Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles is an incredible adventure and a major step forward for the genre. Not a perfect game by any means, but one you definitely won't regret playing.

It’s been a long road, but after much struggle and plenty of doubt, Tetsuya Takahashi’s epic Japanese RPG, Xenoblade, has finally been localized for Western shores after a well-received release in Japan two years ago. And now that I’ve finally gotten the chance to experience it, I can see why Xenoblade is being widely regarded as one of the best Japanese RPGs to come around in years. It’s not a game without its flaws, there’s no doubt about that, but it succeeds in delivering a fun and memorable adventure in a stunning world, single-handedly bringing the Japanese RPG genre into the next generation…on the Wii, of all systems.

Graphics: Yes, this is a Wii game, and the Wii is, of course, not capable of delivering high definition games, something that you’ll just have to accept when booting up your copy of Xenoblade. However, what Monolith Soft (Xenosaga) has done here has been to squeeze what feels like every ounce of power from the aging hardware to deliver a truly gorgeous game, one that, yes, is in Standard Definition (To HDTV owners, I recommend springing for Component Cables to at least jump the visuals up to 480p) but one that nevertheless manages to amaze. Almost every environment you’ll wander through over the course of this 60 hour+ adventure is gigantic, each one looking different from the last and providing no shortage of nooks and crannies to explore. The draw distance is some of the best I’ve encountered, allowing you to see what feels like miles ahead of you. The art direction’s top notch, and the use of color and lighting effects bathe the environments in a warm glow that really pops in 480p. Cutscenes are surprisingly frequent and look great, with great character animation and well-directed action sequences the likes of which really haven’t been done on the system. There are bumps in the road: some truly awful textures rear their ugly heads from time to time, and even actions like opening up the menus cause the Wii to strain, while the framerate in battle can drop to *completely* unacceptable levels. But Xenoblade remains a gorgeous game, one that does all that can possibly be done to overcome its hardware restrictions and deliver some of the best visuals you’ll find in a Standard Definition title.

Gameplay: Tetsuya Takahashi, who created the linear and story-heavy Xenosaga series, had said during Xenoblade’s development that he considered those types of games to be “a dead end” for the genre, something that I took to be a bit of a dig at, among other things, Final Fantasy XIII, which took RPG linearity to a whole other level. Xenoblade instead takes an entirely different stance, focusing on exploration from the very start. This is a game where you can wander up to the top of a cliff and jump off into the waters below; where you can not only see for miles in every direction, but where you can explore it. Where the amounts of quests you can take on seem endless. With scope that hasn’t been present in Japanese RPGs, by and large, since the large worldmaps of the PS1 era (and even these Xenoblade puts to shame) Monolith Soft has created a world that not only looks great, but one that truly feels alive.

But for all the emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget its Japanese RPG roots; a waypoint will almost always guide you to your next cutscene, though you’re encouraged to venture off the beaten path at every opportunity. The story itself progresses in a linear fashion, with you having no control over its progression or outcome, which is good; this is a Japanese RPG, after all. And don’t let Xenoblade’s emphasis on exploration and gameplay fool you; there’s a lot of story here, with, I’m sure, more voice acting than all games Nintendo has ever released…combined. It manages to find the balance between offering the gamer total freedom while at the same time telling a story, an accomplishment that should prove, beyond a doubt, that you can do both in a Japanese RPG.

The battle system plays similarly, in a sense, to that of offline MMOs like Final Fantasy XII, though it offers a far more exciting take on the combat style. Your input is constantly required, whether it be selecting moves for your main character to pull off, or even moving him around to make sure you’re in the right place for those moves to do their most effective damage. There are no items to speak of; instead, when a party member dies, you have to walk up to their fallen body and revive them with the B-button, though you can only do this if you have enough power in the gauge that dictates combat actions. The AI controls the other two characters, and you can’t switch between them during battle, unfortunately, but Monolith Soft did their best to instill in the game a sense of teamwork; you can “encourage” characters at various points in battle to grant them stat boosts, you can pull off team attacks, and the characters, for better or for worse, never seem to get tired of talking to each other as they slay enemies. It’s fast, it’s exciting, and it can be challenging at times, especially if you go after a foe far more powerful than you are.

As I said earlier, though, despite the MMO-like battle system and emphasis on exploration, Xenoblade doesn’t forget the genre it’s part of. When you get past the incredible opening cutscenes and battles, you find yourself inside Colony 9, a huge town brimming with things to do, and it’s here that I couldn’t help but smile and think to myself, “wow, the first hour of Xenoblade is the best Japanese RPG in a decade,” and in many ways, it is. Everywhere you look, there are places to explore, sidequests to take on, loot to find, gems (which provide stat boosts) to create, and equipment to buy. Day changes to night, something I always love in games like this, and the differences to the atmosphere are palpable; some areas look nothing at night like they do during the day, and the things you can do in the environments alternate as well. Between all of this and the stunning environments that you’ll always find yourself in, Xenoblade rarely ever feels boring or repetitive. In many ways, this is what I think a game like Final Fantasy XII tried so hard, but failed, to do, and Xenoblade nails it. Not only is the battle system fun, but the many things available to you outside of combat, plus the ability to warp back to any location you’ve previously visited from the menu, prevent this from feeling like a grind.

This has thusfar been an overwhelmingly positive review and I need to stress this: Xenoblade is a must-play for fans of Japanese RPGs. It’s an adventure with ambition and scope that we just haven’t seen in the sub-genre in many years and for that reason alone it’s worth experiencing. That said, there are also some major flaws, issues which prevent Xenoblade from achieving “classic” status and standing with the very best.

The combat system, while without a doubt fun and complex, is sadly home to many of my frustrations with the title, the first being a general lack of strategy. While there are some bosses where you’ll benefit greatly from fighting certain enemies first and that sort of thing, there’s otherwise a surprising lack of complexity here. Oftentimes when you run into a challenging boss, (and some are incredibly challenging) you have little choice but to go back and level up; there’s just no other way to defeat them. To me, this is the wrong way to go about providing difficulty in video games; games should be about figuring out a strategy, planning the strategy out, and then executing it. RPGs like Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey cap your EXP at certain levels, which stops you from leveling up entirely, and they do this because those games are about strategy, not brute force. Xenoblade unfortunately falls at the other end of the spectrum, and when I’m stuck on a boss and find myself forced to wander back and level up to stand a fighting chance, that’s when the game to me becomes a chore. And it’s something that happens here a few times too many.

Your AI companions aren’t a whole lot of help, often demonstrating a startling lack of intelligence. Since Xenoblade’s combat system doesn’t make use of items, you depend greatly on your healing character, and her AI seems to do everything just a few seconds too late. Some bosses feature environmental hazards (like deadly liquid near the fight) and the computer will mindlessly wander into it, losing health by the second and eventually dying off. Your commands over them are limited to “Come here!” “Stay there!” “Attack the same enemy I am!” … and that’s about it. It’s easy for frustration to mount, especially since keeping an eye out on your characters’ health meters, as well as their positions and which enemies they’re attacking, is made all the more difficult by a camera that can at times provide you with the worst possible view of your surroundings.

Xenoblade has a feature that’s an interesting addition on one hand and an annoyance on the other; the sword that Shulk, the main character, possesses allows him to see into the future, and this plays into battle as well. From time to time battles will briefly pause, and you’ll be shown a vision of a powerful move that the enemy’s prepared to unleash on a member of your party. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to prepare for the move before it’s pulled off. It’s a cool feature, but needless to say, the game interrupting an already frustrating boss battle to show me a clip of one of my characters getting mauled isn’t something that helped my mood, especially with some of the worst slowdown I’ve seen in ages grinding battles to a near halt anyway.

Other combat-related flaws are smaller but they add up. It’s harder than it should be to locate a fallen team mate on the battle field. You can’t revive anyone from KO unless you have at least 1/3 of your combat meter filled, and it’s very hard to build the meter up without both team mates still alive. Adding insult to injury, the game lacks a “Retry” option for just such a situation. Xenoblade also has an annoying tendency to end bosses early; sometimes you’ll win the battle after only 2/3s (or even 1/3) of the enemy’s health gauge is depleted, but you’re never exactly sure when this is or isn’t the case, which makes it tough to know whether to spend time leveling up or not. These aren’t major flaws, but they’re sources of frustration, and they do crop up often enough that it detracts from the experience.

The other big mistake Xenoblade makes is that it goes on for too long. This is a huge game that will take most people anywhere from 50-70 hours, and I have to give Monolith Soft credit; it’s exciting and compelling for the most part. It’s too bad that it features such an uninspired 3rd act in a far less interesting location than the rest, while throwing at you a near-endless amount of dungeon crawling and boss encounters. Had Xenoblade ended about 10 hours before it did, I think it would have been far stronger for it.

All in all, it’s a flawed game, to be sure, and I don’t want to downplay those flaws; Xenoblade has some substantial issues. But these issues can’t erase the sheer enjoyment and sense of fun that made up most of my experience with the game, and it’s one that I highly recommend in spite of them.

Storyline: Xenoblade’s story takes place on a world made up of two giant gods interlocked in a battle with each other. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, as a lot of the fun in Japanese RPGs is in getting to witness these things yourself. It’s a far simpler story than Xenogears or Xenosaga but there’s definitely a lot of it, with cutscenes, and the usual Tetsuya Takahashi flair, making frequent appearances. The characters, sadly, aren’t all that memorable or well-developed, and things get a little convoluted towards the end, but it’s an interesting scenario that’s paced very well and easily encourages you to continue playing. The script can be a bit corny and heavy-handed at times, but Nintendo of Europe did a great job with the localization, including the voice acting, which stands far above that of other voice acted Nintendo titles. (Metroid: Other M, I'm looking at you.)

Music: Handled by a team of composers, including the likes of Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts), Yasunori Mitsuda, and others, Xenoblade has a pretty awesome soundtrack loaded with variety. The sheer amount of music and the high quality of much of it makes it one of the best soundtracks this year, and definitely one of the game’s highlights.

Verdict: Xenoblade represents the triumphant return of the Japanese RPG. Featuring plenty of cutscenes and story progression and yet placing gameplay and exploration at the forefront, Xenoblade proves that Japanese RPGs can compete with the worlds and content offered by their Western counterparts, while still remaining true to their Japanese RPG roots and telling a story. The MMO-styled battle system has flaws, as these often do when featured in offline games, the characters aren’t the greatest, and the last few hours are pretty terrible compared to what came before them, but flaws aside, Xenoblade’s a must play for fans of the genre or for those who just enjoy a good adventure. If you own a Wii, there’s no reason not to pick this up now, as it’s the exact type of thing we need to see more of from the Japanese RPG going forward.

Presentation: A gigantic and fully explorable world, a well-presented plot with great pacing, and an above average translation and dubbing from Nintendo of Europe. Navigating menus can be a little tedious, but you get used to it.

Graphics: One of the best-looking Standard Definition games. Colors really pop on an HDTV if you have Component Cables and turn on 480p in the Wii System Settings. Draw distance is incredible, massive environments, great-looking cutscenes. The Wii really struggles to handle it, and slowdown during some battles is a major annoyance.

Gameplay: A truly fun and addictive combat system is let down slightly by an emphasis on level grinding over strategy and a brain-dead AI. But the world is the star here and it does not disappoint. More towns like Colony 9 would have been nice, but Bionis feels alive, and I loved visiting it and seeing what it had to offer.

Sound: A quality soundtrack with no shortage of pleasant tunes. Great voice acting in both English and Japanese. Environmental sound effects are also well done and draw you right in.

Replay Value: This game will take you a very long time to complete, but there are even extensive New Game Plus options if you want another go at it.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)


  1. Yeah. It's one that we really need to sell. I hope a lot of Wii owners picked it up.

  2. Metroid Other M is the good animated game to play. It is very easy to install. Players can face the difficulty to complete its stages. Excellent game that I have collected from at PIJ. Its really amazing. I am really excited.