Despite being a generation showered with quality titles, certain genres have undergone radical changes while others have fallen completely by the wayside. Big budget shooters and adventure games like Call of Duty and Uncharted have provided gamers with an unrivalled value for money in entertainment. However, as these titles have become more and more popular with the casual gaming community, developers feel obligated to take a safe approach by releasing games in the same vein as the titles mentioned above. Consequently, when a significant amount of the industry’s talent races to challenge the next big shooter, other genres become criminally neglected by developers and gamers alike.
In an attempt to adapt to a rapidly changing industry, developers have even reinvented genres that have stagnated over the years. Resident Evil 4 rebooted the Survival Horror genre (not to mention action games in general) as Capcom opted for a more action-oriented route. Its spirit lives on as more recent releases like Dead Space have developed into popular franchises, loved by fans who perhaps didn’t like the older games that comprised of the genres roots.
Amongst the chaos of rising, falling and reinventing, the JRPG genre has slipped under the radar entirely. (Occasionally rearing its shamed head to see if anyone’s completed Final Fantasy XIII yet). However, whilst one the biggest developers in the genre’s ranks has effectively tarnished its own brand, JRPGs have still been keeping their devoted fans ticking over, albeit without a premier title to sell themselves to a larger market… until now.
Xenoblade Chronicles is simply a fantastic game, but it’s asking too much that it should change the future of its genre – I just wanted to clear that up before we get into the thick of it. It’s not a revolution, but rather the result of some phenomenal design and admirable passion by Monolith Soft.
We start our adventure like any JRPG should start; an unassuming hero, an enchanted sword and a mysterious and menacing enemy. Shulk, (our young hero and budding scientist) along with his lifelong friend and all-round meathead Reyn, leave their devastated homeland of Colony 9 on an epic journey of vengeance against the evil and powerful Mechon. And what a journey it is, as you’ll spend the majority of the massive 60 hour campaign running, climbing and swimming across the two worlds of Bionis and Mechonis in serch of the truth.
In a beautiful feat of design, the said worlds of Bionis and Mechonis are in fact the giant corpses of two titans, who have since given birth to all manner of life upon their surfaces after they struck each other dead in a fierce, ancient battle. This truly unique feature is easily Xenoblade’s selling point, in no other game can you experience a world such as this; running through vast sprawling plains and ascending snowy mountains, all the while gaping in awe beyond the clouds at the massive body parts comprising the great fallen titans.
However, you can make a world as big and pretty as you like, but it all boils down to what you can do in it. Luckily, there’s no shortage of activities in the Xenoblade universe. When you’re not busy following the gripping plot, players can take breaks to explore the areas not made compulsory by the campaign. You will even find it to be particularly rewarding to do so, as discovering landmarks, areas and super-secret areas award XP, while battling the normal monsters and rarer, more powerful unique monsters will unlock armour and items that will prove invaluable to your quest.
Your party’s ranks thicken as you progress from Homs (a race identical to humans) like Shulk and Reyn , to High Entia (an ancient race of imperials residing at the top of the Bionis) and Nopon, a cute cuddly forest dwelling race. Like Ewoks with a bit more imagination. From your eager band of heroes, you may choose three to make up your active party for battles, and this is where Xenoblade shines as an extensively customisable adventure.
Your characters appearances change throughout as you equip your desired weapons and armour. Even in cut-scenes, Shulk can be seen tackling waves of Mechon with The Monado (his enchanted sword) all the while wearing a pair of swimming trunks. Each of your weapons and armour may also contain gem slots, where Shulk and crew can equip gems that grant status perks and bonus effects (much like the materia system in Final Fantasy VII.)
Within your party of three, you are limited to controlling only one character at a time in battle, with the exception of character interactions in Chain Attacks when you are granted one ability from each of your warriors’ to stop an enemy together. This option, only available when the Chain Attack bar is full, works well as a unique feature in an essentially unique battle system; quite similar to Final Fantasy XII, battles take place in real-time, and are initiated by the player unless attacked by a hostile opponent. All the creatures in the universe can be fought, from the gentle Armus of the Bionis leg to the giant Brogs of the Makna Forest.
Each of your characters abilities keep them effective in certain roles and as long as these roles are played effectively, with abilities levelled up accordingly, you shouldn’t have too many frustrating experiences with Xenoblade. Even when you’re stuck on that overwhelming boss (trust me, it will happen) you will respawn right at your enemy’s feet, ready for round two if you’re the stubborn type. If not, it serves as the perfect opportunity to swim through the hundreds of side quests, gaining vital experience and items to help batter that troublesome behemoth. It can be done, the Mechon may be towering mechanical, moving artillery units, but as long as you’re around the same level, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be making scrap of ‘em. That being said, Xenoblade isn’t easy as such, but rather forgiving; a welcome attribute to a sometimes merciless genre.
While the beautifully designed landscapes will have you galloping from plain to plain, tongue wagging, eager to explore what’s waiting over the next horizon, Xenoblade’s visual impact is ultimately limited by the power of the Wii. Character models are kept fresh thanks to their heavily customisable attire, yet the animations and textures are far from impressive. One can only wonder what could’ve been possible on Xbox or PS3 as the game’s biggest disappointment is the system that’s holding it back. Animations are also severely limited in gameplay as an angry line of a character’s dialogue is furiously blurted out as they shake their fists constantly and repetitively. These minor flaws thankfully do not detract from the excellence that is Xenoblade Chronicles, yet its cast of British voice talent does.
To be honest, I was expecting to be horrified, so the reality was a little more merciful on the ears. However, whilst adequately executed, the dialogue never seems to rise above a certain tone. Even in emotionally charged scenes, characters will come out with something so flat in comparison to what we’re experiencing visually. Unfortunately, the script ultimately buckles under the weight of a plot that deserves to be conveyed effectively on all fronts. On the other hand, one of my favourite things about this game as a JRPG is the fact that it isn’t over written. It maintains an intriguing plot throughout despite its scale, and I never left a gaming session once disappointed with the revelation I had just discovered.
The pacing is technically perfect and the tone never gets too heavy. It’s not cinematic for the sake of being cinematic; everything Monolith Soft poured into this amazing game serves only to make it more fun to play. Xenoblade is a true gamer’s game, lovingly crafted by a team of like-minded individuals whose passion pumps constantly through the veins of this breath-taking universe. Xenoblade isn’t likely to reignite the genre as effectively as some people hope, and it isn’t fair to pile that kind of pressure on it. To assume that Monolith Soft set out to re-invent the wheel doesn’t make sense. Any game with this magnitude of imagination, design and scale spells out the obvious…
Monolith Soft wanted to craft a masterpiece, and they succeeded in a skyward blaze of flying colours. Not just the best JRPG out there, but one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. It’s the kind of game that, in years to come, I’ll look back on and say “I’m proud to be a gamer.”
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Wii code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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