Standing on the shoulders of Giants
The Japanese RPG has struggled to both satisfy its established audience and grow a new one in recent years. While the release schedules are littered with considerate remakes of classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest titles, there are few forward-facing entries to this once commanding genre to look forward to. Rather, the sheer cost of making these sprawling epics, combined with a fall from fashion of cutscene-heavy games has ensured that the Japanese RPG is far from the cultural force it once was.
Xenoblade Chronicles has a chance to change all that. Despite appearing on a console entering its twilight years and in the middle of the summer game release drought - it is one of the best JRPG's of this hardware generation. Good-looking, smart, engaging and wrapped in a story that sings across its generous 60 hours, Xenoblade Chronicles downplays those genre tropes that have turned off contemporary audiences the random battles, anime-shrill storylines and endless fetch quests and replaces them with elegant, engaging mechanics in its place.
The story focuses on Shulk, an orphan in his late teens who, in the best JRPG tradition, wields a legendary, improbably huge glowing sword. Shulk is a Hom, one of the two races that live on the Bionis - the gigantic, stone colossus that forms the game world. While the Bionis is a green, pastoral land (albeit one shaped like a 50 mile high granite giant) Shulk and the other Homs live in constant fear of attack from the Mechon, a vindictive robot force that also lives in the world.
At the start of the game a swarm of Mechnon ransack Shulk home, burning and pillaging as they go. This attack kicks off a winding story packed with interest and intrigue, as the team set out from Colony 9 to scale the Bionis is search of answers.
A cast of likeable characters accompany Shulk, including his closest friend and cockney-voiced Reyn and Sharla, a rifle-bearing healer who is searching for both her missing brother and the man she was engaged to marry.
In battle you control just one character. To attack you need only position your chosen character close enough to an enemy to strike something they do automatically. As a result, control is primarily limited to selecting which of the character special moves you trigger and when. Special attacks can be used at any time, and as many times as you want, but each has a cooling off period before they can be re-used. Most of the game strategy comes from knowing when to attack, when to defend, and when to use any of the other buffs and de-buffs available to your team.
Character arts can be leveled up by spending experience points on them, and the more characters fight together, the stronger the bonds between them grow, opening up more tactical possibilities via link-up moves. Despite not having direct control of every sword strike, there an awful lot to be aware of as battles scale in complexity.
All Creatures Great and Small
Play is divided equally between fighting and exploration, and the world of Bionis is a beautiful playpen for the inquisitive. Caves, passageways, hills and valleys roll off all around - an astounding technical achievement on the Nintendo Wii from Monolith Soft artists and technicians.
As you explore youl earn experience points for chancing upon landmarks, and you'll stumble across all manner of flora and fauna. These creatures can be seen all around and come in a variety of different temperaments, some attacking you on sight, others choosing to leave you alone unless you land the first strike.
As in MMOs, the game is stuffed with side quests to tackle and any non-player character with an exclamation mark above their head will issue you with a challenge. Mercifully, many of these side-quests don require you to return to the quest giver once completed. Meanwhile, every environment is scattered with pinpricks of light that represent collectible items that can be harvested in order to complete objectives, or use as tradable goods in the shops. The urge to collect all of these (even filling in a sticker book collection as you do so) is compelling, and provides yet another layer of incentive to explore this beautiful, expansive world.
With a subtle, wonderful soundtrack, some expressive voice-acting from a near all-British voice cast, and an expert translation from Nintendo, Xenoblade Chronicles is a game far more than the sum of its parts. An innovative battle system couples gracefully with a twisting storyline that never lets go until it fully unwound. The result is a towering achievement of game design, one that will appear to an audience far wider than the dwindling numbers of the JRPG faithful.
- Fast travel mechanic, between visited locations
- Expansive, beautiful environments
- Excellent standard of voice acting.
- Menus sometimes lack clarity
- Side-quests can be repetitive
- World can be extremely perilous.