A once in a (console) generation experience.
Around the time when Xenoblade Chronicles released, the Wii had a sort of RPG renaissance. All within a year, Nintendo gained what I like to call The Trinity, a set of three RPG titles that generally outshined any competition. Xenoblade Chronicles was the cardinal title of the Trinity, positioning itself to be considered one of the best RPGs of the fabled and cliché ‘all time’. The year of 2012 was filled with some incredible RPG titles that released in North America, including Mass Effect 3, Disgaea 3 (Vita port), Diablo III, Dragon’s Dogma, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, The Witcher 2, Shadowrun Returns, and Persona 4. What a year, right? Yet Xenoblade Chronicles arguably outshines all of those entries in my heart (though if you look at Metacritic, Mass Effect 3 and Persona 4 both outscore it 93-to-92). So what, then, makes Xenoblade Chronicles so great? What spurned Monolith Soft, outside of profit, of course, to create Xenoblade Chronicles X? There is no simple answer.
As hardware in consoles and PCs continue to advance, developers have felt the need to ‘advance’ with it. Square-Enix has, on multiple occasions, explained that the need exists to evolve combat in their RPGs from classic turn based action to something more active. For many developers, this transition is simple. Others struggle to find their happy medium when seeking advancements. If you doubt this, consider the fan backlash and outcry when they watched the Final Fantasy VII Remake trailer that sampled a fraction of a second of combat. Regardless, Monolith Soft was, indeed, tasked with a similar mission. Previous titles like Xenosaga involved very basic turn-based combat, but Monolith Soft was also the developer or co-developer behind the very active 3ps Dirge of Cerberus and the action RPG The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Before I delve into combat specifics, however, I’ll touch upon the grandiose story of Xenoblade Chronicles. The story follows buddies Shulk and Reyn, who accidentally activate the fabled blade known as the Monado, the only weapon capable of destroying the Mechon – mechanoid hostiles intent on exterminating life on the Bionis. They journey along the petrified giants (the Mechonis and the Bionis) who have been locked in together in death after dueling in ages of lore. When the Mechon lock in on the Monado’s signal, they attack Shulk’s Colony 9 in an attempt to steal the blade. What follows is a 70+ hour adventure that spans the entire open world of the Bionis and Mechonis as Shulk and party battle their way through enemies, subterfuge, and some ultimate betrayals.
Key to pushing the narrative forward is the excellent combat system. Similar in design to Level-5’s White Knight Chronicles, Monolith Soft utilizes an action bar spread across the bottom of the screen where the player can choose which actions to take during combat. Each character has a wide selection of skills and arts to utilize. What is cool about this system is that each skill has different effects based on where you position your character. Shulk’s backslash is guaranteed massive damage when struck from behind but only deals approximately 50% of that from any other position. Combat is such a strong point in this game that, even when stuck at an extremely difficult boss (because the difficulty does, indeed, ramp itself up a lot at random intervals), the subsequent grinding is still an enjoyable experience. I will interject that, as you level higher, there is a ‘growing pains’ period of sorts where enemies are either too weak (and therefore yield minimal experience) or way too strong. This did not cause me any issues until about 50 hours into the game, and then I free-roamed the world until I found enemies a few levels higher in some of the beginning of the game areas. With a guide handy, you wouldn’t even have to spend as much time as I did searching.
Again, you may ask what makes Xenoblade Chronicles so great. My answer lies partially with the entertaining and rewarding combat and difficulty. The finest piece of Xenoblade Chronicles is within its epic narrative. The story may contain numerous cliché tropes we’ve seen time and again, but true story is a surprise I surely didn’t see coming. Sure, in retrospect, various pieces to the expository puzzle had been set in place. But much like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the pieces are there to support the player/reader when they finally reach the exhilarating conclusion. In Xenoblade, this revelation unravels about 60 hours in. In Harry Potter, the pieces take the form of Snape’s backstory, with the final moments of the final book cementing the damn good story.
A myriad of other opportunities away the players in Xenoblade Chronicles, however, outside of plot and combat. Character development is a vital piece to the story, and, as the player becomes strategical about his/her party formation, bonding inevitably increases during play. Properly appropriating yourself with your companions enables multiple heart-to-heart moments that float about the Bionis/Mechonis. Getting to know the characters is a simple joy that enhancing the experience a hundredfold.
Gamers are a group of people that, generally, love the music that accompanies their games. Particularly, we RPG fans take special notice of the soundtrack that travels with us on our journey through the collective worlds and universes of our games. Fortunately, Xenoblade Chronicles offers a phenomenal soundtrack in the form of beautiful string accompaniments and gorgeous piano offerings among a memorable list of tracks. The OST spans nearly five hours of music that is bound to leave a lasting impression.
Customizing equipment and creating gems to slot into said equipment also provides extra entertainment to the experience. Properly equipping and modding your equipment for battle gives you the strategic edge against some incredibly tough adversaries. In particular, I found I struggled at some of the main bosses in the story mode consistently throughout the game. Some were because I used a very stubborn strategy that was ineffective against the boss. Others were because I advanced the narrative below the suggested level (the suggested level, of course, being completely opinionated). That said, a proper party formation and equipment could make the impossible possible – and extremely rewarding.
Lastly, Xenoblade Chronicles offers an immense amount of side quests available to whittle away at. There is an extraordinary amount of quests for Shulk & Co. to complete; so much so that I didn’t even come close to completing them all. Luckily, for most of the quests, when you finished them, you did not have to return to the quest giver. For many instances, completing a quest was instantly gratifying.
To re-cap: Xenoblade Chronicles is an epic adventure that spans over 80 hours of gameplay that intertwines reliable combat, a large cast of characters, additional content, and, most importantly, an incredible story driven experience. With an incredible soundtrack and solid voice acting included, Xenoblade Chronicles is a rare gem that RPG fans needs to experience or add to their collection.