Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

Xenoblade Chronicles

Nintendo Wii

Xenoblade Chronicles
Two giant alien creatures stand dead in the midst of a duel. Over time, entire civilizations grow on their corpses; a diverse and living realm on the Bionis, an artificial one on the Mechonis. Now the two worlds are in conflict. During a Mechon attack on his home colony, ordinary human Shulk takes up the Monado, a mysterious sword that devastates mechanical foes. He's soon launched on a quest up the body of Bionis itself, learning new and shocking details along the way.

Games with the “Xeno-“ prefix are all too often mixtures of soaring ambitions and blunt reality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi devised Xenogears while at Square, crafting an RPG about giant robots, strange religious themes, and all sorts of anime archetypes. Unfortunately, it was also about rushed deadlines and troubled development, and the game struggled through a barely finished second half. Takahashi and other Square staffers then left to form Monolith Soft, and their next RPG attempt was the multi-part Xenosaga space opera. Ambitions met reality once again, and Xenosaga trimmed its story from six parts to three, earning only a mixed reception in the process. Now under Nintendo's watch, Takahashi and Monolith created Xenoblade Chronicles. And this time their ambitions come through beautifully.

Xenoblade Chronicles is unrelated to previous Xeno-type RPGs, though Takahashi gave it a premise suitably outlandish. Xenoblade's world consists of two giant, vaguely humanoid aliens who seemingly perished while fighting each other. Fortunately, they died standing up, and life has since flourished on their corpses. The Bionis body hosts an Earth-like realm of verdant forests, curious wildlife, human “Homs,” and blobbish Nopons. The other dead titan, the Mechonis, apparently abounds with hostile artificial life, and it isn't long before there's a war strangely reminiscent of The Matrix. The Homs are saved by the Monado, a blade that damages machine-like Mechon with ease. Things settle down for a year so, and then another conflict erupts. This time, the Mechon are more vicious, the stakes are greater, and the Monado's in the hands of a thoughtful young scientist named Shulk. He's accompanied by his wannabe girlfriend Fiora, his tanklike pal Reyn, former Monado wielder Dunban, medical sniper (yes, really) Sharla, sorceress Melia, and a Nopon named Riki.

In one sense, Xenoblade is about a ragtag band of adventurers learning the truth of the strange world they inhabit. But far more important is the world itself. Xenoblade is massive in every sense: fields sprawl in every direction, hills conceal all sorts of paths, and the scale is remarkably consistent. It's one thing to roam an extensive RPG fantasyland, but it's another when you can wander to the edge of a cliff and gaze out upon a long-dead alien colossus and the endless sea beneath it. While Xenoblade doesn't have the crisp resolution of some other open-world RPGs, the excellent art direction and scale make up for that quite a bit. In truth, the only ugly points are the characters' blurry and Muppet-esque faces, and that's noticeable only during close-ups.

As if to counter complaints about Japanese RPGs merely showing pretty backgrounds, Xenoblade lets the player's three-character party explore almost everything they see. Everyone can jump freely and walk just about anywhere, even if they want to leap from a cliff and plummet a hundred feet into a lake (or off the edge of the world, for that matter). Best of all, this rarely covers familiar territory. Xenoblade allows players to save anywhere and conveniently skip back to any previously visited landmark on the map. This leaves more time for new searches, pushed on by a soundtrack from Manami Kiyota, the Ace+ trio, and Kingdom Hearts' Yoko Shimomura. Oh, and there's a main theme by Yasunori Mitsuda. He's never far from an RPG that starts with 'X.'

This spacious environment isn't bogged it down in battle, either. Resembling Final Fantasy XII's vision of an offline online RPG, Xenoblade trims away just about every annoyance that nips at RPGs both classic and modern. There are no random encounters, because everything happens on the same map. There's no need to micromanage every little detail, because the party's lead is directly under the player's control while two allies follow sensible AI strategies and the occasional command. There's no need to hammer a generic “attack” command either, because characters automatically flail at enemies and leave the player to choose from powered-up attacks, debuffs, and other specials. And just to keep that from growing monotonous, there's often the chance for a three-character combination. Another interesting point emerges from the Monado itself: Shulk can glimpse the future and predict particularly vicious enemy strikes. And you have to do all of these things in a hurry, because the game seldom slows down to let you leisurely pick through a menu.

It's an excellent battle system, a mixture of Final Fantasy XII's seamless approach with the more chaotic brawls of a Tales game. And while Xenoblade allows its characters to be customized, all of them remain distinct: Shulk's Monado-based skills are vital when fighting Mechon early on, Reyn is a tank, Sharla's a healer and long-range striker, Melia hurls attack magic, and so forth. There's even something for those who tire of RPG characters always looking the same no matter what they equip: Xenoblade's cast changes outfits accordingly, and there are dozens of different helms, chestplates, and less practical garments.

A dress-up session is only the surface of Xenoblade's many diversions. Weapons and armor can hold various gems that boost character stats, and those gems are crafted in brief interludes that rely on how close party members grow. Those bonds are strengthened during battles and “heart to heart” scenes that dot the landscape. There's an entire web of relationships among townsfolk and other supporting characters, and half of them want something from the player.Xenoblade's voluminous helping of mini-quests seems impressive at first, but only a few of them are actually intriguing. Most of the hundred-some side trips merely involve finding the right item or wiping out a certain number of animals for some nature-hating jerk. Good thing there's no tedious trekking just to fulfill a mission.

Xenoblade's world drives the game better than the actual storyline. It's a lean and inoffensive thing, and it often just tries not to get in the way. While Shulk's journey is launched with a sharply paced procession of tragedies and revelations, the game soon switches to the routines typical of a 16-bit RPG: a young man linked by chance to a miraculous power, an opposing force of monstrous creatures with twisted secrets, and a race of powerful beings lurking above. Some surprises lie in the third act, yet much of the journey there is padded by clichés in some form. This even invades the gameplay now and then with fetch quests, and it smacks of the antiquated concepts that the rest of Xenoblade ignores.

Nor do the characters fill the gaps in story. They're likeable, but not in striking ways. Shulk's a sympathetic kid, Reyn's an amiable galoot, Sharla's a supportive woman on a crusade, Dunban's a distant mentor, and Melia's an uptight, semi-sheltered girl from an allegedly more advanced culture. And then there's Riki, who fills the wacky-animal-sidekick role as tolerably as possible. It's very much the opposite of Takahashi's earlier games. Messy as they could be, Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy had everything from samurai and reverse Robocops to Space Jesus and a facsimile of Street Fighter's Blanka. It's as though Takahashi (or Nintendo) was afraid of alienating players with bizarre ideas or crucified pink hamsters, and so Xenoblade went with a cast that's just too darn safe. They're not angst-driven, whiny, or annoying. Yet they're not particularly interesting, either.

But they are all smoothly British, thanks to Nintendo of Europe's localization. Nearly the entire vocal cast is first-rate, and their accents make the game's melodrama seem a great deal more classy, at least to an uncouth Yank such as myself. The actors all make the most of their stereotyped characters, even if the mundane dialogue does them few favors. There's only one catch: no one can shut up during a fight. Catchphrases and simple conversations are hurled back and forth with each and every battle, to the point where even the amusing exchanges will grate. And you can't turn off these voices.

Such bothers are easily swallowed up by the grander scope of Xenoblade Chronicles, however. There's always something new to find, whether it's a snippet of backstory or some imposingly huge monster. It may lack a truly compelling tale, but it's easily braced by the rest of the game. A by-the-numbers narrative isn't quite so typical when there's a massive world to see and many a rewarding battle to fight. Xenoblade delivers both in excess, and it reaches heights few other RPGs even know about.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B+

+ A huge world to explore, and gameplay that makes it all enjoyable
The characters and storyline rarely live up to the creative setting, battle chatter annoys

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