First of all: as always, expect a few minor spoilers in this review. Nothing that would ruin your enjoyment of the game, I promise. Still, I suppose it’s better to put a warning just to be safe.
If you have any interest in JRPGs, then you probably have heard about a science-fiction Wii game made by Monolith Soft and released between 2010 and 2012 (yes, I’ll come back to that) called Xenoblade Chronicles. Before I started playing it, the hype was insane. I haven’t found a single review that gave it a score below 90%, and all I could see everywhere was endless praise. Since it got a remake on the new 3DS earlier this year, and a new Xenoblade game was also released not too long ago (though as of this writing, not in North America and Europe yet), I figured I might as well review it.
While it’s obvious that no game can live up to so much hype, the fact is: overall, Xenoblade is indeed pretty good. Interestingly enough, what actually made me want to play it seems quite trivial. I was watching a small part of a Let’s Play just to have a general idea of what the fuss was about. And upon seeing the strangely mismatched gears on some of the characters, I realized that all the different pieces of equipment are actually visible ingame. This allows for a relatively high level of character customization.
In my opinion, the game succeeds in pretty much every aspect: world building, gameplay, music, characters, even the story to some extent. In many ways, it’s easy to understand the hype. In fact, I would go as far as to call Xenoblade the Chrono Trigger of this generation. (Well, obviously it’s not AS good as Chrono Trigger, but the current generation takes what it can get.) Actually, the story partly reminded me of Chrono Cross; unfortunately I can’t explain why, because it would spoil both games.
But the comparison with Chrono Trigger doesn’t stop there. Both games use the concept of time, and more specifically time manipulation, as the main story and gameplay element. While Chrono Trigger had time travel, the main selling point of Xenoblade is the ability to see glimpses of the future. For a certain number of reasons, the protagonist of Xenoblade, Shulk, comes into possession of a special sword. This sword (which, confusingly enough is not called the “Xenoblade” but rather the “Monado”) gives him a certain number of abilities, most importantly: occasional visions of the future.
On one hand, it drives the plot. Since Shulk can foresee future events, the characters can decide what to do next to deal with said events or to prevent them. This doesn’t ever become a deus ex machina either; Shulk cannot control his visions, and they happen sporadically.
On the other hand, it’s a crucial part of the gameplay. When you are in battle, you will occasionally have a vision of an enemy doing a very powerful attack that will most likely kill or severely injure one of your characters. But because you are warned in advance, you have a few seconds to figure out what to do to prevent it. It opens a lot of strategic options: do you create a magic shield that only lasts long enough to block the oncoming attack if timed perfectly? Do you use one of the Monado’s powers to raise the character’s speed and hope he or she dodges the attack? Or maybe you’ll even try to focus on the threatening enemy if you think you can manage to kill it before the timer runs out. This is a great concept because it’s yet again one of those examples of story and gameplay mixing together. I wish we could see that more often in the AAA video game industry.
When it comes to the plot, the main idea is that there is a conflict between the living creatures, including humans (called “Homs”) and the Mechons, a race a robotic creatures. The main enemies are the mysterious “face units”. Unlike ordinary Mechons, they have a very human-like face, which gives quite an uncanny feeling. The faced Mechons truly feel like an ominous and intriguing presence early on in the game. You eventually learn about their origins and the reason for their existence; I won’t spoil it, but it’s a really clever plot point.
Of course, the plot has a few twists as one would expect. But there is a particularly bewildering writing decision that started the increasingly long list of things that pulled me out of the story. Bear with me here. There is a major character who betrays you a bit before the end of the game. Which would come as a shock and presumably a big surprise that you currently hate me for spoiling; if it wasn’t for the fact that the character in question has a line early on it the story that basically says: “I feel bad for having to betray them”. I can’t think of any good reason for that line being there, and all it ended up doing was make the “big twist” completely anticlimactic. Not to mention, in the end, the motivations of this particular character as well as the motivations of the main antagonist can be described as really unclear at best, and a complete inconsistent mess at worst. There is an intriguing scene just before the very end that seems like it could give a very interesting explanation to the origin of the main antagonist and the world itself; but it’s so confusing and underdeveloped that it just raises more questions. It really feels like the writers were pressed for time and had to dump all the reveals they had planned for the ending as quickly as they could.
So yes, generally speaking, the writing goes downhill has the game progresses. But for the record, it’s a pretty tall hill; by that I mean that thankfully, it never actually becomes “bad”. Much more interesting than the plot though, is the world building, which is absolutely fantastic. As it happens, you are not on a planet; you are on the body of an unspeakably gigantic titan. There are two titans: the Bionis, where the Homs and all the others races of creatures live; and the Mechonis, where the Mechons come from. The titans are apparently sleeping (“locked in a timeless battle” according to the opening narration). The contrast between the two is pretty evident. The Bionis is full of life and diverse locations: a grassy field, a snowy mountain, a swamp that becomes phosphorescent at night, a tropical forest… (Incidentally, here is another similarity with Chrono Trigger: you have robots, magic, and dinosaurs all coexisting in the same universe (!). How many stories out there manage to pull that off?) The Mechonis, on the other hand, is a completely metallic and homogenous world. Unlike the diversity of landscapes found on the Bionis, all the areas in the Mechonis look similar and lifeless, which, fittingly, gives them a cold and oppressing feel. In any case, when you travel through all the amazing locations of the Xenoblade universe, you may forget that all that takes place of the body of a titan. But there are several instances of great visual design that will remind you of it (such as the Fallen Arm, which is exactly what it sounds like; or the sword of the Mechonis, lodged into the Bionis’ body, which acts as a fortress connecting both titans).
Just a small note, though: game designers of the world, if you’re going to make a place inaccessible to the player after a certain point in the story, then please, at least don’t make it spawn items necessary for sidequests that cannot be obtained anywhere else.
Just a quick mention of the combat system. At first it may seem really complex, especially if you watch someone else play the game. But it’s actually much simpler than it looks. You have three characters in your group, but you only control the party leader while the other two are controlled by the AI. It happens in real time, but all the characters’ special abilities (called “arts”) have a cooldown. It reminds me of Kindgom Hearts: Birth by Sleep: in a typical battle, you would constantly be using arts, so you would keep selecting different ones as soon as their cooldown is over. Unlike Kingdom Hearts though, you don’t attack the enemy directly. Whenever a character is not using an art, they automatically do normal (i.e. weaker) attacks if the enemy is in range. This applies to the party leader too. Also different is the fact that you cannot jump during battle, neither can you roll or do anything similar to try and dodge enemy attacks. (Even running away so that you’re not in range of the incoming attack won’t work; when an enemy is using an attack, you will receive the damage no matter what). Ultimately, there aren’t that many variables that you can control; the combat system in Xenoblade is less about reflexes and more about planning when and how to use your abilities. So even though battles happen in real time, it feels much more like turn-based combat. Also worth noting is the fact that there are no “potions” or healing items of any kind. All your healing abilities are arts, and as soon as the battle is over, your health regenerates completely in a matter of seconds. Finally, there is “party gauge” that you can fill by doing certain actions. It is used for several things such as revive your allies in battle or use a “chain attack” (in which all three characters attack together if the gauge is full).
My final verdict: the combat system is fun. It looks complex, but in reality there is quite an elegant simplicity in it. I spent more than 100 hours on the game, and while there are certain aspects that eventually bored me, the battles were never one of them.
Lastly, let’s talk about the characters. But first, one thing worth mentioning is that, for some obscure reason, Xenoblade almost didn’t get released in North America (which is why the North American release date was in 2012, months after the European and Australian version). So, since the game was localized in Europe, all the characters have a British accent. That, I find, was a nice detail that added quite a bit of personality to the world. This applies to the interface too; in most RPGs, you wear armor and pants to increase your defense. In Xenoblade, you wear armour and trousers to increase your defence.
“You’re not invincible!”
The main character, obviously. There isn’t much to say about him; by himself, he doesn’t seem particularly interesting. What makes him truly work is his interactions with the other characters. A good example is his friendship with Reyn, which you can witness from the very beginning of the game. It feels really genuine, and it definitely conveys the idea that these two will always have each other’s backs. I also like that, unlike the standard RPG protagonist, Shulk isn’t particularly heroic. At the beginning of the game, after the inciting incident, he is driven not by a will to save the world or bring peace, but simply by revenge. As motivations go, there are worst ways to begin a story. And in the context of this particular story, it makes him quite relatable.
In battle, Shulk is pretty much essential (at least for most of the boss fights) due to his unique abilities. While it’s not actually necessary to have Shulk in the party to get visions, he’s the only one who can reliably deal with their outcome, thanks to the various powers of the Monado. Other than that, he is pretty balanced, and has a basic healing art, making him one of the only three characters able to heal others in battle.
“Man, what a bunch of jokers!”
Shulk’s best friend. At first he seems like he is going to follow the archetype of the “dumb big guy”; the muscle to Shulk’s brain, if you will. But the game actually subverts that, and it turns out that Reyn isn’t particularly dumb (at the beginning anyway; as we have established, the quality of the writing does decrease as the game progresses.) To me, Reyn’s defining character moment was right after the inciting incident, when he goes and talks to Shulk. The audience as well as Shulk himself expect the boring moment when the hero’s best friend tries to dissuade him from going on his crazy quest for revenge. But again, the game subverts that: Reyn is not only completely OK with Shulk’s goal, he is determined to come with him, is driven by the same motivations, and even says that he would have suggested they go on that quest even if Shulk hadn’t already made up his mind.
In battle, Reyn clearly has the role of the “tank”: he is the bulkiest character, which means he is the one who takes care of taking damage from the enemy and protecting the other characters. Several of his arts are designed to taunt enemies so that they focus their attacks on him instead. But he also has some pretty strong physical arts that make him perfectly capable to contribute in term of dealing damage.
“Born in a world of strife,
Against the odds,
We choose to fight!”
I really like Dunban because he reminds me of those larger-than-life characters shouting their battle quotes in Valkyrie Profile. Dunban is pretty much the “mentor” character; an older but more experienced fighter who accompanies the younger generation on their quest. He also has just as much of a reason to be seeking revenge as Shulk and Reyn, if not even more so (I won’t say why since I don’t want to spoil the inciting incident), but he is wiser and more reasonable in the way he deals with it.
In battle, Dunban is decent in pretty much everything without actually excelling at anything in particular. It’s worth noting that many of his arts work as combos, and have to be used in quick succession for maximum effectiveness. As fun as it is to play as Dunban, I would recommend letting the AI control him, because at least the AI won’t fail half the time when doing his “Blossom Dance” art (or maybe it’s just me).
“Gotta cool off… OKAY!”
Sharla is another great example of the game subverting clichés. She is the main healer of the group; but she’s not the stereotypically frail and girly healer who uses a magic rod. Instead, she’s someone with a strong personality (again, if we ignore the later quality drop of the writing) who fights with a gun. Actually, the gun is used both as a weapon and as a healing device. And as hilarious a concept as it is to heal allies by shooting them, it actually makes sense in context (“ether rounds” are apparently the most effective way to heal unless you can control ether directly).
Obviously, Sharla’s main role in battle is to heal and use supportive skills on allies. I found that I ended up playing as Sharla most of the time, because I don’t like having to rely on the AI when it comes to healing. Other than that, Sharla can inflict status effects on enemies. There is a special chain of status effect that allow to “instant kill” an enemy if you manage to inflict them in quick succession, which, in true RPG fashion, will absolutely never work. There is also the annoying fact that Sharla’s rifle will overheat after a certain number of uses, which forces her to pause for a few seconds: “venting heat”. It means you have to be careful about when and how to use her arts. Still, her fighting abilities do come in handy somewhat since she can attack from a long range.
“Take me lightly at your peril.”
Also known as “Clara from Doctor Who”. (No really, she’s voiced by Jenna Coleman, which I found was a fun bit of trivia.) Anyway, Melia first appears as the “arrogant upper class character” archetype. Fortunately she quickly gets over it and forms close bonds of trust and friendship with the rest of the group. Her side-story is probably the most developed out of all the characters and is actually central to the advancement of the plot. Through the course of the game, Melia develops into a deep and layered character with a strong determination. Saying too much about her would get into spoiler territory, but suffice to say… she gets through a lot during the story.
In battle, she’s really interesting because her playstyle differs greatly from the other characters. She’s the closest thing to a “mage”. Her arts consist in summoning the power of the elements. She can then either use them as “buffs” (which increase the abilities of her allies as well as herself) or she can sacrifice this “aura” of sorts and release the elements into a powerful magical attack. It gets more powerful the more you use it, which means Melia can end of unleashing devastating bursts of flames or thunder. And surprisingly, she can be pretty decent in physical combat too. For one thing, she is the only character with a combo that can reliably inflict the “topple” status (which is important, because for most of the game it’s the only way to damage Mechons with weapons other than the Monado).
“Riki like fighting EASY monsters!”
When I realized we were going to get the “cute mascot character” in our group, I thought: “Urgh… do we HAVE to?” But eventually I grew attached to the little guy. First of all, the game continues to subvert expectations. Don’t let Riki’s appearance and manner of speaking fool you: those are just traits common to all members of his race, the Nopons. Riki is in fact a 40-year-old father of many children who joins Shulk in his adventure officially because he is the chosen hero of the Nopons, but in reality because he has a lot of debts to pay. Other than his introduction, he doesn’t have a lot of importance in the main plot, and his role is mainly to uplift everyone’s spirit.
In battle, Riki is surprisingly versatile. He has an insane amount of HP which means he can tank just as well as Reyn. His physical arts are unimpressive, but he’s the only character other than Sharla and Shulk who can reliably heal allies. He also has a unique and incredibly useful art that can fill the party gauge. Other than that, he can steal experience and items from the enemy which is kind of nice I guess.
Oh and, whatever you do, don’t bring Riki in a fight when you’re in shallow water. You’ll know why if you try it.
“Sorry, not interested in that future.”
And, unfortunately, there is no way to talk about this character without spoilers. Still, even if you know she will be the seventh playable character, you’ll still need context from the story to know how and why.
Fiora is in the awkward position of being absent for half of the game. This means that, by the time she joins the group, chances are you will already be attached to the other characters, and she’ll feel like a third wheel. Let’s mention a specific example.
Xenoblade makes a big deal out of character relationships. There is an affinity system, and even an affinity chart that links every single character, even minor NPCs, together. You can increase your affinity with characters all over the world by doing sidequests (you know, if you have a lot of time on your hands). But the main point is to reinforce relationships between the playable characters, because it gives you a few gameplay benefits (for example, they become more efficient when doing a chain attack). When you get Fiora, you will most likely have pretty good affinity levels between the six other characters; but Fiora, being new in the group, has a lot of catching up to do since she will start at the lowest affinity level with everyone (except Shulk). When I was starting to get used to the affinity system, I thought: “Right then! So I’m going to max out everyone’s affinity with everyone. And Maybe I’ll be rewarded for my hard work by getting an alternate ending”. Because I was under the mistaken impression that Xenoblade was going for a system similar to Fire Emblem. As it turns out, it was completely pointless. No matter what affinity level you reach between any of your characters, or indeed any of the countless characters on the affinity chart, the ending will always be the same and the story will not be altered in any way. And to take a more concrete example: it doesn’t matter if, say, you max out Shulk’s affinity with Melia (which is what I did first). Story-wise, Shulk and Fiora will always have the strongest bond. Considering that Fiora was absent for such a long part of the game, this feels rather forced. She didn’t get to travel and fight alongside the other characters during their journey, so this bond didn’t develop organically. We have a clear case of telling instead of showing.
Unfortunately, even in battle, first impressions let Fiora down (I’m not talking about her brief playable time at the beginning of the game, which was perfectly all right). Her attacks are simply too slow. Fiora herself is actually quite fast, paradoxically, but the problem is that most of her arts have a long animation, which makes her fighting style feel sluggish and frustrating. Still, if you give her a chance, you’ll eventually realize that she gets some of the most powerful arts in the game, so she’s actually pretty useful.
To wrap this up: assuming you have enough time to invest in such a long game, Xenoblade Chronicles is definitely worth playing. It has flaws, many of which I didn’t even have time to mention here, but what it does right clearly outweighs its weaker parts. Despite the issues I raised in the above paragraph, I did find all the characters likeable (well, except the badly-written main antagonist, but he doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things). The story has some really good moments, the world building is absolutely amazing, and the gameplay is a ton of a fun. Xenoblade may not be the perfect game I was led to believe it would be, but it’s still a really great experience.
…So, since those were the concluding words… Why is this “part 1”?
Read “part 2” to find out!
– Number 5