Xenoblade Chronicles is infamous in some corners of the gaming world. It came out in Japan years ago and was heralded as the return of the JRPG. For some reason, Nintendo never published it in North America, though it was published in Europe. After a big push by fans, it has officially come to North America or at least the European version has officially come to North America, which actually works in its favor since the accents and spelling changes give it just another bit of fantasy flair.
The story revolves around Shulk, a young man who lives in Colony 9, located on the foot of Bionis. Yes, he lives on a foot; the entire game takes place on the fossilized bodies of two giant creatures that once fought to the death. It’s a fascinating concept, and thankfully the story uses it well. Shulk’s town is attacked by Mechon, a race of flying robots thought to be extinct, and after the battle, he sets out on a journey to destroy them once and for all. Naturally, his quest will take him across the body of Bionis, he’ll meet new people, and he will discover a dark secret about the world. There’s also a magic sword. If all this sounds pretty standard for a JRPG, it is, but it works. Xenoblade Chronicles knows which clichés to embrace and which to subvert. This general narrative structure is great for introducing us to a fantasy world, and you’ll marvel with Shulk at some of the places that you discover.
The detailed story beats are less clichéd. Early on, a painfully generic and predictable subplot is suddenly cut short when one character dies. That death hangs over the rest of game, adding tension to subsequent boss fights because you know that this story is playing for keeps, and the villains actually feel like a constant genuine threat. Even when the story does follow the standard formula because the game subverts that formula early on, uncertainty remains ever present. The game earns its moments of melodrama.
Every new place that you visit adds to the plot. For as long as Xenoblade Chronicles can last, there’s surprisingly little narrative fluff. Most of the fluff comes from the gameplay itself, since every location is huge. This is good and bad: The scale of the world is impressive, and your journey quickly takes on an epic quality because of that scale, resulting in what feels like a grand fantasy travelogue. But sometimes that scale can be exhausting since traveling from one end of a map to the other can take a good hour by itself. You can fast travel to specific landmarks, but these are few and far between. You’ll spend a lot of time running.
Thankfully, the gameplay is engaging enough that the fluff never gets boring. Xenoblade Chronicles is complex with dozens of systems running at once, and you will have to keep track of them all. It feels daunting at first: After playing for several hours, I went online to find out what Ether was for, but I didn’t need to. The game gave me a full explanation a few hours later when it was actually necessary. The game doles out information at a good rate. You won’t learn everything in the first hour or even the first dozen hours, but just as you get comfortable with one system, it introduces something new. This game always has some trick up its sleeve, growing ever more complex in ways that don’t feel extraneous or pointless because every system is helpful.
This is probably because most systems lead back to combat. Gem crafting, collectibles, and an affinity with towns and party members all result in combat benefits. Gems augment abilities, collectibles earn you gems, and affinity lets characters can share abilities with each other. Each piece is part of a cohesive whole.
The combat is quite fun. It plays exactly like an MMO with tanks, healers, and damage dealers fighting in real-time, and every move has a cooldown timer associated with it, forcing you to prioritize and strategize around certain special attacks. Your normal attack is automatic, and your party members are controlled by AI, which makes the combat feel faster and more streamlined than it really is. You won’t feel like you’re micromanaging your team. AI teammates are usually a risky proposition in tactical games, but I found my team to be perfectly competent. I never played as the healer character because I trusted the AI to do that job, and I was never disappointed.
But for all that Xenoblade Chronicles does right, it also does plenty wrong. The side-quests add nothing to the game. They’re needless at best, boring at worst, and don’t fill in the culture or history of this bizarre and fascinating world. Every side-quest is just “kill X number of monsters” or “collect Y number of items.” Worse still, this boring design permeates every side-thing in the game. One potentially interesting quest has you rebuilding a destroyed colony. This could have been an interesting economic mini-meta-game, but every aspect of the reconstruction devolves into “collect X number of Y item.” It gets to a point where you’ll consciously avoid taking on side-quests because they just artificially extend the length of this already long game. They’re especially not worth the effort when you realize that the other systems give you just as many quality rewards.
The controls are the most frustrating aspect of the game. They’re not bad per say, but they feel hamstrung by the design of the Wiimote. The Nintendo controller wasn’t made for games this complex, and it shows. There are too few buttons, forcing the game to assign two buttons as “modifiers” that change the action of every other button. This means each button can have up to three different actions mapped to it depending on what modifier you’re holding or not holding. I try to lock onto an enemy, but it brings up a story note. I try to pan the camera, but it scrolls through the menu. I try to attack, and it opens my inventory. I constantly forget which modifier I’m holding and which modifier buttons modify what actions. It’s confusing in the beginning, and it remains confusing even after 80+ hours.
Also, since you hold the Wiimote like a remote, it feels awkward throwing your thumb up and down the vertical length of the controller. Holding the controller vertical is fine if you only use the A and B buttons, but once you start making the +, –, 1, and 2 buttons central to the experience, it gets painful.
Xenoblade Chronicles is an interesting mix of traditional JRPG tropes and MMO design. Sometimes it works, like with the real-time battles, and sometimes it doesn’t, like when the repetitive side-quests clash with the highly plot driven story. As such, the side-quests bog down an otherwise great story, and the control issues prevent the game from ever becoming deeply addictive. However, the story and battle system are still enough to carry the entire game. There’s a lot of stuff you can ignore in Xenoblade Chronicles and a lot that you probably should ignore, but there’s even more worth embracing.