Posts Tagged ‘Comparisons to mainstream entertainment’

Xenoblade Chronicles KiloByte-Sized Review

Xenoblade finally reaches North American shores after about a year-long’s worth of advertising from the likes of Operation Rainfall, a fan group dedicated to seeing a trio of swansong Wii RPGs localized in the west. One down, two to go. After spending 70 hours with the UK release, it’s about time to critique this bad boy. Does it sink or swim? Is it the most important JRPG of this generation? What does it sound like, play like, or look like? What does it taste like? Read on for more details.

Parent Talk: Xenoblade Chronicles is a role-playing game set in a vast fantasy land inhabited by humans, animals, mythical creatures, and robots. As you’ve probably deduced, the Teen rating by the ESRB is mostly due to fantasy violence. In essence, children older than 10 years old may also play it providing that parents do not mind sporadic use of minor curse words (damn), skimpy outfits, and alcohol/tobacco references in dialogue of townsfolk (a.k.a non-playable characters). The vibe Xenoblade aims for is similar to fantasy films like the The Chronicles of Narnia which isn’t afraid to throw in adult-oriented quirks from time to time. Since this is a role-playing game known for longevity and massive replay value, its narrative and gameplay may seem too complex for children under 10 years old. However, nicely implemented tutorials and the low difficulty curve may ease parents into experiencing it with their kids. Trust me; there is something for everyone in Xenoblade Chronicles, and once the whole family starts playing, be prepared to be hauled in for the long run as this isn’t a casual game to turn on half an hour per day.

Review Basis: 70 hours with 1/3 of the main plot left. My play-through has mostly focused on completing missions and side-quests that NPCs ask of me. That’s a lot of content packed in one game, eh?

Plays Like: Final Fantasy XII and the dothack series for the PS2, the White Knight Chronicles series for the PS3. In layman’s terms, it’s an offline RPG trying to be a massively multiplayer online one. Much to my surprise, Xenoblade is a sequel only in name as it plays nothing like its predecessors Xenogears and Xenosaga. Its battle system is action-oriented as it takes the real-time route rather than turn-based. It’s a deep system with a huge emphasis on micromanaging your party and upgrading the right set of skills to earn victory. It’s as overwhelming and fun as Star Ocean, yet not quite up to Disgaea levels of detail and ridiculousness. While each character levels up uniquely, what sets Xenoblade apart from the pack is its innovative use of the Monado, the mystical blade with powers to look into the future and damage mechons (robots), among other uses. Xenoblade smartly integrates canonical plot events into its battle system for strategic use. At first, your blade has the simple power to damage mechon so all you need to do is manage its wielder (Shulk) in your party. However, as you progress through the plot you start gaining unique abilities which will force you to look before leaping into action. The coolest one is premonition; if an enemy is planning a devastating attack which will probably kill your party, a 5 second clip will play out that future event, giving you the choice to prevent/avoid it. It’s a one-of-a-kind use of a time-based mechanic in an RPG that I don’t see often.

Looks Like: someone throwing in the robot designs of the Transformers’ films and Real Steel into the Lord of the Rings’ sets of lush fields, disgusting marshes, towering forests, and dark looming castles. The second half of Xenoblade moves away from that look and adapts futuristic and tribal locales instead. From medieval sturdy armor to the casual fashion of today–characters like to mix and match attire even if it doesn’t fit the time period conveyed. If you’ve watched John Hancock then you’ll know what I mean. All in all, Xenoblade’s world is a strong blend of aesthetics and influences. Nothing looks out of place despite as it blends medieval and technology perfectly, similar to how Lost Odyssey’s attempt a few years ago.

Sounds Like: have you caught on the trend that bands and popular artists sometimes follow; making a multi-disc album with each side adapting a different style/genre of music? Xenoblade’s soundtrack walks that road as well. My closest comparison is the work of The Early November’s “The Mother, the Mechanic, and the Path”, a triple-disc album released in 2006 with various sub-genres of rock enveloping each one. The first disc contains in-your-face rock ‘n roll, the second disc mellows out into acoustic instruments and orchestrated material, and the third disc contains experimental spoken vocals backed by very abstract instruments. Xenoblade follows the first two discs to a T, while branching out into Celtic music in its experimental third act. It even occasionally manages to combine these three styles into single tracks. Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) takes charge with her signature blend of classical and celtic styles, while a new band of composers collectively called ACE+ get down and dirty with the rockin’ battle themes and chillin’ acoustic arrangements of some of Yoko’s work. At the end of the day, it’s a bulky soundtrack which contains some of my favorite game music of this generation. It channels the spirit of Motoi Sakuraba’s work on Baten Kaitos, another one of Monolith’s niche RPGs.

Best Thing About It: a living, breathing world. Not a lot of JRPGs mesmerize me when it comes to world design. Three gripes tend to stand in the way: 1) the overworld may be too small or tedious, 2) it’s not interactive enough, 3) constant lack of immersion when moving between towns and dungeons. The latter is practically a staple in most RPGs as towns are peaceful places populated by NPCs, weapon shops, and inns; and in contrast dungeons are monster-filled, gloomy areas with hidden treasure chests and boss fights, not to mention the sole purpose of the overworld which is simply connecting between the two. Xenoblade’s greatest triumph is breaking these three cardinal faults and aiming for full immersion in a large playground. The clear lines between towns, overworld and dungeons are constantly challenged and shaded within this JRPG; you can encounter actual people in “dungeon areas”, the overworld itself has a lot of secret mini-dungeons and refugee camps, and cities can be invaded as part of the narrative and subsequently transform into dungeons in an instant. Moreover, Xenoblade’s scope aims for the sky. The developers were so confident in their creation that they included two perks from the get-go: fast-travel to cut down on repetition and time manipulation to fully explore areas as their inhabitants change from dusk till dawn. Being the perfectionist I am, I found myself opting to explore every nook and cranny and talk to every NPC, in turn avoiding fast travel unless neccessary. Yes, you read that right; talking to NPCs matters in Xenoblade as most of them have actual lives, curfews, ambitions and problems. Taking cues from Majora’s Mask, Xenoblade is armed with an affinity chart that tracks important NPCs in each region. The more you talk to, the clearer the relationship between each of them is. For example, conversing with one’s sibling lists him/her as such in the chart, followed by a certain status represented by smiley face expressions. If these siblings are not in good terms, you’ll eventually get a series of side-quests which may grant an opportunity to rekindle their bond. Imagine this example expanding to the whole family, friends, and even acquaintances who may live in different regions/countries…and you’ve got Xenoblade’s chart in a nutshell. Eventually, I got to a point where I cared for the countries I was saving because I knew their citizens inside and out.

Most Polarizing Feature: its graphical presentation. From the open fields and high mountains to the tropical forests and high-tech futuristic castles, Xenoblade’s locales look absolutely stunning even by Wii standards. My friends had to do a double take when they watched me play, assuming that this was a PS3/Xbox 360 title. Upon closer inspection, however, the character models have stiff animation, bad lip-syncing and clipping which may easily categorize the presentation as PS2-like. The development team tried to hide those blemishes with customizable attire and well-directed, excellently-choreographed cut-scenes, but sadly due to the nature of the Wii’s capabilities they couldn’t achieve everything. Compare that to their previous works embodied by Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos which went toe-to-toe with the big dogs of last generation.

Worst Thing About It: the main narrative and cast of characters are serviceable, yet not as memorable as Xenogears and Baten Kaitos. It’s not bad by JRPG standards, but I was more into the NPC’s stories than the main plot. The solid British voice acting attempts to inject emotion and good humor, but I always knew what to expect around the next corner. The ending sequence may contain a surprise or two as usual, but it will never live up to the likes of Monolith’s past works. The introduction and concept are really gripping; the world you traverse is slowly revealed as two bodies of huge robots forever frozen in combat stance, yet unfortunately 2/3rds of the main quest doesn’t take that premise to the next level. Instead, it opts to focus on an orphan boy with a mysterious past who comes across a mystical blade only he can wield for some unknown reason…all of which will eventually be explained via deus ex machina.

The Lowdown: despite its somewhat formulaic plot and band of protagonists, Xenoblade Chronicles single-handedly rekindled my love for JRPGs…which was ironically blown out by the series which got me into the genre in the first place. Forget Final Fantasy XIII. Heck, I’ll even step on more toes and proudly state that this is what Final Fantasy XII should’ve been like. Monolith Soft successfully included the best of MMO elements in an offline RPG, all the while developing a world full of life and a level of immersion which will be remembered for decades to come. That’s what I call keeping the Japanese flavor in check despite heavy westernization. It’s like taking a bite off a classic American cheese burger which is coated with teriyaki sauce and has wasabi instead of mustard. Mmm, that concoction is making me drool. Will somebody make it happen?

Average Review Scores: 8.5 +/- 1 out of 10

Personal Final Score: 9.5/10

+1 Inflation: if you love huge worlds with a lot to do outside the main quest. If interaction and immersion similar to Skyrim are appealing factors.

-1 Deflation: if strong narrative and cast are the most important aspects of your RPG experience. If you can’t play graphically underpowered games with 480p resolution.

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