I can’t sit still. The release of Xenoblade Chronicles over in Europe is just a couple days away, and though I’ve already heard about its tremendous merit from various sources, I took the last hour or so to pore over the Western critics’ reviews, and… wow. Some of the comments I’ve seen regarding what this game accomplishes have me floored. Metro GameCentral and IGN UK call it “the best Japanese role-player of the current generation,” while almost all others refer to it as the biggest, most ambitious, and best content-for-money value game on Wii. As one might expect, the game gets a lot of marks down for its graphics, which because the game is on Wii can’t quite match up to the HD offerings on other consoles, but for Wii owners who are used to what the system can do I’m sure this won’t be a problem.
Now, I realize that critics’ opinions aren’t everything, but by and large even the impressions from gaming laypeople seem to mark this as one of the most noteworthy RPGs this decade (and perhaps even the last two by some accounts). And that the game has succeeded (so far) at attaining the level of critical acclaim we often expect from Nintendo’s longtime legendary franchises is great, but it doesn’t mean that buyers will perceive its value. But make no mistake: this game’s success is extremely important when weighing the future of Nintendo’s attention to both classic and modern gaming values.
Why is that? It’s because of all the gaming values this game embodies: a massive exploration-driven world, engaging real-time combat, well-integrated growth system, and a deep story and rich side content that don’t detract from the core gameplay. These merits are especially important to fans of the Zelda series given the game’s close relationship to classic RPG conventions. I’d go so far to say that this game is as crucial to the future of deep gaming experiences on Nintendo systems as Skyward Sword will be to its own franchise - possibly even more since it’s a totally new IP without the brand recognition the Zelda series has enjoyed since the 80s, and thus its success should testify to its quality, not any existing popularity.
Colony 9 itself is, in a word, huge. No exaggerations are made in saying a good three hours was spent just exploring the town and its surrounding areas without moving the story along in any significant way. The designers at Monolith have absolutely nailed how to create a convincingly large locale: the area eye-poppingly stretches out vertically almost as far as it does horizontally. You can traverse from the lowly beaches and lakes right up to the tip of skyscraper-esque anti-air batteries; hundreds of metres above in virtual distance. But what’s really impressive is just how much this sense of scale is indicative of Xenoblade’s entire world.
Make no mistake, the overworld of Bionis is everything the (mainly internet-generated) hype has made it out to be, and leaves the likes of Zelda and Monster Hunter 3 looking way behind the times. Remember the first screenshots of Twilight Princess back in 2004? We all fantasized about how cool it would be to just go and explore those horizons and beyond, but that sheer level of exploration and freedom never lived up to the pipedream. But that pipedream is here right now, and amazingly, it’s made possible on virtually the same hardware. It is not just the brute size of the world that deserves commending, but how well Monolith has knitted it together. Whereas the overworlds of Twilight Princess and Monster Hunter 3 were much less subtly ‘fractured’, Xenoblade’s lands are tactically built so any necessary loading screens are kept from arbitrary cross-sections of the field and town entrances, instead placed nicely sporadically at the more claustrophobic parts of the world.
Naturally, Monolith’s magic doesn’t come without technical compromise. To compensate for the magnitude of the overworld, you’ll have to put up with circle shadows, the occasional nearer-than-they-anticipated pop-in and some frankly crude close-up textures. But to say that it’s worth it would be something of understatement given that this is still the most beautifully realised world on Wii by a long way. By keeping every last pixel running on the modest in-game engine and sticking to fairly primitive character animations (though that hasn’t stopped the inclusion of some ludicrously over-the-top, Kojima-esque cinematic cut-scenes), the developer has been able to craft a seamless and believable world that is greater than the sum of its vast parts. It may be a cliché, but it truly does breathe life.
The home-console JRPG has been treated shamefully poorly this generation. It is unfair that this fact may go some way in dampening the quickly-building consensus that Xenoblade Chronicles is by some way the best title that the genre has produced for years. But make no mistake; we have something special on our hands here. Not only is it easily the most exciting original IP to release on Wii, it is that brand new, quality, hardcore Nintendo title that her fans have been screaming out for since the dawn of the console. You will be exploring, collecting and side-questing for months to come. Then in years to come, once the dust has settled, Xenoblade Chronicles might just be whispered on the lips of Nintendo gamers in the same unparalleled regard as Tales of Symphonia, The World Ends With You and Chrono Trigger. Take up the Monado; it’s time to go and discover a whole new world.
On the presentation side, as already touched upon, Xenoblade excels considerably, with nearly no loading times to be found, and the few that are in there last only a couple of seconds. Monolith Soft has tweaked the game perfectly so that the sprawling landscape can be navigated without the need for constant loading screens, á la Monster Hunter tri.
The depth and assortment of tasks that can be carried out in Xenoblade Chronicles is truly immense. When in villages and towns there is the chance to relate to certain locals, with an Affinity Chart tracking the named folk you have conversed with, which can result in unexpected reactions when returning to speak to one of these newfound ‘friends’ at a later stage, with other people from the Affinity Chart sometimes joining in to form group conversations. This is completely irrelevant to the completion of Xenoblade Chronicles, yet is another example of the extra care and attention poured into the project by Monolith Soft, allowing gamers to engage with other characters and track the changes in rapport, chatting to certain people about friends of theirs that you recently met, adding a pleasant sense of realism to proceedings. Affinity also comes into play when completing quests. Whilst meandering you will spot people with exclamation marks above their heads, indicating they have a request that needs completing, such as finding a missing engagement ring, collecting scales from enemies to forge a shield, or grabbing a special item to fix someone’s net. Numerous quests can be taken at any time, and upon finding the required item(s), the quest automatically closes and your affinity to that person increases. The same can happen when trading with inhabitants of the region, handing over items of greater value than the ones taken in return. The level of intricacy is astonishing.
There is level of encouragement to explore far and wide, with a whole host of hidden extras left lying around the world to be added to the player’s collection, and a bonus boost to the character’s experience and overall level for uncovering new, never before seen landmarks. Care must be taken when venturing into unknown territories, though, as monsters of a considerably higher level than Shulk will make a beeline for him, swatting him down like a fly with no hesitation. When enemies appear on the upper-right map/radar, tapping L or R can make Shulk target a creature from far off so that its name and status can be viewed from afar, and a wide berth can be taken if it looks out of your league. There will also be times when, upon rounding a corner, you are suddenly faced with an out of the ordinary beast that is not normally found simply skulking about in the general vicinity, and overcoming these will offer up unique bonuses, yet great care must be taken as they are normally no pushover.
Nintendo Wii owners have been waiting for something truly epic to grace the system since launch, and whilst there are superb experiences in the action and platform genres, RPGs have been rather thin on the ground. [...] Now Monolith Soft’s grand Xenoblade Chronicles has arrived, bringing with it an sterling soundtrack, a phenomenal visual impact, vast amount of customisation, intriguing story and massive value for money. With it definitely proving itself to be of the highest calibre on Wii, it is time for RPG fans to take a stand and show their appreciation for this sublime classic.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a rare exception [to the JRPG decline]. Here is an endlessly lavish, detailed production based in a newborn universe that is not only filled with unfamiliar faces but also brims with daring ideas and mechanics. Indisputably, this Wii game - released in the twilight months of its host console - is the strongest JRPG to emerge in years. Its vision is so bold and assured that it’s difficult to imagine how such a creature could have risen from this brackish swamp of a genre.
The Bionis has a pleasing sense of ecosystem. Creatures great and small roam its hills, valleys and fields. Some of these are of a friendly disposition and will leave you well alone unless you attack first. Others are aggressive and will hunt you down. Some respond to sound, others to sight and you’ll regularly pass giant beasts 50 or 60 levels your senior. Hack away at one of these monsters and you’ll be felled in a single hit.
Further responsibility for your own wellbeing comes because this is a world without borders. No invisible wall will protect you from a cliff edge, and while sheer drops are occasionally used to provide some Zelda-style secret areas, a tumble from the wrong ledge will prove fatal.
Xenoblade Chronicles may lack the universal appeal of Miyamoto’s adventure series; its tendency toward team management makes this a game for those who prize complexity and numbers over economy and colours. But it shares Hyrule’s all-important sense of place and delivers that same heady shot of wonder to the spirit as you explore.
No Japanese RPG has more successfully married its various components this hardware generation. It’s a game that invites us to reassess an entire genre, pointing to a bold future while nodding its respect towards the past. It’s a towering triumph.
That’s what’s really at the core of Xenoblade Chronicles’ brilliance: it defies your expectations. After the corridors of FF XIII, the openness of this world is a revelation, as is the unselfconscious plotting. It’s got a lot of action and some moments that pack an emotional punch, but none of the pompousness and melodrama of less accomplished Japanese epics. I’d forgotten that JRPGs could be anything other than depressingly linear and a heavily over-written; we’ve grown to accept it as a feature of the genre, one we have to live with. Xenoblade Chronicles shows us that things don’t have to be this way, that there’s still room for innovation in this struggling genre.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the best Japanese RPG of this generation. The fact that it looks like it’s from the last generation is its only drawback, but its technical limitations are offset by imaginative artistic direction, innovative and compelling combat, and thoughtful design. It’s a throwback to the glory days of the genre, proof that there are always new ways to tell a story. If you’ve ever felt neglected by the lack of in-depth gaming epics on the Wii, you owe it to yourself to buy this.
It’d be a shame for all this potential to go to waste, particularly given the Wii’s otherwise largely barren lineup this year and the fact that this is by far the most noteworthy RPG to come to the system during its entire lifetime. If you live in Europe and you’ve ever enjoyed falling into a magnificent video game world or if you love deep, well-articulated game story experiences, I implore you to pick this one up. It’d be a sign of good faith in these elements and hopefully drive games like this on Wii U.