Wii at Five: The Elusive Triumph

Better late than never? Xenoblade Chronicles is the hidden gem in Wii’s crown.

By Katharine Byrne. Posted 11/25/2011 15:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

On November 19, 2006, the Nintendo Wii was released, simultaneously disrupting the traditional evolutionary flow of the industry and launching a new era of gaming defined by more players and less controls. While many, from pundits to gamers, are still debating the merits of such a development, and while the system hasn’t provided the breadth and depth of hardcore gaming experiences that were made available on every previous Nintendo console, there are still a number of magical, must-play titles that have dotted the machine’s library like jewels in a crown.

To commemorate the Wii’s fifth birthday– its last before Nintendo ushers in its sixth(!) system– Nintendojo looks back on the best of these best releases. Five authors, five games, and five years, all in five days.

Let’s a-go!

Game: Xenoblade Chronicles
Release date: N/A

Every time I turn on my Wii and settle in for another Xenoblade Chronicles adventure, I never fail to appreciate how immensely lucky I am to be playing this game. I’ve always loved a good RPG, but Xenoblade has gone above and beyond anything I could have expected from this hotly coveted title, and, simply put, there’s just no other game like it on Wii.

But before I go any further, I need to start with an anecdote. Back in 2006, I completely underestimated how popular Wii would become when it was released. To tell the truth, I was so wrapped up with my first term of university that I even forgot to put in a pre-order. The stupid thing was, I had taken the time to pre-order The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, so you can imagine how silly I felt when release day arrived and I had my shiny new copy of Zelda but no Wii to play it on.

I don’t think I can truly describe the amount of hype I experienced over Twilight Princess. When I saw its very first E3 trailer back in ’04, I practically flew off my chair with excitement, jumping up and down hysterically for the rest of the day (or, at least, while I wasn’t revising for some pretty important school exams). The next year, I followed the E3 coverage with bated breath, desperate for one more glance at what looked set to be Link’s greatest adventure to date, and the same thing happened when Nintendo showed us another new trailer. I was ecstatic, and when I finally secured my Wii in March ’07, TP resolutely set the bar for every Wii game to come.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m telling you about Twilight Princess when this is meant to be a celebration of all things Xenoblade, but it comes down to this: until Xenoblade came out, TP would have taken this spot without question. It might have been a somewhat tired and less interesting rehash of Ocarina of Time for some, but for me, it remains one of my favourite Zelda titles (and I do love my Zelda games). Before Xenoblade, I regarded Twilight Princess as the pinnacle of what Wii has to offer; its unrivaled game design, beautiful score, and vivid environments ticked every box in what I wanted from both a Zelda game and a console upgrade, and as far as I was concerned, it had lived up to that two-year hype in every way. Each game I subsequently bought for Wii never even came close to besting the utter mastery of TP, and had you asked me what my favourite Wii game was three months ago, this launch title would have wrestled every other game in my Wii library to the ground with ease.

To say the game’s vast world makes you feel a little small is a huge understatement.

But then Xenoblade arrived and everything changed. The funny thing is the story leading up to its release was anything but the feverish anticipation I felt for Twilight Princess. I was excited, sure, but I hadn’t really known I was missing anything before Operation Rainfall kicked off. I hadn’t stalked its development progress over numerous years like a crazed wolf hunting its prey, and I hadn’t been salivating over every screenshot or devouring every tiny tidbit of news– if I’m honest, I didn’t really know anything about Xenoblade at all.

Of course, a lack of expectation is sometimes preferable to having your monumental hopes dashed against the rocks of disappointment, but despite Xenoblade’s fresh and invigorating revival of the JRPG genre, that’s not what pips Twilight Princess to the post.

What I really love about Xenoblade is how it keeps surprising me. Everything about it is unpredictable, from the twists and turns of the story to the deeper unfolding of your journey itself as you travel up the Bionis, and I don’t think there are too many other games out there that still have major turning points when you’re hitting Lv.60 and have 80 hours of gameplay behind you.

For starters, the game’s length is just astonishing. I really love a long game which I can sink my teeth into, and these days, I feel like anything under 20 hours is a little on the short side. So imagine my joy when, at the time of writing, my total gameplay time for Xenoblade has clocked over 100 hours so far– and I’m still not finished! I think I’m nearly there plot-wise, but there’s still so much more to do by way of sidequests. What’s more, only a few hours of that time has been spent level-grinding in the traditional RPG sense. But even level-grinding isn’t really the right word to describe it, because Xenoblade completely does away with the need to fight reams and reams of monsters just to stand a chance against the next boss. Instead, the traditional RPG emphasis on mindless battles is shifted firmly onto the main and most delightful aspect of the title’s gameplay– exploring the world around you and participating in the lives of those you meet along the way– making it a master class in pacing.

And what a world it is. If you thought the first time you stepped out onto Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time was special, imagine having that moment twenty times over during the course of the game, with each one more memorable and jaw-dropping than the last. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to stop and stare at the world around me, and while I marveled at the scale of Hyrule Castle in Twilight Princess, the sheer enormity of Xenoblade’s landscapes and environments makes TP look like a small puddle. With Xenoblade, you get the world’s oceans.

Gaur Plain puts Hyrule Field to shame. If only real sunsets were this beautiful.

What really impresses me, though, is that you can tell each area is a tangible, living, breathing ecosystem. Life reaches every end of the spectrum on the Bionis, and you’ll find towering Lv.75 goliaths living alongside tiny little Lv.13 insects and warring clans of monsters vying for supremacy every step of the way, making it hard to believe that these places could have been “designed” like this. For me, each moment I’ve spent exploring has inspired the same kind of awe and amazement as real natural wonders, and that’s something very special. When I look back at other Wii games now (Twilight Princess included), they feel so woefully under-populated or so strictly segregated by monster level that they’ve actually lost some of their previous appeal. Xenoblade, on the other hand, has struck the perfect balance, and every single detail is visibly part of something much greater.

Moreover, this ecosystem isn’t just unique to the game’s world– it also feeds directly into the rest of the game, creating a web of such intricate and subtle connections that you barely notice how they all come together. It’s constantly evolving as you progress, rounding out both the world and your band of characters. Like any real group of strangers, your party members start out hesitant and guarded when they first meet each other, but the more they battle together and cheer each other on when they score a critical hit, the more advanced their friendship becomes. And like any real group of friends, they begin to share their own skills and techniques with each other until they’re even comfortable enough to have intimate one-on-one conversations together, revealing little details about their past you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise during the course of the plot. They too are just as complex as the world around them, constantly growing alongside their ever-changing circumstances in a much more mature and sophisticated way than any other RPG has achieved on Wii.

But nowhere is this continual evolution more apparent than in the game’s multitude of side quests, and these are always a big draw for me whenever I start playing a game. With a staggering 400+ challenges to undertake throughout the course of the game, there’s always something to do. Likewise, the side quests not only help to develop the affinity between individual party members, they also help build a rapport with your fellow communities– the more you help certain groups of people, the more they trust you to take on greater tasks. Just the other day, I suddenly discovered that the cute, fluffy Nopons had an underground black market racket going on with the winged Alcamoth citizens, and I was completely taken aback. Just when I thought I had them sussed, I realised that I had only just begun to scratch the surface.

Certain quests can also unlock individual skill sets that even your party members didn’t know about, and this is precisely the kind of natural cycle I was talking about earlier. No other Wii game has come anywhere close to achieving this level of interconnecting detail, and for me, it’s this which places it above all other games on the system. It doesn’t just tell you to save the world– it gives you the reasons why.

Ultimately, though, when all’s said and done, Xenoblade Chronicles is simply a masterpiece. I haven’t felt such consistent and sustained wonder while playing a game for a very long time, and it’s a testament to what Wii is really capable of achieving. As much as I love Zelda, I’m not even sure that Skyward Sword will be able to topple Xenoblade from its mighty pedestal, and for that, Monolith Soft deserves a standing ovation.

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