Thursday, 16 August 2012

Ten reasons to buy (and love) Xenoblade Chronicles

Resplendent red sword, giant mech, long grass...good to go
This article was originally started in January 2012, mere minutes after I had bid a wistful farewell to the glittering cast of Xenoblade Chronicles. As a few of my dear friends are currently (or soon to be) wading through the bewitching world of the Bionis, it seemed right that I finish it off. I hope that along the way, this short article will inspire a few more people to experience Monolith's magnum opus, and if not then at least show that it was in fact Nintendo's much-derided Wii that boasted this generation's stand out RPG.

By the way; if the following seems a bit 'fan-boy', then I apologise. It has though, been a long time since any game enchanted me in such a way as this.

Onwards we go...

Having recently invested a significant amount of time (a little over 208 hours) into Xenoblade Chronicles, I feel confident in proclaiming that it is without doubt the finest 'new' role-playing game on sale today, and indeed the most exceptional since (the quite astounding) Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King. I would even go as far as to say that it is easily one of the most impressive, striking and memorable video games I have played in the last decade.

Coming up are ten attempts at me trying to explain my thinking.

1. It's on the Wii...

...and it's quality, I mean the kind of quality we used to see from Square when they were still good (cue the sound of jaws hitting floors). I can remember when the first videos of Xenoblade were released, and thinking to myself that there was no way such a game could be headed to the Wii, this was a RPG for crying out loud! Not since the heady days of Squaresoft and Enix on the SNES, had a Nintendo home console been able to boast such a magnificent example of the genre.

Although it true that the Wii does have a decent array of quality titles (here's my list of some of the more surprising), there is no getting away from the fact that it is now and always will be, known for the deluge of lazy, gimmicky and often shamefully unfinished mini games it was burdened with. And actually it is this apathetic and half arsed approach from the many companies which makes Xenoblade shine even clinically puts about 95% of the system's software developers to shame. You realise very quickly that if these developers had put in even half the effort into their games that Monolith Soft did with Xenoblade, then Wii owners wouldn't all have been left drowning in a shite infested sea of Carnival Games and Petz Horse Club.

It has depth, technical flair and genuine warmth in abundance and it highlights just what the little white machine can actually do in the right hands.

2. A mind blowing story

There have been many an RPG through the ages that can boast an epic storyline, and plots full of intrigue and suspense. There are even a select few that manage take us on a roller coaster of emotion and stay with us forever. Xenoblade sits comfortably in the latter category; it dispenses liberal helpings of joy, sadness, fear, and hope, all of which conspire to stir up real emotion and pull the gamer deeper into the world.

I fear I cannot do this staggering tale the justice it deserves without ruining it for people who are yet to experience it...but suffice it to say that it is all there and so much more. There is love, war, oppression, death, brutality, friendship, and it is all written in such a way that it worms it's way into your heart and captivates you from the very first scene to the closing credits. You are taken on such a grandiose journey that for me, the story of Xenoblade takes it's place alongside those of Final Fantasy VI, Suikoden II and Wild is nothing short of sensational.
The expansive Gaur Plains...pretty ain't she?!

3. The streamlined battle system

There's no disguising the fact that in terms of battle systems; Xenoblade is what FFXII should have been. And although it can take a bit of getting used to (you can't play it like a Final Fantasy game) it is an absolute joy once you're fully clued up. Left behind are the monotonous and dreary slogs of Squenix’s recent instalments, and in it's place is a fresh approach to active time and menu driven battles.

When an enemy is encountered, the transition from field to battle is seamless and there is no noticeable change to the game's pacing. Each fight skips along at rate not knots and although there are times when things seem to happen beyond your control, it all fits together and delivers a satisfying experience. The player is able to fully participate as the computer AI does a fairly decent job of looking after your comrades so you can concentrate on strategy and knocking seven bells out your adversaries.

The battle system seems to take as much inspiration from the ARPG genre as it does from the traditional ATB and turn based models and Monolith look to have recognised a negative shift in the tolerance of most new gamers toward slow-paced battles. The genuinely refreshing thing is that even though the system is designed for speed and ease of use, there is a ton of depth to it and more than enough strategy and customisation to keep hardcore pointy hat fans satisfied and engrossed.

4. Dazzling cutscenes

Although it is a bit 90's of me to sit here and wax lyrical about the quality of cutscene in a Japanese RPG; there is no denying that Xenoblade's are needlessly fantastic! It's obviously no revelation that the technical quality on show is nowhere near that of a PS3 or Xbox 360, however there is bucket loads of evidence to show that Monolith are wringing every last drop of power they can out of the can almost hear it struggling to process what is going on.

There is also the thoughtful addition of interactivity within certain scenes that can directly affect your party's view of one another. This is achieved by raising or lowering the 'affinity' between two members of your group, and this leads on to how they interact in the future. While it is hardly a brand new concept, it does bring a pinch of player involvement into the some cutscenes, and this only adds to the overall mood.

Every scene is presented with what feels like a 'glow', and all are exquisitely acted out (even in the English dub) with very pretty and refined in-game character models. The one area that leaves a bit to be desired is the facial expressions of the characters which look a touch dated (128-bit standard perhaps)...but it would take a cruel critic to let this detract. As much as the JRPG genre seems to divide people's opinion, there is no other style of game that can seem to match an RPG for cutscenes when it is on song.

5. The sheer size of the thing... bordering on ridiculous! The vastness of the world of Xenoblade is one of it's (many) trump cards, and one which it plays with continual and devastating effect. It's worth pointing out though that constant care is taken to not expose the player to too much too soon. However, once the game gets into it's stride, it seems very much like everywhere you can glimpse is reachable...very little is out of bounds.

I guess that the potential problem with a world of this size is the danger feeling it is almost too easy to get lost and sidetracked from the quest and story (this is probably more among novice players). This can lead to a game feeling like a dumbed down MMORPG (think FFXII again...sorry Squenix fans), happily though this is never the case with Xenoblade. The vistas can sometimes seem slightly intimidating with their scale, but it just seems to make the whole thing epic and make you feel like an explorer. In addition, there is always a handy pointer showing you the direction in which you need to head. Exploration is very much encouraged and is used as a clever way of gaining experience for your party...negating the need to build up as much as you would expect.
You can see why I'm besotted, no?

6. Sublime visuals

Most of us know that there is no way a Wii title can match the graphical prowess of the PS3 and Xbox 360. Once you spend some time with Xenoblade's rather special graphics though, it would honestly take a heart of stone forged from the mines of Narshe, to deny that this game is desperately pretty. You need only experience the splendour of the Eryth Sea Ether Fall or the golden snow of Valak Mountain to see this. I would defy anyone who does appreciate graphical finery not to be at least grudgingly impressed by this game's offerings.

There are few (if any) games on the Wii that even come close to the grandeur of this game. The impressive landscapes can be seen from miles away and the whole world is presented with a sheen that belies the game's humble underpinnings. I would go as far as to say that even Nintendo themselves would struggle to match this level of attractiveness.

When you can fall completely in love with a game (as I did), from merely gawping at the title screen, you know you're onto a winner. Watching the Monado blade stood amongst the tall blades of grass, while they gently sway with the wind, as the hours move elegantly by and day fades into night, is strangely breath taking.

7. An immaculate soundtrack

From the moment that you hear the stirring piano keys of Yoko Shimomura's opening score, you are left under no illusion that this game will be something special and your ears in particular are in for a treat. The main theme perfectly sums up the game's emotional nature, with it's gentle beginning giving way to an epic orchestral climax. 

I might as well cut straight to the chase now, the music in this game is nigh on perfect. I listen to a lot of video game music, and RPG music in particular, and if I'm honest, Xenoblade is the only video game OST I've heard that can hold a candle to Yasunori Mitsuda's Chrono Cross. Interestingly you can hear the great man's influence in throughout every track, although he is only credited for a small portion of the overall score. From the intrepid aria of Gaur Plains, which makes you feel like even more of an explorer; to the heartfelt 'Rikki's Tenderness', which evokes such emotion, we are reminded once again that this is the kind of music only the Japanese do well.

The background music will change (sometimes drastically) depending on whether you are wandering round during the day or at night...and some of this after dark music is nothing short of divine, Satorl Mash and Agni Ratha being prime examples.
None of that motion control malarkey here!

8. The ridiculously talented development team (Monolith Soft)

Let's be honest, if you were looking for a company to step up and deliver a gob smacking RPG in this day and age, then you could do far worse than go to Monolith Soft. The company is made up (for those who are unaware) of former Square employees...and not just any employees, many of the Monolith staff were responsible for genre defining games such as Chrono Cross, Xenogears and the Xenosaga series...not to be sniffed at.

I can't help but feel Nintendo played an absolute blinder when they bought Monolith from Namco and made them a first party developer. The company just oozes quality and has a genuine love for the RPG. If the rumour that they are working on a WiiU RPG turns out to be true, then it could help Nintendo to shift just a few more machines.

9. It "rescues the JRPG" as a genre

The game seems to have the ability to satisfy the modern gamer's desire for a more fluid and less arduous adventure. It allows the player to 'warp' to most landmarks in an instant (personally I think this is lazy, but I do see it's advantages), and it goes a long way to removing the need to level up your character to by fighting enemies over and over again. All this, helps the game to flow in a way that I've never really experienced in a traditional RPG. It's certainly no action RPG, but it does take a lot from it's sibling genre. Worry not though stats fans! At the same time, Xenoblade manages not to alienate the more hardened RPG fans by stuffing itself full of lovely customisation, neat skill exchanges and some truly magnificent side quests.

Over the last few years or so, there have been many in the gaming industry telling us that the Japanese RPG is dead, dying or just completely stagnant. While I would agree that there is far less development and evolution in this genre than many others, to just dismiss it in this way is total horse shit. The fact is the JRPG has simply had it's fifteen minutes of fame. The days of Squaresoft mega summons and Konami stars of destiny being the trendy thing in gaming are long gone. The JRPG has simply retreated back into obscurity, where it will still be loved vehemently by it's fans. I've no doubt that western gaming's latest mistress; the FPS will also one day experience this fate (I've got the champagne on ice for that day!). But all this aside, Xenoblade has been a welcome breath of fresh air for the genre and has done some exemplary work in appeasing many of the naysayers.
As heart warming as a lunch scene can be...

10. Influenced the starting a powerful fan movement

When Nintendo of America announced that Xenoblade Chronicles, the Last Story and Pandora's Tower; three of the Wii's most promising titles, would not be receiving a release in North America, there was, as you would expect a good deal of disappointment and anger from fans. This feeling was exacerbated further because all three games had been given the green light for translation and release in the PAL territories...I for one actually felt this went some way toward making up for Chrono Trigger and Earthbound (sorry American friends!).

The feeling of the fans became so strong that Operation Rainfall was formed. The following months saw legions of dedicated fans lobbying Nintendo of America via email, letter and even phone call, in the hopes of persuading them to release this trio of games. In what must be regarded as a victory for all fan-kind(!), Nintendo finally announced plans to release Xenoblade and The Last Story in North America.

I find it incredible and quite moving that the desire of ordinary people to experience 'mere' video games, could lead to such a movement and in turn, convince one of the world's premier entertainment companies to change it's mind. Everyone involved deserves massive thanks, and has my unwavering admiration.

In summary

I am well aware that my fevered ramblings do not really do justice to this jewel of a game. So I implore and even beg of you, if you have any interest at all in the RPG genre or even just in video games that are designed and built to be as good as they possibly can, then get this game.

I think it speaks volumes for me to say that Xenoblade Chronicles is worth the price of a Wii all on it's is just that good. With any luck, it's commercial success and critical acclaim will help to ensure the continued translation and release of more Japanese RPGs.

The Last Story sure has a lot to live up to...

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