Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicles Cover
Platforms Wii
Genre Better late than never action RPG
Score 9  Clock score of 9
Buy from Amazon

Nearly two years after its initial Japanese release, and eight months after finding its way to Europe and Australia, Nintendo of America finally saw fit to grace North American Wiis with the critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles (though not without a lot of pestering it would seem). Debuting at E3 2009 under the title Monado: Beginning of the World, Monolith Soft's latest immediately captured the attention of RPG-starved Wii owners with its large, open environments, colourful atmosphere, and intriguing storyline.

Probably most intriguing, however, was the gameplay. Xenobladeits title a tribute to Monolith's flagship franchise, Xenosagadeviates considerably from traditional JRPGs, doing away with random encounters and turn-based combat. Instead, players do battle on the very map they explore, without a transition to a battle screen, and with the ability to see enemies long in advance, as many are simply animals going about their business in the game world. Battles themselves are much more tactical, seeing players manoeuvring about the battlefield for ideal position and using abilities at advantageous times.

Never mind that I'd been craving some decent RPG action for a while, I definitely wanted to see what Xenoblade had to offer, and was more than a little disappointed when it first looked as if I wouldn't get the chance. Better late than never, I guess. At least my Wii has something to do now besides collecting dust.

Xenoblade is set upon the surface of two gigantic gods who fought and killed one another long ago. Over countless eons, the earth, oceans, atmosphere, plants, and animals would form and grow upon the surface of the organic being, Bionis, as a result of the ether energy found within. Among the creatures evolved several sentient species, such as the human-like Homs. Similarly, from the mechanical being, Mechonis, spawned a race of machines known as the Mechons, who feed off of the ether energy of living organisms.

The game begins during the final confrontation in a war between the Homs and Mechons. Against insurmountable odds, Dunban, Hero of the Homs and wielder of the mystical Monadothe only weapon that can significantly damage Mechonsdefeats the main force of the mechanical invaders, sending them in full retreat. The stress of wielding the sword almost kills Dunban, however. One year later, Dunban, still not fully recovered, is forced to take up the sacred sword once again during a surprise Mechon attack on his home town of Colony 9. It's not long, however, before he's unable to continue. This is when Shulk (our hero) takes it upon himself to use the sword. To everyone's surprise, not only is he able to control it, but uses it to drive back the Mechon. Henceforth, under the leadership of Shulk, guided by strange visions triggered by the Monado, an ever-expanding party of Bionis natives embark on a quest of revenge against the Mechons.

Despite some predictability and the occasional eye-rolling moment, the story is pretty well written. It won’t be for everyone, though. It feels a lot like a Japanese cartoon, but with a lot less melodrama and weird-for-the-sake-of-weird characters and plot points. If nothing else, the story is entertaining due to the exceptional voice acting and well put-together cut scenes that put shame to most Saturday morning cartoons. I also thought the entire main cast was likeable despite the oh-so cliché attitudes they often exhibit.

Xenoblade Chronicles Shulk Plains

As good as the story is, combat is easily the biggest highlight of the game. Even in the realm of action RPGs, Xenoblade's battle system is a robust, refreshing design that places a large emphasis on teamwork, positioning, and timing. Because of how involved and fast-paced combat can be, control is limited to one character, with AI taking command of your companions (up to two). Fear notthe AI is pretty good about using the appropriate abilities for a given situation, and that's without the generic commands you can issue if things get disorganized. You can change who you control at any time outside of combat, but I feel Shulk is the most obvious choice, as the rewards for his proper control are far too great to leave in the hands of AI.

When fighting, you can move your character freely while they attack automatically when in range of the targeted enemy. This auto-attack sequence can be interrupted with special attacks called Arts, which enter a cool-down state after use; no worrying about "mana" or "action points" or what-have-you. Special "Talent Arts" (each character has one) are available after filling a gauge, usually by auto-attacking or using specific Arts. Interestingly, there are no items to use in combat; players must rely entirely on the Arts at their party's disposal to see them through a fight. Those are just the very basics, however. There is a lot more to the system, too much to cover in this review in fact, so I'll explain only some of its more primary aspects.

One of the unique concepts, and one of the first introduced to players, is the Break/Topple/Daze trio of effects that can be inflicted upon enemies by certain Arts. Break is useless in and of itself, but allows attacks with Topple to take effect, which in turn allows Daze to take effect. This progressive series of effects is best described as taking an enemy off balance, knocking them over, and then knocking them out. When Toppled or Dazed, an enemy remains immobile and unable to attack for a brief period of time. A Dazed enemy will simply stay down longer. This is especially useful because many Arts cause Bonus Damage or additional effects when hitting an enemy from the side or from behind, and it's much easier taking up position against an unmoving opponent. Some enemies can't be damaged significantly at all unless Toppled.

Xenoblade Chronicles Metal Face Battle

Since most characters have abilities pertaining to only one or two of these effects, you'll have to rely on teamwork to take enemies down. Traditional ailments such as Sleep and Paralysis are present as well, but these ailments bring something new to the table to strive for, and setting up such combos can be incredibly satisfying and fun. Should a character become Toppled or Dazed themselves, you can pick them up by approaching them and pushing B. The AI can help you in the same way.

Another key element is the Party Gauge, represented by three bars in the top-left corner of the screen. When a character lands a critical hit, dodges an attack, or misses an enemy an on-screen prompt will sometimes appear requiring you to push B at the right time to congratulate or encourage your teammates. This is called Burst Affinity. Burst Affinity and causing Bonus Damage are the primary ways to fill the Party Gauge. Burst Affinity also increases the Affinity between characters, which has numerous effects both in and out of battle that will only be covered sparingly in this review. The Party Gauge allows you to revive fallen party members (at a cost of 1 bar) and perform Chain Attacks (3 bars).

When a Chain Attack is initiated, the battle will freeze. Starting with the leader, the player chooses an Art for each character to perform, even if it was in cool-down previously. After all three characters attack, a prompt will sometimes appear (similar to Burst Affinity) that will allow additional attacks from the next character if passed. A strong Affinity between the two characters in the chain will make this occurrence more likely and easier to pass. As you can imagine, Chain Attacks are incredibly powerful, not only because you have the chance to attack enemies multiple times before they can act, but also because some are resistant to Break/Topple/Daze outside of a Chain Attack. Enemies perform Chain Attacks as well, albeit very rarely.

Xenoblade Chronicles Dunbar Mechon Monado Fight

I recall Visions being one of the highlighted concepts during Xenoblade's promotion, so I'll explain those a bit as well. When fighting against stronger enemies, the battle will occasionally freeze and show you a glimpse of the future when an enemy is going to perform a particularly devastating attack (one usually resulting in a death). When battle resumes, a Vision Tag at the top of the screen will indicate the enemy, the attack, the target, the damage, and how much time is left before the attack hits. During this time, you can warn your allies by approaching them and pushing B, allowing you to choose their next move, and thereby attempt to prevent or delay the enemy attack, or reduce its effectiveness, by having access to everyone's abilities.

Again, these are just some of the core concepts of Xenoblade's battle system and some of what sets it apart. There is much, much more for players to discover and explore, not to mention Arts and Skills to experiment and build strategies with. Challenging and fun, Xenoblade's battles are the most gratifying I've played in an RPG in years, due in no small part to how involved they are, how much control you're given, and how much you're rewarded for skillful play. Even seemingly impossible fights are made possible for those with tactical prowess, whereas those without will find even the simpler enemies a nuisance. And yet despite the complexity, learning the intricacies of battle is made less daunting by being presented in brief tutorials gradually over the first half of the game, with an index to refer back to at any time.

Though the graphics aren't the most impressive we've seen on the Wii, Xenoblade is a visual treat. Monolith has created beautiful, massive environments for players to traverse, and if a few pixels and polygons were sacrificed to make it all work and as smoothly as it does, then it was well worth it. Simply standing on a cliff and looking down upon the world can make for some truly breathtaking scenes. Running through grassy valleys alongside herds of herbivores; moving through the crowded streets of a bustling metropolis; hiking through a bug-filled forest as a thunderstorm rolls in. All this does more than just paint a pretty pictureit pulls you into the world and makes you feel like you're interacting with a living, breathing ecosystem. The day/night cycle that loops once every hour contributes to this, but beyond providing a mere change in lighting. Different creatures and even people can be found elsewhere or not at all depending on the time of day. Fortunately, you can freely change the time whenever you like if you need to find a particular person or monster.

Xenoblade Chronicles Armor Detail

I also appreciate the work that was put into the weapon and equipment models, which feature tons of detail and very cool designs that are shown on the characters at all times whether in battle, walking around, or in a cut scene. A guilty pleasure of mine was playing virtual dress-up; I'd often catch myself trying different pieces on multiple characters just to see how it looked. Again, I'm particularly impressed with the attention to detail here.

Xenoblade Chronicles Character Poster artThere are 480 quests to complete throughout the adventure, most of which are optional. Considering the sheer number of side quests, it's no surprise that most get repetitive after a while, but if you're a completionist, you'll revel in them; others may get fed up before long. But it's not so bad... Many are completed when trying to complete others, or before you're even assigned them if you like taking detours. You'll want to complete them too, as they're a significant source of EXP, Affinity, and even money for the first while. They also serve to show off the many enemies and locales Monolith worked so hard to put together, and who could blame them for that?

The music is pretty good, with every area/town having a day time and night time track. However, considering the amount of time that can be spent in each area (if completing side quests), the soundtrack could have done with a little more variety. Oddly, sound effect/music volume control is absent among the many customizable options in the game menu. This took me some getting used to; I usually only like the music at 50-75% the volume of sound effects/speech. Not a big deal, but I thought I'd mention it.

If you love/loved RPGs, you need to play this game. It's got the whole package: An over-the-top and entertaining plot, vast environments to explore, hundreds of quests to complete, thousands of items to find, and most important of all, an engaging and challenging battle system that never gets dull. I detailed only the very basics when it comes to gameplay, and haven't even gone into things like Aggro, Gems, Gem Crafting, Skills, Skill Links, and so on (this review is long enough). There is much more to do beyond the 480 quests as well, such as Collectables to find, Trophies to attain, and an entire town to rebuild. And those looking for a challenge will probably want to hunt down and kill the world's most powerful boss monsters after the fact. In short, this game isn't short; expect it to take hundreds of hours of your time should you wish to do everything.

To me, Xenoblade is an instant classic; one that should have come out on the Wii years ago. I will be coming back to this game in a few years time to experience it all again, much like I do with my other favorites, such as Chrono Trigger and Golden Sun. I can't think of a bigger compliment to give a game.

Overall: 9