Review: Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicles is a game that tries to redefine what a modern JRPG should be and while it certainly draws it’s own line in the sand it touches on what makes, and breaks, a good JRPG.
Xenoblade Chronicles starts off by making you witness a battle between two giants with their final blows staying frozen in time. You then learn just how large these warriors are because the story happens on them. That’s right, your story unfolds on the remains of their final battle.
You’re instantly thrown into the game as Dunban (a Hom) who wields the Monado, a special sword that is the only weapon that can hurt the Mechon, and your task is to push back the waves of Mechon that are attacking. On the surface it’s the usual “Man vs Machines” with the Homs, being human looking, fighting for survival against the Mechon. This is where the game gives you a hands on tutorial of the battle system and does a good job explaining it. From the onset it’s a very basic system that fits nicely.
Your character locks onto whatever target you choose and then once you engage the enemy your character automatically attacks. From that point on the basic combat system starts to get some layers. There are “arts” that characters can perform that do special damage or status effects like damage through blocks, or you can topple an opponent and make them completely defenseless for a certain amount of time.
After the initial battle you are fast forwarded and start the game over following the main character Shulk as the Homs get back to normalcy after the war with the Mechon. This is where the game teaches you the rest of the basics in gameplay and again it’s a very clear and concise hands on tutorial.
The story unfolds with Shulk and his friends living a normal life putting everything back in it’s place after the war. Dunban’s use of the Monado has damaged his body from a sort of negative feedback. You’re asked to explore and run a few errands and you start to see how this isn’t the normal JRPG fare. The world is huge with a multitude of optional quests to take on, ranging from the usual collecting and monster slaying to helping someone gain a new friend. While optional they do help flesh out the world a bit more and add a sense of life to the setting. There’s also a fantastic system involved, where you don’t need to backtrack at the end of every quest. In most of the cases when you finish a task it’s completed and you’re instantly rewarded. If you meet someone at the start of the game that needs 20 items collected and you don’t finish that quest until 4 hours into the game you don’t need to go all the way back to the beginning of the game to turn it in, it’s streamlined and I love it.
On the other hand the game does not have any sort of indicator for side quests so you’re left to juggle quests and locations with a very clunky menu system. If the quest system was more polished it would be a winner, as it stands the stress you deal with trying to find and organize quests is offset by how easy it is to be rewarded once you complete them. There were many times that I accidentally completed a quest because I had no idea who gave it to me or where they originally were, thankfully the reward system came in to save the day.
Once you get the basics down the next part of the story comes crashing in and from that point the “true” game starts with Shulk and his companions cutting a path through Mechon forces to destroy them once and for all. The story focuses on Shulk and his ability to wield the Monado with no ill effects. Over the course of the game Shulk’s relationship with the Monado is detailed with Shulk learning a whole array of powers from the blade. as well as the history of the life of the giants.
The story is well written and while it’s the standard revenge tale it’s not overly cliche.
Know how some people mind the victory tune at the end of every battle in Final Fantasy? That tune is a one hit wonder compared to how often the voice work is recycled.
There are different characters you’ll meet along the way and your party will change looks every few hours. Everyone in the same class (melee/ranged) plays the same way with specific character arts defining each character’s gameplay. For example, Shulk is a well rounded character while another character Reyn, is a classic tank. The only thing is that enemies almost always attack the character who can do the most damage to them and in almost all cases that’s Shulk so while the game is trying to work on Western rules for gameplay it’s a little off.
There are also basic commands in combat that feature commands like focus on one enemy or free for all. These options are good and for the most part useful, I just wish it was refined a bit more. They’re basic and get the job done but they never make you feel like you’re in control of the situation.
Also your AI partners are downright stupid most times. You can be fighting one monster and even after issuing a command not to leave they’ll run off and try to tackle a giant monster, all of a sudden you’re restarting your game because it killed your party. Your level of stress will go up as you play because you never know at what point in the battle your characters will decide they see something shiny and take off after it.
Your Party’s stupid decisions are exacerbated by the fact that you can’t use items during combat. You’ll be fighting a boss type character for a half hour and your healer won’t heal anyone near death or spam out heals on players that are only a few hit points down. In a lot of games there’s an option to have certain classes like healers only heal once 50% of health is remaining, 25% of health remaining, etc. Xenoblade needed this badly. As it stands it’s a crap shoot if your party members will do the right things at the time.
Your ability to offset your party’s miscues comes in when leveling your party up, as you advance you’ll not only grow stronger but also gain new arts. The good thing is that there’s a giant world around you to gain experience and it’s all done on the fly. If you fight a giant monster halfway till it’s dead and then retreat you’ll gain experience from the fight to that point. If you die at any point it’s simply a case of losing the EXP that you gained in the last fight and you start again from a previous checkpoint.
The checkpoint system is well done. Besides the usual saving there are certain points over all the maps that record you passing by them. If by some chance you die this is where you’ll come back, also the checkpoint system lets you fast travel around these giant maps. It cuts down on the tedium in the game a lot.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of tedium. The game boasts 70 hours or more of gameplay but really this game could have been a solid 25 hour game with a polished layout and level system without the needless filler. This game for all of it’s strengths has some of the worst filler of this generation.
In a lot of ways this is a game that’s based around loot. Every monster you kill will have loot and there are shining orbs around the map that show where items are. The orbs are a great thing that helps streamline the game yet again. Items in the world are just there, there’s no need to press a button and pick whatever up, just run over them and they’re yours. It’s a system that should be used everywhere.
With all that loot comes the horrible inventory system. There’s so much stuff from collecting bugs, elements, weapons and armor that you wind up with a ton of stuff. Unfortunately the menu system does a horrible job allowing you to sort it all, with all the different things you can collect in the game and all the different stats everything has it would have been nice to have a way to organize it all. As it stands even if there was an “equip best weapon available” button it would have been better. Instead it’s a hunt and peck inventory system that’s nothing but a headache.
The controls are fine, it doesn’t matter if you use the Wiimote + nunchuk combo or the Classic controller. They’re all mapped out well and there are no issues with button placement on either layout.
Graphically the game has a terrific art style but from a performance standpoint it’s rougher around the edges. There’s a lot of popping in and out, especially in the city areas where you’ll see citizens disappear and reappear as you run through the streets. It’s not as bad once you’re out of the cities in the open but that’s because it’s not heavily populated with things. Also you will get stuck in some objects, set pieces or even larger monsters.
The camera does a good job for the most part but there are certain situations like fighting a large monster or traversing a multi-tiered area that it just goes crazy. There were many times during a large boss fight that the camera just went crazy and pointed at the floor until the monster or I changed position. This is something that can be managed when it’s peaceful but it’s irritating during any sort of combat.
The sound in the game is odd. First of all you have to know that Xenoblade wasn’t going to come to North America so when it was, there wasn’t a lot put into it, that means we deal with the European voice work. For me there’s something especially jarring about a JRPG with thick British accents for every single character. This is more of a preference thing and by no means should it ever be used to lower a game’s score.
What should be used to lower a game’s score is how much voice work is recycled throughout the game. If you have a game that’s going to have a battle system where people shout encouraging words and end with a snappy quip then for the sake of everything good in the world record more then 5 minutes of dialogue. I don’t mind repeating dialogue in battles as long as it’s not repeated every 10 seconds. Know how some people mind the victory tune at the end of every battle in Final Fantasy? That tune is a one hit wonder compared to how often the voice work is recycled.
The sound effects in the game are good, while they don’t enhance the gameplay they certainly don’t detract from it.
The music shares a bit of the same fate. It’s some of the best music we’ve heard in a JRPG this generation but there’s not enough of it. What could have been a wonderful set of pieces to travel with becomes a handful of songs that are too short and heard too many times. I could spend an hour or more level grinding taking down giant monsters and the nice song at minute 5 is the white noise at minute 205. A large game needs a large soundtrack with songs that flow into each other creating a seamless experience. Xenoblade has some memorable songs but they’re too few in number to become anything but the game equivalent of that annoying song you hear too much on the radio.
Why it may be helpful for people with anxiety
- Interesting story
- Fun battle system
- Lots of different things to do
- Great music
Why it may be unhelpful for people with anxiety
- Stupid AI
- Lack of direction
- Awful inventory system
Why you should be on the fence
By now the novelty of Xenoblade Chronicles has worn off, the game is out in all regions and despite limited release in the states (only available from Gamestop and Nintendo’s own store) the people who wanted to play the game can get themselves a copy, so if you want it, you’re able. The thing is should you want to get it?
Xenoblade Chronicles does a lot right with the genre but also does a lot wrong. Every single step forward it makes is instantly followed by a step back due to bad design. It’s got a great quest reward system and that’s amazing but then it’s got an awful way to track and map out those quests. It’s got a great battle system but it’s got brainless AI that hinder your abilities in battle.
As much as I complain I think it’s a worthy title to own. The story is interesting and the battle system puts a unique spin on things. If you’re a Wii only gamer or a JRPG fan there’s not much out at the moment to cater to your needs so there’s another reason.
There are some great things in Xenoblade and some horrible things in it too, know that before you head out to grab it, I say grab it but remember there are going to be some rocky patches.
This review was based on the Wii version that was provided by the reviewer.
April 6, 2012
Open world setting, some memorable music, interesting (if flawed) combat system, solid story
Graphical glitches, repeating dialogue, too much filler, camera problems, stupid AI, obnoxious equipment managment