Xenoblade Chronicles is both brilliant and bloated.
Cons: Uninspired side quests; Can be very repetitive; Some things are poorly explained; Trekking back and forth across giant landscapes gets tedious
You ready for something that will make a lot of you angry?
I hated a good chunk of Xenoblade Chronicles. I was both bored and frustrated to tears. But put away your torches and pitchforks because I also loved a lot of it. Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the most forward-thinking JRPGs in a while, it's just a shame that it lets its size get in the way sometimes.
I spent over 80 hours on this game, and let me tell you, the first 20 or so were pure bliss. The game doesn't waste too much time on its intro, and lets you get right into the good stuff quickly: exploring the environment and battling monsters. The combat system is introduced at a good pace, piece by piece, so that you're never overwhelmed, and the game never seems to let tutorials get in the way of playing the game and doing your own thing.
It helps that the combat system is also pretty neat. At first appearance, Xenoblade Chronicles appears to work like an MMO, which is somewhat accurate. Principles like aggro (drawing the attention of monsters) and buffs/debuffs (raising/lowering stats) take the center stage. Many abilities are location specific, and have extra side effects from using them. For instance, one early ability is best used from the back, so you may want to use another ability to get the enemies to ignore you, and then strike while your beefiest teammate distracts them.
There are a few things that Xenoblade does differently though: health and abilities reset between battles, and death only sets you back to the last discovered landmark, while retaining any EXP or items you may have earned before dying. Probably the coolest Xenoblade unique feature, however, is the ability to see the future. It goes like this: when an ally is in danger, the action pauses and shows you how they will be killed, putting a timer at the top of the screen. You have the duration of that timer to prevent their untimely demise by whatever means necessary.
It's a great design feature, allowing the developers to pull no punches in the game's awesome boss fights. These fights tend to be the best parts of combat, with battles being a mix of carefully executed tactics, and intense moments of peril and recovery; at its best, the combat is both cerebral and action-packed.
The only downside is that the combat, while deep, also has several confusing features that aren't properly explained. This isn't too much of an issue early on, but when you reach the challenging final areas of the game, and you're wondering how exactly you should factor in auras, spikes, tension, burst charge, gem crafting, etc. into your strategy, it can get a little frustrating.
Still, in the first 20 hours, the game has been careful about what mechanics you have access to, and it's smooth sailing. At that point, your concerns are probably more in line with figuring out what's on that cliff over there, or what's in that cave. Xenoblade Chronicles is very refreshing in the way it allows you to veer off the beaten path and explore its stunning landscapes. I lost many an hour simply wandering between main missions and I regret none of it. The cherry on top of the cake is the fact that early environments are also filled with tough enemies and secret areas that you can only access very late in the game, which makes the end game also very fun.
Sadly, by the time you hit the flurry of fun activities later in the game, you may find that you simply don't care any more. After all, you will have likely endured at least 60 (if not 80) hours at this point. And if the first 20 hours and the final 20 hours are fun, the 40 between them are frequently tedious and uninspired. These are the hours where you put in a lot of grinding time.
Now, it's not grinding in the traditional sense of killing monsters repeatedly for experience and goods. No, this is grinding thinly veiled as side quests that ALWAYS task you with killing monsters and/or collecting random items. Xenoblade almost does fetch quests right, too: it doesn't require you to return to the original quest-giver in many cases, and it checks your inventory automatically, in case you already found the necessary items before accepting the quest.
However, and this greatly confuses me, most of the quests still require you to go back to the quest-giver anyway, despite the game allowing you to skip that boring step in several quests elsewhere. Furthermore, you still have to find the quest-giver in the first place, which can be tough with the NPCs having varied schedules and unexplained requirements that must be met before they'll even give you a quest.
It would've been less terrible if the creatures were at least varied. Unfortunately, they are not, and you quickly find that most enemies are re-skinned variations of other enemies. So combat suffers. And then the environments go to one of two extremes in the middle of the game: confined and linear, or so big that it takes forever to cross them. Neither is fun, and so exploration suffers.
That's not to say that you can't have any fun in the middle of Xenoblade Chronicles, but compared to the constant exposure to fun new things early on, and the rewarding challenges of the end-game, the middle feels like it really drags on. And I really hate that. I almost stopped playing the game because I got so tired of the middle, despite really loving everything around it.
I also really hate the middle because it makes writing the review a pain. If nothing but the first 20 hours and the end existed, Xenoblade Chronicles would be an easy recommendation, no questions asked-yes it's worthy of the hype in that respect. However, most people who will read this user review probably aren't going to stop at 20 hours, and I absolutely can't recommend the rest of the game. Your mileage on this one is going to depend on how much time you have, and how much you're willing to tolerate to get back to the fun parts.