Developer: Monolith Soft / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Wii / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence]
Xenoblade Chronicles has a lot going against it up front. It’s a JRPG, which in the west has replaced other four-letter terms as an insult of choice. It’s also on the Wii, which means it may as well be on an abacus as far as gamers are concerned. Despite all that, Xenoblade is really damn good and one of the best Japanese RPGs I’ve ever played.
Despite those nice complements, Xenoblade is not without its Japanese story tropes. You’ll still get your weird enemies, magic chicks with crazy hair, and even a peaceful hamlet village that is flattened in the first few hours of the game. That said, the story’s still inventive and original despite including some Japanese mainstays. The game world’s creation myth involves two titans – the Bionis and Mechonis – that kill each other after years of combat. Now, thousands of years later, civilizations have sprung up on their respective corpses. The story proper revolves around the conflict between these civilizations.
The mechon – evil robot dudes from the mechonis – swarm over to the Bionis to terrorize and eat the Homs – which are the game’s human analogue. Mechon can only be hurt with a magic sword called the Monado which is… not called the Xenoblade for some reason. The mystery of who the mechon are, why they eat Homs, and how that impacts the game’s cast of characters isn’t wildly unique, but it’s refreshingly lacking in melodrama and will keep you interested through the end of the game.
Even though Xenoblade’s story contains familiar notes from other JRPGs, its gameplay is completely different. Rather than rely on random encounters and stiff combat systems, Xenoblade is entirely open. Similar to Final Fantasy XII, you run around in an open world and can walk right up to whatever monster you want to kill and bop it. If you don’t feel like fighting, you can just as easily avoid lower-level enemies or circumvent higher-level killer enemies to the treasure they commonly guard.
Combat is extremely fast and intricate. In addition to your auto-attack, you can trigger special attacks from the icons at the bottom of the screen, which operate on cooldown rather than mana or another resource. Deciding when to use your skills makes all the difference in combat, whether it’s direct like healing a wounded party member or stacking skills that give damage bonuses or debuffs when used in succession.
There’s ridiculous levels of gameplay complexity layered on top of the main quest, too. The game’s cities explode with sub-quests, which not only give you bonus items and gold, but raise your reputation in a given city which unlocks even more quests, rewards, and so on. You can craft your own gems, which slot into gear to alter and change its stats. Hell, the game even tracks every named NPC and the relationships between them, which can change depending on what quests you do. You can even participate in a whole meta-game in which you rebuild a ruined city and convince other NPCs to move there.
In addition to all that content, the entire game is filled with neat little ideas that modernize the experience. You can fast travel to any location you’ve been to previously, which makes finishing sub-quests a breeze. The collectipedia, which normally just scratches your hoarding tendencies, also serves as an index for where to find items later in the game if you need them for quests. My favorite little touch is if you have a character that’s about to die in combat, you get a future vision of their death with a timer counting down to when it’ll happen, which gives you time to interrupt and save your dude. That’s just a small sample of the smart ideas in the game. Xenoblade is an extremely intelligent and satisfying game, thankfully lacking in the content grind that’s so commonly associated with JRPGs.
Wii games just look bad, there’s no getting around it. Your eyes won’t be happy with the first few minutes of Xenoblade, but once you rip that band-aid off, you’ll see this game is actually beautiful, colorful, and inventive. Running around on a giant dead god gives you some cool looking skylines, while interior environments manage to create unique atmospheres. Despite being on hardware that’s roughly as powerful as a solar calculator, Xenoblade manages to create environments that are more open and visually striking than its contemporaries on big boy consoles. You’ll just have to set your eyes back about five years before you can appreciate that.
Xenoblade is thankfully free from any motion-controlled gimmicks. I played with the classic controller, and was a breeze to control except for a few oddities. OK and cancel are swapped from their American standard, with OK on the right and cancel on the bottom, but I adjusted to that easily enough. Comparing your character’s equipment is clunky too, as it will tell you if a given stat is better or worse, but not by how much. You’ll spend a decent amount of time juggling equipment, so that is annoying.
I hope you like British accents because Xenoblade will bombard you with some of the most intense accents you’ve ever heard. Personally, I didn’t mind it so much, but the characters are awfully chatty during combat and I know it’ll aggravate some players. Aside from that, the voice acting does a great job of selling the drama without dipping into melodrama territory.
The game’s soundtrack, on the other hand, is fantastic. The overworld music is sweeping and grand, while combat tracks are full of intense percussion. It reminds me a little of Chrono Cross’ celtic-dominated tracks, though obviously no game’s soundtrack could ever beat that. Xenoblade’s soundtrack is a serious contender though.
Xenoblade Chronicles has earned a few titles. It’s one of the best games on the Wii, it’s one of the best RPGs in this generation, and more than that, it’s one of the better JRPGs ever made. While western games have trended towards hiding the systemic, video-gamey aspects of RPGs, Xenoblade fully embraces them and creates one of the most complex and satisfying experiences of the past few years. If you can tolerate the Wii’s lacking presentation, you absolutely shouldn’t miss it.