Platform: Wii (Reviewed)
Developer: Monolith Soft
The UK release of Xenoblade Chronicles poses many questions. The most controversial of which, naturally, is exactly why us Brits have received Monolith Soft's anticipated RPG instead of the United States... who have spent the last few months demonstrating the massive demand by banging their heads against Nintendo Of America's Facebook page.
There's a much more pressing question to be answered, however. Is Xenoblade Chronicles actually any good - and does it worth the insane amount of hype?
The answer is simple. Not only is Xenoblade Chronicles an astounding RPG and a late-game miracle for the Wii, but it's also one of the best games to have come out of Japan this console generation. It's bigger, smarter, more innovative, more nuanaced and more considerate than practically any other JRPG I can name... and just to put the icing on the cake, all the voice acting is British. The term game-changer has never been more apt or profoundly literal.
Xenoblade Chronicles is set a year after a legendary hero uses the power of a mysterious sword to rout an army of machines hell-bent on crushing the human race clinging to life on the back of an ancient dead machine God. Shulk, a young laboratory technician tasked with unlocking the secrets of the Monado (the blade in question), is soon granted a nightmarish vision of the future by the enigmatic weapon - and sets out with a group of comrades to discover whether the prophecy will come true. And more importantly, whether the future can be changed. It's an exciting and imaginative premise, and one that sets the tone for a truly superior RPG.
Shulk and his fellows (typically a stocky, tough soldier and a versatile support character) will explore an enormous overworld that's deceptively open; allowing for freeform exploration and plenty of opportunities to collect resources or grind for experience. Towns bristle with quests to accept and people to please, complimenting a compelling main storyline that will take dozens of hours to complete by itself. Xenoblade Chronicles is absolutely enormous, with level design that delivers the illusion of an open world but never flinches from subtly moving you forward. On the flip side, working out where to go next can occasionally prove to be a bit of a challenge.
Rather than falling back on the tired and irritating random battle mechanic, enemies roam around the overworld and can be engaged at leisure. Once a battle is joined, the action seamlessly begins (no load times or transitions in sight), with your party automatically striking at enemies in range using an intuitive targeting mechanic. Each character has a markedly different combat role and arts - active skills - to deploy, and success comes from intelligently making use of aggro and positioning. You can freely move your main character around the field, forcing enemies to focus on your tank while getting into the right place to deliver devastating flanking attacks. Shulk is a tricky and subtle fighter who's weak at straightforward brawling but can debilitate adversaries from the rear or the sides, resulting in a consistently thrilling combat system that requires you to constantly use your brain as well as your thumbs.
Once you've received the Monado for use in battle, the combat takes another interesting turn. The sword's ability to predict the future is much more than a story-driving McGuffin, as it actively tells you what enemies are planning to do, who they plan to attack and whether or not they're charging up a special ability. Players need to use this information to literally change the future; crippling or debilitating foes before they can unleash their attack or changing the aggro balance. The huge number of text callouts does admittedly make pitched battles a little overwhelming from time to time, but comprehensive optional tutorials remove much of the learning curve. You'll rarely see a battle system this rewarding, this deep and this accessible in the biggest budget AAA titan, let alone from a single-disc Wii title.
NPCs tend to be mindless automatons who act as instantly-forgettable quest givers in most JRPGs, but Xenoblade Chronicles ups the ante with the innovative Affinity mechanic. Every named character in the game world has an opinion about everyone they've ever met (the player's party included) which can be viewed in a sprawling web of emotions that actively changes as they interact. On a base level, doing quests in towns makes everyone in the settlement like you a little more - and thus gradually makes more optional objectives become available over time. However, the constantly fluctuating relationships between NPCs is an addictive and dynamic soap opera in its own right. The relationship between Shulk and his allies is also governed by affinity, which can lead to 'heart to heart' conversations becoming available that unlock intriguing backstory tidbits and even romantic entanglements.
It's difficult to adequately describe the astonishing amount of content that Xenoblade Chronicles manages to cram into its single Wii disc. Hundreds of subquests, though typically of the kill or fetch variety, often tell their own story arcs that are every bit as rewarding as the main plotline. The world changes depending on the dynamic day/night cycle; regenerating pickups, enemies and treasures that reward diligent explorers. Any named character can be traded with for rare items, allowing you to barter and improve your relationships with the townsfolk. A Wikipedia-like scrapbook can be optionally filled with your inventory items, giving you bonuses when you complete categories. Crystals can be honed into powerful gems that imbue weapons with new abilities. Xenoblade Chronicles rewards every extra minute you invest into the experience with insane depth, value and enjoyment.
Xenoblade considerately avoids the typical level of awkwardness and aggravation that tends to come with the JRPG territory. You can save anywhere so long as you're not actively engaged in battle, and deaths allow you to respawn at checkpoints without penalty rather than sending players straight to game over screens. And the cutscenes are skippable, meaning that re-attempting bosses doesn't make you sit through the same old preamble over and over again. Monolith Soft has taken a long look at the tired old JRPG and brought every aspect up to date, making it feel fresh, exciting and relevant again.
Oh, and there's one other nifty innovation I should mention. You can jump! That's right, Shulk can effortlessly leap past overworld obstacles or vault down levels without having to search for exactly the right staircase. This might sound like a tiny, negligible upgrade, but you'd be amazed at how it revitalises the JRPG experience.
The Wii's graphical limitations are neatly sidestepped by colourful and attractive art direction. Stylised and detailed facial animations make each character feel unique and expressive, and the world is a genuinely intriguing place to explore. The environments and cities are quite unlike anything you'll have ever seen, with only a few parallels to the Panzer Dragoon universe in terms of bio-mechanical themes.
The localised voice acting is also a breath of fresh air. British voice talent rounds out the entire roster, and though there are a couple of ropey moments, the acting is believable, emotive and competent. Most impressively, the slang is also current with nary a "guv'nor" in sight.
There are only a couple of minor flaws that stem from Monolithsoft's choice of platform. Disc read times are aggravatingly long even when accessing menus, and camera control can prove to be fairly problematic from time to time. However, since Xenoblade still manages to deliver a huge and attractive game, these minor irritants won't affect the final score in any way.
- Enormous, exciting adventure
- Deep and rewarding combat
- Brings the JRPG up to date
- Long disc read times
- Occasional ropey VA
- Other JRPGs pale in comparison
The Short Version: Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best JRPGs ever made. In fact, it's probably one of the best roleplaying games of this generation - regardless of platform. Monolith Soft has made the genre relevant again, delivering depth and nuance without compromising fun or thrills. If you own a Wii, you owe it to yourself to play Xenoblade Chronicles. It's that simple.