Xenoblade Chronicles 3D review
Goes beyond a Textbook JRPG
It goes without saying that if a game manages to steal one hundred and twenty hours of your life, then the developers must have done something right. Xenoblade Chronicles is one such game that blew all of my expectations out the window and showed me that there’s still hope for the JRPG genre in a world that is falling victim to Western RPG and Call of Duty addiction. Tetsuya Takahashi is the genius behind this masterpiece. He’s kind of like the Bill Gates of the RPG industry; everything he touches just turns to gold. Xenogears and Xenosaga (director), Final Fantasy IV to VII and Chrono Trigger (Art and Graphics) just to name a few absolute gems. His most recent piece of work, Xenoblade Chronicles, can easily be thrown in the same league as these classics that are often regarded as the best RPGs ever produced. In the end, Xenoblade Chronicles uses the dream formula (seen in the above games), as its base while presenting many unique qualities that will no doubt make it a classic in the future. It’s just a shame Xenoblade never received a North American release, which is not only financial suicide, but also one of the cruelest things you could do to a country. The people have paid their taxes. Do something about it Mr. President!
I can assure you that you’ve never heard this one before. The story is set on two giant gods; Bionis and Mechonis (as shown in the image below), who stopped functioning after a seemingly never-ending battle with one another. Shortly later, there was life. These civilians began to build colonies on the exterior of these gods and all seemed well until the residents of Mechonis (the machines) waged war on Bionis (home to biological life forms). It seemed like all was lost for Bionis, until a young hero, Dunban, harnessed the power of an ancient sword, the Monado, and drove the machines back to their world (or god). A few years later, the game commences. You are put into the shoes of Shulk, a young weapons researcher from Colony 9, who has been tasked to learn the secrets of the Monado. From only a few hours into the game, the action really starts picking up and never stops. It’s much like Speed without the bus, or the bomb. The plot is full of betrayal, friendship, death, romance, twists, turns and all that other stuff that you would come to expect in a decent narrative. It is pulled off exceptionally well too, and while not as deep as Xenogears (which is often regarded as the deepest and most philosophical RPG ever), still raises a few questions at the end. It’s not all sugar and rainbows however (but it is close). The illogical outcome and lack of realistic decisions in a couple of scenes made me want to tear my hair out. Add this to some overly cheesy enemy dialogue, along the lines of: “You can’t catch meeeee. I’m too powerful!” and the smooth flowing narrative is suddenly disrupted. But let’s be honest. 90% of games these days have these issues. I’m just being picky because everything else is so damn perfect.
The characters compliment the story very well. While the main character, Shulk, often tries too hard to show that he has a completely pure heart, he is rarely annoying and definitely tolerable. His sidekick, Reyn, may seem annoying at first (particularly his voice), but actually grows into a likable character. Then there’s the war hero Dunban, who is the essence of cool (think Auron from FFX), a hot healer who is the voice of reason, a hilarious Nopon (another species) who is there for comic value (very successful comic value), a surprising member of a royal family, and finally a product of a massive plot twist which you probably won’t see coming. Each of these characters are well fleshed out and will grow as you journey through the game. Great characters to drive a great story; now there’s a formula for success. Why don’t RPG developers try this one more often?
The affinity system that governs the relationship status between the characters is worth a mention here. As you complete quests and fight battles with specific members, their affinity rating towards each other will grow. This opens up many doors such as the ability to share each other’s skills. Playing with only three characters the entire game will result in a low affinity between the other characters. This will not only limit your battle skills, but will also prohibit you from experiencing the large number of Heart-to-Heart conversations that can be viewed around the word. These Heart-to-Hearts (which are conditional, based on affinity) really help flesh out some of the characters. This affinity system is among the best I’ve ever seen in terms of the methods they can be raised as well as the rewards granted for doing so.
Character customization is obviously a very important aspect of the JRPG. Fortunately, Xenoblade takes it to a whole new level with very extensive possibilities. Each character has a series of unique Arts that can be used in battle. However, only 8 of these can be equipped at a time making for some huge strategic decisions pre-battle. These Arts can be leveled up using ability points, but in order to reach their highest level, specific art manuals must be found around the world. In addition to this, each character has a unique Talent Art that has great importance to their role in your party. On top of this, there are the unique skills that are learnt through obtaining skill points from battle. The true excellence in the skill system comes from the ability for party members to share others skills (based on their affinity). There is no single best way to do this, as every skill (175 of them) may be useful in different scenarios. To top it off, the traditional equipment system (weapon, helmet, armour, gloves, boots) is included with a complex gem system, which is similar to equipping Materia on weapons in Final Fantasy 7. All of these customization methods work incredibly well together and create one of the most complex, effective systems that I’ve ever seen. The possibilities are endless and the best thing is that the characters remain unique and perfectly balanced.
Xenoblades battle system is similar to that of FFXII in that you control one auto-attacking character in an open field. It’s up to the player to select the most appropriate time to unleash the characters unique Arts (which run on a cool down system). For example, some arts deal more damage when you attack an enemy from behind, so naturally you would select other arts to use if you’re fighting an enemy head on. There are also chain attacks that can be performed when the party gauge is filled, and these attacks are designed to inflict some major damage. This all sounds pretty standard, but there are a few other additions that take this system into the zone of awesome. The Monado grants the ability to see the future, so if an ally (or yourself) is about be KOed, then you’ll see it. From here you’ll have about 12 seconds to prevent this. One such way is to warn other party members. This will take a chunk out of the Party Gauge, but removes the cool down for each Art. Party Gauge management plays a big role in the battle mechanics, especially since 1/3 of the gauge is required to revive a fallen ally. Simply using a Chain Attack as soon as possible, to dish out damage may not be the best approach most of the time, as you will be unable to warn or revive members until you fill it again. All in all, it’s an excellent system with a nice flow. After thousands of battles, I was still itching for more. The image below shows Shulk and Reyn in battle with a Mechon.
When you play a Western RPG, such as Oblivion or Fallout, you should expect to become sidetracked from the story for most of the game. Hell, I can’t even remember what happened in the main story in those two games. JRPGs on the other hand, are usually different, as their focus is often a steady narrative. Xenoblade, however, somehow manages to mix the two without any compromise. The amount of side-quests that can be completed is astonishing. By that I mean there are over 400. That’s right, there are meant to be two zeros after that four. These quests range from slaying monsters to collecting items, to completely unique quests such as uncovering a private drug-dealing group. With the massive number available, you should assume that some may be quite repetitive, but there are plenty unique quests out there that will teach you a lot about the NPCs and their dynamics. Partaking in these quests and trying to find and finish them all is great fun, and one of the strongest areas in this masterpiece. If you still want something to do after the side-quests, you could try filling the Collectopedia with items, slaying all the unique monsters, crafting the most powerful gems, completing all the achievements and locating all the secret areas in the massively, massive, beautiful world (which is massive). This game has so much to do that you too will probably find over a hundred hours of your life disappear in a heartbeat.
As you’ve probably guessed, the massive amount of content is incredibly addicting and as a bonus, it limits the need for grinding, which is often frowned upon in the gaming community. Some RPGs make it a requirement to spend hours fighting monsters in order to defeat the story bosses. Xenoblade does things a little differently. 90% of your leveling will no doubt be a result of participating in these side-quests and receiving the quest rewards. If you’re stuck on a boss fight, don’t run around trying to level up, just take on some quests. This sounds all fine and dandy, but the addictive nature of the endless things to do often cause you to level up too much, making the main story battles a walk in the park. I know what you’re thinking: it’s a double-edged sword, but I can’t help but feel that the bosses should level up with your characters, much like the system in Final Fantasy VIII. This would have at least prevented the final boss from dying in under a minute. With that said, I do realize it’s a small price to pay for all of the extras that have been added. While this leveling system may not be ideal, it’s still very acceptable.
If the PS3 were a Ferrari and the Xbox360 were a Porsche, then the Wii would be probably be a Hyundai. The graphical presentation is top notch by Wii standards but cannot be put in the same league as the other consoles of this generation. The Wii just doesn’t have the power to pump out the eye candy that many gamers see as a requirement these days. Don’t get me wrong, Xenoblade is beautifully presented (the image below shows the best of what it has to offer), but I can’t help but feel it would have been better suited to a more powerful machine such as the Playstation 3. With that said, after ten or so hours in, I did start looking better, due to the fact that I was addicted and wasn’t playing anything else. So let me break it down for you: If you’re one of those shallow gamers who won’t choose to play this game because of the way it looks, or the console it is on, then you don’t ever deserve to play a video game again as this game is a masterpiece through and through. The visuals are the games weakest point, primarily due to everything else being in the excellent category. Don’t judge, just play. Thank you.
The lack in graphical power is certainly made up for by the magnificent audio. Xenoblade contains one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard. In fact, I haven’t heard so much praise about a soundtrack since Chrono Cross. In addition to the game, you’ll also receive an audio CD, which is definitely worthy of serenading your neighbors with. They’ll probably bake you a cake in return. Complimentary to this amazing soundtrack is a very decent collection of voice actors. To be honest, the English accents were quite off putting at first. The strong English, bogan-like voice of Reyn was initially an uncomfortable shock, but was soon shadowed by an even worse robotic English accent found in one of the enemies. However, time went on and they grew on me. I soon put my differences with the accents aside and judged the voice acting purely on the delivery. In the end I can say that these voices (particularly Riki, whose is hilarious) are up to the standard of the rest of the game: Brilliant.
I’ve said a lot of positive things about Xenoblade Chronicles but I don’t believe words can justify the unforgettable experience you will have if you played it first hand. To put it simply, it is the best JRPG this generation, on any platform. Of course, no game is ever perfect. Xenoblade has a few small issues, but these don’t come close to hindering the overall experience. The biggest problem is that half of the western world won’t get to play it due to the lack of a North American release. To those people, I suggest modding your Wii to enable multi-region capabilities, as it’s worth it, even for this one single game. Xenoblade Chronicles is an amazing game in every area and should be played by every fan of the RPG genre. Go and buy it now.
Edit: This game now has a USA release date. YAY!