Played it: NeverDead

NeverDead is a game with enormous potential, but which manages to flub pretty much every one of its selling points and remain struggling to escape mediocrity.

The promise of playing as an immortal character who remains in control of his severed body-parts is alluring, but in practice the game is frustrating even on its easiest difficulty setting. You spend too much time gathering together your disparate bits only to lose them again right away, all while menaced by a breed of annoying, endlessly respawning monster that is more than capable of inflicting you with a game over screen.

The setting is an intriguing Japanese fantasy world that has progressed from spiky-haired heroes to sleazy corporate commercialism, but we never find out much about it beyond the fact that getting anywhere requires killing an undisclosed number of demons to banish various force fields.

And the characters are fun and likeable, if archetypal, but used for little more than cheap laughs and obvious melodrama. Anti-hero Bryce in particular is refreshingly depicted as quite the underdog, but the few attempts to capitalise on any sympathy we may have for him fall rather flat.

NeverDead is certainly far from a bad game, but in a way it's almost more disappointing than that: the seed of a cult hit that instead grew into something improbably unremarkable.


Played it: Xenoblade Chronicles

It's taken me almost a year to get through Xenoblade Chronicles, completing the better part of its over 400 side quests and fully rebuilding a ruined city. There are still a few quests, hidden skill branches, optional bosses and rare items I've yet to tick off, but I feel that I've fully enjoyed the game without needing to scrape the sweet-but-crusty residue out of the bottom. Or not for a while yet, anyway.

Over 160 hours of gameplay later, I stand by my original opinion that this is the Japanese Role Playing Game we've been waiting for: the one that keeps everything that makes a JRPG a JRPG - the imaginative fantasy setting that mixes magic and technology, the beautiful heroes in outrageous fashions, the pacifistic and humanistic themes that nevertheless result in epic battles - but while clearly having learned the lessons of more open, less heavy-handed Western RPGs.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a progressive JRPG, and an enormous open-world adventure. Its only significant flaw is that its size and openness extend beyond what its otherwise laudable improvements are readily able to cope with. Exploring the huge, memorable, beautifully designed landscapes and discovering new things is one of the chief appeals of the game, but encountering numerous side quests that require finding a particular minor character in one sprawling level, who you've probably already met (but you can't remember exactly where or when) gets pretty tedious, and tracking down the items needed to rebuild that aforementioned city will be impossible without a detailed guide for all but the most dedicated players.

Where this game really triumphs is in its world building, an aspect of fiction that video games are uniquely qualified for. Here we get the opportunity to explore an imaginative, colourful and heartfelt world, infused with its own consistent mythology and replete with interacting cultures and conflicting characters. We get a sense for its inhabitants, and their relationships (positive or otherwise) are linked explicitly with the gameplay. The chemistry between the main party of heroes is also made central to the story - not uncommon in JRPGs, but here developed with particular care, good humour and humanity.

For me, this is the best JRPG I've played since Chrono Trigger, and probably a game that I'll remember as one of my all-time favourites. But, as with its otherwise awesome interface, its incredible size works against it. If you find that you love it, Xenoblade Chronicles will consume your time and leave you with a sense of having spent it somewhere wonderful (in the literal sense of the word). Anything less than that, though, and it's probably just too big to swallow.