It's Reyn Time!
After following Operation Rainfall, I couldn't say that Xenoblade was my most anticipated title. I was far more interested in Sakaguchi's The Last Story than this, which, honestly, looked bland and generic. Thankfully, I couldn't have been farther from the truth. This game was a blast of nostalgia. Despite breaking a lot of tired conventions, the game had the feel of a classic PS1 RPG with solid characters, good, if not a tiny bit cliched, writing, and an enormous, engaging world with tons to do. It took me around 80 hours to finish, and I barely even scratched the surface of all the game's content.
These days, I rarely find the time or effort to put into a deep game like this, but Xenoblade controlled my attention for a solid month. The battle system is the game's star, managing to defy conventions while feeling classic at the same time, which seems to be a running theme in this game. I loved how you could set up combos between your party members, and the AI was competent enough to oblige your requests. There were, of course, times where you'd set something up and the AI would fail to take advantage of it, which was frustrating. Other times, battles would take forever to get through, which could slow down the otherwise excellent pace of the game's main progression. The story is good, but not "fantastic". I'd say it's a step above a lot of JRPG stories just in that it doesn't get too needlessly complicated in its own lore and in general sticks to the plot. Without spoiling anything, I'd say I liked the first half of the story better when it was focused on personal revenge and noble goals. When the game hit the halfway mark, it switched over to the more generic "time to save the world" plot which felt a little forced and unwelcome. Still, there were plenty of interesting twists that kept everything fresh and unpredictable, including one HUGE TWIST at the very end that will have people talking for quite some time.
But really, the thing that holds the so-so story together are the fantastic characters and their equally excellent voice actors. Aside from a few people that stuck out like a sore thumb, the VA cast was exceptional, and really provided a professional feel to the game. This being the case, it's probably a good thing that NOE handled the translation rather than NOA, who hasn't been great at VA localization in the past. (See Metroid Other M) The characters are great, and add a lot without becoming irrelevant. Side quests give you the option to peer into the backstories of your party members, and add a quaint feeling of friendship without getting too hokey. They definitely took some notes from the Persona team, which in my opinion is not a bad thing.
Graphically, the game is definitely sub-par to what people would expect from a modern JRPG. However this is really misleading. Yes, models are jaggy and textures are flat and bland, but it's how Monolithsoft chooses to utilize them that makes it all really "click". Seriously, this game has some of the most beautiful locations I've ever seen in a video game. The unique world they've created allows for maximum creativity in level design. A flying ocean! A mechanical canyon on the top of enormous sword! An island formed out of a dismembered arm! Seriously, this game has creativity in spades, and the team never lets you forget it. I was blown away by every location I stumbled upon until the very end. It's sad that people will look at the low res graphics and mark this off as "not a good looking game".
The only major mixed bag for me was the sidequest system. For those that don't know, this game has HUNDREDS of sidequests that the game loves to dump on you at any given chance. On one hand, this is great as it squeezes every last drop out of the game's expansive and exotic locations. There's also a neat addition where you automatically get quest rewards on completing the task without needing to arbitrarily go back to the quest giver. However, the problem is that these quests are so arbitrary and tedious that I never felt a huge desire to go complete them. Rewards are paltry and rarely satisfying. They also have a bad system where when you get to a new location, they overload you with tons of quests all at once, which just makes the whole endeavor seem like work instead of being actually fun.
Thankfully, all of this is optional and not necessary to beat the game. I will say, however, that the game's level curve does seem to lean on the assumption that you'll be completing quests that give you extra EXP. Otherwise, you'll have to grind a decent bit to keep pace with the game's monsters.
Overall, this game was a fantastic throwback to the PS1 era and it's excellent library of intellectually stimulating and ultimately engrossing JRPG's. Monolithsoft definitely calls back to their Xenosaga/Xenogears days over their less than stellar "Baten Kaitos" days. Less cutscene oriented than Saga and less "serious" than Gears, Xenoblade manages to carve a niche in the gameplay and design department, giving you a unforgettable experience that you'll want to replay multiple times.