There were two responses I noted to the trailer for Monolith Soft's new project in the Nintendo Direct broadcast on January 23: (1) "Wow. That game looks like a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles and I would want to play it," and (2) "Is there online multiplayer in this game? I really hope there isn't multiplayer in this game." Many RPGamers were pretty jazzed by the footage, only for that excitement to immediately peter out at the prospect of this Wii U release not being a purely single-player experience. That's not to infer that RPGamers have a problem with multiplayer elements in their video games, as many enjoy massively multiplayer role-playing games on a regular basis and even more actively play non-RPG multiplayer titles. However, a fair amount of fans were apparently rubbed the wrong way by the idea of a Xenoblade Chronicles sequel with online co-op. To understand why that is we first need to detail a few of the finer points of Xenoblade Chronicles' single-player experience.
In terms of game mechanics, Xenoblade Chronicles features a number of attributes similar to that of your standard MMO. The free-roaming battles are set in real-time and require both careful planning and appropriate positioning. Players take control of only one character from a group of up to three, with success in battle ultimately dependent on team work. Battles can be initiated by targeting or aggroing enemies on the many expansive plains you visit in-game. On top of the standard position dependant auto-attacks, your group can enact a variety of in-battle abilities known as Arts. They can be used freely, but require a specific cooldown period after use and the position of your party members on the battlefield has a huge impact on overall effectiveness. Naturally, this in-battle gameplay is coupled with customizable equipment and logical character progression systems. Between the main narrative and side quests there could very well be hundreds of hours worth of gameplay to sink into battles, exploration, and challenges. With all this in mind, more than one RPGamer has acquainted Xenoblade Chronicles to that of an "offline MMO."
With the Wii U not being inhibited by as many technical limitations and poor online capabilities as its predecessor, it could be argued that the sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles should evolve as well. It could also be said that the natural progression for an MMO-like offline RPG is a high definition RPG that supports online co-op. Unfortunately, this decision could ensure that several game elements are lost or weakened in translation. The first of which is story.
Set on a world consisting of two dormant titans, the inhabitants of the Bionis find themselves facing the mechanical invaders of Mechonis. Our protagonist, Shulk, eventually comes into possession of the unique Monado sword and uses it to not only fight back, but also see glimpses of a potential future. This leads to a well paced tale in great abundance of twists, personality, mythology, and opposing perspectives. Make no mistake, Xenoblade Chronicles' story is a grand one full of symbolism, foreshadowing, and rich themes, but what would that story look like if altered to accommodate other players? Final Fantasy XI, Guild Wars, and World of Warcraft are all great titles with strong co-op gameplay, but very few people have been willing to cite any of them as having the greatest of central plots. This can be attributed to the quest-based nature of co-op RPG experiences. Expansive and detailed narratives featuring dynamic characters and complex motivations can't functionally occur while also accommodating those RPGamers who drop in and out of games. That said, if the sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles was predicated upon the use of online multiplayer for progression, it's likely that a larger story arc would have to take a backseat to many smaller quests.
The characters themselves would suffer as well. Xenoblade Chronicles featured a cast of likeable individuals with their own quirks, motivations, play styles, and unique personalities. They all offer something different and every RPGamer will likely use different companions while exploring or completing side quests. To that extent, a big part of what makes Xenoblade Chronicles so great is its incredibly dynamic and interesting cast. Unfortunately, online multiplayer in the assumed sequel can mean one of two things: either there is a "create-a-character" feature, allowing you to generate a player avatar without personality, backstory, and direct impact on the events of the game, or one of your otherwise AI characters will be hijacked from afar. While neither of these conditions seem favourable, there is an even greater concern that relates to being unable to select your own party — the loss of the party affinity system. One of the finer elements of Xenoblade Chronicles is how the game is impacted by which characters you use and how often you do so. The more you team up with a certain party member, the greater the affinity between the two of you. These affinities ultimately impact how many intimate moments can occur between characters, thereby providing more insight into the various personalities, backstories, and motivations of your party. Itís a unique system that would probably be lost if you had to rely on non-AI parities or had to forfeit battle party selection to whomever joined your game.
It's impossible to definitively say whether this supposed sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles will have multiplayer or whether it will negatively impact the experience if it does, but it's clear why the concept alone would make some RPGamers nervous. Many gamers enjoy questing and fighting large monsters with others via online multiplayer, but the two things that made Xenoblade Chronicles great (story and cast) could be adversely affected by the inclusion of online multiplayer. In the case of this high-profile sequel, it might be best to expand all elements of the experience except the amount of players involved.