Last August, there weren’t many negative things I had to say about Xenoblade Chronicles. A couple of niggles with the camera, slightly messy menus, and a nearly overwhelming set of tutorials were the only flaws I could lay against it, and even they were fairly minor criticisms. In fact, I became so used to pressing down the C button to twist the camera that I kept pressing it for months afterwards out of habit whenever I wanted to use the camera in another game. I’ve done nothing but sing its praises since it was released, and we even named it our runner-up for Best Wii Game of 2011, and our Game of the Year Runner-Up too. I love this game, we love this game, you will no doubt love this game too.
It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the Bionis though– just over three months to be precise. Loading up my game again, I can see that I completed my first playthrough on December 17th 2011, clocking in at 148 hours and 10 minutes. Apart from the week I spared for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, that’s five months of uninterrupted Xenoblade, and according to my Nintendo Channel records, those 148 hours are only matched by about four playthroughs of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (one of which wasn’t even mine).
But I’ve well and truly shaken off my C button camera habits now, and the starry-eyed glaze of unconditional love has been tempered by other games and other platforms. I’ve fawned over Bastion, been subjected to We Sing Pop!, and The Last Story reminded me that great JRPGs don’t need to be giant, sprawling, 100+ hour epics. So now that I’ve had some time to distance myself from it, I thought now would be the perfect time to revisit Xenoblade Chronicles and see whether it really was as fantastic as I made it out to be all those months ago.
Ah, Colony 9, how I’ve missed you.
The first thing that hits me is just how far the game takes you on your journey. As I dash round the familiar streets of Colony 9, the game’s first major area, it’s a place I barely recognise. The buildings and streets are all the same, of course, but this wasn’t the same city I left three months ago. The Colony 9 I remember is a place where I helped put a broken family back together, where I made one solider’s dream come true and broke another’s, and where I mended the tattered friendships of several young children. This Colony 9 was in its native state, a place I hadn’t visited since the very early hours of my first playthrough, but it had never felt so full of promise and potential. There were dozens upon dozens of relationships just waiting to be formed and fortified and mapped out on my affinity chart, and even though I could still remember where the quest-givers and lost items were hiding, that didn’t detract from the perpetual sense of wonder or excitement in the slightest. Instead it reminded me just how far I had to go, and how much fun I had doing it the first time round.
In fact, I think “wonder” is a word I’ll forever associate with Xenoblade Chronicles because looking up at the towering heights of Tephra Hill from the sandy beaches of the Anti-Air Batterys still inspires the same kind of dizzying majesty I felt during my first playthrough. The fact that I can paddle around Colony 9’s lake, saunter through the lively Commercial District and then scale the veritable mountain of Tephra Hill without a single loading screen is still just as mind-blowing as before, although the first time around this feeling came in reverse– I climbed all the way to the top of Tephra Hill (more or less to the point where the screenshot is above), became obstructed by a rather difficult monster, and rather than die, die and die again I decided to dive-bomb it back down to the bottom and do a bit of extra monster-bashing. Of course, had the lake been solid ground I most definitely would have died (the environment is by far the second most dangerous thing in this game, the first being accidentally running into Lv.80 behemoths who fancy a bite of your Lv.10 party), but the sheer scale of the place definitely hasn’t lost any of its jaw-dropping impact.
The only thing Xenoblade doesn’t do quite so well, however (at least on an initial second playthrough), is present the same kind of challenge. Starting a New Game + means all your levels, equipment and items are carried over, so all those Lv.8 bunnits and krabbles you had trouble with in the distant past are now laughably easy (especially when your party’s average level is 95!). Of course, that’s precisely why every single area (Colony 9 included) is littered with gigantic Lv.70+ monstrosities that I could never have even dreamed of defeating before (at least until not much later in the game), but for the first couple of hours I found myself severely missing the game’s superb combat. Despite the presence of those higher level monsters, Xenoblade‘s main focus has never really been on fighting monsters– in fact you progressively get less and less EXP the more you defeat a particular monster– so even taking down those Lv.77 flammis by the beach only earned me a measly 200-odd EXP. That said, it certainly makes speeding through those early moments very, very quick indeed, and there’s no place I wanted to revisit more than the magnificent “kneecap” of the Bionis, Gaur Plain.
Never has a kneecap looked so beautiful.
I love Gaur Plain, and I really hope you do too. It’s without a doubt my favourite region of the Bionis, and it was probably here where the game well and truly won me over. It’s the very picture of all the weird and whimsical landscapes you dreamt up as a child and then some, and I would happily spend the rest of the game in this area if it let me. For some games, a single giant hub like this would have been sufficient too, but even places like Hyrule Field and Tallon IV can’t compare to the awe-inspiring glory of Gaur Plain. And this is only the knee (or “leg”) of the Bionis. Just think about that for a while– your knee is, what, a quarter of your overall height? You’ve still got a whole body to climb, and it just keeps getting better.
I won’t spoil any more, but one thing’s for sure– even though I have, quite literally, explored every last nook and cranny of these environments, it really does feel like the whole world is at my feet again, particularly when some of the choices I made the first time round left a bad taste in my mouth. Now I can right those wrongs or just choose the other option for the hell of it to see what happens. The funny thing is though, I’m still learning new things about the game even now. Some might say that’s bad design if I’m only just figuring some things out after 150-odd hours, but to me, it only adds to the game’s charm and complexity. It means I haven’t truly mastered this beast yet, and when there’s so much to tame in this game, it only serves to reinforce the game’s central themes of exploration and discovery. I might never get the best of this game, but that just gives me all the more excuse to keep coming back and trying again (and if this initial second playthrough is anything to go by, it may just become an annual event…).
All in all, revisiting Xenoblade Chronicles is rather like re-reading one of your favourite books. You know the lie of the land like the back of your hand; you know precisely where all the twists and turns will crop up, and you know exactly what’s in store for you. But even though you have all this knowledge at your fingertips, there’s still so much scope for surprise and extra insight, whether it’s certain details you missed or events you couldn’t quite get your head round. You might look at particular characters differently, or see things you never thought were there, but all the pleasure and satisfaction you felt the first time is still there in spades, and Xenoblade Chronicles is no different. It truly is a wonderful game in every sense of the word, and it definitely deserves every bit of your attention when it’s released on Friday. There really is no other game like it, either on Wii or elsewhere, and I guarantee that those 100+ hours you’ll inevitably lose to this game will be worth every second.