TITLE: Xenoblade Chronicles
DEVELOPER: Monolith Soft
RELEASED: April 6, 2012
By Stephen McCarthy
Staff Writer, Evil Genius
Xenoblade Chronicles has finally been released, after a tremulous journey from Japan to our store shelves here in the states. After Europe got the game well before us and campaigns to get Nintendo of America to do the laziest thing possible and give us what the UK received, Nintendo caved and did exactly that. After all of this, was it worth all of the hype and praise that has been handed too it? Was it worth mounting a campaign to beg Nintendo to bring this stateside? I think it was worthwhile but I don’t think it is deserving of all the praise.
For quite a while the JRPG has been having some issues. It was the place to go for a good story and creative expansive worlds back in the late ’90s, but with games and technology catching up in terms of storytelling and world building, it seems to have had some trouble keeping up. The story is still more or less there, but the gameplay is old, stale and menu driven, and in the past years some games have been trying to find a way to make it more interactive and draw elements from other RPGs, from Fallout to Diablo to standard MMOs. These have all been somewhat hit and miss, and I think this game succeeds in a more traditional sense while falling all over itself when it comes to its more western-inspired elements.
While it is fairly fun, I think the game is held back by what I feel are design flaws. The menus, item management, sidequests and whatnot are all implemented in a way that I think seems like an afterthought. Quests are mainly fetch-based; a person asks for x number of items or x number of monsters to be killed, and so on and so forth. Rarely is it that you get something remotely interesting, like going down into a cave to search for an item that can mean everything to the village. Half the time the quest giver doesn’t even have a name. When I first enter a new area, I just simply talk to everyone to get all of the quests. If I manage to complete them before I move on then awesome; if not, oh well. I am not going to grind against enemies until I get lucky enough to get whatever items whoever is looking for.
That isn’t to say that all quests are completely boring and fetchy, but when it feels like 80% of them are this way then I stop caring to even read what people are saying. I can’t be bothered to figure out which quests are worth it. The worst part is that it feels like busy work and it is all so unrelatable that I just can’t get into it. It would be like in Fallout if some random person you talked to needed 5 raider helms to fix their roof. It doesn’t even make sense and just screams busywork.
Before we get into the thick of things, I have one thing to say: the item menus can all just go to hell. After 30 hours, I hate it probably more than anything else in the game. It’s quite obvious that the design of everything was created to facilitate use of the Wiimote. This game has the menus and leveling system of an old school RPG, but the menus lag behind. Instead of lists with names that you can blaze through, you have squares with pictures on them. You can’t easily scroll through and equip everyone quickly due to a lack of dual L&R buttons, which wouldn’t be so bad with an auto equip feature, but that is missing. I could rant on this for quite a while but it really isn’t a dealbreaker. You will either get used to it and accept it or begrudgingly try to avoid the menus as much as possible. After 30 hours I squarely fall into the latter category and I accept my fate at the hands of Nintendo’s terrible controller. However, I ended up using the Classic Controller Pro and it helped a lot.
Enough of this annoying but ultimately forgivable problems, the core gameplay is always where it is at and for an RPG where you will spend upwards of 30-50 hours using the system, it is even more important. There is plenty to do and plenty to explore but ultimately I think it falls short.
The classic three party system is used for battles but I never once had to change out my standard party once I got it assembled. About five hours in I had the characters I am still using, two attackers and one healer. There are other characters that use magic but there is no situation that I can’t smash my way through, which is a bit of a shame. While I am not one to always take the easy way out, I did find most of the battles to be fairly challenging in a new area until I leveled up. The bosses provided a decent challenge as well, but I was doing next to no sidequests and simply battling my way to a higher level which eventually stunts the growth potential. Experience given is relative to the enemy level compared to yours so it makes it difficult and very grinding to over level.
While this is all well and good, by never switching characters I stunted other areas of growth. In Xenoblade Chronicles, characters have an affinity for each other that is gained through battle and quests…but mainly battle. The higher their affinity for each other, the better they work in battle together when it comes to combos and helping each other out. There is also the added bonus of learning more about the characters in scenes that can be activated around the maps in the game…if their affinity is high enough. Needless to say this did not happen for me as everyone outside my three were pretty much iffy friends that had a common goal.
While some might say it is my fault for not changing things up, why should I? The game never challenged me to switch things up…ever. I use the exact same attacks and strategy in every battle and it has yet to fail me. This might eventually come to bite me in the ass but the characters still level up and gain skills at the same rate as if they were not in battle, so no foul there. The battle system is quite simple with characters auto attacking in battle with a set of skills to use on the bottom of the screen. Throwing in enemies and boss battles that challenge typical conventions would have been a welcome surprise and challenge, but it just isn’t there yet and after 30 hours, I don’t suspect it will outside of maybe a special hidden boss.
Seeing as how this game plays like an MMO with a lot of quests, it is nice to know that the maps are huge and expansive. Time changes, different weather, and different creatures in each area help to fill the world with an insatiable urge to explore. But once again, this is hindered. There is no loot to be found anywhere. There are items scattered about everywhere in the form of glowing blue orbs but those are random items and are never equipment. While I love to explore, and did, it all started to wear on me after a while. The atmosphere of each area is unique and exploring them is fun but at this point the story is in the driver seat.
A lot can be forgiven if the narrative is compelling and interesting, and Tetsuya Takahashi has succeeded for me in the past and he is doing it again. I am a fan of Xenogears and the Xenosaga franchise for which he was the lead scenario writer. All of these games have pacing issues, such as the too long cut scenes in Xenosaga Episode I, but the story was always compelling and full of great characters. I think the world and story of Xenoblade is a bit too slow to really get going, but now it is in top gear and I seem to be racing towards the finish. Outside of the slow start, this seems to be his most well-paced game.
In terms of concept, this time he has built an interesting world where two gods battled eons ago and injured one another to the point of slumber. In the centuries following, life has sprung up all over the place on these two titans. The lore of long ago and the secrets to be unveiled are satisfying and always seem natural. I never call out the story (sometimes the characters) for making no sense or pulling a cop out and given his past work, I have no reason to think that will be the case here either.
There is a reason this game is getting a lot of praise and the story is one of them, and it is the one area I don’t think will fall short but even if it does I don’t think it changes much. Sometimes that is a personal feeling and I happen to like stories he weaves, but this time I don’t think it’s enough to make up for a lot of the shortcomings in other areas. Xenoblade Chronicles is still fun and intriguing but I think its problems hold the game back from being something truly special and memorable.
Front page image from nintendoartwork.com, screenshots from nintendoeverything.com.