Xenoblade Chronicles Review

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.


9 thoughts on “Xenoblade Chronicles Review”

  1. Nice review! I just got the game the other day, and I’m excited to dive in. I just picked it up after work (but had to delay playing to finish up another project I was working on, lol). Even from just the hour I’ve played, I’m very impressed. I can see the comparisons to Final Fantasy XII and Dot Hack, because of the MMO kind of feeling that I get. I admit to being a JRPG aficionado, so I’ve been pumped for this game for awhile (that’s why I’ve also preordered The Last Story and will do so for Ni No Kuni, and I expect to get Tales of Graces f and Tales of Xilia). I still say there’s always been life in the genre (as evidenced by wonderful games like Lost Odyssey, Tales of Vesperia, Valkryia Chronicles, and more). I hope that Xenoblade is the beginning of bringing more positive press to JPRGs again.

    The world is gigantic in scope and absolutely breathtaking to look at it. I was reminded of scenes from Baten Kaitos’ lush visuals when I first booted that up for the GameCube and of memories of playing games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger for the first time. If there is one thing that JRPGs do exceptionally well, it’s that they are visually designed in a very unique and engaging manner. Speaking of Baten Kaitos, I can definitely see the music comparisons. I’ve been listening to a few tracks from Xenoblade on YouTube, and I’m impressed.

    As for Final Fantasy XIII, I admit to being disappointed in it, but I still liked it quite a bit. And actually, I am really, really loving XIII-2. I realize some people may think I’m losing credibility here for saying that, but it’s actually a noticeable step up from XIII, the game design is strong, it’s fun to play, and there are quite a few things to see and to collect. I’m having trouble deciding if I want to finish XIII-2 first (which I’ll probably do) before really devoting my game time to Xenoblade.

    If I had to make one tiny, inconsequential complaint though…the art book is pretty ‘meh.’ I love the game’s artwork, it’s beautiful. The reversible cover is absolutely gorgeous. But I really wish they would’ve packaged a hardcover bound art book. What’s there feels like a stiff leaflet. I love having art books (I bought several of the Mega Man Complete Works and the hardcover Tribute Book), because they are fun to have on your shelf and flip through. But the art “book” they packaged with the game is just kind of flimsy.

    Also, your burger description makes me want to go to Mitsuwa in Chicago to get a Wasabi Burger, lol.

    1. So that burger actually exists in real life, eh? Who would’ve thunk? Wish I can taste it.

      Thanks for the compliments. Glad you enjoyed reading it. And yeah, from the first hour of gameplay alone I was also just as impressed and so overwhelmed by the scope and the amount of things I can do. I just kept running around for the next couple of hours completely ignoring the story and exploring Colony 9, talking to townsfolk, getting to know them, and try to solve as many sidequests as I can. Their stories can sometimes be really engaging. Even though they’re not voice-acted and at times cause a lot of back-and-forth fetch quests, I found myself compelled to finish them up. Also, the fact that fast-travel is in the game surprised the heck out of me. I didn’t comprehend the explanation at first during the tutorial, but after playing for a few hours and dabbling through the map, out of curiosity I just clicked on one of the landmarks and got the option to teleport there.

      Too bad that artbook is disappointing. I’m not regretting pre-ordering it from Nintendo’s online store then.

  2. Yeah the art book is kind of lame.

    Nice review Ahmed, and I’m quite curious to jump into the game after I’m done with my final exam next week. I plan to play through Mass Effect 3 first, then jump into Xenoblade. Steven’s initial impressions are a little polarizing though, so I’m curious where I’ll stand with the game.

    I also enjoyed this new review format. It’s fun trying new things.

    I’ll have my impressions soon enough :)

    1. Polarizing, eh? Now I’m curious to hear Steven’s thoughts on Xenoblade. Granted it’s not a perfect game and has its share of problems, but its strength in making an overworld flow and become exciting to explore in my opinion makes any negatives small in scale.

      Thanks for the kind comments. I’ve spiced things up a bit so that I don’t ramble for too long. Trying to cut down on ranting. Also, no media site has dedicated sections to comparing games with other forms of entertainment, and that’s something that I think we should jump on…although obviously not all games will qualify to be compared to movies and music.

  3. Yeah for sure. It’s was really refreshing to read the review with such unique elements to it. By all means keep that up because it’s highly original.

    As for Steven’s comments, you’ll hear them soon enough in the next podcast ;)

  4. Yeah I’ll need to play a lot more. Now around the 4 hour mark… and I’m still on the fence, but enjoying it none the less. I am a bit overwhelmed by it however, so much stuff that I don’t understand and need to learn. Also hated FF-12 and this plays kind of like that.

    Also, the game looks like ass. It’s not Monolith’s fault, since this is probably the best the Wii can do, but it looks like a Gamecube game. Hard to go back to visuals like that when I’m used to HD graphics. I did it with Skyward Sword, so maybe I won’t mind after a while.

    1. The awesome thing about it is how overwhelming it is…and the tutorials essentially explain everything well. But by merely exploring towns and cities you’re going to get A LOT of side-quests piled up. My advice is to pile them up as there’s no harm done accepting multiple quests. As you go through the game, it’ll note to you what objectives you have completed. It’s actually much easier to manage than FFXII, which barely explained stuff in the tutorials. Xenoblade has tutorials pop up all the time and you can access advanced stuff from the options. It’s all very informative.

      Another thing that I’ve learned from experience is setting up Wii games to look properly on your TV. Contrary to popular belief, since Wii games are 480p and use component cables not HDMI, you MUST set it up in a separate mode from your HDMI-based PS3 and Xbox 360. With the HD systems using HDMI, the default Game Mode is good enough for them. However, Wii games tend to look even worse on Game Mode. So you have to setup a different profile for it and modify the settings until they look right. Admittedly, characters look very outdated, but the environments look really, really good on my HDTV.

  5. I got the game yesterday, and played 1.2 hours of it. First off, I was turned off by the graphics right away. It looks pretty bad, and I did not really care for the gameplay off the bat too. But, after I leveled up and got some new arts…things got better. The theme and story seem interesting enough for me.

    But man I’m glad we won’t have to deal with the lack of HD with the Wii U later this year. I do like the voice acting a lot, and I think the game will be a keeper. Also, I do agree with Steven that the game does make you feel overwhelmed at first. After I get deeper into the game, I will keep updating here.

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