Xenoblade Chronicles review: A cut above

I'll confess, I wasn't terribly excited for Xenoblade Chronicles at first. My experience with other "Xeno" titles (Xenogears, Xenosaga) could perhaps best be described as contemptuous. To me, those titles paraded the worst elements of Japanese role-playing games in front of a spotlight, gleefully showcasing the genre's biggest flaws to the world for excruciatingly painful stretches. Going into the nitty-gritty of why I find those games awful is another article entirely, but suffice it to say that another Xeno-game wasn't exactly high on my want-to-play list -- until I started hearing nothing but praise for Xenoblade from like-minded JRPG genre fans. Imagine my surprise at popping the disc into my Wii to discover a game nothing like Xenos past -- a game that, instead of stubbornly shoving the worst parts of JRPGs in your face, makes substantial advancements to the genre.
%Gallery-152491% Xenoblade Chronicles is intriguing from the get-go. The introduction describes a world literally built on the back of two massive dueling deities. Organic life, including the humanoid Homs and the birdlike Nopon, live on the stilled, mountainous Bionis titan. They are continually under threat from the ruthless, robot-like Mechons, who devour them as food. A battle occurred one year prior to the story's outset, during which a Hom soldier named Dunban drove back the Mechon hordes with a strangely powerful blade called the Monado -- seemingly the only weapon that could cause harm to Mechon armor. The battle left him severely injured, but peace had come at long last. As in most JRPGs, however, that peace won't last. The Mechon soon stir again, and it's up to young researcher Shulk, his bromantic interest Reyn, and an assortment of varied and interesting party members to decipher the mysteries behind the threat.

One of the first things that strikes you about Xenoblade is how rich and expansive the world feels. Huge, sprawling landscapes and vistas are showcased immediately, and battles occur seamlessly on the overworld itself à la Final Fantasy XII. This world is alive and active: towns are filled with citizens going about their daily routines, fields are flush with flora and fauna, and various collectible baubles can be found all over the landscape, not just in hidden nooks and crannies. Townspeople have names and relationships, which are actually charted and built as the game flows onward. The in-game clock and the various changes it brings along as time passes augment the feeling of an organic, living world -- but thankfully, for the sake of gameplay convenience, the game also allows you to freely manipulate time should you so please.

You'll be doing a lot of two things in the expansive environments of Xenoblade: fighting and exploring, often both at once. If you aren't moving along to progress the story, then you're likely working to finish a quest. Xenoblade has myriad quests to take on with varied rewards, and while most of them are sadly of the bog-standard "find X macguffins" or "kill x beasties" variety, they are very efficiently streamlined. In most cases, simply fulfilling the primary objective will finish the quest and deliver the reward, saving the time and effort of most games, which require players to return to the quest-giver. It's such a simple and obvious timesaver that you'll wonder why so many other titles have yet to adopt it, and just one example of Xenoblade's willingness to eschew tradition in order to deliver a better overall experience.


The ease, immersion and organic nature of Xenoblade extends to initiating and engaging in combat as well. Creatures crawl the fields, and you can engage them directly in many different ways: attacking them outright, luring them away from a pack to pick them off individually, or sneaking up from the back or side with an attack that grants bonuses based on positioning. You're not always going to get the jump on enemies, though. While many creatures in Xenoblade aren't hostile unless attacked first, there are other, more territorial foes that will attack if you cross their line of sight or make too much noise in their vicinity. You're not going to survive long if you simply attack everything that moves. Picking your battles is a very important skill in Xenoblade, as even early in the adventure there are powerful foes that will not hesitate to trounce you if you look at them the wrong way.

When you do enter battle, though, you'll find a combat system with some very novel twists. The use of auto-attacks and special skills with cooldown times is very much inspired by MMOs and Western RPGs, but positioning also plays a key role. Certain skills are more effective or offer additional benefits when executed from specific positions. You can also run around the field to assist friends in need. Many status ailments your CPU-controlled allies suffer can be cured by simply moving your character over to them and pressing B to help them snap out of it. When critical hits or other decisive strikes are scored, you have the opportunity to press B with the right timing to cheer on your teammates, sending their fighting spirits aflame and filling up a "party gauge" used for chain attacks, reviving incapacitated teammates, and more. A particularly unique element is added once the Monado falls into Shulk's hands: when an enemy is about to execute a particularly powerful attack or one that will KO a party member, a brief vision illustrates what the enemy is about to do, allowing you a brief window to protect against or interrupt the oncoming onslaught. It's not always easy to completely foil the enemy's plans, but when you succeed, it's immensely satisfying.

I could go on and on about some of the other brilliant features of Xenoblade -- the intuitive and easily manageable skill levels and ability trees that let you develop characters as you see fit, the relationship-building systems between party members both in and out of combat or the stat-boosting crafting come to mind -- but perhaps the only truly lackluster element shouldn't be glossed over. Though the game's art design is magnificent, it's held back -- through no fault of its own -- by the Wii's increasingly apparent graphical limitations. As beautiful as the lush, expansive vistas are, it's hard to turn a blind eye to the muddy textures and low-detail models that pepper the land. The whole time I played Xenoblade, I kept wishing that I could play an RPG this expansive and awesome in current-generation high-definition graphics. Admittedly, perhaps I've been spoiled by the HD experience of other consoles, and it wouldn't bother me so much if this were, say, a 3DS or PSP title. But nowadays, when I buckle down to have an epic console experience on a nice, big HDTV, I go in with certain visual expectations that the Wii's hardware simply cannot meet, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

But considering that aging hardware is just about the only complaint keeping Xenoblade away from absolute JRPG glory, it's a no-brainer of a recommendation. Yes, the story still has its share of silliness and deus ex machinas -- it is a JRPG, after all -- and sometimes the unending chattiness of the violently British voice actors during battle can be a little bit annoying. But these are miniscule flaws when looking at the big picture Xenoblade presents: a charming cast of characters that interact constantly, a uniquely designed and fascinating setting, forward-thinking gameplay systems that combine the best of East and West, and the exhilarating feeling that comes from taking part in an adventure that feels truly epic. Xenoblade more than atones for the sins of its fathers and shouldn't be missed by anyone who appreciates role-playing games of any shade.

This review is based on a retail copy of Xenoblade Chronicles, provided by Nintendo.

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