Another fantastic-yet-flawed Xeno-epic
The potent combination of Xenoblade Chronicles’ setting and pedigree should’ve made the game a slam-dunk for me. After all, it’s the spiritual successor to one of my favorite PS1-era RPGs, Xenogears, a sci-fi epic that somehow managed to successfully fuse giant mechs with pretentious ruminations on Jungian philosophy and world religions. In fact, the game was so massive that it released essentially half-finished—the second disc unfolded via a series of text dumps delivered from a man sitting in a rocking chair (seriously, it actually made sense in context…or not).
Director Tetsuya Takahashi always has big ideas, but he’s a bit like a Japanese Peter Molyneux in many ways—he’s developed a habit of biting off a bit more than he can chew, despite his best intentions as a developer. Namco slashed his Xenogears follow-up, Xenosaga, from a planned six-game opus to a mere trilogy due to cost concerns, and there’ always been this nagging sense among players that his games haven’t quite lived up to their considerable promise. And with Xenoblade, it appeared that North American players wouldn’t even get the opportunity to play his latest epic at all, due to Nintendo of America’s refusal to commit to a release in this market until a few months ago; in fact, a grass-roots campaign from a group called Operation Rainfall likely helped the game’s cause immensely.
Thankfully, Takahashi hasn’t let the Xenogears and Xenosaga experiences affect his grand visions—he’s still thinking as big as ever when it comes to his game worlds. Instead of merely piloting a giant robot like in Xenogears, Xenoblade sees you walking across an absolutely gargantuan titan for the entire game. Two colossi, in fact—ancient rivals locked in combat and frozen in time after delivering their respective deathblows. Meanwhile, a teeming society of flora and fauna populate their now-lifeless husks, though the actual robo-planet environments themselves are mostly standard-issue bogs, jungles, forests, and fields.
Despite its ambitious themes and settings, Xenoblade is only loosely connected to Takahashi’s previous works. While you’ll find subtle callbacks to Xenogears throughout, this is most certainly a 21st-century role-playing game; for all intents and purposes, Xenoblade is a single-player MMO in the vein of Final Fantasy XII—and how you enjoyed that game will likely determine how positively you’ll respond here (I’m not an FFXII fan, for what it’s worth).
Xenoblade’s Warcraftian influences are most obvious in the language the game uses: “buffs,” “debuffs,” “skill trees,” “aggro,” “cooldown,” “loot”—this isn’t the vernacular of 1998 and Xenogears; in fact, it would’ve been incomprehensible to Japanese RPG players of the time. Indeed, Xenoblade is a thoroughly modern incarnation of RPG strategy and terminology.
In my mind, though, “modern” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” when it comes to RPGs. I’ve never truly enjoyed an MMO; I find them frustratingly hands-off, and I don’t like the fact that they’re now more or less the RPG standard-bearers for the majority of gamers. I’m also not sure when “turn-based battles” became an expletive in the world of RPGs, but in my mind, it’s not a matter of developers choosing between one “right” answer among the turn-based, active-time, or button-mashing options. All are acceptable if done well; it’s merely about the execution.
I get into role-playing games primarily for the story, characters, and world; from my perspective, the combat mechanism used to transition between plot points should, at the very least, feel inoffensive and unobtrusive. And if it’s downright sublime, like in Persona and the better Tales games, that’s where you’ll find the best RPGs of a given console generation. So, while they’re not my preference, I’ll certainly tolerate MMO mechanics if they’re accompanied by minimum headaches and effective commands. Unfortunately, from my perspective, Xenoblade fails in this regard.
In fact, for all the user-friendly aspects Monolith Soft smartly implemented throughout the game—including the ability to switch between day and night at will, save anywhere, and teleport between checkpoints with the press of a button—some of Xenoblade’s most critical design decisions are downright baffling. In particular, inventory management is a mess, and I came to dread every time I’d acquire a new piece of armor, as the game lacks an “optimal equipment” option. It’s not that I don’t like to mix and match and explore weapon and armor effectiveness on my own, but I usually ended up selecting the most powerful equipment I’d recently picked up anyway. Why make me jump through the hoops of constantly adjusting every character’s helmet and leggings without any options to streamline the process?
Takahashi also still hasn’t quite mastered the concept of doling out his game experiences at a reasonable, user-friendly pace. The first 15 hours are particularly brutal when it comes to pacing, and the game doesn’t really open up until you’ve navigated through an excruciatingly tedious underground lair. While the experience is a lot more enjoyable and fluid after that, you’ll still find yourself tasked with inane, unnecessary busywork in order to advance the plot, which pads the main story by at least 10 to 20 hours. If you find a transporter that promises to take you to the next area, you can bet that you’ll need to fix it, find someone who can repair it, or ultimately discover that it’s actually unfixable—and that you’ll have to find an alternate route to reach your destination. One or two incidents like these would be sufficient, but after 70-plus hours of such “twists,” it comes off more like trolling.
And on the subject of busywork…the sidequests. I don’t particularly enjoy MMO-style questing in a single-player RPG, and Xenoblade did absolutely nothing to change my mind in that regard. NPCs beg you to kill a certain number of beasts or collect a certain number of trinkets, but unlike most MMOs, you’re usually only given a vague idea of where you need to go in order to complete the task; the game’s lack of a proper bestiary really shows here. Thankfully, you don’t have to track down the questgiver once the deed is done, as the game automatically completes most quests once you’ve eradicated the requisite number of monsters or collected the right amount of items—but that also illustrates how utterly disconnected these tedious chores are from the rest of the experience. A tiny fraction of objectives actually relate to any sort of plot development, and it’s no surprise that these are also the most enjoyable, which makes it all the more frustrating that Xenoblade plays it safe so often with the rat-killing and trinket-collecting.
I can tolerate half-baked sidequests and clunky inventory management, but when combat itself becomes an issue— specifically due to frustratingly dense party AI—that’s when I start to lose patience with an RPG. Xenoblade’s characters all fill certain MMO class archetypes, and they’ll engage in this behavior even to their own detriment—and there’s very little you can do to wrangle them under your control on the field of battle (or off, for that matter). You have three “command” options (which you can access from a command window the game never tells you about, by the way): “Focus attacks!”, “Engage at will!”, and “Come to me!” Such a piddling selection of commands would be unacceptable in practically any action-RPG, let alone a game with battles as chaotic as Xenoblade’s. Furthermore, your teammates will constantly make weirdly suicidal tactical decisions even after you’ve warned them against such behavior—specifically, my teammates seemed to just love rushing off to attack a level-75 troll in the distance while we were engaged in combat with enemies approximately 50 levels lower and about 5 million times less menacing.
While some players might have the patience for such shenanigans—especially with minimal punishment for failure, as the game merely transports you to the nearest landmark upon death—I know from recent experience that it simply doesn’t have to be this way in an action-focused RPG. For example, in Tales of Graces f, I can order any of my comrades to focus on specifically using standard attacks, special moves, or concentrate on healing to various degrees. I can switch between any of my four party members mid-battle at the touch of a button if the need arises. I can do none of that in Xenoblade. While you can switch between any of your party members outside of battle, there’s no option to adjust tactics at all, and if you’re not using a healer yourself, you’ll have to constantly hope and pray that you’ll get healed at regular intervals, since the game doesn’t offer an item inventory in battle—and, thus, no healing items. If your combat system requires precise AI tactics, you’d better make damn sure that your AI programming can actually support them.
One combat element that fares much better, though—and it’s also present in the overall narrative—is the ability to see the future. When a particularly monstrous foe is about to unleash a rather nasty attack, you’ll get a glimpse of who the enemy will target, as well as how much damage the move will cause should it successfully connect. From there, you’ve got a short window to make sure the enemy can’t pull off the attack. This element does get a bit tiresome later in the game when bosses will unleash constant special attacks—thus breaking up the flow of combat to a great degree—but since this element is central to the narrative and offers a different take on RPG combat, I didn’t really mind.
Part of the reason I found Xenoblade’s combat flaws so glaring, though, is because I enjoyed the game’s narrative a great deal and was actively, constantly intrigued by where it would go next. This is one area where Takahashi seems to have improved by leaps and bounds since the days of Xenogears and Xenosaga, as this tale cuts through most of the clunky filler while still retaining elements of what made his stories interesting in the first place. And since Xenoblade uses the Nintendo of Europe translation even in the North American release, the game also gets the nice bonus of a competent British cast that manages to make a collection of mostly generic RPG characters more than bearable. I would’ve liked to have seen Nintendo of America’s Treehouse—whose considerably talented ranks include Vagrant Story veteran Richard Amtower—get a crack at the script itself (I don’t think they’d have let a silly name like Juju get past them, for one), but NOE’s localization work is certainly above average, for the most part.
Xenoblade’s environments are large and varied, and I especially appreciated the changes to both the terrain and the music when the safety of the late-afternoon sun gave way to the vicious shroud of night. Maybe it’s the art style, but the world itself simply didn’t feel alive enough to me at times—and that had nothing to do with the Wii’s lack of HD support, either. Dragon Quest VIII and Okami, two games crafted on similarly powered hardware, managed to impart impressive environments that rival anything on the PS3 and 360. All in all, I found myself far more immersed in the world of Dragon Quest VIII six years ago, even with its constant random battles that broke up the pacing of exploration.
Though I’m personally lukewarm on the overall experience, I’m glad that North American players finally have the opportunity to play Xenoblade. Takahashi’s one of the more intriguing RPG minds in the industry, and his worlds are always worth exploring, even if they might not always succeed on crucial design aspects. Many are calling this the Japanese RPG of this console generation—if not of all time—but it’s simply got too many glaring warts for me to embrace the experience on that level. Instead, I see it as a deeply flawed, tantalizing glimpse of what the Japanese RPG can potentially become in the coming generation.
SUMMARY: Like the rest of Japanese RPG mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi’s works, Xenoblade is a deeply flawed epic that still deserves a look from all role-playing fans.
- THE GOOD: A huge, imaginative world with scores of subtlety to explore; excellent voice work with an all-British cast
- THE BAD: Tons of unimaginative filler; brain-dead party AI; dull MMO game mechanics.
- THE UGLY: Why do RPG developers insist on placing the least-interesting 15 hours of the experience at the beginning of the game?
Xenoblade Chronicles is a Wii exclusive.