It happened this past weekend. Around eighty-five hours into Xenoblade Chronicles, I learned something new. I learned how to control a different character.
Okay, so maybe it’s not that remarkable, or at least, the act wasn’t. But the feeling that came with it was. It was a strange feeling that combined triumph and stupidity. I felt extremely happy and proud that I finally figured out a somewhat important aspect of the game (controlling characters other than the main), and I also felt extremely silly for having taken so long to do so. After all, the near-end of a game isn’t exactly the place where you really want to be learning new things. By then you should be mastering or have mastered all the skills you’ve learned up to that point, right?
I won’t spoil things for those who want to tackle Xenoblade Chronicles, but the basic premise of my triumphant stupidity arose from my inability to defeat a certain late-game boss. Throughout the game, I’d been playing as the main character, Shulk. By the time I had gathered up a small band of companions, I figured out that the game allowed you to play as any combination of three characters, not just the main protagonist plus two others. It was a mild revelation at best because I liked playing as Shulk. I liked his move set and had became very comfortable maneuvering among his abilities. I didn’t really feel the need to control someone else. And up to that particular late-game boss, Shulk sufficed perfectly well in all battles.
That’s not to say I didn’t occasionally switch out Shulk to see what would happen. Once I had a full team at my disposal, I wondered if there was a “preferred” three-player combination, and I went online to various forums to find out. There wasn’t. Everybody had their favorite set, but…I was surprised by how many of them didn’t contain Shulk. At the time, I didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to use Shulk. He and his sword were pretty powerful and, in my mind, necessary for any large-scale battle. His moves seemed to compliment those of others, though much of that had to with the way I set up the Arts (abilities) of his teammates. So the thought remained firm in my mind: no Shulk, no game. Period.
Only then came along that terrible, difficult boss some eighty-five hours in.
By then I had developed my preferred team of three, which of course included Shulk. Over and over and over again, I faced off with this powerful boss and was summarily beaten, always in a quick and embarrassing manner (like dying without making even the slightest dent in the boss’s health). After a protracted and tiring session of constant death, I figured that I’d have to change my ways, at least a little, to progress. So I started switching out characters, always keeping Shulk in the lead. With combination after combination led by Shulk, my party met with defeat. No amount of personally perceived mastery helped achieve victory.
As progression seemed more and more futile, my mind eventually turned towards a usual RPG solution: level up. Maybe I was simply too under-leveled to face off with this boss. This had been the case in a few previous sections of the game, so I set about with the tedious yet oddly fun process of leveling up my preferred team. (In all my years of gaming, only in Xenoblade Chronicles have I found grinding pleasurable, even creative!) And when I had reached a suitably decent level relative to that of the boss, I tried the fight again…and again…and again.
After all the (not really wasted) hours of tumultuous and exploratory grinding, I was no better off than when I had started. I again switched the team members around Shulk and got nowhere even faster. There I was, not too far off from putting 100 hours into a single game for the first time in years! And yet I could feel the hammer of defeat chipping away at my psyche.
But, this was not Metroid Prime, and I was not about to throw in the towel, not when I could practically taste the end credits…or, at least, the fantastic cut scene that would surely follow this boss’s defeat! I simply owed it to myself to try something different.
And I did.
I returned to a notion put forth by many a Xenoblade Chronicles forum: make a team without Shulk. But which three? I remembered from a number of posts that people touted one character as being nothing less than stellar when player-controller, and one that would be particularly useful as the main for the difficult boss battle I faced. My only problem was that it was a character I had largely ignored and had no idea how to use. As desperate times called for desperate measures, I cast my doubts aside, placed this new character as my main, and hoped that my frustrations wouldn’t get the best of me. I also put on my bull in a china shop hat and went forth into battle unheeded. Oh, I died, no doubt there because I simply didn’t know how to control this new main character, but I kept at it.
And then…something clicked.
As I was desperately trying to use this characters’ Arts in some sort of coherent manner and produced damage, I hit upon a particular sequence and discovered that, unlike with Shulk and his immediately useable abilities, for this character one had to select a particular Art and then actually select to use it. It was a two-step rather than a one-step process, and one that produced wildly powerful results! And for the first time in that late-game boss battle, I made significant progress, even though I didn’t survive the fight. After that I took some time to practice with the new main, switching out and leveling up abilities I didn’t even know about, and tackling lower level enemies. When I was finally able to defeat an enemy that was leveled the same as my team, I knew I was ready for the boss.
Friends, I’ve fought my share of bosses over the years. But beating this boss with what turned out to be an astoundingly dominant and delightful character that I had previously remained unacknowledged was something altogether special. It reminded me that one of the dangers that accompanies long games is getting set in one’s ways, and that it is never, ever too late to learn some new in a video game.
Have you ever neared completing a video game, only to learn something totally new in it?