Review by Anclation
"Easily one of the best games of this generation!"
We European gamers have become somewhat used to getting a raw deal when it comes to video game releases, usually receiving the games later than everyone else and sometimes not getting them at all (how many years did it take for Chrono Trigger to arrive here again?) At least this console generation things have gotten a bit better, but as a Wii owner I've still had to wait needlessly long for titles like Super Paper Mario and Smash Bros. Brawl, not to mention how Excitebots: Trick Racing (a game I personally was looking very much forward to) never even got a European release.
However, it seems that lately us European gamers have actually been treated better than our American counterparts, getting several highly acclaimed Wii exclusive RPGs released on our continent while it looked like North America wouldn't get any of them, ever. It actually took the fan campaign Operation Rainfall, as well as better than expected European sales in order to get an instant classic like Xenoblade Chronicles released in the US, as a GameStop semi-exclusive. Still, I can't say I felt all that happy about the role reversal. See, Xenoblade is the kind of incredible game that you'll inevitably want as many people as possible to experience, and I frankly found it disturbing how Nintendo seemed completely uninterested in releasing one of the Wii's best games in the console's biggest market. Regardless of where you live, Xenoblade Chronicles is one game you'll definitely need to add to your collection!
Concept & Story
Xenoblade is an RPG developed by Monolith Soft, a Nintendo first party developer previously responsible for the Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos games. The company employs plenty of Square veterans, most notably Tetsuya Takahashi, the director of the PlayStation RPG classic Xenogears, who's also the director of Xenoblade. However, Xenoblade has nothing to do with either Xenogears or the Xenosaga games otherwise, being an original title that any new player can safely dive right into. It's a role-playing game that seamlessly blends together elements from both Japanese as well as Western RPGs, and one which takes place in a universe that combines science fiction and fantasy, the end result being that Xenoblade somehow manages to provide gamers with the best of all worlds.
As for the story, it begins like this: Long ago, there existed nothing but an endless ocean, and two ancient gods locked in battle. These two gods, Bionis and Mechonis, actually end up killing each other, but on their corpses numerous civilizations start developing and even flourishing (did I mention that these two gods were freaking huge?). However, while the Bionis gives birth to all sorts of organic life forms, the Mechonis becomes home to a race of machines called Mechon. The Mechon, seemingly intent on continuing the battle between the two gods, end up waging a war of extermination against the people of Bionis, and their nigh-indestructible mechanical army nearly ends up triumphant. It is only thanks to the efforts of Dunban, Hero of the Homs (humans) and wielder of the Monado (a legendary sword said to once have belonged to the Bionis itself) that the Mechon menace is beaten back. Peace is returned to the land of Bionis, but the power of the Monado nearly ends up killing Dunban, and he permanently loses the use of his right arm. One year after the decisive battle against the Mechon, Dunban is still recovering from his injuries, being tended to by his sister Fiora, while Shulk, a young engineer and Fiora's childhood friend, is studying the Monado, trying to figure out the secret behind its power. Of course, things don't stay this peaceful for long...
The story of Xenoblade has the feel of a shonen anime (albeit a very good one), and a lot of shonen cliches are certainly present. It's by no means the deepest, most profound story ever conceived, but it is nonetheless immensely entertaining, with a likable cast of characters as well as plenty of plot twists, shocking reveals and memorable moments.
I also have to make note of the excellent cinematic sequences, seeing how this game features some of the cooler action scenes I've seen in any medium. Overall, the story is very satisfying and really succeeds in making you care about the characters and the world they inhabit.
Considering that this is a Wii game the graphics are very impressive indeed. For starters, the environments in Xenoblade are generally gorgeous and the draw distance is nothing short of stunning, with areas that stretch for miles being a common sight. The game also knows to fully take advantage of this fact, offering up many spots throughout the world that give you jaw dropping views of the various locations. Apart from this, the character models are pretty good too, and there are plenty of quite detailed and really nice-looking creatures to be found roaming the gigantic world. There is also lots of variety on display and the use of colors is wonderful (sunrises and sunsets in particular being truly breathtaking), the game really managing to bring out as much beauty as possible from every area despite running on underpowered hardware.
Unfortunately, there are some issues to be found with the game's visuals. Some of the textures are primitive and blurry, and while I generally liked how the characters looked, I'd have to say that their hands were surprisingly ugly (and yes, some cut-scenes do expose this quite brutally). There is also one particular location that suffers from tons of pop-ups, which really takes away from the otherwise lovely scenery. The fact that none of the other locations share this problem makes that one case all the more jarring. Nevertheless, as far as graphics go the good far outweighs the bad, and that's before even considering the great artistic direction: From the awesome-looking design of the two dead gods right down to the really cool look of individual pieces of armour, weapons and vehicles, this game time and time again shows that it knows how to provide the player with a visually pleasing experience without the aid of HD.
Music & Sound
There are few games out there with more than 3-4 songs I could listen to non-stop even when not playing, but Xenoblade Chronicles features 20-30 songs of that quality. Simply put, Xenoblade boasts one of the best video game soundtracks I've ever had the pleasure of listening to, and even the least remarkable songs in the game are still really good, atmospheric tunes. The music was in fact so good that it played a big part in making me excited about upcoming locations and the brand new songs they would offer (also, did I mention that in most places different songs play depending on whether it's day or night?). Words simply can't do the soundtrack justice, you just have to listen to it for yourself.
Not only is the music outstanding, the voice acting is really good as well. Xenoblade features British voice actors rather than American ones, and the Brits do a great job: Pretty much every voice fits the respective character well, and the lines are delivered with passion and conviction. By the way, the playable characters don't just speak during cut-scenes, they're in fact quite talkative during battles as well, and afterwards they'll offer up some (often hilarious) post-battle quotes. This doesn't affect the actual gameplay in any way, but it's nonetheless a nice touch. I should also mention that you have the option of going back to the original Japanese voice acting (with subtitles of course) should you so desire, which serves as icing on the cake.
As I mentioned earlier, Xenoblade manages to seamlessly blend the best elements from both Eastern and Western RPGs. As such, you have a story- and character-driven main adventure with near perfect pacing, party members that are unique and memorable, and boss fights that are challenging. It's a truly epic adventure where the motivation to progress further is always strong. You'll always know where to go and what to do in order to advance the story, and yet the game always manages to keep you guessing as to just what will happen next. At the same time you have an enormous world that you can explore at your leisure, as well as hundreds of optional sidequests and tons of secrets. Random battles are a thing of the past, combat is real time (as well as real fun) and you automatically recover after each battle, meaning you won't constantly have to use items to restore health or magic. Numerous clever design choices ensure that the game is accessible to newcomers, while there's plenty of depth to keep RPG veterans excited.
A Magical World
Xenoblade is a linear game, yet nonetheless manages to give the player an incredible sense of freedom. The reason for this is that the world of Xenoblade (made up by the Bionis and the Mechonis) is so huge, so full of things to see and do that you at pretty much any point in the game can spend dozens of hours simply doing optional stuff. It's an amazing and magical world, pretty much free of loading times or invisble walls, and the sci-fi fantasy setting allows for excellent variety, the game featuring all sorts of amazing locations. And these locations don't just look very different, they're also very diverse in terms of how they're designed, though one thing all the locations do have in common is that they're all tons of fun to explore.
In fact, I don't think I've ever come across a console game before where exploration was so fun, rewarding and seemingly never-ending. And it's not just because Xenoblade is absolutely massive, beautiful to look at and provides you with a superlative soundtrack to accompany the exploration, it's also about how you always have the sense of there being secrets around every corner, how you can explore a location ten times over and still discover new things on your 11th visit. While you in some games with huge overworlds spend a lot of time just wandering around without accomplishing much, exploring a location in Xenoblade gives you the feeling of constantly making progress, since you're always picking up more collectibles, unlocking additional achievements, finding lost items and stumbling over new landmarks, not to mention often coming across Unique Monsters (basically optional bosses) and sometimes even discovering whole secret areas. Plus, simply by killing the various monsters you encounter and picking up the treasure they drop you'll also be completing a lot of the more basic sidequests you can take on, making the exploration all the more rewarding.
It also does feel like you're exploring a living, breathing world, an impression only strengthened by a sophisticated night/day-system, as well as changing weather conditions (some of the more special ones, like heatwaves or thick fog, being exclusive to particular locations). Many unique NPCs also have their own schedules, reminding me a bit of Majora's Mask, though with so many characters to keep track of the schedules here are obviously simplified. In addition to this, the world does go through a number of changes over the course of your adventure, some of the changes being largely cosmetic, others being very big and substantive. Then there's the fact that as you progress through the game new sidequests are opened up in previously visited areas, and as you also become strong enough to tackle the toughest enemies roaming the earlier locations (there are Level 70 enemies to be found even in Colony 9, your hometown) you'll find that there are plenty of new things to do even in these old places, something I really like.
Speaking of the sidequests, they're fortunately not all quantity over quality, despite being so numerous. Even the simpler ones often have compelling justifications and they almost always go very well together with the exploration. As you get more sidequests done even more are unlocked, and these later sidequests are often quite a bit more elaborate. They feature more objectives as well as more imaginative storylines, like having you help a poor writer take on a loan shark, finding out the true meaning of love, teach a racist woman the error of her ways, determine the outcome of a cooking rivalry and uncover the the secrets of the ancient Giants. Of course, these quests are merely a very small sample of the ones actually available. One neat thing about many of the sidequests is that they produce lasting changes in the characters affected, and some storylines are even developed over the course of many different sidequests involving particular characters. These optional quests also give EXP, which is true for achievements and landmark discoveries as well, meaning that sidequests and exploration in this game pretty much replace traditional RPG level grinding, a very good thing in my book.
With such a colossal world to explore, hundreds of sidequests to undertake and even more NPCs to talk to, there's of course the risk of the game simply becoming overwhelming, in a bad way. Fortunately, Xenoblade manages to always give the player the feeling of being on top of things, due to excellent pacing and superb design. Sure, there are tons of things to do, but you don't have to do everything at once, or even at all, you can skip a lot of stuff and still end up feeling thoroughly satisfied with what you accomplished. If you do hundred percent the game it will probably be because you had so much fun playing, not because of obsessive completionism.
The way Xenoblade is designed ensures that exploring and doing sidequests goes as quickly and painlessly as possible: A wonderful quick travel system enables you to warp to any previously discovered landmark, and you can at any moment change the in-game time to make sure the NPC or monster you're looking for is instantly available. The handy mini map in the top right corner of the screen makes it easy to find what you're looking for, and a full map is just a button press away if you're still having problems finding your way. You can also quickly load a saved game in case you mess up, though it'll probably get surprisingly little use given how you don't really get harshly punished for dying, only being sent back to the last visited landmark. And if you're worried about this making the game too easy, don't be, it just reflects that Xenoblade is refreshingly uninterested in the fake challenge provided by wasting the player's time, instead opting for the real deal. In a similar vein, you can also pause or skip any of the cut-scenes if the need comes up. Best of all, you have the ability to save whenever you want.
Sidequests are neatly organised, and getting back on track is therefore no big problem even after a long hiatus. However, locating certain NPCs (at least in the two biggest cities) can be a bit of a problem if you don't remember where he or she is, even though the game does provide information about when the various NPCs are active. Since these NPCs have schedules of their own they do move around quite a bit, which can make them even more difficult to find if you don't understand how the system works. And again, two of the cities are very big indeed. However, that is the only issue of this kind I have ever had with the game, in all other circumstances Xenoblade manages to make the most of its incredible size and scope while suffering from none of the potential drawbacks.
Combat & Customization
Xenoblade's battle system also works very well. You control one character in a party of three, while the AI handles the two other characters (and generally does a pretty good job). Each character is very unique, with different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, though the combat basics remain the same: After starting a battle your character will be able to attack automatically if the enemy is within range, but in order to take down any actual threat you have to use your Battle Arts. Each character has plenty of unique Arts and the Arts themselves can serve all kinds of purposes, from simply dealing damage or inflicting negative statuses to healing or avoiding enemy attention (or alternatively, if the character is something of a tank he'll have an Art that draws enemy attention away from weaker party members and towards him). None of the characters can have more than 8 Battle Arts active at any time, so figuring out the optimal moveset for each character (and how it complements the movesets of your other party members) will be very important. Good teams consisting of characters with complementing movesets can be frighteningly effective, setting up awesome buffs and unleashing devastating combos, and the whole experimentation process (where you try out different characters and moves) is itself very enjoyable.
It's not just about standing still and using the right Arts either, you'll often have to run up to party members to help snap them out of confusion, help them back up if they've been toppled or even revive them if KOed. Some Arts are also super effective only if you manage to hit the enemy from a certain position, be it from the flank or from behind, which makes you feel all the more involved in the battle. It should also be mentioned that the enemies you fight come in all conceivable sizes and shapes, running the gamut from bunnies, bats and wasps to dinosaurs, dragons and giant killer robots. What stays constant is that combat in Xenoblade is lots of fun, easy to learn, yet boasting plenty of depth.
Of course, if you want to do well in battles you also need good equipment, and Xenoblade features tons of different equipment for all playable characters to use. One interesting thing worth pointing out is that while the pieces of equipment you can buy in the shops are usually decent enough, the truly spectacular equipment can only be obtained by slaying powerful monsters and plundering the treasure chests they drop. Also worth mentioning is the fact that every single piece of equipment shows up on the character equipping it, which is very cool indeed. But the most important thing to note is that many pieces of equipment can themselves have magical gems equipped. These gems can be earned through sidequests or be crafted using crystals you can find and harvest throughout the game, and they have all sorts of different effects: Certain gems will be able to improve particular stats or grant special protections (and there are also gems with different offensive powers), while others affect abilities that are more important outside of battle, by for example allowing you to move around faster, or make you less likely to be spotted by aggressive monsters. It's a really neat feature and definitely takes customization in Xenoblade to a whole 'nother level.
Pure RPG Bliss
There are so many other things I could talk about regarding this game, like the optional city building, the Skill Trees, the Visions, the Heart-To-Heart conversations, the clever affinity system or the trading feature, but the review would just never end if I set out to write about everything Xenoblade has going for it. Simply put, the game is pure quality, amazingly well designed and surprisingly polished considering its size. Everything is just so well done, and once you start playing it quickly becomes very hard to stop. When you have a game where even the act of running around talking to unnamed NPCs is fun and rewarding, you know you've come across something truly special.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, this game is huge! The main adventure alone will at the very least last you some 50-60 hours, while hundred percenting Xenoblade will probably take something like 150-200 hours. As if that's not enough, the game actually boasts quite a bit of replay value as well. And no, I'm not primarily referring to the New Game Plus here, but rather to how many of the more elaborate sidequests can be completed in more than one way, this often resulting in very different outcomes depending on what you did, and these different outcomes in turn setting up whole new storylines and sidequests. It certainly makes that second playthrough feel more fresh and interesting than you'd have expected.
And the game's replay value really did take me by surprise. I thought that after spending around 180 hours on Xenoblade it would at least take several years before I would feel like replaying it again, but in fact it only took a few weeks. Even now, I still know there are more things to learn about the game, more things to do and even more secrets to discover. In terms of providing amazing value for your money, the only Wii game out there that can match Xenoblade is Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a masterpiece and one of the greatest Wii games ever made, right up there with the likes of Brawl, Skyward Sword and the two Mario Galaxy games. It's a crying shame that Nintendo has decided to treat one of their console's landmark titles as some niche RPG with limited appeal, but at least this must buy game will eventually end up available in all the major gaming markets. So whoever you are and wherever you live, make sure not to miss out on one of the best games in recent memory.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/20/12
Game Release: Xenoblade Chronicles (EU, 08/19/11)
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