The last eighteen months of software releases on Nintendo’s ailing Wii haven’t exactly been loaded with must-haves, a fact that has made what few major new titles have arrived all the more significant. If Skyward Sword was the biggest Wii game of last year (and it was) then Xenoblade Chronicles was a fairly close second. The game is the first of three originally cited for a Japan only existence that Operation Rainfall lobbied to be given a western release (the other two being The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) and hit European shores last August with the American release coming early in April. But the hype surrounding this game before launch extended to more than its significance as a Wii game. The entire Japanese RPG genre has been in poor health for years, struggling under the weight of tired storytelling and gameplay clichés with western creations going from strength to strength, even the almighty Final Fantasy has seemingly lost its way. With near universal-acclaim from critics who have cited it as the best JRPG in the last five, many even ten years, Xenoblade Chronicles is arguably one of the most important Japanese video games of the current console generation.
My experience of Monolith Soft’s gargantuan role playing adventure was remarkably similar to that of Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn. Receiving the game for my birthday last year my early impressions of the game were not the most positive as I initially had trouble penetrating the game’s complexity to the extent that despite succeeding and making progress I wasn’t having that much fun. In the case of Xenoblade I got the game at just about the most inconvenient time as I was getting accustomed to a new job whilst also preparing for what turned out to be the most drawn out and stressful house move in history. This meant that within one month of starting the game I had managed to switch on and play it about three times. When my spare time finally freed up enough to get some gaming done Skyward Sword came out. Like Radiant Dawn before it Xenoblade Chronicles was side-lined in favour of a major action-adventure Wii title (in the previous case Okami). But you can’t keep a good RPG down which means that here, rather belatedly, is my verdict on the outstanding Xenoblade Chronicles.
The latest in Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xeno series (Xenosaga, Xenogears), the game is set in a world whose inhabitants live on a pair of gargantuan gods, the Bionis and the Mechonis who once fought each other in a brutal battle and now stand lifeless. The Bionis is home to the Homs (humans basically), the Nopon and the High Entia who survive under the constant threat of attack from the Mechon, aggressive and faceless mechanical beings from the Mechonis who seem intent on the destruction of the Homs. The only weapon that can damage Mechon armour is the mysterious sword known as the Monado which, it is thought, can only be wielded by Dunban, the hero of Colony 9. Our hero is Shulk, a young scientist of Colony 9 who studies the Monado with fascination. The relative peace Colony 9 has enjoyed since their victory against the Mechon in the Battle of Sword Valley is shattered by a sudden and brutal assault by the robotic aggressors led by a mysterious Mechon that actually does have a face. During the horrific incursion Shulk takes the Monado finding himself mysteriously able to wield it and moreover starts seeing visions of the future predicting imminent lethal strikes. Despite this he is unable to avert tragedy and after the invading force withdraws he sets out with loud-mouth buddy Reyn to exact revenge on the Mechon.
Yes there are some clichés in that plot, the orphaned hero, the legendary all-powerful sword that can only be wielded by a chosen hero, the savage attack on the protagonist’s peaceful home town, but the treatment of these JRPG tropes is nonetheless fresh and relevant. That invasion sequence is one of the most dramatic and exciting story scenes I’ve ever seen in a video game and it packs a real emotional wallop early on. You’ll have no trouble sympathising with Sulk’s motivation of vengeance, and the cruel, seemingly motiveless Mechon are easy to hate and fear. From there the story develops in fairly linear fashion as you traverse the game’s absolutely stunning and vast world. The feeling of struggle against overwhelming odds is palpable and the central theme of the human desire to change an unhappy future and the helplessness in being unable to do so is powerful and well-observed throughout. For a good two thirds of the game the story progresses with few surprises but things grow more complex and unpredictable towards the end. Strangely, important plot points in the final acts are so strongly reminiscent of aspects of the story in Radiant Dawn it’s hard to believe that game wasn’t an influence on the writers. It’s a good story very well told but it never overpowers the game. Some story sequences are extended but rarely longer than is necessary and every moment from the quietest dialogue scenes to the most spectacular action sequences are handled in-engine with no reliance whatsoever on flashy FMV.
Luckily the characters that the game asks you to spend dozens of hours with are an engaging and likeable bunch and the ostentatious haircuts are kept to a merciful minimum. Shulk is as neutral as a lot of heroic protagonists are wont to be but his humanity and determination are stirring and he’s a classic underdog. The heroic Dunban, politely-spoken and chivalrous is about as likeable as heroes get and the riflewoman Sharla is a solid strong-willed heroine but for my money the best character is the big-mouthed lug Reyn who seems annoying at first but soon shows himself to be a loveable stalwart burly sidekick, assertive and indomitable if not the smartest. His are the majority of the best laughs and the best lines and he is drawn with a subtlety and reality not often found in the genre. The rest of the cast have enough variety among them without resorting to irritating eccentricities and their various relationships are well-explored and believable. This is thanks in no small part to the absolutely outstanding localisation job.
One refreshing quirk that emerges from the game’s confirmation for Europe before North America is that all of the voice acting is performed by British actors which gives the game a unique likeability not to mention some great accents. The vast majority of performers display a detailed understanding of their characters and emote very well and they go a long way to endear you to your party of heroes and sell the mythology of their world. Adam Howden brings both restraint and passion to Shulk and gives key scenes some serious gravity. Jay Taylor’s mild cockney characterises Reyn beautifully and Kellie Bright brings suitable layers to Sharla, managing to make the good old British glottlestop sound sexy in the process, no small feat that. Of the main characters only Wayne Forester sounds a bit off as Nopon hero (or Heropon) Riki but he still manages to amuse and it can’t be easy finding a suitable voice for the traditional JRPG cute comedy character. The script is clearly much more than a literal translation as all of the story’s complex themes, deep and layered character motivations and intricacies are woven with elegance and richness throughout utilising a clear and detailed grasp of the English language. I can’t stress enough how good a job the localisation team have down with this game or how important it is to the overall experience of the game. They get full marks. Unfortunately the character lip-syncing hasn’t been touched which is a shame but hardly unforgiveable.
The gameplay shuns the old-fashioned turn-based tradition of JRPGs. Instead you control just one character which needn’t be Shulk if you so choose. When you position the character close to an enemy they will auto-attack, which feels odd at first but you’ll soon come to rely on this feature as it gives you the freedom to concentrate on your Arts. These are special moves that have varied effects, offensive, defensive and strategic. After activating an Art it will enter a Cooldown Phase which lasts a set amount of time and prevents you from using it again until the phase is complete. Additionally each character has a unique Talent Art which can be used when the Talent Gauge is full. Most characters fill their Talent Gauge by auto-attacking which adds a nice balance to the gameplay. The temptation is to forego auto-attacking in favour of dealing more damage with Arts but this approach slows the filling of the Talent Gauge. Enemies meanwhile direct their attacks according to their individual Aggro which builds up according to which party member is attacking them the most. A red ring surrounds characters that are the focus of enemy Aggro.
Each character’s Arts necessitate a different approach to battles. Shulk’s Arts are very attack-orientated while Sharla is indispensable as the game’s most prominent healer. Reyn is a tank who has various Arts designed to draw enemy Aggro thereby drawing unwanted attention away from Shulk who can then get behind enemies to use his Art Backslash which does increased damage when dealt to enemies from behind. You are allowed three fighters in your party at a time which leads to any number of different character combinations making for plenty of variety in battle strategy. Admittedly most battles against regular enemies can be won by simply spamming your Attack Arts and relying on your allies to fight well, which they almost always do, meaning that the complex battle system only really comes into its own in fights with higher level enemies and bosses. All the same the depth of your attack options is strategies available is excellent.
Take the Party Gauge, a blue gauge located in the upper left of the screen for example. This builds when you achieve an Art’s special effect (such as the aforementioned increased damage dealt from behind with Shulk’s Backslash) or when you activate Burst Affinity, a brief quick time event that challenges you to hit B in time with a circle decreasing in line with a smaller circle (rather like Elite Beat Agents) that comes up whenever you pull off a Critical Hit or dodge an enemy attack (both of which occur automatically by chance according to various character stats). When the gauge is one third full you will be able to revive fallen allies but if you wait until it fills up all the way you can activate a Chain Attack, the availability of which is indicated by blue lines linking your characters on the battlefield. When a Chain Attack is invoked the action freezes and you can pick an Art for each of your characters to use in turn one after another. All basic Arts are available regardless of any that might normally be in the Cooldown Phase whilst Talent Arts can only be used if the Talent Gauge is full like usual. You can string attacks together to do uninterrupted damage with bonus damage inflicted if you use Arts of the same colour in succession with Talent Arts counting as whatever colour is being used in the sequence. Chain Attacks needn’t be used simply offensively though, you might want to use them to get to Healing Arts that are in the Cooldown Phase or to manually use your allies’ Arts in other strategic ways. The other dilemma is whether or not to save your Party Gauge when it’s full in case you need to revive fallen allies. This is particularly important against tougher bosses given the fact that if the player-controlled character falls they can be revived by an ally only as long as at least a third of the Party Gauge is full. When you activate a Chain Attack it empties the Party Gauge and although you can immediately refill it a little by downing enemies during the Chain Attack it might be worth saving your Party Gauge in case you need it for party revivals. That’s very intelligent design and makes for excellent strategic balance.
The Monado lends the gameplay even more layers of strategy. Once Shulk gains the big red weapon his Talent Art becomes Activate Monado which gives you access to a range of new Monado Arts such as Buster, a big damage dealer or Shield which negates all damage done by enemy Talent Arts. Another important one is Enchant which allows your allies to damage Mechon and there are other important strategic Arts besides. The story impacts on the gameplay through the Monado and the visions of the future it gives to Shulk too. In battles against tougher enemies and bosses the action will sometimes pause as Shulk has a vision of a powerful attack which might knock out or do major damage to one of the party. The action resumes with a countdown leading to the strike actually happening and you must make use of various strategies to change the future. The most effective way to prevent one of these deadly attacks is to kill the offending enemy but this isn’t always possible so you have to get around them instead. You might try to manually draw that enemy’s Aggro to a tougher ally who can take the strike, or you might use Shulk’s Monado Art Shield to protect the party from damage if the incoming attack is a Talent Art (you can tell based on the colour of the attack name as it appears on screen with the various information about the vision). Alternatively you might want to heal the victim of the attack enough to prevent them being knocked out. During this countdown phase if you have at least one third of your Party Gauge full you can stand next to an ally (it needn’t be the fighter predicted to take the hit) and warn them of the impending attack at which point the game will freeze again allowing you to choose one of their Arts to use strategically. Like with Chain Attacks Arts are available regardless of the Cooldown Phase with the exception of Talent Arts.
The various options available to you in battle are detailed and varied and offer a remarkably deep and innovative experience but it does take some getting used to. Moreover the complexity doesn’t really come into its own until later in the game when you’ve learned a greater variety of Arts and have tougher enemies to test you. One issue that might be problematic early on is how cluttered the battlefield gets and it might seem difficult to tell what’s going on but as you progress and grow accustomed to the gameplay you’ll find yourself looking at the action less and less to concentrate instead on the various displays shown on screen so you know which Arts are available, how healthy your allies are and which ones need healing and how full your Party Gauge is. The various characters also talk a lot during battle and many of their attack cries are amusingly British (‘Get stuck in!’) and their dialogue is frequently used as effective sound cues for various situations. One of your allies might, for example, announce when a Chain Attack is ready to go. If anything they talk a bit too much, all three will have something to say whenever you win a scrap and it might get a bit repetitive but the voice acting is as good during gameplay as it is during the story.
I could talk about things like your party’s Tension, Buffs and Debuffs, Party Commands or the Break, Topple and Daze sequence but I don’t want this post to end up as long as my Skyward Sword review so it’s time to move on.
Possibly the greatest joy to be had whilst playing Xenoblade Chronicles is exploring its massive and gorgeous world. The environments of the game are mind-blowingly huge and beautifully designed with extraordinary geographical architecture. This is the sort of world Skyward Sword should have had and the lush Gaur Plain rivals Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field as a breath-taking landscape. That is a seriously weighty statement. Other smaller areas such as the absolutely enchanting Frontier Village, a tribal settlement inside a giant hollow tree that is home to the Nopon are equally memorable. Quite simply Xenoblade Chronicles is set in the most amazing fictional adventureland I have played in for years.
A world as huge as this might seem daunting but it is endlessly inviting to explore its many hidden corners. The only potential downside the game might have suffered given its decidedly open-ended structure is the necessity of extremely lengthy backtracking. Fortunately this is neatly sidestepped by the sensible inclusion of a quick jump feature which allows you to travel instantly to any Landmark you have already discovered. The game rewards you for exploring extensively by giving you experience for discovering Landmarks and Locations, not that this is really needed to encourage exploration since the marvellous design of the world manages that on its own. As it happens the world is so pretty that for once spending hours backtracking is actually enjoyable.
Unlike some JRPGs battles take place in the field rather than transporting you to some kind of generic arena screen. In place of random battles you can see enemy monsters roaming the environments but unlike most similar games they don’t always attack you. You can start a fight with any creature you encounter but it’s not always worth doing so as from early on you will see enemies wandering around that are considerably more powerful than you are. You can always check enemy levels before engaging and a simple colour code indicates their difficulty. You will also see symbols that indicate how enemies will react to your presence. Some will only fight if you attack them, others will join in with a battle if another member of their group or species is already fighting you. Plenty will attack on sight but many of these will refuse to if your level is high enough compared to theirs. This setup helps to convey a sense of a believable ecosystem which is a strong aid for immersion and gives this amazing world an extra layer of believability.
Xenoblade Chronicles is at its most attractive when viewed from a relative distance. The environments are stunning to look at, their size and scope a remarkable technical achievement for the Wii and the detail of the graphics are generally excellent. However the technical limitations of the platform are all too clear whenever the camera comes close to anything. Some textures are a little muddy and occasionally you’ll come across the odd one that is plainly unfinished. Characters can look a little fuzzy in story sequences too. It’s by no means a major flaw but it does set the imagination to wondering how this game might have fared on one of the HD consoles.
There are no such drawbacks in the audio department. As already stated the voice acting is first rate but the music is of similar high quality throughout, each composition perfectly matched to its respective location. Battle themes are suitably rousing and the final boss theme is among the most dramatic and shattering crescendos I’ve ever heard in a game. Sound effects are also well mixed, with battle sounds in particular proving particularly satisfying with all the important gameplay-aiding sound cues enhancing the overall experience of play.
The sheer amount of content in this game is staggering. It’s a ludicrously large adventure but the number of side quests on offer are completely overwhelming. Any NPC you encounter that has an exclamation mark above their head has a Quest that needs completing and there are hundreds of them. Most quests will ask you to kill a certain number of a particular type of enemy or gather enough of certain materials. If that sounds like fetch quests think again, many of them are completed the moment you pick up the last material you need with no need to return to the character who gave you the Quest. There are a few fetch quests that do necessitate this but they’re usually part of the more in-depth challenges that demand more of your attention and the Skip Travel feature helps to alleviate the drudge. You will find that you complete many Monster and Material Quests organically as you progress without the need to deliberately pursue them and in the case of some Material Quests you might sometimes find you have already gathered the prerequisite materials the moment you take on the Quest meaning you immediately complete them and reap the benefits including money, items and experience. As you complete Quests you improve your affinity with the area of the world you are in and as your affinity grows more Quests will become available to you. You can also complete a labyrinthine affinity map which displays various named NPCs’ individual relationships. Perfecting this and completing all the Quests in the game is a daunting task and surely only the obsessed would even attempt to do so. This is what they call obscene value for money.
Affinity is also important within your party. Each character has an individual level of affinity with every other team member. This affinity affects their performance in battle as a team amongst other things and can be increased in a number of ways, including by simply fighting together, by giving each other gifts or by participating in scripted Heart to Heart conversations in particular locations on the map.
One of the biggest hurdles you will need to clear in order to fully appreciate Xenoblade Chronicles is the game’s daunting micromanagement. Early on you will be bombarded by items and collectables and it will feel a little overwhelming organising and making good use of them all. You gain innumerable items from chests that appear for every fight you win and your inventory will increase so frequently that organising it all with each new acquisition quickly becomes tiresome. A better approach is to absorb everything the game gives you and leave it loitering in your menus for long periods until you reach a milestone or checkpoint and then pause to take stock, swap out any better equipment you might have gained and perform all the other little management task that need to be done to keep pace with the difficulty level. It takes some getting used to but once you get into a rhythm things will eventually start to make sense. This is what formed the basis of my early negative reaction to the game as I felt completely overwhelmed by the volume of things to sort through but with a little practice and patience you will get the hang of keeping your party well organised. That said the presentation of the menus could be clearer and more intuitive and the game is crying out for an auto-equip feature. To be able to immediately equip a newly bought item of armour and whatnot without having to do so manually would be an extremely welcome timesaver.
One other quirk of the game’s design is that you must level-up your Arts manually. This is a pain at first but again you’ll get into the rhythm of it. Besides the usual experience points you also gain Arts Points (Skill Points too, more on that in a moment) which build up until you use them to level up each character’s individual Arts. As Arts level up their attacks power increases and cooldown time decreases so keeping up with improving them is important. There are level caps on Arts which can be increased as you buy or find Arts manuals so be sure to look out for those.
Characters also learn various Skills as they gain Skill Points. These are learned automatically but are organised into trees that you can change at will to dictate exactly which skills characters learn first. Skills vary from increasing specific stats to things like improving the damage dealt by a first strike and loads more besides. Additionally you can form Skill Links between characters, something limited by character affinity and the number of Affinity Coins, which are gained by levelling up or by beating tough Unique Monsters. These Skill Links allow characters to share Skills with other characters otherwise incapable of learning them.
The only area of complexity where I feel the game went a little too far is in Gem Crafting. You can enhance your various equipment by equipping stat-improving gems to them. You find plenty of gems as you progress but you can craft your own from crystals in a particular location in Colony 9 (you can also gain the ability to craft wherever you want later). Crafting asks you to pick multiple crystals all of which have different values, combine them and put them through a machine using two party characters, each of whom have different crafting abilities. It’s one layer of complexity too far and I never ended up doing it much because it felt like an overcomplication that I didn’t want to force myself to learn. Fortunately Gem Crafting is optional anyway and you can certainly complete the game without pursuing it in any real depth.
Pre-order copies of the game were boxed with a red Classic Controller Pro but strangely, despite the fact the game makes no use whatsoever of motion controls I found the Wii Remote and Nunchuck option preferable. This is because in battle you need to use the analogue stick to move and the D-pad to cycle between Arts which is much easier with this setup. It does make controlling the camera more fiddly but you can train yourself to get used to it.
Like most RPGs of this type the difficulty of Xenoblade Chronicles can be overcome by grinding. If you don’t grind you will find plenty of challenge in boss fights which demand concentration and a firm grasp of the game’s various strategies. Since you gain experience from exploring and questing you might be able to avoid grinding by simply pursuing optional tasks. In the first half of the game I took a fair bit of time out from the main story to complete side quests but not so much in the second half. At the end of the game I did find myself needing to grind but thankfully not too much. If you encounter a really tough boss late on gaining one level might well make all the difference.
As stated I did not come anywhere close to completing 100% of Xenoblade Chronicles. All the same it took me seventy-seven hours to beat it making it the longest game I have ever played. If you are crazy enough to go for perfection you could be looking at upwards of a hundred and fifty hours. Oh, and there’s a second quest to get stuck into too. The value of this package is simply unprecedented.
If you can get past the few flaws the game suffers from and push through the initial overwhelming complexity then you are in for a real treat with Xenoblade Chronicles. It could use a little more variety in the gameplay like some interesting puzzles and the level of interactivity with the world could be greater but what the game does it does extremely well. The story is memorable, the world it plays out in unforgettable, the gameplay innovative and addictive and the amount of content on offer is unsurpassed on the Wii. If you own a Wii and have ever complained that the console doesn’t have enough hardcore offerings for dedicated gamers then this is a must-buy unless you have some kind of fundamental aversion to JRPGs. Even then the game goes so far to moving away from the genre’s more troublesome tropes that you should still give it a try.
Presentation – 8
The story is told brilliantly but the organisation of the menus and one or two other things could do with some streamlining.
Design – 9
One of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring game worlds ever is complemented by excellent art direction throughout.
Gameplay – 9
Deep, complex, varied, innovative and addictive, everything an ambitious game like this should be.
Graphics – 8
Generally gorgeous making amazing technical use of the Wii but things don’t look quite so good on close inspection.
Sound – 9
From the wonderful voice acting to the sweeping and melodious score it’s a great sounding game.
Difficulty – 8
Certainly very tough particularly in boss fights but challenge can be negated somewhat by grinding.
Longevity – 10
Almost indescribably huge. Even if you try and complete the game is quickly as possible you’re looking at sixty hours. The extra content multiplies that considerably.
It’s clear why Operation Rainfall campaigned to have this game given a western release. If The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower are half as good as Xenoblade Chronicles they will both be essential purchases. The best JRPG of the last five years? Not if you count Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn but otherwise a resounding yes!