Xenoblade Chronicles Review
Monolith appear to be struck with a bit of a curse. For whatever reason, the Nintendo-owned subsidiary can't persuade the North American arm of the company to release either of its Wii games, and neither can their fans.
Their first Wii game, the vastly underrated cheese-fest Disaster: Day of Crisis had its announced American release struck off by Nintendo America President Reggie Fils Aime, with Aime telling the press that he thought the game's voice work was "laughable."
Despite fans getting angry, stamping their feet and digitally picketing Nintendo with what they called Operation Rainfall, Xenoblade Chronicles, their latest title, looks to only be receiving a release in Europe and Japan. But is it worth all the fuss? In a word, yes. In a lot of words - well, read on.
This generation of console hardware has been rough for the Japanese RPG, so it comes as a surprise that Nintendo would sign off on allowing Monolith to develop something so staunchly traditional. Xenoblade Chronicles kicks off in true Japanese RPG style with a lovely, quiet introduction. We meet the protagonist, explore his home town and his home community - and then it's destroyed in a brutal robot attack.
If we'd had some amnesia it would've been JRPG opening bingo, but Xenoblade is all about that - almost being exactly what you'd expect, with little twists and turns that pull the game away from being JRPG-by-numbers.
The robot attack propels you into a massive adventure that took me over 60 hours to complete and that I've been assured can stretch to be as long as 100 hours with sidequests completed. If you've ever wanted to max out the menu clock at 99:99, this is the game that might actually see you do it.
The size and scope of Xenoblade should've perhaps been obvious as soon as you realize who is in charge of the development. Director Tetsuya Takahashi's is a veteran of the development of SNES-era classics including Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy V, but his own creations - Xenogears and the Xenosaga series - were incredibly ambitious, albeit with less success than Xenoblade has.
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place on Bionis, a gigantic sentient being that's so huge that people live on its back. The game opens with a cutscene of Bionis fighting another massive being before skipping a few millennia to when the game takes place, where battle scars from that huge fight become continents and pathways for the player.
It's a beautifully sculpted world the pushes the now dated Wii hardware to its very limits. As the console comes to the twilight of its life with the more powerful Wii U on the horizon, Xenoblade Chronicles is a reassuring nod to the fact that more can be pulled from even the most stretched hardware.
A good chunk of Xenoblade's beauty comes from the design of the world. Almost every vista in the world has clearly been painstakingly, carefully created. Better still, it's clear that the art team who did so took the Wii's limitations into account and worked around them and through them, squeezing that extra bit of beauty out of the hardware and into the world.
The massive areas are carefully designed in such a way where they can't be fully explored all at once, encouraging a bit of back-tracking and revisiting later in the game. Powerful monsters will guard some areas, preventing you from getting in until you're higher level and better equipped.
Exploration's a vital tool for anybody wanting to maximize their playthrough, with hidden areas and landmarks awarding experience bonuses merely for finding them. The game carefully and artfully balances out the player's desire to see everything with blocked off paths to keep you progressing with the story, but all roads open up as you progress and allow for more of the huge number of sidequests to be experienced.
While Xenosaga and Xenogears before it suffered from an almost slavish devotion to the storyline with wrought, lengthy cutscenes, Xenoblade instead is a tighter experience, melding the storyline, the world and the gameplay mechanics together so they all work together in harmony rather than restrict each other.
Some of these systems are interesting choices that pull away from JRPG traditions, too, such as the brave decision to do away with 'Game Over' screens in favour of a checkpoint system. When the player dies they don't lose experience, items or progress - they're just returned to the nearest landmark with all that stuff intact.
It doesn't diminish the challenge of battles, but it does take away a chunk of the stress and risk involved, underlining the idea that Xenoblade is perhaps a bit more of an 'experience' of the world and story rather than a pure game.
In the battles you control the party leader, usually lead character Shulk, while the rest of the party does what they need to do under the command of the AI. Once locked on to the enemy with the Z trigger Zelda style, all you need to do to execute basic attacks is stand close enough - the game will handle the rest. In that sense, it bears a passing resemblance to letting Gambits take control in Final Fantasy XII.
As well as positioning the party leader, the player has to be concerned with how and when to use 'Arts' with the entire party - special attacks which do all the things you'd expect from a JRPG - buff, debilitate, heal, defend and, obviously attack.
While the regular attacks will come thick and fast automatically, as a player you're instead tasked with managing character positioning whilst also ensuring a fairly constant stream of arts keeps the damage output high. Managing the rest of the AI-controlled party by healing and buffing them is vitally important, too.
There's also an MMO-style aggro mechanic which will see enemies focus on those who are causing them the most pain. Managing this involves sometimes backing off and letting your party members do more damage so you can then sneak in and get a devastating harsh blow with one of your arts. It's a clever system that adds another layer of depth to combat and makes positioning even more vital.
On top of all that Shulk can see into the future - sometimes giving you a glimpse at a devastating attack to come and giving you time to prepare your response before it happens. Another power lets you stop time entirely to issue commands - it's all fairly complex.
In an increasingly frequent design decision there's no random battles here; enemies are visibly plainly in the explorable environments and if you want to engage them you just run on over. Interestingly, not all enemies are hostile from the word go, and require you to antagonize them before they kick off, a nice touch that makes the world feel that little bit more alive.
While Final Fantasy XIII famously took 20 hours to spoon-feed a battle system that in reality was quite simple, Xenoblade introduces the mechanics of a rather simple one in a much shorter time frame, and to begin with I felt that. It'll probably be even more confusing for players not overly familiar with JRPGs - there's a lot of menu options on screen here and a lot to follow.
Even outside of battles the menu is omnipresent, with the game allowing you to pull it up without stopping your movement. You can carry on moving in a direction while browsing the menu, but this addition actually ends up feeling a little useless, as you'll have to stop your movement and go deeper into a more traditional menu system to actually accomplish most things - it's a nice idea, but it fails to properly come off the way I imagine it was envisioned.
So the menu disappoints and isn't as tight as the rest of the game, but then on the flip side the quest system is brave and different again, doing away with the traditional structure of getting a quest, heading out to complete it and then returning to the quest-giver for reward, instead deleting objectives from your list as soon as they're completed with no need to return to the quest-giver. It saves time but thanks to the sheer size of the game doesn't dent Xenoblade's length.
The controls are another area which is about triumph and disappointment in equal measure. With the Wii Remote and Nunchuk the camera can be an issue with cumbersome single-stick camera controls not unlike those seen in a few PSP RPGs. In Europe a large chunk of the copies of Xenoblade shipped with a Classic Controller Pro, which makes it control like any other regular RPG - which suits me just fine.
The storyline of Xenoblade is delivered through fairly well choreographed cutscenes and an almost all-British voice cast. As a Brit it's strange to hear an entire cast voiced by a British cast - we're used to the clichéd British-accented characters like Final Fantasy XII's Balthier, but an entire cast feels a bit weird.
While the voice work leaves something to be desired in places at the same time it gives the game a texture and character that other RPGs which cookie-cutter the same voice cast members like Troy Baker (FF13's Snow, Persona's Kanji, Vesperia's Yuri) and Laura Bailey (Star Ocean's Reimi, Persona's Rise, FF13's Serah) into fairly similar archetypal roles. We love the work of folks like Troy and Laura, but it's refreshing to hear something truly different in this English-accented dub.
Not so refreshing is the fact that the cast are super chatty in battle - that can get a little frustrating, especially as lines repeat frequently. You can only hear a thick London accent shout "YOU'RE AWESOME!" -- "Let's not lose our heads though!" a certain number of times before it drives you to the brink of insanity.
That said, the beaten path of the story isn't where Xenoblade's mythology and world is at its best. It's when you explore, find new landmarks, and branch out that the story and more so the world it takes place in really grabs you and makes you love it.
Coming so late in a console generation that has been so rough to JRPGs with many series' and developers transferring in their droves to handhelds, Xenoblade is something of a revelation. It's not hard to see why fans are going crazy for it, campaigning Nintendo and fighting for a US release - it's a strong signpost for how the genre can still be as exciting as it once was.
It's true - I kind of wish this game were on the Xbox 360 or PS3 so it could be even prettier. No amount of trickery can totally hide the Wii's lack of horsepower. Small but significant flaws leave the game short of perfection but there's no denying that this game is a real piece of craftwork, combining a strong vision with powerful core components with an artful understanding and exploitation of the Wii's hardware limitations to get the absolute utmost out of the experience.
The battle system is fun, engaging and interesting, the world is downright beautiful and the story is well told - if sometimes cheesy - on almost every front - and that checks just about all the boxes I'd ever ask a JRPG to check. It's a JRPG that remains staunchly traditional but also twists those traditions in interesting and sometimes brave ways to make a better experience, and that's something we've really lacked this generation so far.