[Note: This is not my blog. This blog was written by community member Karutomaru, whose account is currently undergoing difficulties.]
As Iíve been quick to constantly remind everyone, this generation hasnít exactly been a spectacular follow up to the last one. Last generation we got high quality story-driven content-heavy masterpieces like Resident Evil 4, Tales of Symphonia, Kingdom Hearts, Viewtiful Joe, and Shadow of the Colossus. Yet despite the Wii being significantly stronger than the systems those were on, few games have ever come close to being on their level. Sure, we got some that did, like Madworld, Twilight Princess, and Sengoku Basara, but with our heightened expectations, we havenít gotten as much as we want or deserve.
How many games these days have the cinematic quality of Resident Evil 4 or the open world and length of Tales of Symphonia? Everything is a mission selection, and although that isnít necessarily bad, it doesnít make the games feel quite like an adventure. I started losing my faith in critics too, after the disappointing and overrated Rayman Origins. I just wanted an epic game with tons upon tons upon tons of time, money, and effort shoveled into it like someone discovered a planet made entirely of oil.
Sorry I killed your chicken, but it was looking at me funny.
Still desperate for such a game, I pre-ordered Xenoblade Chronicles (which I simply refer to by its first word), and gleefully anticipated its arrival to North America, despite knowing nothing of the director or the previous ďXenoĒ games. Since critical reception was so off the wall, and after giving it to you all straight with my Rayman Origins review, I feel itís my duty to answer the question ďIs it really as good as most critics say?Ē Read on for the answer.
Youíre probably wondering why this review is so damn late. Well, in addition to the obscene length of the entire game, about 20 hours in, my Wii started acting up, and it took us a week to finally ship the thing to Nintendo for repairs, another week to get it back, and another week to get it to my apartment. You can imagine my heartbreak. After that, summer school started, and that is taking up a lot of my time. It also doesnít help that the game itself is extremely long in itself, but now, I have finally got around to posting this thing.
Xenoblade tells the story of Shulk, a young boy living in one of many colonies built on top of a giant called Bionis, which has been frozen in place following a battle with its mechanical rival, Mechonis. 16 years prior to the gameís events, there had been a war between the residents of Bionis, the Homs, and the residents of Mechonis, the Mechons, in which a hero named Dunban used a legendary blade called the Monado to wipe out the rest of the mechanical jerks. Or so they thought. The mechons seem to have returned, and are now attacking various colonies and civilizations throughout Bionis, and after one particular event early on, Shulk and his friend Reyn start traveling the world to get revenge on the mechon and stop them from hurting any more people.
Xenobladeís story is very much structured like a shonen series, most notably One Piece. Like Luffy, Shulk travels to various areas in his world, solves peopleís problems, and defeats climactic bosses before moving on to another area, having new friends join his crew along the way. This is not a bad thing in the least. I love the narrative format. The way this is presented is like the game is telling multiple stories in one, which donít even need to be simplified. The game takes its time in establishing characters and plot points using many long cutscenes, which I know some anti-cutscene gamers are bothered by, but they play a large role in making the story memorable.
There are two kinds of cutscenes in Xenoblade: the kind in which everyone stands around talking by way of flapping their gums like puppets, and the more technically efficient kind that uses excellent camera and motion capture work to make them epic and memorable, like Resident Evil 4. Even better, they all use the gameís engine, meaning that whatever outfit a character is wearing appears in the cutscenes as well, keeping a consistency not possible with pre-rendered cutscenes. But despite never going the pre-rendered route, the cutscenes still are able to show off huge areas with tons of moving characters without ever dropping its framerate. Thatís quite an accomplishment more developers need to learn from.
Also like Resident Evil 4, the voice acting is very good. Even though all these British actors arenít known names like most quality North American localizations, they all fit their characters very well. The humans always sound like real people rather than the fantastical/hammy voices you hear in games like Tales of Symphonia or Sengoku Basara (Except maybe Reyn). Those voices are left to the faced Mechon and Nopon, which are just as gloriously inhuman and odd as they look.
But even if you donít like the English track, you can switch to the Japanese track anytime. Unlike the English one, the Japanese track is comprised of various well-known voice actors, including voice acting god Norio Wakamoto, the voice of Cell, the Emperor of Britannia, Nobunaga Oda, and Deus Ex Machina (In Mirai Nikki). No matter which language you play it on, however, it will always feel natural. They donít edit any animations for the dub, and thereís nary a hint of lip-lock. However, should you choose to go with the Japanese track, keep in mind the subtitles are from the English dub, so they tend to be inaccurate from time to time, but not often.
Xenobladeís gameplay helps the game truly feel like an interactive adventure. Every area is huge, expansive, and lovingly detailed. Grass, waterfalls, buildings, and people all populate Bionisí many environments. Even the creatures in Xenoblade seem to avert the problem many other JRPGs have when needing variety.
Though there are some monsters that are merely color-swapped versions of each other, the way theyíre colored makes them look more like they adapted to the environment around them, giving more of a sense of being a different breed rather than a half-assed palette-swap (like dogs and their fur).
And each area isnít just inhabited by monsters that should be at the same level as you at a certain point. There are slightly stronger boss monsters with special names, tiny innocent monsters that mean you no harm, and gigantic level 90 monsters that look like they could easily step on you. They all give you different ways to approach them based on their attention style, with some attacking what they hear, what they see, or just ignore you unless aggravated. The monsters along with the NPCs and environmental detail make Bionis come alive and easy to get lost in. Many times when youíre outside, you can see the neighboring world, Mechonis, at different angles. At one point in particular, when youíre on Mechonisí severed arm, you can travel to one of its fingertips and see the whole thing, staring in awe at how puny everything youíve been traveling on looks in comparison. The giants are so insanely gigantic youíre like tiny fleas, and the game lets you know it.
But if the attention to detail doesnít make you love Xenobladeís world, the freedom will. Itís full of wide open spaces, mountains to climb, rivers to swim across, and secret areas to find, in which you can jump around on any terrain that isnít too high or steep. There are almost no invisible walls. Even better, each area is streamed, which means the only loading time youíll need to wait for will be to prepare the area youíre exploring and thatís it. The game has an incredible draw distance, allowing breathtaking visuals at far distances that show off the beauty of each areaís design (like the aforementioned fingertip), only further reminded me of what a Wii game can do with enough time, money, and effort put into it. In fact, the gameís requirement to constantly load at practically all times is likely the reason my Wii needed to be repaired, so I suggest not playing for too long at one time.
To top it all off, thereís a day and night system you can control yourself. Though time passes by Ocarina of Time-style, you can open up your menu and change it to any time you want, which youíll want to do if there are monsters or NPCs that only show up at a certain time. Personally, I used it to immerse myself further by changing the in-game clock to the closest hour my real-time clock was on, but beyond that, it only saw use during side quests. Itís a neat feature though, and the difference between day and night drastically changes the mood and music.
But as much as I adore the enormity of Xenobladeís world, it makes me wish there were a means of transportation other than walking. Thereís a fast travel system that lets you instantly go to landmarks you discover, which is very time-saving, but between landmarks there are still really long distances. Other RPGs have had faster means of travel. Tales of Symphonia had Noishe and the Rheiards, Final Fantasy had the Chocobos and airships, but all Xenoblade has is your own two feet, with the exception of a couple story points where the party takes flying airships to a new area. Couldnít someone lend us a hovering motorcycle or something? I suppose something like that would be difficult to implement with how steep the terrain gets, and it would make you pass by all the pretty scenery, but I still feel like something could be done to make the longer hikes less tiring.
As for the music, itís done by Yoko Shimomura; the goddess of gaming music. Every area in the game has brilliant, catchy orchestral tracks perfectly fitting the tone of the situation. Thereís little else to say beyond that, as music is something that can be difficult to judge. Itís excellent gaming orchestra that accompanies the excellent visuals. That said, I donít think itís Yokoís best work. The music isnít anywhere near as good nor quite as varied as Kingdom Hearts, and even Sengoku Basara has a better soundtrack overall. While great and memorable, itís not one of the game soundtracks Iím begging to be released on CD. Itís good enough just being in the game.
Combat is easy enough to understand and less complicated than some of the other RPGs out there. You target an enemy, and if youíre within range, your character automatically attacks them. Using the control pad, you select the special moves to use with different effects and uses. After using a special move, you must wait for it to recharge, with the exception of everyoneís unique moves, which require successful attacks to recharge.
A lot of the depth in the gameís combat is pre-preparation in putting on appropriate armor, leveling up special moves, equipping a good set of special moves, and setting bonuses for affinities (relationship values raised by fighting together and giving gifts.) During combat, thereís a focus on keeping track of where everything is. Itís important to know where your allies are, as you need to be next to them to revive or encourage them, and itís important to know who your enemy is attacking so you can make sure they attack who you want them to. At the same time you need to make sure everyoneís health is fine, and their morale, which affects their attack rate.
The gameís primary gameplay gimmick is its future visions mechanic. When someone on Shulkís team is about to be fatally or devastatingly hurt, the game gives you a preview of what attack the opponent is going to use on who, and in how many seconds theyíll do it. If you find a way to prevent it, such as telling the member to guard or healing them, the future will change. Thankfully it doesnít simply replay the vision when you change the future. Instead, it simply changes a window at the top of the screen that gives you the attack details, and that changes with the future.
There is a pretty noticeable flaw in this mechanic, however, and I feel itís one the developers really should have seen. The visions only show the attack hitting one character, even if said attack has a very wide area and will actually hurt everyone around it. It gives no indication of whether or not it will hit any other party members, so if you do something like sacrifice health to heal your ally to survive the attack, the game might pull a dick move and kill you in the process, which is bad, because if you donít have enough in your party gauge when your character dies, you automatically lose.
As a whole, the combat makes it feel like Iím some sort of manager, having to make sure everyone is doing their job, and picking up the slack when theyíre KOíd. While that may sound like a bad thing, the mental stimulation is actually quite satisfying, and the battle dialogue, while repetitive at times, is varied and fun to listen to, especially the small post-battle conversations that can take place between specific party members, which encourage you to experiment with different combinations of characters.
It might sound like monotonous busywork on paper, but Xenobladeís combat is actually really frantic. All the flashy attack animations, monsters that can enter the fray, and everyone calling their attacks alongside the music make for a big ball of violence you really have to pay attention to to succeed. Of course, if youíre not a high enough level, all your work is futile, which is one of Xenobladeís biggest problems.
You see, if you fight an enemy thatís only 4 or 5 levels higher than yours, rather than overcome the odds and use your skills and mind to defeat it, it becomes unbeatable. Fight a monster like that, and, suddenly, none of your characters can hit the broad side of a barn. Almost every attack will miss and you wonít be able to execute ANY of your best strategies. Yet, if you level up a little more, even by just 1 or 2, suddenly your attacks almost always hit. Itís like stronger enemies have some kind of invisible barrier that MAKE your attacks miss even when THE WEAPON MODELS CONNECT WITH THE MONSTER, and that barrier can only be bypassed if youíre a high enough level. This problem happens quite often very late into the game, when the difficulty starts spiking thanks to overpowered bosses. It makes the game feel like it rewards more time-consuming grinding than player skill, and that is never a good thing. Itís the reason I donít play MMOs often.
Prepare for rape.
If the last paragraph wasnít any indication, youíre probably going to want to break away from the story to level up, either by killing monsters (naturally), or doing the many many many side quests the game has to offer. The side quests are a great way to give you something to do while youíre not strong enough to proceed in the story, and I appreciate that they all have unique dialogue to give plausible reasons to do them, but ultimately the majority of the side quests simply ask you to kill a certain number of monsters or collect a certain number of a specific item. Some of them seem easy when you hear the request, but it seems once you start a quest looking for a specific item, that item suddenly becomes scarce, and you spend almost an hour wandering around looking for it.
Because of this, on my travels, I ignored the simple quests unless I knew I could complete them on the way. The ones I primarily took were ones that asked for unusual errands or for me to kill a unique named monster (think of them as minibosses), but even then I ran into half-hour tedium. As is the problems with most MMOs, the sidequests can get really vague in where youíre supposed to go. For example, one asked me to kill a monster near the Windmill Pavilion in Makna Forest. First, I had to explore the forest and find the pavilion, then, after much searching, I finally found the monster, but it was a fourth of a mile NORTH of the windmill pavilion! Not near it!
Still, despite some griping, when Xenoblade Chronicles is good, itís extremely good, and the weak sidequests and BS leveling up are only minor setbacks in what is truly one of the greatest games I have ever played, and thatís partly because itís also one of the longest games Iíve ever played. Xenoblade took me about 72 hours to beat, and Iíd estimate maybe 5 of those hours were spent on sidequests (not at one time, of course).
Let me put it this way: Remember how in Okami, Orochi seemed like he would be the final boss, but it turned out that was only the first third of the game? And remember Tales of Symphoniaís shocking revelation that made you question everything you had done and thought? Xenoblade plays both of those cards, and doesnít even need any padding to stretch out a 67 hour story, aside from mechonis, which our own Jim Sterling mentioned in his review (even then it picks up right afterwards). Itís an epic adventure full of twists and turns, character development, action, great heroes, great villains, and Riki.
The following is an extremely difficult thing to type, because for the longest time, I have always considered the god of gamingís bloody masterpiece Madworld to be the greatest game of this generation, but that changes nowÖ
Xenoblade is the greatest game of this generation!
Xenoblade is exactly what I was looking for. Itís like the Resident Evil 4 of this generation. The time, money, and effort put into Xenoblade is unlike any other Wii game before it. It is truly a masterpiece of the modern age that I canít recommend enough. A few poor design decisions and preferences canít work to the full detriment of a game that has both a large open world and an excellent story to go along with it. I give Xenoblade Chronicles a 9.5 out of 10. The highest score I have ever given on Destructoid. Congratulations Xenoblade Chronicles. You beat out Madworld. Fucking Madworld!
Do you have any idea what that means? You beat out the god of gaming! Maybe just by a hair,
And now Iím doing it all over again in Japanese. Unless Last Story crosses infinity twice, Xenoblade is my Game of the Year.