Is Xenoblade the Greatest JRPG of This Generation?
HIGH Taking down a rare monster ten levels higher than your party with Melia in the lead.
LOW Traipsing through seemingly endless sidequests to build affinity.
WTF The ending is weirdly reminiscent of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hailed as one of the greatest Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) of this generation, Xenoblade Chronicles almost didn't make it to American shores. Nintendo localized Monolith Soft's game for a European audience, but only deigned to release it here in the States after a letter writing and petition-signing campaign dubbed Project Rainfall rallied groundswell support. Now that Tetsuya Takahashi's latest tale of men, mechs, and gods has arrived on our shores, it's time to answer the questions: Does Xenoblade live up to the hype that preceded it? Is this the savior of the once proud JRPG subgenre? The answers aren't as clear-cut as one might hope.
The most important thing to realize about Xenoblade is that it's not really a traditional JRPG. The game is something of a hybrid—one containing numerous nods to its roots while not being afraid to borrow from modern western games. It almost feels like a spiritual sibling to Sega's Binary Domain—a shooter with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic when it comes to character and narrative, and a western philosophy in terms of game design. Xenoblade attempts to be another blended game like Binary by telling the kind of narrative-driven tale that's become the standard for Japanese-developed RPGs while marrying it with the more open-world and action-oriented approach of games like World of Warcraft. The results of both experiments are satisfying, although each contains issues that keep them from being perfect.
To start with, Xenoblade is filled with content—it's entirely possible to spend 150+ hours doing everything that's available—but much of it tears players away from the game's main focus. It's similar to Skyrim, except Xenoblade's main quest is longer, more engaging, and more relevant to the experience than the one in Bethesda's popular title. Finishing the main quest in Xenoblade is never an afterthought.
Sidequests are skippable, but some offer impressive rewards like additional skill trees that make missing them detrimental to the overall experience. The real shame is that these quests are easily missed because Xenoblade relies on an "affinity" system to unlock them. In order to increase affinity in a region, completing lots of relatively pointless missions is necessary. Skip those, and the skill tree quests never unlock. It's a troubling design choice. In fact, the sidequests are a catch-22 all the way around. Doing them unlocks new skills and rewards players with other goodies, but it also leaves them overleveled for most of the main story encounters. The balance is just a little off.
What isn't off is the game's story. The narrative doesn't tread far from the standard JRPG motif of ragtag adventurers saving the world, but it gets just enough distance to feel unique. Director Tetsuya Takahashi is known for fusing philosophy and religion into the often emo confines of the genre (Xenogears and Xenosaga were both successful in this regard), and this outing is no exception.
Xenoblade features a multitude of lifeforms that dwell on the bodies of two giant, god-like creatures who died while engaging in combat. Our heroes hail from Bionis, but they're at odds with the mech-like citizenry of the other deity on Mechonis. Shulk, a young Hom (the game's human representation) wields an ancient sword known as The Monado in hopes of seeking revenge against the mechs who threaten his homeworld. Of course, by the time the final cut-scene concludes, this simple tale of duty and revenge morphs into something else entirely—something reminiscent not only of Takahashi's earlier works, but things like the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey too.
The cast of characters aren't particularly original—truthfully, they're all almost exactly like someone featured in Square Enix's Final Fantasy X—but the English voice actors help them rise above their archetypal roots. The British cast provides a welcome change of pace when compared to their American counterparts—offering a sense of gravitas and depth that's sadly lacking in most modern JRPG performances.
Meanwhile, the combat strives to riff on both the Active Time Battle System of various Final Fantasies and the hotbar/cooldown combos of modern MMOs. Xenoblade teaches players a lot of MMO jargon— words like "buffs" and "aggro" and "cooldowns"—as part of its numerous tutorials. Anyone who's spent time in an MMO will be instantly at home with Xenoblade's combat, while everyone else will be ready to hit the ground running should they ever hop over to something like World of Warcraft.
Parties consist of three members, with the player controlling one while the AI controls the others. The game's AI is good—teammates will heal and revive the main character in a timely fashion and often use the appropriate moves at the right times. The exception to this is Melia, the game's most powerful character. An AI-controlled Melia is underwhelming, while a player-controlled one will literally destroy worlds. It seems like a conscious design choice on Monolith's part—having the AI-controlled Melia deal this kind of damage would be potentially gamebreaking.
The other issues with Xenoblade are minor. The game tends to explain things poorly (and a few things not at all...), but players can revisit the tutorials if they're unclear. The graphics, while not high def because of the Wii platform, are still breathtaking—except for player faces. The characters all have these really creepy dead eyes—it's disturbing. The lack of an "equip best" feature seems odd in a modern game, particularly one that throws so much gear at players as it progresses. I lost count of how many hours I spent scrolling through equipment to see it if it was an upgrade or not.
When factoring all the pluses and minuses together, it's clear that Xenoblade Chronicles is not the "savior of the JRPG" as some have proclaimed—and that the statement probably wasn't fair in the first place. Instead, it's a really good JRPG that looks to broaden the genre's horizons in terms of design and aesthetics. In this capacity, it mostly succeeds. Xenoblade's a lengthy game with a lot for players to sink their teeth into that never quite wears out its welcome (although there are moments where it comes close...). Takahashi has crafted what may be his most perfectly realized game to date, and it's my hope that we'll see more from this universe in the future. Xenoblade may not be the greatest JRPG ever, but it's certainly one of the best games on the Nintendo Wii.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Wii. Approximately 111 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time). There is no multiplayer.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, mild language, partial nudity, use of alcohol and tobacco. Xenoblade may feature a Teen rating, but the content isn't particularly objectionable. Parents should be more concerned about younger gamers being overwhelmed by all the various gameplay mechanics on display than questionable content. The story is fairly complex and features some philosophical weight—which will certainly be lost on younger players.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Hearing impaired gamers can approach Xenoblade without trepidation. The game is fully voice acted, but also features subtitles for everything but battle commentary. The only real concerns here are that musical cues often indicate when the party has inadvertently drawn the attention of a tough beast in the wild, and missing out on the game's beautiful musical score.