- Amazing world & mythology.
- Great cast of characters.
- Strong voice acting (Japanese).
- Jaw-dropping locations.
- The Monado.
- Strong plot.
- Solid and addictive gameplay.
- Hundreds of quests and challenges.
- Amazing soundtrack.
- Strong focus on character relations.
- Successfully marries Story and gameplay.
- Freedom of party-composition.
- Character models are flat.
- Lazy quest names.
- Clunky inventory management.
Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the last games made for Wii, developed by Monolith Soft, the studio behind the brilliant Xenosaga series. Originally titled “Monado: Beginning of the World”, the title changed in honor of lead writer Tetsuya Takahashi, the man behind the Xeno series, for his dedication to the project. This is one of the three titles Operation Rainfall worked tirelessly to bring over to North America, the other 2 being Pandora’s Tower (currently playing) and The Last Story (already finished, will review in the near future).
The game’s setting is one of the most original I’ve seen so far in RPGs, even JRPGs. The game opens to the world’s “creation myth”, with the Kishin and Kyoshin (Mechonis & Bionis in the translation), the two great gods of the world, mechanical and biological respectively, fighting in an endless ocean, the fight ending with both apparently dying, joined by the Mechonis’ sword, stuck in Bionis’ hip. Their dead bodies are the setting, the different parts of their bodies, such as arms, hands, calves, back, feet, etc., making up the different zones you play through. On the Bionis, the areas range from deserts and snowy peaks and even lush prairies to wet, humid jungles. As with many RPGs, the story is set in a Tour du Monde style, meaning you’ll visit all possible locales in the world on your way to fulfilling “the quest”, just this time you’re exploring every inch of a giant god’s body.
Unlike most JRPGs, Xenoblade Chronicles does NOT feature random battles, and instead all enemies are already on the map and you can engage and run away from them at will, and while each zone has its own level range, you’ll often find higher level enemies among the “current” level ones. For example, on the Bionis Leg plains, you’ll probably find a few level 89 monsters roaming around, minding their own business. What enemies appear, and what levels they have, changes from day to night, when the creatures are usually much higher leveled and plenty more aggressive.
Controls in Xenoblade are simple but solid. While outside combat, you move with the nunchuck’s stick and jump with B, using Z to target and C to reset the camera, which you move using the D-pad on the Wii remote. You interact with A, and use “-” to display the menu overlay. While this doesn’t pause the game, going into a specific section will do so.
Combat is where the meat lies, and it’s fast, engaging and highly strategic. When you set up your party, the character in the n° 1 position is the one under your direct control, the others under AI control, which might understandably scare you as with most games AI seems to stand for Artificial Idiocy; but in Xenoblade there’s no need to fear as the AI will do a pretty good job. The moment you engage, the characters will auto-attack without the need for input, instead, you control your character’s battle arts (powers), both offensive and defensive, healing and buffs. Each character also has one Talent Art (TA for this review), their “class skill”, so to speak, that unlike battle arts which have a cooldown period, the TA needs to be recharged, each auto-attack hit filling the gauge bit by bit.
The game is also one of the very few I’ve seen handle the MMO concept of AGGRO, or monster aggressiveness, whereby enemies attack the character with the greatest aggro, aka, threat; but here, you don’t necessarily need to have a Tank (an aggro keeper and punishment sponge) character, you can go out with just a bunch of damage dealers and juggle the monster’s aggro constantly. In fact, you don’t even need to have the protagonist in the party, except for certain story sequences that do require him.
Battle Arts (BA), are the game’s version of spells and special attacks. A character can have up to 8 BA “equipped” at the same time, plus their Talent Art. For the protagonist, Shulk, the Monado’s wielder, his talent art is not an active power but instead replaces his normal arts with the Monado’s own, one of them, Enchant, being your bread & butter for better part of the game, as it allows other characters to actually deal damage to the Mechon. Arts are color-coded for your convenience, which ties into the Chain Attack mechanic (a special attack that freezes everything and lets you choose each character’s next actions, and which, depending on certain conditions, can be chained into further attacks) but also lets you quickly and easily identify which ones inflict Break, Topple or Daze, special conditions which must be used in sequence, as in Daze can only be used on toppled enemies and Topple can only be used on broken ones.
Enemy AI is simple, yet effective and a good strategy is required to defeat any enemy in the game, even more so with Unique Enemies, easily identifiable for having full names and being larger & tougher and having their own piece of music. Boss fights are the high point of the combat, as they’re highly challenging and will often require you to coordinate your forces to not only kill but also survive their various and uniformly overkill powers. The “Face Mechon” are some of the most hardcore bosses you’ll face, almost immune to damage unless you Topple them during a Chain Attack.
Quests, combat and exploration give you Experience points (EXP) as is usual in RPGs, and an increasing number of them are needed to level up and improve you base stats; but Xenoblade adds a couple more “points” you need to keep track of, only acquirable through killing enemies, Arts Points (AP) for leveling your BA, which are independent of character level, and Skill Points (SP), which are used to automatically level your chosen talent tree. BA level up to 10, though you need to acquire each art’s training books for the intermediate (5-7) and advanced levels (8-10) before you can spend points on those.
Xenoblade’s combat manages the party’s morale during battle with Tension, its ups and downs affecting how well characters perform. Critical hits, healing and buffs improve a character’s Tension levels, while negative conditions or critical hits against the party will lower it. I found Tension to be a fantastic mechanic, and one I wish to see in all future Xeno games.
There’s a second mechanic in combat that you have to be aware of, and maintaining it is part of the strategic nature of combat. The Party Gauge is a set of 3 bars that once filled unlock the Chain Attack, but each bar can also be spent to revive fallen comrades, and to warn them when you get a VISION. The Monado, the main character’s sword and plot key, gives its user the ability to see the future, and this isn’t just a story thing, no, Xenoblade Chronicles ties Story to Gameplay, so the visions come into play during combat. If an enemy will use a powerful attack, you get a vision about it, with the expected result and a countdown. If you have at least one bar in your Party Gauge, you can “warn” other characters, giving you control over their skills so you can use them to prevent and change that future, which is one of the themes of the story.
Xenoblade Chronicles has one mechanic, Affinity, that influences almost all aspects of gameplay such as combat, crafting, questing and access to Heart-to-Hearts, which are cinematic conversations between a couple of characters that depending on your choices in them, can lower or raise their affinity and are used to further develop the characters outside of the main plot (and as you might guess might be my favourite thing about the game). Heart-to-Hearts are also region-specific, and you have to go and look for the HTH icon on the different zones to initiate them, which further enhances the exploration.
Affinity measures how strong the relationships are between the characters, and with the different hubs, as well as the relationships between the different NPCs, ranging from hateful to loving, though in-party relationships will never start lower than neutral.
High affinity between characters means more “slots” for characters to share skills from their skill trees, better Gem crafting performance, giving more chances of making higher quality gems to place in equipment’s gem slots, and longer Chain Attacks. Affinity between characters can be raised during combat by encouraging low-Tension characters, performing Chain Attacks and reviving or curing characters of debuffs. Outside of combat, you can gift characters items for affinity, though some gifts will instead lower the affinity. Taking quests and talking to NPCs is another way to increase your rating.
High affinity with the different zones and civilizations means better prices, more items on sale, and more quest givers, as some quests and NPCs have a certain Affinity rating requirement. Your affinity level with a given zone also lets you perform trades with NPCs, exchanging any type of item they have on them for an item of equal or greater value, something you’ll probably use to get quest items, as sometimes getting them from trades is easier than grinding the enemies or the zones for them.
Xenoblade Chronicles has quests in bulk, with hundreds and hundreds of them. The quests themselves range from collecting, to conversational, to monster hunting, and the game makes your life easier by not forcing you to return to the quest giver for your reward, instead having the quest complete and giving you the reward the moment you complete all objectives, though there are a handful that require you to “return to sender”. My only gripe with the quests is their lack of interesting and original names, instead having generic names such as “Monster Hunting Quest 1” or “Collection Quest 3” for the more common ones, with only those having a “plot” getting a unique name. In a way, I understand it, and it certainly makes those story-driven side-quests pop out compared to the others, but I can’t help but feel the naming conventions for those “generic” quests rather lazy. Gems, gear and coin are the usual quest rewards.
Finally, there’s the item management and menus. While most menus are pretty easy to follow (and you can save at any point in the map, not save point needed), it’s the quest, inventory and party management menus that detract a bit from the experience. Tracking quests can get a bit irksome as the game manages current, new and completed quests. Current are those you have made progress in and new are those you haven’t done anything for, and that distinction means you might forget about a quest or two because you were looking with the wrong filter on. Thankfully, you can filter by zone instead of its “status”, which lists all the quests for a given hub, but I wish the quest screen would let you combine filters.
Inventory is where the game’s greatest fault lies. Your inventory lists all items, usable or not, and you can interact with all but equipment. You can’t equip items from the inventory, instead having to go to the party management screen to select gear…which itself takes you to an inventory pane. It’s too much of a roundabout way to get gear.
Speaking of gear, equipment is vast and plentiful, and you get them from enemy drops, quest rewards, chests in the environment, and of course, vendors; and Xenoblade is one of the rare few games where late in the game the equipment sold by certain vendors will still be upgrades for you. In fact, there’s a store in “Colony 6” that’s only open at 3 a.m. (you can change the time of day at will, setting it to night if you want to) that sells some extremely powerful gear for exorbitant prices, but with no gem slots. The same pieces can drop from some of the end-dungeon enemies (some with gem slots). The best part about the gear is your character’s appearance will change to reflect the gear’s design, which is something I’ve always enjoyed in RPGs and is often missing.
Characters are fantastic and extremely well developed, from the main characters to all the secondary and of course the villains. While a few of them at first seem to fall right under the typical Japanese tropes, they show surprising depth over the course of the game. Take Reyn for example, Shulk’s (the protagonist and Monado wielder) best friend. Your first impression of him is he’ll be the typical muscled lug, more brawn than brains and always following the other characters like a little dog. But over the course of the game and the many and varied Heart-to-Hearts, you glimpse the depth of the character’s resolve, his leadership skills, how determined he is to protecting his party and more than once putting his foot down when he notices others about to screw up on a monumental scale. There are so many sides to Shulk’s characterization it makes hundreds of “acclaimed” games’ characters pale in comparison.
Hand in hand with the amazing characterization comes the fantastic voice acting, and the Japanese cast delivers 100%. Even the Noppon are fantastic and cute, or fantastically cute, even if they come dangerously close to being annoying. Unfortunately, I didn’t play the game using the English voices, as I’ve had a strict policy on switching to Japanese audio whenever possible, so I can’t comment on the quality, but if it’s even a bit close to The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower’s English voice cast, it must be amazing.
Having said that, not all of the game features voice acting, mostly just cutscenes, with the rest handled through speech bubbles, something I have no problem with to be honest, as some of banter when talking to quest givers tends to repeat a bit much and having speech would’ve made it unbearable.
During combat, on the other hand, characters won’t shut up and will talk over and over again, congratulating each other for scoring critical hits, thanking the healer, etc. To some gamers this might be annoying, but to me it a really good way to marry characterization and mechanic, and it feels natural that comrades in arms would encourage each other; and beyond that, they fill the characters with even more personality, which makes them more believable and makes you care for them even more.
The game’s plot is amazing, and has more than a few turns and twists you won’t see coming and a couple major ones you’ll see a mile away, but only because the game shows its hand a bit too early, but with such strong storytelling, I’ve been wondering if it was on purpose, to give you, the “audience”, a bit of future knowledge the character’s don’t have, and with this being a game centered around the theme of fate and knowledge of the future and the power to change it, I’m willing to overlook those “predictable” parts as being intentional. Fate and inevitability are central to the plot, as is the strength of the “human” spirit, the will to overcome the worst of odds and situations, and even challenge the gods and the world itself to forge a path and a future of your own. I bow to Tetsuya Takahashi and his vision, writing and direction for this game, and I sincerely wish others would follow his footsteps.
Visually speaking this game is gorgeous, and you’ll often find yourself with mouth agape at the sheer scale and magnificence of the scenery before you. The game’s rich world is wonderfully realized, and that in turn makes you want to explore every inch of it, finding all landmarks (which act as your fast-travel points), because they promise to be just as spectacular. Creature models are amazingly detailed and will often leave you in awe for a dangerously amount of time while the thing is beating on you!
The only flaw on the visuals is the character models, with the faces looking rather flat, and eyes and mouths seeming almost painted on a flat surface. They’re still wonderfully expressive, but the effect is a bit jarring.
Accompanying the beautiful visuals is the astounding soundtrack, with each zone having wonderful pieces of music that transmit the “feeling” of the area perfectly. Fights with normal enemies, Uniques or Bosses have their own pieces and they get you hyped and in a battle trance, or in case you pissed off something you shouldn’t, will make you run away that much faster! My favourite area music pieces have to be the Bionis Leg during the day and Satorl Marsh at night, the first a perfect fast paced “adventure”-type music that almost encourages you to explore the beautiful land, and the second a haunting piece with a beautiful choir that will melt your heart.
With so little flaws and so many good points, and a terrific story and one of the strongest characterizations ever made, coupled with the amazing mechanics that marry storytelling to gameplay, Xenoblade Chronicles is masterpiece of RPGs, and, at least in my eyes, the new bar for excellence. I can’t wait for Monolith’s new game “X” to release, as know they’ll deliver another life-changing experience.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Overpaying! This game is now one of my favourites and is one of the closest things to Gaming Perfection I’ve ever had the joy and honour of playing. If you need to pay a lot for this game, trust me, it’ll be worth it! This is the highest rate I can give a game.