"Do not think of this review as rubbing salt in the wound. Consider it a taste of things I hope are yet to come."
Blending a tactical action-based battle system, an intriguing plot, mind-blowing graphics (for the Wii) and a likeable cast, Xenoblade Chronicles gets what RPGs are all about and plays to its strengths. It has been a while since I have felt so immersed in a world within a game; exploring every nook and cranny with glee and chatting with NPCs so much that I eventually know their daily schedule. I am beyond baffled as to why this game has not yet been released within NSTC territories, as it might just be the JRPG that reminds a jaded audience how much the genre has to offer. However, if you live within one of these territories that cannot enjoy the experience yet, I have faith that one day you will. So, do not think of this review as rubbing salt in the wound. Consider it a taste of things I hope are yet to come.
Many centuries before the events of the game, there lived two giants – the Bionis and the Mechonis – who fought an abiding battle on a seemingly endless sea. However, with time, the two titans lost their momentum and entered into a state of inertia. From the unmoving body of the Bionis, there sprung into existence a great magnitude of biological life, including a race of humans known as Homs and a pudgy (and completely adorable) merchant race known as Nopons. It was these two races who united in order to repel an attack on the Bionis from the race of machines known as the Mechon, who were born of the Mechonis. Thanks to the hero Dunban and his mastery over the Mechon-slaying sword known as the Monado, the battle ended in the Bionis' favour, and the Homs and Nopon enjoyed a peaceful, yet all too brief, cessation.
One year after the battle at Sword Valley, we are introduced to the protagonist of this story, Shulk. He may not be the toughest guy in Colony 9 (that honour is reserved for his best friend Reyn), but he has a brain. Working as an engineer, he has been studying the Monado's secrets and how to unlock them. However, Shulk's chance comes sooner than expected when an army of Mechon descend on Colony 9 with little warning. The Mechon are impervious to all forms of damage delivered by conventional means, leaving the Bionis no way to defend themselves. Shulk feels the call of the Monado and is given the ability to see a short distance into the future. But even with this new power, can Shulk change destiny and protect the ones he loves?
It has to be said that the story itself is very engaging. And although it seems like a simple premise at first, the game takes so many twists and turns near the end that, while fascinating, it becomes a different beast entirely. Without spoiling anything, I may have rated the game's story even higher if it had just stopped a few hours before the actual end of the game. I felt it was perhaps one cliché too far, but my tolerance for such things is rather low, so I don't expect this to be the case for everyone. And even with my complaints, I can't talk about Xenoblade's story without mentioning its likeable and diverse cast of characters.
While I won't say they deviate from many anime and JRPG tropes, the characters display strong, individual personalities that the game encourages you to nurture through various means, such as the affinity system. Each member within your party has an affinity stat, which indicates how they feel about another party member, ranging from indifference to love. You can raise these affinities by having characters participate in battle together, giving them gifts, or using the Heart-to Heart system. Heart-to-Hearts can be initiated by having certain characters at certain places, whilst also having a high enough affinity between them. Don't worry – these areas are marked out for you. Heart-to-Hearts are intimate moments between two characters that can show a different facet of their personality or illuminate more of their personal history and deepest thoughts.
However, affinity is more than just a way to expand the story; it affects other gameplay elements, such as the battle system. Battles are initiated by manually engaging an enemy that is visible on the map, and if the enemy isn't hostile, battle won't begin until you have landed the first strike. While you can have a maximum battle party of three members, you can only control one at a time. The remaining two are controlled by the AI. You are not limited to controlling Shulk though, as you can freely switch between party members between battles. Unfortunately, you cannot switch during a fight. I highly recommend experimenting with different characters, as each one plays uniquely, and it helps you understand how each character works when controlled by the AI.
Speaking of the AI, some of you might be shocked to hear that it is actually good. Since each character learns only a certain number of skills, which only they can use, the AI knows what role each member is supposed to play and acts accordingly. The only trouble I ever ran into was when the healer character had exhausted all of her healing spells when I needed them most.
It might be worth mentioning that positioning is key in Xenoblade, as certain abilities have additional effects if executed from the back or sides of the enemy. This can be difficult, as the enemy tends to focus on the character who does the most damage, and may not let you gain access to its flanks. This is where a tank like Reyn comes in handy, as he is able to draw aggro away from you and soak up damage while you strike at the enemy's weak spots.
New battle skills are gained by leveling up, but you can influence a character's role by investing Skill Points into one of three skill trees exclusive to each character. Skill Points are gained much like Experience Points, but are only used to level up a skill tree. For instance, placing points into Shulk's Humanity skill tree will improve his magical prowess, while Intuition will improve his affinity with other party members.
Although skill trees are unique to each member, there is a way to exchange them between characters by spending Affinity Coins. Affinity Coins are gained through leveling up and defeating unique monsters in battle. By spending these coins, one character can learn a skill that is exclusive to another character. This can lead to some surprisingly powerful combinations, and the higher the affinity between the characters, the more skills you can exchange.
The customization doesn't end there. Equipment also has slots reserved for ability-boosting items called "ether gems." Ether gems come in the standard magical elements and have a level ranging from one to six. Augmenting your equipment with these gems is highly recommended, as they are capable of boosting stats as well as giving other beneficial effects. You can even create your own gems by visiting the gem crafter in Colony 9, who will let you fuse together a mixture of crystals dropped by enemies and crystals mined from ether deposits to refine into ether gems. The process itself is a strange minigame, and although I never quite understood the mechanics, I still managed to get some high level gems eventually.
As good as Xenoblade's combat is, it is still overshadowed by how fun it is to explore the world the developers have created. If you are only darting from plot point to plot point, you are missing out on a large majority of the game's content. Hidden caves, mysterious tombs, and forgotten relics are all waiting for you to discover them. It's highly satisfying to unlock a location previously unavailable to you or slay the guardian of a treasure that was previously too strong for you to handle. However, the biggest reason to explore this world is purely to appreciate its aesthetics.
Attention to detail and graphics that push the Wii to its limits often had me picking my jaw up off the floor. The environments almost felt real as I ambled through them; the jungles felt warm and claustrophobic while the icy tundras felt barren and lonely. Considering the fare we usually see on the Wii , the graphics are better than they have any right to be, including cutscenes that often delivered images so striking that they burned themselves into my retinas. I remember being impressed during a sequence of flashbacks – the game had remembered every piece of armour I was wearing during each moment, a very nice touch.
The best complement to these stunning graphics is the beautiful soundtrack, which weaves its way into every scene unobtrusively while accentuating every moment. You shouldn't be in any doubt when turning on your Wii to play Xenoblade, as the music that plays on the intro screen should be enough to convince you that Xenoblade's soundtrack is special.
In closing, apart from the rare hiccup, there isn't much that Xenoblade Chronicles does wrong. The story may get a bit ahead of itself at times, and the sheer magnitude of it all may feel overwhelming, but these are trivial points that do not matter in the end. Xenoblade Chronicles is a beacon of quality within a quagmire of mediocrity, and I know it will have gamers coming back for more in the years to come.