Few words can describe such a finely-crafted masterpiece as this. You absolutely must play this game.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the UK localized version of the Japanese game, Xenoblade. With no current plans to bring this JRPG to the US, I have only one thing to say: why!??!? Xenoblade Chronicles is quite possibly the most innovative and fun Japanese RPG to be released on the current gen consoles. Yes, I said that, and yes, I really mean it. I have played a variety of different JRPGs on current systems like the Xbox 360, Wii, and PC, and I can tell you that I cannot think of a single one of them that has come close to the level of satisfaction I'm getting from Xenoblade Chronicles, available from Monolith Soft for the Nintendo Wii.
I won't pretend to be completely unbiased: I love this game, and although there are a few minor issues, I have almost all good things to say about it, so let's get started.
Xenoblade Chronicles is set in one of the most unique and surprising game world's I've ever heard. Two great Titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis, are engaged in an epic battle over a faceless world of nothing but sea and sky. The two end up evening out the score by killing each other at the same time, leaving their lifeless corpses behind. This is where the game takes place, on the lifeless bodies of the two giant Titans. Over time land, water, vegetation, and eventually life have all stretched out over the various body parts of the two gigantic entities. This is just beginning of the unique approach this game will take, and that's a very good thing.
As the game begins, you're immediately thrown into combat. I love when games do this. No wandering around in a boring, quiet town wondering what to do. You start off with weapons drawn and surrounded by a raging war. The people of the Bionis, known as the Homs, are in conflict with the invading Mechons, what appear to be mechanical life from the Mechonis. After a brief combat tutorial, you are transported to one year later, and you get control of our main character, Shulk.
Again, I'm very relieved to see that right away Shulk is engaged in combat, and this is where Xenoblade Chronicles really shines. The battle system is unlike anything I've seen before, a fun and engaging cross between the combat in Okami and an online game like World of Warcraft. There are no random encounters, and battles take place in the same game world that you travel through. Once you decide to engage an enemy or an enemy engages you, all the characters in your party begin auto attacking. You are able to control any one character of your choosing, and you're free to move about while fighting. This is critical, as you will be issuing commands called Arts that are sometimes dependent on your position. You select an Art, and your character than initiates it, similar to the aforementioned World of Warcraft. Shulk's Backslash ability does massive damage if Shulk is standing behind the enemy, and there are several other moves that cause status effects if you attack from the side. For example, Shulk's Slit Edge Art lowers the enemy's defense only if he strikes the enemy on its side.
And that's just the tip of this iceberg. Combat becomes even more involving and strategic when you have multiple party members and engage what are known as Chain Attacks. Once you fill up your party's meter, the Chain ability becomes available, and it allows you to issue one Art per character. This is critical in certain fights where you will have to issue a Break Art followed by a Topple Art in order to render larger, stronger monsters vulnerable to your attacks. Very soon in the game Shulk will acquire the ability to use the Monado, a mysterious and powerful weapon that seems to play a key role in the story. The Monado has its own unique set of Arts that can be issued as well, and certain enemies are only weak to the Monado and its abilities.
Your other party members are not just mindless drones. They command their abilities fairly well, and you may hear one of the characters even help you out with verbal hints, such as is one of them tells you that it's time for a Chain Attack. The banter between the characters is fairly interesting, too. At times you'll hear Shulk and his friend Reyn joke around, and their friend Fiora will laugh at the two of them. They also respond to how the battle is going. If things aren't going well, they'll say so. If you finish an enemy off quickly and easily, Reyn has a line that is very English and makes it clear that this game is no American localization.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles is just plain fun. Rarely do I run around in a JRPG just to find more enemies to kill. Leveling up is like a bonus on top of the pure enjoyment of the fast-paced, sometimes frenetic combat. Speaking of leveling-up, this game again reminds me of World of Warcraft. You have a few progression types known as Trees, and you choose which one you want to focus on. As an example, Shulk can pick to focus on improving his ether abilities (which helps him heal), or to add to his physical combat. You are able to freely choose which path you'd like to take and can do so at any time. As you level up you learn new Arts, and eventually you'll have to start to pick and choose which ones you want to use during combat. You're able to spend points to level-up your arts, and this will likely lock you into which Arts you'll use the most, since it just makes more sense to use the higher level abilities.
Combat is not strictly attacking and defending.
Characters fulfill different roles. Reyn is more of a hard-hitting tank, while Shulk can also dish out damage and issue a variety of buffs and debuffs. Yes, just like most popular MMORPGs, buffs and debuffs become critical. Lowering an enemy's defense and attack power is important and can be the difference between winning and losing. Shulk is able to heal comrades, but any character can freely help raise a fallen comrade by running close to them and pressing the B button. The fallen party member will rise with minimal HP, without the need for any special abilities or consumable items. If a party member dies and things look grim, you're usually free to run away, after which all fallen party members rise back up. If you can't run away, it's because a wall like in Okami appears around your party during critical encounters, such as bosses. You regenerate health quickly while out of combat, making it unnecessary to carry tons of health potions of any kind. Pay attention to these little bonuses, because there are a ton of ways that this game saves you time and frustration by making the experience much more enjoyable.
Equipping your characters resembles World of Warcraft in that you have to choose the best weapons, gear, and slot crystals for your character based on the role that character will play. Will you choose the weapon that does more damage, or the one that increases defense? Will you equip the boots that have the slot for a crystal, or pick the ones that have better stats? I'll mention more later, but what you equip also affects how your characters look, which is always a nice touch. Sometimes Xenoblade Chronicles feels like they took the best from JRPGs and combined it with the best from the massively multiplayer online role playing genre.
The voice acting in this game is incredible. Even coming from a game like Final Fantasy XIII, where the voice acting was one of the only things about it that they did well in my opinion, Xenoblade Chronicles still shines. The voice actors really fit their parts well, and you can tell they actually care about reflecting the various sentiments of the characters. I can hardly think of a single moment yet that made me roll my eyes or shake my head, something that happens a lot in JRPGs with voice acting.
Part of this is due to the amazingly well-done storyline. I can barely wait to find out what happens next, and I'm genuinely interested in what happens within the game world and to the characters. I really, honestly want to see where this is going and care what happens. Without spoiling anything that happens after the first couple hours of gameplay, I can say that relatively soon in the game something will happen that you absolutely would never expect. I still can't believe they did it, and it shows they have some guts when it comes to the storyline. To tell you the truth, I had to pull myself away from the game in order to sit down and write this review, it's just that good.
Now with all this praise, I should be fair and mention what is lacking in the game. There are key moments in the game where you can optionally watch interactions between your characters, called Heart-to-Hearts. These moments open up depending on who is in your party. I was very disappointed to find out that despite these moments being very emotional and reflective, they occur in text bubbles only – no voice acting. I feel that Monolith Soft really dropped the ball here, because these are some of the most endearing moments in the game that show the characters' backstories, and not being able to hear them speak the parts is a let-down.
I know what you're all thinking… This game must have bad graphics because it's on the Wii. Not at all. These are some of the best graphics I've seen the Wii push out, and the sheer scope of some of the scenes is incredible. You can tell that this game pulls as much out of the Wii as is likely possible. The appearance of individual blades of grass swaying in the wind, the towering cliffs showered with vegetation in the distance, the looming blue sky filled with clouds hovering over the landscape – it all makes for some amazing scenery. Day and night cycles add to the visual flair, and the music even changes as well. One of the more breathtaking views was when I came out on the Bionis' knee and got to glimpse the enormous, towering body of the Mechonis in the great distance as occasional strikes of lightning illuminated a dark, rainy sky. I actually just sat and watched it for a while. This is not the type of detail you normally see in a Japanese RPG, not even on the more powerful Xbox 360 and PS3. I just can't get over how they've managed to render the graphics with such a long draw distance… it's something I generally only see on my PC when I jack the settings up all the way.
The detail in the characters is no less amazing. As you change armor and weapons, your characters appearance changes, both for the regular game world and in the cutscenes. Again, it's something you rarely see in JRPGs. I can only think of Resonance of Fate as another current gen game doing this, although I'm sure I'm missing a few. The enemies in the game are sufficiently detailed to be believable, and at times resemble some of the monsters you might see in a game like the ever-popular Japanese Monster Hunter series.
The music in Xenoblade Chronicles is simply really, really good. Right from the title screen you'll encounter tunes that'll make you want to buy the soundtrack. I actually sat and listened to the compelling title screen music for several minutes just to see where it would go. As a little added bonus, the background changes to reward those who sat to watch it.
Many of the tracks featured in the game have a little rifts that remind me of songs from one of my favorite games, Xenogears for the PlayStation. This shouldn't be surprising, considering that a significant portion of the staff that worked on that game left SquareEnix to form Monolith Soft, and Yasunori Mitsuda is back as one of the primary composers.
The music also changes based on the situation. The music you hear running around in fields with the bright blue sky above is different from what you hear at night, and both of those are different from what you hear during combat. The transition to and from the combat music is fairly smooth, and it seems that the overworld track will pick up where it left off. A huge relief, where some games restart the track, making it impossible to hear the later portions of the song. Xenoblade Chronicles solves this problem by continuing the song where it left off. I love it.
The game's presentation is just spot-on all around. Remember those frustration-eliminating features I alluded to earlier? Let's talk about them. Xenoblade Chronicles isn't about wasting your time, and you'll notice right away. First off, no save points. That's right, you can save the game anyway. When's the last time a JRPG let you save at virtually any point in the game, anywhere? Also, have you ever been enjoying a great JRPG for hours only to end up dying and realizing that you haven't saved it the whole time? How discouraging is it when you see the title screen pop up to the realization that you'll have to do it all over again? Not a problem here. When you die, you're simply teleported back to the last landmark you passed, complete with all of the experience and items you gained before dying. I can't tell you how many countless hours this will save most of us gamers.
And that's not all. Speaking of teleporting, Xenoblade Chronicles features a Fast Travel-like option, known in the UK version as Fast Skip. It's similar to that in Bethesda's Fallout 3. You're able to quickly travel to any landmark you've previously visited. In some rare circumstances, such as during critical plot points in the story, they'll lock you out of this feature, but it makes sense and rarely happens. They only do it because the story requires you to move in a certain direction, and is completely understandable. What this means is that you can fast travel back to town, sell your goods and buy anything else you might need, then fast travel back to where you were. Very, very useful; saves me a ton of time. However, this also means that unlike most JRPGs, you actually have a limit to how many items you can carry. I haven't hit that limit yet, but I've been close. Just sell your goods every chance you get and you'll likely never have a problem with it. The limit is based on slots, not weight, which separates it from most western RPGs like Bethesda's Oblivion.
There are also quests in this game, and the convenience extends to them too. For most quests, you will reap the rewards automatically as soon as you complete them – no need to go running back to the quest giver just to say, "Hey, I killed those monsters for you!" While most of them seem like the run-of-the-mill kill and fetch quests, I still enjoy them. As long as you're familiar with an online game like World of Warcraft, you'll be very familiar with the quest system. There are also missions to go kill particularly strong enemies, the World of Warcraft equivalent of elite monsters. They'll drop good loot and the quest rewards are nice, too. Be careful, though, as if you run headlong into one of these monsters without being prepared for a serious fight, you'll likely find yourself dead. They are definitely a challenge, even when your party is several levels above their listed level. And yes, monsters in the game are noted by level, just like in many popular online role playing games. You can instantly tell that if an enemy is level 75 and you are level 14, you're gonna get the brakes beat off ya if you even try it. And yes, I have encountered situations like that.
If you're ever stuck or forget where to go, such as if you have to put the game down for a while (something I haven't been able to do), you can access what are called Story Memos. These help you remember what you are currently doing and where you're going; very useful if you come back to the game after a substantial break.
There are a lot of nice features that add bonuses to the game for those willing to earn them. There are little blue shiny drops in the game called collectibles, and you earn rewards by collecting all of them. You also get bonuses for things like unlocking all of the landmarks (or areas) on a map. This usually comes in the way of experience or unique items. It's nice when a game rewards you for going off the beaten path, something that usually just wastes your time. Oh, and yes, you can get achievements. They include simple things like unlocking all of the areas in a map or creating different types of crystals to slot to your weapons, to crazy things like falling long distances and surviving. It's actually possible to jump from a high cliff, just make sure to land in water or expect to fall to your doom.
It's also a huge relief that the character and wardrobe design in this game is pretty reasonable. I haven't seen any over-the-top ridiculous outfits yet. The worst thing I've seen actually isn't so bad, and it happens to be Fiora's base outfit. She has high-heel boots with stockings that are strapped to a mini-skirt, complete with a sports-bra like top. At least the colors aren't too crazy. They've kept the ridiculous anime stereotypes to a minimum here. Even the characters' hair styles are pretty reasonable. To get an idea of how ridiculous character design can get, check out Final Fantasy X. What a relief that Monolith Soft stayed away from such extremes. The design here is quite good.
There's just no denying that Xenoblade Chronicles is an awesome, awesome game. Even gamers who haven't been big fans of JRPGs may enjoy this one. From top to bottom, there's virtually nothing negative that can be said about this game. The presentation is solid, combat is fun and engaging, the graphics are as good as you could possibly expect from the Wii, the music is incredible and iPod-worthy, and the vast number of time-saving features included show how much effort and thought went into producing what is in my opinion the best JRPG of this console generation.
In fact, if I may be so bold, it is this reviewer's opinion that Xenoblade Chronicles is the winning contender for the best Japanese role playing game ever released. While giants like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III for the SNES make good competition, the additional value included in Xenoblade Chronicles just adds so much more to the experience. While I will need to complete the game to decide for sure, I think it may quite possibly make #1 on my personal list. If you have any way to do it, purchase yourself a copy of this game and a UK Wii if necessary, and play it!
As always, I invite your comments and suggestions. Push the thumbs up button if you support bringing Xenoblade Chronicles to the US!