Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.
Developer: Monolith Soft
DISCLAIMER: This article will be posted on my non-Dtoid blog in about four hours.
I intended to write this eight months ago, when the game launched in the UK. I'm not averse to writing a review when still a little way short of completing the game in order to get the article out in a reasonably timely fashion: as long as the bulk of the game has been completed and its important details revealed, there's nothing wrong in my eyes with passing judgment on it, even if an hour or two remain unfinished. It's unlikely the end-game material will impact greatly on the review, not least for fear of spoilers.
In Xenoblade's case, I was about fifteen hours in by the time it was do-or-die for the article. As a JRPG novice, it's fair to say I wasn't quite prepared for the odyssey that had been undertaken and progress had been, let's generously say, leisurely. Lots of questing, exploration, general larking about, not quite so much movement in story terms. Checking a GameFAQs guide to see how near I was to the end revealed there was still, if continued apace, roughly one hundred and twenty hours of play to go.
Turns out Xenoblade Chronicles is all kinds of colossal.
Had the game been reviewed at that point, the first plot twist would have barely elapsed and virtually none of the party with whom the majority of the game would be spent were in my company. The gameplay mechanics were still extensive and baffling, the camera still causing frustration and well over half the game's features remained untouched. My verdict might have been something along the lines of impressive in size, but unwieldy to handle.
That's not far away from how I feel now, but the difference is that where the game was then defined by my annoyance at the many niggles that are part and parcel of the experience, now it is looked back upon as my favourite gaming experience of 2011 and easily one of the best on the Wii, a console I have greatly enjoyed despite its undeservedly negative reputation. Fifteen hours into a game like this, little irritations take on significantly greater importance than they do after fifty, even less after ninety. It's as much that you get used to them as the awe-inspiring scope of the game renders them more forgivable with every passing minute.
The camera, for example, is horribly wonky when left to its own devices and requires constant adjustment to stay in an acceptable position, especially when navigating indoor areas. After thirty hours, though, keeping it under manual control is not only second nature, but preferable to leaving it alone: the gorgeous landscapes demand to be examined from every possible angle and, even if by accident, the game trains you to do exactly that without breaking the flow of play. There's something majestic about swooping the viewpoint around Shulk as he runs through a vast field, overshadowed by hanging cliffs, creatures many times his size, glistening lakes and soaring birds. Had the camera been programmed to function adequately on its own, pulling off that thrilling little flourish would have engendered the same pernickety annoyance as when having to get to grips with it the first time. Instead, it's the most effortless thing in the world.
Other issues, admittedly, do not yield such long-term rewards, but the game's length gives you time to work everything out long before the going gets seriously tough, and there's no question each is a price worth paying for taking part in such a huge adventure. Mechanics like gem crafting, the affinity system and how to use characters such as Melia, a mage, in combat go woefully underexplained, while the volume of moves and counter-moves to remember in combat can be overbearing at first. (Early on, it feels as though something new is added every hour). It's never less than enjoyable, but the lack of adequate explanation for the numerous mechanics can feel as though you're being held back from plunging into the game's tantalising depths. Time and experience tidies these up, but they can make the game alienating in its first twenty hours, when it needs to be easing you in. Paper Mario, this ain't.
The only issue which lasts from start to finish is the lack of information on NPC locations for the extensive array of sidequests. If a quest isn't completed within a short time of receiving it, it's easy to forget where the person you're supposed to be talking to is and the time at which they'll appear on the map. Rudimentary information is given on the affinity map - where you build relationships between townspeople by helping them, another system rendered more annoying than fun by a dearth of information - but nothing anywhere near sufficient to remember what to do after the console has been turned off for the night. Quests requiring specific items to be collected can also be annoying, since their location is randomised and the trading system is so low-key, many players may not even be aware it exists until long into the game.
If the sidequests often require more detail than the game is able to convey, other areas are expertly streamlined. The usual frustrations of navigating a gameworld of this scale are alleviated by allowing players to warp instantaneously to any of the map's many markers, effectively eliminating backtracking. The combat system loosens up the stiff RPG turn-based structure into something more dynamic, with free movement around the area, context-sensitive hits (one of Shulk's more effective moves requires him to be positioned behind the enemy to deal, yes, massive damage) and a single controllable lead character - who can be swapped when out of battle - assisted by two AI partners adept at unleashing the right move to combine moves in helpful ways. Chain attacks, wherein a more traditional turn-based format is adopted for extra damage, allow you greater control into the minutiae, even if not being able to select the order of the attackers makes it difficult to execute pre-planned tactical sequences.
The storyline, too, moves in all sorts of bonkers directions (for starters, the entire gameworld exists over the bodies of two petrified titans) but almost never feels padded in the way that so blighted Skyward Sword, a game roughly a third as long. Plot twists arrive with mischievous frequency, and while this makes proceedings far too circuitous to properly keep track of by the end, all the pomp (and silly jokes, especially between the party) is infectiously compelling.
There's a constant sense of forward motion, with new locations opened up every few hours - ignoring the side-quests, ill-advised in practice - many of them foreshadowed early on and each with a distinct colour palette and visual identity. While the game is technically a little clunky, with intermittent framerate drops in vast areas and crowded combat, and considerable fade-in, few titles demonstrate and embrace the importance of art direction in such a vibrant, evocative way. The starry night sky above the Bionis leg doesn't tax the hardware much, but by golly is it breathtaking.
That sensation is Xenoblade all over. There are plenty of little problems to pick at and wrinkles in need of ironing out, but in the end, the grandeur and ambition will hold your heart even while your fingers are struggling to keep up. Considering the game's size, Monolith deserve unreserved credit for the absence of any major bugs, putting to shame companies like Obsidian and Bethesda who ship games bursting with problems, content in the knowledge of being able to patch them later (for players with online connections, anyway) and demanding forgiveness because of the scope of their creations.
Xenoblade invalidates that excuse. It is an exquisite achievement in game design, fiercely loyal to RPG tradition whilst refining it in clever, helpful ways. If its ambition sometimes exceeds the execution, you can't help but admire it for getting as much right as it does, a perfect example of an experience all the more engaging for its flaws. The game may have taken its time reaching American shores, and this review delayed by over half a year to accommodate its insane scale, but everyone lucky enough to be preparing for their first steps onto the Bionis are about to have that wait paid back in spades. [ 8 ]
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