Most mainstream reviews of Xenoblade Chronicles had to be written with a deadline in mind. Either the writer must have stayed up for a week straight to squeeze all of the juice out of this melon, or played just enough to make an honest judgement of what this game had to offer. Over the course of the last two months, I’ve played one hundred and four hours of it, finishing just the other night. I received Xenoblade Chronicles from a friend and honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve grown weary of the traditional turn based combat and random encounters that JRPGs are infamous for, but I am often enamored with the fantasy and depth of experience any good one offers. Seeing the praise Xenoblade was getting piqued my interests, and thus began my deep descent into androgynous male protagonists and hair that could pop a hot air balloon.
Xenoblade Chronicles was developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. The story goes that long ago the world was an endless ocean. Two massive titans came into existence; the Mechonis and the Bionis. They Battled for a super long time and then each dealt a “killing” blow to the other, locking their lifeless corpses standing still, swords extended into each other. Over time, life sprung on both titans: animals, people (called Homs) and Nopons (think moogles from Final Fantasy, but even sillier.) The beings that live on Bionis have been under constant attack from the Mechons(robots) of Mechonis, and after protagonist Shulk’s girl pal is smashed by a very powerful Mechon, he sets on his journey of revenge. This is a very clipped synopsis of how the story begins. The most important thing is the Monado, (which you will hear mentioned at least six billion times in the first ten minutes of the game) the only sword with the ability to harm the Mechon, and the same sword that the Bionis used against the Mechonis. It has many mysterious powers that are unlocked throughout the game. As you can tell, the story is epic, deep, and completely ridiculous. That’s part of it’s charm, though. That is not meant to be a backhanded compliment. This game is, among many other things, completely charming and unapologetically ridiculous. All of the characters have different dialects of British accents, their interactions with each other range from genuinely hilarious to very heartwarming, and the relationship system implemented in the game expounds on all of this, but we’ll get to that later.
The gameplay, whether it be in combat, exploration, gem crafting, or searching for quests is what stuck it’s hooks in me from the beginning. There are no random encounters, you can always see when an enemy is lurking around. Some enemies attack on sight, some on sound, and some will do nothing until you make the move. The battle system is unlike anything I’ve seen, a mix between action and turn based that blends real time reacting with strategy. You’ll always be fighting with a party of three, where you are in control of one character. Freedom of motion is granted to the player, and you will always be set on “auto attack,” hitting the enemy at timed intervals throughout the battle. At the bottom of the screen is your arts list, a group of skills that recharge after use and can be used for attack, defense, or buffing your party. Some are more effective if activated to the side or rear of an enemy, so your location is very important. These arts can be changed and upgraded throughout the game, and you can actively lead the party as any character in your team, allowing you to discover which set of battle arts works for you. One of the coolest features is the premonition system. One of the Monado’s many powers is it’s ability to let Shulk glimpse the future so that he may change it. When your party isn’t doing so well in a battle, you are shown what devastating move the enemy is about to unleash, at which point a timer begins to tick down until that move is initiated. During the countdown, you can run to one of your party members to “warn” them, essentially allowing you to open up THEIR arts menu, and pick a move that will either draw aggro from the enemy, or heal whoever is about to get crushed. Everything about the combat is fluid, fresh, and left me looking forward to intense battles even after I had been through hundreds of them.
The quests in Xenoblade, while formulaic, have taken out some of the more asinine aspects known to burden JRPGs. For instance, most new towns you enter will have somebody giving you several item fetch quests and monster quests. You’ll typically get about eight of each in any given town. Instead of backtracking and searching forever to get all of these things done, the monsters you need to kill usually appear in great number in the next area of the map, and they usually drop the items you were looking for in a separate quest. The best part is once you complete a quest, you do not need to return to whatever jamoke handed it to you, you are instantly given the money and experience for completing the quest, cutting out the annoying backtracking of reward collection. This also almost completely removes the necessity for “grinding.” Completing these side-quests usually gives you enough of a boost in experience to handle whatever is ahead of you. This is all true if you want to play a normal amount of video game and make it through the story. If you dive as deep as I did though, you’ll get heavily involved in the following aspects. You have a measure of “affinity” with every town you go to, as does every member of the party have with each other. With your party members, your affinity grows when you have a certain group fighting and traveling together for a long time, they become friendlier with each other and are then able to share more skills with each other. Your affinity with towns decides which quests are available to you. Essentially the affinity grows the more you engage with the populous, and more difficult and rewarding quests become available. The world is also on a day/night system, and some characters are only out on the streets at certain times. If you get as deep into the questing as I did, you’ll be visiting the Xenoblade Wikia frequently to find out when the hell some jerk is sitting on a bench so you can get that quest to get that thing to do that other thing.
It’s DEEP. Honestly, after about the sixtieth hour, this game was straight-up therapy for me. After a long day, I just wanted to walk around towns, listen to the catchy-as-hell score, and mindlessly run around discovering new areas of the map. Early in the game, you will find yourself ducking and dodging extremely high level enemies out roaming the countryside. Returning later on to smite them is quite gratifying.
The visuals in the game can be breathtaking, which is even more amazing given how piss poor the graphics are. Terrain rendering is straight out of the Playstation one era and character models are blocky at best. This is almost negligible with the shear scope of environments and how beautifully stylized and alive they are. The marshland transforms from humid and foggy in the day to brilliantly luminescent at night, The snowy peak of Valek mountain shifts from a stark, unwelcoming sheet of white to a glowing landscape of magic, and towns each have their own personality and shifting population. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different pieces of armor you can aquire throughout the game, and each one changes the appearence of the character, whether it be your giant meatshield or tiny jigglypuff looking dude. Xenoblade Chronicles, existing as both an homage and a hopeful trendsetter, doesn’t need to be the prettiest game on the block. It’s content and depth speaks volumes and delivers on every front.
While the narrative in Xenoblade Chronicles may not achieve the same impact as some favorite classics in the genre, the leaps it makes in gameplay and overall experience will more than satisfy the demanding JRPG fan. I sunk over a hundred hours into it after my initial skepticism, and I’m sure I still missed out on several hidden quests. Xenoblade Chronicles is not for everyone, some will be turned off by the dated graphics or the absurdity of the fantasy. For those of us who enjoy characters with too many belts, meticulous weapon customization, and wierd-ass dialogue, this is the prfect game.