: Xenoblade Chronicles
: Nintendo Wii
: Monolith Soft
: The 7th Patriot
On the Shoulders of Giants
Let me begin with a confession: I came to the world of gaming for the Mario but stayed for the Final Fantasy. I play and enjoy most genres of games as long as they are well made, but my love for video games mostly begins and ends with the RPG. Some of my fondest memories in gaming include hopping off the train in Midgar, transforming from a Dark Knight into a shining white Paladin, and, most significantly, climbing the Tower of Babel to reach the City in the Sky. Of all the RPGs that I’ve had the pleasure of playing, Xenogears is the most special to me. It is understandable, then, why I would approach the latest project from Tetsuya Takahashi with excitement. I also approached it, however, with some trepidation. This is because, frankly, the RPG is now all but dead. Today, for the most part, Japanese games that call themselves RPGs are pointless forays into melodrama and awful pop music, while western games that bill themselves as RPGs are usually exercises in superficiality and gaming by side quest. They are filled with so much horizontal content saturation and so little vertical character and plot development that they more closely resemble a lengthy action game with some shallow dialogue (but with choice!) than anything I grew up playing.
It is with joy, then, that I can report to you that Xenoblade Chronicles is not only unequivocally the best RPG so far this generation; it is one of the best that you will ever play.
The story begins with Shulk, a young man who tinkers with machines at the behest of Colony 9, a Homs (human) settlement built near the foot of a giant. When I say ‘foot of a giant’, though, I do not mean that it rests near the base of some statue, I mean the colony literally sits on the leg of a being of mythic proportion. At the outset, we learn that the Homs are faced with perpetual warfare that alternates between being hot and cold. Their enemy is a force of machines known as Mechons who, for reasons unknown, frequently attack the colonies, leaving the scars of war behind them. The adventure truly begins when Shulk himself is touched by the horrors of war. At a more general level, Xenoblade has an excellent plot filled with mystery, adventure, and even a little humor. This is a massive game with a fairly large cast of characters. Some are simple, others are complex, and all are properly motivated and characterized. Shulk will encounter lovable friends, enigmatic acquaintances, and enemies who are beneath contempt without being merely petty in their evil.
That Xenoblade does not look as good, technically speaking, as a game made for the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 is true only in a trivial sense. It was made for the Wii, after all, so, yes, it does not achieve the textural detail of other system’s games. For what it’s worth, this will ultimately count in Xenoblade’s favor. Why, you ask? Well, it is precisely because of Xenoblade’s relative graphical weakness that its scope, ambiance, geography, and color palate are all so striking. Simply put, this is a game that is more ambitious, creative, and artistically imaginative than the overwhelming majority of games out today. That its developers were able to achieve all of this without using the most powerful hardware available is a testament to the superiority of original and well implemented ideas over pure technological power.
Again, Xenoblade’s narrative unfolds atop the shoulders (and arms, legs, back, and head) of a giant named Bionis, and in case you ever inexplicably become unaware of this, most of the time you can remind yourself by just looking around. Each area in the game has its own visual integrity, with marshes, forests, calm seas, mountains, and grass savannahs all providing you with environmental variety, but, throughout it all, the titans remain. Depending on where you are, exactly, portions of the Bionis and his enemy, another creature of equal size known as the Mechonis, will be within sight. And what a sight it is! With the deep blue sky overhead and the endless ocean underfoot, these two creatures, which have both been immobile since the end of their wrathful clash ages ago, stand as worlds unto themselves. They loom large both spatially and contextually, their omnipresence providing the player with an incredible setting but also, more critically, with questions about what they are and how they might influence the broader story.
The particular areas of the game are similarly impressive. In the opening hours, green fields of grass abound, and they contrast elegantly with the colors of the open sky. The land generally teems with life. Animals, many of whom have no desire to engage you in battle, roam in packs and families as if they have been doing so for centuries. The world is alive, and Shulk’s people, the Homs, are just one more species to call the Bionis home. Also of note is the day/night cycle. In some instances, the setting of the sun does little more than adjust the music to a more subdued version of its daylight self. In others, however, there is a substantial visual shift wherein the player is immersed in a seemingly altogether different locale. I would go so far as to say that many of the places in Xenoblade are meant to be experienced at night. In the light of the sun a marsh may appear damp, murky, and unbearably inhospitable, but, with the moon hanging high above, it becomes nothing less than a festival of ethereal radiance. It is not to be missed.
The locations are also quite large, a feature which suggests a significant MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) influence. This is the least of it, though. Much of the structure of Xenoblade mimics the MMO genre, and this includes most of the gameplay as well. There are no random encounters. Instead, enemies populate the world in real time, ready to be fought at the whim of the player. When combat is initiated, members of the party, including whoever you are controlling (you can switch to a different character as long as you are not actually in the heat of battle), will attack automatically while you manage your specific person. Characters are given an extensive list of upgradable moves that are learned as they level up. These moves are called Arts, and though you will learn many, you can only enter battle with a small handful equipped. Each Art is upgraded with points earned from battle, so there is a certain amount of customization that will occur. Nevertheless, it is plain that some characters are meant to absorb both damage and enemy aggression while others are meant to either inflict damage or provide support to others as they fight.
Arts are only one side of the coin, though. In addition, there are sets of passive abilities called Skills, which are also learned by gaining points from successful battles. Characters have about fifteen Skills apiece that range from increasing Hit Points to allowing certain classes of armor to be equipped. The most interesting aspect of Skills, though, is that they can be shared. A character who usually acts as a damage absorbing tank, for instance, can share his ability to equip heavy armor with a character who cannot, of his own skill, normally wear such items. This makes for a multitude of combinations which can either emphasize the already present strengths of a character, like increasing the ether (magic) of a mage, or create strengths where they previously did not exist.
Playing Xenoblade also entails a great deal of exploration. As said earlier, most areas are rather large and, in some instances, they are positively sweeping. Maps are riddled with collectibles in the form of tiny blue orbs that represent items that serve one of three purposes. They can either be sold, placed in a collection menu that yields bonus weapons, armor, and stat boosters when a sufficient variety has been gathered in a given area, or used to complete side quests.
A note on side quests: During the introduction, a message appears, one of many, which instructs the player to “Enjoy side quests alongside the main story.” This approach to game design is markedly different from the more mainstream tendency of showcasing side quests as if the player is more interested in them than the main narrative. Side quests here are relegated to where they belong, the side. Usually they consist in merely defeating a certain amount of monsters, and only rarely do they have a more robust structure. Their simplicity allows the player to complete them while he is simultaneously advancing the story, but even so, if you want to finish them all you will be returning to previously visited areas. The ability to quick travel, though, severely mitigates the time you spend actually backtracking, and this ability, coupled with the option to save anywhere during the game, makes for a relatively convenient yet enormously fun adventure.
This is it, folks. If you have been waiting for a title cut from the same priceless cloth as games made ten or twenty years ago, wait no longer. I do not know what this portends for the genre or the industry as a whole, this game could represent something new on the horizon or it could be the last good RPG you play this generation. No matter, if you own a Wii then you owe it to yourself to play Xenoblade Chronicles. Like Shulk, the future is in your hands.
5 out of 5
- Excellent story, world, and characters
- Fast and fun combat with some level of customization
- Fantastic art direction and soundtrack
- If you demand the graphical quality of games made for other systems, look elsewhere
- You cannot control your other party members during battle
- That it took this long for such a wonderful game to reach our shores