Review by GreenHammer
"A Swan Song for the Wii (and possibly JRPGS)"
The Japanese RPG is a genre that hasn't had a defining game in this generation of systems. There have been a few worthy contenders - Eternal Sonata had its unique charms, and Lost Odyssey is an underrated gem - but overall, the genre hasn't had a game that reached the heights of the classics of the SNES and Playstation eras. Until now. Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best RPGs of all-time. It's not quite perfect, but it's flaws are minor.
When I'm critiquing an RPG, the absolute number one aspect that makes or breaks the game is the story. The best graphics and battle system can't make up for a lackluster story (take a bow, Final Fantasy XIII), so it's fortunate that Xenoblade Chronicles mostly nails it.
The setting is an absolute high point. I don't want to spoil where the game takes place - there's a wonderful sequence in the first 10 minutes of the game that perfectly establishes it - but I'll just say I haven't played a game with a setting like this before. The best facet of this setting is the constant changes in environment. You'll spend time trekking through places ranging from tropical jungles, to massive oceans, to arctic mountains. It's refreshing to have new and interesting environments at each new turn, and it's a welcome change from the staid settings you find in most current RPGS.
The game's plot and cast of characters don't quite hold up to the setting, but they're still very solid. There are maybe one too many JRPG tropes - Giant flying robots? Check. Overly adorable/annoying ally? Check. Orphaned hero? Check. - but there are enough twists and turns in the plot that it should keep you interested throughout. Unlike most other games in the genre, the overall plot is thankfully never too confusing, or convoluted. In fact, it probably plays things a little too simple at first - it takes quite a while for the story to advance past anything other than a well-worn revenge tale - but I'll take simple and easy to follow over complex and inane any day. Things gets more complex, and better for it, around the mid-point of the game, but unfortunately things starts to come apart just the slightest at the very end. There are some very interesting ideas put forth in the games last few hours, but they comes way out of left field and maybe could have used a bit more development beforehand.
The cast, like the plot, is mostly solid. The lead is very cliched, but never annoying or unlikable. His supporting crew is a who's who of RPG archetypes - the silly guy with a big heart, the stoic teacher, the sheltered princess - and while none of them are particularly memorable, they're all nice additions to your team. The one exception is a rather grating sidekick who I can easily see annoying some gamers. Personally, I thought he was mostly charming, but I can see him being pretty divisive. The biggest problem with the cast is the lack of a compelling villain. For a large portion of the game you're not even sure who/what the villain is, and it takes well over half of the game before a real "main" villain is established.
Grade - 8.5/10 - the twists are well utilized, and the plot is engaging enough that you'll want to know what happens next. There's nothing very memorable, but overall the story is a positive part of the whole.
There are certain aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles' gameplay that I absolutely love. The combat, when it's crackling, is some of the best combat I've seen in an RPG. In the game's more difficult battles, you will be juggling a number of different activities all while properly positioning your characters to best utilize their various skills and abilities. Some skills work best when striking from behind, others inflict a status ailment when hitting from the side, others will fire in a straight line, etc.
The combat basically works like this: you're allowed nine different skills that you can cycle through, while your characters will auto-attack whenever they're in range of an enemy. You control what skills you use with the D-pad and your characters movement is controlled with the analog. This marriage of a pseudo-menu based system with the free movement system is perfect. There are traditional elements to combat like healing, buffing/de-buffing, and area of effect attacks, but the one feature that really stands out is a unique "vision" ability. Every now and then, you will see a vision of how the enemy is going to attack (these vision tags tie into the plot of the game as well) and you are given a handful of seconds to properly defend your party against the attack you received in the vision. This feature opens the battles up to even more strategic elements, and is just a great feature added to an already fascinating core system. If I had a complaint about the "vision" system is that it's maybe a bit too random. There can be large stretches where you'll never even see it activate.
You fight in a traditional three man party, however you only control one character. This, obviously, leaves two of your party members in the hands of the occasionally wonky AI. It's never game-breaking, but there were more than a few times when I wished my comrades would do something that they were not. It's the only blemish on the otherwise flawless battle system. The other fault in the battle system is a problem from an altogether different aspect of the game: it's too easy. I'll admit, complaining about the difficulty isn't entirely fair, as, for the most part, I only have myself to blame for my characters being overleveled. The cause of which, was the game's large number of experience rich side-quests.
There are hundreds of side-quests, as well as more minor distractions like gem crafting, mining, active time events (similar to those of Star Ocean or Final Fantasy IX), and item collections. Still, the majority of the additional content comes from the side-quests. These range from annoying leg work (take an item from point A to point B) to monster hunting, to item collecting. The plot-lines to most of these quests are forgettable, however there are a few that elevate past "Go kill this monster". The problem with them lies in some truly baffling design decisions.
This game is massive. The larger world is broken up into a dozen or so smaller maps, each of which are fairly large in their own right. The side-quests will inevitably have you hunting for some random NPC or enemy that you have to track down on these massive maps. Unfortunately, the game does not show you where your objectives lies. There are sometimes hints in the quest description, and thankfully there are some exclamation points that show up on your mini-map, but for the most part you are forced to wander around and hope you chance upon what you're trying to find. There were times when I would wander around a particularly large map for an hour searching for one specific enemy. It's frustrating to the extreme. That's not even taking into account the fact that the game has a Night and Day cycle, and different weather patterns, which all can play into when someone or something appears. You are largely left to your own devices to manipulate these factors and hope you find what you're supposed to. If you're the type who doesn't mind using a guide (personally, I never use a guide my first time through a game) I would highly recommend it.
What's so particularly galling about this, is it all could have been fixed with a simple flag on your overhead map. Think something like The Elder Scrolls or Borderlands uses. While it's great that the game wants to adhere to it's old-school roots, there were a few newer ideas that I wish would've been incorporated. I also wish the game could have better balanced the experience that side-quests dish out, as I was overleveled throughout most of the game. The fact that the battles are so fun when you're properly leveled, will lead you to avoiding content just so you don't skew the games balance. To be fair, all of the side content is optional, and some gamers will be perfectly happy to avoid it, and thus a lot of my criticism in this section won't necessarily apply.
Grade: 9/10 - the battle system is among the best in the genre. It's unfortunate that the errors in the quest system are as fixable as they are.
Reviewing the technical aspects for a Wii game is always a bit of a challenge. Would this game have looked and ran more smoothly on a 360 or a PS3? Of course. But you have to rate it for what it is. And in that regard, Xenoblade Chronicles is pretty fantastic.
The graphics are about as good as the Wii can get. Things can be a bit fuzzy at times, but for the most part, Xenoblade Chronicles will never have you looking at something ugly or distorted. Like most of the best Wii games, it uses creative environments and effects to subvert the graphical limitations. Of particular note is the fantastic looking arctic mountain location. There are some light effects in this zone that are just perfect.
The sprites are also well done. There is a bit of recycling on enemy sprites, but they are all creative looking, with a fair amount of detail. The human sprites look good, and animate smoothly. Sadly, you can't talk about a JRPG without talking about the comically endowed females. Some of the armor choices are particularly egregious in how much they're purely there to show off skin, which doesn't make a ton of sense seeing as they're, you know, armor and all. Having said that, it's nice that the different armor pieces all have their own (mostly) unique look, and the effect carries over into cut-scenes. Granted this can sometimes have the unintended comedic effect of having a character deliver powerful monologues in a swimsuit...
The sound in the game is flawless. The sound effects are top-notch, and the score is one of the best in recent memory. There are numerous tracks that are memorable, and will stay with you without becoming earworms. The voice acting is 100% British, and there's not a bad one in the bunch. Some readings are a tad melodramatic, but that's more of a problem with the script than the actors.
Thankfully Xenoblade Chronicles makes no use of motion controls. I used the standard layout of Nunchuk + WiiMote, and I had few problems with the controls, however it takes a little while getting used to the modern WiiMote's button layout - in particular, controlling the camera can be a real pain - when the game design is clearly made for a more old-school controller. In fact, you can use the Wii Classic Controller, and I would recommend it.
The only really negative technical aspect is the game suffers from pretty frequent slowdown. Granted, this only occurs in battles, but any time you fight more than 2 or 3 enemies, you will have to deal with your fair share of it. While it's normally not a big deal, there is a minor feature of combat that revolves around some amount of hand-eye coordination (think Lost Odyssey's combat), and your timing can get negatively affected when the game starts to lag. The slowdown, plus some slightly long load times, go to show that this game is really taxing the Wii for all it's worth.
Grade: 9/10 - looks and sounds fantastic, though I can't help but bemoan how good this game *could* look and play on a more powerful machine.
There's a New Game+ element to the game that starts you out with all of your levels, skills, and most of your items intact. There are a few branching quests, so you can choose to take a different branch this time around, but otherwise New Game+ doesn't really offer you anything that you can't do in your initial playthrough. Having said that, there is an absolutely mammoth amount of content to this game. You will certainly get your money's worth.
Grade: 10/10 - if you want to see everything this game has to offer, be prepared to put aside 100+ hours of your time.
Nowadays, the JRPG is sadly overlooked here in the States, and it truly makes no sense to me why. When the genre is done right, like it is with Xenoblade Chronicles, it has all you can ask for in a video game. Hopefully, with the advent of a new generation of systems, this genre - and along with it this potentially great franchise - are not forgotten. If the only way to get these great games is to put them on a system whose limitations somewhat negatively affect the game, well so be it. In the end, it's worth it to be able to play a game as great as this one.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/11/13
Game Release: Xenoblade Chronicles (US, 04/06/12)
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