It used to be that an RPG could have an expansive open world or a strong driving narrative, but not both. Then Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles struck Wii like a bolt of lightning. It delivered one of the most sweeping game worlds ever seen up to that point, all while maintaining a tense central narrative that always left players wondering what might happen next. For performing this miracle on an underpowered platform not known for sweeping role-playing adventures, Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the Nintendo games of the decade.
The high-concept premise of Xenoblade Chronicles is thrilling. Instead of traveling around a typical game world, the “world” here consists of the frozen bodies of two giant titans who were once locked in endless combat. Life has blossomed on their bodies, along with different biomes like grasslands and icy wildernesses. At any point in your journey, all you have to do is look up to see a giant titan in the far distance, allowing you to grasp how the whole game world is truly interconnected. Such a bizarre and enticing setup was unprecedented.
The stakes in the narrative feel high too because you watch the bad guys actually kill characters as early as Xenoblade Chronicles’ opening sequence. There is an ongoing war between the Homs (humans) of the Bionis titan and the villainous Mechon (robots) of the Mechonis titan, and a sword called the Monado has been the only thing able to repel the Mechon.
Unlike in most JRPGs, the protagonist, Shulk, is a scientist, which provides a fresh perspective on events. His allies in the party don’t veer too far from standard archetypes but are still a joy to watch develop, like chivalrous former Monado wielder Dunban and graceful princess Melia. Add in exciting plot twists, a bit of romance, and a ridiculously energetic and tone-setting soundtrack, and you have one of the most memorable narratives of the console generation.
The actual game exploration in Xenoblade Chronicles is equally stellar. Environments are enormous and varied, with a gigantic waterfall beside a jungle being one of the most picturesque. Some of them, like the titan’s sword, are especially unique. You can spend dozens of hours doing sidequests for townspeople in these myriad locations, hunting various monsters and so many collectibles. But exploring for the sake of exploring feels rewarding too.
Lastly, the combat system is a practical compromise between traditional turn-based combat and on-the-fly MMO-style combat. Attacks work on a cooldown and are more effective when used from a certain angle relative to the enemy. Status effects can also stack for more serious effects when inflicted in a certain order too. Different party members come with different fighting styles as well, so it’s rewarding to try out different party combinations. Ultimately, the combat isn’t perfect by any means, but it involves more active strategy than compared to that of, say, Final Fantasy XII, where you set up some gambits and then the game plays itself.
In fact, I would go one step further and say neither Xenoblade Chronicles X nor Chronicles 2 ultimately lives up to the standard set by the original. XCX has maybe the most expansive world ever seen in a game, but the story is a throwaway afterthought and combat becomes far too easy once you get your hands on giant robots. XC2 fares even worse, recycling too many plot elements of the original without bringing innovation of its own, and combat almost only ever becomes difficult when you’re underleveled.
It just serves to highlight even further what an incredible balancing act Xenoblade Chronicles was. The narrative played with themes from Xenogears and Xenosaga while still feeling original. The characters were a bit familiar but still all worth cheering on. The soundtrack could trade between blistering metal guitars and somber reflection. And the combat wasn’t traditionally turn-based, but it fit the adventure and was engaging enough to sate a stubborn old purist like me.
Xenoblade Chronicles was truly a once-in-a-generation experience. So it’s pretty shrewd that Nintendo and Monolith Soft re-released it for New Nintendo 3DS — and that it’s being totally revamped for a new generation with Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition on Nintendo Switch.