Stunning visuals, huge environments to explore, stellar soundtrack, rich and engaging battle system, likeable protagonists, a seemingly never-ending story.
Menu navigation could be better, voice-acting can be grating during battle, takes time to fully grasp the more advanced game mechanics.
The subject of much joy and anguish over both sides of the Atlantic, Xenoblade Chronicles is, without a doubt, a game that every Wii owner should be able to play. Set against a beautiful backdrop of nearly overwhelming proportions, it tells a thoughtful and cleverly executed story of resistance and rebellion, and possesses one of the most refreshing battle systems available on the console. With a likeable and well-developed cast of characters, it also sheds many of the less favourable traits that have come to be associated with JRPGs over the years, and from the very beginning it’s clear that Xenoblade is here to show other JRPGs how it’s done.
The story goes that long ago there was a timeless battle between two great titans: the Bionis and the Mechonis. Both perished in the cataclysmic fight, but their ancient war persisted through time as life began to evolve on their dormant bodies. Now the Homs of the Bionis are locked in combat with a race of evil machines known as the Mechons, but only one blade can save the Homs from extinction– the mysterious Monado. Furthermore, only two people are capable of harnessing the Monado’s power– a young scientist named Shulk and the bed-ridden Dunban. With only a single weapon at their disposal, the Homs face a desperate fight for survival. It’s kill or be killed in this uncertain world, and it’s up to Shulk and his companions to end the tyranny of the Mechons once and for all.
For starters, Xenoblade boasts some of the most stunning visuals you’ll ever behold on Wii, if not the best on the entire console. When you look up at the sky and the tall cliffs surrounding you, everything is crystal clear; gone are the days of misty horizons and scenery gradually fading into view– each landscape is there to enjoy in all its grand majesty, and there were several moments when I just had to stop and stare at the beautiful world my small band of warriors were trying to save, particularly as the light changed from day into night. There’s nothing quite like climbing up a huge mountain and being able to survey the land below with pin-point precision.
Bright colors and vivid landscapes– you’ve come a long way, dear Wii.
The environments are also deceptively huge– just when you think you’ve discovered every last nook and cranny, you’ll quickly stumble upon yet another new area to explore. The game’s scale is so vast that you might almost mistake this for an MMO if it weren’t for the lack of other players wandering around. But rather than simply allow the player to explore every area and be done with it when they first arrive, there are several sub-locations within the main environments which are tightly guarded by hoards of very high-level monsters, making them utterly impenetrable until later in the game. This helps to keep a finely-tuned balance between progressing with the story and getting well and truly stuck in with the multitude of sidequests available. (Though if I said I hadn’t been so curious as to send my humble party of Lv.10s into a nest of Lv.80 monsters more than once, then I’d be lying. A lot.)
But that’s another great thing about Xenoblade– it encourages experimentation. With most RPGs, falling in battle means a frustrating loss of progress and experience points if you haven’t saved before a big boss battle. But with Xenoblade you return to the nearest landmark (or checkpoint) with all your experience points and new skills intact. Saving your game becomes something you only need to do if you want to stop playing, and in my books this can only be a good thing.
Similarly, you can gain experience points merely by discovering new areas, something that most RPGs only achieve by forcing players to dungeon grind against wave upon wave of enemies. In fact, you often gain more experience points through exploration and undertaking sidequests than you do battling monsters (unless they’re boss fights), making Xenoblade another breath of fresh air in the RPG arena.
But let’s talk more a little bit more about fighting monsters. Taking place in real-time, you control the party leader while your companions execute their own attacks at will. With complete freedom to move around your enemy at all times, you initiate battle by targeting your prey with the Z-Button (although higher-level monsters will challenge you themselves if you encroach too far into their territory). Stand close enough and everyone will attack automatically, but the real fun comes in supplementing your character’s standard attacks with their own unique abilities, called “Arts”. These are special skills which either deal more damage or give status effects depending on your position, and this added layer of strategy makes every fight a tense and fulfilling ride of ever-evolving tactics and gameplay. You’ve constantly got to keep your wits about you– one wrong move, or indeed too many moves, will increase the amount of “aggro” your enemy feels toward you, meaning that they’ll single you out and unleash a wave of pain until another party member ticks them off even more.
No menu-scrounging battles here– in Xenoblade Chronicles, you’re completely in control.
Let me illustrate with an example: Shulk does the most damage when he can get behind an enemy and unleash his Back Slash, but he can’t do that if his aggro level is too high. The monster will continue to face Shulk until someone like Reyn, the main muscle of the team, draws its attention toward him instead, and so the player has to judge when to unleash these Arts and when to let them auto-attack. It’s a fine balance, but this is precisely what makes each battle so different and exciting. It’s an incredibly intelligent system, always challenging the player to react quickly and effectively, and this is even more apparent when Shulk begins to receive visions of the future. Occasionally Shulk will see attacks in advance which will potentially devastate a member of your party if you don’t warn them in time, and this considerably ups the ante in fierce boss battles.
But while Xenoblade doesn’t have reams of menu layers to navigate while you’re battling, there are a lot of other things to keep your eye on and pay attention to (with visions of the future being just one of them), and these subtler nuances of the battle system can get overly complicated and confusing. It wasn’t until 10-15 hours in that I really understood what each different bar or meter was for, or why a prompt to press the B-Button kept coming up all the time, and it’s here where Xenoblade falls down slightly. The tutorial screens are informative on the whole, but too often they fall into the trap of too much telling and not enough showing. There’s a lot to take in, particularly at the beginning of the game, and this might easily put off players who aren’t used to such complex RPGs. Persist, though, and you’ll definitely be rewarded with one of the most enriching battle systems in RPG history.
While we’re on the subject of controls, I also have to mention the camera. Fellow staffers have told me that the camera isn’t such a problem if you’re playing with the Classic Controller, but if you’re playing with the Wii Remote and nunchuk then you have to hold down the C button in order to rotate the camera with the d-pad. This is unnecessarily cumbersome to manoeuvre and it just feels like clumsy design amid an array of such sophisticated gameplay mechanics.
Menu navigation can also be a little frustrating at times. The way Xenoblade operates is to allow the player to scroll through the different menu headings in-game, meaning you can pull up the menu options using the – button and carry on running around at the same time. While this initially seems like a great concept, it isn’t particularly practical since you immediately have to enter a standard static menu interface when you want to access one of the menu screens. The main problem, however, lies in switching between these sections, particularly for equipping your characters and levelling up their Arts, two activities in different menu headings but two which I generally found I wanted to do together. This constant to-ing and fro-ing between active and static screens is quite slow when your Wii has to load up another menu screen each time, and it generally drags the pace down a notch.
However, these complaints are fairly minor when you look at everything Xenoblade has in its favour, and its story is another one of its superb highlights. One part particularly deserving of praise is the way Monolith Soft handle Shulk’s aforementioned power of seeing into the future. Rather than simply being a neat battle trick, the issues surrounding this power are thoroughly ingrained into the over-arching narrative, and players are treated to a delicate and nuanced exploration of Shulk’s difficulty in dealing with these visions. It might be fairly standard RPG-fare for a young warrior to rise up and alter the course of history by conquering evil, but Xenoblade turns this idea on its head when Shulk quickly learns that he can’t bend the future to his will just because he has the gift of foresight. Sometimes he succeeds in changing the future, other times he fails with horrific consequences, but either way it leaves the player wondering what they’d do if they were placed in a similar situation– would you tell your best friend how they might die? Xenoblade definitely isn’t afraid to ask big questions, although it perhaps would have been even better if the story allowed the player themselves to have some say in the way Shulk makes his decisions and have the story change to accommodate the player’s choices.
Ultimately, though, Xenoblade delivers on every front and makes the JRPG a genre to be proud of again. I haven’t even begun to touch on things like gem-crafting and character affinity yet, but that just goes to show how deep and well-rounded Xenoblade‘s gameplay mechanics really are. You couldn’t do any better than to have this game in your Wii library, and if Xenoblade ever sees its way to the US, make Operation Rainfall count and ensure you grab a copy at the first opportunity.