RPGs? We all thought they were kind of awesome when games like Chrono Cross and
Star Ocean 2 and Suikoden were the norm. But that’s ancient history. In more
recent times JRPGs have stumbled, stagnating to the point that they are once
again truly niche. That’s probably why Xenoblade Chronicles, the most vital and
exciting JRPG in years, only barely made it to America after the biggest fan
outcry since that whole Greedo shot first thing.
Fantasy XII before it (specifically its much-improved International edition), part
of what makes Xenoblade great is its willingness to experiment. While it’s
definitely a JRPG, it happily incorporates a lot of new ideas, many from
Western-style MMORPGs. Turn-based battles are out, real-time autoattacks are
in. Monsters are easily avoidable when you don’t want to fight, but aggro if
you’re too bold. Magic points are replaced with ability cooldowns, and a huge
overworld beckons with half a zillion nooks and crannies to map.
The story feels thin at first, but carries the day thanks
to the characters’ good-natured camaraderie - which reminded us of Skies of
Arcadia - and some strong emotional notes toward the end. But you won’t only be playing for the story: you’ll be playing because you’re
addicted to Xenoblade’s sublimely streamlined grind. It’s easy to blast through
a dozen simple side quests in an hour, reaping the rewards and watching your
characters’ stats fly skyward. Many quests don’t even require you to return to
their giver; just complete its requirements and the rewards are magically wired
to your inventory.
system is just as slick and hassle-free. Your character autoattacks whatever
you target, and you can trigger cooldown-limited, special attack “Ether Arts”
at your leisure. Some Arts inflict a status called Break, others turn Break
into the more debilitating Topple, and yet others turn Topple into the
completely paralyzing Daze. With the proper configuration of your
three-character party you can lock enemies into a continual cycle of
Break-Topple-Daze, which can be a winning strategy in tougher encounters.
novel twist, the more your heroes like each other the better they’ll
perform in battle, leading to more frequent, higher-damaging Chain Attacks. Just fighting together improves their relations, but you can move things along
by having them exchange gifts. Most named NPCs also have feelings about your
party, which improve as you help them out. Filling in the huge character
relationship chart that tracks all of these details will be part of the fun for
obsessive do-everything types.
beautiful and creative environments are another huge asset, in the most literal
sense. Xenoblade takes place in a civilization that’s sprung up on the corpses
of two massive, ancient giants, and this unorthodox history gives the visual
designers massive leeway to create sometimes strange, often stunning vistas. If
you like the blue skies of classic Sega games you’ll fall in love with
Xenoblade’s verdant grasslands, luminous interiors, and otherworldly atmosphere.
It’s kind of the Wii equivalent of PS2’s Dragon Quest VIII, another late-life
release with a great soundtrack and a dazzling overworld.
The only real
fault with the visuals comes due to the Wii’s well-known hardware shortcomings,
and while Xenoblade pushes the system hard, there’s no denying that 720x480
looks busted on today’s HD screens - the edge aliasing alone is sharp enough to
cut glass. That the environments and battle pyrotechnics look great anyway is a
testament to the game’s fantastic art direction.
All is not well
in paradise, unfortunately, as two distinct flaws took some wind out of our
sails. First, the AI that controls your two other characters in battles has
shortcomings. It is fairly solid, all
things considered, often throwing out Topples when you inflict Break, healing at
appropriate times, and so on. But it’s still just an AI, and we sometimes
wished we could do more than just hope that the AI would do the right thing - it
AI only has so many pre-set routines, and it simply cannot operate outside of
them. These routines do not account for certain highly useful Arts combos, so
if you want to take advantage of such tactics you’ll need to control the
character in question by hand, which we did not always want to. This is at its
worst with the mage character; the AI does not play them well, so we
felt resigned to controlling the mage whenever they were around. Xenoblade’s
combat would greatly benefit from a system that lets you customize your allies’ AI in great detail.
Ultimately, Xenoblade’s battles lose some luster simply because they never grant
you full control of your party.
game’s most egregious flaw is its distinct lack of difficulty. We spent 10
hours in just the first town (not hard to do), seeking all the quests and increasing
our popularity. This was a mistake. Performing anything more than the bare
minimum of quests rapidly leveled up our characters to the point that the game
lost all semblance of challenge by the second major area. This state persisted
for most of the game, which often turned the formerly enjoyable questing into
going-through-the-motions tedium. Sure, you could
skip all the optional stuff, but who wants to do that? The balance is so
lopsided that we felt punished for simply consuming the game’s seemingly
lack of difficulty is a major bummer, it doesn’t overshadow Xenoblade
Chronicles’ many other accomplishments. It offers a singularly beautiful world,
streamlined, interesting gameplay, likeable characters, and a fantastic
soundtrack - for these reasons alone it’s probably the best RPG on the Wii. Lest
you think we’re damning it with faint praise, there’s no denying that Xenoblade
is invigorating and engaging like few recent games of its kind, giving us
reason to hope that this once-proud genre may yet have better days ahead. Visit
the strange world of Xenoblade for 100-odd hours and see if you don’t feel the