Xenoblade Chronicles is an underdog story in more ways than one. Born in a world of strife, it seemed destined for obscurity until, against the odds, we chose to fight. Even with its extremely limited North American release and quickly becoming a collector's item on the Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles beat the odds enough to develop a cult following, get a 3DS port, and even get some representation on Super Smash Brothers 4. These obstacles kept me from indulging the game until very recently. This review may be a couple years out of date for the Wii, but having recently finished it only days within the release of the 3DS version, I can't help give Xenoblade Chronicles its due.
"The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make for ourselves." - The Terminator
The universe of Xenoblade Chronicles exists as an infinite ocean that stretches for eternity in all directions. In the center of it all stand two collossal titans. Legends say that in ancient times, they fought a massive battle against each other until one day both fell dormant. Fast forward a few thousand years, and life has cropped up and evolved on their corpses. On one, the Bionis, is a world not unlike our own. Forests and mountains, plants and animal, human-like Homs and a few other sapient species. The other, Mechonis, has become home to race of robotic insectoids called Mechon. Centuries later, these species carry on the war of their parents. The Mechon hold a vicious edge in the conflict, but homanity has managed to stave off extinction thus far thanks to a mysterious magical sword called the Monado. (That's the red thing you see in all the promotional material.)
That's all backstory, mostly given in the opening cutscenes. The player, for their part, follows the adventures of Shulk and his companions. Shulk is a young tinkerer studying the Monado when one day his home is attacked by a mysterious new mechon. The assault leaves many, including one of his best friends, dead. With a lust for revenge, Shulk takes up the Monado and sets out to discover the secrets of the mechon. He soon finds that the Monado has taken to him Chosen One-style, giving him a host of new abilities, not the least of which is looking into the future (That's So Raven style.)
There are a few cliches, or course. There are heartfelt reunions with long-thought-dead companions. A moody villain who'se really just misunderstood and needs a hug. An ancient evil magically sealed away. (Multiple!) wise lost races who show up just in time to info-dumb a bunch of exposition on the party. The same stuff that pops up in every JRPG. It didn't bother me that much, as there is enough originality in the game to make it feel fresh and interesting anyway.
Early on, the conflict is mainly there to move the party from location to location. Early in the game, the characters don't really know where to go, so they chase shadows like a breadcrumb trail that bring them from place to place. The story is very internally-focused for the first half of the game. The characters will enter a new location and discover some major problem plaguing the locals. The main conflict gets put on hold until the party rescues the runaway kid/defeats the dinobeast/helps the princess explore the ruins, at which point the mechon will make a token appearance and the party moves on to the next area to reapeat the process.
For much of the game, the mechon are just faceless mooks (pun totally intended.) We don't start to learn about them or even meet the big bad until pretty deep into the game. Early villain Metal Face is excellent to watch, but his role is mostly to show up and banter before a quick boss battle, then fly away so the party can chase him to the next area. It does make the plot feel a little slow sometimes, and I wish would have met the mechon leader earlier in the story to give us somebody more substantial to root against. However, I don't think this has an overly negative impact on the game. What we get is plenty of development of the world itself. Discovering the regions, races, and cultures or Bionis is every bit as intriguing as busting up mortal enemies.
Xenoblade's universe truly does feel alive. Every race has a ton of history. Every location on Bionis has little touches to make it feel so much more than just a map in a video game. Many NPC's are characters in their own rights. There are dozens and dozens of named NPC's that have their own lives, schedules, and relationships. A few are even more developed than some of the -agonists. They are a great addition to the game, and it's a pleasure to watch their own stories unfold through dialogue and sidequests.
Speaking of sidequests, there is definitely no shortage. It's pretty common to walk up to a group of NPC's and see a half-dozen exclamation points over their heads. Many lead into each other, and many more are dependent on where you are in the story. Given the number of NPC's, they can pile up really quickly. If you're thorough in talking to residents, you can add literally hundreds of things to your to do list in just a few minutes. There were times when I would spend entire play sessions solely doing sidequests. It's enough to drive a completionist nuts.
Most of them aren't very interesting. The overwhelming majority of them consist of "go collect random item(s), kill random monster(s), and/or talk to random NPC(s)." That can be a far more daunting task than it seems. The sheer volume of each of those things is incredible. On top of that, they are spread out across huge areas and often only appear at specific times. There's no in-game encyclopedia for enemies and items (and only a vague one for NPC's) and dialogue hints are usually ambiguous Encountering any of them even once depends entirely on being in the right place at the right time. Tracking them down deliberately requires either monumental luck or near omniscient memory.
Or a walkthrough.
Which I used.
Some sidequests are more unique and, as mentioned, tie right in to the lives of the minor characters. They can link together to create effective sub-plots. Granted, for the player's part it usually boils down the same thing, but helping a Nopon uncover a drug cartel is a lot more worthwhile than two hundred different versions of "hey, I want to knit a sweater. Can you go to death mountain and kill twenty-six velociraptors for me?"
Of course, you don't have to complete them all. Players are free to do them at their leisure. Skipping too many, though, means missing out on not only sub-plots but experience and party affinity as well. I eventually got in the habit of saving them up, then taking a break when things got hard to go back and catch up. This not only made it more tolerable for sidequests but allowed me to level grind without things becoming monotonous.
(On a side note, I do NOT recommend doing this before the final boss. The last few enemies of the game do not scale with the party's level. If you stop at the point of no return to go play completionist, you're likely to end up a good ten to fifteen levels higher than you need to be, thus turning the final boss into a complete joke. When you get to the point of no return (you'll know, trust me) I suggest copying your save file and then going ahead to the final battle. Then, use your other save to go do what you want to do afterward. Otherwise, you're looking at a pretty big anticlimax.)
What's not monotonous is exploring. The environments on Bionis are stunning. Absolutely enormous, gorgeously designed, packed with interesting little things. More than sideuests, more than combat, just going into a new area and exploring was one of the highlights of the game. Every area on Bionis is packed with scenery. Keep in mind, the "world" is the body of giant titan, meaning the layouts can get really unique. Even something as basic as a small hill can be really cool to look at. It brings me back to my childhood playing The Legend of Zelda. It's rare that modern games give me that kind of thrill just from walking around, so Xenoblade gets major props in that department.
Unfortunately, that's not consistent all the way through the game. Late game locations tend to get pretty sparse. There's a particularly dull stretch near the turn of the third act when you get behind enemy lines. Mechon territory has very little of interest to see (despite having one of the largest locations in the game). Friendly NPC's are almost non-existent (yet the game still manages to pile on a few thousand boring sidequests) and the color pallet sucks. It's made a little more pallatable by the fact that this is where the story starts to heat up and powering your way through it is pretty straightforward, so it's easy to overlook.
Exploring is helped by the fact that environments are gorgeously rendered. With the exception of the above, colors are vibrant. There are lush fields and hazy forests. Waterfalls that could come from photographs, and mountains that could come from Thomas Kinkade. There are ample places to just stop and admire the scenery.
I only wish the visual quality could have carried over into the character models. Monsters and mechon are adequate, but the characters leave a lot to be desired. You might not notice it in play, but closeups in cutscenes reveal them to be pixely. Their faces are flat, with mouths that don't always match the words. To put it bluntly, human characters look like they could be from a PS2 game. I'm not big graphics in general, but there's another, even worse factor in the character designs.
The party's equipment reflects on their character models. Not uncommon in modern games. The problem is that equipment is designed in sets, with certain pieces matching other pieces from the same set, like medeval Garanimals.
There is no guarantee that you are going to have every piece of equipment from a given set, and if you do, that still doesn't mean that they will be the best things to equip on any given character, forcing you to mix and match if you want the best stats. This means that it's extremely likely that your characters will end up with, say, a huge bulky chest plate and a loin cloth. Even the outfits that do go together are still often hideous. My endgame equipment for one character was honey-yellow armor with circle things on it. It looked like somebody glued cheerios to a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's. Then gave him a helmet that looked like a Beetleborg. It's really irritating, to say the least. It can even ruin some of the drama when there's a serious cutscene going on and somebody is dressed in a shogun helmet and a bikini. I'd go so far as to say that his is one of my biggest gripes with the game.
The rest of the presentation is pretty good. The English dubbing, for the most part, is superb. A couple of the voice actors - Metal Face, Dunban, and Xord - like to chew the scenery, but that just adds to the charm. To give further credit to the audio department, Xenoblade has one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard. It's filled to the brim with memorable music, and very few bad tracks to speak of. Heartfelt harmonies, melancholy melodies, and blasting battle guitars are masterfully composed and perfectly placed to elicit just the right mood. There are a couple themes still haven't left my head.
All of these aspects come together quite nicely in the cutscenes. In the world of interactive movies, it's rare when cinematics are still considered a reward, instead making players yell "shut up and let me play the game!" The cutscenes in Xenoblade can be as exciting or emotional as any movie. There is one particularly long late-game cutscene that goes on for at least twenty minutes, and I didn't even care. Hand it to the folks at Monolith Soft. When they want to make something epic, they know how to do it.
The biggest gameplay element that I haven't touched on yet is combat. Enemies roam around unpopulated areas (usually predetermined groups in predetermined spots.) When the players gets too close to a sufficiently hostile foe, they will attack automatically. On top of that, players can choose to make the first move, which usually nets them some mild bonuses at the start of the battle.
The fighting itself can be a little complicated. Battles take place in real time. The player can move their character around while basic attacks happen automatically as long as they are in range of the targetted enemy. Special attacks, called "Arts," are selected by scrolling through icons at the bottom of the screen. It sounds simple enough on paper, but figuring out how it works under the hood is a different animal. Tactics are not as simple as "use water spell against fire enemy." Most arts have some kind of effect besides just causing damage. To adequately bring down baddies, you have to figure out how these effects work together. Buffs and status ailments are huge in Xenoblade, as well as positioning and aggro. Some arts are best used in conjunction with other arts, either yours or your allies. On top of that, each character (which you can switch between outside of battle) has a different intended role in combat, and has different strengths and weaknesses to match. That means changing your party also means changing your strategy to find the best way to make characters work together.
I'm told that the combat is based on the system used in many MMO's, such as World of Warcraft. When it comes to that genre, my experience is a big fat zilcho. It doesn't help that the combat "tutorials" are poorly-written in-game instruction manuals that are shoved down the players throat en-masse at the beginning of the game. After the fifth or sixth one, I basically said "screw this, I'll figure it out on my own." As a result, it took me a while to get used to the nuances of combat. Once I did, I had a lot of fun incapacitating enemies or dealing massive damage with just the right combos. It just took me longer to get to that stage than it should have. Players with more experience in this type of thing likely won't have the same problem.
In keeping with Shulk's ability to see the future, sometimes during battle, the current character will experience a vision. This serves to warn the player of an impending enemy attack, typically one that will kill a party member. This gives you a few seconds to react and prevent any negative drawbacks. This is both a useful and creative way to link the story with the gameplay. It can get a little annoying in longer battles when the action keeps getting interrupted.
There are a couple other minor hiccups in combat. Changing targets is cumbersome and frequently unresponsive. In bigger battles, it can sometimes be a pain to lock on to the enemy that you actually want to attack. Sometimes your character will switch targets on their own (usually due to an enemy's attack), and if you don't notice right away, you'll end up flailing like an idiot. AI allies can have an occasional brain fart as well. They are mostly pretty competent, but every once in a while they do something stupid. Wasting a healing art on a party member at ninety percent health when somebody else is barely clinging on to life, or running off to go fight a distant monster that wasn't even part of the battle in the first place, leaving you to get bumrushed by a bunch of minions. The latter can get especially annoying when you realize that maps are peppered with occasional high-leveled enemies or mini-boss like "unique monsters." It's not uncommon to be item farming against low level frog monsters when suddenly the music changes and you find yourself being chased down by a level ninety T-Rex.
Despite the complexities and nitpicks, the combat really is satisfying when you get the hange of it. Nothing beats topple-locking an enemy to keep them pinned to the ground, or using a chain attack to get a multiplier and knock off two thirds of an opponent's health bar in one attack.
For all the game's primary pros and cons, there is one minor thing I've saved for last. It's an odd quirk. I'm not sure if it's a flaw or not. Most people wouldn't even care. In fact, I guarantee that I'm the odd one out for even noticing it, and taking issue with it might make me seem like I'm being overly sensitive or politically correct or something.
WARNING: The next section contains minor late game spoilers. It also includes discussion on religion. I DO NOT WANT TO TURN THIS INTO A RELIGIOUS DEBATE. If you want to avoid spoilers, or if you don't think you can read pro-religious statements without making negative comments, please skip to the next section. Thank you.
I know very little of past Xeno- games. One of the few things I DO know, is that they contain a lot of religious parallels, not all of which are positive. I've made it no secret that I'm a practicing Christian, and so I was a little apprehensive going into Xenoblade Chronicles. I did as much research into the plot as I could without going into spoiler territory, and saw nothing to indicate that -blade followed in the footsteps of it's Xeno- counterparts.
Well, sure enough, late in the game, some gods show up and start working against the party. These so-called "gods" are hardly similar to the "Faith, Hope, and Love" deity of Abrahamic faiths. They are more like the gods of mythology, being basically super-powered humanoids. This is nothing new. The same kind of thing pops in countless works of fiction and I have never even batted an eyelash.
The problem here is that once the gods come into the conflict, the characters take on a very anti-theistic mindset. It's hard to blame them, of course. The Xenoblade version of Zeus is a collossal prick. If my only example of a god was a murderous maniac, I'd probably feel the same way. That said, when the characters start going on rants about "how much better the world would if there was no god," it makes me feel kind of, for lack of better word, icky.
I don't say that lightly. I have pretty thick skin about this kind of stuff. Looking at my shelf just now, there are at least a dozen other games on there that also have you fighting an evil god. Xenoblade Chronicles takes that beyond a simple plot point. I've seen YouTube comments that are less anti-theistic than some of the heroes' late-game dialogue. At risk of sounding overly sensitive, it started to bush the boundaries of what I'm willing to accept from my protagonists without being offended.
Despite what I said, I'm NOT actually offended. If I was, then I would have stopped playing the game right then and there. Xenoblade's "god" is not analogous to Jesus or YHWH, and the characters' actions are completely justified within the context of the plot. It did not stop me from enjoying the game. I am also not questioning anybody else's relgious beliefs or their right to express them. I simply want to let people know that there is some potentially offensive religious stuff going on here.
In other words, consider this one big trigger warning.
End spoilers and controversial stuff.
I'd be remiss to pretend that Xenoblade Chronicles doesn't have it's shortcomings. Characters look off, there are too many monotonous sidequests, and the game in general can be a little slow sometimes. On the flip side, the music is incredible, the combat is a blast (once you get used to it,) and exploring those big beautiful landscapes is a joy that I haven't gotten from a game in a long time.
Buying Xenoblade Chronicles is a bit of a cash investment. Either you track down a copy of the Wii version at hyper-inflated collector's prices, or you shell out the dough for a New 3DS (assuming you haven't gotten one already) before you can get the portable version. That's a bit of a commitment no matter how you slice it, which is why Xenoblade Chronicles is hard to recommend to everyone despite how much I enjoyed it. The game is jam-packed with content, so hardcore RPG fans will still get their money's worth even with the high cost. This goes double for completionists. For everyone else, I certainly won't discourage anyone from buying it, though I can't blame anyone for passing on the high price tag.