This article was originally published on September 3, 2011.
I have to admit, I’ve been low on hope when it comes to RPGs and Wii. It’s a subject I’ve written often about, whether it be lamentations over Wii’s great role playing drought or reviews of games like Opoona and Arc Rise Fantasia that tried, with modest success, to fill the genre chasm. Wii has been a bust in the RPG department of the likes I haven’t seen since the original Xbox failed to deliver anything of real substance beyond Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Nintendo has truly fallen far from the halcyon SNES days.
At the same time, I’ve followed Xenoblade Chronicles with great interest since its trailer was released. That trailer first surfaced, with no explanation or fanfare, as Monado: The Beginning of the World during E3 2009. The day after it was loaded onto Nintendo’s press site, I called longtime Nintendojo editor Noah Ward, who was on the E3 show floor trying to get into one of Nintendo’s many game booths. Trying to cut through the deafening E3 din that surrounded him, I asked him to find out what this Monado game was all about. Noah’s attempts to glean information proved fruitless, perhaps foreshadowing Nintendo of America’s disinterest in the title. My own interest in the game, meanwhile, was significantly enhanced after I found out that it was the work of Monolith Soft, whose Baten Kaitos games were a huge boost to GameCube’s sparse JRPG library. It was my hope that Xenoblade Chronicles could bouy Wii as Baten Kaitos Origins did for GameCube in its last days.
As it turns out, that analogy vastly understates Xenoblade’s true potential, and I say that as a big fan of Baten Kaitos Origins. Xenoblade Chronicles dwarfs every other JRPG on Wii in terms of its scope, production, and overall impact; it doesn’t just fill a library hole, it gives Wii respectability of a sort I haven’t seen from the console in too long. Nor am I alone in my fanboy praise of the game, as both our own Katharine Byrne and other critics have lavished praise on this top notch epic. As of now, GameRankings lists it as the 6th best game of 2011, the best Wii game of 2011, and the 5th best Wii game of all time. That critical press has helped spur sales, which were so good Nintendo of Europe found themselves blessed with a shortage of copies to meet demand.
I have contributed to that demand, giving my money to Nintendo of Europe by ordering the game from a UK retailer. I made the decision to import the game months ago, after it became clear that Nintendo of America was not interested in publishing it stateside. Importing is not the easiest of decisions, as it requires some modification of a Wii and an import copy of Xenoblade Chronicles can run upwards of $70 for the game alone. (I was lucky enough to find a reputable store on eBay selling it new for $51.) Moreover, the grassroots Operation Rainfall has frowned on the practice, understandably concerned that importing (and pirating) will undercut the ability to get the game released in North America. I am a fan of Operation Rainfall — I reached out to interview them earlier in the year and I’ve even written a letter to Reggie myself — and I sympathize with their position. I am also disillusioned with Nintendo of America, and I strongly suspect Reggie’s “we’re watching” line is a smokescreen. I am not currently convinced that Nintendo of America will ever publish Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, or Pandora’s Tower.
In the meantime, my twenty or so hours of Xenoblade Chronicles has convinced me that the hype on this game is fully justified. Xenoblade Chronicles is an elite Wii title that does for the JRPG what Metroid Prime 3 did for the first person adventure or Super Mario Galaxy did for platforming. In fact, as I think back over the many RPGs I’ve played, I’m hard-pressed to come up with one that is better formulated than this one.
In thinking about the perfect storm that is Xenoblade Chronicles, several key qualities that come to mind:
A hero who actually lives up to the billing. RPGs lead protagonists are a case study in men who need therapy. You’ve got the silent ones who don’t bond with anyone (sorry, Cloud Strife), the jerks (the majority of Tales leads, actually), the whiny idiots, and the brooding ones with the deep dark evil secret. It’s a pain to be playing a protagonist who does everything I would never do as a real person. (Worst words from an idiot RPG protagonist: “I don’t need your help, you high-level mage healer! I can take down that monster by myself!” Seriously?)
Far too few are the heroes that are reasonably well-adjusted, intelligent, and principled — as in, the kind of character that deserves the title. That’s why when I do see a Vyse from Skies of Arcadia, an Ike from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, or even the Sagi from Baten Kaitos Origins, I connect far better than when I have to endure Emil Castagnier’s pendular sniveling baby/brutish jerk phases in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. Xenoblade’s Shulk is a hero in the proud tradition of Vyse or Ike. A researcher at heart, he is a reluctant hero but not a timid one, taking on the burdens of his people because he has to. He listens to those around him and tries his best to help those in need. Just as important, he’s a ferocious fighter when the situation demands and I found him to be a great, balanced character upon which to wrap the plot.
A group I want to belong to. Nothing is more irritating in an RPG than carousing around with a ragtag group I’d never be caught with in real life. Misfit parties seem abundant in the genre, as if real drama hinges on creating a party that looks more like Big Brother than Seven Samurai. Mysterious mercenaries who lecture young Chosen Ones and betray the party later must be in abundance in Japan. MMOs are even worse; I’ve played a handful of MMORPGs over the years, and while I mostly enjoyed each of them, in every single one I had to deal with at least one jerk, whether he or she be a pompus party in Guild Wars, a snarky, condescending player in City of Heroes, or a preteen brat in Monster Hunter Tri. Playing with people has plenty of benefits, and it’s cool to connect with characters from around the world, but I think I’ve reached a point where I prefer characters who don’t totally sabotage the experience by taking their own personal issues out on me.
So what do you get in Xenoblade? For starters, you get a core set of friends who band together because they are fast friends. You get a party that encourages you in battle and commends you when you do something right. You get supporting characters that are so awesome in their own right, both in their abilities and their sense of right, that they could themselves be lead characters in most other lesser RPGs.
As a result, the group dynamics are supremely satisfying. A watershed point for me on Xenoblade‘s brilliant character dynamics comes relatively early in the game. Without spoiling too much, one character proceeds to give another character a rather rough tongue-lashing, all for the purposes of reminding the lashee of the importance of being a team and working together. The way it is delivered is one of the finest intraparty moments I’ve seen in a game in a long time.
Sublimely accessible gameplay. A charge not unique to the RPG genre is this business of sadism. Games for years prided themselves in making death as torturous as possible, as if gamers couldn’t wait to lose so they could have to go back to the start of the game or endure a painful death cutscene. RPGs, with their remote save points and, in the case of early MMOs, absurd death penalties were as bad as any set of games.
I’m sure some old-school folks still relish having characters die permanently in Fire Emblem, but I figure there’s enough torture in the real life DMV without having to face down the temptation to reset my system every time my Paladin gets killed permanently by some lucky enemy soldier or I have to spend two hours retrieving a corpse. Xenoblade has no death penalty, with a death simply returning you to the nearest landmark. That means those precious hours I put into the game are never wasted and I can get back into the action with a minimum of distraction.
I like how Xenoblade Chroncles tries to be accessible in other ways, too. Saving can take place at any time out of combat. Warping can take place anytime out of combat and warp points are spread liberally throughout the world. Many quests do not require you to return to the quest giver, allowing you to stock up on quests and complete them in the field without having to remember where you got the quest from. Characters gain experience points, skill points, and other things at the same rate in or out of combat, with incentives to party-mixing from other arenas.
“The” sword. Rarely do game heroes get really awesome, unique weapons. Most of the time they get a calvacade of blades that are progressively cooler but all disposible. Part of the complication is that sword statistics are typically static; at a certain point a weapon simply becomes too weak for the enemies at hand. This is ironic considering the storied history of legendary weapons in other mediums, whether it be King Arthur’s Excalibur or the Sword of Omens from Thundercats fame, weapons which knew no foe and could amass truly otherworldly abilities when the circumstances demanded it.
Xenoblade’s enigmatic and powerful Monado sword carries on the spirit of those fabled weapons. It’s one part lightsaber, one part magical device, and all parts awesome. The Monado comes into the fold fairly early, but it’s a weapon that grows with its user, both in terms of its hit point output and its special abilities. Even from the start it’s got some awesome attacks and buffs, and with time it adds several new wrinkles, none of which I would dare mention here. It’s also a weapon that is almost too powerful for a person, which only enhances its status as a weapon of lore.
Great audio. When you make a game whose composers — Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura among them — count Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenosaga, Kingdom Hearts, and Little King’s Story among their work, you know you’re in for good music. This game positively rocks on the aurals, from the folksy overworld themes to the epic boss battles. I love how the game has so many unique tracks, meaning there are many situations with a dedicated piece of music just for them. Likewise, the British voice acting has proved surprisingly cool. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect when I found out that a Japanese RPG was about to get voiced by a cast straight out of Doctor Who. My Americocentric prejudices were quickly shattered, though, as I found the acting to be a refreshing change of pace from the variable American localization experience.
Heart. Heart is one of those intangible components of a good game, but to borrow from a famous judge, I know it when I see it. Or, rather, I know it when I don’t see it. The agreement among some of us in the Dojo is that latter-day Final Fantasy games are loaded with production values but lacking in heart; their worlds are beautiful but lacking in passion or inspiration. By contrast, Koei’s what low-budget Opoona lacks in flair, it makes up for in charm and originality.
A few games manage to have both: good production values and heart together: earlier Final Fantasy games, the Chrono games, and the Deus Ex games, just to name a few. Xenoblade Chronicles excels in this as well, bringing the same heart we’ve seen in previous Monolith games combined with a scope and polish those previous games never achieved. From the first scene — two gods in space upon which the game world is built — it is clear that this game is loaded with imagination, passion, and, by extension, real heart.
In playing Xenoblade Chronicles, I could not help but think of another game with similar ambitions: Final Fantasy XII. The connection with Final Fantasy XII is especially apparent, as both try to incorporate MMO sensibilities into a single-player JRPG. Yet, despite what had to be a much smaller budget, Xenoblade Chronicles is so much better than XII, from its superior combat system (XII’s clunky menu seems obsolete compared to Xenoblade’s clean icon interface) to the more visionary plot and more endearing characters. (About the only area I see that XII compares is audio; both games have absolutely sensational soundtracks.) Granted, Final Fantasy XII is a PS2 game from 2006, but it still speaks to Monolith’s vision that they have so thoroughly improved upon what was considered one of PS2’s best RPGs. Further, by many accounts Xenoblade is one of the best JRPGs even of this current generation, a testament to the developer’s ability to overcome Wii’s technical limitations.
I would go a step farther, as I think Xenoblade is one of the better JRPGs of all time, if not a serious contender for the title of my favorite RPG ever. That’s no small statement from a fan of the genre going back nearly 30 years. Either way, this is a good moment to have Nintendo’s little white system. For the first time in a long time, I’m glad to own a Wii again.