In its heyday, the JRPG was one of the the most well loved, paradigmatic experiences in the entire medium of videogames. Unfortunately, all empires must eventually fall and the the tale of the JRPG has been one of stagnation and decline. Rapid technological improvements brought many eastern studios into an uphill battle, where all too often gameplay suffered at the expense of modern graphics.
We are left with an aging genre where stories are often absurd and incomprehensible, combat is frustrating and needlessly complicated, and high-definition visuals are prioritized above all else. Luckily, Xenoblade Chronicles proves to be a rare exception.
Two gigantic titans were once locked in a timeless battle for superiority amidst a vast ocean. Eons have passed, yet the giant’s lifeless forms remain, frozen in their eternal conflict. Life has taken root on their fossilized bodies. It is on this strange landscape that the story of Xenoblade unfolds.
More than just a back-story, this unique world permeates Xenoblade at nearly every level. Aesthetically, it provides magnificent sights to behold, landscapes that you just wouldn’t be see anywhere else. In addition to lush green countryside, bio-luminescent swamps, and landscapes you’d expect from a science fiction title, there is the strange moment the player looks up for the first time to see the gigantic body of the titan looming above, an ominous, breathtaking sight to behold.
On the narrative front, the fight that once existed between the titans has now been passed to their residents. One titan has been populated by a myriad of creatures, including several colonies of humans, while the other hosts an army of machines intent on the destruction of the colonies. A year ago the humans won a victory over the invading forces of the “Mechon” in a great battle, but they have returned.
The story centers around Shulk, an adolescent boy who wields the Monado — an ancient weapon of untold power. After a surprise attack on his and the grisly murder of a loved one, Shulk and a small party of warriors set off on a suicidal revenge mission to defeat the Mechon. At a glance it looks as though Xenoblade uses a formula seen a thousand times before, but there’s more to this than what meets the eye.
Xenoblade is a lot like your favorite band getting back together for a new project. What first seems like an old, familiar song soon gives way to an incredible amount of depth. It may have been twenty years since you were singing along with them on the radio, but that’s twenty years they’ve had to become better artists, hone their craft and separate what works from what doesn’t.
It’s been a while since JRPG experienced the golden age of the 16-bit era, but it seems like Monolith Software has been taking notes. Everything you love about the genre is here in one form or another and it’s been streamlined with slight improvements that highlight what once made the genre so popular and enjoyable. Even grinding is kept to a minimum, thankfully.
Xenoblade‘s combat system is similar to that of Final Fantasy XII. Combat takes place in an overworld, in real-time, rather than in turn-based attacks on a separate battle screen. Instead of random encounters, enemies can either be approached or lured away from their groups. Particularly aggressive enemies will pursue the player, while others will run for their lives when you attack them.
Standard attacks occur automatically in regular intervals, but do little damage. Special attacks, called arts, are chosen from a “battle palette” at the bottom of the screen. Arts perform a variety of actions from healing and protection spells to knocking enemies off balance so they can be tackled to the ground. During combat a gauge fills that, when full, unleashes a devastating chain attack à la White Knight Chronicles. Chain attacks allow the player to choose arts which each character performs in unison.
The player takes control of one of the party members, each of which fulfills a different role in combat. The tank draws the aggro with the healer shooting from a distance, allowing Shulk to attack from the flanks. The Monado has its own unique set of arts that are unveiled steadily throughout the game and are essential to success in battle. Overall, it’s an engaging, fast-paced, tactical experience that highlights the genre’s best qualities.
Xenoblade may be one of the among the best JRPGs of the generation, but it is far from the prettiest. It goes without saying that this Wii role-player won’t be competing with its peers on a graphical level. That’s not to say that the game looks bad, it just looks like a really nice GameCube game. If you don’t mind looking at Twilight Princess or Shadow of the Colossus you’ll have no problems here.
One of the title’s other flaws lies in the English localization. It’s not terrible, but considering the game is well over 50 hours in length, it can definitely grate on you. Nowhere is this more evident than in battles, where you’ll hear the same one-liners over and over for hours on end. Luckily, there is an option for Japanese voice with English subtitles, and all the terrible can be gone in the click of a button.
There’s so much more to Xenoblade than a story strung along by battle sequences. I could go on and on about the vast world Monolith has created to explore or the side quests, gem crafting, and collectibles that can keep you playing for hours even after the story has run its course. There are even nice, user-friendly touches like fast travel and story memos to help get you back on course with ease if you’ve wandered off the beaten path.
Here lies a game grounded within a genre that refuses to change despite decades of innovation in game design. However, this is far from a bad thing. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Monolith Software has perfected it with subtle enhancements that only serve to streamline and improve the experience. Comfortable to tread on familiar ground and deliver excellence, Nintendo delivers one of the best JRPGs in recent memory with Xenoblade Chronicles.