Note: The following review is based on the European import version.
The Wii isn't known for its library of JRPGs, but it's now home to one of the best. Monolith Soft's Xenoblade Chronicles is an epic sci-fi RPG directed by Squaresoft alum, Tetsuya Takahashi, who some may know had also created the Xenosaga series with his wife, Soraya Saga. Though it doesn't tie into Xenogears or Xenosaga, there's no mistaking that the same kind of detail has gone into creating this new world.
The story centers on the Bionis and the Mechonis, two Atlas-sized titans who stand atop an infinite ocean to form the world of Xenoblade Chronicles. Though they are long dead, their bodies remain locked in their final blows against each other. Civilizations have risen on their surfaces and, like the giants they live upon, are also locked in a savage war of survival. The people of Bionis have recently won a victory over the Mechon (of Mechonis), and life seems to be returning to normal.
Of course, there wouldn't be much of a game if peace lasted, so it doesn't when the Mechon unexpectedly return. A young man named Shulk and his friends are soon drawn into a vast saga that questions everything about themselves and their world. A mysterious sword known as the Monado seems to be the only thing that can take the fight to the murderous machines of Mechonis.
Xenoblade bulges at the seams with heroism, tears, unexpected kindness and wickedness. Shulk and his friends are laser-focused on what needs to be done without the usual angst, refreshingly trading in that cliché for optimistic heroism. Villains also drip with hate, tragedy strikes when you least expect it, and the story can unsettle your perceptions in a heartbeat with clever twists. It knows what it has to do, like its characters, and doesn't step back from punching up big scenes with memorable cues.
It's an amazingly positive group of charming characters, trumping the "all youth" brigade often seen in JRPGs with a range of characters from young Shulk to Dunban, a war veteran who acts as a badass mentor to the party and whose disability hasn't kept him from diving into battle.
Expanding on this are "affinity" bonds, which represent how close each feels to the others. These are often built up during battle through Affinity Actions by encouraging party members or hitting a one-button Quick Time Event (QTE). Affinities play into special bonuses, especially in unlocking special Heart to Heart locations throughout the game. These are skits between certain characters as they get to know each other, providing extras for story-hungry players.
Each actor fits his character like a glove thanks to an amazing localization effort. Shulk and his teammates call out to each other in battle, warn of danger, or congratulate teammates on delivering a beating and then rib each other afterward, depending on who is in your party mix at the time. The fantastic soundtrack matches the unexpectedly lush visuals; it's almost jarring to see something like this on the Wii. The world feels vast and lives up to the subtle suggestion that one can reach whatever he or she can see.
Every step of the way is rewarding, whether it is in combat or simple exploration. Sometimes, entering a new area or getting off the beaten path rewards you with huge XP bonuses just for being curious. Throw in skill points, equipment loot, ingredients and in-game achievements, and it was easy to ignore saving the world and spend hours doing one of the hundreds of available side-quests.
"Hundreds" can be a little deceptive since most of the side quests tend to be of the FedEx or "kill this creature" variety, but a number of these stood out, such as proving the strength of friendship to a young girl who's fighting with her friend. You can also run a series of quests to track down specific trophies from certain creatures to help grow a colony. A quest log tracks everything, though it can be aggravatingly short on specifics, such as where to find certain people even after you've met them. A lot can happen in between, especially when everyone follows their own schedule during the day and night.
Its character systems are also layered with a staggering degree of versatility. Though you can only have a three-member party, you'll collect quite a few compatriots who can be swapped in and out at any time along the way. Time also bends to the player's will, allowing you to pick and choose which hour you want to explore the world; perhaps you need to see someone specific or challenge yourself with tougher beasts.
Skill trees expand inherent qualities with a number of passive effects, such as additional experience earned after battle to the ability to wear heavier sets of armor. You can also prioritize which tree to develop depending on your needs and freely switch between them outside of combat. If that's not enough, affinity coins allow you to link skills to share between characters depending on how well they trust each other and if you have the right "skill shape" on their tree.
Aside from skills, each character has a set of Arts used in combat that ranges from valuable buffs, such as temporary armor, to moves that can set up enemies to be vulnerable to devastating strikes. Though the party automatically attacks enemies with default hits, most combat depends on Arts, which also have cooldowns to keep things balanced.
Combat takes full advantage of 3-D space, sometimes turning the environment against the player as ones tries not to fall off the edge of a cliff while jockeying for position. Most attacks deliver raw damage, but many also deliver special bonuses depending on where you hit the enemy. Hit it from the side with an Art, for example, and in addition to the damage, Shulk might also reduce the armor on the enemy for a time.
Dancing around each attack icon as they slowly cool off MMO-style and then triggering their attack while moving around for the best spot can be as hectic as micromanaging characters in a Tales battle. The AI does a surprisingly good job with the other two party members while you focus on fighting with your chosen leader, but if you need to take direct control of someone other than your leader, you're out of luck. Combat can also be repetitive when not-so-powerful enemies become padded sumos with lots of hit points to draw out the fight. On the plus side, not everything will attack you, either. Monsters recognize when they're outmatched and won't mess with your party — unless you want them to.
The key to battle, and the title's most unique feature, is the Monado. The sword is the only thing that can hurt the Mechon, but it also comes with special abilities to enable other party members. It also allows Shulk to see the future at certain moments, anticipating devastating attacks so the player can use the Monado to change the outcome or warn a party member.
For example, Shulk might see an enemy coming down on Sharla with a devastating multi-hit attack in a vision. Knowing this, you can either use the Monado's power to buff Sharla with the ability to dodge it or run and tell her to use an ability to shield herself from damage. The Monado still has limitations. To use its powers, Shulk has to batter the enemy with auto-attacks to fill its gauge, turning it into a tactical weapon and forcing you to save its abilities for when you need them or gamble on using them in the hopes of a quick kill. It's up to you to change your own future.
Gem crafting is another rabbit's hole of options. Throughout the game, ether crystal deposits can be mined and the crystals blended together into powerful gems that can be added to weapon and armor slots to grant special benefits. It sounds simple, but the game adds additional depth with a number of options.
A crystal may only have a few percentages of a special bonus, such as armor and strength, so it needs to be combined with others to bring it up to 100% or more. As long as the percentage of any one attribute doesn't add up to 100%, up to eight crystals can be blended together this way. If multiple attributes add up to that magic number, it also opens the door to having multiple gems, and that's only the start. Ether crystals also have different rankings depending on the purity of the deposit.
Your teammates also come into play. A shooter and an engineer must go through the process of crafting, both of which have attributes to consider, such as how strong a flame to use to how easy it is for a character to get into a Fever state, thus infusing the gems with even more of a bonus. After confirming your choices, it's time to sit back and watch the magic. Depending on how things turn out, you could end up with a set of powerful gems, elemental cylinders, or gems that turn out even better than the expected ranking for tremendous bonuses.
There's also a remarkable sense of balance between the game's hardcore aspects and the ways that it keeps things friendly. Quick travel allows you to zip to many convenient landmarks as you roam through Xenoblade's massive world, and its "save anywhere" feature laughs in the face of checkpoint saves, despite limiting you to only three slots.
Even if you die during a boss battle, the party respawns outside of where it was defeated to give you a chance to make some changes — or retreat for more experience, if the zone allows. It's no less tough because of this, but at the same time, the game recognizes that if you've made it that far, it won't grind you down. Even with all of these time-saving options, however, I still found it easy to spend hours just tinkering within the world.
After you've finished it, the game lets you restart at the beginning with nearly everything you had earned by asking you to pick 30 pieces of each class of armor and weapon from your arsenal. Affinities are reset, and the quest log is cleared, but now you can keep adventuring with your pockets full of cash and with characters wearing and wielding everything they had been using in the last battle.
Players' hands are going to be busy with plenty to do from the branching skill sets, armor sets, gem combinations, crafting elements, and party affinities. It's a cosmic mash-up of spreadsheet proportions that is not often seen, and it challenges systems such as those found in other RPGs. Even as intimidating as all of this can seem, Xenoblade manages to make it seem simple.
All of this adds up to Skyrim-like proportions, surpassing over 100 hours of combat, customization and questing, depending on how deep you want to dive into the details. Everything is wrapped in a story supported by charming personalities both young and old, defying many of the JRPG character clichés.
It seems almost criminal to box in Xenoblade Chronicles with the term "JRPG." Xenoblade Chronicles is an amazing RPG. In some ways, it's like a single-player MMO that effortlessly blends together advantages from both JRPGs and Western RPGs. Despite its linear, but deeply entertaining, story and its decisionless dialogue, the gameplay makes such shortcomings easy to forget. In as much as the Monado has given one of its heroes, Shulk, the ability to see the future, perhaps the same can be said of what Xenoblade Chronicles has brought to the table for JRPGs.
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