Xenoblade Chronicles Review
byon 07-30-2012 at 12:04 PM (2799 Views)
Back in 2010, a trio of RPGs was released for the Wii in Japan to critical acclaim. Many heralded them as a return to the glory days of Japanese RPGs. Unfortunately, while many clamored for their release worldwide, Nintendo claimed to have no plans to release them outside Japan. Gamers launched "Operation Rainfall" which successfully persuaded Nintendo to release these games (two of them at least) in North America. In April, Xenoblade Chronicles was released in North America. Having played through the game the past few months, I can honestly say that it has been well worth the work and wait.
Many years ago, two enormous creatures known as the Bionis and Mechonis waged a never ending battle which continued until the creatures slew each other. As time passed, life sprang up on the remains of the two combatants -- biological creatures on the Bionis and mechanical creatures on the Mechonis. Naturally, these two forces reinitiated the conflict of their predecessors. One year prior to the start of the game, the Homs (human) hero Dunban led the biological forces against the Mechon armies in the battle of Sword Valley and ended the conflict. Everyone thought the war was over until an upgraded Mechon force returned to the Bionis and launches an attack against the unprepared Colony 9. The story puts players in control of Shulk, a Homs boy from Colony 9, out for revenge. Shulk is unique in that he is capable of using the Monado, a mythical sword capable of harming the Mechon forces. Most others who touch the legendary weapon are unable to control its power, but Shulk is able to freely use the sword and unlock its hidden potential. Shulk is joined by a collection of allies, many of which are similarly (and in some ways surprisingly) motivated by revenge. As their journey continues, they begin to unravel the mysteries of the Monado and the very world they inhabit.
Those who have played a lot of J-RPGs over the years will find a number of familiar elements in Xenoblade. The main character is an orphan with a mysterious past, the majority of the party members are in their teens/early twenties with one exception being the wise, well-traveled member, the hero is chosen by fate (and in this case a mysterious weapon that only he can wield), there are giant and unbelievable weapons, there is an adorable mascot character in the party, a requisite bout of amnesia, and a number of mysterious characters who smirk when the main party turns their backs. Honestly, it’s somewhat remarkable how many J-RPG clichés permeate this game. That said, part of what makes this game so successful, in my opinion, is that it takes a number of these familiar pieces, and manages to combine them to produce something that feels like it belongs in the epoch of great J-RPGs.
One major deviation from the more traditional J-RPGs of old is how non-linear Xenoblade appears. Yes, the story follows a set path and players have to complete each objective before advancing to the next, but beyond that, the game does little to limit your exploration of the world. As I mentioned above, the world of Xenoblade occurs along the corpse of the giant Bionis (and later the Mechonis). As players traverse these colossal creatures, they encounter a variety of unique environments that range from colorful archipelagos, to snowy mountains, to lush forests, and stormy plains. Throughout these various locations, the party visits a number of towns full of characters in need of help. The vast majority of these quests are optional, but completing them allows players to gain necessary levels and truly experience the world and its myriad of problems. That said, one thing I struggled with was the scope of the world. For as massive as these two behemoths supposedly were, as I traveled across them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were far too small to house these different ecosystems and locations. I’m sure part of this was because the developers didn’t want to force players to spend ten-plus hours scaling the knee of the Bionis, but I definitely struggled with the size of the worlds. Since much of the game requires traveling back to towns and other locations, the developers thankfully included a quick-travel feature that is accessible at any time during most points in the game.
Another reason Xenoblade feels like it belongs in a previous era is because of how it looks. Undoubtedly a symptom of the Wii’s graphical limitations, Xenoblade looks like it should have been released about five or six years ago. Not only are the environments lacking in the rich detail found in other games, but even the characters and monsters, the majority of which are reskinned repeatedly over the course of the game, lack the graphical polish offered in other games. While I was able to get over the graphical weaknesses of the game fairly quickly, there is no doubt that it doesn’t come close to the bar established by games today. Honestly, even compared to other games on the Wii, Xenoblade appears to fall short. Compared to a game like Skyward Sword, the colors seem duller and the environments appear far less vivid. However, one nice graphical detail that I’ve missed (from what feels like the SNES days) is the different sets of armor for the characters. The game seemingly throws armor and weapons at players and each character has several different appearances depending on which piece they’re wearing. Sure it’s not a major detail, and many of the sets clash so much that your characters will often look like a mix between a tribal nomad, medieval knight, and futuristic soldier, but it’s definitely a nice addition that harkens back to a time when such detail only required changing a few pixels.
As someone who spent the better part of a decade playing Final Fantasy XI, Xenoblade’s battle system brought back some surprising memories. Players control the leader of the party while the other two members are left in the hands of the computer. Characters within range engage in auto-battle, which builds up their ability to use a special attack. As players level, they gain access to a number of additional abilities called arts which can be used as long as their timers are up. Many of these abilities become stronger or inflict status-effects with proper positioning. Using the right sequence of abilities and positions can result in some devastating attacks. For instance, Shulk can use an art from the side to decrease an enemy’s defense, move behind it and use an ability that decreases his enmity and boosts his arts’ damage, and then deliver a devastating art which does double damage when used from behind an enemy. Of course, you don’t have to play the game so strategically, but I image it would be similar to the unnecessary challenge of playing a Final Fantasy game without using buffs. Enemies are present throughout the world and engaging in battle is a fairly seamless experience. Upon defeat, enemies leave chests which unfortunately interrupt the flow of the game when opened. The game does a phenomenal job constantly pushing players to fight every enemy to become stronger. In every area, even the starting zone, there are a number of high level monsters that will easily devastate low level players. I know I poured in a lot more time than I was originally expecting just so I could go back to all those areas and fight those tantalizing targets.
Somewhere along the line, gamers decided the era of J-RPGs was over. Thankfully, no one mentioned this to Xenoblade. It has been a long time since I’ve played a game that I’ve enjoyed as much as I enjoyed Xenoblade. While there have been a few games that have kept me up all night in recent memory, I honestly can’t remember the last time I completely lost track of time while playing a game, only to be reminded by the sound of birds chirping in the morning. Xenoblade did this to me multiple times. Like I mentioned above, Xenoblade also does a great job of constantly pushing players to explore and get stronger. Another thing Xenoblade rekindled was my desire to be a completionist -- not for the sake of achievements or bragging, but just for the sake of doing everything possible in the game. Personally, I have a soft spot for Xenoblade given the powerful deluge of nostalgia it repeatedly submerged me under. Not only did it remind me of some of my favorite games from years ago when I was a young gamer, but it also rekindled the smoking embers that were once my affection for FFXI. Like many J-RPGs, it has its flaws, but if you’re someone who adored that era in gaming, I highly advise you pick up Xenoblade Chronicles. And, if you're interested, the second game of this trilogy, The Last Story, is scheduled for a state-side release in August.
It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures.
All images owned by Nintendo.