Xenoblade Chronicles will be remembered for its controversial release history more than what it does with its story, its gameplay, or anything else. It has had a long and tumultuous past, released as it was in Japan, then in Europe, while Nintendo of America refused to publish it.
So desperate were American Wii owners for a good Japanese role-playing game, that they founded Operation Rainfall, an organization dedicated to getting Nintendo of America to publish Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower.
We may be lacking Pandora's Tower, but The Last Story is confirmed and Xenoblade Chronicles is finally on the horizon. It's safe to say that, in Xenoblade's case, the fighting was certainly worth it.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)
Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo of America
Release: April 6, 2012
MSRP: $49.99 (GameStop exclusive)
Xenoblade Chronicles may bear many hallmarks of a traditional RPG, but from the outset Monolith Soft has worked to craft something quite different from the norm. Its premise is one of the more inventive I've seen in years, telling the story of two ancient Gods who remain eternally locked in combat, now frozen like statues, and serving as glorified planets for the lifeforms that live on them.
The Mechonis is home to a race of robotic constructs called The Mechon, who strike out to attack the varied creatures of Bionis -- chiefly the Homs (humans), Nopon (Pokémon), and High Entia (bird-elves). The Mechon can only be killed with a magical sword, The Monado, which finds itself wielded by a man named Shulk in his quest to take vengeance upon the metal-faced robot that destroyed his colony.
Xenoblade's story of vengeance and cast of upbeat characters is a far cry from the usual save-the-world tales with their brooding protagonists. While the narrative does expand to something a bit more dramatic, the theme of revenge serves as its backbone, while the Monado's ability to show its wielder glimpses of the future delivers regular musings on the subject of destiny. As far as JRPG plots go, Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best in years, avoiding the self-indulgent misery and trite love triangles that have dutifully served as lazy crutches for the uninspired game writer.
That said, many major protagonists, especially Shulk, come across as a little plain at times, with only a handful of heroes -- Reyn and Riki, mostly -- showing any defined personality. It's hard to tell the likes of Shulk, Sharla or Dunban apart, since they serve more as vanilla reactionaries with only vague snatches of individuality. Yes, Shulk is out for revenge, but I'm hard pressed to say much more about him. The same cannot be said for the villains, whose London gangster accents and sincere love of being evil make them memorable and hilarious. An army of oversized robots who sound like the cast of Eastenders? I can safely say that's a first for role-playing games of any kind.
It would be impossible to describe Xenoblade Chronicles without heavily emphasizing its similarity to MMOs, for its quests, combat, and loot systems are directly ripped from the likes of World of Warcraft or The Old Republic. Combat is in real-time, with the player initiating battle against monsters on the map (or vice versa), and characters attacking automatically once in range. Each member of your three-person party has a range of special abilities, known as arts, that must cool down every time they are used, while characters fulfill distinct battlefield roles that MMO players will easily recognize -- from tanks to healers to DPS specialists, all the traditional playstyles are catered to. You can choose which member of your party to control, and the others will perform their tasks independently.
Xenoblade encourages players to think tactically and work together with your team. Some arts work in conjunction with arts from other characters which, when used together, can severely cripple the opposition. For example, Shulk has a number of arts that inflict a "break" status on an enemy, and a broken enemy can be "toppled" by certain other arts, rendering it helpless and unable to fight back. There are also arts that deal extra damage or inflict debuffs when used on the back or side of an opponent, and characters with such arts are best teamed with a tank like Reyn, who can draw aggro and distract monsters. In between, you'll be pressing the "B" button at timed moments to encourage allies and recover from missed attacks, lending a very light "QTE" element to the melee. It's impressive how well Monolith Soft has made battles feel as strategic as they are chaotic -- and they can certainly get chaotic.
There's an interesting revival system in place, since players lack the ability to use healing items or spells to bring characters back to life. There's a special gauge that fills up every time an art is successfully performed, comprised of three smaller gauges. When totally filled, this gauge allows the party to perform a chain attack, where special abilities can be fired off without interruption. However, there's a risk-and-reward element at play, as one of the three smaller gauges can also be spent to revive a fallen party member. Should the player's character get taken out while no bars are filled, it's game over, so players must choose wisely between spending the resources on chain attacks, or saving them to keep the party alive.
As well as allowing the team to damage Mechon, the Monado's ability to predict the future plays a crucial gameplay role. When a monster is preparing a particularly devastating attack, Shulk will have a premonition, allowing players to see who will suffer the blow and how much damage it'll deal (usually enough to kill). Armed with the knowledge, players can quickly fire off arts that counteract the attack or warn teammates to select an appropriate response from their arsenal. Although certain arts specifically counter enemy abilities, it's more enjoyable (and sometimes more practical) to find alternate ways of altering the future. For instance, you could get Reyn (the tank) to draw the monster's fire, changing its intended target to someone who can easily take the hit. You could topple or even kill the attacker, or you could get a character like Sharla to fire a shielding bullet that absorbs the impact.
Changing or even destroying the future is surprisingly satisfying and really lends an extra edge of excitement. However, this is a massively lengthy RPG, and having gameplay repetitively broken by Shulk's intrusive visions can get incredibly tiring, especially toward the end. When you're fighting a particularly tough boss or if you're just trying to run away from one, the last thing you need is to be forced to watch all the ways in which you get to die. I know I'd rather be able to concentrate on fighting at times.
Combat is a heap of fun, though it gets repetitive once you've worked out a suitable party and get used to all your abilities. Battles, even against bottom feeding opponents, feel a bit too lengthy, with each fight proving to be a time commitment. A.I. allies can be a little unreliable, sometimes blatantly ignoring the player's combat orders and rushing off to attack enemies that are far into the distance. Controls can prove surprisingly unresponsive, with instances where you'll select an art, even hearing the confirmation sound effect, yet the ability won't be performed. Switching targets suffers from this same issue, which can be a real pain in the backside.
Characters level their stats automatically, but each of the arts can be manually trained using "AP" gained in battle. As arts grow stronger, you'll need to purchase more advanced levels from merchants, in order to further increase their effectiveness while reducing their cooldown timers. There are multiple skill trees for every hero, each one granting a number of passive bonuses. Trees can be selected at will, even if you're halfway through learning a skill, and every skill can be gained during the course of the game, so choosing trees is more a case of what you'd like to learn first, rather than worrying about losing certain abilities forever. Your progress on each tree is recorded, so you can switch around without sacrificing any progress.
Every map is filled with a mixture of low-level monsters and terrifyingly powerful creatures that you won't be able to defeat until much later. This can prove a problem, one that I've noticed in a number of MMOs, where you'll accidentally initiate a fight with some regular monsters and not realize you were in the set patrol route of something ten times your level. Having a level 75 behemoth invite itself to a level 14 fight is a regular occurrence, and not exactly a welcome one. Since this isn't an MMO, it's not like you can team up with others and take down these creatures early, either. Still, the game is kind enough to change the music to a "You're going to die," theme giving the player ample warning to pack up and get the Hell out of there.
There's an absolutely huge amount of content in Xenoblade Chronicles, with a massive world full of hidden areas, secret subquests, and tons of NPCs who want you to slay certain monsters and collect an arbitrary number of items. As with MMOs, most of the optional missions are comprised of assassinations and fetch quests, which can be completed or ignored at leisure. Maps are dotted with "heart to heart" areas that can be activated when certain characters have grown to like each other (accepting missions and fighting together raises the affinity between party members), and there's a full-fledged crafting system, where raw materials are combined to create gems which slot into weaponry and armor. The most expansive sidequest, Rebuild Colony 6, is tacked onto an already huge story campaign, for a ton of gameplay that will keep hungry gamers fed for weeks.
With all this content, it seems a shame that Xenoblade Chronicles would resort to a shameless amount of padding in the latter half. There are whole chunks of the game that could be deemed totally unnecessary, even in a genre famous for fatiguing its players. Once on Mechonis, progress devolves into a weary cocktail of lever-pulling and backtracking through poorly designed, sprawling maps that are painted in a dismal shade of rusty brown and lack any of the inspiring sights seen in earlier portions of the adventure. Huge walkways full of nothing and monsters positioned over chasms, designed to knock players into oblivion, drench the latter portions of the journey, and all seem to be desperately, shamelessly, playing for time. The game's already bursting at the seams without these areas, and they run the risk of ruining all the good that has been delivered up until then. At one point, I wanted to throw my controller in frustration, just due to the insulting busywork that was being inflicted upon me. I was begging Xenoblade to do its business or get off the lavatory.
That said, the game had delivered hours upon hours of genuinely engrossing entertainment up until that point, and it would be unfair to judge Xenoblade solely by one forgivable misstep. Although the game is graphically poor, even by Wii standards, Monolith Soft has been able to craft inspiring maps, taking us across plains, forests, jungles, and snow-capped mountains, all corresponding to different bodyparts of the game's intriguing God-worlds. The cutscenes are some of the most thrilling I've seen in years, and work together with an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack to create some unforgettable moments. Xenoblade Chronicles does what I feel JRPGs have failed to do for years -- truly make players feel like they were taken on a real adventure.
The voice acting may put some players off, as the game has not been localized beyond what was done for the British release. As a result, the cast is entirely made up of English actors, some of whom are enjoyable to listen to, while others aren't quite so affable. Reyn, in particular, sounds like the kind of person I want to punch, and his repetitious stock phrases in battle ("It's Reyn time!" "Let's not lose our 'eads, though!") can really crawl under the skin. Still, it's worth putting up with the heroes just to listen to the bad guys. The Mechon leaders Xord and Metal-Face steal every scene they're in with their gleeful nastiness, and it will be a crime if they're not hailed among gaming's greatest baddies in years to come. At any rate, it's refreshing to not listen to the same stock voice actors that American publishers seem to have on speed dial.
I am incredibly grateful to Xenoblade Chronicles, for it has rekindled my love for console JRPGs, a love that had been systematically throttled by the likes of Square Enix and tri-Ace for the past few years. Not since Lost Odyssey have I been so thoroughly entranced by a Japanese role-player. As I type this, the beautifully sweeping music from the Bionis' Leg area is washing through my head, accompanied by fond memories of successful chain attacks and expertly crafted gems. There's no denying that Xenoblade has its low points, but those high points are some of the highest of the genre. If you own a Wii, there's very little room to question -- this is a must-have game for Nintendo's humble little system.
Now if only I could forget the word "Monado" after hearing it twelve million times over the past month.