J-RPG fans and distraught Nintendo fanboys had to beg and plead for months to get it, but there’s no doubt about it: Xenoblade Chronicles was worth the wait and then some.
It’s impossible to talk about Xenoblade without first discussing all the trouble American Wii owners had to go through to convince Nintendo to publish it over here. Fans bombarded Nintendo’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. They flooded Nintendo’s physical mailboxes with a massive letter writing campaign. They raged every time a Nintendo of America rep reaffirmed that they had no plans to localize the game, and a few even paid a good chunk of cash to import the game from Europe (those exchange rates are murder.)
Nintendo of America eventually relented and realized the error of their ways, and I’m really glad that they did, because Xenoblade Chronicles is fantastic. Everyone who lobbied for the game’s release should feel pretty proud of themselves, because Xenoblade is absolutely worth all the trouble fans had to go through to get it. This isn’t just the best RPG on Wii (which it is,) and it isn’t just one of the best Japanese RPG released this generation (which it also certainly is,) but Xenoblade Chronicles is simply one of the best RPGs that’s ever graced a console, period.
Now, I know, that sounds like hyperbole, especially when you consider what genre Xenoblade is in and what system it’s for: it’s a J-RPG for Wii, and if there’s two things that modern elitist “hardcore” gamers like to hate on these days, it’s J-RPG’s and the Wii. But regardless of your opinion of both J-RPG’s or the Wii, it’s impossible to deny what a triumph Xenoblade is: not only is a technical masterpiece that manages to overcome the Wii’s antiquated hardware limitations, it also manages to do what most other modern J-RPG’s have failed at: it feels fresh and new and innovative. While bigger franchises like Final Fantasy and the Tales Of series have stubbornly refused to adapt to modern tastes, Xenoblade Chronicles represents the evolution that the J-RPG genre has always needed but has refused to undergo up until now.
The first thing that hits you when you start playing Xenoblade is the scale of everything. Xenoblade takes place on a world that’s formed on top of the bodies of two deceased gods: the organic Bionis and the metal Mechonis. These titans are the size of continents, and the game does a good job of conveying that scale: while Xenoblade isn’t a fully seamless open world — the world is separated into zones, with occasional short loading times in between each area, — each location is absolutely massive and will take you hours to explore. The Wii may barely be stronger than the decade old Gamecube, but despite that, Xenoblade manages to impress with fantastic vistas that show off the game’s immense environments and draw distance. These aren’t empty expanses either; each area is meticulously detailed, down to individual blades of grass swaying in the wind, insects buzzing from flower to flower, and even glimpses of fish darting around beneath the surface of the water. The limited 480p resolution and some inconsistent texture quality serve as some unwelcome reminders that you’re playing a Wii game, but while nobody is ever going to mistake Xenoblade for a game designed specifically for one of the HD consoles, it still somehow manages to be a very, very pretty game with some genuinely breath taking moments.
But while Xenoblade should be commended for managing to pull some amazing graphics out of Nintendo’s horsepower deprived system, its visuals are not its greatest accomplishment. No, what makes Xenoblade special isn’t its pretty art or its unique setting, but something more important than any aesthetic or thematic element: game play.
The last time I was this addicted to a console J-RPG was Persona 4, and that came out almost 4 (!) years ago. I love the genre, but for whatever reason, nothing has really grabbed me in the way P4 did all those years ago. Sure, I’ve enjoyed games like Lost Odyssey and Nier, but unlike P4 and some of the other great J-RPG’s of previous generations, I didn’t feel the need to stay up all night or skip class because I was so engrossed and addicted to the game.
Perhaps the reason that Persona 4 was so interesting to me was how new it felt. Sure, J-RPG’s about a group of plucky teenagers saving the world are a dime-a-dozen, but P4′s clever mix of genres and forward-thinking design helped elevate it above its more mundane RPG contemporaries. The same is true of Xenoblade: yes, its story is about some teenager with a hipster haircut who is destined to save the world, but despite the initial cliched premise, it manages to feel like the first J-RPG in years (well, first J-RPG in years on a home console at least, handheld is a different story,) to try something new and succeed at it.
Xenoblade’s success comes from how it mixes the best elements of both J-RPG’s and Western RPG’s like Skyrim and Knights of the Old Republic into one game, and somehow gets all these disparate elements to complement each other. It’s a combination that the underrated Final Fantasy XII tried several years ago, though Xenoblade is far more successful in its attempt.
Like in Skyrim or KoTOR, battles happen in real-time without cutting to a separate battle scene like you’d see in a FF or a Tales Of game. Anyone who’s every played a modern MMO will be familiar with the basics of Xenoblade’s battle system: your character auto-attacks the targeted enemy without your input, but you have access to a wide array of special attacks, spells, and abilities, each with their own individual cool-down times that you’ll need to manage. Again, FF12 featured a similar battle system, but where as 12 could occasionally feel like the game was playing itself, Xenoblade requires players to be far more involved: you’ll need to pay careful attention to the timing of your special attacks in order to hit enemies when they’re vulnerable, or to chain your attacks into combos with your mostly competent AI-controlled teammates.
Xenoblade’s battles are also incredibly fast paced, so you simply can’t just leisurely queue up commands or let the AI handle your fights, as the game’s chaotic pace and sometimes brutal difficulty require you to be an active participant at all times. To put it in terms that RPG fans can understand: while the battle system has a lot in common with FF12 or KoTOR, in practice it almost feels a lot like a Tales Of game: it requires quick reflexes, its combo-driven, its fast, and its insanely addictive. Xenoblade’s battle system may resemble an MMO, but it has the strategic element of an RTS and the speed and timing of an action game.
And it’s a good thing that the battles are so much fun, because you’ll be getting into a lot of them. Xenoblade’s vast landscapes are teeming with vicious fauna, and part of the reason the game’s fights are so fun is because it offers such a varied menagerie of monsters to do battle with: whether your fighting lizardmen, mutated rabbits, dinosaurs, or even anime-style transforming giant mecha, Xenoblade’s enemies all have unique personalities, attacks, and AI routines that all ensure that combat always feels fresh and interesting.
While Xenoblade’s combat is great, as with anything else, its not perfect. While your AI controlled teammates generally behave intelligently — i.e. heavily armored characters will try to draw enemy aggro and tank, support characters will heal you when your HP gets below a certain amount, etc. — the AI does occasionally make a bone-headed choice, and there are still times when you’ll wish you could micromanage them to a greater extent. The game’s targeting system also has some issues — it works fine most of the time, but there are times when you’ll want to target a specific enemy in a group and it’ll take far to long to cycle through targets to get to it. Like I said earlier, Xenoblade’s battles are fast and challenging, so wasting a few seconds cycling through enemies can sometimes be enough to turn the battle against your favor. But these are minor niggles for sure; while it’s annoying when these issues come up, the AI and targeting work perfectly a good 95% of the time.
Of course, a good battle system alone can’t carry an RPG (*cough* Final Fantasy XIII *cough*,) and thankfully, Xenoblade has plenty of other things going for it as well. Difficult battles often dole out new gear as rewards, and as in most Western RPG’s or MMO’s, your gear actually effects your character’s appearance as well as their stats. This copious amounts of armor, weapons, and collectibles in the game lends it an almost Diablo or PSO-like addictiveness, and I found myself playing into the early hours of the morning just to find that one piece of armor I needed to complete a matching set.
Like in most RPG’s, you will have to complete a lot of quests or kill a lot of monsters to keep your experience levels high enough to survive the next boss battle, but Xenoblade manages to avoid monotony by always making sure there’s a genuine reward within reach. A new level-up grants you the ability to customize your characters abilities within a number of skill trees (again, a feature that’s still a rarity in a lot of J-RPGs,) or power-up special attacks. Each successful battle or completed quest brings with it the possibility of a rare loot drop.
Unlike most other J-RPG’s, Xenoblade is absolutely brimming with sidequests: while the main story quest will probably take you around 30-40 hours to complete, trying to do all of the sidequests will easily double or triple the amount of time you spend with Xenoblade. Unfortunately, not all of the sidequests are created equal — while some are fun and reward you for doing stuff you probably would’ve done anyway (like killing a certain number of monsters, or exploring a certain area of the map,) there are others that simply feel like busy work or filler material (like searching an area for a specific lost item.) Thankfully, Xenoblade has a minor innovation that goes a long way into making even the most rote fetch quests a lot more tolerable: as soon as you complete the quest requirements, the quest is immediately over and you get the rewards then and there — there’s no having to run back to town to complete each quest. It sounds like a minor thing, but it greatly increases the pace of the game and it keeps the game from ever feeling like a grind or getting repetitive.
There’s a lot of little touches like that in Xenoblade that make the game feel like fresh and new, despite the wide breadth of disparate sources that it liberally borrows gameplay elements from. Your characters HP automatically regenerates pretty quickly in between battles, so you never have to sit around waiting to heal or run back to an inn to recover, and unlike most J-RPG’s, the game lets you fast-travel to any location and save your game at any time (why other modern J-RPG’s still really on archaic save points is beyond me.) Characters casually banter with each other during battles, and while some voice-clips gets over-used, the in-game chatter goes a long way into fleshing out each character’s personality.
Which brings me to one of Xenoblade’s weaker traits: it’s story. Now, Xenoblade’s story is by no means bad, but it certainly doesn’t show the same level of polish or imagination that went into the game’s game play or art design. It’s a fair bit better than most modern J-RPG storylines, which are content to recycle decade old shonen-anime tropes and always feel like they’re talking down to their intended pubescent audience, and there are a few twists in Xenoblade that genuinely surprised me (including a very surprising death early on in the game’s story.) But where as Xenoblade’s art and gameplay were constantly wowing me and drawing me in, it’s story just kind of came off as… competent. It’s not like I didn’t care what was going on, and I did grow attached to its cast of characters, but I wasn’t at the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next either. Anyone expecting the clever writing of say, Persona 4 or Mass Effect (sans crappy ending, of course,) will be disappointed, but Xenoblade still offers a narrative that’s a good deal better than your usual teenage J-RPG fluff.
And that’s all I can say about Xenoblade Chronicles: the game has flaws, but its flaws aren’t bad per se, they’re just elements of the game that aren’t as great as the rest of the experience. With it’s addictive, challenging battle system, copious amount of content, and beautiful, creative setting, Xenoblade Chronicles is a perfect blend of everything that makes both Western and Japanese style RPG’s great. Minor nitpicks aside, there’s no question in my mind that Xenoblade isn’t just the best J-RPG to be released in this console cycle, it’s also now definitely one of my favorite RPG’s ever. If you are or ever were a fan of J-RPG’s, do yourself a favor and dust-off your Wii and give Xenoblade Chronicles a chance. You can thank me later.
Final Score: 9.5/10
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