Just when gamers start crying that the JRPG genre is dead, Nintendo pulls a doozie like Xenoblade Chronicles out of their bag of many tricks. This game promised to be the complex, sprawling RPG that Wii owners had been begging for. Unfortunately, everyone got it except North Americans, much to the chagrin of those behind “Operation Rainfall“. It’s very unfortunate that Nintendo made this decision, because my experience with this game so far has lead me to believe it is not only the best RPG for the Wii, but maybe one of the best JRPGs of this console generation.
*If you haven’t seen any trailers or such for Xenoblade Chronicles there could be some spoilers in the ‘Story’ section.
The opening cinematic of Xenoblade Chronicles portrays two seemingly robotic titans, named Bionis and Mechonis, battling each other. It’s hard to tell who wins this battle, but eventually you are shown that there are human-like creatures called Homes living on the creature known as Bionis. Their nemesis, mechanical beings known as the Mechon presumably live on the titan called Mechonis. Get it? Biological beings on Bionis and mechanical entities on Mechonis. How clever!
Through a series of unfortunate events, the game’s protagonist, Shulk, realizes he has the ability to wield a weapon known as the Monodo. It is an energy-based blade weapon which is the only thing that can damage the minions of the Mechon. Over the course of the game, Shulk will gain new abilities, called Arts, that he can execute on his own. He also learns a separate set of Arts that are related only to the Monodo. Just where this weapon came from, what it’s full range of abilities is, and why only certain people seem to be able to wield it will be just one set of mysteries you will be trying to uncover as the game’s events unfold.
The story sticks to JRPG clichés: there is still a young boy who teams up with some lifelong friend and uses his newfound and amazing abilities to save the world, but the development team at Monolith managed to make it easy to swallow. Perhaps this is due to the unique setting of the game, or it’s mostly straightforward storyline. Or it could be that everyone seems to have clear motives, ranging from revenge to protecting loved ones. Nothing feels obscure or convoluted, which is a departure from the standard storytelling methods in JRPGs lately.
Slashing Mechon to bits with the Monodo
It would be all to easy to write a thousand words based solely on the gameplay in Xenoblade Chronicles. The game is the most delightfully complex thing ever played on a console, so it would be impossible to cover every nuance here. Instead, we will focus on what seem to be the essentials.
The developers went through great lengths to make sure the game was accessible to both seasoned JRPG vets and new players looking to break into the genre. They did this by including simple design elements like giving the player complete control over the time of day without any penalty. This was great for triggering time sensitive events without standing around and waiting for the in-game time to advance. Another thing they did was include a simple to use fast travel system that allows players to travel instantly to certain areas or landmarks once they have been discovered. Xenoblade Chronicles also allows for saving anywhere you want, which is essentially unheard of in a RPG of this caliber these days.
Quests & Collections
While attempting to complete the main quest of you will come across NPCs that want you to complete sidequests for them. These are all fairly typical for an RPG, and involve finding a certain item or collecting a number of another item. Unlike other games in this genre, you usually will not have to return to the NPC that issued the sidequest in order to complete it. There is a trade off, however, because you will not get any help from the game’s mini-map like you would with main quest objectives. Completing these quests will net you rewards in the way of experience, gold, and items.
As you’re running around finding lost earrings and collecting bird feathers, you will come across blue orbs laying about the world. Grabbing these items will complete an entry in the “Collectipedia”, and if you collect everything for a certain category you will be awarded a special gem that can be affixed to weapon or armor to enhance its attributes.
Combat is turn-based, though you are not limited in terms of where or when you can move your characters. You simply need to be in range of your target to initiate an auto attack, which will hit persistently as long as you are close enough. If you’ve played Final Fantasy XII you will feel right at home in Xenoblade Chronicles battles. In between auto attacks you will have the option to execute one of the many Arts available to your character, provided your talent gauge, which you keep full by successfully landing auto attacks on enemies, is full enough. Once you defeat a monster, you will be awarded experience points, gold, skill points with which you can level up your Arts, and occasionally items. Some of these items will be crystals that can be made into the aforementioned gems by way of a very simple mini-game.
This is one of very few console games where managing “aggro” (if your unfamiliar with the term, aggro just means the monster is focusing all of its attention on you) is important. Knowing each character’s strengths and weaknesses will be very important for getting through a battle victoriously. For example, Shulk, a well-rounded character as far as stats go, has substantially less HP than his lifelong friend Reyne does. Reyne is a warrior type character built for taking hits and keeping all an enemy’s attention focused on him. It is prudent to let Reyne keep aggro so Shulk can maneuver around the target to use his attacks, because most of them are only effective beside or behind a monster. Constantly spamming Arts will pull aggro off of Reyne, so it’s vital to use a good balance of auto attacks and Arts. For emergencies, Shulk does come with an Art that reduces his aggro level but it’s not fool proof. It’s easy to tell who has the baddie’s attention, because the character will be marked with a red ring around him so you can easily tell when it’s time to get Shulk the heck out of dodge.
Some monsters are simply enormous in scale.
Another well-implemented feature of combat in Xenoblade Chronicles is the Party Gauge This blue gauge at the top of the screen fills up a little with each successful hit on an enemy, or you can get one of the three bars filled up instantly if you are able to cheer one of your teammates on at the right time when prompted. You must have at least one bar in the Party Gauge to revive fallen party members or warn them of an impending attack — but more on that later. You also can expend a completely full gauge to execute a Chain Attack, in which time temporarily freezes and you issue a command to each party member to carry out. These Chain Attacks, if used properly, will net huge damage bonuses compared to standard attacks, and will be absolutely crucial for certain bosses.
The last unique, and possibly most interesting, combat element is Shulk’s ability to use the Monodo to predict certain events in the near future. In combat, the image becomes slightly distorted and wavy, so you will instantly be able to tell when Shulk is having a premonition. Then at the top of the screen, you will be able to see which of your party members the monster is going to attack, what type of attack they will use, and how much damage it will deal. After the vision is over, you will have a few seconds to warn the target of the attack and select an appropriate move for them to counter the attack with, but this only works if you have at least one full bar in your Party Gauge There are other methods you can use to keep your party safe that you will unlock as the story progresses. It would be a great loss if players look at all the complexities of combat and become overwhelmed or think this isn’t the game for them to play. The game features an in-depth tutorial system that you can access at anytime which will teach you all of the game’s finer points.
The graphics in Xenoblade Chronicles are, for the most part, great looking. The environments are finely rendered and give as much of a “photo-realistic” feel as I’ve seen on the Wii to date, with the exception of Monster Hunter Tri (a game I will obviously be gushing about forever). Battle animations are smooth and fluid and special effects are completely top-notch. Cutscenes are rendered with the in-game engine, which is nice because your characters will be wearing all the actual gear they’re wearing during a battle or otherwise. The only shortcoming for the visuals is that up close. Characters’ faces look flat; as if someone drew a picture of a face and wrapped it around a Styrofoam ball.
There is a wide variety of terrain in the game. There are environments ranging from lush forests, dank caves, and sprawling prairies. These vistas are beautifully detailed and really give you a sense of the scale of the world you’re traveling in. Caves were rendered a little too darkly, but a quick visit to the game’s settings menu was all it took to move the brightness to an acceptable level.
The soundtrack is superb. It’s fully orchestrated and the composer was really able to capture the grandeur and epic scale of the story he was scoring. I found the voices to be a little cheesy, but that could be because they’re very British. The general consensus is that the voice acting is good so we can chalk any perceived hoakiness up to my American ears.
Battling it out on the open plains.
Since the Wii released almost five years ago, one of the major complaints of its naysayers has been that there are no “in-depth” games for the system. While that was mostly true at the time, it is obvious that Xenoblade Chronicles was just the game that these people and long-time Wii fans were holding out for. It’s unfortunate that by the time this game was created, the JRPG has become mostly a dead genre in the eyes of Western gamers. This colossal title offers a sprawling world, an intricate battle system, and a great story all wrapped up in the package with some of the best graphic on offer from the Wii. After playing just a portion of the game, it left me hoping that there will be more games this accessible and ambitious in the console generations to come…and hopefully with a North American release.
[review title=”Xenoblade Chronicles” pros=”Great story, excellent graphics, intricate yet easy to learn battle system” cons=”Character faces look a little flat, caves are way too dark. That’s it really.” verdict=”Xenoblade Chronicles is the definitive JRPG of this console generation.” score=97]