Review by SSpectre
"Xenoblade is the best RPG in years, Japanese or otherwise."
+ Battle system is complex, original, and challenging
+ Huge, fully-realized world to explore
+ Epic, twisting narrative populated with interesting characters
+ Jaw-dropping visuals
- Some unnecessary padding
- Suffers a little in the transition between hemispheres
The seventh console generation has been a dull few years if you're a JRPG fan. Now that Square Enix has become a colossal black hole of stagnant IPs, and Atlus' mission statement reads something like, attach a quirky localization to every generic dungeon crawler we can find, the only output of the genre worth a damn are the scraps of the Tales series that make it out of Japan, and the occasional Mario or Pokemon offering.
Yes, the genre seems to be dying, but I hesitate to call it dead. Why? Two words: Xenoblade Chronicles. As the spiritual sequel to both the PlayStation cult favourites Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy, Xenoblade successfully reinvigorates the JRPG with a western influence. It's got the emotional story, complex characters, and visual splendour of a JRPG, but it takes place in a massive, open-ended world filled with loot and quests, not unlike a good western RPG. And most importantly, it's got a battle system that's all its own.
I've been racking my brain trying to think of other games to compare it to, and I honestly can't do it in less than a sentence. Each character has a set of Arts to use in battle in addition to simple auto-attacks. The Arts form the standard RPG arsenal: debuffs, healing, stronger attacks, etc, but they very rarely only do one thing, and the only restriction on their use is cooldown time. The result is that buffs, debuffs, and status effects are not only genuinely useful strategies, but are absolutely necessary for winning against even weaker foes. Character position is also important, since a lot of Arts have a different area of effect, and some pack additional effects depending on the direction they're used from.
Each character is drastically different, and not just in which Arts they learn. Some characters are designed for drawing the attention of enemies to soak up damage with superior defence or dodging skill, one character's role is completely customizable based on the different pieces of armour she's wearing, and one character has a unique approach to the summoner archetype that involves a balancing act betwen granting passive buffs and dealing heavy elemental damage. Reviving fallen allies and using chain attacks (party-wide techniques that can deal enormous damage and add extra effects to Arts) drains the Party Meter, which is filled by encouraging allies when they miss or score a critical hit. And the probability of such an event is determined by their tension, a stat that fluctuates based on the events of the battle.
...Just typing all that makes me feel out of breath.
What I'm painstakingly trying to get across here is that combat in Xenoblade is complicated, challenging, and really bloody fun. The fast pace will come as a pleasant shock to anyone who usually avoids JRPGs for fear of menus, although I should mention that it can obviously be a little overwhelming at first. These mechanics are all doled out over time, but there's still a somewhat steep learning curve.
Equally complicated (though considerably slower) is the game's story, which takes place on top of two continent-sized gods called the Bionis and the Mechonis. Bionis settlements live in fear of living machines native to the Mechonis, called Mechon, which can only be reliably destroyed by the Monado, a legendary sword of unknown origin that gives the user the unexplained ability to see the future. After a particularly bad Mechon invasion, our protagonist, Shulk, becomes the new wielder of the Monado and sets out on a quest for revenge...at first. That's the summary of the first five hours of a minimum 70-hour game. Suffice it to say, there's a hell of a lot more going on in Xenoblade. It's the kind of plot where everything you think you know will be turned on its head by the end of the journey.
The emphasis on story and characters does lead to one of the game's only real problems, however. Let's face it Japanese does not transition to English well. A lot of the dialogue that I'm sure was used for further character development in its original language has now just become redundant and unnecessary. And it's got the same problem that all translated games with scripted cutscenes have: the dialogue must match the timing of the action, meaning a lot of the time it will feel stunted and awkward. And in a game with this much dialogue (again, 70 hours just for the main story), it's rather noticeable.
This is not to say the dialogue is poorly localized, or even poorly voiced. On the contrary, the British voiceovers help the game stand out amid others of its kind, and the cast is consistently above-average. I do really wish they had decided to mix up the battle quotes as the game progresses, though. As endearing as secondary protagonist Reyn's post-battle cries of Good thing I'm here...No? ANYONE?! are initially, they'll grow tiresome by the 30-hour mark, and aggravating by 60.
The last point about the story that I want to bring up is how neatly it integrates with the gameplay. Shulk's ability to see the future isn't just a convenient plot device; it's an integral part of the battle system. You'll often get a glimpse of an enemy using an especially powerful attack or inflicting a status effect before it actually happens, giving you a few seconds to plan your next moves accordingly. Additionally, items that will be used in future quests are noted as such via visions of you completing the quest. In any other game, this would be a neat little convenience, but here, it's also an excellent example of how to keep immersion intact without sacrificing gameplay.
One of Xenoblade's best assets is the way it connects every mechanic with at least one other, so nothing feels out of place or tacked on. Completing quests and exploring new locations will net you experience and Skill Points, which can be used to teach characters passive skills, which they can then share with other party members with whom they have a high affinity, which is raised by fighting alongside each other, among other things. Affinity also improves the damage potential of chain attacks, unlocks hidden conversations, and improves a pair's skill with crafting gems, which can be attached to weapons and armour for stat boosts or extra effects like dealing additional damage from behind.
Like I said, it's a complex game. It kind of had to be, to support the playtime it carries. That 70-hour mark I mentioned is without doing anything optional; to get everything, you're probably looking at a total closer to 150-200 hours. To be frank, though, a decent chunk of that time is made up of inconsequential padding. Some areas are simply too big, and the fast travel locations too far apart. There are also a few too many sections in the main quest where the developers are obviously saying, We have a playtime quota to meet, so go to these two pointless locations before you can advance the story.
Thankfully, you probably won't mind exploring the open world, because the environments are gorgeous. Xenoblade has, without a doubt, the best technical graphics on the Wii, and arguably some of the most artistic. The really cool thing is that even despite this, secret areas are even more visually interesting if you can find them. On the audio side, Xenoblade fares poorer. There are plenty of memorable tracks (those that play during boss fights or night-time, in particular), but there are also a few repetitive or downright annoying ones.
The bottom line is that if you like RPGs at all, you need to play this game. Xenoblade Chronicles succeeds as an engrossing story, as an engaging game, or even just as an immersive trek through a fantastic world. It would be way too optimistic to think that it can revive the JRPG to its previous stature, but here's hoping that others will learn from its example, and that games as original and entertaining as this will come around more often.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/20/12, Updated 10/04/13
Game Release: Xenoblade Chronicles (US, 04/06/12)
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