It's unfair to judge the state of Japanese role playing games as stagnant or irrelevant. Over the last four years games like Persona 4, Radiant Historia, Lost Odyssey, and, yes, Final Fantasy XIII have demonstrated a willingness to blend new ideas into a genre defined by its rigidity. And yet, none of these titles seemed to push the needle far enough to completely satisfy either critics or fans. Xenoblade Chronicles, released to Japan in 2010 and Europe last year, has already attained universal acclaim from both sides and, as the shining star of Operation Rainfall, is doted upon as a ceremonial second coming. Hype of that caliber usually leaves room for disappointment and little else, but Xenoblade Chronicles preservers not by being radically different, but rather embracing and celebrating the grand foundations set in place by its predecessors.
Almost immediately, Xenoblade Chronicles seems eager to show the player how many of its ancestor’s sins it is determined to resolve. Gargantuan maps are immediately at your disposal, and once visited you're free to fast travel between them at virtually any time. Death, long the carrier of its progress-eviscerating gene, has purged of much of its frivolous penalty. Character customization provides a satisfying justification for the enormous amount of loot; each character has six pieces of unique equipment, each of which affects both appearance and stats. The list goes on and on: characters heal automatically when not in battle, towns are expansive and diverse, every environment broadcasts a day and night cycle, the bestiary is staggering, and the sheer number of side quests (450+) is almost incomprehensible. All of these concepts fundamentally "fix" a lot of what's been unsatisfying in Japanese role playing games, however Xenoblade Chronicles refuses to be defined by any of them. It has much bigger ideas on its mind.
An appreciation for scale is one of them. Xenogears and episodes of Xenosaga paraded giant robots alongside their cast, yet Xenoblade Chronicles' (which is otherwise unrelated but shares a director in Tetsuya Takahashi) skips flirtation and completely embraces that concept by virtue of it setting; its functional world is literally the corpse of Bionis, a massive robot locked in stasis via double-KO by another giant robot, Mechonis. The Bionis' leg, for example, is covered in foliage and serves as a massive field full of wildlife. Valak Mountains, on the other hand, are higher toward the head, utterly treacherous, and covered in snow. While the environments ultimately run the gamut between natural and surreal, they're all unified by the consistency of the Bionis. Look beyond the horizon anywhere and you're bound to see the visage of Mechonis in the distance.
The physical size of the maps is also staggering. Final Fantasy XIII charged the player with thirty hours of monotony before it set them free in Gran Pulse, but Xenoblade Chronicles lets loose immediately with Colony 9 and Bionis' Leg. The environments are gigantic and thoroughly unrivaled in terms of sheer explorable land mass (it took me an hour to circumference Eryth Sea). Every map is bound to contain significant landmarks, both concealed and obvious, and rewards the player with a considerable burst of experience each time one is discovered. Fast travelling between each area is also a breeze and especially helpful in lieu of sidequests shuffling the player all over the Bionis. Despite the scale of the environments I rarely got the feeling that space was being wasted; every single area was packed with monsters or loot, all of which you're driven to destroy and collect, respectively, for one quest or another.
That ties into another point, which is how well all of Xenoblade Chronicles' systems feed into each other. I explore to satisfy curiosity, but I also get experience along the way. I pick up loot because it's a blue glowy thing that makes a neat noise, but its value stretches from gem crafting to filling out your Collectapaedia (read: scrapbook) to basic economic needs. Xenoblade Chronicles even comes loaded with dozens of Achievements that shower the player with experience for meeting a wide variety of challenges. In a lot of cases the carrot didn’t even need to be on the end of the stick, but Xenoblade Chronicles puts one there anyway.
Even the simple act of talking to NPC's has its rewards. A major facet of Xenoblade Chronicles is building relationships not only between party members, but also with everyone else on the Bionis. Each named NPC appears on your affinity map, and resolving their problems, either via sidequests or the basic act of talking to them, increases your overall standing in that particular community. Helping everyone out leads to bigger and better rewards, which justifies time invested both statically and contextually. If Xenoblade Chronicles has any fault it's that there is simply too much to keep track of. The game doesn't make it especially easy to figure out where every particular person is, thus necessitating some sort of additional supplement (like this incredibly handy Google Doc) merely as a means to expedite the process.
Xenoblade Chronicles strikes a great balance in setting a personal narrative amidst a global (Bionisical?) catastrophe. Shulk is a member of the otherwise peaceful Homs whom populate much of the Bionis. Mechon, a race of sentient machines from Mechonis, wreak havoc upon Shulk's hometown of Colony 9 and through a myriad of circumstances Shulk gains exclusive access to the Monado, the alleged sword of the Bionis and only weapon capable of damaging the Mechon. The Monado is particularly interesting, not only because it grants Shulk the ability to see the future (a mechanic served wonderfully by both narrative and gameplay), but because, for once, the player and character have the same amount of information. Shulk and his friends have a vague idea of what the weapon is, and of course that notion becomes less hazy as time goes on, but they're all learning along with the player. In a genre wrought with gratuitous explanation, even the slightest restraint is appreciated.
The above synopsis of the premise admittedly feels weak when read, however much of Xenoblade Chronicles outright avoids the groaning path of cliché. The twists and turns of the narrative, which manage balancing the fantastic alongside reasonably sound logic, carry some of that responsibility, but a subtle indulgence of Xenoblade Chronicles is found in the interpersonal relationships between its characters. In fact, each and every one is given room to grow measured through their own unique affinity charts. Completing quests together or helping them out in battle builds affinity, and if it reaches a high enough level two members of your party can engage in special dialogue at heart-to-hearts scattered through the game. Many of the scenes are cheeky while a handful are deathly serious, but all build toward pushing the characters outside of their dimensions. Xenoblade Chronicles’ personalities and relationships certainly aren't going to rival those in a series like Mass Effect, but they all carry a reasonable amount of disposition and intrigue.
Oddly enough much of that enjoyment spawned from the British localization. It's not just that the characters speak with several shades of exotic (to me, I live in Kentucky) accents, but rather the so called British-isms that come along with the language. Whether Melia is telling me that my strength is, "the genuine article," or, Reyn is lamenting, "man, what a bunch of jokers" for the hundredth time, I found all of it strangely endearing. It was also nice to get a break from the familiar trope of voices that have composed most every North American localization for the last decade. Nothing the usual troupe of voice actors, they do excellent work, but hearing what was for all intents and purposes a brand new cast set Xenoblade Chronicles apart from its peers. It's also worth mentioning that the full Japanese language track was available, but due to the necessity hearing voiced battle commands, I didn't opt for it much.
Xenoblade Chronicles' battle system is among the best and brightest of its genre. Monsters populate most every place that isn't a town and Shulk and Co. are free to engage them at will. Progression occurs in a manner that typically keeps your party's level within one or two numbers of the enemies on the field map, though some super high leveled creatures pop up here and there. It's actually possible to race out ahead of your assumed level by taking on the myriad of sidequests, but even then experience earned will be drastically reduced when battling lower level creatures.
Once engaged your characters begin to attack automatically, taking swipes every few seconds. Arts, which can include buffs and special physical attacks, appear on a menu and can replace any normal attack immediately. Once consumed each Art is bound to a cool-down period before it can be used again. Arts can also be position-specific, meaning certain arts that target the side or back of a creature will be more effective from that area. Both enemies and the player can also be subjected to multiple states of ineffectiveness, building from break to topple to daze - not the mention the myriad of other status effects in between.
While you only directly control one character’s actions, you do have limited influence over your team. This is primarily accomplished through the Monado, which lets your party know if the enemy is about to deal a deathblow to a character. From there you have a few seconds to either warn that character and take control of their arts, hopefully doing something to circumvent the future, or opting to protect them with your own arts. The Party Gauge is another useful tool. It builds with character arts and can be consumed in a variety of ways. If you, or any other members of your party, die then a segment can be burned bringing them back to life. It's most interesting and essential use is to create chain attacks, which link multiple characters attacks together in one cumulative blow. Chain attacks default at three but can be raised with character affinity.
I was surprised by how differently each of the characters played. While each has access to a wide variety of arts, all of which both grow and expand at your discretion over course of the game, no two played alike under direct control. Sharla seemed to be the default healer, but her ranged weapons proved unique and essential in certain circumstances. At first Reyn seemed ineffective without Shulk at his side, but came into his own as a world class tank after a bit of development. Only Melia, whose summons I still don't fully understand after 100+ hours, came off as better in the hands of the AI.
Being a Wii game and the current year being 2012, it's safe to say Xenoblade Chronicles won't be turning heads on a purely technical level. Art direction trumps hardware limitations, which manages steampunk sensibilities with a traces of medieval fantasy and science fiction to create an organic, if not slightly homely style. The transformation each environment undergoes from day to night is actually very impressive, and works in tandem with the shifting melodies to generate an altogether different feeling atmosphere from literally the same place. In fact the entire soundtrack, a collaboration between Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota, and Yasunori Mitsuda, to borrow a hyperbole laced tagline from Xenogears, stands tall and shakes the heavens.
In the end Xenoblade Chronicles can be revealed through the elegance of its title screen. The game doesn't open with gratuitous computer generated bombast or overwrought voiceovers describing incomprehensible plot points. It doesn't waste time drenching style over the shell of meaningless characters or strained melodrama. Instead, the title screen is four minutes of the Monado by itself in a grassy field with time shifting from day to night and back again, all against a beautiful piece of music. The point is a neatly wrapped present doesn't need an aggressive preamble to punch up the surprise inside. In the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, the quality of its contents speaks for itself.