For the past many years, every time I have begun playing a JRPG, I’ve gone in with doubts, skepticism and zero expectations. With a few possible exceptions like Dragon Quest IX last year, the Pokemon games, Lost Odyssey way back in the beginning of the generation and a few other games that are mostly remakes of old classics, most JRPGs in the past few years have been a huge disappointment. And with the rise of the likes of Mass Effect and The Witcher, the WRPG sub-genre has become the more popular one.
So obviously, when I went it to play Xenoblade Chronicles, I was careful not to get my hopes too high. Yes, the game had received a lot of praise and was supposed to be one of Wii’s killer apps of 2011, but the genre of JRPG had stagnated severely, and I couldn’t help but feel that Xenoblade will have fallen prey to the same stagnation and unimaginative nature. However, it seems my fears were unfounded.
Directed by the legendary Tetsuya Takahashi, creator of previous Xeno games (to which Xenoblade Chronicles is a homage) and Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade Chronicles lives up to all the expectations you should go in with, and then some more.
The first thing you will see about the game- and simply fall in love with- are the visuals. You do see blocky textures and unwieldy polygons several times, but the visuals, at the end of the day, impressed me greatly. The environments have been very well designed by developers Monolith Soft, the draw distances are breathtaking, and the fluidity of the animations only helps. This may not be an HD wonder like, say, Crysis or Uncharted or Gears of War, but this is still one darn good looking game. You’ll often find yourself simply standing on the edge of a cliff, gazing into the beautiful distance with its wonderfully realized draw distances. It’s truly a site to behold.
However, Xenoblade is all about its story, followed by the incredibly deep gameplay. To be honest, I’ve always been a person who prefers to play games with excellent stories, even though I enjoy the likes of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Xenoblade is set in a world that looks a lot like a colossus- in fact, it is a colossus. A colossus named The Bionis, which is the beautiful world we live in. The game follows the story of the character Shulk- and orphan who wields a large, mystical sword called Monado- and his friends, who try to drive out robot-like creatures called Mechon and retain peace in the world. It may not sound like much to you, but the story turns into some of the best plots you’ll ever see in an RPG, with some twists and turns that will truly shock you, and some moments that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the game.
Now, Takahashi’s previous Xeno titles were notorious were extremely long drawn, complex stories and long cutscenes that stretched on for minutes and minutes at end. Xenoblade Chronicles adopts a completely different approach at presenting the story. There are no rendered cutscenes this time, no drawn-out, excruciatingly long clips in Xenoblade. The cutscenes are all rendered in in-game graphics, and they do their job perfectly. They’re not so cinematic to make the game feel cheesy and contrived, but they’re not so simply and straightforward that they seem bland. Monolith Soft has hit the sweet spot with them.
The story moves along at a perfect pace, lending the campaign an awesome pacing that keeps you excited at all times, making you want to play more. But majority of that is because of the excellent, deep and addictive gameplay. The combat of the game, firstly, is simply brilliant. It’s like a new take on Final Fantasy XII with its cog-like gameplay mechanisms, with some of its own twists and tweaks, like flash forwarding into the future to see what special moves your enemy will be using and preempting against that move.
You control a single character that auto-attacks an enemy when when you get close to the targets. You have to chain and manage moves and assaults in a battle. ‘Arts’ can be triggered any time in a fight, and they’re very effective. But remember- the more Arts you use, the more aggressively your enemies will attack your character specifically. This lends a dynamic AI-ish mechanism to the game, making it all the more complex and deep. And this is not just some button mashing game- you have to think. Think when to offend, think when to defend. Observe your enemies closely.
Throughout a battle, our party gauge fills in. This comes in handy in several cases. When all segments of this gauge fill up, you can use special chain moves to use quick attacks using all your characters in rapid succession. If, however, one of your party members falls, you can use up one section of the gauge to revive him/her.
The gameplay has several other facets to it than just the combat- you can upgrade your items, weapons, armours and inventory. You can explore the entire world, which is a lot of fun to do, because there are no boundaries at all. There are not even any invisible walls- so keep careful when treading in regions of high altitude. You can tackle the mini quests and side missions, which are as much fun as the game itself is. Or you can just wander around aimlessly, collecting collectibles or talking to NPCs. There are just so many things to do in Xenoblade Chronicles that you’ll never ever get bored of the game. I wish I could go on for a few more hundred words about what all we can do in Xenoblade Chronicles, but unfortunately, that cannot happen.
I can, however, tell you how detailed everything is. Everything from the little descriptions the game gives for every little things, to inventory, to the environment- Oh, the environment. The trees clustered in forests look stunning, the grass blades sway perfectly in the wind, the water bodies look gorgeous, the waterfalls are breathtaking… the world of Bionis is just so well built and so detailed, you can’t help but simply marvel at the amazing work the developers have done creating it. everything is very, very detailed, and it’s clear that the developers have put in a lot of hard work into creating it.
Of course, I also want to mention the excellent soundtrack of Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s exactly the kind of soundtrack you expect to hear in a fantasy epic RPG of such caliber, exuding polish and quality like everything else in the game. Some of the compositions are really epic, and we definitely hope that Monolith Soft uses them in the sequels (if they ever make any).
But there are a few flaws in Xenoblade. For one, the character models are very poorly built. They all look… very weird. It’s hard to describe- especially Shulk, who may not look like a typical JRPG protagonist, but still doesn’t look very good. Other than that, there are occasion camera bugs, and the voice acting is a bit too British. So British that even the British might find it jarring. It can get really jarring sometimes. Then, the mini-map should have been better- the mini-map in Xenoblade Chronicles is like one in an RTS- it only shows you the areas you’ve explored, and this can cause navigational issues several times, especially when we have to go around mountains or find a way past a water body which the mini map may or may not have shown.
Ultimately, Xenoblade Chronicles is a beautiful, beautiful game. It has sky-high production values, addictive, deep gameplay, a great story, and a gorgeous world that you’ll want to keep exploring. And chances are that you probably will keep on finding new places and new collectibles, considering the sheer size ad magnitude of the game. Where many JRPGs have tried to adopt the WPRG ways and “evolve”, Xenoblade Chronicles has held on to the essential Japanese Role Playing Games conventions and mechanics dearly, while shedding the unneeded and unpolished ones. The release of this game marks the rebirth of the JRPG genre, or at least the beginning of the rebirth.
This game was reviewed on the Wii.
Second opinion by Pramath Parijat:
Xenoblade Chronicles is breathtaking.
It starts with an incredible introduction, depicting two massive giants involved in a world shattering battle, and for a minute, the Wii sheds the shackles imposed on it by its complete lack of power, and presents to the player something on the screen that is unmatched, unrivaled, incredible. The sheer scale of the battle is staggering, and it sets the stage for the rest of the adventure, not just by way of introducing crucial plot points, but also by setting the tone for what is to come: an epic adventure that this genre has always been so capable of delivering, but one that it has failed to provide for so many years now. Xenoblade Chronicles is the modern JRPG, the true evolution of its kind, retaining everything that worked, removing all that didn’t, and iterating on things that once worked but were now archaic.
Of course, at this point, it is extremely hard to assess the game independently of all the hype that surrounds it. Xenoblade Chronicles debuted at E3 2009 as Monado, and it was received warmly. Developed by newly acquired Monolith Soft, the game opened to rave reviews in Japan, and a European localization was quickly announced by Nintendo of Europe. Fans in North America eagerly awaited for the corroborating announcement from Nintendo of America, confirming the game’s release here as well, but it never came. Instead, what came was a flat out refusal by NoA to localize and publish the game in the States.
What followed was probably the biggest (and most successful) fan led campaign in gaming history. Operation Rainfall saw thousands of fan amassing under the same war cry: bring this game to the States. Letters were sent, Twitter feeds were bombed, Facebook pages were hijacked, but all this while, Nintendo of America remained mum. Meanwhile, the game launched in Europe to outstanding reviews, adding insult to injury. North American fans, it seemed, would miss out on one of the defining experiences of this generation.
Things ended well, however: Nintendo of America relented, and decided to release the game in the States, but only as a soft, limited release. It would be available only at Gamestop. That was enough for everyone, however. All they needed was a chance to legally buy the game. And they did, and now, finally, they’ve all had a chance to see what all the hype was about, they’ve had a chance to verify if the reviews were just overselling it to ensure the game would make it to American shores, or if the game really is that good.
The game really is that good.
Xenoblade Chronicles tells the story of two slumbering giants: Bionis and Mechonis. Once, innumerable eons ago, they fought, they warred, and then, they both fell into an eternal slumber. Their bodies ended up becoming fully populated worlds with time, inhabited by different cultures and civilizations. The game itself takes place in this setting: with the giants dead, their bodies now full fledged worlds, their various inhabitants locked into their own conflicts and struggles.
In fact, the entire story is about conflict. It begins with the prologue showing Mechonis and Bionis fighting. The main story itself begins with the protagonist’s home town being invaded. The entire story explores the conflict between the organic Homs (humanoid creatures) and Nopon (birdlike creatures) that live upon Bionis, the giant symbolizing organic life, and the Mechons, inorganic creatures that live atop Mechonis, and constantly threaten to invade and overwhelm the organic lifeforms. The Mechon are seemingly impervious, and advance in menacing hordes. Except for the one mysterious weapon called Monado, which is the only thing that it seems can drive them back.
It’s an incredible story. I won’t pretend it breaks new ground. It doesn’t. I won’t pretend that you won’t guess many of the things that happen along the way. You will. But Xenoblade’s strength lies in how skillfully it manages to weave this narrative, this intricate story that sets up this vast gameworld, that feels seamless, organic, real. Populated by so many characters, all of whom go about their daily lives, concerned little with the larger metaphysical conflict that defines the plot. The story literally takes us places, beautiful, breathtaking places, across the corpses of both giants, and you want to stop, and look into the distance, and see this wonderful, beautiful, strange world that developer Monolith Soft has so painstakingly crafted for us. The story is great, well told, and it makes you genuinely care for what’s going to happen- a rare feat for a game, and even rarer for a game by Nintendo. Over the many hours that you sink into this game, you will feel this profound attachment to the game’s world that cannot be explained.
There are often moments, when, as you make your way across the rugged landscapes, you can see far out into the distance, alien landscapes, landscapes atop the other giant, totally within your reach if you would just walk towards them. And then you realize how criminally underutilized the Wii was. It makes you lament the fact that the Wii was really never given a proper chance by the developers that worked with it, because this game conclusively proves, once and for all, that the system was fully capable of delivering a true, hardcore experience that is unparalleled.
Take, for instance, the combat system: the fundamental problem of JRPGs, ever since they transitioned into the modern era, has been the combat. Traditionally turn based and consequently slow paced, modern gamers, increasingly becoming used to the unrelenting twitch action that western shooters and role playing games provide, had no patience for the slog that combat in JRPGs often was. Worse still is JRPGs’ reliance on grinding- for levels, for equipment, whatever. All of it just breaks the immersion entirely, breaks the flow of the game and the flow of the story, and very rarely works within the framework of the epic tale that so many JRPGs often try to tell.
Xenoblade Chronicles manages to properly evolve JRPG combat for the twenty first century. Like Final Fantasy XII, all action takes place in real time, in the overworld. Enemies can be spotted from a distance- they may be either passive, or aggressive, and this affects how they fight as well. You have to try and pick a fight with passive enemies, whereas aggressive enemies will chase you down. Most importantly, aggressive enemies attack harder, and more unrelentingly as compared to the passive enemies. The fact that you can see them all from a distance enables you to decide whether you feel up to fighting them right now or not. And when you decide to fight them, assuming you initiate the fight, there are multiple ways still: you can engage enemies outright. You can try and isolate some monsters from their pack and pick them off one by one in that manner. You can try and sneak up on them, placing yourself strategically to attack them from certain positions and get combat bonuses.
As for the fighting itself? It’s been very wisely executed to keep the player involved beyond just selecting the attack and watching it play out on the screen. For instance, where the attack is delivered from matters, as it augments the attack with status effects and enhancements. Then there are the other intricacies- an attack chain system that feels right out of White Knight Chronicles, requiring you to select Talents from other party members even as Shulk (the game’s protagonist) attacks, making sure the Talent selection matches Shulk’s attack; character specific special moves, and more, all of which makes you want to fight, in sharp contrast to other games in the genre, where combat eventually becomes something you dread. In Xenoblade Chronicles, the combat will never interrupt the pace of the game.
Which is just as well, because the story is immaculately paced. Unlike other JRPGs, which waste so much time on needless dialog and exposition that no one wants and is simply not needed, Xenoblade Chronicles features a story that is always moving. There are portions when it seems like it’s slowing down, when it feels like the last major event was far too long ago. But on the whole, the story always moves, and it is this pacing that ensures that you never lose interest. Your interest is always sustained- there is always something happening to ensure that this is the case.
The story is only one side of the coin, though: modern JRPGs have come to be abhorred more their characters and characterization than anything else. Each game features the same typical, cliched cast of characters, that is annoyingly characterized, whiny, sulking, brooding; the voice acting induces antipathy, while the dialog itself induces cringes.
Happily enough, this isn’t true for Xenoblade. Whereas the characters will again fit into well defined archetypes- you have your main character Shulk, a plucky teenager who wants to see the world, and who unwittingly becomes the part of a larger struggle. You have your best friend Reyn, the Ron Weasley-esque comic relief. You have Firoa, who is your trademark childhood friend, and who definitely has a thing for Shulk. My point is, these are all characters you’d expect from a fantasy JRPG. But unlike other JRPGs, the characterization is spot on, and you like all of them, you care for them.
What adds further to their allure is the great allure. As stated previously, this game was localized first for Europe. This means that the voice cast is all British, and this provides for a refreshing change from the otherwise whiny and annoying voice acting that pervades all Japanese game. The voice acting is understated and well done, and adds so much to the characters themselves. It’s a great example of taking well known genre tropes and having a new take on them, making sure that the genre evolves and is relevant again, but that it doesn’t lose its identity.
And that, in a nutshell, is Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s a game that brilliantly re-engineers the JRPG for the modern market, but one that ensures that JRPGs don’t lose what made them so popular in the first place. It’s a game that works hard to be accessible with its compelling battle system, with its quick travel mechanic, with its engaging story, but one that goes above and beyond the call in providing unprecedented depth for the odd player who is willing to seek it out. It’s a game of incredible ambition, hampered only by the Wii, which, when all is said and done, is dated technology, and ultimately incapable of doing justice to the game.
It’s a game that every gamer must have. It’s one of those rare games that it’s worth buying an entire system over. A title that is a gem, a masterpiece, one that will be remembered for many years down the line. It’s a watershed moment in gaming history- years from now, when people look back at the inevitable JRPG renaissance, Xenoblade Chronicles will be marked as the exact period in time when it all started. And it will be remembered not only as the pioneer, but also as the one game that did it the best.
Excellent graphics; Great premise; Really good story; Combat is awesome; Great attention has been paid to detail in all aspects; Sound score is wonderful; Excellent pacing; Exploration is a lot of fun; Lots and lots of side quests; Very, very addictive
Voice acting is a little corny; Camera issues; Mini map is not the best you'll see; Character models are not very well built
Xenoblade Chronicles has to be the best JRPG to have been released this generation- the rebirth of an entire genre.