off from the game, far from it. If you’ve read this far you surely care about or are interested in the game in some regard (or have played the game before, in which case this specific passage isn’t super important (or just like
hearing reading what I have to say ❤)), so if you haven’t closed the tab yet, hear me out:
I don’t generally like picking my absolute favorite things, it's way easier to just provide a list of things I love than to comfortably settle down with one thing, but this is kinda the exception. Without question, if you asked me what my favorite game is, the answer would be an easy one. The Wonderful 101 has it all for me: a colorful cast of characters, a gameplay loop I can’t find anywhere else, indulgent yet tasteful callbacks to the history of the medium of games, a heartfelt story, a campaign that never loses its luster, and a finale I can only describe as legendary. It’s the complete package. Some games may do individual things better, but no game does it all with quite as much fanfare. I unabashedly love it, and I want as many people as possible to give it a fair chance (or two), just as I did. The best things in life don’t come without hardships, after all.
Video games, especially those in 3D spaces, have often struggled to consistently convey critical information to the player when it's most often needed, and it's easy to see why. How do you give the player enough time to react to something coming into frame in a fast paced platformer or a racer? How do you differentiate a hole in the ground from being a safe drop or an instant death trap? Many potential issues can be alleviated through smart signposting and subtle signals to the player, but it feels like action games in particular have struggled with cameras more than most genres. All too often it's extremely challenging to keep everything in focus with multiple enemies on your ass while grinding against the terrain to navigate the field, and that's before you take into account a camera that might not play nicely with the level geometry and act in unpredictable ways. Thankfully, this isn’t an unsolved issue in certain corners of the genre.
Kamiya has proven time and time again that he knows how to create encounters that feel simultaneously frantic yet completely fair, and while his most consistent quality in this regard is his ability to design a large pool of enemies with extremely clear audio and visual tells, he also employs subtle tricks in all of his games to hold the combat together. Devil May Cry makes the level geometry transparent if it obfuscates the player's view of the action, Viewtiful Joe simplifies the chaos by playing on a 2D plane like an old-school beat-em-up while still keeping the intricacies of a fully fleshed out action game, and Bayonetta prevents most enemies from being able to attack from beyond the camera's point of view. All of these systems go a long way towards addressing potential issues with focusing on everything at once, but for my money, no game has presented a solution as bold and creative as the one found in The Wonderful 101.
Locking the camera to an isometric perspective is one of the game's many design decisions that not only keeps the action legible at all times amidst the madness, but threads every element of gameplay together seamlessly while calling into question many of the standards set by games made before and after it, though I'm getting a little ahead of myself. As I mentioned before, action games are quick to become tense scrambles where you can not only lose mental control of the field, but literally struggle to control the camera and your character in the heat of the moment. Even in Bayonetta, a game I adore for the way it handles enemies in relation to its camera system, it's still very possible for it to get caught on a random part of the level and disorient the player. Given the chaos on screen in 101, it could have been extremely easy for this issue to rear its ugly head again, but thanks to the camera this is almost never an issue. Since you don't have to put physical and mental attention on camera control, it frees up the body and mind to focus on every other part of the game at once, so long as you have the fortitude to get past the initial hurdle of learning the mechanics and understanding how to read the field (a task that doesn’t take an entire playthrough to accomplish like some may have have led on).
At an initial glance the game might be hard to read, but upon further inspection you’ll quickly realize that the bright colors and zany designs only exist to assist the readability of moment-to-moment encounters, everything stands out against each other and the environments so well that you’ll never find yourself wondering what's going on once you know what you’re looking at. What may first be perceived as an overly-busy aesthetic that only exists to appeal to a younger demographic quickly justifies itself as an essential part of the play experience. It's a very freeing feeling to have such a common issue in the medium disappear so elegantly here, and while I’m not saying all cameras need to copy The Wonderful 101, any mediocre camera system stands out to me way more now that I’ve seen what can happen if you play with conventions even just a little bit.
This would probably be nothing more than a cool quirk if the action didn’t keep you on your toes, so thankfully the amazing enemy design keeps the game from ever feeling too bland. Nearly every member of the game's massive roster of enemies and bosses plays with arena control in interesting ways and almost always asks the player to juggle multiple conflicting tasks at once, something I crave in games such as this. For instance, you may have your focus on a tank that goes down quickly to a slow, heavy weapon, but other enemies might be quick enough to get hits in while you’re trying to take down a massive threat (it sounds simple, but exemplary enemy design isn’t the standard in action games it really should be).The top-down view also gives some breathing room for the level designers to make the arenas themselves treacherous in creative ways, helping to create encounters where even fighting basic mobs can be a stressful task. Very few encounters lose their appeal for me as a result, and for a title that runs far longer than the average action game, that's no small feat.
These factors individually are more than enough to set the combat way beyond the quality of most action games, and there are plenty of tertiary elements to the experience that make the campaign one of the best in the entire medium (way more than what I could reasonably fit into the scope of this review), but in my eyes, the golden thread that truly unites every element together beautifully and morphs the game into a masterpiece of action game design for me is the Wonder Liner.
Weapon switching is one of those mechanics that is always appreciated in an action game, but seldom implemented in a way that does anything more than give the player more tools to fight with. That last point might sound like an odd criticism to make, especially since we’ve seen what can happen if action games don’t implement some form of instant weapon switching, but it’s generally not something that’s interesting to execute on its own. While I wouldn’t say it dumbs down action games that utilize this system - the skill required to play them usually falls on decision making more than executing the moves themselves after all - it’s just an element to the genre that hasn’t seen much questioning or evolution since it started to make its way into titles that necessitated it. The act of switching itself doesn’t add nuance to a game, ”...it simply prohibits one set of moves, and enables a different set of moves.”. Rather than just settling on a button to cycle weapons, 101 takes a more creative approach.
Your squad of 100 Wonderful Ones is not just flooding the screen to flex the technical ability of a game console that was outdated before it even hit shelves, but is a key element to combat. They aren't just there to facilitate your massive arsenal of weapons, they are your arsenal of weapons.
Using the right analog stick, you draw out commands that signal your team to morph into different massive weapons, whether it be a circle for a fist, a straight line for a sword, or a squiggly line for a whip. It's like if you did a QCF motion in Street Fighter but instead of throwing out a hadouken, Ryu pulled out a gun. They really get creative with your arsenal and I’d hate to spoil it all here, but every weapon manages to not only fill out an interesting tactical role in combat, but also feels completely different to use as a result of the drawing system. This is already a lot to wrap your head around on your first playthrough, and this is before you consider what implications every other mechanic has on this one. If the game had the exact same combat mechanics with a traditional camera system, it wouldn't really work without further disconnecting the liner from the game world in some way (drawing on the lens of the camera or specific flat parts of the environment are common ways of addressing drawing mechanics in other games). It’s possible another system could also work here, but what I love about the solution presented in The Wonderful 101 is that it ties these otherworldly mechanics directly into the game seamlessly. You aren't just issuing vague commands for your team to follow, you're literally drawing out the shapes with a chain made of your heroes.
Even past the surface level details that the game absolutely excels at, this has massive ramifications on the flow of combat. Because the liner is a literal object in the world of the game, it's possible for enemy encounters to directly challenge your ability to draw each shape with efficiency. In a vacuum you may be good at drawing guns and hammers, but can you do it quickly in the heat of the moment? Or if a spiked enemy is blocking your path, can you draw the whip consistently in a different direction to not lose your team members? In a game like Devil May Cry it can feel like action and evasion are totally separate pieces of the combat, as it’s way easier to take your turn and juggle an enemy into oblivion, but not here. Enemies and stage hazards aren't just obstacles in moments of defense while you catch your bearings, but also during offense while you frantically try to get out different weapons and keep your advantage. Launching and comboing a stunned enemy is also a pretty involved task here, requiring a special stun state and your own ability to swap around weapons quickly, so unless you have a really strong grasp of the game you probably won’t be in a spot where danger is more than just a few feet away. It’s some really brilliant stuff.
Understandably, this is where The Wonderful 101 lost a lot of players. It asks so much of the player at the start compared to its contemporaries, but speaking personally for a second, pushing past the hump and "getting it" was easily one of the most satisfying feelings I've had in any game. If you keep at it and don't let losses discourage you, eventually you'll reach a level of mastery where you don't even have to think about how you'll be able to get the shapes out. It's very similar to the learning experience of learning a fighting game character's moveset, different motions may feel alien at first, but give it some practice and it'll quickly become 2nd nature. That may be why I was willing to stick with the system and give the game a chance - I'm not exactly a stranger to fighting games - but I don't believe the genre is required reading to enjoy this game on any level. After all, it probably has the most forgiving continue system I've ever seen (arguably to a fault in some regards) so you'll never find yourself grazing up against an insurmountable challenge on your first playthrough like you might in a different action game. The story is also just an absolute blast, so even if you haven't found your sea legs yet with the controls, you'll surely forget about any bumps in the road after you slice through a skyscraper that's just been thrown at you with a sword made out of human beings, or picked up a giant [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] everything around you only to see a massive [REDACTED] open up in [REDACTED].
Now, in any game with ambitions as lofty as those found in The Wonderful 101, cracks are bound to show eventually. There are plenty of tiny criticisms I've accrued after two years of playing the game (A few that have jumped out to me being that it doesn’t mix as many enemy types in combat as I’d like, or how you aren’t able to utilize motion inputs like stinger and rising into multi-unite) but nothing that outright ruined the game for me. Having said that, the thing that leaves me scratching my head the most is the progression system.
A pervasive thought I see in discussion around the game is that your toolkit at the start feels extremely limited compared to other action protags. There’s a few reasons why this could be (not least of which being the need to gradually ease players into its systems at the start without overwhelming them too much) but I will concede that it makes starting a new save after unlocking everything a bit more frustrating than it needs to be. While I appreciate how insane it is that every single Wonderful One levels up individually while still contributing to one massive level up system, it takes far too long to unlock certain key abilities that would show off the combat's potential far more quickly. There's really no reason why you shouldn't be able to buy key moves like stinger, rising, and cyclone with O-Parts and Wonderful Credit Cards, or god forbid offer a cheat code to level up your squad to unlock other upgrades sooner on subsequent save files. It doesn't help that this bizarre progression system is tied to a game where every weapon is so limited on its own, relatively speaking. Even just compared to Kamiya's last big action game Bayonetta, dial combos have been completely removed leaving just one main combo and a few extra moves for each of the game's massive spread of weapons (the whole experience of the game justifies this I feel, but on paper it really does seem rather limiting).
Beyond the design of the base game itself, the remaster on modern systems has also seen some bizarre changes and frustrating bugs, but despite what a certain Nintendo-adjacent YouTuber who didn’t play more than 30 minutes of the game would tell you, these actually have nothing to do with the peripheral you use to control the game. Some genuinely great changes like further tutorializaion on your basic block and dodge are nearly canceled out by old standard moves requiring an unlock, specific enemy interactions not getting fixed from the original game or getting messed up in the new version, and a massive list of bugs and glitches that keeps growing by the patch with official support that feels deafeningly silent at the moment. I’d still recommend the remaster over the Wii U version for the boost in performance alone, but for the past two years it’s been exceedingly frustrating to tack a “but” to many of my statements while recommending it to certain people. Even though many of its biggest issues aren’t something a new player will experience on a first playthrough, it’s still something that’s hard for me to ignore when discussing the game.
I don’t care. Despite every issue I’ve mentioned or omitted, despite how weird of a thing it is to get into, and despite knowing deep down in my greasy heart that this isn’t something that everyone will be able to latch onto, I just don’t care. I love this too much to care. Everything comes together to make an experience so impactful that those small hardships feel like they were never there to begin with. The mini-games act simultaneously as cute callbacks to other games as well as being genuinely fun little skill checks in their own right, it’s still one of the funniest games out there from the written jokes to the visual gags throughout the game, it has the greatest quick-time event of all time with no contest, even the story feels really sharp and thoughtful. It really is the ultimate “greater than the sum of its parts” affair to me. You have no idea how refreshing it is to play something as full of life as this when the actual world we’re currently living in just feels like a shithole nightmare that exclusively beats down on those forced to participate. It truly feels like this game has more love for the joys of life than any other. It feels like it actually loves itself. And that's what it’s all about, right?
If The Wonderful 101 has taught me anything, it’s that it takes teamwork and perseverance to push through hardships in life. You never know what will be thrown your way, how you’ll push through it, or who you’ll have to push through with. But with the combined forces of everyone’s strength, it genuinely feels like even the impossible is possible. It’s not just about closing your eyes to the darkness and looking back to your childhood where you could ignore the evils of the world, it’s about learning how to grow together and push beyond what holds us back, both collectively and individually. Sometimes it will be difficult, and it may be hard to want to keep going, but it’ll be worth it in the end. It’s all about seeing the good in life and lifting up those around us so they can do the same. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of that.
Having to micromanage 6 characters in real-time with no way to pause or slow down combat (outside of chain attacks) makes Xenoblade 3 one of the most chaotic and execution-heavy JRPGs I've ever played! Pair that with a strong emphasis on spacing/positioning, and Xeno3 easily has the BEST combat system in the series.
However, there are 3 massive design flaws that hold it back from being truly great instead of just relatively better than other JRPGs.
First is its poor implementation of cooldown combat -- most games that rely entirely on cooldowns are built so that playing efficiently means spamming every ability as frequently as possible. Every second an ability is spent off of cooldown is a second of wasted healing or damage.
Basically, cooldowns reduce combat from a series of tactical decisions to a rigid 'schedule' of button presses, hitting every attack at set intervals to maximize effectiveness.
The only way to make these systems engaging is to create situations where the player is encouraged to withhold their abilities, calculating risk/reward and waiting for the perfect opportunity instead of turning everything into a spam fest. This can be accomplished through enemies that try to disrupt your rotation with their attacks (raid bosses), stringent resource management (mp/stamina/whatever), or situationally useful abilities (extra effective when the right conditions are set).
Apart from a handful of conditional abilities, Xeno3 doesn't really do this. In fact, since the most powerful super attacks in the game are fueled by the number of abilities you use, the player is actively rewarded for constant cooldown rotations instead of deliberate decision making. You want to activate interlinks/chain attacks/talents as frequently as possible? Just spam, dude.
Most enemies can't even interrupt your attacks, so you don't have to worry about waiting for an opening before commiting to an animation ie. Monster Hunter.
It doesn't matter what class or flavor of dps you're using, whether you're a hammer wielding heavy hitter, a long-range gunslinger, a crit-based dual wielder, a bleed-based archer, a buffing healer -- you're hitting all your cooldowns as fast as you can.
The second design flaw is the godawful party a.i. that is constantly ignoring your orders, running into enemies' attacks, or placing their buffs where no one can use them. The game gives you tools to micromanage your party members, but there's only so much you can do when they randomly disobey orders like using the opposite status effect you tell them to use or randomly repositioning themselves away from where you placed them.
I imagine some of this can be fixed in upcoming patches, but I doubt Monolith can totally redesign the A.I. so they're not constantly sabotaging you. At least, not without some sort of customizable flowchart akin to FFXII or Deadfire.
The third and arguably most damaging flaw is the chain attack. This powerful super move forms the cornerstone of your strategy, letting your team safely dish out millions of points of damage, fully heal your party, and even apply status effects to enemies without fear of retaliation.
Anyone familiar with XB1 or 2 will have a decent understanding of how it works: time pauses and you will get to pick one of 3 randomly selected party members to provide a passive bonus to the chain attack (damage penetration/ aggro resets/ stat buffs/ etc.) Afterwards, every party member gets to use one attack against their target, with each attack filling an on-screen gauge.
Once the gauge is full, the character chosen for their passive bonus unleashes a powerful super attack and the chain attack starts a new round where you pick a new passive bonus and some characters are given a chance to attack again. If done properly, an efficient strategy will let you go 5 rounds in a single chain attack!
There are all sorts of secondary rules where the class of a character affects the rate at which the chain attack gauge fills, and how your optional hero characters have their own perks, or how overfilling the gauge lets more characters attack each turn… I'll admit, learning this mechanic is pretty tricky and took several hours for me to form a consistent strategy. So why is it bad???
Problem is, chain attacks RUIN the flow of combat by replacing the real-time chaos with a turn-based minigame where you spend most of your time watching flashy cutscenes.
As I said, the minigame has a lot of convoluted rules that dictate the length and effectiveness of the attack, but once you settle on a good strategy, it's just a matter of running through the motions, mindlessly picking the optimal attacks every chain attack. It quickly devolves into 'pick the same attacks in the same order you always do, watch 2 minutes of cutscenes as you wail on a defenseless enemy.'
In fact, there are some fights where the majority of an encounter is spent watching chain attack cutscenes, making me question the point of combat in the first place! For many boss fights, I feel like I'm just buying time until I can use my chain attack to chunk 40-80% of their health bar. Xenoblade's biggest strength is that it plays out in real-time! If I wanted to pause time and slowly micromanage, there are much better alternatives!
These flaws have been around since the first Xenoblade released 10 years ago. And every time Monolith makes a new entry, they come up with a bunch of convoluted combat gimmicks instead of fixing the series' shaky foundation. After XB 1 introduced Chain Attacks, later entries had Overdrives, Elemental Combos, Fusion Combos, Interlinks, Fusion Arts, Field Abilities, etc. etc.
Learning these systems is fun at first, but once you understand how they work, it's obvious that these mechanics have one or two optimal strategies that are repeated ad nauseum through hundreds of samey, repetitive battles.
Monolith is making the combat flowchart longer and longer but they aren't changing the fact that it's still a flowchart.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge Xenoblade 3's deep character customization, combining Final Fantasy 5's mix and match job system with the customizable movesets and game-changing armor that Xenoblade is known for. For people with a min-maxing mindset, you could argue that customization is the REAL game and the combat encounters are just an excuse to test out new builds.
And you know what? I can totally see that argument. Xenoblade's emphasis on optimizing numbers isn't that different from the efficiency simulators/machine building seen in city builders/tower defense/programming puzzlers.
The big difference is that these games don't make you sit through the boring stuff. In games like Monster Train or Opus Magnum or Cities: Skylines you make some decisions, speed up time, then see the results of your actions, tweaking your build based on feedback. If combat is just a means to an end, then there's no reason for me to sit through dozens of hours of it when I'm just here for the number crunching.
Despite my complaints, I still enjoyed the game in the same way I enjoyed most jrpgs, begrudgingly pushing through hours of samey combat just so I can enjoy the narrative, party customization, and beautiful presentation. I don't consider it to be peak fiction, but Xenoblade 3 hits some emotional and thematic high points that match some of my favorite PS1 jrpgs, easily cementing it as 'one of the best in the genre.'
I'm just tired and burnt out on a genre that sucks up so much of my time for no good reason. A genre where the majority of the runtime is wasted on deeply flawed combat systems that are rarely engaging. Maybe the upcoming dlc will introduce some tricky boss fights or give some QOL updates that speed up chain attacks! But for now it's a 7 for me! I hope one day I can return to this and give it something higher.
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