Just when you start to lose hope in a genre, in this case the JRPG, a game like Xenoblade Chronicles comes along that re-invents the mold and makes you excited again. Xenoblade Chronicles is an excellent game whose only fault is the console on which it resides. The game is much more than the Wii can handle, but is still one of the best RPGs I have played in nearly a decade.
The first intriguing and compelling part of Xenoblade Chronicles is the world itself. The intro movie shows us that two unbelievable, enormous, celestial beings battled and were frozen in time. Over millennia their bodies were covered by land, mountains, lakes, and swamps, and eventually civilizations sprang into being as well. The humanoids are called Homs and under constant threat by the robotic Mechons, each race lives on a different being (a Titan). The story proper starts with a pitched battle that has Homs battling waves of Mechons with the heroic Dunban fighting back the horde with a mythical blade called the Monado.
The story picks up a few years later with Dunban still recovering from that fight and the protagonist Shulk is introduced as a researcher in the colony trying to unlock the secrets of the Monado. We are swiftly introduced to his best friend, Reyn, who is fiercely loyal to Shulk in a bro-mance kind of way. Other characters are given equal care in their introductions, like the heroic Dunban, stoic Dickson, or faithful Fiora, but the story is truly about Shulk and Reyn as they are the two constants.
That is one of the truly special parts about this game and the story, the friendship between Shulk and Reyn pervades the entire experience. Other characters join their party, but these two are the heart of the experience and they are actually interesting characters. The game also finds ways to reward the friendships you form with the other people who join your party with the affinity and Heart to Heart systems. As you progress through the game assisting your teammates or doing things they agree with you gain affinity. This plays out in enabling cross class skills and allowing you to trigger Heart to Heart events in key locations. These are little scenes that add a great deal of depth to the already compelling characters.
This innovative feature is just one of many amazing gameplay hooks that make Xenoblade Chronicles such a terrific game. The bulk of your experience will be in the form of exploration and combat as you try to find the source of the Mechons and eliminate them as a threat. Like all JRPGs, there are sidequests you can take on during your journey, but these are meshed into the general experience and streamlined in their execution. Sometimes you need to kill X amount of creatures or find Y items, sounds familiar right? Well in this case once you meet the requirements, the challenge is completed, and you get your rewards. There are hundreds of collectibles as well and they are obtained as you explore and defeat enemies, again once you hit a milestone you can complete it in the menu system and obtain the rewards. These small touches go a long way in negating the feeling of grinding most games are guilty of in back and forth fetch quests. There is also a quick travel system so you can visit past locales quickly and easily (with barely any loading times).
The combat system is even more elegant with an MMO style auto attack system as battle is initiated. Once you target a creature, you automatically start attacking them and an overlay appears at the bottom with your abilities (called Arts) laid out. You can cycle through the Arts as you move about and trigger them easily; some are contextual meaning more damage from the side or back. As Shulk with the Monado you also have a second set of Arts generated from their weapons (and more are unlocked over time), these are key to victory as they allow your party members to hurt Mechons as well. The Arts are unlocked as you level in the game adding a strategic layer once you have more than you can load on screen.
On top of this combat system is Shulk’s ability to affect the battleground. A team gauge fills up as you battle and if it hits a certain point you can boost or revive your teammates with a quick button press if you are close to them. Shulk can also see the near future at key moments, showing him devastating attacks coming from enemies. He has the ability to trigger an Art that counters them and gives a big boost to the team. There are also many passive skills that unlock over time and cross class skills you can equip as you gain affinity with your team. This results in a deep and most importantly fun combat system that makes the battles as enjoyable as the story and characters.
Your equipment is also very interesting in that there is a wide array of armour and weapon choices for you party that visually appear on your characters. The equipment is easy to sort through and determine if it is a better choice for your character. Equipment affects a large number of stats, so at times you may sacrifice armour rating to get more hit points or attack power. I have even found myself taking inferior armour simply because it looked cooler than other bits. If that wasn’t enough, you can also socket gems into your equipment that affect statistics. Gems can be made using materials you find and stockpiled until you need them. There seems to be no inventory limit in this game either, making this a seamless experience that is a joy to play in almost all aspects.
This leads me to the few shortcomings of the game that are all due to the platform the game is on. The Nintendo Wii was never a powerful console, even when it debuted it was already a generation behind the curve and Xenoblade Chronicles suffers for this. Monolith Soft did an outstanding job with the art style, scope, and scale of the game. If you can see something in the distance you can get to it eventually, but the textures and environments suffer from the Wii’s low resolution. It is still a great looking game but every time I play it I wonder wistfully how great it would look on the PS3 or Xbox 360.
The other shortcoming is the native Wiimote control scheme, which is about as clunky as it gets. Again Monolith Soft did as good a job as they could, and most tasks are easy to execute, but camera controls are very awkward to use. This is a game that begs to be played with a Wii Classic Controller Pro (check Ebay, plenty of knock-offs for five bucks or so), once that controller is in hand the game controls like a dream.
In the grand scheme of things these annoyances pale next to the sheer quality and innovation found in this game. For all the features I mentioned, I haven’t even touched on all of them — this is a game that is grand in scale and has more gameplay than any three other games. As companies like Square Enix and Capcom struggle to adapt to changing expectations from games, Monolith Soft has come along with Xenoblade Chronicles and proven that the JRPG is still alive and well. This is a must have game for any Wii owner, and I dare say a reason to own the console if you love RPGs.
Xenoblade Chronicles is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, and Violence.