Xenoblade Chronicles Review
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Wii.
The much vaunted JRPG epic finally makes its way West (but not all the way). Has it been worth the wait?
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles making its way West is almost as lengthy as the quest in the game. Previously a Japan exclusive RPG, it was so well received and gained such high praise from critics in Japan that Wii owners in Europe and North America were soon petitioning for its translation and release. Project Rainfall, as the petition became known, looked to have secured Xenoblade’s release with a statement from Nintendo at E3 2010 that they were working on an English translation of the title. However, nothing was heard concerning the title for around six months. When Nintendo finally announced that Xenoblade Chronicles had been translated to English, and would be getting a release in the West, they dropped a bomb on North American fans. Yes, Xenoblade was on its way West but it would only be gracing European Wii consoles, while a North American release would be based entirely on how the title sold in Europe. A sickening blow for North American Nintendo fans that is perhaps a demonstration of how little Nintendo understands the clamour surrounding this game and how little they understand their remaining hardcore fans. That, though, is a story for another day.
A game as built-up as this seems almost destined to be anti-climactic. So just how does Xenoblade Chronicles stack up? Is it worth the wait and the efforts of Project Rainfall? Or is it a case of being big in Japan?
There is no doubting that Xenoblade Chronicles is a JRPG. After all, it bares all the classic hallmarks. You play as Shulk, an orphaned young hero sporting a questionable haircut who, for some unknown reason, is the only person capable of ridding the world of a mysterious evil. You wander a vast world in a party of three, following a story that could only exist in a JRPG while undertaking fantastical quests, and yes you wield this world’s ultimate weapon that is capable of letting its user do equally fantastical things. You can be forgiven, then, for thinking that Xenoblade Chronicles is another generic, slow paced, overly intricate, and boring game that is trying to be Final Fantasy. You will be pleased to hear that Xenoblade Chronicles breaks the JRPG mould. It’s fast paced, exciting, exceptionally non-linear, it feels fresh and has a level of innovation that sets it apart from all other JRPGs of the last decade.
How then, was Monolith Soft able to craft a game that retains its JRPG roots without being suffocated by them? The answer is shockingly simple. Monolith Soft didn’t change the formula, it’s faithful to JRPGs as a whole; rather, they refined it. Throughout Xenoblade Chronicles, Monolith Soft honours the many positive elements of JRPGs but isn’t afraid to do away with the ones that hamper gameplay. This is most evident in the non-linear way players are allowed to experience everything this game has to offer. You are given the freedom to wander its sumptuous overworld. The freedom to explore this world in search of side-quests that see you loot caves and fight monsters that defy belief, and the freedom to genuinely become a part of, and immersed in, a world that has a vibrancy that long-time fans of the genre and newcomers alike will find surprisingly unique.
Monolith Soft’s refinements of the genre are felt throughout Xenoblade. No stone has been left unturned in their attempt to make the game accessible to veterans and newcomers alike. Everything from control to navigation to the battle system has been polished to ensure that Xenoblade is both accessible and a joy to play.
The ease of control in Xenoblade is a feature that should be commended. Unlike Monster Hunter Tri, which required the use of the classic controller to get the most out of it, Xenoblade makes fantastic use of the standard Wiimote and Nunchuck combination. In exploration mode, the Nunchuck’s analogue stick is used to control character movement. The C button is used in conjunction with the Wiimote’s D-Pad to control camera movement. The A button is used to interact in various ways with the world. Finally, the B button allows your character to jump, which is an interesting addition that gives exploration a decidedly different feel from other RPGs. This is an accomplished setup which gives the player complete control of characters and the camera. It’s the elegance of how these controls are implemented that makes playing Xenoblade so thoroughly rewarding. It ensures that a game as epic in scale and as densely packed as Xenoblade remains manageable and doesn’t become overwhelming for those new to the genre.
However, it’s in battle when Xenoblade’s control setup really comes into its own. Liberated from stifling turn based battles, the game feels fluid, dynamic and innovative. The player retains full control of the lead character, allowing for movement around enemies to place them in the perfect position. Although attacks are automatic, this freedom of movement is particularly useful when utilising your characters’ Arts (special attacks that are initiated manually and require a period of cool-down, much like Final Fantasy’s XIII’s clockwork battle system). Some Arts are more effective against certain points on an enemy’s body, such as the side or back, making the control over character movement not only useful, but essential. Each character has nine Arts to choose from which initially appears rather daunting. Thankfully, this has been simplified as the selection of Arts has been integrated through the use of the Wiimote’s D-Pad. The D-Pad allows you to easily navigate each Art with a simple press of the left or right button, and when used in the right position they can be truly devastating to enemies. This system has been so effectively integrated into Xenoblade that even players new to JRPGs will battle like veterans before the end of the first hour of play.
There is one element to the battle system that makes it stand out from any other: the protagonist’s weapon, the Monado. Central to both the battle system, and the overarching storyline, the Monado is an ancient blade that allows Shulk to see visions of the future. In battle, these visions are presented in stylised grey and blue cutscenes that show future enemy attacks and give the player a short timeframe to prevent them from happening. This adds a tactical element to the fast paced battle system ensuring battles don’t degenerate into simple hack and slash affairs with fancy weapons.
While gameplay and battle systems are equally laudable, it’s Xenoblade’s unique world that draws a great deal of appeal. This world is, without a doubt, one that could only exist in the JRPG genre. Xenoblade is set on the fossilised bodies of two giant robots (yes, you read that right) that were once locked in a titanic battle until the toll of it froze them in place. The worlds created on the limbs of these robotic titans couldn’t be any more different from one another. One robot, named the Bionis, is colonised by humans who live on the titan’s frozen limbs that sport a wide array of environments from fertile grasslands to murky swamps to a truly breath-taking, snow-laden mountain range. The scenery is truly epic in scale, stretching out for what appears to be hundreds of miles. It’s not just what can be seen around the character that is impressive; a simple look upwards is enough to leave you speechless, as you can clearly make out the giant robot that you are traversing. It’s a setting unparalleled by any other RPG this generation.
We should not forget about Xenoblade’s other robotic titan, the Mechonis, home to the evil robot enemies: the Mechon. Where the Bionis is lush with natural environments, the Mechonis is a grimy, mechanical environment that is just as beautiful, striking and dramatic as the natural counterparts on the Bionis. Score one for art direction!
This world of juxtaposition and contradiction is the perfect setting for Xenoblade’s equally epic and dramatic plot. Initially centred on the attack of Shulk’s home, Colony 9, Xenoblade soon evolves into a multifaceted story of love, vengeance, and saving Shulk’s world. Whilst these are all staples of the JRPG genre, Monolith Soft has crafted a storyline that is truly engrossing and immersive with more plot twists than a Stephen King novel. You will get to a point where you think you have got the story figured out only for the game to throw a curveball that flips it on its head. The story is properly epic too, lasting over 50 hours and filled with huge boss battles – and that’s before you go off the beaten track, explore and undertake side-quests. The real triumph here is that, although long, the story doesn’t feel drawn out, which is a testament to just how very well it is told.
Although the world of Xenoblade is beautifully realised, there are times when you’re left thinking that the title deserved to be released on a system with a bit more power. Textures are fuzzy, there is a lot of popping in and out, and the small scale vistas aren’t as impressive as the larger ones. Art direction, once again, comes to Xenoblade’s rescue, ensuring that the areas you visit each have a look and feel unique to them; it isn’t long before the details soon melt away, and you’re left in awe of the beauty of the world you have the privilege of exploring. Let’s not take anything away from Xenoblade though. It’s a significant technical achievement that is so well realised that there are times when you forget that you are playing the game on the graphically weakest console of this generation. Xenoblade contains more creativity and innovation in environment and monster design than any of the JRPG epics, Final Fantasy included, in the last five years. With that said, you still get the feeling that if Xenoblade had been released on Xbox 360 or PS3 we would have been talking about one of the finest games ever made.
Xenoblade Chronicles has become the new flag bearer of the JRPG. In a genre that is considered as endangered, it is a breath of fresh air. It takes what made JRPGs of old great, and combines them with the modern, western style of RPG. The result is so elegantly done that what Monolith Soft has produced feels like natural and organic progression of the genre. In short, it’s a revolution in how JRPGs are made, yet presented as mere evolution. Such is the skill of the developer in creating a game that, in its genre, has no equal in the last 5 years. Simply put: a masterpiece.
Wanderson75 rates Xenoblade Chronicles at 4.75/5.0
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