Review: Xenoblade Chronicles
In a surreal world born from the clashing of two titans, Bionis and Mechonis, the few remaining humans (or better Homs, as they are named in Xenoblade) are locked in a bitter struggle for survival against the Mechons, a race of sentient machines. A year has passed since the last battle that ensured the survival of the organic races, and the attacks of the Mechons seem to have stopped, while the small settlement of Colony 9 is still in a state of constant alertness.
Shulk, born as a gifted researcher, is trying to unlock the secrets of the Monado, an energy sword said to be derived from the blade used by Bionis to slay Mechonis. Dunban, the hero that seems to be the only one able to partially control it, is still recovering from the wounds inflicted by the excessive usage of the sword.
A routine trip to the nearby ruins tuns into a race against time to save Colony 9 from a new, sudden attack by the Mechons, but the awakening of the Monado is only the first step of a dramatic mission for revenge and survival.
Let’s get something out of the picture: the setting of Xenoblade Chronicles has nothing to do with that of Xenogears or Xenosaga. The game was initially supposed to be titled Monado: Beginning of the World, but was renamed into Xenoblade to honor it’s game director Tetsuya Takahashi, that fathered both PS1 and PS2 classics.
While the setting seems extremely simple at first sight, anyone that knows the work of Takahashi will also realize that the classic concept of the conflict between humanity and machines is just the very surface, hiding an extremely complex and deep plot that will not prove alien to those that loved Xenogears.
Of course I’m not going to spoil anything here, but during the game’s lovely and numerous cutscenes you can expect a huge amount of plot twists and complexities that won’t leave the most hardcore JRPG fans disappointed. In particular those JRPG fans that missed the deep relationships and romance that permeated older titles of the genre and that have been hard to find in the last couple years will have a lot to look forward to with Xenoblade.
Judging the visuals of Xenoblade Chronicles is not easy. It’s a Wii game, and of course it can’t stand the graphical comparison with games on HD platforms. Especially the characters pay the price of the Wii’s lack of raw power, as the models suffer from a very low polygon count and the low resolution of the textures can prove a little difficult to digest.
That said, there are areas in which the game still shines, even visually.
The first that comes to mind is definitely environmental design. Some of the open areas that our heroes will visit during their adventures provide some of the biggest, most expansive and, to put it down simply, most lush and beautiful landscapes seen in the RPG genre.
The world is set on the massive corpses of the two titans mentioned above, and the areas that can be explored are literally of titanic proportions. The absence of invisible walls and constraints, together with the impressive draw distance, contributes to create a sense of awe and freedom that can only be defined delightful.
If the screenshots aren’t enough, try, if you will, to imagine an immense grassland spotted by choreographic rocky formations and frightening chasms and as you look above, the towering corpses of the two titans eternally locked in their battle even after death loom over you. It’s simply an awe-inspiring sight and I struggle to understand the miracles Monolithsoft must have performed in order to fit those immense vistas in the memory of the Wii.
The art style behind the graphics is also very pleasing, delivering a very cohesive view of a world populated by men that live in close contact with nature despite a high technological level, in stark contrast with the Mechon race, with their stylish mecha design that follows unusual paths in order to show robotic beings that may very well be alive.
Monster design is equally well done, with some very big monsters and bosses that are a pleasure to fight against, especially due to how well they are animated.
Another aspect that meets the eye very positively is the combat animations and effects. Both areas are very dynamic, providing battles that look flashy and choreographic without falling in the usual trap of being confusing. Your characters will be somersaulting and twirling around like crazy, enveloped by colorful auras and trails of light, without actually forcing you to lose track of their movements and position. That’s something rarely achieved in the genre.
If the screenshots shown in this review aren’t enough for you, you can give a look to the video review embedded above (a new experiment here on Dualshockers that we hope to expand in the future) or my flickr gallery to get a better idea of Xenoblade‘s visuals.
The soundtrack is probably one of the most delightful aspects between the production values of the game. While the sound effects (especially the environmental ones) are always adequate and atmospheric, what truly shines is the music, produced by a team of six composers.
Yasunori Mitsuda (well known for Xenogears and Chrono Trigger) composed the ending theme “Beyond the Sky”, sung by the angelic voice of Sarah Alainn. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful theme songs I heard in the last few years of gaming.
The other five composers worked on the rest of the soundtrack, showing a delightful variety of styles, ranging from epic themes to scary tunes, moving through a wide array of situations that underline each area of the game perfectly. It’s interesting to see how such a relatively big team managed to bring variety to the soundtrack without losing overall direction and creating what’s probably one of the best scores for an RPG of this generation.
The English voice acting of the game is a tad lacking, most actors tend to overact and over-dramatize too much, and the accents are definitely too thick. A major problem is that the voices of the two main characters Shulk and Reyn are definitely too similar (Shulk’s voice is definitely too mature compared to the original, causing confusion with Reyn’s) and, considering how much the two talk to each other, it tends to be less than enjoyable.
No one, though, really expected Nintendo to spend too many resources on the voice acting of what’s ultimately a niche title, but here comes the most pleasant surprise: the game includes the holy grail of all JRPG localizations, the original Japanese track.
This allows us to enjoy Xenoblade with the top-notch original voice acting and English subtitles, making for the perfect mix of accessibility and quality.
As opposed to many JRPGs, even ones with a much bigger budget, most of the script is fully voiced, giving much relief to the many that have problems with reading while playing a game.
But let’s move on to the actual gameplay, as that’s what saw a degree of fossilization in the genre over the last few years, and that’s where Xenoblade innovates the most, bringing a much appreciate fresh breeze to the JRPG world.
As mentioned above the world feels delightfully open and boundless. While there’s a main scenario that has to be followed in a linear fashion, there’s also a wide variety of side quests that can be played in any order or skipped altogether.
The maps are spotted with landmarks that work as fast travel hubs, allowing the player to quickly move between areas without having to run all the way to his destination, enhancing by a lot the feeling of unconstrained freedom that’s almost unprecedented in the genre.
Each area is also full of unique named monsters that will reward reward explorers looking for a challenge with much better drops than the average enemy, encouraging the player to stray from the marked path even further.
Battle gameplay is another area ruled by innovation, or better, by the application of concepts mostly seen in MMORPGs. There are no random encounters in Xenoblade, and combat is completely done in real time.
Each character is given a few Arts, equivalent to the usual skills or abilities seen in many MMORPGs, and as in MMORPGs they are arranged at the bottom of the screen in what looks a lot like a skill bar. Of course more arts can be learned while leveling up, and existing ones can be improved by spending Art Points.
When fighting an enemy (or multiple) he will select what character to attack according to another typical MMORPG concept defined Aggro. Aggro is a variable value determined by damage dealt, healing done and other effects. It normally prompts the enemy to attack the character that he sees as the most threatening. That value can, though, be influenced by several Arts that raise or lower it, allowing the player to assign the role of “Tank” to one of his characters (normally the one with the best defense), destining him to act as the meat shield that will absorb most of the damage as the others are free to heal him and obliterate the opposition.
The introduction of Aggro creates a whole new tactical level in the game, allowing the player to effectively direct the fight, the position of the enemy and the direction in which he’ll be facing. In turn this allowed the implementation of a whole lot of positional Arts that deal increased damage or apply additional effects when the enemy is hit from behind or from the side. Positioning is also important because characters can run to each other to revive fainted ones or remove negative effects.
On top of this many Arts interact with each other to create additional effects, that are often needed in order to damage certain enemies more effectively. For instance to be able to damage a Mechon without using the Monado, he’ll have to be “toppled” first. In order to achieve that, the “break” effect will have to be in effect, requiring specific combination of Arts to be performed to achieve the best outcome.
As a different example, Rayn could use Wild Down to topple a monster, and Shulk could follow-up with Shaker Edge, that dazzles (basically a stun effect) toppled enemies. The combinations are extremely numerous and create a very deep combat system that is easy to learn but very challenging to completely master.
As a matter of fact, Xenoblade does so well in implementing MMORPG-like concepts that I’d be very eager to go full circle and play a MMORPG that would implement exactly the same battle system featured in Xenoblade.
Further levels of complexity are added by the ability to perform chain attacks. As the chain gauge fills the player can trigger the chain, slowing down time and allowing his characters to unleash a sequence of devastating attacks, facilitating the combination of effects mentioned before, or simply lining up attacks of the same kind (indicated by the color of the icons) to deliver devastating combos that can be quite long if timed correctly.
If you think that’s all, think again. Interaction between characters isn’t limited to performing chain attacks and creating additional effects with interacting Arts. The player can also control the leader to influence the performance of his companions. Specific situations, like an incoming critical hit, will bring in a quick time event that, if performed correctly, will prompt him to warn or encourage his affected companion, letting him avoid the danger or increase his combat prowess.
An extremely interesting mechanic derives from the fact that the Monado allows Shulk to see limited visions of the future, predicting the most devastating attacks that will hit him or his companions. When this happens the player will be able to warn and protect the affected characters, minimizing the damage if he’s fast enough.
This complex but very intuitive set of mechanics creates what’s probably the best, most dynamic, fluid and satisfying battle systems ever seen in a JRPG, and definitely one of the best in the RPG genre overall.
Similarly to combat, character progression is made by multiple layered mechanics to create an extremely customizable and complex whole. As characters progress through levels, they won’t only get more powerful in a linear way, learning new Arts and increasing their statistics. They will also earn Art Points that the player will be able to freely spend at his leisure to improve specific arts. Each character also has three different skill trees that allow different paths of progression, and that can be switched at any time.
Affinity between characters (I’ll talk more specifically about that in a moment) also plays a role and improves the already deep customization potential. The more two characters are in friendly (or romantic) terms, the more they’ll be able to benefit from each other’s abilities through the Skill Link system, literally learning from each other. For instance Shulk cannot use heavy armor by himself, but thanks to the Skill Link system he can learn to use it from Rayn, allowing the player to expand every character beyond his usual area of expertise.
Of course each character can wear a wide variety of different equipment, that actually changes his or her appearance (something often missing in JRPGs), thing that will please those that hate the usual “shorts and shirt” style that many male protagonists in the genre seem to enjoy.
If you noticed the trend that rules this game, though, you won’t be surprised to know that equipping your character isn’t limited to changing a helm with another, but there’s a further layer of complexity adding further depth to each character’s choice of gear.
Most pieces of equipment have gem slots that introduce us to Xenoblade‘s crafting system. Many monsters will drop, upon defeat, a number of crystals that can be fused in order to create gems that raise a wide variety of stats. Those gems can then be inserted into one of the aforementioned slots in order to specialize each piece of gear or round up a character’s stats better.
In order to craft a powerful gem the player will have to tactically combine different crystals in the most efficient way possible and to select two characters to perform the role of Shooter and Engineer. Of course each character performs differently in each role, and the affinity between the two influences the result as well. While this sounds very complex when described, it’s actually quite intuitive and downright addictive. I wouldn’t be surprised if the most fanatical min-maxers between us will spend hours upon hours practicing this lovely minigame in order to turn their crystals in the best gems possible.
While the size and scope of the world is definitely an innovation to the genre, the most innovative aspect is the way in which the player interacts with the world itself and in which characters living in the world interact with each other. Every character, whether he or she is a protagonist or a supporting one, is bound to the others through the Affinity system that I already mentioned in passing above.
The Affinity system is of course deepest and most influential between playable characters. Many variables like how well you manage to warn your characters of incoming dangers, the numbers of chain attacks you perform, the way you interact with NPCs and what quests you accept and complete will variate the relationships between your characters. They will slowly grow fond of each other (sometimes even moving towards romance) and interact even more. This will influence a number of elements in the game.
Characters with a better affinity can use more of each other’s skills thanks to the skill link system, can craft better gems together, support each other better in a fight and can access special “heart to heart” cutscenes. During those events they will have private conversations directed by the player through multi-choice dialogue that can further improve (or degrade) the relationship between the two and that provides lovely dating sim-like insight on the interactions going on between characters behind the scenes of the main story.
Your party can also improve it’s affinity with the inhabitants of each village, mainly through performing quests for them. When the affinity with a village increases more quests become available, but that’s not all. The affinity between the villagers themselves will also change according to your actions. For instance you can persuade a girl to marry a suitor or another, changing the dynamics between the trio and causing consequences down the line.
Affinity can also be improved by trading with named NPCs, letting the player save a considerable amount of money by exploring and finding the right characters to trade with, giving them unused items and receiving valuable equipment in return, making friends in the process.
This becomes even more determining later in the game, as a form of village building gameplay (similar to the Georama mechanic present in the Dark Cloud and the White Knight Chronicles series) becomes available, and you may find yourself compelled to persuade certain NPCs to join your growing settlement.
As the game wasn’t big and varied enough, there are little additional touches that beef it up further. A full-fledged achievement system (that unfortunately doesn’t include any online sharing mechanic) and a collection system reward exploration for the completionists between us. All things considered don’t be surprised if Xenoblade Chronicles will eat up way more than a hundred hours of your life.
The UI is quite sleek, and definitely agile compared to most of the examples seen in the genre, especially considering how deep and complex certain systems are. A definitely welcome element is the ability to save anywhere in the game, doing away with that horrible JRPG staple named “Saving point”, that’s nothing else than a relic of a past age, when limiting technology forced developers to use that trick. Nowadays those limits don’t exist anymore, and I can’t help but cringe any time I see a game featuring fixed save points. Luckily Xenoblade causes no cringing on this topic.
While, with some effort, it’s possible to achieve acceptable results with the Wiimote/Nunchuck combination (I definitely know, considering that my Classic Controller broke during the first hour of gameplay, forcing me to use the Wiimote to play further), I wouldn’t advise them as a primary control solution, especially due to the awkward position of the 1 and 2 buttons, used to access the map and to trade. Due to the comfort of fast travel you’ll access the map a lot and trading is an indispensable function while visiting towns.
Controlling the game with a Classic Controller or a Classic Controller Pro ensures a much smoother experience. Unfortunately Xenoblade doesn’t support the use of a Gamecube controller, which is truly a pity.
Ultimately, Xenoblade is probably the best JRPG released in the west this generation (so far), and one of the best RPGs overall. Not only it has a great story, believable and likeable characters and a depth completely worthy of the legacy of it’s name, but it’s also extremely enjoyable, varied and provides an amazing amount of content.
As opposed to other recent examples, this game innovates the genre without betraying it’s foundations and cultural background, creating an almost perfect mix between modernity and tradition. Exactly because of that it succeeds on basically every aspect, where other games failed while leaning excessively towards westernization, applying concepts that simply didn’t fit or getting rid of elements dear to the fans.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the perfect “Don’t worry, I still Love you” signal given by Nintendo to it’s most hardcore fans, and a strong, resounding “NO” said right in the face of those that advocate the theory that the JRPG genre is dead.
There’s still a lot of life in the genre, and Xenoblade Chronicles is the undeniable proof of that potential, a shiny and precious gem that no JRPG fan should miss, and that most RPG lovers will appreciate and enjoy.
[Editor’s Note: Giuseppe originally reviewed this title in August of 2011 when it was released in Europe. Just for everyone on this side of the pond, we’ve bumped it up to the top, since it releases in the U.S. on April 6, 2012.]