Monolith Soft's Xenoblade Chronicles is one of a triplet of Wii titles originally not slated for release in North America. Upon its eventual arrival, it certainly caused sparks, charming even the staunchest of critics out of their 9s and 10s. But is this the tale of a sword that pierces the heavens, or just a wild stab in the dark?
I first heard of Xenoblade back when it was still tentatively titled Monado and a handful of pre-release screenshots were circulating on gaming blogs, the posters frequently baffled at what could have possibly prompted Monolith Soft, whose credits include the Baten Kaitos and Xenosaga series, to develop an apparent triple-A title for the PS3's underachieving cousin.
What drew me to the Xenoblade initially, however, was its unique concept: a world set on the backs of two gigantic petrified gods, Bionis and Mechonis, frozen in eternal combat. The idea of planting entire civilizations square on the bodies of two humanoid colossi seemed so strange and compelling that I felt I had to see it for the world design alone. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what I got when its European launch date finally arrived: a game so vast, so beautiful, and so thoroughly designed that it should be enough to silence the endlessly reiterated excuses for trite, uninspired writing and sparkly-wrapping-paper-type design forever.
Story: A Human Touch
Xenoblade centers around Shulk, a young scientist living in one of the last surviving human colonies on the giant Bionis. Constantly under the threat of attack from the Mechon, an army of robotic creatures from the neighboring giant Mechonis, Shulk has dedicated his life to studying the Monado, a mystical sword said to have once been wielded by Bionis itself in its legendary battle against its archenemy. The Monado has given humans a fighting chance, though at a great cost to its wielders, who are slowly consumed by its powers. When the colony is attacked by a previously unknown type of Mechon and his girlfriend is killed, however, Shulk takes up the mantle of Monado-wielder and sets out to find a method to destroy the Mechon once and for all...
One doesn't have to be an RPG fan to recognize a number of classic sci-fi and fantasy tropes in this short summary alone. However, so does Xenoblade itself, since it masterfully swerves to evade the obvious pitfalls and turns what could be an overly predictable, simplistic story into a journey that is equal parts fun and dramatic. While a few plot twists can be guessed if one is genre-savvy, just as many others are pleasantly surprising.
The human presentation of the characters goes a long way to making even some of the goofier moments believable. Although they all show marks of the classic template that inspired them – the avenging hero, the brawny comic relief, the big sister, the mascot, the princess, and so on – these traits do not define them as characters. First and foremost, they function as people who grew up in their respective environments, whether that is the medic Sharla who has seen her impending marriage and home destroyed and has spent the past months acting as the leader of a few desperate survivors, or Shulk himself, who is more tinkerer and scholar than warrior, and thus frequently needs his bulky friend Reyn to remind him of the world outside his own mind.
Whereas many games tend to structure their interactions around one or two main characters to the exclusion of most others, Xenoblade remembers to provide each cast member with their own arc, big or small, and does not tie all party interactions to the hero. Although Shulk's story is unquestionably the central thread, the game offers plenty of opportunities for the other characters to deepen their relationships and interact with the various environments. This is topped off by a host of engaging side characters and NPCs that are not directly relevant to the plot, but who lend the story additional depth by creating a living, breathing world that the player will actually want to save.
If anything can be criticized about the story presentation, it's that the game sometimes uses visual cues that unfortunately brand a few characters as suspicious or outright antagonistic long before they ever spring into action. The bondage-suited female general who blows kisses after departing characters in stereotypical femme fatale fashion or the traitor who becomes obvious by his bug-eyed, pallid and altogether unpleasant-looking design serve as detriments to an otherwise well-written story by spoiling some plot points well in advance.
Gameplay: The Best of Two (?) Worlds
Xenoblade takes the best elements of action RPGs and MMOs to craft a fun and varied battle system alongside a wide, open world filled with secrets, quests, collectibles, trade opportunities, item crafting, rare monsters and relationship-building.
This may sound like a tall order, and indeed, it is. Normally, such a list of things would only serve to make me suspicious – with the sheer amount of stuff to do, it is all too likely that a good portion of it will be tedious or irrelevant. In that sense, Xenoblade is like a circus performer on a unicycle, juggling a whole tea set with tea inside: you're just waiting for that moment when it all goes horribly wrong and you end up with a big broken mess. Except Xenoblade keeps right on juggling.
The first time I started up the game, I was stunned by the amount of freedom I was given right from the get-go. In many ways, my response to RPGs has taken on a perversely Pavlovian air – I have come to expect the game designers to be hovering behind me as I play, intermittently wagging their fingers and tut-tutting disapprovingly, "What do you want there? You're not supposed to go there yet! You want to take a detour? Don't be silly, on with the plot! What do you mean, you'd like to go back and pick up that rare item you missed? Too bad, it's now lost forever!"
I was so ready to be interrupted by forty-minute cutscenes every ten steps, or to be shooed back on the straight and narrow by conveniently placed invisible barriers, that even after ten hours of playing, I was still grappling with the fact that it never happened. The world just kept stretching on around me, leaving me to run, jump, climb and swim my way through its hills and rivers. From the start, I was free to explore, hunt monsters, chat up NPCs, do quests and craft items, or progress with the story at my own discretion. "This is all the stuff you can do," Xenoblade basically told me on a single-slide tutorial screen. "Don't worry about doing it all, or doing it immediately, though. We're here to have fun."
And indeed, fun was had. For as vast as the individual areas of the game are, they're easy to navigate once they've been thoroughly explored. Xenoblade employs a fast-travel system that logs unique geographical features as waypoints, allowing the player to "warp" between them without delay. Should you die in combat or end up tripping and falling off the nose of Bionis into the endless void below, the game will restore you at the last waypoint you passed without any further penalties. There isn't too much cause for skipping back-and-forth, either – many quests wrap up automatically once completed, giving you your rewards without requiring you to backtrack to NPC #139 on the left toenail of the Bionis when you've been running around collecting items on top of its gargantuan head.
Speaking of quests, there are over 200 that become available over the course of the game. While this smorgasbord usually consists of variants of collect-a-thons, the slaying of a number of monsters, or retrieving lost items and missing people, they are given their own incentive and charm via the unique personalities of the amazing number of NPCs populating the cities and landscapes. Fittingly, quest rewards don't just constitute EXP, money or items: they are often tied to learning more about the quest givers and act as a means of raising the affection between the party members, as well.
In fact, the affinity system is a significant feature unto its own. This takes on two forms: The first is the affinity chart, which logs all named NPCs and their relationships with one another. By talking to them and doing their quests, they soon become connected to a colorful variety of other NPCs, including nosy neighbors, estranged friends, irresponsible co-workers, loving parents or shady business partners. The relationship chart is entirely optional, but makes for a fun activity on the side when you take a break from world-saving to patch up marriages (or ruin them), get obstinate children to study, and help timid NPCs to make friends.
The second form of the affinity chart is between your own party members. While a lot of RPGs employ a dating system these days to get the main character a girlfriend, Xenoblade treats all characters equally in this regard. Not only do they become friends with the main character, but also each other, which affects other areas such as battle and gem-crafting. While most games make the dating simulation aspect fairly tedious and one-sided, Xenoblade makes use of all its systems to ensure a natural way of relationship-building. Characters gain affection by executing combos, reviving and healing each others' status effects in battle, embarking on sidequests together, and, of course, by engaging in private conversation. And, as is the Xenoblade style, they are all entirely optional, but well-worth pursuing.
Another major feature is the time and weather system. Apart from day-night cycles which bring out unique monsters, NPCs and sights, the weather also changes periodically in a variety of normal or exotic ways. However, there's no need to worry about sitting around waiting for it to change – Xenoblade has a handy clock feature for you to manipulate both time and weather to your liking, with no need for a tedious wait.
All of these elements create a world that feels in the truest sense alive and lived in, something that a lot of recent RPGs have come to lack in their quest for HD graphics. Xenoblade returns to the roots with its design, leaving it to the player to poke and prod at its secrets and develop an affection for the myriad creatures that populate its landscapes, which goes a long way towards creating a fun and fulfilling gaming experience.
Monsters in Xenoblade are always visible on the field map, leaving it to the player to decide whether to engage or avoid them. Some move in clusters, some wander by themselves, and some bring surprise friends to the party by summoning help when attacked, which makes for nicely diverse battles. In a page taken from the MMO handbook, there are also a few high-level beasts roaming around here and there, though their levels are always visible, allowing the player to steer clear with relative ease.
Combat itself is structured around a freely customizable party and takes place in real-time, with the player controlling one character at any given time. Each character has their own host of abilities, offering a fresh take on classic fantasy RPG roles such as healer, summoner, tank or thief. These abilities can be mixed and tweaked to the player's liking, providing lots of freedom to build your own play style. However, they aren't just flashy adornments: Once an ability is used, it needs a certain amount of time to recharge, so if a player tries to win by mindlessly spamming abilities, they are liable to soon find themselves at a disadvantage.
The emphasis lies on teamwork with the two AI-controlled party members. For one, certain combinations of abilities allow you to first stagger, then down and finally daze monsters, which keeps them from counter-attacking and renders them extremely vulnerable to damage. Since virtually no team member possesses all three types of attacks, you have to time their use right in order to allow your AI companions to execute the necessary follow-up attacks.
Additionally, a team gauge is filled by using abilities and trigger commands during "teamwork moments." This gauge allows you to revive downed party members or warn them of incoming monster attacks, which gives you the opportunity to execute preventive measures such as buffs and healing spells. If the gauge is filled to maximum, it can be released in a combo that lets the player chain the characters' abilities up to fifteen times in a row, depending on their affinity level.
Characters can also learn a variety of passive skills which grant them various advantages, such as additional buffs at the start of battle, easier EXP gain, and so on. However, these skills aren't locked to any one character – in fact, the link system allows characters to share a certain number of skills among each other, also depending on their affinity.
Yet another way to customize and enhance characters are ether gems: via crafting, characters are able to equip various additional beneficial effects that allow them to add elemental properties to weapons and armor, use the terrain to their advantage, or guard against status effects.
Despite the insane number of things to do, Xenoblade neither overwhelms the player with info-dumps nor patronizingly locks them in tutorial mode for thirty hours. Tutorials are generally one-page bullet-point slides that can be easily skipped or reaccessed via a help database, and the complexity of the battle system increases as the characters level up, adding more and more means of customization. In short, Xenoblade is a resounding statement against uninspired, repetitive and unnecessarily complicated combat and design – streamlined in the style of an action game, yet with a depth of customization most commonly found in old-school RPGs.
Graphics and Sound
As news of Xenoblade continued to drift westward, there was much skepticism and gnashing of teeth over the fact that the game was being developed for the Wii, whose reduced technical capacities are frequently said to mar Xenoblade's beauty. Instead of adding to the voices lamenting the lack of HD graphics, I will go out on a limb here and say that it might be more apt to thank the Wii for gifting us with Xenoblade in its current form. While a crystal-clear 1080p game is always a treat, it's also a major resource hog, and if Monolith had chosen to develop the game for a more demanding console, there is a good chance their funds would have flown into polishing pixels instead of quality world design.
That said, Wii-level graphics or not, Xenoblade is the gaming equivalent of a person who can look stunning in a potato sack. Even with the limited resources, all the characters possess diverse and very expressive faces which rarely over-emote. Sometimes, stock animation is used repetitively during dialogue scenes, which can lead to a character jerking their arms back and forth in an "I'm being persuasive" or "I'm deep in thought" motion, but it usually doesn't last long enough to truly be distracting.
The costume designs marry the intricate and the practical, much to my personal delight – it's been a while since I last went through a game without wondering how a character's clothes even stay on, never mind allow them to climb mountains and fight behemoths. If you don't like the default outfits, you can also create your own costumes by mixing and matching pieces of equipment and weapons, which stay in place even during cutscenes. And should you want to see your characters go into battle dressed in beach wear or varieties of Gundam, you can do that, too.
The monster design follows a fairly naturalistic route for the most part, featuring a variety of bugs, birds, wolves, and so on. In fact, a number of monsters recur as palette-swaps in multiple areas, but given the themed nature of the world setting and the otherwise excellent art direction, this can be forgiven. The Mechon are easily the most striking foes. Xenosaga fans may find themselves reminded of the Gnosis in several instances, since the Mechon design employs a similar uncanny valley strategy by putting disparate-looking limbs together or allowing their joints to rotate in unnatural ways. One of my favorite enemy designs is a stories-high Mechon whose general structure vaguely resembles a preying mantis – having that thing stomping towards you is truly a sight to behold.
However, Xenoblade's showstoppers are easily its environments, which manifest as sprawling yet intricate vistas that one never tires of exploring, even long after all the fast-travel stations have been uncovered. I frequently found myself just wandering, feeling like a hiker in an especially beautiful national park as the sunlight hit the mists of a waterfall, covering the surrounding plains with a hazy golden veil, or gasping in awe as night descended on a murky swamp and its drab, leafless trees became covered in hundreds of luminous blossoms.
The music serves to underscore this feeling of vastness and awe of nature. Each area has at least two musical themes to match its daytime and nighttime moods, along with the requisite ambient sounds. Together with ACE+ and vocal artist Manami Kiyota, composers Yoko Shimomura (of Kingdom Hearts and Parasite Eve fame) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Shadow Hearts) have crafted a soundtrack of sweeping orchestral pieces, pumping battle themes and mysterious chants that lingers with the player long after they have finished the game.
Last but not least, Xenoblade comes with a Japanese voice option, to the delight of purists everywhere. While I found the British dub to be quite pleasant and solid overall, I felt that a few of the Japanese voices better matched their respective characters, particularly Alvis, who quickly became one of my favorite supporting figures due to his light, airy drawl that suited his ambiguous and mischievous nature. However, non-Japanese-savvy players may want to keep the English voices on, regardless, since battle exclamations don't come with subtitles, which might cause them to miss a snippet of banter or a clue to the action an AI team member is going to perform next.
Verdict: The Beginning of the World
According to the development team, Monado: Beginning of the World was renamed Xenoblade in order to honor the work of Monolith founder and writer/director Tetsuya Takahashi, "who poured his soul into making this and […] the Xeno series." If there is one thing that becomes obvious through this christening of the game as a spiritual successor, it is the amount of energy that has flown into its making, tempered by thoughtful direction, streamlined design and a fresh take on a subject matter that is, in its rudimentary form, the core of most RPGs. In an age when critics are eager to pronounce the JRPG dead, Xenoblade is a welcome counter-argument – marrying the best parts of both East and West in its design, while cutting down its own creative path. If you love endearing, well-rounded characters, exploration, questing and running around on the shoulders of giants, then Xenoblade is well worth your time.
Title: Xenoblade Chronicles
Developer: Monolith Soft