*A revised version of my original review on leetNEET.
- Alternate Name: Monado: The Beginning of the World
- Production/Development: Monolith Soft
- Genre: Role-Playing (JRPG)
- Release Info: Wii Exclusive. 6/10/10 (JP), 8/19/11 (EU), 4/2/12 (US)
- ESRB Rating: Teen
From Tetsuya Takahashi, the mind behind Xenogears and the Xenosaga series, comes (arguably) the best Japanese role-playing game of this generation. (This review is based on the European version and is pretty much spoiler-free, as with all my other reviews.)
“Long ago, the world was nothing more than an endless sea cloaked in a boundless sky, reaching farther than could possibly be imagined. Then two great titans came into existence. The Bionis and the Mechonis. The titans were locked in a timeless battle. Until at last… Only their lifeless corpses remained.” – Prologue
Eons pass and life arises from the corpses of the fallen Gods. The conflict resumes once again, with the mechanical Mechon putting the organic Homs, as well as all life on the Bionis, on the brink of destruction. Wielding the legendary sword known as the Monado, a Hom named Dunban manages to fight off and defeat the Mechon army, restoring peace.
You play as Shulk, a Hom living on the Bionis in the present day. One year has passed since the great battle of Sword Valley, and no Mechon have appeared since… until now. With the return of a familiar enemy and Dunban virtually incapacitated from his previous efforts, events are set into motion that put you at the forefront of the conflict. From here begins the true story, where countless lives hang in the balance, pre-determined fates have no place and the only destiny is the one you make yourself.
Let’s be honest. The Wii’s graphics aren’t as good as the PS3 or the Xbox 360 and well, it was never intended to be. But you know what? Xenoblade looks pretty darn good. Vast, beautiful, and diverse environments combine with added elements like weather, shooting stars, and a day/night system to make a game where you’ll just find yourself stopping at times just to take in the view. I mean, yes, the graphical limitations of the Wii do show themselves, but the environments are so awe-inspiring for the most part, that you won’t believe you’re playing a game on the Wii, or at least won’t mind the elements that are slightly less visually pleasing. Still, one can only wonder how great it would look on a console like the PS3 or Xbox 360, but that’s just a moot point. Regardless, you don’t have to take my word for it. The following (spoiler-free) YouTube videos uploaded by a fellow gamer show just a glimpse of the many areas in the game and how it changes through the day: Video 1 / Video 2
Notably, in addition to the environmental visuals, it has to be noted that virtually every single piece of equipment has its own unique look, which changes from character to character as well. Combined with hundreds upon hundreds of equipment possibilities and combinations, this addition is one which goes a long way towards making the game even better from a visual standpoint, as you can freely make your characters look a certain way without sacrificing too much on the abilities/defensive point of view. And suffice to say, there are some armors that look pretty darn awesome, along with some other more… revealing outfits for those that prefer strolling around half naked.
To top it all off, each and every civilization has their own unique look and feel. The difference between organic and machine are clearly distinguished, all while fitting snugly in their respective environments.
All in all, I can’t say enough positives about how Xenoblade is presented and how it manages to squeeze every bit of graphical power the Wii possesses. Furthermore, this is all done while creating an insanely vast world mentioned by one of the creators as being “about the size of the Japanese archipelago”, which well, is quite vast for a game, to say the least.
Some promotional artwork for the North American release:
Past the initial cut-scenes, the first thing you’re thrust into is battle. The core of a general RPG (especially JRPG’s), the battle system is usually a key determinant of whether a game becomes enjoyable to play, or just tedious, as you’ll mostly likely be battling for hours upon hours by the time you’re done with the game. Thankfully, Xenoblade does it right.
A real time system, characters auto attack a given target (provided they are in range), and special arts (unique to each character) can be triggered via a palette on the bottom of the screen. Characters and their respective hit points, level, and EXP are well presented on the left side of the screen, along with a chain attack bar that charges as arts are used and as the battle continues. Subsequently, the chain attack bar, made of three bars, can be used to do actions such as reviving an incapacitated character (one bar), commence special chain attacks (three bars), and/or utilize a character in response to visions (one bar). Visions in turn are literally visions of a future attack from an enemy, showing the damage, as well as the character to be targeted. Depending on which character you choose and/or what specific art you use, you may in turn reduce the damage, change the target of, or cancel the attack outright. Notably, this is a very unique, and well done addition that both serves as an important story plot point and battle system depth.
The EXP system rewards differing amount of EXP and AP depending on the level of enemies you fight, with enemies that are within 5 levels below and those of higher level(s) than your party giving a larger amount than those that fall out of this range. AP points are used to level up your arts, increasing their damage, duration, and/or decreasing cooldown time. Combined with potential status effects like topple and daze that prevent enemies from attacking, bonus damage for certain moves if you attack from the back or the side, as well as the more typical sleep and confuse effects, the battle system is ultimately an exceptionally complex one made of many elements. However, the system is one whose tutorials and overall implementation make easy to understand and intensely enjoyable, especially when combined with the great battle themes. Furthermore, battles are done in the world itself, so it’s a seamless conversion to battle and there are no such things as loading screens in between to disrupt the pace. Battles are also typically avoidable and/or give options to escape.
In addition to the battle system, a fair amount of gameplay revolves around interactions. Doing side quests will increase your affinity with various people and areas, as well as offer exclusives like skill grid extensions and/or opportunities to fight a few of the dozens of special, unique monsters, all in addition to the typical equipment or money rewards. Notably, skill grids are innate abilities that differ from arts that are used in battle and they are also linked to the interaction system in that they may be shared with other party members, provided that their affection levels are above a certain level. Affection levels are in turn determined by story actions, but mostly by their presence in a party with specific party members.
As mentioned in the previous section, there are hundreds upon hundreds of equipment in Xenoblade, with various weapons unique to each character, as well as various types of equipment that differ in where they’re used (helmet, chest, shoes, gloves etc.), in their weight (light, medium, heavy), as well as their number of gem slots. Similar to materia from Final Fantasy VII, gems may be reversibly combined with equipment to impart special boosts or abilities (increased defense, attack, HP, etc.) and may be crafted from gem fragments mined from specific locations.
As for typical gameplay, you’ll find similarities to typical RPG’s (especially JRPG’s like Final Fantasy). You control a party (whose members and leader can be swapped out at any time via the menu) and navigate through various, vast areas. Checkpoints are present at key areas that allow you to teleport back at anytime, which is both convenient and a necessity, considering the size and number of locales present. Furthermore, if you game over, you are merely brought back to the nearest checkpoint without any penalty and without losing anything you might have gained/done in the time between the last checkpoint and the game over. Secret locations can be found via exploration, which when found, impart extra EXP and many paths are typically offered to arrive at the same destination, providing a fair amount of freedom and self-pacing for the player. Also, one can choose to save their game virtually anytime they wish. Last, but not least, there are also some points where you can actually drop to your death (and even get EXP for doing it for the first time)!
Overall, I could easily go on and on about the many aspects of gameplay Xenoblade offers and how it’s done well, but seeing how I’ve already written so much about it, I reckon one can gather for themselves the depth this game offers. To put this depth into perspective, I’ll say this: The game easily offers some 60 hours+ of gameplay for the main story itself and easily 40+ more additional hours for side quests and world exploration, so there’s no shortage of things to do. Though, I can also see how this length may be a negative thing as well, as many gamers don’t have such time to invest in a single game these days. Subsequently, rushing through the game will also result in the missing of a lot the game offers.
Out of all the game soundtracks I’ve heard over the last year, I have to say that Xenoblade tops the list. Created by the efforts of six composers: Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana), Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears), Manami Kiyota, the ACE+ sound unit, Tomori Kudo, and Kenji Hiramatsu, the Xenoblade soundtrack is a near 90 track epic that includes all their respective skills and styles to form a soundtrack for the ages. High paced battle themes, calming and grand orchestral creations for themes and environments, there’s something for everyone on this soundtrack. To top it off, there’s a nice tribute to the theme “Knight of Fire” from Xenogears in the song “Impatience.” Overall, regardless of whether you’ve played the game, you’re bound to find some tracks to add to your playlist. And for those who do play through, well, you’re bound to continue listening to some of these songs for years to come, remembering just a few of the amazing moments and areas they were used in.
I’ve read other reviews for Xenoblade prior to writing this one and I’ve seen it labelled anywhere from a “breath of fresh air for the JRPG genre” to “a re-defining of the JRPG genre.” And to say the least, it’s not surprising why. But for me, Xenoblade is more of a symbol. It’s a representation of what good RPG’s (especially JRPG’s) should be and it’s an ode to a previous generation, when good JRPG’s were appeared fairly often and studios were not concerned with budget or trying to make the games of the genre something it wasn’t, to appeal to more gamers. See, the thing about Xenoblade is that a fair amount of its mechanics and character archetypes aren’t necessarily original. Play enough RPG’s and you’d have probably seen similar examples of its various aspects in other games. And that’s the true beauty of it. It shows that games don’t necessarily need fancy new gimmicks or radically different mechanics to be good. Rather, all you need to do is take what works, tweak it a bit, combine it with a deep story and unique presentation, and viola. It’s not rocket science, but sadly it seem that many developers, especially JRPG developers, seem to forget this aspect, and it’s one of the factors for the decline of the genre. Though, however, I do know there are just too many other factors that fit in as well, so I won’t go down this discussion here.
Regardless, what I will say is how I’ve enjoyed the Xenoblade experience. Yes, it wasn’t always all sunshine and flowers and the roller coaster ride teetered off a little between the dozens of hours of side quests and parts of the story, but at the end of the day, at the end of each respective area and chapter, the game made it up with consistently great plot twists and development. Furthermore, it’s one of the few games I’ve spent over 90+ hours on, and the immense scope of the story and the world, the enjoyment I garnered from playing, and its thought provoking theme of predetermined versus choosing your own destiny, are things I’ll keep with me for a long, long time.
The Verdict: Ladies and gentlemen, the best JRPG of this generation (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii). Sure, there’s a chance this distinction will change come the localization of other much clamored for titles like Pandora’s Tower or The Last Story, but for now, if you’re looking for a great RPG (especially a JRPG) reminiscent of the great ones from years past, this is the game to get. Now I do understand that a fair amount of gamers these days just don’t have the time to play such time consuming games and/or no longer wish to play games whose styles are similar to an age gone by, but still, I have to say that Xenoblade is one game you won’t regret putting such immense time and effort into.