Xenoblade Chronicles Review
I'm personally horrified that while a class struggle rages on in our streets, people seem unable to summon passion for anything beyond the commercial sector, raging fanboys decrying the shoddy ending to Mass Effect 3 while scarfing down Taco Bell's new Doritos Locos Tacos by the fistful. Unfortunately, I can't claim to be completely displeased by these various movements, and though I know that the shoddy community put together to support Mega Man Legends 3 will likely never revive the only video game I've been honestly excited for in decades, I am quite pleased with the success of Operation Rainfall, the grassroots fan movement which pressured Nintendo into supporting their slowly declining piece of hardware with some legitimate import titles.
Here, Operation Rainfall deals with Nintendo's private security force
As of writing this, all three titles Rainfall had pushed for are now seeing tentative releases. The Last Story is confirmed with XSEED as publisher, and some Gamestop managers have anonymously leaked info about a potential Pandora's Tower release date. But by far the most noteworthy success concerns Xenoblade Chronicles, the game not only being the first of the trio out the door, but also the only confirmed title that will be published by Nintendo of America.
Though I've nurtured a love/hate relationship with the Big N for years, ultimately I can't fault them for dragging their heels on this release. The Japanese RPG market has definitely dried up here in the states, the genre's reputation having been considerably damaged by the continued decline of its most popular brand, Final Fantasy. So while I still nurture a grudge against Reggie and his cronies for a variety of offenses (just give us a proper Mother 3 release you jerks), it was up to the fans to prove that a market existed for Xenoblade, and they accomplished that quite well. So now the big question. Was it worth it?
If my rampant negativity is an indication of anything, it's that the few things I like are perhaps noteworthy in some regard. So when I say Xenoblade is probably the best thing I've ever played on my Wii, that actually means something.
One of the big problems that have been holding Japanese game developers back seems to be the technical hurtles of next-gen. This is possibly due to Japan's lack of a true PC gaming sector, an area where game programmers get the chance to work with cutting edge technology, producing games barely capable of running on home consoles without some serious tech revisions (hi Crysis). As a result, the last console generation leap gave Western developers a serious advantage, and Japan is still playing catch-up. Though their games feature the shiny graphics we expect from this generation, there's been a major trade-off in terms of content, resources allocated to texturing high-resolution models not being spent on making the worlds anything more than linear hallways. For some genres the impact has been felt less. For RPGs, for which the sole draw is a sprawling universe to explore, this overbearing linearity has damaged the Japanese take on the genre almost beyond repair.
This is why Xenoblade Chronicles actually benefits wildly from being on the underpowered Wii, the game's disgustingly muddy and pixilated textures easily forgiven once the sprawl of the game's world is fully recognized. Once the initial shock of being thrust back into the low-poly Gamecube era passes, one quickly recognizes that Xenoblade is simply beautiful. Exploring this entirely interconnected world is bizarrely refreshing, and honestly had me wondering how I could ever consider returning to the artifically connected pathways of other JRPGs.
At points you'll enter an area, fight your way towards the exit, only to re-emerge back on the main hub now overlooking the entirety of creation, the sun's brilliance lighting up the blue sky, the endless sprawl of green plains. The fossilized corpse of a robot god looming forever in the distance. There are shades of Ico here, Xenoblades being one of those rare games which inspires a true sense of vertigo, especially knowing that there are no invisible boundaries confining your character to the specified game area. You want to plunge off a cliff? Go nuts, it's right there., Sometimes you'll land in water and proceed into areas you've not yet explored, and sometimes your nubile teenage crew will smash their fragile bodies on the jagged rocks below, bones assumedly exploding into powder through their pale while the screen loads up your last checkpoint. This sense of freedom is nothing new to the Skyrim crew (nor is it anywhere near as explorable), but to us kids who prefer the wide-eyed anime stylings over the hard fantasy tropes, it's a long-awaited addition to the genre.
Gem crafting is better with buddies!
Adding to the game's incredible open nature is the baffling amount of content and features are packed in, much of which is tied in to the game's Affinity system. Affinity represents how much characters like each other, something which extends beyond your main party to the hundred or so named NPCs throughout the game. Simply put, making friends is a good thing. If the muscle-bound Reyn and sniper bombshell Charla seem ready to hook up, you might want to pair them up to help craft some of the game's powerful gems to jam into your equipment (ala Final Fantasy VII's Materia). Complete enough of the game's 450+ quests for a particular NPC, and you may find them ready to swap out some rare piece of equipment using the game's unique trading feature. BFFs will even perform more competently in battle, and have a better chance of building the party's affinity gauge towards a powerful Chain Attack. Over the course of the game you'll find plenty of ways to raise the affinity levels of your team, cheering them on during battle, interacting with them during special "Heart-to-Heart" cutscenes, and making sure to pick them up when they've fallen down. Perhaps most interestingly, they'll even gain access to each other's various skills, and learning the importance of "hugging it out" will quickly turn your team into a ridiculous powerhouse of unstoppable friendship fury.
Also worth mentioning is that the plot is quite enjoyable, an actually coherent narrative which manages to use some bold ideas (all of civilization lives atop the massive corpses of those aforementioned robot gods), while rarely straying towards the nonsensical whimsy that Final Fantasy is known for. The story primarily concerns the ongoing war between inhabitants of these two corpse worlds, the primarily humanoid Bionis and the robot menace known as Mechonis. At the center of the conflict is the Monado, a mysterious sword with all sorts of powerful abilities, including the ability to smash through Mechon with little effort. Notably, there's been absolutely zero effort placed into localizing the game for an American audience, with all the characters bearing delightful British accents (the original Japanese audio is available to those still bearing a grudge over that whole "Boston Massacre" incident). Despite being ruled over by a caste of genetic mutants, these British voice actors deliver some very competent performances. Combined with the often daring plot (one gory scene in particular...), there's enough here to drive you through to the end, even if a bunch of the game's text is spelled wrong (Armour, Defence, etc).
Despite the major strides forward for this stagnant genre, Xenoblade does have the occasional stumble. The biggest complaint would likely have to be the battle system, which though packed with some interesting ideas, ends up a rather dull affair. The semi real-time system has your character auto attack the targeted enemy, while also giving the ability to select unique skills (called Arts) for extra damage or special effects. It's a classic problem of giving gamers battles they can't help but win, then making these fights drag out for much longer than necessary. Though baddies are largely dumb as nails, they seem stocked to the gills with hit points, and with HP and skills automatically refreshing after each battle, there's really no reason not to ditch any legitimate tactics and simply unload with every one of your special attacks. Though some enemies provide interesting challenges, such as needing to be knocked over or attacked from certain angles in order to score damage, it's still too much of a routine to be enjoyable. Additionally, you're given very little control over your A.I. teammates, and though they're largely competent, I spent one boss battle unable to do damage as my A.I. teammate refused to cast the spell that lets normal attacks damage robots. Though the game lets you play as anyone you like, this kind of A.I. fail pretty much railroads you into playing as Shulk, the only character with regular access to the Monado's powerful abilities. Also dumb is the game's inability to provide a proper inventory system, making it a nightmare to sort through and equip the game's gigantic assortment of gear with any efficiency.
In short, the Nintendo Wii may be on a slow and steady decline, though here's one reason to dust it off, the game's overwhelming amount of goodness overshadowing the minor flaws. I do have to note that the game's dual-layer DVDs were a problem for both myself and my co-editor Michael Splechta, both of us unable to play the game without swapping out our antiquated Wii consoles. It's also a GameStop exclusive, which makes sense due to the niche appeal, though means you may have to endure an over-eager seventeen year old salesman and his desperate Power-Up Rewards Card pitch. If you're like me though, you can just keep your eyes firmly planted on the credit card reader and mumble incoherently until he rings up the sale. Then, arrive home, and enjoy perhaps this early contender for JRPG of the year.
(Seriously though, Mother 3 port for 3DS. Get on it.)