Xenoblade Chronicles does not simply stand out among other JRPGs, it ventures into new areas and clears the path for new possibilities
Once upon a time, the world was nothing but a big blue ball of water. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, two entities sprung up from the very bottom of the sea: Mechonis, the mechanical menacing giant; and Bionis, a natural monstrosity. For years and years the two beings fought mercilessly for reasons that would remain unknown to men for quite a long time, as – when life started to appear in the resting corpses of the two giants – all remaining signs of the gargantuan battle would be a few landforms perpetuated in their bodies as a direct consequence of battle wounds, and the giant sword of the Mechonis that, frozen in time as a constant reminder of what happened before life came to exist, in its final piercing blow created a valley that connected the only two pieces of solid land in this watery world.
In Xenoblade’s first ten minutes, this is how the world where the game’s adventure takes place is made known to players, and it is hard not to feel compelled to tie a sword to your back, and just venture into the enormous beings to see how it is physically, and humanly, possible to build an entire cohesive world in the different body parts of a giant and bring it all together in geographic and artistic integrity.
The uniqueness of its world, though, does not only unveil a will for adventure inside all players; it also makes it blatantly clear that, even though Xenoblade does carry a few JRPGs clichés on its back, the sheer talent of the people involved in this project is just too big for the game to simply fit in nicely among its genre peers. From the get go, Xenoblade presents itself as a game that wants to standout, and as it progresses the question is not whether or not it will succeed in doing so, but whether it will simply bow its head and humbly standout among JRPGs, or whether its ambitions will take it a little further than that.
The game begins as both Homs, human-like beings who inhabit Bionis, and Mechon, heartless machines who have built a fortress in Mechonis, are in full-blown war against each other. In the sword that connects the two giants, a trio of Homs battle numerous Mechon squads with the aid of a powerful sword, the Monado, who is oddly effective against those beings. Although Dunban, the sword wielder, is deeply wounded when after battle he is overwhelmed by the sword’s power, the Homs celebrate what seemed to be a definitive victory against the invading forces.
However, after one year of living in relative peace, the tranquil human colony in the back of the Bioni’s lower leg is suddenly attacked by even more powerful types of Mechon. With Dunban out of the picture due to his wounds, it is up to Shulk, the game’s protagonist, and his friend Reyn, a very strong teenager with little brain and a lot of heart, to defend the colony while they can and then, set out to seek revenge.
Amazingly, this initial bit of storyline – that ends up serving as the game’s core motivation through most of its seventy hours – is so slowly developed, by first introducing players to the friendly people around the village and then handing them the controls through most of the events that occur during the invasion, that the feeling of disgust and blind anger is brilliantly transported from the character to the players themselves who, during a few hours of gameplay, end up developing a very positive feeling towards the place and the people.
Xenoblade is guilty of stepping in a few areas that have been overdone by JRPGs throughout gaming history, but the developers where smart enough to mostly transplant the good, and try to leave all the bad behind. As its main stars are fragile teenagers that suddenly have the weight of the world on their shoulders, the game does feature a lot of teenage anguish, though it is mostly treated in an elegant enough way to steer clear of embarrassing moments; besides, in a more positive light, Xenoblade has the ridiculously detailed amount of menus and options that the genre is known for.
There is so much to manage and to explore that chances are most gamers will not even touch on one-third of all character-related options by the time the game concludes. It is possible to exchange specific abilities between members of your party by developing good relationships among them, trade with NPCs once you have helped them enough for them to care about you (which is shown by an amazingly detailed social graphic featuring the hundreds of NPCs you have interacted with), equip gems into your armor that will give further abilities to your characters, and – of course – constantly switch your seven-people party to find the combination that suits you best for each specific type of battle.
By setting its adventure on two giants, Xenoblade is accurately making players aware of its megalomaniac ways, because it is a game that is both huge in the scope of its scenarios and the extension of the options and activities it offers to players during the game.
If, at times, Xenoblade embraces its JRPG roots, in other moments it neglects them completely. The game walks as far from linearity as possible. In fact, it could be said that Xenoblade is an RPG trapped in the body of an open-world adventure game. However, it is not an uncomfortable imprisonment, the extension of the world fits like a glove, as instead of clashing with the RPG elements, it ends up complementing them in ways that had never been seen before.
The game’s scenarios are so numerous and absurdly big that it often wanders into MMORPG territory by offering large varieties of monsters to fight, more quests than players could possibly imagine, and plenty of secret locations that can only be properly explored once characters reach a level that can only be achieved beyond the end of the game.
The game’s quests might have structures that are a little bit repetitive – they are either concerned with killing a certain number of a specific enemy, collecting some materials dropped by foes or found lying around certain areas, or finding the necessary resources to bring destroyed places back to their former state – but their appeal lies in the fact that they give players extra motivation to both further explore Xenoblade’s locations and spend more time immersed in the game’s world. Although it is possible to grasp their repetitive nature, it is impossible to escape the allure of doing at least one-third of the game’s over three hundred quests.
In their attempt to feature big environments, some games wind up sinfully failing to fill gorgeous landscapes with content, turning the experience into a torturing exercise of walking from one point to another very distant location. Aside from the plentiful NPCs, Xenoblade uses a very unique technique to populate its huge scenarios with something to strive for, and it does so by smartly scattering major locations and landmarks across its vast lands.
As players first step into a new area and begin to explore distinct locations such as valleys, hills, bridges, rivers, and others, they begin to earn names and be revealed on the map, and as more exploration is done landmarks – which can be used as teleporting points – are also unveiled. Finding all of those places of interest eventually unlocks the whole map of the area, but the motivation to locate them all goes far beyond that. Landmarks and locations usually offer absolutely unique and stunning views of the Xenoblade world, not to mention how important they are when locating certain spots and enemies in the map that are vital to some quests.
However – most importantly – players will earn a considerable amount of XP points when finding of those places, and the harder they are to track down, the sweeter is the reward, with certain areas being worth so much XP that characters will almost instantly jump a whole level. These brilliant mechanics bring an unspeakable deal of balance to the gameplay, as it frees players from the usual RPG demand to grind by battling enemies through a map and gives them the opportunity to decide by themselves to customize their gameplay experience with their desired amount of battling and exploring.
When it comes to battles, Xenoblade readily does away with random enemy encounters and integrates enemies into the scenario, letting players decided whether they want to fight or flee. Foes are alerted of your presence by different actions, some react to sound, others to sight and so on. Once the battle starts, players will control one character while the other two selected members of the party will be handled by the CPU, which is absolutely necessary given how the game opts for a battle system that integrates a few elements reminiscent of turn-based games, with action-oriented gameplay.
Though more than one enemy can be fought at once, at any time during the battle players can only be locked on to a certain foe, and whenever the character approaches said enemy they will start delivering their standard attacks automatically in specific intervals, it is left to players, then, to control the movements of the character and select one from eight available arts to attack the foes.
Each of the seven party members has a very distinct set of arts to upgrade and choose from, which opens up wide possibilities for fighting styles and, at the same time, requires a lot of learning from players if they want to master all characters or find a very effective combination for their style. Interestingly, some arts will be extra effective when delivered in a certain position in relation to the enemy, which makes standing behind or in front of the foe the difference between doing 100 damage or 800, bringing a whole new element of strategic positioning into the battle.
The fact that the game leaves it for CPUs to completely manage other characters ends up being a tad frustrating when the game is in its winding moments, though, because as battles become closer and tougher, and Xenoblade is a game that definitely gets very hard starting in its midway point, small actions may be the difference between life and frustrating death.
Most players will sadly come across a few occasions on which, for example, a healer won’t heal at a very critical moment, a character will blindly wander into some very harmful terrain during a tough boss battle, or a character that is still standing will fail to revive your fallen character quickly only to be then promptly killed by a powerful enemy that may be very close to finally succumbing. Sadly, with the way the game’s great battle system was designed, there would be no way around those frustrating moments other than polishing up partner AI a little bit more.
Another one of the game’s very few flaws is that, down the line, right before its final stretch, the game stumbles on some slight pacing problems. Xenoblade’s story is one long epic tale with many twists and turns along the way, and it was masterfully designed so that players would be completely integrated into the story’s introduction, making the whole game much more compelling, and also placing emotional peaks in such a calculated manner that if the game’s intensity level were shown in a chart, it would look like a very wild roller-coaster ride.
However, the valley that represents the period of time right between the game’s final emotional peak – and its very pinnacle – and the true ending of the game drags for way too long, putting too much emphasis on short dungeons and insane boss battles and little on exploration and questing, which ends up forcing most players to grind for considerable hours before they can move on to the next part of the game only to be placed in front of another mighty boss.
It is a fact that, by that point, the game has reached such a dramatic scale that things need to definitely go big, tough and epic; however, it is hard not to play through that stretch without feeling like you are only doing it to finish the game, instead of playing it for the extreme delight that it is to play Xenoblade for sixty of its seventy hours.
Although the game grows tiring in its homestretch, Xenoblade never becomes boring to look at. Though the design of its characters scream JRPG cliché, everything else about is an absolute work of art. The game’s initial premise of taking place in the body of two giants is not there just for show. While venturing through a valley on the Bionis’ leg or a huge ocean by its wings, it is completely possible to find certain views of the scenery that reveal your actual location in the giants’ body, but also let the artistic brilliancy of the game’s art work sink in.
Xenoblade is not a game satisfied with throwing huge and gorgeously crafted locations on the screen, it is also set in making you realize that everything is placed in a way that makes sense in relation to the body of the two giants. The attention to detail is far beyond what words can explain as it is better felt and seen rather than described.
Since, like all RPGs with thick stories, Xenoblade packs a very large amount of cutscenes, the developers opted to make all of them with in-game graphics rather than flashy CGI, but although they lose some of their cinematic quality, they more than live up to their original intent due to the good localization work in the dialogues, amazing characters and good voice acting. In other words, even when it shows its technical limitations, the game makes them almost transparent by effectively sucking players into its world.
As if the visual work of art that are Xenoblade’s graphics was not enough, the game also features a soundtrack that puts almost every game to ridiculous shame. There is no song here that fails to move the heart in one way or another, and it is simply incredible how, as in-game time shifts from day to night and the scenario around you changes drastically, the soundtrack also mutates to better fit the moodiness of the night.
Hence, it is possible to say that almost all of the game’s locations feature not one, but two incredibly composed tunes. If the game succeeds incredibly on its songs, it does fail on some of its sound effects, especially the words uttered by characters during battle. As they struggle against enemies the characters will be constantly motivating their friends with phrases of positive effect or yelling out the name of the attack that has been chosen. Unfortunately, those things happen a little bit too often and far before the game reaches its halfway mark, players will already be extremely annoyed by the short repertory of battle sentences the characters have.
The ultimate question is, does Xenoblade only set itself apart from other JRPGs, or does it climb higher than that? It is hard to tell whether or not its clear attempt to refresh the genre will be a success, after all, it is a matter of if other games will walk on some of its footsteps or if they will keep their occasional annoying habits as the norm.
However, for now, it is possible to say that Xenoblade is already historically relevant, if not for its yet-to-be-seen influence, for how it manages to involve players in its fantastic tale, geographically and visually develop its ambitious world in a way that is beautiful and surprisingly cohesive and show that when bright open minds come together, the result is a game that carries more than one hundred hours of content that, more than entertain, might be destined to change the fate of a whole genre.