Review by JoopFOX
"I want to be a Nopon!"
Xenoblade is a Japanese-style Role Playing Game (JRPG) released for the Wii in Japan in June 2010. As the game takes place on top an enormous giant, its setting is quite unique. This in itself is a refreshing new idea, which could make one say: Hey, that's nice, they haven't done anything like that before. Monolith Soft (the developer), however, does much more than this. This is one of those rare instances where a unique idea is presented carefully and integrated into the game successfully. People who have played the game will know what I am talking about: every area that you visit corresponds to a certain part of the giant's body, and it all makes sense. In-game distances between places can be significant and other parts of the giant can be visible at certain points, making yourself very aware of the scope of your travels. Exploration is one of the many enjoyable aspects in this game, and discovering new locations or landmarks (which also serve as instant warp points) is even rewarded with experience points.
The graphical detail in Xenoblade is amazing, especially for objects far away, resulting in some breathtaking scenery. The range of vision is also impressive, enabling the player to see places far in the distance that you are actually able to visit, often without any loading times in between. On top of this, the design is also top-notch, making for many variations in locations, each with their own distinct atmosphere. Sometimes, locations even change completely when it turns dark (there is an in-game day/night cycle) or because of changes in the weather. Monolith had to make some compromises to be able to achieve this graphical detail, however. From close distance, you can see that the textures are not comparable to the next-gen standard, and as most of you who have watched a trailer have probably already noticed, the characters are not incredibly high polygon either. About the design of the characters, opinions tend to differ slightly. I feel comfortable with their design, not incredibly stereotype anime-style, and not too realistic either. The only slight complaint would be that character-specific effects are overused during cut-scenes, but it never becomes a serious problem. Finally, a big plus is that equipment on your characters is actually visible, enabling you to dress up characters in a lot of different ways.
When exploring the massive world of Xenoblade, you only control one character at a time, with two others following that character on the field and in battle. The battle system is a balanced real-time action variant that is somewhat comparable to some MMORPG systems. Much of the action takes place around Arts, which are skills with very specific effects unique for each character. It is up to the player to select which Arts are equipped for each of the characters, making you able to significantly influence the fighting style of your AI-controlled fighting companions. The system is enriched by a skill tree system which grants characters useful passive abilities. Passive abilities and stat boosts may also be obtained through the gem socket system for equipment.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways for you to influence how characters fight during battle. In contrast to some other recent RPGs, this produces a feeling that what you do matters, so finding a new gem or equipment actually makes you excited about trying it out. The bottom line is that the fighting system is incredibly fun, challenging and addictive, with countless possibilities of variation. Since each characters' fighting style is so different, it can be a big challenge to try to master controlling different characters effectively in battle. Monsters are also varied, with more than enough challenges present even early on in the game.
Another big aspect of the game is the gathering of collectable items which appear on the map. These items can be used for many different purposes, and while looking for some of them might get tedious at times, it is an extremely rewarding process. The player will be rewarded directly for collecting all items of a category per map, usually in the form of gems or equipment. Later on in the game there will be another important (but optional) purpose for gathering collectibles and other loot, which in itself is a very challenging and rewarding undertaking. The only problem I have found is the lack of an item storage system, forcing the player to sell items from time to time.
Another interesting element is the Kizuna (Bond) system, which allows the player to strengthen bonds between characters in your party. There are a lot of interesting conversations between characters to discover (Kizuna Talks), and you can steer the direction these conversation are going by choosing between two different lines. A higher bond between characters provides bonuses during combat in the form of Skill Linking (obtaining skills from other characters) and increased probability of longer chain attacks. On top of that is a rather deep system of interaction with townspeople, which can be further explored by completing quests, allowing the player to learn more about the individual townspeople and their life. Although this is completely optional, it is interesting to see how townspeople may develop relations with one another because of your hard work, and increased reputation will give the player bonuses in the form of better obtainable items through trading.
The voice acting is extremely well done, even for Japanese standards. I can only hope that a Western version will try to match the quality set by the Japanese version, or, even better, will allow an option with English text and original voices. The music of Xenoblade was composed by four different composers, among them the experienced Yoko Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda. The bulk of the tracks, however, were composed by Minami Kiyoda and ACE+ (which actually consists of three people). Without discussing every track in detail or comparing the different composers, let me just say that this soundtrack is amazing. For me, music is actually one of those aspects of JRPGs which can ruin the experience to a certain extent when it is too bland at times I feel it could contribute more to the atmosphere. Fortunately, the creators of Xenoblade have not underestimated this aspect, specifically instructing the composers on what sort of themes they expected where, and the result is a masterpiece that I will be listening to for quite some time from now on.
I am kind of lazy when it comes to describing the story of a game, and of course I like to avoid spoilers, so I will be short on that: Xenoblade has a good story! The characters are likeable, and there are a lot of interesting plot twists and epic cut-scenes. This in itself is not what makes Xenoblade succeed though, even though I have argued for the importance of this element in JRPGs elsewhere. I believe it is the integration of a number of elements that makes this a rare JRPG gem: a well-written story, beautiful design, many fun things to do and an amazing musical score. Somehow, this videogame just feels more polished than anything else I have played recently. As Tetsuya Takahashi, the Executive Director, mentioned: What is most important in these games is that you create a world where players would want to live in. Well, I am one of those players, and if possible, I will be a Nopon!
As of January 2011, Xenoblade still has no date set for a Western release. This single game has proven to me that the genre of JRPGs is not dead, making me quite optimistic once more about its future. When so many things come together in a game like this, the gameplay experience that is delivered is hardly comparable to any other sort of game. I would even dare to go further and state that this specific form of art, combining elements from the musical, visual and literal arts (which each in itself harbor a huge market justifying it as art), in addition to the sense of involvement through the agency of the player, can be considered the most elegant of all art forms. Sure, call me a JRPG supremacist. Films have entered the world of what is considered potential high culture during the last century, why not videogames in this century? Without going into a potentially endless debate, the point here is that Xenoblade reawakened my love for JRPGs.
Of course, it might have to do with personal taste, and it might have to do with the fact that I have become so busy recently that I can no longer afford to try every JRPG that seems interesting to me, bringing along the risk that I missed some JRPG gems that may have delivered similarly rewarding experiences. Still, I would like to mention that for a long time I thought it was me getting older, or perhaps me being spoiled for having had so many great JRPG experiences in the past, that made me not appreciate most recent JRPGs as I would, say, mid to end 90s, when one classic was released after another. It turned out I was wrong; Xenoblade has given me another experience that will probably remain in my favorite JRPG list forever.
In an age where Japan as a nation is more and more concerned with its cultural cool (or soft power) output, popular culture products such as manga and video games have become more prominent on the country's political economic agenda. While this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, it may be bad news for the consumers. Government subsidy means stricter control and less freedom for the director. Has it been a coincidence that both the director of Final Fantasy XII and Suikoden III, two high profile JRPGs during their time of production during the first few years of the new millennium, quit under mysterious conditions while in the midst of producing their titles? Content-wise also, most of what is produced in Japan nowadays seems to be using the same formula of bringing together a number of aspects that have already proved successful. JRPGs are especially sensitive to this, since the result is often a product that feels kind of empty, lacking integration or soul, whatever you may call it. I do have to admit that most of this is based on personal assumptions rather than facts, but I did base my statements on at least some observations. As for the significance to this review, I believe that companies in the video game business in Japan are starting to focus more on producing consumables rather than art. The line between what is only an empty consumable and what makes art is of course very vague and extremely personal. However, for me at least, Xenoblade is a positive exception to recent trends and needs to get the attention it deserves.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 01/10/11, Updated 01/20/11
Game Release: Xenoblade (JP, 06/10/10)
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