Xenoblade Chronicles Review

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Released on June 10th, 2010 in Japan and later localized to Europe, Xenoblade Chronicles began to gather a following who called it a refreshing look at the now stale Japanese RPG genre. After an effort by fans, led primarily by the Operation Rainfall campaign to have a set of Japanese games localized to North America, Xenoblade came to North America on April 6th 2012.

Xenoblade, in its essence, is akin to many of the JRPG icons from the 90’s. It’s roots are in the Xeno series(Xenogears, Xenosaga Episodes 1, 2 and 3), created by Tetsuya Takahashi who over the production period of 4 years oversaw nearly every aspect, down to the debugging. What this amounts to is a ton of production value, attention to detail, a robust experience, and a strong and charming story and setting. I will review the game in four parts, the Story(spoiler-free), the Gameplay, the Quality, and the Content.


 

The Story

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In the vaguest terms: Long ago, there was a great battle between two incredibly large mech-like creatures, the Bionis, and the Mechonis. Their confrontation ended with their mutual demise, their bodies forever frozen towering over an otherwise empty ocean. Some time later, life took root on Bionis, considered to be the “Organic” adversary to the “Machine” Mechonis(even though both of them look like machines). A race of humans called Homs build a civilization across the lower half of the Bionis. At some point in history, machine monsters called Mechon begin crossing the Mechonis’ sword, which forms a bridge from its arm to the Bionis’ stomach. When the game begins, you are Shulk, a young Hom boy from Colony 9, which sits somewhere around one of the Bionis’ calves. Shulk and his friends in short order find themselves in conflict with some invading Mechon, and Shulk takes up an ancient weapon called the Monado, the sword pictured on the cover of the game. The Monado is the only weapon that can deal any real damage to Mechons, and it was previously used by Dunban, who became injured some time ago from using the Monado too much. After an encounter with an unusual Mechon who can talk, Shulk and company find themselves on a quest to ascend the Bionis and stop the Mechon threat.

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The characters are each endearing in their own way. Shulk is a sort of engineer who likes to build gadgets, and doesn’t really count himself a hero at the outset. Fiora and Reyn are childhood friends. Reyn is a big gentle-giant type, loyal to his friends, quick with jokes but not too bright otherwise. Fiora is strong-willed and a loyal friend too, and she and Shulk have a cute unspoken romance. Fiora is also Dunban’s younger sister. Through the rest of the game you’ll gain a few more party members, each from different backgrounds who join for a common purpose. The characters themselves are moderately complex, nothing that strays too far from the norm of JRPG characters. The voice acting does a brilliant job helping to bring life to the characters, and there is plenty of optional party dialogue in the game to see many sides of the party members. Because of that, you can’t name your characters like you might have in older games, but it’s hard to complain when you hear the production value of the dubbing. All things considered, the characters are not this games strongest point by far, but they are nonetheless thorough representations.

The environments could be said to be games greatest aspect, however. From the beginning on Colony 9, you can spend hours exploring every corner of that town and its outskirts. Because there are few boundaries, you can fall off edges of cliffs and into vast lakes below. Fall damage is not usually deadly, and there is virtually no penalty for death anyways. Through the story you will encounter many diverse landscapes, all in an open-world environment, and with fast-travel. Caves, Jungles, Swamps, Plains, among many more fantastic places are all detailed down to the square foot. No two places look alike, and through it all you can look into the sky or the horizon and tell which part of the enormous Bionis you are on.

Now, by my estimate, the game takes between 90 and 120 hours to complete just its story, so there is a lot of territory that could be considered spoilers. I can say with confidence that there are some great plot-propelling events in this story, even some jaw-dropping moments if you’re given to being dramatic. The story is perhaps not so great as the greatest of its predecessors(Final Fantasy 7, Chrono Trigger), but it is nearly so. Many times I found myself in relative awe of what had just happened, and it only gets better as it goes.

The Gameplay

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The gameplay of Xenoblade is both derivative of many of the classic examples in its heritage, and original. From the get-go, you can freely roam your environment, and you have a limited but useful jump. The edges of the map are boundaries, but almost every environment stretches across a vast distance and great height. You can jump off cliffs easily on purpose or by accident if you’re being careless. When you target an enemy with B, your attack bar comes on screen. you can then select a specific ability to use or move into attack range to begin auto-attacking. As long as you are within striking distance of the enemy you’ve targeted, you will continue to auto-attack between using arts(special abilities). In this aspect, it’s a lot like MMORPG’s typical configuration: special abilities have cooldowns, and conditions for use. Backslash does greater damage when behind the enemy, for instance(a ring with an arrow around each enemy will show you which party member they are facing). Others inflict status ailments, heal allies, make the player enter a stance, etc. The general attack pattern it encourages you to follow is to inflict Break(All pink moves inflict Break) on an enemy, and then inflict Topple(all green moves) to knock them over. Even Mechon can be hurt by normal damage when they are toppled. Later you get Daze which sustains a toppled enemies vulnerability further. It takes about the first 5 hours of the game to get into all the aspects of the battle system, but I was frankly relieved because it is intimidating to master at first.

Leveling up your arts is one of the more unique aspects of the game. In addition to gaining general experience, you will also gain points with which to level up your individual arts, increasing damage, reducing cooldown, and increasing duration of inflicted status ailments. You also have more arts than you can set on your attack bar, so you have to determine which ones work best together, and level those up, switching them out if you get bored or want to try something different. You’ll need to buy books to increase your arts’ levels past a certain point, and you’ll only find better books by progressing to the next towns shops, or increasing your reputation in certain places.

The gameplay is affected by the powers of the Monado as well. The Monado allows Shulk to glimpse the future in dire circumstances, and after some time, it will happen during battles, freezing the fight and showing you that a party member is about to be K.O.’d. Luckily the Monado also has the ability to cast spells like shield, it’s just up to you to be prepared and react quickly enough. Using auto-attacks regenerates your ability to use the Monado’s unique arts, but since Shulk is the only one who can use the Monado, the other characters each have unique special abilities instead in place of Monado powers. You can play as any of the characters, up to 3 in your party. But, Shulk is the only when who can affect the Mechon unless they’re toppled. He can also use the Monado’s power to temporarily give party members the ability to hurt Mechon, but without Shulk in your party it’s effectively impossible to kill Mechon. This is a bit of annoyance to me, because the game encourages you to use every combination of party members in the next aspect of gameplay.

The Affinity system is a great layer of gameplay that fits into every aspect of your experience, yet you never really need know it’s there. Affinity is how much the characters like each other. This concerns both the party, and all NPCs with the party and with eachother. Party members gain affinity through battling together. When the player initiates a battle, a circle appears on the center of the screen, and a circle closes in from outside the screen, and if you press B when the circles align your party will get a small boost. In increments, this will raise their effectiveness in battle, and it actually increases their stats while the boost endures. The character’s portrait will change to make them look fiercer, and fire appears around their health meter. Certain enemies have the ability to discourage your party in this way too, and can actually make them less effective, so it’s something to pay attention to. You’ll also fill a Party Meter with each of these boosts. The meter fills in three segments, and a full segment can be used on a K.O.’d party member to revive them, merely by walking to them and pressing B. But a full Party Meter can be used to activate a Chain Attack, stopping time and allowing you to choose 1 attack for each party member in succession, so it’s perfect for inflicting Break and Topple quickly. A chain attack also ignores cooldowns entirely, you can use any art and it will return to it’s spot in it’s previous cooldown when the attack is over, you just can’t use the same attack twice per chain.

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Raising Affinity between party members increases their general effectiveness in battle. It also unlocks Skills for each character, which you can take from one character and apply to another, giving them a passive bonus like 5% more experience gained, or greater aggro, etc. Affinity also increases their effectiveness when crafting Gems to attach to weapons and armor. And it is used in the side quest system as well. You can raise Affinity in battle very slowly, but can increase it greatly using Heart-to-Hearts: specific places in the game where you can unlock personal dialogue between two characters. To use a Heart-to-Heart certain characters have to meet a certain level of affinity already. Once the dialogue begins, you are given the text options for one of the characters. Usually you will have two options to react to the other character’s dialogue, choosing one will raise affinity, choosing the other will lower your net gain. Generally you walk away with a much greater affinity if you pay attention. When in a Heart-to-Heart however, there is no Voice Acting, and that would really have lent a lot more fun to this particular mechanic.

Shops and Gem Crafting really round out the gameplay. There are hundreds of loot items and collectables in this game, you can commit one of each collectable to your collectaepedia and get bonus items for filling categories. You can walk up to NPCs and trade with them by pressing 2, and your affinity with their particular faction will determine how favorable the trades will be. You can collect elemental ores and use them in Gem Crafting to add more attack bonus or Topple effectiveness to weapons. Or you can never Gem Craft ever if you don’t like it, you can skip it and the Affinity system entirely and just grind for experience and buy better weapons and armor, using Gems you find on monsters.

When your party wipes in battle, you appear fully healed about 20 feet away from the place the battle started. Bosses will be standing still, waiting for you to approach them. You still need to save(you can save at any point from the menu) but you are not penalized for losing, you can immediately restart the battle or withdraw to craft better gems, equip better items, gain a few more levels or raise your party’s Affinity. The game also features fast-travel, just go to the menu and select a landmark on the map and one loading screen later, you’re there(except when in battle, of course). You can also access a story hint from the menu, so getting back on track is easy after stopping to prepare for a hard fight, or stopping for a few sidequests.

The quests I’ll get to more later, but it’s important to note that because time elapses in the game, days and nights are distinct, and different NPCs will be out at different times of day, and any that have a unique name will usually be a quest giver or involved in other quests in some way, and they can all Trade.

As the story progresses gameplay gains layers slowly until it becomes more than you can bear in mind all at once. This is how it can become a 200 hour game. On Gameplay alone, Xenoblade excels and breaks free of convention while combining many of the greatest aspects of the genre.


The Quality

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In four years of production, they had a lot of time to get it right. The greatest tragedy of this fact is that in that four years, HD began to really take hold of the market. Xenoblade, releasing in the later years of the Wii’s life, didn’t get to take advantage of HD graphics, and when you see the level of detail they’ve put into the environments it will feel criminal.

Xenoblade’s huge world is a contributing factor in it’s 90-200 hour completion time. While perhaps not as large or open as Skyrim or Fallout 3, Xenoblade’s world is daunting in its scale, and I was often surprised by just how much of it I could actually travel on. Ground textures are mostly unique to the specific location they cover, so it never feels like you’re walking over the same ground everywhere you go. And you can swim(but not dive) and climb some surfaces, so it really feels traversable, though the game does not excel exceptionally in this area(when you have RPG’s like Skyrim and Fallout 3 for reference). The environments are nonetheless awesome to behold from a distance, and deceptively explorable up close.

The music is superb. From the sweeping and epic song of the title screen to the gentle flutes and drums of the plains, to the orchestral-metal of the battles, the 90+ tracks in the game are memorable, provocative, and brilliant in their own right. Every environment in the game has different music for day and night, which blend together as one passes into the other, and they each have their own battle music. Takahashi himself took a personal interest in the music, and the project’s six composers were tested to their limit in creating the beautiful score. A wide variety of instruments were used, so each environment in the game has an almost cultural feel.

The voice acting is fantastic as well, none of the voices felt too flat or too dramatic, but the game’s use of in-game graphics to produce cinematics did leave the visual field a little flat. I understand that a JRPG of this magnitude uses a lot of resources really effectively, so in the effort to create extensive content they did away with the expensive high-resolution cinematics that games like Final Fantasy are known for. The cinematics of Xenoblade still feel organic for the game, the characters are even wearing their currently equipped armor and weapons, but it is hard, coupled with the lack of HD, to not compare this aspect of the game to what it could have been.

The last thing I’d like to touch on about the quality is the battle dialogue. Once a battle begins, characters will begin shouting the names of arts they use, as well as at intervals when the party gets a boost, or when a chain attack is ready. It didn’t bother me for the first 20 hours or so, but when you’re grinding or gathering materials for sidequests, these guys just don’t. shut. up. And you can’t disable this particular feature(although you can switch between Japanese and English). As a result, I could often ignore it when playing the game, but it was downright annoying to anyone who happened to be in the room with me. It’s hard to foresee a problem like this in production, but a choice in the options menu to turn off battle dialogue would have been nice.


 

The Content

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Now I’d just like to talk about how extensive this game is, and what exactly you are getting for your money. The story, as I’ve said, is great, well worth the retail price. The Affinity system and Gem Crafting also create a lot of gameplay, different ways to approach a fight and things you can do between plot points.

But for sheer side quests, this game is in a league of its own. Dozens upon dozens of side quests can be found in every area, at different times of day, and from NPCs with actual names and relationships with one another through the Affinity system. When you’ve completed all the side quests you can find in an area in the day, you can complete the ones you find at night, or morning, in virtually any order. Once you’ve got a lot done for a particular area, you’ll rank up in your Affinity with that area, and more quests will appear. As you rank up, you’ll also find that NPCs will have better trades to offer you, which are usually items that help you complete other quests.

The variety of quests are great. Typically they are “Kill this number of this enemy”, or “gather this many of this collectible”, or “find this super-mob in this area at this time, and beat him.” The usual fare for RPGs, but nothing is left out. The flipside to that is that none of the side quests are very complex. You can ignore the dialogue and purpose of each quest you get, and just look at the objective. If it’s “kill 10 of these”, you will be rewarded as soon as the 10th kill is done. This is nice considering the vast number of quests, but they will start to feel the same after a while. It is a great element of the game, but you have to enjoy the main mechanics of the game to enjoy it, because it will have you doing the same sorts of things you would normally be doing by playing to the story.

The exception is the Colony 6 quests. Colony 6 is a Homs colony you encounter somewhat early in the game that needs a little maintenance. You can gather materials to turn in to make different aspects of the colony better: housing, commerce, nature, and Special. As you improve these aspects you will get more side quests, shops and areas to find collectibles in. It will also actually reflect your progress by adding more houses, shops, trees and other things to the colony, and working toward a great looking colony is a goal in itself.

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Due to the rarity of some of the drops and collectibles you need to complete some of these quests(if you’ve ever played WOW, you may understand the pain) it can be no small endeavor to rank up through the affinity of a town or progress with Colony 6. Feel lucky if you have even one Fossil Monkey by the time you need it. But if you enjoy the core mechanics, and have a guide or wiki on hand, it can be among the best JRPG experiences you have.


In conclusion

In an age when the JRPG is on the decline, and you have to go to games like Final Fantasy 13 and take the linear, over dramatized and convoluted plot it gives you(though there are many aspects still to be enjoyed), Xenoblade Chronicles is decisively a refreshing take on the genre, and shows what it could be if returned to the art it once was. It also paints a picture of what’s to come with the much anticipated successor, “X” coming to Wii U. It is important to note that Chronicles is it’s own story, and only the gameplay elements and themes will be passed on to X, so playing Chronicles isn’t necessary to understand the story of X.

 

I’ve tried here to build a concise, comprehensive, and complete review of the game, and I may have failed on the concise part. With a game this long however, perhaps it is warranted. Xenoblade Chronicles, though it has a few features which irk me, has enough sheer elegance and depth to overcome the tragedy of it’s standard definition resolution. If you consider yourself a hardcore JRPG fan, it is the best offered in North America during the last console generation and you shouldn’t miss it. If you are a casual JRPG fan, perhaps the game’s 90+ hours and complex battle system are more intimidating than you can handle. Either way it is a pillar of hope for the genre and hopefully a sign of more to come.

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Xenoblade Chronicles Review
Story8
Gameplay10
Quality10
Content8
9Overall Score
Reader Rating: (20 Votes)
8.4

About The Author

Reporter/Reviewer

Hey folks! I'm Nick. I live in Atlanta and have been playing Nintendo games fervently for over 20 years. I also keep tabs on Sony, and Steam for PC games. My favorite games are adventure/RPG and platformers, and my favorite console is my 3DS. Thanks for reading, keep gaming! Current recommendations: Fantasy Life, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, and Mario Kart 8.