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.
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Didn’t realize we didn’t have a review of it until you pointed it out. I thought for sure we did.
I’ve never written about FFXII anywhere, oddly enough. I’m sure there must have been a reason why at the time, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was now. Most likely because I didn’t play it until after it had been out for awhile.
While we’re on the subject; I have to mention I was surprised to not find a review for Final Fantasy XII on GameCritics.com. Unless I am somehow mistaken, said JRPG was never critiqued here officially? I find that strange, given its notoriety. Is there any particular reason for this? I would imagine the game would have been of sufficient interest at any rate. Thanks
No offense taken at all — I just wanted to elaborate because I actually spoke about some of those very issues in the first draft of the review but they got cut because the review was running really long. I’m with you 100% — FFXII definitely was the first game to go down this hybridized path. I think that’s why Xenoblade clicked with me — it reminded me of a lot of things I loved about FFXI and FFXII while removing many of the things that annoy me about MMORPGs in particular. It’s a shame FFXII gets forgotten — I… Read more »
I suppose I should clarify more… I have seen much ado about how Xenoblade reinvigorates the JRPG genre with its MMORPG hybridized gameplay via single player centered implementation. In that regard, I simply think FFXII was the progenitor of that concept, yet that game seems forgotten amidst Xenoblade’s release controversy (and years gone by). Just mentioning that this MMORPG influenced JRPG road has been trodden down once before, even if not as smoothly. Some reviewers (not you mind) seem to have forgotten that. It irks me. Don’t take this strange meandering as any sort of criticism towards your very well… Read more »
As someone who also loved FFXII, I think the comparisons are off in terms of combat. FFXII has a system that feels very much like an offshoot of FFXI. I like the gambit system, but it does feel rather hands off at times. Xenoblade plays more like WoW’s combat — with the toolbar and cooldowns, but actions are still under the player’s control. I felt more actively involved in Xenoblade’s combat than I did in FFXII’s. It felt more like an action RPG MMO hybrid to me. That being said, there’s certainly an influence there. I just feel like FFXII… Read more »
I am sure Xenoblade is a good game (I preordered and got it from NOA actually), but I feel that some of its lauding is a bit blind. Primarily the combat system has been touted as a new hybrid of sorts, but really, have we not seen this sort of combat already in FFXII? I believe one can draw many parallels between those two games, and in hindsight realize that though Xenoblade may have perfected its influences, it did not generate them all.
Ah, okay still early in the game. Are you using Shulk’s Monado ability to let everyone damage the Mechon? I don’t recall if you have it yet by that point or if you still have to do the stagger knockdowns.
Is the problem not doing enough damage to him or that he’s one-shotting your characters? Sharla should be able to heal through that with an occasional heal from Shulk if things get hairy.
A mechon boss called M71.
I just met the lady with the large gun and where trying to save her brother/son.
Dude wipes the floor with me.
What boss are you stuck on? What level are you? Who’s available for your party?
You probably don’t need to grind — it’s most likely just your setup or something like that.
Just got it myself its in my que, need to finish up FO3 and beat a game or 2 befor I get to it ><
I’m having trouble with this game, got to a boss and I seem to be really under leveled. Looks like it’s back to the boring quests for me… It’s funny, everyone always rags on Dragon Quest IX as a game that needs you to grind. I never once found I needed to until after the main story because I found all the quests fun I guess. Dragon Quest IX has been and still remains my favourite latest JRPG. Maybe it’s just me? Really wanted to love this game and know I’ll be lucky if I just like it. That ending… Read more »
Congratulations on finally being able to play this game, America! For me as a European, the only thing that keeps me from playing this game is the fact that it’s on the Wii – I don’t know a single person who owns one. Also, this whole petition to bring a game to NA when there’s already an english version available got me wondering why region locks on consoles still exist. I have to hand it to Sony, abandoning region locks altogether was the best thing they did this generation. I have PS3 games from all over the world and it’s… Read more »
Nailed it. It’s nice to play an RPG that actually has a satisfying main quest.
I’m with you, Alv — I loved the music and do agree that the world is well realized for the most part (some of them, like Satorl Marsh at night, is quite stunning — although for supposedly living on this giant mech, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re really just traipsing through the standard MMO “zones”), but unfortunately I couldn’t really fit those in and keep the piece within our rough word count guidelines.
But yeah — I completely agree with you about those elements.
Good review – you pretty much nail all the important points.
I do think though that the realisation of the characterful, original and imaginative world deserves more specific praise. As an open world, it is significantly superior to the soulless beauty of Skyrim.
The well composed, emotive music also deserves special mention mention. I especially love the changes in mood, tone and pace that come with day and night.
Hopefully this will restore some of your faith. I certainly liked it more than FFXIII.
Nice, been waiting for your review! I have this at home, unwrapped, at the bottom of a pile of never played games. Perhaps I should move it up the list a bit. I haven’t played a JRPG since Final Fantasy 13 – my faith in the genre wavered after that dreadful fifteen hours of tedium.