Review: Xenoblade Chronicles
Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 15:18 by Aaron Clegg
|"...this is the most beautifully realised world on Wii by a long way."|
Well here it is. More than two years after a quiet E3 unveiling and over one year since hitting Japan – met with surprisingly superlative critical praise – Xenoblade Chronicles is finally upon western gamers. After taking an odd genre-route with Disaster: Day of Crisis, first-party studio Monolith Soft is back to what they do best in story-driven, Japanese RPGs; this being their first home-console epic since the second Baten Kaitos game. Nintendo of Europe may have excelled itself in getting Xenoblade to us when all hope seemed lost, but the frenzied hype from the hardcore crowd of the past few months has created some extraordinary expectations to live up to. But boy is this the real deal.
The scene is set perfectly before things even get under way. As this reviewer almost finds himself adopting religious sensibilities in willing his aged Wii on to not conk-out reading the beast of a disc, Yoko Shimomura's hauntingly beautiful piano track plays out over the title screen. A massive plain stretching farther than the eye can see is the epitomical image for Xenoblade; an experience so grounded in exploring worlds bigger than perhaps you thought possible on Wii, but more on that later. Upon starting a new game, you're greeted with the back-story of how the world came to be. Two great gods – Bionis and Mechonis – locked in battle die at a stalemate; their rotting corpses would become the world itself. The Homs – native people of Bionis – live a life of perpetual unease. While they have thus far defended themselves from the metal and ruthless Mechon of the opposite land, their safety rests solely upon the Monado, a mysterious blade housing great unknown power; whose origin is unknown, and can only be wielded for brief periods by even the strongest warrior.
The rabble of main characters don't exactly make for the most original cast at the outset – the young, mechanically-minded Shulk heads our story, along with his headstrong partner Reyn, the veteran warrior Dunban and the 'token-female' Fiora. Colony 9 is where they reside – a bustling district greatly fortified in preparation of any Mechon assault. As you might expect, the militaristic preparations of the townspeople turn out to be not so unwise. A violent and a surprisingly dark plot twist towards the start puts Shulk on a mission to subdue the Mechon once and for all.
Jungle (Bionis) is Massive
Colony 9 itself is, in a word, huge. No exaggerations are made in saying a good three hours was spent just exploring the town and its surrounding areas without moving the story along in any significant way. The designers at Monolith have absolutely nailed how to create a convincingly large locale: the area eye-poppingly stretches out vertically almost as far as it does horizontally. You can traverse from the lowly beaches and lakes right up to the tip of skyscraper-esque anti-air batteries; hundreds of metres above in virtual distance. But what's really impressive is just how much this sense of scale is indicative of Xenoblade's entire world.
Make no mistake, the overworld of Bionis is everything the (mainly internet-generated) hype has made it out to be, and leaves the likes of Zelda and Monster Hunter 3 looking way behind the times. Remember the first screenshots of Twilight Princess back in 2004? We all fantasized about how cool it would be to just go and explore those horizons and beyond, but that sheer level of exploration and freedom never lived up to the pipedream. But that pipedream is here right now, and amazingly, it's made possible on virtually the same hardware. It is not just the brute size of the world that deserves commending, but how well Monolith has knitted it together. Whereas the overworlds of Twilight Princess and Monster Hunter 3 were much less subtly 'fractured', Xenoblade's lands are tactically built so any necessary loading screens are kept from arbitrary cross-sections of the field and town entrances, instead placed nicely sporadically at the more claustrophobic parts of the world.
Everything you see here is accessible to you. No loading screens; just dive in.
Naturally, Monolith's magic doesn't come without technical compromise. To compensate for the magnitude of the overworld, you'll have to put up with circle shadows, the occasional nearer-than-they-anticipated pop-in and some frankly crude close-up textures. But to say that it's worth it would be something of understatement given that this is still the most beautifully realised world on Wii by a long way. By keeping every last pixel running on the modest in-game engine and sticking to fairly primitive character animations (though that hasn't stopped the inclusion of some ludicrously over-the-top, Kojima-esque cinematic cut-scenes), the developer has been able to craft a seamless and believable world that is greater than the sum of its vast parts. It may be a cliché, but it truly does breathe life.
Of course, a rich and massive world deserves an equally complex battle system. What Xenoblade offers in this regard may not be terribly original, but it is as deep a system as most of its genre counterparts have to offer. First off, note that there are no random battles to be found here. Monsters roam freely around the world in real time, and there are no intro sequences to battles should you choose to engage them - it's all seamless. Many enemies are docile enough to mind their own business if you leave them be. More aggressive foes will come at you if they see you, although even these creatures are generally wise enough to leave you alone if you're a much higher level. A particular novelty is seeing level 80 and up monsters patrolling the plains even towards the start of game; it is little touches like this which make the world feel alien but genuine; and not just an-ever adapting area tailor-made for the player.
Once you engage an enemy, combat commences in real time. By default, the character you control is Shulk, but like in many of its fellow RPGs, you can choose to switch to any character in your party via the pause menu. The maximum number of members in your battling party is three; lower than the general expectation of the genre, but perhaps understandable when you see just how busy the screen gets when you're slicing up six relentless Mechon in real-time. Your normal attack is unleashed automatically at intervals, similar to the system in the likes of Final Fantasy XII. The real meat of the gameplay comes in the tactical use of Arts. Arts are your special moves that you'll have to master to fight for victory. They appear on their own menu at the bottom of the screen and are activated simply by selecting them and pressing A. There are Arts that deal big physical blows, others that heal and boost your party and some that hinder the attributes of your foes. Once used, you'll have to wait out a short cool-off period before you can use that Art again in the same battle.
So far, so simple, but the battle system gets far more complex. Embracing its real-time nature, some physical Arts have a boosted effect depending on the position from which you strike your target, such as from behind or from their side. You can also boost your footing via a brief, non-interruptive quick-time event. If one of your party either misses with an attack, or lands a critical hit, a circle gauge will pop up and challenge you to tap B at the right time. Time it right, and you'll enjoy a brief morale boost. Fighting efficiently in this way will help fill-up your Party Gauge at the top of the screen. Keeping it over a third full will allow you to revive any party member whose hit-points reach zero. If it's full, you can unleash a special chain attack, whereby you select an Art from each party member to use in turn against one enemy. Using Arts of the same 'type' (denoted by the colour of their icons) consecutively in a chain attack will also deal bonus damage.
The combat system is in no way simple, and there is much more that would take up too many paragraphs to explain. We haven't even touched upon the entirely new facet opened up to you once you get your hands on the Monado blade; one of its key powers is the ability it gives its wielder to glimpse into the future. In the more ferocious battles, this manifests by producing a vision of an opponent's imminent brutal attack. Once you know it's coming, you have seconds to do what you can to alter the path of fate; either by attracting the attack towards a stronger party member or by utilising specialist defensive Arts. Thankfully, the game explains every new bit of the battle system as you progress, and you can delve into a detailed tutorial at any point. You'll be learning new nuances well over ten hours into the game, and mastering them over the entirety of the story, but it's unlikely you'll feel overwhelmed at any point.
More and More and More to Do
Outside of battling to complete the main story, there is no superlative available to describe just how much optional content is in the game. At an absolute minimum, discarding any non-compulsory ventures, one is looking at no less than 40 to 50 hours to blast through the main quest. Given just how appealing it is to go and explore, finding new vistas and taking on side-quests (the game actually rewards you with bundles of tasty experience for finding new and secret areas), we'd question whether this time frame is even possible. There is all the basic slew of collectable items, weapons and armour acquire, as you'd anticipate from a JRPG; and yes, every piece of equipment you put on every party member DOES make itself visible in all gameplay portions and every cut-scene – a feature so criminally elusive in the genre, and just further proof of Monolith leaving no byte of processing power unused in the Wii hardware.
Many weapons and pieces of armour can also be fitted with gems to supplement their attributes. These gems can boost HP, attack or defence; improve resistance to certain battle ailments and much more. Gem crafting is achieved firstly by collecting Ether crystals either from fallen enemies or by mining from Ether ore dotted around the overworld, and then smelting down at a furnace. Different sorts of crystals produce different gems, and the whole effectiveness of the procedure is determined by the strength of the relationship between the two party members partaking in the crafting. How does one improve the relationship between characters? It's called Affinity, and it's one of Xenoblade's more subtle, yet potentially most time-eating features.
The simplest way to achieve better Affinity between party members is to have them fight efficiently together in your party. At times of dire need in battle, members can encourage each other, which will boost their relationship. It takes a while, but having high Affinity between your main characters can reap benefits. As they level up, each party member will pick up new 'skills' that will improve their overall battling style. If two party members have a deep bond, the 'skill link' feature will allow them to share each other's skills to further their own ability to an even greater extent. Affinity also plays its part outside of battles, through 'Heart-to-Heart's. These are optional dialogue scenes very similar to the skits in the Tales games, and can only be viewed when two characters have a good enough relationship. Activating Heart-to-Hearts will itself also boost Affinity.
Fighting a native monster that's sixty levels above you? You're doing it wrong.
But the Affinity system also plays its part outside your main party. Rather more ambitiously, a countless number of NPCs across towns can also build their relationships with each other. It's just an extra incentive to talk to everyone you come across and indulge yourself in the world. The ultimate system that will drive you to be so completionist is a massive Achievement list. You can be patted on the head for a vast number of trivial accomplishments, ranging from befriending many NPCs and being a proficient miner to slaying a high number of enemies and even falling to your death from a dizzying height. In a week that threw up an odd Nintendo patent vaguely describing a single-player MMO game, it is some coincidence that the first-party Xenoblade presents itself as having just as much potential as its massively-minded half-brethren to make a recluse of the healthiest gamer.
A quick mention about the voice track is in order. It has been known for some time that the localised version of Xenoblade would include both the original Japanese voice track and a fully translated English track. Like we did, you may be expecting the worst of the very-English voice acting, and fully anticipate that you'll switch over to the original Japanese track. However, the oddest thing came over us. Having started off with the English voices just to see two sides of the coin, we found it... nigh-on impossible to stick with the Japanese originals. The English voices often get quite annoying, there's no avoiding the issue. Yet, and perhaps this is quite mawkish, it almost feels like it's the way this version was meant to be played. We've been through thick and thin in waiting for a European version of Xenoblade, we've grown quite fond of its localised identity.
But even if the English voices mortify you into switching them off, there can be no complaints about the game's soundtrack. A band of veteran game musicians headed by Xenosaga maestro Yasunori Mitsuda have created a truly epic score befitting of Xenoblade's wondrous scope. With such a beautiful game to look at, there would be something amiss if it fell short in the aural department, so it's heartening to hear that Monolith have put together a masterful soundtrack, right from the opening piano notes through to the gorgeous ending vocals.
Eryth Sea is one of the more stunning locations on Bionis.
The home-console JRPG has been treated shamefully poorly this generation. It is unfair that this fact may go some way in dampening the quickly-building consensus that Xenoblade Chronicles is by some way the best title that the genre has produced for years. But make no mistake; we have something special on our hands here. Not only is it easily the most exciting original IP to release on Wii, it is that brand new, quality, hardcore Nintendo title that her fans have been screaming out for since the dawn of the console. You will be exploring, collecting and side-questing for months to come. Then in years to come, once the dust has settled, Xenoblade Chronicles might just be whispered on the lips of Nintendo gamers in the same unparalleled regard as Tales of Symphonia, The World Ends With You and Chrono Trigger. Take up the Monado; it's time to go and discover a whole new world.
N-Europe Final Verdict
Monolith provides the biggest and most ambitious game on Wii by a long-shot. Xenoblade Chronicles reignites the JRPG and adventure genres in one classy swoop; that this grandiose spectacle is under the banner of Nintendo is the cherry on top.
Superb presentation values
Rich and complex combat system
Absolutely tons to do
Colossal and beautiful world to explore...
... Meaning some primitive character models as a compromise
You'll lose swathes of your life to it