Pros: Vast, detailed world, a wealth of gameplay ideas.
Cons: Stock characters, game claims it will let you turn off subtitles but won’t.
Far away, people are living on the body of a dead giant. The giant, known as Bionis, died eons ago in a “timeless battle” with another giant, and its body stands like a statue, sword eternally crossed with that of its equally dead opponent. Over time the corpse of the Bionis has become overgrown with grass and trees, and people and monsters have evolved on the curves of its giant legs and the valleys of its elbows. Brave explorers can enter crevices in its rocky body and walk right through its cavernous lungs.
The vastly detailed, original world of the Bionis is easily matched by that of the Japanese role playing game it houses, Xenoblade Chronicles.
Developed by: Monolith Soft
Published by: Nintendo
Genre: Role-playing game
For ages: Ages 13 and up
Release Date: April 6, 2012
The Story: Boy, Destiny, Sword
The world of the Bionis is not a peaceful one. Savage sentient mechanical creatures known as the Mechon are seemingly determined to destroy all intelligent organic life on the giant. Xenoblade follows the adventures of Shulk, a “Hom” (human, basically) who sets out with some friends to take revenge on a Mechon who killed his friend and discovers his ability to harness the full power of an ancient, mysterious sword called the Monado.
While the boy with a destiny taking on overwhelming forces to save his people is a standard JRPG trope, any unoriginality in Xenoblade’s story is more than compensated for through the game’s deep, almost overwhelmingly generous gameplay.
Gameplay - Combat: Hectic and Exciting
After a brief battle tutorial involving a character named Dunbar who can, but only with pain and difficulty, wield the Monado, Xenoblade puts the player in control of Shulk as he wanders his home town, Colony 9, chatting with people who ask him for favors (fix a broken watch, find a lost item, deliver some food). This early section is rather bland, but when the Mechon attack, the game’s driving score and exciting combat system kick in, and the game becomes electrifying.
Combat is quite hectic. Shulk and his companions (up to two people can fight alongside him) will attack automatically if they are close to an opponent, but they also have various special offensive and defensive skills. Attacks are often more powerful if performed from a specific angle, so at times you will need to run behind or to the side of a monster when it’s distracted by your friends.
While the player only controls a single party member, the others acting with autonomy, you cannot simply ignore your companions. At times they will get dispirited, and you must run up to them and press a button to boost their morale. Other times they will launch attacks that you must complete with the push of a button, and at times you’ll have the opportunity to perform a chain attack in which you select a series of successive attacks from all in your party.
Eventually Shulk discovers that the Monado lets him see flashes of the future, which works both as a story element, telling him who he will need to rescue, and as a combat element. Sometimes you will foresee a monster’s future attack against a party member. You have a chance to stop these attacks by warning your companions or using the appropriate countering skill in time.
All of this combines to create something hectic, wild, and tremendously exciting.
The typical JRPG approach to battle is for players to walk along until they are suddenly thrown into a battle, which takes place in a separate arena, and then dropped back into the world at its end. But in Xenoblade, battles are seamlessly integrated into the world. Some monsters will attack if you come near, others will ignore you unless you attack them. And if you see a group of monsters you feel you can’t take on all at once, you have the ability to target one and lure it away from its companions.
Gameplay - Exploration and Character Building: Elaborate and Engaging
Like most JRPGs, Xenoblade is a mix of combat, character building, and exploration, and the last two are just as elaborate and full of fresh ideas as the first. Characters gain the experience points that make them stronger not only through battle but through exploration and completing side quests like helping a friend deal with a loan shark or helping a guy find out which girl likes him best. You will also be tasked with restoring a city destroyed by the Mechon, which will grow before your eyes.
Having read that Xenoblade would take at least 70 hours to complete and wanting to get as far through it as I could before my deadline, I determined to focus on the main story line. Yet I found the many elegant side quests difficult to resist, and found myself spending hours helping and getting to know minor characters. (As I got deeper in the game, I found I had no choice but to keep playing those side quests, even the less interesting ones, in order to strengthen my party. I have no idea how anyone could beat the game in 70 hours; it took me twice that.)
How characters relate is a major part of the game. You have an affinity chart that shows you how everyone feels about you and everyone else, and having more affinity with characters offers up more quests. Furthermore, there are “heart-to-heart” areas where, if you have the right people in your party and they have strong affinity for one another, they will stop to muse about life and increase their bonds.
The Rest: More Amazing Stuff and a Few Flaws
It is tempting to try and list every good thing in the game - the way different people and monsters appear depending on the constantly changing weather and time of day, the gem crafting system to adding powers to weapons and armor, the huge monsters far too strong to battle who give you something to come back to when you’re more powerful, the way you can barter with hundreds of characters for items you need, the future visions you receive that let you know what items you will need later in the game, the eschewing of punishing game aggravations like losing all your progress in death or having to re-travel long distances, the fact that you can swim, climb, and otherwise freely explore what feels like a vast, coherent world - but it is an almost impossible task, as the game, in its stately, unhurried way, continually expands upon itself. Truthfully, the game offered more features and choices that I knew what to do with. Xenoblade feels like a game you can plunge deeper and deeper into as you explore all the nooks and crannies of its gameplay, but it’s also a game that allows you to skim the surface, choosing the most appealing elements and ignoring those that don’t interest you.
The game does have its little quirks and annoyances. For some inexplicable reason, turning off subtitles in the options only turns off about five percent of subtitles, even though the game is fully voiced. The menu system can be a bit awkward to deal with, although to be fair it’s hard to know how you would streamline something so elaborate. Your party repeats the same handful of phrases over and over during battle. The game approaches the Wii remote so lazily that you really need to use the Wii classic controller (the game was developed for the Wii not because the designers were interested in the platform but because Wii owns the development company).
The Verdict: A Few Flaws, But Still One of the Best JRPGs Ever Made
Most surprisingly, the game is somewhat weak in its storytelling even though it comes from director Tetsuya Takahashi, whose Xenosaga trilogy boasted fascinating, enigmatic personalities, explored complex moral themes, and had an abstruse story that was convoluted and confused but also utterly fascinating. While Xenoblade’s story isn’t a bad one, and does contain some interesting twists and mysterious characters, I was very disappointed by its bland stock characters and conventional story. Admittedly the Xenosaga games often emphasized story to the detriment of the gameplay, but ultimately I just feel there’s a problem with a game in which a dead giant is more interesting than the people living on it. Yet, living life on that dead giant is so compelling that you may never want to go back to living on the surface of the earth.