"Xenoblade Chronicles" is like the scrawny, shy kid in your grade school gym class: He’s not athletic, he’s not popular, and he’s not much to look at. But he’s a good kid, and he’s got a lot of potential. If you scratch deeper than the surface, you’ll see that he could be great.
It’s been years since I played a quality JRPG. Frankly, I’d forgotten how good they can be after half-baked games like "The Last Remnant" and "Infinite Undiscovery" tainted my palate. Include "Lost Odyssey," as well, to a lesser extent. Even the juggernaut "Final Fantasy XIII" line was severely disappointing - I had given up hope that a great JRPG would come on this generation of consoles. "Xenoblade," though it’s far from perfect, has given me hope.
It stars a young man named Shulk from Colony 9, a “Bionis” (human) settlement on the body of a titan. Shulk, the only one who can safely wield the “Monado” sword, sets out to save his people after his home is attacked and his countrymen are slaughtered. The developers (Monolith) establish Shulk’s stance within the first few hours of the game and give him a real reason to leave his colony. That is great theming - it draws you in right away, and gives you a legitimate desire to progress through the story to see what will befall Shulk and his people.
But to carry you through all those hours, an RPG needs an enjoyable combat system. The "Xenoblade" system is a mixed bag - it’s not the easiest to pick up if you’re new to serious RPGs, and the wonky camera controls can be a bit frustrating. It can be a bit overwhelming to switch between “Arts” (the game’s name for special skills), since the combat never pauses for you to think. If you make a few mistakes, it’s pretty easy for even normal enemies to take you down. That gets frustrating quickly, if you’re used to button mashing to make things go boom.
Who says that’s a bad thing, though? Unchallenging games offer very little sense of accomplishment. When you take down one of the big bosses in "Xenoblade," it’s because you played smart enough to kill it. Not because you ran around and abused the A button.
Many games, even RPGs, shove a tutorial in your face every time a new gameplay element is introduced. Developers assume a player is incapable of thought progression and that they must be taught everything explicitly.
"Xenoblade" doesn’t do that, and it’s a better game for it. New elements are introduced periodically, and the game gives you a heads up and a very short practical demonstration of the change. It’s up to you how to best use it after that - there’s no hand-holding here, so when you die, it’s probably your own fault. Then you go fight that boss again and try to use what you just learned better. And you win. So you’ve learned something, all without an obnoxious tutorial screen shoving information down your throat! And my mom always said video games just rot your brain.
Part of developing a Wii game is taking advantage of its motion controls and unique controller setup. "Xenoblade Chronicles" fails to do that; I know I have larger hands than most, but the game’s setup cramped my hands after 15 minutes. The button layout just isn’t conducive to the Wii’s natural setup, and the complete lack of motion integration is disappointing. Looking on the bright side, it’d be a huge pain if you had to swing to attack every time in a game this long.
Good graphics are appreciated in any genre, but they’re less important in RPGs than in other genres. RPGs are fiction novels in video game form - when was the last time you read a boring novel all the way through just because the typeface was pretty?
Although, it must be said that "Xenoblade" is not a pretty game by today’s standards. There was a "Xenosaga" series game early in the PS2’s life, and it actually looked better than "Xenoblade Chronicles" does. That’s a glaring issue, even with as much as I like the game. But here’s the thing about RPGs - you spend tens of hours in the fields leveling up, so after a while the crispness of the sprites becomes less important. As long as you know what you’re hitting and where your characters are, you don’t really care.
One of the nice touches on this game is the outfit changes: A popular element in JRPGs is a variety of character models in the game. When you change equipment on Shulk or anyone else, their clothing will change to reflect that - heavy armor looks different from light armor, as it should. It’s a small feature, but it shows that Monolith really put the time into developing "Xenoblade."
"Xenoblade Chronicles" is immersive, the voice acting is excellent, and the combat is challenging. The controls are a little wonky for my hands with the Wiimote and Nunchuk, so I’d recommend the “classic” controller or trusty old Gamecube controller if you pick up this game. And you should if you love JRPGs.
Look past the scrawny exterior and understated public hype. "Xenoblade Chronicles" is full of potential; you just have to give it a chance. You might just be surprised.