IV. Past from whence the Great Plains begin.
If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me,
They bury me some place I don’t want to be,
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city-breeze, garbage bag trees,
Whispers of disease and the acts of enormity.
I’m a flaming heathen, it’s true. But if there’s some order to all of this that includes a type of purgatory, I want mine to be Satorl Marsh.
It’s almost not worth posting a picture, even the cheating up-res above. Because it still doesn’t do justice to the moment. Why? It’s a mere snapshot. This is a moment. Maybe you have photographs that are of particular importance to you, but the reason they still resonate is because of what was happening at that moment in time, of which you captured a snippet out of the ether. Moments are not something you cut up into pieces; they’re brief, powerful experiences that echo. You have to walk, move, experience, feel.
In my time playing videogames, there haven’t been many instances where I’ve had to put the controller down, because I needed a moment to simply be. Aerith. The first Colossus. Phendrana Drifts. A blooming Guardian Sapling. Satorl Marsh.
The longer you play, the less likely you are to get these moments. You see too much. It all becomes routine. Huge bosses and high-res textures, giant fields and living cities…they all become less and less impressive in the perpetual one-upmanship spectacle that is the videogame medium fumbling its way towards mass entertainment, and occasionally, art. Then you have something like this. You walk into something you’ve never seen before. You feel something you’ve never felt before. You try to communicate what happened, but the words fail. You had to be there.
I was there. Not in the game, true, but I was still there. For a fleeting moment, I was in a glowing, sunken forest, on the waist of a god-titan.
So I suppose it’s obvious that Satorl Marsh is, in my view, pretty special. The rest of this playthrough diary is probably going to consolidate some areas for the sake of overall brevity. But not here. The Marsh needs to stand on its own, because it is the glue that binds Xenoblade together. The early hours wow you with scope; only when the day fades and the trees alight does Xenoblade reach its moment of convergence, becoming something greater than code and pixels. In the foggy gloom of Satorl, Xenoblade trades in its ill-fitting shoes as an adventure. Here, it tries on being an epic.
The shoe fits. And then some.
I could write a few thousand words on the feels alone, but…you had to be there. So, on more objective grounds, why is Satorl Marsh so damn good? Layout, for one thing. The topography of the Bionis’ Leg is staggering, but it isn’t exactly cohesive. By virtue of its scope, it is diffuse, whereas Satorl is (relatively) compact, which allowed Monolith to craft a real gem. A wonderous swampland? Check. Mountainous terrain? Check. Secret lake? Check. Mysterious, relic landmarks? Check. Old, broken-down fortress hiding secrets? Check. A river that leads to what very nearly looks like the Doors of Durin, the entrance to the Mines of Moria? Check. (…half expected to run into the Watcher in the Water.)
Which brings me to another masterstroke of the Marsh. It is at this point in the game where it fully pulls together its strands of camaraderie, feeling very nearly Tolkein-ish. You’re a band of allies on a quest. The section in which you traverse through a cave around Mauk Floodgate feels distinctly Middle Earth, as if a man, a dwarf and an elf could be doing it. It all felt like a realm in a land that actually exists somewhere. Really, this is kind of unfair. It’s not enough for this section of the game to be beautiful, it’s not enough for the music to be enchanting, it’s not enough that it’s got more adventuring per square inch than most other full games, but it also manages the feat of telling a story with minimal cut-scene interludes, leaving you squarely in the wonder of the land itself.
Oh, it’s also technically brilliant and artistically clever. Behold the marsh, with and without fog. Smart, Monolithsoft. Any game can be big. But not every game makes you feel like you’re truly discovering something, that you’re in the thick of an extraordinary endeavor. In Satorl, you don’t get the views you find elsewhere in Xenoblade that showcase the massive landmass you’re exploring. Instead, you get a distinct sense of place. It’s at once eerie and foreboding and enchanting in equal measure. Here, you’re likely to meet a sheer cliff or a monster high above your level dropping in to say hello. It’s as mysterious a province to the locals as it is to you. One gets the distinct feeling that this was once a more prosperous, lively place, since forgotten and left forlorn in the ever-present mist. Maybe that’s why I felt so at home there.
And the fauna? Good grief. By this point, I had good armor, I had confidence in my combat abilities, and I was running up against enemies that were just enough to cause me problems. Some I overcame, some I didn’t. And that was OK, because I knew I would keep coming back here. Would it ever be as good as the first time? Of course not. But that’s perfectly fine. One day I came home after an exhausting day at work, fired up Xenoblade, and sat on my couch with the lights off. I listened to those haunting voices gliding through the air as the trees began to glow. Everything was OK in the world, because I was somewhere else.
I want to go on and on. But like the marsh itself, I shouldn’t.
Instead, we climb past the floodgate, briefly (and literally) into the Bionis, and beyond.
(Continue to Part V.)