The savior of the JRPG has arrived…
In a time where Japanese RPGs largely have become formulaic and lost much of their former glory, Monolith Soft and Nintendo set out to change a thing or two. Not only do they flirt with Western RPGs in the process, but give birth to a love child, a chosen one representing a new hope for an otherwise stagnating genre.
When Nintendo acquired Monolith Soft back in 2007, the first project they put them on was Disaster: Day of Crisis, a jack-of-all-trades kind of game, aiming to replicate a summer blockbuster movie, with all that would entail. Quite an odd choice for a studio mainly known for its RPGs, and it was met with mixed reviews upon its release, making some gamers sceptical about the studio’s abilities. This time around, though, the company has gone back to doing what it does best, with president Tetsuya Takahashi (FFVI, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears) in the director’s seat.
The first thing to note about Xenoblade is its world design. Instead of taking place in a world similar to our own giant ball of dirt hurling through space, Xenoblade is set on the bodies of two gigantic warriors: the biological Bionis and the mechanical Mechonis. Having fought each other for ages, the two ran each other through with their swords, and now stand locked together in that very same pose, as if frozen in time.
As if this wasn’t enough to make just about the coolest premise for a fantasy world ever, the individual regions on these giants’ bodies are like something straight out a fairy tale. Monolith have not settled for including overused or clichéd settings common in other games, but have instead tried making something unique – sometimes close to surreal – and have infused every single location with an almost romantic nature aesthetic.
The main plot as well has a certain aversion to clichés, but not on the same level as the world design, and it’s far from evident at the beginning of the game. A reluctant young hero wielding a supernatural sword, fighting off an evil force together with his friends to save the world sounds about as clichéd as it gets. But few things are what they seem in Xenoblade Chronicles, and there are enough major plot twists to ensure that the quest turns into something quite different before the final credits roll. Xenoblade doesn’t allow itself to oversimplify or trivialize the themes it brings to the table, and no matter if we are talking about the main characters’ personal arcs or the main plot, it has all been handled with much thought and care.
When looking at all the individual assets in the game – character models, textures – Xenoblade Chronicles is not all that impressive, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they came out of a GameCube game. However, when all these assets come together they result in a vision larger than the sum of its parts, and become something quite stunning indeed.
The environments are absolutely huge, and yet so full of detail. Seemingly endless fields full of swaying grass are embraced by enormous cliffs, gloomy swamps lay covered in thick fog, and sprawling forests spread out over hills and riverbanks. Then, as the light of day fades, the nocturnal animals come out of their resting places, and the entire feel of the environment can change drastically.
In addition to all of this, there are also some impressive weather effects in place, which when coupled with the day-and-night cycle contribute greatly to the atmosphere. Standing on the majestic Gaur Plain as dark clouds roll in over the horizon, listening to the wind racing through the grass, shaking the nearby branches as the first drops of rain come falling down is nothing short of epic.
Simply put, Xenoblade is a beautiful game, despite the relatively limited tech bringing it to life.
All these atmospheric effects wouldn’t be worth much if they didn’t have an appropriate soundtrack to accompany them, but luckily Xenoblade has one.
An all-star team consisting of such influential composers as Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears) and Yoko Shimomura (Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts, Street Fighter II) , in collaboration with lesser known (but no less talented) contributors Manami Kiyota and ACE+, creates one of the best RPG soundtracks you could ever ask for. Every single track is immensely well produced, and fits their respective situations perfectly. Not only that, but the sheer amount of songs is staggering. Every environment gets at least two songs (one for daytime, and one for night time), and there are several different battle themes and variations thereof, making sure the music always goes hand in hand with what’s happening. One of the most impressive things about this is that all of these songs manage to create an atmosphere while still capable of making you sing along with the catchy melodies.
The voice acting’s not too shabby either. Hearing an all-British voice cast may feel a bit unusual for some American players out there, but there is no reason to worry about the actual acting quality, because nearly all of the actors do a good job. Being the JRPG that it is, Xenoblade has its share of melodramatic lines, but even they are surprisingly well delivered, and also surprisingly few, considering the length of the game. The biggest issue with the voice acting comes in the form of a short, hairy individual and his fellow species. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, Riki is one of the main characters in the game, and belongs to the type of cutesy race with attitude that has seemed obligatory in JRPGs since forever.
To be honest, there is nothing wrong with the actual delivery of Riki’s lines, but more a matter of the sound production surrounding them. Every time he opens his mouth, you are reminded that he is in fact an adult human male trying his best to turn his vocal cords into those belonging to a hairy lump the size of a soccer ball. Not that it matters all that much, since Riki is designed to be the main source of comic relief, and the characters that carry the heaviest dramatic weight don’t have this problem at all.
The most common criticism of the voice acting is perhaps the repetitive nature of the samples used during battle. It is understandable that many feel frustrated by how the characters just don’t seem willing to shut up, and insist on repeating the same phrases over and over, but as strange as this may sound, this is a deliberate design choice serving to help the player when fighting.
Since you don’t have direct control over your teammates, it is vital for you to know what they are up to at all times, which is exactly why they are screaming so much. Certain attacks have certain samples to go with them, and once you learn how to associate the screams with the right attacks you will become a much better fighter. If you desperately need to topple an enemy to lower his defence, you will be very thankful that the game lets you know when an ally gives you an opening, even if that means listening to the same voice clip for the umpteenth time. Also, if you still find yourself annoyed by this, you can always get some variation by switching to the original Japanese audio, which Nintendo has been graceful enough to leave intact on the disc.
These days many games keep their progressions and environments guided and linear as a way to make it easier to provide a more cinematic experience, and to make sure the player is less likely to wander off and spot inconsistencies in the production. Xenoblade is not one of those games. Xenoblade don’t care. Instead of suffocating you by shutting you in, it opens up windows and doors to let fresh air in, encouraging you to go outside and explore to your heart’s content.
The vast environments aren’t just impressive because of their sheer size and imaginative design, but also because of how they always seem to have something new for you to discover. As you traverse the vast fields, the towering cliffs and the bustling cities, you will come across landmarks that stand out a bit extra from the rest of the scenery. Not only do these reward you with the ever important experience points as you find them, but they also serve as checkpoints, and can later be travelled to instantaneously via the game’s handy skip travel function. Just because Xenoblade encourages you to explore as much as possible, it doesn’t always expect you to, so anyone fearing that the enormous regions will result in excessive walking around and quests made longer artificially can relax. In fact, you are even free to change the time of day whenever you want. How much more freedom could you ask for?
Skip travel or not, wherever you go in the vast world of Xenoblade, there will be danger in the form of wild life. Packs of predators roam the hillsides, nervous herbivores scamper around in the meadows, dragonflies gather by the waterholes, and they are all prepared to kick your butt. If your level is significantly higher than theirs, the enemies will be more inclined to leave you alone as a way of self-preservation, but should it be the other way around you could be in some pretty big trouble, which is why the targeting function is so important. By targeting an enemy from a distance, you will be able to see what species it belongs to, what level it is, what sense it relies on for locating prey, if it’s part of a pack, and how big of a chance it is for you to end up in the digestive tract of said enemy. All very vital stuff for you to consider before you decide to whip out your sword.
Once you do decide to bring the pain, you can feel confident that the battle system won’t let you down. It might seem both chaotic and shallow at first, but once you put some time in, you’ll come to realize that it’s actually quite deep, and one of the most refined aspects of the game.
Standard attacks are delivered automatically when you’re within range of an enemy, and while this might sound like a way of oversimplifying the battles, it’s actually helping to make them more strategic as it allows you to place more focus on the special attacks, or arts.
The arts come in many types of flavours, ranging from physical attacks to health regeneration and defence via status changing effects. Maybe you want to use many of the same type to keep a chain attack going longer to deal more damage, or maybe you want to use different types in a specific order to unleash a certain effect on your enemy. Using these types of attacks willy-nilly won’t get you far, so you’ll always have to make sure you’ve got the right set of arts for the occasion and use them properly.
You can basically use these arts as much as you like, as long you let them cool down in between uses. Certain arts will cool down faster than others, but the robust levelling up system will let you distribute art points earned in battle to upgrade your arts, reducing the time needed to cool down, amongst other things.
One of the biggest gimmicks to the battle system is the ability to see into the future, thanks to the Monado sword’s special powers. Sometimes you will be shown a vision of the near future, giving you an opportunity to adapt your strategy accordingly, making for some really interesting battle dynamics.
These visions can also kick in when you find certain items, to let you know that they will come to good use later, which is very helpful for competing quests and organizing your inventory. Monolith sure have thought of everything.
Every single gameplay mechanic in Xenoblade Chronicles has lots of depth, often to the point where they feel like a small science. While this is impressive by itself it becomes even more so once you realize that they are all connected to each other. The fact that Monolith has managed to balance everything out so well considering this precarious relationship is simply mind-blowing. The greatest testament to this is probably the affinity system.
As you have your party members work together and help each other out, they will get to know and like each other better, and as a result also function better together. The affinity system is not limited to your own party, but is actually connecting the entire game world.
Let’s say that you take on a sidequest. As you accept the quest, fight monsters, explore, and finally complete the mission, your characters will come to understand each other better, and the affinity between them will increase.
In addition to this, your reputation in the region will get better as you help the locals out, and the affinity between the region and your party will grow as well. As you become more trustworthy in the eyes of the public, you will gain access to more and better sidequests, and people will be more inclined to give you better deals when trading.
As if this wasn’t enough, your actions will also come to affect the individual NPCs’ affinities as well. Apart from the many anonymous characters populating the Bionis, there are also well over 100 individually named characters, all with their own story to tell and dreams to pursue. As you interact with them during their daily routines, you will leave a mark on not only their lives, but also the ones around them. Help one character gather materials for a present and see the recipient become increasingly friendly towards the giver. See the recipients’ partner become jealous of the present, and turn into a sworn enemy of the giver. Everything you do results in some form of reaction, making the game world feel like a living, breathing organism, and making you feel like you’re a part of it.
The amount of love and attention that has gone into bringing Xenoblade’s world to life truly sets a new standard for the genre.
Make no mistake about it; Xenoblade Chronicles is an absolutely massive game. If you’re the kind of person who’d rather just get things over with and watch the credits roll, you could probably accomplish that in around 70 hours. However, chances are that you will find yourself so completely engrossed in the game world that you simply can’t help but get as much out of it as possible, in which case you are likely to find yourself playing for hundreds of hours.
Personally I spent over 200 hours, completing over 400 sidequests before deciding to beat the game, and even so I’ve still got a few quests and a handful of other challenges waiting for me when I come back. What’s more, during all this time I never felt – not even for a second – that the content offered was any less than stellar. Few games come close to providing this kind of value.
It is no simple task to sum a game like this up, because frankly, there aren’t actually a whole lot of games like this to begin with. The best thing to do is probably to keep this brief and to the point.
Xenoblade Chronicles is an instant classic, a true masterpiece, and the game by which I will judge all future RPG efforts. Buy it.
[Xenoblade also won Nintendo Enthusiast’s Game of the Year Award for 2011]