Xenoblade Chronicles is the sort of precious jRPG that this recent console generation has sorely lacked. Despite some missteps and over-complication, the game stands out as one of the best in recent years. Xenoblade creates a world simply begging to be explored.
- Easily among the best looking Wii games out there
- Unparalleled, massive environments create a living, breathing world
- Spectacular value…even a barebones run should take a minimum of sixty hours
- Soundtrack is diverse, varied, and beautiful
- The final third of the game's environments fall off in quality, beauty, and exploration
- Sidequests are largely uninspired and trivial
- Many aspects of the game's underlying systems are poorly explained
Xenoblade Chronicles Review:
Surely, you think, Xenoblade Chronicles must be something special. Nintendo’s decision to not give their critically acclaimed RPG a Western release spawned the viral “Operation Rainfall”, in which tens of thousands of fans voiced their displeasure and signed angry, angry petitions. After Nintendo of Europe decided to publish the title, those tens of thousands imported the title stateside, at additional cost, and modded their Wii’s to disable region locking. And, finally, Nintendo of America relented: you may have your massive, beautiful jRPG, Nintendo fans. It’s not like anyone enjoys those anymore.
On the Shoulders of Giants
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place exclusively on the surface of two impossibly sized creatures: the biological Bionis (home to our plucky heroes!), and the mechanized Mechonis (evil people dwell here!). How exactly gravity works in this world is never explained or consistent. Regardless, we follow Shulk and his companions as they traverse these immobile titans, fancy energy sword in hand. This blade, the Monado, allows glimpses into the future, and remains a primary driver of plot and gameplay throughout the game.
The Bionis, on which a majority of the game takes place, is full of environments grand and vast, varied and spectacular. Though you’ll need a remarkable computer to do so, it might be worth your while to try to play the game under the Dolphin emulator, with which one can achieve proper HD resolutions. The draw distances creep into apparent miles, the explorable area into thousands of acres.
The player is rewarded with experience bonuses for discovering new and hidden areas of the map, so such boundless journeying is incentivized even beyond the incredible vistas of a meteor-streaked sky, a waterfall that dwarves Niagara, a great plain awash with sunset. The later environments on Mechonis, unfortunately, generally fail to meet the standards their earlier predecessors inspire, but it’s hard to complain. Rarely has a world felt this realized and complete.
Xenoblade is vast in time as well as space, spanning anywhere from sixty to a hundred and forty hours for those perfectionists among us. The plot, while beginning both relatively simple and laden with cliché, takes some surprising twists along the way, and maintains decent characterization for most of the main players. And, as a surprising bonus, the voice cast is entirely British, owing to the game’s initially European localization. Our friends across the pond bring with them a decidedly practical tone, grounding the otherwise fairly outlandish script. Luckily, the game never quite reaches the heights of absurdity that Takahashi’s earlier works, Xenogears and Xenosaga, managed to achieve.
The gameplay of Xenoblade quickly escalates from simple to nearly overly complex. On a base level, you control a single character alongside up to two A.I. allies, selecting skills to complement a single-minded auto-attack. The skills’ only usage limit is a countdown timer, after which you may activate again. Quickly, however, the game throws in chain attacks, additional effects based on positioning, a break/topple/daze system in which enemies’ defense, offense, and enmity are drastically reduced, and finally, the Monado itself, which alerts the player to coming attacks. These visions give the player ample time to prepare, and work well in the heat of intense combat. It is a shame, though, that the player cannot control or switch to other characters during battle…the A.I. is often subpar, especially in the case of Melia, an otherwise remarkably powerful mage.
The mechanics reach dizzying complexity outside of battle. Weapons and armor may be affixed with various gems, which give myriad abilities and enhancements. Affinity between party members, enhanced in no fewer than three separate ways, affects mini-cutscenes, battle prowess, and gem crafting. There is also affinity between individual NPCs, as well as affinity between your party and entire regions themselves, which affect sidequest availability. There are a vast set of achievements (granting experience points upon completion), shared abilities between party members, an entire colony to rebuild via a complicated set of questlines, a collectable dictionary of materials and components unique to each area, and still the systems come, each piling atop the last.
While the complexity is appreciated, it can be a turn-off for more casual players, and what’s more, the game does a generally awful job at explanation. Tutorials are simply freeze-frames of text and the occasional image, which are later locked away inside a list hundreds of entries long. Moreover, certain aspects of the game, like the finer details of gemcrafting and the tension system, are completely glossed over. Online FAQs should be referenced early and often.
With regard to optional content, it appears as though there’s an impossible amount to do…and there is. All but the most completion-obsessed gamers will quickly lose track of the dozens upon dozens of quests thrust upon a player when he or she enters a new area, and since these quests need to be completed to gain access to higher-level missions that grant late-game-appropriate rewards, the motivation for doing so quickly spirals down to zero. The quests themselves feel like those in a particularly uninspired MMO: collect ten flowers, kill five rabbits, and so on. Even those with some element of plot are flat, and only tangentially related to the larger events of the game. One can always argue, of course, that these are merely optional…and they are…but more is not always better. Some stronger content here would have been much appreciated.
As earlier mentioned, the technical shortcomings of the Wii are largely mitigated here, thanks to the fantastic art direction. The soundtrack, directed by six of the best composers in the industry (including Yoko Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda), is nothing short of marvelous. Each area boasts two separate but thematically related tracks, for both day and night, usually sweeping and orchestral. The battle themes, particularly when one successfully changes the future, are laced with rock guitar, pulsing and intense. A game this large deserves a score just as remarkable, and the soundtrack lives up to the expectation.
Xenoblade is a game that all jRPG fans should play, this past generation having been somewhat of a disaster for the genre. It takes most of what worked and refined those elements, evolved them, to achieve something both unique and accessible. For its faults, we criticize, but in Xenoblade Chronicles, these faults are born from excess ambition, from struggling to achieve something new. Despite them, Xenoblade shines brightly into the Wii’s fading night.