JRPGs are often criticised due to their whiny protagonists, linear plots and monotonous combat systems. Monolithsoft’s Xenoblade Chronicles manages to take all of these problems and spin them into something very unique. A spiritual sequel to Xenogears and Xenosaga, the game was released across the PAL regions late last year, but only hit American Shores a couple of weeks ago – and what a hit it was.
The game is set on top of two fossilised titans, one of which is inhabited by human like Homs and the other by machines known as the Mechon. It’s on one of these worlds that you first meet the protagonist, Shulk, residing in the bustling town of Colony 9. After witnessing an attack on his home by the Mechon, he grabs the legendary energy sword Monado and sets off on an epic journey to destroy a masked member of the mechanical race. Along the way, he encounters a range of partners and battles his way forward across a world full of exploration and wonder.
Unlike many other games of this genre, the exploration isn’t limited to a few corridors dotted around with a few dead ends to poke your nose into. Instead, you’re greeted with a whole world to traverse and as they say, the world really is your oyster. Right from the beginning, you have access to vast fields and caves littered with things to discover. There’s so much to do, even when you’re not following orders and marching onwards through a quest. All around you are collectibles and animals grazing in the long, lush grass with multiple directions to turn. While exploring, you can use the docile creatures as part of your combat practice or just watch as they carry on your lives, completely ignoring your existence.
As well as general exploration, there are numerous side quests available for you to complete. Although they’re not required to advance into the game, they’re certainly helpful for when you do so, offering you bits of information and different pathways through the main story. The great thing about them is that most aren’t too long or tedious and range from something as simple as finding an item to defeating a powerful monster. The variety of quests is what brings them out as an unmissable part of the experience and one that you’ll no doubt spend hours delving into.
Helping you along the way is the idea of fast travel, where you can open your map, find a location point that you’ve already discovered and instantly appear there. If you’ve spent hours wandering around trying to find where you’re supposed to be for a certain quest, this is a life saver, stopping you getting bored or backtracking along the substantial land. However this feature isn’t included within many games, especially not JRPGs and as you’ll discover when playing, there really is no downside to it. It begs the question of why? Why do only the select few choose to use it? Whatever the answer, it’s definitely a great addition here and one you’ll make use of very quickly.
Almost everything in Xenoblade Chronicles earns you experience points, from discovering locations to collecting items, and obviously the typical way of defeating enemies. The latter of these few is one of the more unique and innovative parts of this title. Characters automatically attack the enemy when you get near, but you’ll be lucky if this is enough to see you through some areas, meaning you’ll have to take a much more active role. On top of your basic attack, you are given an ever-growing list of ‘Arts’ to choose from. Depending on the type of enemy and where you’re positioned, these can be the difference between an easy win or fatal end. These extra attacks can be levelled up individually, letting you create a character that is completely different to that of someone else playing the exact same game.
Because of features such as your Acts and quick time events that let you respond to and encourage other people in your party, the combat is very fast-paced making sure that you’re kept on your feet at all times. Rarely will you find yourself sitting back and watching the battle commence right in front of your eyes, especially not with some of the bosses you’ll encounter. Some of which may carry on for the best part of an hour – reminding you that this is an important part of the story, not just the ‘slightly stronger than normal enemy’ trap that many other games of its type fall into.
Helping you in such fights is the Monado, a sword with immeasurable strength against the monstrous machinery, as it comes with a very unique ability. When bearing the sword, you may sometimes see a short distance into the future of the battle, forced to watch as the enemy releases an attack that swipes everyone off their feet and straight to the game over screen (which is really just the loading screen again, but let’s face it, it still leaves you feeling weak and insignificant due to your annihilation). After doing so, you can quickly prepare everyone against the attack by ordering them to gather around, putting up shields and other various defences to null the effects of the once deadly strike. Without such a weapon, no doubt you’d be screwed over a ridiculous number of times in just the first few hours and it’s a really inventive feature giving you an edge over everyone else.
Directing and encouraging your party members during battles doesn’t just serve the one purpose either. As you do so, you build upon your relationship with them, giving you the opportunity to create a strong friendship between many different characters. It certainly beats the generic idea of role-playing games from Japan in which you meet a bunch of strangers and fight alongside them because… well because you can. The bond between people is shown as an Affinity stat which can be checked up on at any time. Not only can this be done in battles, but also in the open world when you stumble across the many different areas that allow you to take part in a heart to heart. By doing so, you’ll also learn about the various characters and their feelings, so it’s a feature that’s worth checking out, even if you don’t care about the virtual friendships.
As you defeat the enemies, many will leave behind chests with various items inside from materials to equipment for each character. What’s great about the equipment is that it’ll change the look of your members when you equip it – not only in the menus and battles but also while you’re exploring and in cutscenes too. There’s no set look to recognise people by and so it further enhances the idea that your character will be completely different to your friends. As with all RPGs, you’ll end up spending hours flicking through the menu screen giving the best equipment to your favourite character and trading the things that you’ll never look at again. Some of the clothing comes with an empty slot in which you can add in gems (that can be created yourself using the materials you find) which will contain things such as ‘strength up’ or ‘agility up’ allowing you to make the mediocre armour into something to brag about.
If the various innovative features still don’t get your heart racing, Xenoblade Chronicles comes with its own in-game achievements, something that is celebrated among the other consoles and left untouched by the Wii itself. Although many people may argue that it gives a game fake replayability, in this case it just gives the player something to aim for and congratulate themselves for completing. Not only is this fun to have available to you but it also gives the game many more hours of possible gameplay, not that it was struggling to find any in the first place. They’re not important in game and if you’re not interested in them, you’re highly unlikely to notice that they exist as they pop up at the bottom in the screen as small notifications every now and then.
Still sound generic? Well the developers attempt to bring the game even further outside the box that’s filled with pretty boys wielding huge swords and complaining that life is unfair with the addition of time. Time does pass by on its own as you’re traversing the wildlife switching between night and day and letting you watch as the sun begins to change to the peaceful orange glow of dusk or rise above the horizons the next day. However, you’re not restricted to this and you do receive the opportunity to change time yourself if you want to do something within a particular hour or so, giving you control of the world itself as well as the important people living on it. It all brings a sense of freedom as well as control and makes you feel a lot more powerful than other games can manage.
Stare at the character models for too long and you can easily mistake this for an early Wii title, possibly on the same level as the higher end Gamecube games, but either way, they’re not very appealing to look at. On top of this the lip syncing hasn’t been done for the English language and so everything looks a few seconds behind or fast. Turn away from the people’s blocky bodies though and the quality turns from poor into something that’s really trying to push the Wii to its limits. As you gaze into the distance, the colours and art style is extremely pleasing to the eye and the only thing holding it back from being magnificent is the power of the console. The level of detail surpasses most and you really feel as though the artists’ heart was poured into the creation of the game.
What really brings it all together though is the music played throughout your journey. At times, it’s booming, dramatic and powerful warning you that danger is near or that you’re about to set foot on an epic adventure. The orchestra manages to move all the emotions from the instruments straight into you and can switch extremely quickly from deadly to happy and upbeat when you’re out shopping or sharing a moment with another character. That level of feeling from the music is one that can only really be found within the Japanese games and one that rounds this game off completely, changing it from miles of land with people dotted around into a fully finished product.
Xenoblade Chronicles is another typical JRPG with numerous amounts of unique features that put it into its very own category. It’s taken those few brave steps away from what we’re used to and succeeded in being both new to the genre and enjoyable to play. Sure, at times it may feel like a slog, everything may seem a little too much like games from the past and it may not look as great as it could, but it tries. The problems with this game don’t detract from your experience and you’ll still have hours of enjoyment from the little round disc.
As the Wii gets ready to depart from the gaming world, Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the goodbyes worth trying. Enjoyable from start to finish. 8.5/10.