Xenoblade reaches North America after about a year’s worth of campaigning by Operation Rainfall, a fan group dedicated to seeing a trio of swansong Wii RPGs localized for the west. One down, two to go. After spending 70 hours with the UK release, it’s time to critique. Does it sink or swim? Is it the most important JRPG of this generation? What does it sound like, play like, and look like? (What does it taste like?) Read on for the details.
Parent Talk: Xenoblade Chronicles is a role-playing game set in a fantasy land filled with humans, animals, mythical creatures, and robots. The Teen rating by the ESRB takes into account the fantasy violence. Children older than 10 years may also play providing their parents don’t mind sporadic profanity, skimpy outfits, and alcohol/tobacco references. Xenoblade aims for Chronicles of Narnia-like vibe, which wasn’t afraid to provide adult-oriented fantasy violence from time to time. The narrative and gameplay may be too complex for younger gamers though. However, well-implemented tutorials and a low difficulty curve may ease parents into experiencing it with their kids. Trust me; there is something for everyone in Xenoblade Chronicles, and once the whole family starts playing, be prepared to be hauled in for the long run as this isn’t a casual game to turn on half an hour per day.
Review Basis: 70 hours complete with 1/3 of the main plot remaining. Focused on completing missions and sidequests. That’s a lot of content, eh?
Plays Like: Final Fantasy XII, .hack, and White Knight Chronicles. In layman’s terms, Xenoblade is an offline RPG trying to be an MMO. Surprisingly, there’s no connection to Xenogears or Xenosaga other than in name. Its battle system and level-up micromanagement are as overwhelming and fun as Star Ocean, yet not up to Disgaea levels of detail and ridiculousness. What really sets it apart from the pack is the innovative use of the Monado, a mystical blade that wields the power to look into the future and damage mechons (robots), among other things. It smartly integrates canonical events into its battle system for strategic use. At first, your blade bears the simple power to damage mechon, so you must constantly manage its wielder (Shulk) in your party. However, progression grants Shulk and Co. unique abilities, which force you to take a second look before leaping into action. The coolest is premonition; if an enemy is intending a devastating attack to kill your party, a five-second clip plays said future event, giving you the chance to prevent/avoid it. It’s a one-of-a-kind time mechanic in an RPG that I haven’t really seen before.
Looks Like: Someone threw Transformers and Real Steel robot designs into the Lord of the Rings’ sets of lush fields, disgusting marshes, towering forests, and dark looming castles. The second half of Xenoblade moves away from that and introduces futuristic and tribal locales instead. From medieval sturdy armor to the casual fashion of today–characters mix and match attire, even if it doesn’t fit the time period. If you’ve watched John Carter, you’ll understand. Xenoblade’s world is a strong mix of various aesthetics. Nothing looks out of place. The medieval influences and technology blend perfectly, similar to Lost Odyssey’s attempt a few years ago.
Sounds Like: Have you caught on the trend of bands and popular artists? Branching out via a multi-disc album where each side adapts a different style/genre of music? Xenoblade’s OST walks down that road as well. My best comparison is the work of The Early November’s “The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path”, a 2006 triple-disc album with sub-genres of rock enveloping each one. The first disc contains in-your-face rock ‘n roll, the second mellows out into acoustic instruments and orchestrated material, and the third disc contains experimental spoken vocals backed by abstract instruments. Xenoblade follows the first two discs to a T, then branches into Celtic music with its experimental third act. It even occasionally combines these three styles into single tracks. Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) took charge with her signature blend of classical and celtic styles, while a new band collectively called ACE+ get down and dirty with rockin’ battle themes and chillin’ acoustic arrangements of some of Yoko’s work. It’s a bulky soundtrack that contains some of my favorite music of this generation. It channels the spirit of Motoi Sakuraba’s work on Baten Kaitos, another Monolith niche RPG.
Best Thing About It: A living, breathing world. JRPG worlds don’t often mesmerize me as three gripes tend to stand in the way: a) an overworld that’s too small or tedious, b) it’s not interactive enough, and c) lack of immersion when traveling between towns and dungeons. The latter is a staple in most RPGs, as towns are peaceful locales populated by NPCs, weapon shops, and inns; in contrast dungeons are monster-filled, gloomy areas with hidden treasure chests and boss fights, and the overworld merely connects the two. Xenoblade’s greatest triumph is bucking these three cardinal faults and bringing a full-immersion playground. The lines between towns, overworld and dungeons are constantly challenged and shaded here; you encounter actual people in dungeons, the overworld hosts a lot of secret mini-dungeons and refugee camps, and cities can be invaded as part of the narrative and subsequently transform into dungeons. Moreover, the sky’s the limit with the overall scope. The developers were so confident that they included two perks from the get-go: fast-travel [to cut down on repetition] and time manipulation [to fully explore areas as their inhabitants change from dusk till dawn]. Being a perfectionist, I opted to explore every nook and cranny and talk to every NPC, in turn avoiding fast-travel unless necessary. Interestingly, talking to NPCs matters as most of them have actual lives, curfews, ambitions and problems. Inspired by Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade is armed with an affinity chart that tracks important NPCs in each region. The more you talk, the clearer the relationships are. For example, conversing with one’s sibling lists him/her as such in the chart, followed by a status represented by smileys. If the terms aren’t good, you’ll eventually acquire side-quests which may grant an opportunity to reconcile. Imagine this expanding to the whole family, friends, and even acquaintances who live in different regions/countries…and you’ve got the affinity chart in a nutshell. I reached a point of actually caring for the countries I was saving because I knew their citizens inside and out.
Most Polarizing Feature: The graphics. From the open fields and high mountains to the tropical forests and high-tech, futuristic castles, locales looks absolutely stunning, even by Wii standards. My friends double-took when they watched me play, assuming it was a PS3/Xbox 360 title. Upon closer inspection, however, the character models have obvious stiff animation, bad lip-syncing, jaggies and clipping. That makes the game more PS2-like. The developers tried to hide those blemishes with customizable attire and well-directed, excellently-choreographed cut-scenes, but the Wii’s capabilities sadly prevented the full potential. Compare this to Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos, which went toe-to-toe with the big dogs of last generation.
Worst Thing About It: The narrative and cast are serviceable, yet not as memorable as Xenogears and Baten Kaitos. They’re not bad, but I enjoyed the NPC stories more than the main plot. The solid British voice-acting attempts to inject emotion and good humor, but I always knew what to expect around the next corner. The ending contains a surprise or two, but it just doesn’t live up to Monolith’s past works…which is unfortunate because the introduction and concept are gripping at first. The world is slowly revealed as the bodies of two giant robots frozen forever in combat stance, yet two-thirds of the quest doesn’t take that awesome premise to the next level. Instead, it focuses on a typical orphan boy with a mysterious past who comes across a mystical blade that only he can wield for some reason…all of which is eventually explained via deus ex machina.
The Lowdown: Despite a familiar plot and bland band of protagonists, Xenoblade Chronicles has rekindled my love for JRPGs…which was ironically blown out by a popular series that stirred that love in the first place. Forget Final Fantasy XIII. I’ll gladly step on some toes in declaring that this is what Final Fantasy XII should’ve been! Monolith Soft successfully brought the best of MMO RPGs to an offline one, while developing a lively world and level of immersion which will be remembered for decades to come. That’s what I call keeping the Japanese flavor alive despite heavy westernization. It’s like biting into a classic American cheeseburger coated with teriyaki sauce and adorned with wasabi instead of mustard. Mmm, that thought is making me drool. Will somebody make it happen?
Average Review Scale: 8.5 +/- 1 out of 10
Personal Final Score: 9.5/10 (Inflated)
Reasons for +1 Inflation: You love huge worlds with much to do outside the main quest, or just think Skyrim.
Reasons for -1 Deflation: Strong narrative and cast are most important for your RPG experience; you refuse to play 480p games.