Review: Xenoblade: Chronicles

On the Backs of Titans

By on March 3, 2012

This post is quite a few days in the making. How can you intimately discuss a game where sixty hours really isn’t that far into the story? I do not know, but the fact that that statement is true AND I am still enthralled by the game tells volumes on what kind of game this is. And even though I am not anywhere near the end, I feel compelled to write in an effort to pressure you to purchase it before it disappears Skies of Arcadia style. Let’s begin!

Developed by Monolith Soft, Xenoblade: Chronicles takes place in a world where two great titans – the Bionis and the Mechonis – once squared off in an epic battle. With one last strike, the titans ended each others’ lives, and their bodies became stuck for eternity. Thousands of years later, life began to emerge on these now epic statues. Grass and trees and animals flourished on the Bionis, and human (or Homs as referred to by the game) came in to existence. Unfortunately for the Homs, however, there seems to be a threat coming from Mechonis in the form of flying, Decepticon-esque robots called the Mechon. They do not take kindly to the Homs’ infernal attempt at merely existing, and are dead set at wiping them out.

The game proper begins one year after a great battle between the Homs and Mechon in one of the last Homs cities of Colony 9 on the lower leg of Bionis. Main protagonist Shulk is digging through wreckage of an old destroyed Mechon in the outskirts of Colony 9. Shulk, unlike many jRPG protagonists (or maybe just those of the Final Fantasy since VII variety), is not an emo turd who hates every second of existence. He is a young scientist and has spent much of his time studying the legendary sword called the Monado. It’s a sword of great power, and is the only weapon that can effectively cut through the armor of the Mechon. As it happens, it resides in Colony 9, and Shulk has ample opportunity to study it.

All does not stay fine and dandy, and because there has to be a reason for the game to exist, conflict occurs. After Shulk and friends Reyn and Fiora help investigate some monsters in a nearby cave, the thing the Homs have been fearing comes true: the Mechon attack Colony 9. Although Shulk does not have any experience wielding the Monado, events force it in to his hands, and a mission to defeat the Mechon begins, officially starting your adventure.

Gameplay

So you are sitting at home one day thinking: “I really wish there was a game that felt a bit like an MMO but had a story that might actually one day end.” Well look no further. You have found it.

Walking around towns (there are towns! Plural. It’s so strange to feel like towns are a new thing in modern jRPGs, but I guess that’s what 100 hours of FFXIII will do to you.) is basically what you would expect from any RPG: you speak to people, they tell you a story. Here, though, many townsfolk will be accompanied by exclamation points above their heads. Unless they just saw Snake, that means they have a quest for you! In normal MMO style, you gather quests up from NPCs because they are too lazy to kill monsters themselves, and for reward you receive items and experience. Unlike most RPGs, however, a majority of these quests do not force you to drudge back to the person who supplied them. Once you kill, say, the three bunnivs (cute bunnies in this game), the quest is done and you immediately get the reward with a little explanation of how what you did helped that person. It’s like going all the way back, but without the hassle. How great is that? Still, some quests do require you to go back, but they are usually multi-part quests.

Once you have accepted a quest and are out exploring the vast lands of Bionis, you will see enemies roaming the lands minding their own business for the most part. Again, like an MMO, you have the option to engage in battles at your leisure, unless the mob sees you first. Starting a battle with a particular mob is done by selecting it with the R and L buttons (you will be using the Classic controller for this game unless you are mad) and pushing the start battle command. This will throw up your characters stats on the left side of the screen, and your talent arts will be available at that point.

“So you are sitting at home one day thinking: ‘I really wish there was a game that felt a bit like an MMO but had a story that might actually one day end.’ Well look no further. You have found it.”

Talent arts? Yes. These basically are skills you can use during battle. If you have played pretty much any MMO, they work similarly to skills that have cool downs. General attacks with swords and whatnot are automatic, and these cool downed arts are what add all the flavor to the battle. You can have eight of them on screen at once, and they are selected from a row at the bottom of the screen. Each character also has one special ability that can be used after doing X amount of other attacks. This special move usually results in extra damage to the target, but that’s not always the case.

Planning out when to use arts and who is in your party with what arts becomes part of the fun. Since you only control one of the three characters in your party, you do not have access (most of the time) to selecting what they do; the computer controls that. Enemies can be “broken” and then staggered by using certain arts after one another, so having characters in the party with a repertoire is beneficial to pulling off a stagger is, at times, key. While staggered, the enemy cannot move or fight, and many of the debuffs that might not have worked before can usually be applied, compounding on the hurt.

Beyond all of this, there is a chain mechanism in play, too. By landing enough blows using arts, a chain gauge fills up, and, once full, allows the battle to basically stop while you get to choose the next three moves (on more!) from each character in succession, hoping to rain down massive pain on the enemy.

And beyond that, the Monado gives Shulk the ability, at certain times, of seeing into the future. This generally happens with stronger enemies and bosses, but in a flash, the game will show you the enemy’s next attack which generally will either kill or hurt severely one of your characters. After the flash, you’ll have a few seconds to try and counter the move, either by using a defensive art or staggering. If the attack is aimed at one of the computer controlled characters, during the countdown you can move up to that character and “warn” them by pressing B. This will allow you to select one of their moves to use to help prepare for the incoming hit.

Once the battle is over, your troupe sheaths their weapons, and you are on your way to the next battle. Seeing the game played without having learned how it works makes it looks somewhat chaotic, but the game luckily eases you into all of these different things, and once you have a handle on them, they play out almost automatically.

And if all of that made no sense, here’s a video:

Helping out

While the main story line is what you are ultimately trying to see the end to, you would be a heartless jerk if you didn’t try to help the people of Bionis along the way. And I am not even talking about quests. You will do those because you get rewarded easily. I am talking about helping the NPCs with their problems that aren’t quests. Upon talking to townsfolk, they might tell you a story about something that’s bothering them or their relationship with another NPC. By talking to a person they are having troubles with, you might end up with the opportunity to help them by delivering an item or simply by listening.

These interactions are tracked on what the game calls an Affinity Chart. When you open the chart, you see icons representing all of the named NPCs you come across, with some having links to others. These links also show how the NPCs feel about each other, and by helping them, you can change their status from, say, red unhappy face to green smily face.

Why help these people to begin with? Well, if you have a heart at all, you’ll do it because it makes you feel better. These darned virtual people make you feel good by making them feel good. It’s basically a huge version of the Bombers notebook from Majora’s Mask. The better reason is that the more you help out, the more quests open up as a result, so beyond just feeling good you also get a nice benefit.

The affinity chart also applies to the playable characters, and the only way to make characters happy with each other is to have different characters go in to fights with each other or complete quests. When talking to NPCs, the characters will say encouraging things to one another, raising affinity. If you only play with one team all the time, your other characters won’t gain the affinity. Character affinity comes in to play during what the game calls Heart-to-Hearts. These are little cutscenes where you can learn more about the characters. They are nice touches. Character affinity also helps during chain attacks: the better the characters like each other, the probability of landing more blows in the chain increases.

Lastly on the helping front, at a certain point in the game you get to help rebuild a Homs colony by collecting various resources and spending money. The decimated colony slowly builds back up with your help, and it just feels good. As the colony grows, new shops open up and new people come to stay, opening up new opportunities to fill out your affinity chart.

The scenery

I don’t care that you own an Xbox and a Playstation and have seen “better” graphics, this game is beautiful (the image above doesn’t really do it justice) and boasts some of the largest areas in a game on the Wii. Granted, as you traverse the landscapes, enemies and small foliage will only appear when you get close, but doesn’t take anything away from the game. Find a high up point and look towards the horizon: all of the larger features of the area will be in view, and they will look great. One of the best sights to see is the Bionis itself. Since all of the areas take place on these titans, looking off in the far distance will generally reward you with a view of an arm or a sword or the silhouette and glowing red eyes of the Mechonis. While your immediate surroundings are lush and green and teeming with life, you always know where you actually are and how big you are, and that’s a very interesting feeling.

Characterwise, I had my doubts. Just looking at some things on the official Xenoblade page, I didn’t know how well I would like the look of these people I would spend so much time with (the main character’s name is “Shulk,” that’s not a name!), but shortly into the game that changed. The characters grew on me very quickly both visually and otherwise. All of the major dialogue is spoken by a British cast, and that helps stave off the sometimes whiny jRPG character voices you might be used to. Shulk sounds like a human being with a mission, and it’s nice.

Gearwise, all of it changes the look of your characters. And this carries on to flashbacks and flash forwards. Because the Monado can occasionally allow Shulk to see into the future, you might see a character in one of these flashes wearing gear from hours ago. It’s a nice touch. Also a nice touch is how the gear on the characters move as they are moving. When you stop, the sword hanging from Shulk’s back will jiggle back and forth for a second as the momentum from running comes to a stop. That’s not something you always see from equipment in third person games. It’s nice.

Some images via xenoblade.wikia.com

Other great things

Many of the design decisions in this game seemed to have stemmed from the question, “How can we make stupid things in other games not stupid in ours?” Here’s a brief list:

As I’ve already mentioned, not having to turn in quests in AWESOME. It’s just so nice. Helping out with that, some quests can only be done at a certain time of day, and changing the time of day can be done at any time for no penalty. You need it to be dark? make it so.

Even greater, you are able to fast travel to any major location you have been to at almost any point in the game. Some story moments occasionally forbid you to do so, but those generally don’t last very long. And even better than that, if you need to fast travel to a location in the same area, it’s nearly instantaneous. It’s amazing, and I love it. It dramatically helps questing.

Experience is shared among all of your characters, so you don’t really have to worry about rotating characters in and out of play. There are also AP and Skill Points, and they are all shared.

If you are a collecting nut, then hold on to your pants. There are tons of things to unlock and find throughout the game. Scattered across the landscapes are little blue orbs that once collected can be affixed to a “Collectapedia.” Once all of the types of things – ranging from flowers to small animals to machine parts – have been collected in an area, you will get a prize in the form of a gem or weapon/armor. You also get a prize for finding all of a certain type of item, so when you find all of the flowers in an area, you get a gem. Each large area has a new set of things to find, so there’s about six extra items you can get for free for just exploring. If you happen to collect more than one type, you can sell them or trade them, and some are used for quests.

Additionally, there is a full set of Achievements in the game, and although generally you don’t know what they are until you get them, obtaining an achievement nets you extra experience for your crew.

Dying has no incredible penalty. You do not lose experience you have gained up until you die, and any quests you completed will still be complete. The only thing dying does is put you back at the last landmark you were, everything else intact.

The music in the game is pretty great. Every outdoor area has a day and night theme that plays off a central melody for the area, breaking up the tedium of hearing the same thing over and over while questing.

Things that could be improved

Not all is great in the land of milk and honey, even if so many other things get it right. One of the only complaints I have read about this game refers to the menu system, and I will echo that here. It is really the biggest thing that could be improved.

As an example: this game has a lot of quests. Hundreds. Accessing the menu for the quests is easy enough, but finding a quest giver – on those quests that you have to – is a pain in the ass. The quest screen will tell you who gave you the quest, and tell you was area they are in, but that doesn’t mean much when the cities can be huge. Compound that with a day/night system where NPCs are only available for certain times of the day. You might know the area, but not the time, and the only way to find out what time they are around is by going to the Affinity Chart and finding their little icon where their personal information is listed. It’s a chore, especially later on in the game when there will literally be 100+ NPCs listed. There should have been some sort of link between the quests and affinity, but instead you are forced to remember a name, leave the quest info, go to the chart, search for a name, and THEN find out when they will be around. At the very least they could have an alphabetical list of NPCs so you don’t have to search them one by one by a tiny icon.

The other, and less damning in my opinion, menu flub is that when buying gear, it’s very hard to tell what is better than what you already have. Sure, highlighting something will show your stats go up or down with blue and red coloring, but that might not mean anything if your gear has gems slotted to it. But you cannot see what gems are slotted and by how much they affect the piece in any efficient way. And once you do purchase something, you have to leave the vendor screen entirely to put the piece on. This proves frustrating when buying in bulk, especially.

Outside of these things, though, there is not much to complain about. I have noticed that there is a plentiful amount of gear in the first twenty or thirty hours that drops from mobs. There are so many differences that you keep going in to the menus to see if that gear is an upgrade. It actually becomes a little annoying, but I don’t think anyone can really complain about too much gear, so I will leave it at that.

Ending comments

I feel like I am missing some thing in describing this game, but there are so many bits and pieces that might be easy to do. Regardless, if you have a Wii, you need to own this game. That’s really the long and short of it. While there are a few rough edges with the menu system, and you will, admittedly, see a few jRPG tropes here and there, it overall is a marvel. Now go and get a copy before they disappear.