Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those games that by now I imagine most people who frequent this or other gaming sites on a somewhat regular basis have at least heard of. It’s been called the inheritor of the lost legacy of the JRPGs of old, a true modernization of the subgenre, and a bunch of other things. The promise of a large, open world, that trademark back to basics feeling of growth that first popularized RPGs, and over a hundred hours of content were enough to get me interested, so when the game finally hit North American shores on April 6, I picked it up on launch day.
I’m not sure whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate that the North American release of Xenoblade Chronicles coincided with the beginning of a month-long lapse in my Internet coverage. Well, it’s clear that it was fortunate for my ability to fully play through the game - by which I mean about a 95% rate of completion. I don’t think I can say the same for my social life, though… This game is freaking huge - definitely as large as advertised - and proves that you don’t need to be Skyrim to provide a gigantic world for players to dive into.
One of the things that impressed me right off the bat was that, while there’s definitely a story path to follow, the game allows for and in most cases actively encourages branching out and exploring on your own. The game’s very first real objective had me follow a path to the first colony so I could visit a lab, but once I reached the outskirts of town I turned tail, leaped over the edge of the bridge into the massive lake below, and took off. A good four hours and several sidequests later, I’d explored most (not all) of the surrounding area, fought a bunch of monsters, died a few times, and racked up a number of flashy weapons and gear in the process. I don’t think there’s really been a time that I could say this for a Nintendo title before. Usually I would have hit a dead-end pretty quickly, or else there wouldn’t have been nearly so much to explore.
That it took me four hours to fully digest the game’s opening area is a testament to how supremely giant Xenoblade is. Not only is the city at the center fairly large, it’s dwarfed by the size of the lake, the sheer height of the cliffs overlooking it, the various beaches, hills, and grottoes dotting the area. That’s what I love most about the game’s world - it’s a solid blend of consistency and variety, and a good balance between scale and substance. You’ll get your sweeping, open grass fields, but they’ll segue to a waterfall ruin, a secret cave leading to a monsters’ hideout, a cliff overlooking the sea. The game world is definitely the game’s primary selling point, and for good reason.
There are a few moments where the game design seems either unnecessarily big or uncharacteristically compact at first glance, but there’s always a reason behind it that’ll become clear as you progress. The home of the game’s elegant magical race stands out as the most glaring example; at first it just seems tediously huge, but later on the space is put to good use in ways I won’t spoil here.
Visually, the game represents its artwork well - even if technically it cuts a few corners. Grass and a few background elements are static flat objects, textures aren’t necessarily the best but look great at a distance (which is probably how you’ll experience them most of the time), character models don’t try too hard and suffer a bit for it, but as I said the art is still nice and still carries through in the game’s graphics. The soundtrack is also top-notch, not fully live or anything but dynamic and ambitious enough to match the game world’s scale and some of the more emotional notes of the story. Some tracks are repeated a bit much for my liking, but what can you do?
Don’t take that to mean that the battle system isn’t any good, though. This may not be the turn-based fare many genre fans are used to - it’s more of an action-based conversion of popular MMORPG systems, complete with cooldown for abilities, more modernized battle roles like Tank (draw enemy attacks), Caster (launch massive magic attacks) and Healer (restore health and cast buffs/debuffs), and the like - but it’s an engaging system. Things may seem simple - characters automatically attack and use various Arts (special abilities) to get the upper hand - but there’s a lot more beneath the surface.
Some arts require characters to stand behind their enemies to achieve their full effects. Others generate Auras that grant various effects, such as gradual healing, improved stats, and the like. Of course, some Arts function as more traditional spells. You won’t see the long laundry lists of available actions per character, grabbing stronger versions that render older spells obsolete unless you’re running low on magic. Instead the system focuses on granting fewer abilities that are remain useful throughout the entire game. Selecting which Arts your character will bring into battle is key; some arts combo well, especially between characters, others don’t play so nicely. You’ll have to experiment and find out which combinations work best for your style of play.
The game’s most unique battle element is the Visions system, which warns you of an enemy’s upcoming attack. Certain attacks are powerful and require a barrier move to avoid, others require a boost in speed. Shulk’s mighty sword, the Monado, can offer the best assistance in response to these warnings, but other characters have their own ways of dealing with Visions. Other standout elements include the Topple system, which briefly stuns enemies and is required to damage certain enemies and bosses in certain circumstances and can be exploited for massive damage even against high-level monsters with the right setup. There’s a bit of a learning curve for some of these elements, but that just goes to show how much there is to play around with in terms of battle mechanics.
Each character is unique as well, and focus on various skill sets. I’ve alluded to battle roles already - every character has a niche or two to fill, and you can choose to make them as specialized or generalized as you like. You can deck them out with tons of equipment - all of which is reflected visually in your characters’ appearances, even in cutscenes - and customize their gear with special ether Gems to further improve various stats. Want someone who’s good at dodging enemies? Slap on some light armor and give him Agility Gems. Want a character who can take a real beating before going down? Try heavier gear decked out with HP and defensive Gems. Mixing and matching Gems based on the characters’ needs and battle scenarios is in my opinion a much deeper system than many of the weapon crafting or fusing mechanics from other equip-based RPGs.
As I said, the game rewards you for diligently exploring, and that’s true for battles as well. I don’t recall ever having to “grind” in order to reach a high enough level to fight certain enemies or progress through the game. Simply touring the world and fighting monsters as you go is enough. Every new area you track down, every sidequest you complete, and every monster you fight will contribute to your characters’ skill levels. There’s also a deep affinity system that improves your relationship between characters - and I’m not just talking party members, but NPCs as well. Improving affinity gives you special access to certain sidequests and hidden events between party members (called “Heart-to-Hearts”). What’s more, the higher the affinity between party characters, the more they can help each other out by offering aid in combat or sharing unique battle skills. Raise affinity by completing sidequests, talking to NPCs, and interacting with your party.
Sidequests are a bit of a mixed bag. There are a lot of them - over 400 in total, but I’d be lying if I said the overwhelming majority of these quests have a lot of depth to them. They mostly consist of simple fetch quests or monster hunts, occasionally requiring you to track down a missing character or two, although there are quite a few running sideplots that reminded me of some of the best moments in Majora’s Mask. Their saving grace comes from the fact that almost all of them are designed to be found and completed concurrently with careful, natural exploration of the world. It’s not too hard to rack up the required collectibles simply from being thorough as you travel, and there are only a handful of cases where you need to fight some ridiculous number of a specific type of monster or track down a tediously obscure pickup or rare drop.
Of course, actually finding the sidequests is often an ordeal in and of itself. Every named NPC is involved in some quest or set of quests somehow, which means that in order to complete everything, you need to track down every character in the game, some of whom only show up at certain times of day or night, figure out their schedules and memorize their locations (the game doesn’t effectively do this, although it keeps much better track of quests once they’re in progress), and check back every time you boost your affinity in their region or complete certain story events. It’s basically an impossible task - there’s a reason people say this game basically requires a guide of some sort to complete 100%.
Now, on the bright side, there’s a chart that helps keep track of these characters by listing their active hours, who they share affinity with, and so on, but it’s not nearly as detailed as it could be. I’ve already mentioned that the game doesn’t give their specific location, but it also doesn’t offer an easy way to access their information directly from related quest information. Even just going so far as to interlink quest lists with the character chart would have worked wonders for the tedium of the sidequests. There’s something to be said for having to figure out things on your own, but on this scale the demands are somewhat unreasonable. (See the “Tips for Enjoying Xenoblade Chronicles” section at the end of my review for some information on how to best approach sidequests.)
Honestly, though, this is the game’s most glaring flaw. And while I realize fetch quests, affinity building, and even exploring a wide open world isn’t necessarily for everybody, fortunately, none of this is required - you can go through the game just fighting monsters and following the story if you’d like. The story isn’t some huge epic with a mega long script, brilliant writing, or anything - when I say this game’s emphasis is on the “chronicles” part I’m referring to the sheer volume of content, not the plot - but it still offers ample lore, character development, and plot twists, without throwing too many cutscenes at you every five feet as many JRPGs are apt to do these days.
Everything flows together. The story drops you into the world and gives you goalposts to aim for. The world gives you options, secrets to find, monsters to fight, sidequests to complete, and so on. Sidequests boost your affinity, strengthen your party, give you items and Gems, and ultimately feed right back into exploring the world, fighting those monsters, and progressing through the story. It’s a synergy that’s long made RPGs tick, but that’s especially prevalent in Xenoblade.
There are also plenty of handy player-friendly elements. There’s an in-game clock that you can change at any time. You can warp to any previously-visited Landmark (except in rare circumstances) and can save almost anywhere on the map. Occasionally the game’s Vision system will warn you if certain items will be needed for sidequests later on - this is true for most of the harder-to-find stuff. It’s all designed to make sure the player can proceed through the game without being too bogged down by its scale. It does a good job at partially mitigating some of the problems with sidequest tedium, but doesn’t totally make up for those shortcomings. Still, it’s a nice gesture and takes a bit of the edge off of what’s already an overwhelming experience.
All in all, what I like best about this game is that it’s geared towards letting players follow their interests. Want to just break away from the story and explore? Go right ahead. Want to talk to everybody in town? You’ll probably find a plethora of sidequests in the process. Want to run around fighting monsters? There are tons of them - including hundreds of tougher unique enemies. Want to check out that waterfall in the distance? You can probably swim there. Want to just sit back and enjoy the shooting stars? Well, good thing there are shooting stars. The game’s paced well enough to let you do all that at your leisure… and (as far as I know) you’ll never break your game in the process. When I say this game focuses on “chronicles,” I mean it focuses on giving the players lots of ways to “chronicle” his or her own experience.
Every adventure game needs to reach for this level of scale and player freedom. There’s something to be said for quality over quantity, but I’m a big believer that quality doesn’t have to entail a lack of quantity. If you have the right talent focusing on increasing the scale, and the right talent focusing on meting out compelling content in the midst of that scale, you don’t have to sacrifice either. Start with those high-quality elements, and create an impressive expanse between them. Now that I’ve played it, I know it’s doable. I won’t agree that Xenoblade Chronicles is the RPG of forever, but I can say that it represents a lot of those qualities that RPGs - no, all games - should aspire to.