Review by ezeliyn

Reviewed: 09/27/10

Simply the best JRPG I've played in years.

When Xenoblade was first announced, I almost felt like standing and saluting. To date, Xenogears remains my favourite game ever, and Xenosaga resonated with me almost as much, with the first and third episodes standing as personal favourites. When Monolith Soft trimmed the Xenosaga series to three episodes and removed Tetsuya Takahashi as project leader, I thought that was it for all things Xeno. These suspicions only seemed to be confirmed when Monolith were sold to Nintendo, leaving the rights to the Xenosaga series with their previous benefactors Namco-Bandai. The series had already had one reboot-come-spiritual-successor, and a second seemed all but impossible.

So it was with the utmost excitement near the start of this year that I first stumbled across Xenoblade's teaser site. And though that excitement was later tempered a little, both by the announcement that the title change was purely due to Takahashi's presence on the staff and by the following flood of media which made it apparent that this was to be a very different sort of Xeno, I still ended up approaching the game with as much hype as I've had for anything in the last five years. More often than not in such a situation you'll only be disappointed. Yet every so often something that you've been really looking forward to not only meets your expectations, but exceeds them in every way. The strangest thing about Xenoblade was that it did so in a completely different way than I expected it to. I expected a great story. What I got was an exceptionally fun game with a great story in tow.

Takahashi stated in an interview during the game's development that he felt the cutscene-heavy approach of his previous games was a dead end, and that Xenoblade would be a game where the goal was first and foremost to create something that was fun to play. This turned out to be far from an empty promise. While there are some lengthy cutscenes and a hefty storyline to get through, Xenoblade sets its sights firmly on being a game first and a story second, and succeeds admirably in this goal. Despite its name, the game draws more gameplay-wise from Monolith Soft's Soma Bringer than from Xenogears and Xenosaga. As with Soma Bringer, Monolith obviously looked outward toward the West during the development of Xenoblade, and in both cases the final product was something a little bit exciting and different, combining Eastern aesthetics and storytelling with some very Western-influenced game design. But where Soma Bringer took the bulk of its cues from roguelikes in the mould of Diablo II with its chapter structure and emphasis on loot and character stat progression, Xenoblade draws more from the Bethesda model, with huge, sprawling environments and mountains of optional content. It's hard to overstate just how big the game is - it feels like a full length Japanese RPG fused with half an Elder Scrolls game. Even following only the main story, I could see most players clocking at least fifty hours, and that's taking the direct route through most of the huge areas and rarely dipping into the hundreds upon hundreds of sidequests.

Initially I was skeptical, as I've never been a fan of Bethesda's games, feeling that they often offer bland worlds that are purely quantity over quality. Yet Xenoblade is a different beast entirely. The environments are wonderfully diverse and lovingly crafted, and far from being just bland stretches of land, they're actually some of the most memorable areas I've come across in any RPG for a long time. Despite my initial skepticism I soon found that, nice though the story is, Xenoblade might well be at its best when you're wandering in search of secrets, pursuing sidequests, and battling with the Diablo-esque unique monsters that roam the land. There are no invisible walls to be found here, and chances are if you can see a place there's a way to get to it, whether that requires jumping, swimming, climbing, or simply finding a secret path. An especially pleasant touch is that the player is rewarded as they uncover the maps, with large amounts of experience being granted when you manage to discover one of the game's hidden areas, and collection of the local flora and fauna gifting you some neat bonus items. It's a nice incentive to actually explore the world Monolith have created, and one I really hope becomes a standard in games of this sort.

The battle system has drawn many comparisons with that of Final Fantasy XII, and they're not entirely unfair, though Xenoblade takes steps to avoid feeling quite as automated as many felt the former game did. Like FFXII, you control one character of a three man party, and there's no battle transitions to speak of - enemies are fought by simply approaching and selecting attack. Equally like XII, basic attacks are automatic, and are delivered by characters at periodic intervals without any player input. Yet where Final Fantasy XII's focus was on effective management of your party's AI via Gambits, Xenoblade's is more about how you set up and use your skills. Each character has a palette to which you can set a range of skills ranging from plain old attacks to healing techniques and auras that boost various stats. There's no MP, and skills are governed by a World of Warcraft-esque cooldown time, which gets progressively smaller as you level them up. And since characters regenerate health naturally outside of combat there are also no healing items, meaning that canny usage of healing skills is fairly crucial to your success in some of the game's trickier battles.

More than equipment and statistics, it's these skills that really set the characters apart from one another, and the choice of which ones to take into battle allows a fair degree of customisation in play styles despite the relatively rigid character builds. The vast majority of skills have a unique property, too, with some being more effective from the side or back of an enemy, others being more powerful when used following a weaker skill, and others still being integral to breaking enemies, a mechanic inherited from Xenosaga III and the aforementioned Soma Bringer. Some of these properties can be difficult to take advantage of in the heat of combat, so you're also capable of pausing the game and taking direct control of all your characters' skills at once via a mechanic called the Party Meter. This three bar meter is used to directly interact with your allies during battle. Expending a single bar can let you to pick up a KO'd ally, or warn an ally of an impending attack and gain temporary control over them to try and prevent it, but by fully charging it you can take control of all of your characters at once and unleash a chain attack.

Though it initially seems like little more than a glorified limit break meter, there's actually a fair bit of strategy involved in the Party Meter. Sometimes it's preferential to use a chain attack to break an enemy and buy yourself a bit of breathing time, while other times you'll want to go for out and out damage and stack the same type of skills for the large damage multiplier this grants. Sometimes you'll even lay off using it at all, as using a chain attack empties the meter, meaning that any allies who die will stay dead until you can work up enough to revive them. This is not a huge problem in itself, but while the meter is empty your allies can also no longer revive you, and your leader's death leads to you having to restart the battle from scratch. I learned the hard way that playing the game too aggressively during certain boss fights can leave you rather vulnerable to counterattacks.

On top of this, each character has a tension meter, which changes throughout the course of the battle based on their current situation, and will up their chance at a critical hit as it gets higher while causing them to miss more often as it gets lower. You're given chances to directly influence this meter through timed button presses. If a character misses, a correct button press will cause your character to console them, while a good critical hit might give you a chance to pick up a compliment from one of your characters. This not only influences tension, but contributes to a chart that monitors the relationships of party members with one another, granting various bonuses when characters become close enough.

Finally, a short ways into the game Shulk, the protagonist, receives the sword Monado, which grants him a gradually increasing range of abilities, most notably the power of Vision, which enables him to see glimpses of the immediate future. Though primarily a part of the storyline, this also manifests itself in battle as scenes of impending enemy attacks that will either cripple or outright kill an ally, after which you're given a set amount of time to react and change the future. The mechanic isn't an especially exciting one in regular battles, but really comes into its own during boss fights, where often only triggering the Monado's Shield ability or yelling a warning to one of your allies in the nick of time using the party meter will spare you from being flattened by a powerful attack.

Sadly while Xenoblade's battle system is fun and fast with just the right level of complexity, its weakest area is one where I really wish it did draw from Final Fantasy XII: the AI of your allies. The AI is far from abysmal, and for the vast majority of fights it plays the game fairly intelligently, responding to your cues effectively. Yet ultimately you're given very little in the way of control over how your allies act in battle, and this can become a problem at times. Some enemies dish out spike damage whenever they're hit, which made me long for the ability to command my allies to hold their attacks, and one boss fight in the closing stages of the game stands out as particularly poorly conceived, with your allies taking every opportunity to plow straight into acid on both side of a bridge. Admittedly I'm cherry-picking the worst examples, but I occasionally couldn't help but find myself longing for the level of control Final Fantasy XII's Gambits gave me over my allies.

Takahashi's previous games have attracted their share of complaints from an accessibility perspective in the past, with Xenogears suffering from awkward jumping mechanics and a high encounter rate, and the first two Xenosagas' battle systems being accused of being slow and convoluted. Encouragingly, there seems to have been a very honest effort to address these complaints with Xenoblade, as it's about as user-friendly as Japanese RPGs come, and is full of smart, snappy design decisions. Combat with all but the biggest monsters is quick as can be, and your characters move along at a fair clip, which can also be increased via gems if you need to get around faster. The game allows you to save anywhere, the bulk of sidequests for unnamed NPCs will end automatically once you fulfill the required conditions, and from the start of the game you're free to warp between any landmarks you've visited before, and to change the time of day at will. The battles, too, cause little frustration, as aggressive enemies can usually be easily outrun, and even death just means respawing at the last warp point you used with no penalties, a welcome boon considering many areas have enemies walking around that are several times your level.

Unfortunately this myriad of smart decisions do serve to highlight a few rather silly ones. The lack of a bestiary is extremely jarring in a game where many sidequests demand that you hunt and kill specific monsters, and though quests for unnamed NPCs are automatically resolved, those for named NPCs require you to revisit them, which can be something of a headache due to the dynamic daily routines the they follow. The menus, though not terribly designed, can be clunky and difficult to manage, especially while shopping for equipment. And while the difficulty level is quite well balanced, the game's damage algorithms are balanced in a manner that means you're rarely able to even hit enemies more than about five levels higher than you, so if you do find yourself a little underlevelled there isn't much for it but to catch up. It can be a tad frustrating to try and take on a unique monster roaming the map only to find that you need a few more levels to even be able to hit it.

From an aural point of view, Xenoblade scores extremely highly, though in the same way as its gameplay mechanics, its music treads ground unfamiliar to fans of its predecessors. Shortly after the title was announced such prestigious names as Yoko Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda were being bandied around, and both did indeed provide some memorable compositions. Shimomura's contributions are as strong as ever, with her beautiful main theme being a personal favourite, and her prologue tracks providing an ominous, spine-tingling accompaniment to the game's opening flashbacks. And Mitsuda's sole contribution to the soundtrack, the ending theme Beyond the Clouds, is a pleasant, soothing ballad that harkens back to the days of his collaborations with Joanne Hogg.

Yet despite the contributions of these two veterans, the bulk of the composition was handled by relatively unknown composer Manami Kiyota and an equally inexperienced trio who go by the name of ACE+. In a pre-release interview with the director and the various composers, time was spent discussing the exacting standards Takahashi had imposed on submitted compositions, and how his assistant needed to rewrite his rather cruel, ruthless replies to the various composers into something more diplomatic. The composers were all surprised, saying that even the rewritten versions were brutal in their own right, and that they frequently felt like giving up as a result. Based on their eventual output, I think it's fair to say the end justified the means - it's astounding that four composers with hardly a game between them should be able to produce music of this caliber, and their work for the game matches and often even outstrips that of Mitsuda and Shimomura. The two compliment each other rather nicely, with Kiyota's generally more subdued, atmospheric tracks being used for many of the game's overworlds, and ACE+'s lively, bold style producing many of the its most memorable cutscene themes, as well as some absolutely magnificent guitar-driven battle themes that could have been lifted right off a JDK soundtrack. Though some part of me still longs for another Mitsuda-penned Xeno soundtrack, it's hard to claim the music he composed would have been any better than what we have here. I had high expectations for Xenoblade's soundtrack, and it wholly delivered.

If I had one criticism, though, it would simply be that the soundtrack is slightly too small for the scope of the game. Much as the two disc soundtrack to Xenogears is sometimes criticised for being a little short on tracks for the game's fifty or sixty hour length, so too does Xenoblade's fail to encapsulate the enormous size of the game. Though it spans a whopping four discs, it's still insufficient for the sheer volume of music required, especially when you consider that many of the tracks on the soundtrack are day and night arrangements of the same pieces. This leads to quite a lot of repetition of tracks throughout the game. Admittedly it's a problem that's less apparent in the areas themselves, each of which has its own distinct theme, but it feels like there are only a handful of cutscene songs, and Monolith just cycle through them as appropriate. I couldn't help but find myself sometimes wishing that some of the more memorable scenes in the game were given their own themes. Still, with music this good it's hard to complain.

The abundant voice acting does little to detract from the excellent soundtrack, with nearly every character being well cast, and Ryou Horikawa's turn as Dunban striking me as especially exceptional. Some might find the characters' incessant cries during battle irritating, as often they can drown out the music itself, but I found myself enjoying them, and felt they really added to the hectic feel of the game's more difficult battles. Unfortunately I did find one notable sour spot in the voice acting. Norio Wakamoto, much beloved (and lampooned) for his roles in Tales of Destiny 2 and Code Geass, is an exceptionally poor casting choice. Not because it's not a role that suits his voice. Far from it - his performance is actually one of the more memorable in the game. The trouble lies with the fact that the character he was given is one whose voice it is important that the player does not recognise easily. Being that his voice is easily one of the most distinctive in the anime and Japanese game industry today, even to English native speakers, it's difficult to argue that he wasn't a poor choice for the role. Based solely on his presence I found myself able to guess several important plot twists tens of hours before they happened, and this seems to have been a general theme among those who imported the game. Though many clamour for the original language tracks in English translations of Japanese RPGs, I cannot help but feel that a well-picked English voice actor for his role could elevate a theoretical English version of the game even higher than the Japanese.

From a visual standpoint, Xenoblade obviously struggles to measure up technologically to titles on the PS3 and 360, but it's easily one of the most beautiful Wii games I've played. It's one of those games that you really have to sit down and play to appreciate, as much of its visual splendour comes from the enormous environments, which are completely seamless and a joy to behold even by today's standards. The scenery evokes fond memories of Shadow of the Colossus's massive overworld, and I was particularly impressed by the stunning changes in some of the game's areas between day and night. Indeed, I played Xenoblade back to back with the PS3's port of the beautifully cel-shaded Tales of Vesperia, and it's telling that it was not Vesperia but Xenoblade that did more to capture my imagination visually. In this age of pixel counting and comparing framerates between two versions of the same game, we often don't hear enough about the importance of art design to a game's visuals. Of a game being not just technologically but artistically brilliant. Make no mistake, Xenoblade is a Wii game, and no one is going to mistake it for anything else, but the incredible eye for detail in its areas rarely left me wanting for more polished visuals. The cutscenes are equally impressive. Though not as plentiful as those in Xenosaga they are just as expertly directed, and many of the action set-pieces are utterly fantastic, especially as the game's plot starts to pick up steam.

Unfortunately the game's visuals are not without their downsides. While slowdown is nowhere near as present as one might imagine, especially for the largest part of the game's first half, it does occasionally start to rear its head when the player tangles with groups of large enemies in some of the later locations. It's also worth noting that though the environments, creatures and machines of Xenoblade's world look fantastic, the character models are somewhat less inspiring, and it's clear they took a hit to make the sheer scope of the game possible. From the moment the game was announced, threads related to it seemed to be abuzz with misgivings about the low-tech character models and their frankly ugly faces, and it's a criticism that's difficult to deny. The initially rather quaint character designs certainly grow on you as the game continues, and it's a nice touch to have the character models change in accordance with the equipment you use, but the models themselves are far from stunning, and some of their animation outside of cutscenes feels a little stiff and awkward.

Xenoblade's story begins many years before the events of the game, when there was nothing in the world but sea, sky and two great gods: the Colossus and the Machine God. These two gods fought with one another until eventually both were dealt mortal blows, and were left immobilised. Flash forward, and we're brought to a war raging between man and machine. After some tutorial battles, and a particularly stunning scene where the camera sweeps outward from the battlefield to reveal the truth of the world we find ourselves in - that both the humans and the machines are living on the backs of the two frozen gods - we skip forward a little further again and meet Shulk, our protagonist, with whom the story proper begins. Like Xenogears with its amnesiac protagonist and star-crossed potential love interest, Xenoblade's opening moments will be full of an eerie deja-vu for anyone who has played a Japanese RPG before. Yet equally like Xenogears, the story soon takes some very interesting turns, and by the fifteen or twenty hour mark you're a far cry from where you expected to be. Though I must confess to being a tad disappointed that the story wasn't quite as dark as that of Xenogears or Xenosaga, it's a strong, well-written one with a great set of characters, a wonderful backstory, and some genuinely surprising twists and turns, especially during the game's second half. And though it's not wholly devoid of the Japanese RPG tropes that many critics have grown tired with in recent years, they are executed with style and finesse, and the game does little to alienate those less partial to anime-esque storytelling.

Indeed, Xenoblade sees a marked move away from the melodrama and convoluted storytelling that many found to be a sticking point in Takahashi's previous games. The game only flirts with the briefest moments of adolescent romance and angst, and, for better or for worse, the story rarely attempts to tug on the heartstrings in the same way as Xenoblade's predecessors. And though Takahashi's aspirations here are clearly grandiose, they are far more reasonable and tempered than they were with either Xenogears or Xenosaga. Though one cannot say for certain whether or not Xenoblade ran up against the same budgetary concerns as its predecessors, the game feels much more complete and polished than anything Takahashi has created before. There are no fiascos on the scale of Xenogears's second disc or Xenosaga's three missing episodes to be found here, and few if any unanswered questions remain by the game's close. While I have a certain soft spot in my heart for the magnificent scale and scope of the previous Xeno games, it's difficult to argue that it wasn't a double-edged sword at best, serving to alienate as many people as it drew in. And Xenoblade achieves a much better balance between being grandiose and simply overwhelming. Make no mistake, title change or no this is unmistakably a Xeno story, full to the brim with concepts and plot elements that will please longtime fans of Takahashi's work. It's just Xeno with a somewhat smaller (and perhaps more sensible) scope.

While the story itself is excellent, and would remain so transposed to a more run of the mill RPG setting, I can't help but feel it's Xenoblade's fantastic central premise of a world on the back of two giant beings that makes it so exciting from a story perspective. And though following the plight of the heroes in the present is entertaining, it's perhaps more fun learning about the history of the game's world. While many of the game's locations could be seamlessly incorporated into the average Japanese RPG, the game's setting is much more than a gimmick. It's all but fundamental to the story, and the game takes regular opportunities to remind you where you are in relation to the two gods, both via an onscreen map that pops up when you enter a new location and via all sorts of visual clues in the scenery itself. Walking along the edge of a cliff only to swing the camera up and find the ominous red eyes of the Machine God staring down at you far on the horizon is a rather humbling experience, while a short trip through the heart of the Colossus midway through the game manages to be genuinely eerie. Though Xenoblade's story draws on both the JRPG canon and on ideas presented in previous Xeno games, its setting is something quite unique and different, and it really sets it apart from much of the competition. Even when the story had some downtime, I found that the setting remained exciting and compelling enough that I wanted to keep playing.

There is so much to say about Xenoblade, and though I've written some four thousand words here I feel as if I've only scratched the surface of what is easily one of the most expansive RPGs I've played to date. I'd like to hope I've been fair and unbiased in this review, taking note of the game's weaknesses as well as it's strengths, but the fact is that my time playing Xenoblade was some of the most fun I've had playing any game for years. One could argue that a game doesn't deserve a perfect score unless it's all but perfect, but I believe in Xenoblade's case its relatively minor weak points do precious little to detract from its overwhelming strengths, and I frequently found myself feeling while playing it that it was not simply the best RPG I've played this year, but one of the best I've ever played. Will it appeal to fans of Japanese RPGs? Definitely. Of course no game will please every single fan of a given genre, and there are bound to be those who find the game all but intolerable. Still, like Vagrant Story, Chrono Trigger and Persona 3, the game maintains such a high quality across every aspect of its design that I sincerely believe it's worth a look from anyone even remotely interested in the genre.

The rather more difficult question is whether Xenoblade will appeal to fans of Xenogears or Xenosaga. And I'm not sure I have an answer to that. For all that this new game shares with Tetsuya Takahashi's previous work, it is very much its own game, and for every fan who takes to it there will probably be one who cries foul. Still, approach the game with an open mind, looking less at the title and more toward the game itself and you'll find a game that is not just Takahashi's most accessible and complete to date, but probably his out and out best. Many have criticised the game's title change from Monado to Xenoblade, accusing it of being a mere cash-in on the fame of Takahashi's previous works. I'm not about to debate whether or not Xenoblade is a 'real' Xeno game, but I believe it's certainly one most worthy of the name, and as a huge fan of the series that's possibly the biggest compliment I can give it. To call Xenoblade the best RPG on the Wii right now would be underselling it, as frankly it's the best RPG I've played on any modern platform, and one that is sure to put a smile on the faces of Japanese RPG fans who have found themselves a tad disappointed with the genre's showing on home consoles this generation. Here's to a speedy English release.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Product Release: Xenoblade (JP, 06/10/10)

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