If you’ve been a longtime fan of Japanese RPGs, you’ve probably found this current console generate to be severely lacking. What was once a prominent genre popularised by the global success of Final Fantasy VII
now plays second fiddle to first-person shooters and anything else with a gun in it. It doesn’t help that Square Enix, long considered the Nintendo of RPG innovation, have shifted their focus to more profitable gaming trends, while development of new Final Fantasy games continue at a snail’s pace (and given how the reception of Final Fantasy XIII
didn’t go quite as well as they had hoped, the wait hasn’t been worth it so far; let us also not speak of Final Fantasy XIV
With Japanese developers as a whole falling behind in developing for high definition consoles, JRPG fans across the world have had to look for alternative methods to get their grinding fix, whether it be nostalgia-influenced indie titles (Recettear
, Call of Cthulhu
), portable releases (Trails in the Sky
, Devil Survivor
), or even western RPGs (which, for some, is like crossing over to the Dark Side despite the fantastic pedegree of developers like Bioware, Blizzard, and Bethesda). It just goes to show you how desperate fans are nowadays to find something, anything
, that resembles the beloved titles they once enjoyed annually, regardless of the platform.
And yet few imagined that the Nintendo Wii would end up as one of those platforms for alternative roleplaying. After all, with the company’s current focus on the 3DS and the upcoming Wii U, hardcore gamers haven’t had much use for their motion control console besides keeping it dust free until the next Zelda
arrives. Enter Xenoblade Chronicles
, the first Wii RPG effort by developer Monolith Soft, a company composed of several key members responsible for some of the genre’s biggest cult hits, including Xenogears
, Chrono Cross
, Baten Kaitos
, and Xenosaga
. As the third franchise in director Tetsuya Takahashi’s career to carry the Xeno name, does this newest title rekindle the JRPG spark that has grown dimmer throughout the years?
Yes. Oh my, yes
Before discussing the story for Xenoblade Chronicles, it should be made clear that it does not share the same continuity or universe as its Xeno-branded predecessors. While Xenosaga
was originally teased as a possible prequel to Xenogears
(and after three episodes, the answer we got was “kind of”), Xenoblade is only similar on a thematic level, particularly on the concepts regarding fate and technology as they intertwine with humanity.
Thousands of years ago, two colossal-sized giants known as the Bionis and the Mechonis waged an endless war against one another, until both titans brought their battle to a lifeless draw with a simultaneous strike. Eventually, life began to form and build colonies upon the lifeless bodies of the giants, with human beings (called Homs) residing around the Bionis, while mechanical beings called Mechon found their residence atop the Mechonis. If you’re thinking about that Futurama episode where a race of tiny beings colonised around Bender’s metal chassis, you’ve got the right idea.
Stationed on the Bionis’ leg is Colony 9, a village of Homs who are still recovering after a recent repulsion of the Mechon’s inevitable invasion. Shulk, our main character, is a young researcher attempting to unlock the secrets of the Monado, a mystical blade that is the only known weapon capable of damaging the Mechon’s steel defenses. After his village is attacked again by the metallic menaces (who didn’t see THAT coming?), Shulk finds himself as the only person capable of wielding the Monado after its previous owner becomes incapacitated, and soon gains further abilities from the mysterious blade, non eof which are more significant than the ability to see into the future. Vowing to destroy the enemy as well as prevent his deadly premonitions from coming true, Shulk and his companions begin their adventurous ascension to the top of Bionis to take the fight to Mechonis.
While Xenoblade’s plot does not break entirely new ground for RPGs, it’s the way the story presents itself that sets it apart from the same old affair. Much of that is due to the strong characterisation presented in both the story and the gameplay (more on that below); as the only one capable of repelling the Mechon, Shulk is burdened by his responsibility as well as frequent visions of his friends meeting a bloody demise. His best friend Reyn offers full support while not fully understanding the extent of Shulk’s powers. Other companions include Colony 6 survivor Sharla, former Monado wielder Dunban, and several more allies that each add their own strengths to the overall story while never missing an opportunity to shine in the spotlight.
And while Shulk is driven more by revenge than a need to save the world, none of his companions ever lecture him about it, and soon end up embracing the idea altogether. This adds an extra layer of tragey to these heroes, and when real tragedy occurs (and it does, quite often), it’s never forgotten or hand-waved. Yet despite this, the game never beats you over the head with melodramatic monologues like inXenosaga
, nor does it resort to controversial subject matter like Xenogears
. You’ll get your fair share of epically choreographed cutscenes and sweeping violin scores, but Xenoblade keeps its story tightly reigned in, and that’s why it’s one of most effectively written RPG tales out there. And when Shulk reaches the points where his visions are about to come to pass, the resulting outcomes are positively nail-biting.
The setting itself also carries great weight in immersing you in its world. Technically speaking, Xenoblade might have the single largest setting ever seen in an offline RPG. Spread across the two giants, each appendage houses fields, forests, and rivers that stretch far beyond the sight of the diminutive residents. When entering a new area, the game keeps track of what part of the giant you’re currently visiting via an introductory chart, but if you want a visual reference, all you need to do is look up; in almost every location, you can make out a bit of the two giants as they silently stand above you, from their massive weapons serving as a ceiling (and later on a bridge connecting the two), or the ominous eyes of the Mechonis (which eerily light up during nightfall). The various towns and settlements are also expansive in size, filled with NPCs that engage in different routines during the day/night cycles as well as multiple floors and outposts.
A world this massive might appear daunting to players regardless of their preference in navigating open worlds, but thankfully Monolith has provided two features that are utterly instrumental to exploring. The first is fast travel, which allows players to instantly warp to any location they’ve previously visited without restriction or cost. This feature is expanded further by allowing fast travel to multiple hotspots within each area, called Landmarks, which is incredibly handy for fulfilling quests or just to pop into the shop kiosk in town. The other feature is experience points, which are granted for every new location and landmark discovered. Even if you should find yourself unable to locate a specific quest objective, or just want to wander around for the heck of it, the game rewards you for your progression. Add in the ability to save anywhere and anytime you want, and suddenly you’ll feel righta t home running across the massive appendages of the Bionis.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an RPG without random battles, though you’ll be pleased to know that all enemies are instantly visible in the field and can be engaged on the spot. The enemy mechanic is similar to Final Fantasy XII
in the different ways an encounter can take place; the more hostile enemies may attack when their line of sight meets the party leader’s, while others only react to the sound made by running. All of these different traits are represented by an icon above each creature’s head, as well as their level, and with different varieties of creatures roaming around each area (including those that are such a high level that your party will be wiped out if they so much as breathe in your general direction) along with the potential of enemies linking together during battles, you had best keep a good look at your surroundings even if you’re certain of victory. Fortuantely, losing a battle only sets you back to your nearest checkpoint without any penalty (this applies to boss fights as well), so there’s never any danger of losing your progress… unless you forget to save.
Battles themselves occur in real-time, with players solely in charge of the party leader (be it Shulk or whoever else you prefer), while the other two are handled by the AI. Each character automatically attacks an enemy while the bottom menu lets you perform special attacks (called Arts) that can inflict additional damage under the right conditions. Shulk, for instance, can use a Back Attack that deals maximum damage when an enemy is facing away from him, while another Art lets him break an enemy’s physical defense when struck from the side. Aggro plays a significant role as well, with monsters focussing their attention to the party member with the highest aggro. This can be a burden when an enemy attacks a teammate with low health or defense, but it can also be advantageous when a sturdy tank like Reyn is pulling aggro, allowing Shulk or whoever else to damage an enemy from its rear. Another important factor is chaining attacks, which comes in two fashions: the first is to plan and react to an opponent’s status, such as when its suffering from Break; when an enemy is suffering this effect, a character can use an attack that causes Topple, causing it to lose its balance and be unable to attack for several seconds (and when followed up with a Daze attack, it will remain stunned even longer). The second feature is the more literal Chain Attack, which lets players pick out one special move from each party member in succession. Again, picking out which set of abilities complement each other is the key to success.
For anyone who has played an MMO, the concept of tanks, healers, and damage dealers will feel instantly familiar. For everyone else, the battle system may seem overwhelming, but frequent tutorials (both in-game and in-battle) make it an easy learning curve, and as the story progresses, the plot-based abilities obtained by Shulk factor into battle as well (such as the ability to enchant his teammate’s weapons to work against the Mechon, or to look into the future and prevent a party member from receiving a potentially fatal attack), as does the relationship between party members.
The feelings and friendship between the group is represented by an Affinity System, which charts how individual party members regard one another. By default, everyone’s affinity is set to neutral, but by fulfilling multiple conditions in the game, their affinity can rise and eventually level up. Such conditions include assisting one another in battle (such as successful chain attacks, or helping incapacitated members) completing quests together, or gifting each character their favorite type of item. When they’ve reached a certain Affinity level, two characters can engage in a Heart-to-Heart (which are represented as specific locations across each area), which are similar to Social Links in the Persona series. While these interactive dialogs have no bearing on the actual story, it does allow for further characterization and bonding between teammates, and their budding friendship is even represented by in-battle dialog. The Affinity system is also prevalent with NPCs, with each town containing residents with their own relationships that can also be influenced by completing quests. Because of this, Monolith has effectively conquered one of the age-old gripes with JRPGs regarding townspeople, transforming them from faceless blobs of exposition into actual characters that you can assist and even influence at times (such as helping one townsperson pick a profession, or help another decide between two romantic interests).
Speaking of quests… boy, does this game have them. Wisely kept separate from the main story, the quests in Xenoblade are entirely optional, but reap great rewards ranging from experience, money, items, or a combination of the three. A casual player can alternate between advancing the plot while Fast Traveling and completing a few extra objectives here and there, while a completionsist will likely be driven mad; the total amount of quests given can double, if not quadruple the game’s running time, easily exceeding the hundred hour mark before even reaching the end.
The quests come in different categories, but the most basic involve hunting X amount of creatures, collecting X amount of items, or finding a missing trinket or person that an NPC holds dear. There’s no limit to the number of quests that can be accepted, so it’s typically best to agree to every request before venturing into a new area so players can continue progressing while also collecting the necessary items/kills along the way. Some of the more advanced quests, however, can take considerably more time, such as locating a Unique Monster (basically a mini-boss found in each area) or collecting rare items dropped from other monsters. As a result, the lack of an in-game bestiary to keep track of monster types and their drops is sorely missed, but given the reward for blindly venturing around the world, it’s not a total loss. Regardless, the amount of quests is simply maddening, and with new quests unlocking upon finishing other quests, not to mention secret quests as well as quests that must be completed before reach a certain part in the story (these are always indicated with a stopwatch icon as well as an in-game warning), and you’ll never find yourself lacking in the quests of quests that you quest questing quest.
As if the game wasn’t crammed with enough content already, there are also the uncountable amounts of loot to be obtained; nearly every defeated enemy drops a treasure chest containing valuables, and many of them include equipment and weapons for party members to adorn. Since each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, it is generally advised to have them wear whatever boosts their strengths (armor that increases Reyn’s defense, for instance, or Dunban’s agility), but you may end up going the aesthetic route instead, as each piece of equipment is visually represented (and molded) to the character wearing it. Swapping around the same type of armor results in a different representation depending on who is wearing it; a massive plated armor for Reyn may appear as a turtleneck shirt for Shulk or a suave piece of leather for Dunban, or for Sharla… well, someone’s got to the supply the fanservice quota in this game.
Many pieces of equipment also have gem slots; taking a cue from Final Fantasy VII
’s Materia system, different gems offer different boosts such as strength, HP, status resistance, etc. While gems can be obtained by treasure or quests, they can also be crafted using found materials via a crafting mini-game (where the affinity between two characters also plays a factor into the quality of the gems). There are also items that are unique to each area, such as flora, insects or whatever else, and these can also be sold or put into a Collectaopaedia for even more rewards. If you’re the type of person who likes to hoard such items in case a quest giver requests them later on, worry not; that handy ability to see into the future will also clue you in whenever you receive such items.
As you can see, Xenoblade Chronicles is cramped full of content, but the streamlined care and consideration put into every facet of the game makes it one of the most easily accessible (and more importantly, fun) JRPG experiences ever made. It’s as if Monolith took down a checklist of what modern tricks Western RPGs employ and implemented all of them into this game, while also maintaining the all-important emphasis on character development and keeping the player connected to the events and areas around them. About the only real flaw that could be found with Xenoblade is that it has the unfortunate distinction of being a Wii title; while the sheer scope of the game is no doubt pushing the hardware to its limits, the Wii’s inability to display anything above 480p definitely hurts the otherwise gorgeous look of the game, which is made painfully apparent by pictures and videos shared by those with a powerful enough PC to play it through a certain emulator.
The other curse of its Wii heritage is that as of this writing, Nintendo of America remains adamant in keeping this game exclusive to Japan and Europe, even though the latter gets to experience it in full English as well as the original Japanese voice track. Fortunately, there are incredibly easy methods NA owners can take to make their Wii region-free (and requires no hardware modification), which lead to the added bonus of installing the game to an attached USB drive for virtually instant load times, but for a system in desperate need of non-dancing, non-exercising games as well as a market clamoring for more RPGs, Nintendo couldn’t have picked a worst time to revert to the dark age principle of keeping their best titles available to a limited audience.
But no matter where you are or what method you decide to use, Xenoblade Chronicles is a true epic that needs to be experienced. To call it the best JRPG this generation would only downplay the care and polish that emblazons this game from first hour to its hundredth. It may not be the ultimate RPG innovation, but it is its greatest refinement in years, an unequivocal classic that stands tall and shakes the heavens.Final Score: 100%