Consider this a belated EU review and an early US preview of Xenoblade Chronicles
Title: Xenoblade Chronicles
ESRB Rating: PEGI 12
Developer: Monolith Software
Release Date: 2012-04-02
You know, a number of things worry me about Xenoblade. Not the game as such (which is great and which I’ll get to later), no, it is the legacy that it will likely leave behind.
Firstly, Operation Rainfall, a fan driven campaign to get this title and a few others released State side, appears to have failed…miserably and has overshadowed Xenoblade's European release.
Nintendo of America seemingly enjoys self harm -- at the expense of its dedicated fans. The counter argument can be made, of course, that these dedicated fans didn’t fork out for other serious games released on the Wii in years gone by. But, hey, you know what? If anyone has kept their Wiis in anticipation of something other than the new Zelda, NoA should foot the bill.
Secondly, it’s the legacy of the Wii itself, near the point of retirement, following a long and colorful career. If this game had been released stateside earlier, not only would it have been welcomed with (more) open arms, it really could have helped change the perception of the console and maybe even influenced a few more JRPGs to follow its lead and actually embrace the 21st century.
Finally, it’s the fact that I’ve spent 100+ hours of my life on a videogame. The commitments of life make playing games, well, harder to do and only remind me that I’m getting older. When I was younger, I probably could have cracked this out a lot earlier, closer to its release date even, (so, erm... sorry, Chris!), but like they say, better late (Europe), then never (US) -- sorry, I couldn’t resist.
So, consider this a belated EU review and an early US preview.
Putting to one side all of the politics and the rest, Xenoblade Chronicles is Game of the Year material. Zelda has its work cut out, that’s for sure.
The first thing that instantly hits you on beginning the game is the sheer size, of everything. Most games of this ilk start off small and increase in their "epic-ness", not here though. When the first scene shows two warring techno-organic colossus’s fighting to the death, surrounded by an endless ocean, you wonder how can they can possibly top this? Well, they do and they constantly surprise you, right up to the very end.
The story is pretty generic (one of only three flaws in the whole game). Both of the aforementioned colossi critically wound one another, leaving various species to grow and prosper on each. The Earth gives birth to Man (known as Homs) and other species, while the cold, harsh Mechonis gives rise to the machines, (known as the Mechon). Both pick up where their planet-sized masters left off, with the seemingly antagonistic Mechon serving as the aggressors. Not until a mysterious yet powerful sword, known as the Monado appears, do the Homs, again, seemingly defeat their foes.
The wielder of the Monado, unable to handle its power, temporarily loses the use of his arm and the sword falls into the lap of our hero Shulk. Along the way he builds up a small troop of freedom fighters, each fulfilling a JRPG stereotype. Shulk encounters many plot twists and is betrayed, discovers the truth, and comes to a happy conclusion that is so far from the original premise that it may as well have been the end of an entirely different story.
The characters are actually pretty likeable though, I’m not sure if it’s because I spent nearly five whole days combined with them or the fact that their "JRPG-ness" has been toned down, but I’ve met far worse. The dialogue though pretty cheesy and unintentionally homoerotic, "Go on Shulk get stuck in!" is generally average, but their English accents are truly welcome instead of the usual Californian surfer boy crap that we normally get (Japanese dubs are available as well).
However, storytelling is not the game's strength. The background of the world is fascinating. It really is. But unless you have to be a pretty dedicated Otaku to avoid being disappointed by the plot on the whole.
What won’t disappoint, though, is the character design. It is truly some of the best, if not the best, that I’ve seen. From the vast landscapes, displaying the glorious art design to the simply outstanding creature creation, the sense of awe is as strong as it is during the first hour -- right up to the 100th.
The simplicity demonstrated in its accomplishment is what really impresses. Be it a landscape or a monster, all that the art team have done is taken something Earth-like and familiar and have "anime-d" it, "alien-ized" it, "beast-ified" it. I’m so damn impressed that I’m making up words because normal English alone cannot do justice to the sheer awesomeness of the art design.
The sense of fear and bewilderment when you encounter a mutated rhino/dinosaur looking creature that is 70-80 levels above you is something I’ve never experienced before. Often I would keep my party out of harm's way and just observed the animals in their daily behavior, all Richard-Attenborough-like.
But it’s the abandonment of nearly all the things that grate about the genre that pleases the most. Gone are the random battles -- monsters are visible and will only attack you if you are weaker than they are. The line-dance-like combat has been ditched in favour of a fast, ferocious and yet deeply tactical battle system, reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII -- only better.
A checkpoint system! Yes an actually honest to goodness checkpoint system that ensures that even when you die, you won’t lose any accumulated levels, loot, gold, or anything basically. You just get warped back to the last checkpoint and get going again. You’re also allowed to save nearly anywhere, and your health replenishes itself after every battle. A fully controllable camera and the light bit of platforming sprinkled in are also welcome additions, as are the QTE prompts during combat, which lend to the anxiousness and urgency felt during battle.
The use of aggro (meaning the team member dealing the most damage will have enemies focus their attacks on him/her) leaves the others in a party free to outflank attackers. The Monado and its ability to see into future gives the chance to fire out warnings to team mates and prevents attacks, potentially allowing the group to gain the upper hand in combat. The Monado and its seemingly endless array of abilities officially make it the coolest sword in gaming. The Buster and Master swords pale by comparison.
There are literally hundreds of side quests to complete as well. You can accumulate as many as you like on the go and very rarely do you have to return to the quest-giver to collect your bounty for completion. Many of your activities depend on the time of day and the level of enemies that you encounter, so you handily change the time of day anytime, as easily as turning a dial.
With the world being as huge and as open it is, exploration can seem daunting, yet the rewarding of experience points for reaching new landmarks makes it worthwhile, and I don’t quite know why, but completing the whole map is quite fulfilling. Despite the areas being as huge as they are, traversing them is seamless -- without a loading screen in sight. And instead of having to run though several different areas just to get somewhere, you can easily just warp there, saving literally dozens of hours in unnecessary travel.
At times it can feel overwhelming. Mercifully though, nearly everything new that you pick up has a tutorial, which can be accessed by the easy-to-navigate real-time menu. Every aspect of the gameplay wishes to reward rather than punish the player. Punishment is a long standing staple of the genre, but it is almost as if Monolith Soft wants you to... actually enjoy their game.
The only real issue that persistently feels punishing is the necessity of level grinding, which there is a lot of. This doesn’t feel unfair, as such though, just repetitive and slightly stagnating. It’s also frustrating to see that your team can grow up to seven+ strong yet only three will ever go into battle. While the inactive members still thankfully level up with the rest, you’ll get used to your first team and become reluctant to change, unless forced. I know that party arrangements exist for the sake of tactical purposes, but if your very world is at risk of destruction, surely they should all be mucking in?
Other than that, there really is nothing I can say bad about Xenodblade, and, trust me, I’ve looked for it. Even after 100+ hours, I still don’t feel as though I’ve scratched the surface of this title, and there are still many hidden areas and secrets left for me to explore.
Monolith Soft has both embraced everything that is great and unique about the Japanese philosophy of game development and has in equal measure taken on fan feedback from the West, without sacrificing its own heritage. As a result, they have created an easy-to-access, yet rewarding-to-master milestone in the whole of the RPG genre.
Though I’ll probably never get around to all of the intricacies hidden away in this masterpiece, as with life, some things change while others don’t. Xenoblade has single handily made the JRPG relevant again, while Nona’s reluctance to listen to its fans is nothing new. My free time is limited, and though I have no regrets in that department and in fact am very grateful for the recent changes in my life, being able to go back and experience the same enjoyment that I got from games when I was younger is something I hope never leaves me.