Review by jonnyjazz
Casual gamer starts Xenoblade, six months of his life suddenly disappear.
So this is it: My first review of a video game in years. It took me months to track down a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii, and I was ecstatic to see if it was as good as everyone says. Needless to say, it motivated me to write a thorough review.
Let me begin with a few disclaimers. I am a casual gamer who only really plays about three new games a year. That said, when I commit to a game, I approach it with a perfectionist mentality; and I investigate every nook and cranny. With that in mind, you should also know that I grew up on JRPGs on the SNES and PSX. I slowed down playing console RPGs for years though, mostly limited to Final Fantasy, Tales, and Dragon Age. That gives you a frame of reference to my gaming history, so that may enhance or diminish your view of my opinion.
Xenoblade is a perfectionist's dream come true, a great swan song for the Wii, and likely the best JRPG since FFXII. It is wonderfully (some would say overwhelmingly) complex, and there is much to talk about, so I apologize in advance if this review becomes a novel. Let's get started!
XC is a massive, open-world RPG. And when I say massive, I mean it. At its core, XC is standard fare for gameplay. It's a story-driven game that paces its plot by using quests. "Go here, explore this map, go to the marker when you're ready to watch a cutscene and progress with the story, fight this boss, then go somewhere else and explore, ad naseum." This provides a great deal of flexibility according to how the player wants to progress. If you would like to streamline the game to make it as quick as possible, the map shows you exactly where to go. If you'd rather take your time and and pace yourself by exploring each new area, battle unique monsters, grind levels a little bit, get better or rare equipment, and interact with the non-playable characters, the game puts very little pressure on you to rush your timetable.
Xenoblade's battle system is its bread and butter. It is derived from multiple MMORPGs' active-battle system with a little bit of JRPG flavor. You can initiate battles with monsters around you on the map, or monsters initiate battles with you based on their vision radius, sound, and their experience level. Monsters that are more than 5 levels below your characters will not actively attack you when you get close. This makes things much easier to travel through later in the game when revisiting earlier maps. It also makes it fairly difficult to grind by staying in one area, since your EXP gained is scaled to your enemy. If you really want to gain levels, you have to find better competition or do quests.
As for battle itself, it is a fairly simple but engaging system. Your characters auto-attack when close to an enemy. Each time a battle starts, a palette of icons comes up on the bottom of the screen. These are your "arts". Each character has a unique "Talent Art" in the center-most icon position. Arts are leveled up by gaining AP in battle, each increase in level making them become available for use again faster ("cooldown") and making their effects last longer. Arts do a variety of functions, from damage-per-second (DPS), area-of-attack (AOE), healing, buffs and debuffs (like positive and negative status effects in FF), and lots of damage. Xenoblade's version of knocking an enemy down, like most MMOs have, is called "Topple" and "Daze". In order to Topple or Daze an enemy, they have to be inflicted with the "Break" status first. And yes, there are arts for all of these depending on which characters you use. Enemies attack characters based on Aggro, which is another aspect of gameplay you must master. Aggro is used to manipulate which of your characters you want the enemy to attack, be it one with high defense or high agility (in order to avoid their attacks entirely). In many ways, these are standard MMO gameplay features. Typically, these types of games utilize three types of characters in battle: DPS characters that attack, attack, attack; "tanks" that draw enemy attacks away from everyone else, and a healer to cater to the other two. Xenoblade has 7 playables, and only 2 possible character lineups that fit into this mold. Because of this, players have to be creative. Only two characters reach near maximum HP without help, only one character is a complete healer, one three have healing arts at all, and only one is a mage.
Admittedly, these kind of limitations actually irritated me at first. It's not like FFXII, where everyone could get the same magic spells and everyone could heal, making your team much more potent and balanced. Xenoblade makes you shift your team around according to how to play. And in this way, you actually have more freedom. Once you reach a certain point in the game, healing becomes largely unnecessary, so it gets fun to have three tanks that can take a lot of punishment. Or you can have one tank and two DPS characters that kill enemies quickly. Since you can control every character, you have a variety of options depending on how you want to play. Each character plays very differently, so if you get bored with one character or don't like their arts, you are encouraged to change things up and find a better combination for your party. Xenoblade's battle system doesn't become stale for a long, long time because of this.
In addition to standard battle, there is a party meter separated into three parts that allows for chain attacks. This lets your characters link their arts together, mostly to Topple monsters, but they can also do serious damage. This meter is also primarily used to revive your party members when they run out of HP. You don't actually lose the fight unless your controlled character is felled and your party meter is empty. Because there aren't items used to revive characters, it encourages you to be judicious in the way you fight. Again, this annoyed me early in the game when I didn't fully understand chain attacks, but it really is ingenious looking back on it.
As if EXP and Art Points weren't enough to motivate you in battle, another aspect of character development to level up is Skills. Each character has multiple Skill Trees that give them unique buffs, abilities, higher stats, and so on. Skill Links are the flip side of that, and they let characters use Affinity Coins gained by leveling up and fighting unique monsters to "purchase" the skills of other characters. The trick is that each character must have a certain level of Affinity. Affinity is gained through quests, gifts, and battle. So every battle is a quest for EXP, AP, and SP, Affinity, and Affinity Coins at once. There's no shortage of things to level up or master.
Gems are another thing to pursue. They are a bit like the Materia in FFVII, where most equipment and armor has slots. Like the arts, these gems do many things as well, like increasing stats, giving your automatic buffs, giving your enemies debuffs, increasing buff duration, increasing HP, and more. These gems are created using cylinders and crystals obtained by mining locations around the map and given in battle from monsters. The process to crafting gems is complex, but it is a game almost in itself. Gems add yet another wrinkle to the game in your pursuit of the best battle party.
Party members are not the only characters with Affinity though. There is an Affinity Chart of the entire game map according to region. Your party gains affinity with each region by doing quests, meticulously talking to NPCs to build up their relationships with one another, and more. What you gain from building this affinity is very valuable in your first playthrough though: Trading. There are so many items in order to gain additional skill trees, gems, and equipment that can only be reliably obtained by trading with NPCs since they are incredibly rare. The trouble is the NPCs won't trade them to you without completing quests. So the game has many incentives to do the sidequests. Otherwise, you could spend hours waiting or an item to be randomly generated.
To recap the gameplay, it is divided into battle and questing. Many quests can seem repetitious or mundane. That is the downside for completionists. However, if you only play for the story, you can avoid almost all quests entirely. Money is also somewhat irrelevant once you get past a certain point in the plot, which I actually liked. Nothing makes me angrier than having to waste hours saving up money to buy the things you need in a game. Something to point out here is that most quests will have you traveling a lot to previous areas. Thankfully, the map system gives you landmarks that you can quick-travel to and speed up the labor of backtracking. If you weren't able to quick-travel, Xenoblade would have been a pain to play. Trust me on that; it's way too big otherwise. There is also an active clock that switches the time from day to night and the weather cycles, and NPCs and enemies follow their own unique patterns for spawning and forwarding events. A common way around that, like many games of this nature, is to save near the enemy or treasure chest you want, then continually reload until it spawns what you need. That cuts down on time immensely when you're trying to get a rare piece of gear or a crystal or item, and the game makes it extremely easy to exploit this tactic.
The gameplay is really why Xenoblade is excellent. It is easy to dive into but difficult to master. By the time you have picked up on everything there is to do and see in this game, you will have logged in a minimum of 50 hours already and wonder where the time went. If you're a completionist, then you may well log in 200+ hours before you get to this point.
The plot begins with a bang. Two giants do battle thousands of years ago, one a machine, the other organic. Now they are both frozen in place. You play as Shulk, who lives on the organic giant, named Bionis. The armies of the machine giant, the Mechonis, invade Bionis regularly. Xenoblade's plot follows Shulk and friends' journey as they travel throughout Bionis to find a way to stop the Mechonis' minions. Along the way, you meet other Homs (humans), Nopons (think Ewoks from Star Wars), and High Entia (elvish). All the peoples of Bionis unite to stop the Mechon threat.
If you are familiar with Monolith's other games, such as Xenosaga, you know that this is just the beginning of the plot. I won't go into much detail beyond that, but there are many twists. And admittedly, some aspects of the story seem forced or cliche, like every other JRPG in the last 20 years, but I don't fault Xenoblade for that. Its world is amazing, well integrated into gameplay, all of the main characters are likable (an uncommon feat!), and the plot will throw you for a loop toward the later parts of the game.
The graphics of Xenoblade have taken some flack since its release. A lot of PC gamers have even gone so far as to say it looks like crap. And perhaps that's true by graphical standards of 2013. But in total honesty, Xenoblade pushes the Wii to its graphical brink. It is bright, colorful, and its textures are mostly superb. The thing you have to consider when you talk about its graphics is the incredible size of most of its maps. And even with that, most maps are really beautiful. Since the camera is free-roam (made far less difficult with the Wii Classic Pro controller), let me just say that you will be rotating the camera every which way while you explore everything. The night sky in some levels is memorizing, you can see the Bionis and Mechonis in the background of many maps, the shimmering water textures on Eryth Sea are memorable, the wind blowing the grass all around your characters.
Everywhere you look there is something captivating to see. This isn't a game where exploring is just a labor of love, it's a joy in and of itself every time you stumble across something new. True, the character models aren't up to par with most Western RPGs, and the cutscenes aren't mind-blowing, but the sheer size of this game means something had to be sacrificed. I can understand why some people don't think Xenoblade has much to offer graphically by comparison of some PC games, but it doesn't look like crap at all. It is stunning in its own right.
As you probably already know, there was quite a fight to get this game localized. Nintendo wasn't even going to publish it in America. So they technically didn't localize it in America either, and just shipped the European version. Because of this, all the voices are British. Now, at first, that might sound strange, but I have to say that the voice acting work here is surprisingly and consistently great. It's actually a nice change of pace to hear British accents and slang, and they are perfectly suited to the story and setting somehow.
The sound effects are top-notch and the music is also immersive. Much of the music is either orchestrated or digitally orchestrated. Each map has a theme for daytime and one for nighttime, with the night version usually more subdued and mellow. The battle music is also very good, and the boss music is some of the best I've heard in an RPG for some time now. A lot of the soundtrack does have a distinct Japanese vibe to it, so that's something to listen for, but overall, I was impressed.
So what is the value of this overarching value to Xenoblade? If you love JRPGs, it's a must-play. If you are a casual gamer like me who's looking to buy only one game to keep you occupied for up to 6 months, this is your game. If you are looking for the game to validate dusting off your Wii and putting your PS3 or Xbox away for a while, this is it.
I tried my best to include as much information about the breadth of the gameplay here. I must reiterate that the overall amount of content here is staggering. I maxed out almost every part of my characters on my first playthrough of Xenoblade, completed all maps, got most of the accomplishments, and maxed out my Affinity Chart in every region of the game. It took me around 200 hours to beat this game, and I used the Xenoblade Wikia extensively. If you don't you a guide for at least part of your time playing Xenoblade, you're looking at it taking around 300 hours. There's just so much to do here: Max out EXP level, get extra Skill Trees for every character, level up all your Arts, max out party affinity, max out map affinity, complete a major collection quest, complete all the maps, defeat all unique monsters, craft the best gems, obtain the best armor, get the best weapons. In order to finish all of that, it's at least 160 hours if you know exactly what you're doing. If you're just playing through the story, you could probably beat Xenoblade in 50 or 60 hours.
There is also a New Game Plus feature when you finish it, where your levels, AP, SP, weapons, armor, and gems are carried over. Granted, none of the enemies will give you pause in this feature since you'll be much stronger than anything you run across, but it's just another way to relive the story and notice things you didn't the first time around. It only takes about 30 hours to beat a New Game Plus if you don't do any quests, but it still adds some value.
Would I replay this game and complete it all the way I did the first time through? Probably not, but that's just me. I rarely play RPGs through from scratch, especially not ones that are the length of Xenoblade. But I would play the New Game Plus mode a few times just to experience the game again. The fact that I got totally sucked into this game for ~250 hours is absolutely shocking to me since it happens so infrequently anymore. And that alone should tell you if this game is worth your time. Like I said earlier, I am certainly not a hardcore gamer nor am I much of an RPG fan these days, but Xenoblade definitely made me feel like one again.
It would be easy right now to criticize all the things that could have been better in Xenoblade. The plot is at times disjointed and convoluted like so many JRPGs. The graphics look like a Wii game. Some of its music is fairly dismissible. A lot of its quests can be mind-numbingly mundane, not unlike the worst "go fetch this" parts in Zelda. Yes, people levy a lot of criticism at Xenoblade because so many have heard it called the greatest RPG of this generation. When you have that kind of bulls-eye on your back, people will attack it. But instead of downgrading Xenoblade because of the things it could have done better, I would rather commend it for everything it did perfectly, and that is a lot.
Its characters are genuinely likable and emotive. Its battle system is fun and engaging, complex without being frustrating. There is great diversity in the gameplay, being able to rotate between 7 characters. The game never pushes you to do more than you want to do. Nearly all quests are optional. Nearly all of the aspects that will make completionists go bonkers are optional. In a sense, you get out of Xenoblade what you put in. Would I have enjoyed it less if I only played for 60 hours and focused entirely on the story? I don't think so. I think it's a very adaptable game that any RPG lover could immediately dive right in. It can be simply overwhelming knowing how much there is to accomplish in Xenoblade, and perhaps that has turned many people off before. Is it a perfect game? Absolutely not, particularly on the technical side. It's much more than the sum of its parts though. I could critique it much more harshly, but after investing 250 hours into it, I have no regrets. I had a lot of fun, and that's what really matters above all else. Instead of wishing it were perfect, I am thankful that Xenoblade made this casual gamer lose track of how much time he was logging into it. And thinking back to all the endless nights trying to complete just *one* more quest before bed (for real this time!)...it was time well spent.
Xenoblade Chronicles may well not only be the best RPG of this console generation, but one of the best JRPGs of the last 20 years.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Xenoblade Chronicles (US, 04/06/12)
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