A simple and obscure statement, I know, but that’s really all I could say after spending a great deal of time with Xenoblade. It speaks first to the long journey to American shores. Fueled by a grassroots effort and word of mouth, Yankees finally get the chance to play a game released nearly two years ago in Japan. But “Finally” also describes the way I view Xenoblade as a game. It represents the promises I heard back when the first information on Final Fantasy XII was released to the public. More importantly, we finally see the promise made by countless Japanese developers to return to greatness and reinvigorate the JRPG genre.
The narrative of Xenoblade begins with two giants locked in an eternal conflict. The organic Bionis battled the mechanical Mechonis to an eventual stalemate, leaving the two Gods in a state of slumber. Over thousands of years, life sprang upon the literal backs of the two giants. The Bionis gave birth to the humanlike Homs, ethereal High Entia, and furry Nopon, while mechanical monstrosities found life on Mechonis. The offspring quickly picked up where their forbearers left off, which is where the story of Shulk and his friends begins. Driven by a desire for revenge against the evil Mechons, Shulk attempts to unlock the mysteries of the Monado, an ancient sword capable of ending the conflict and, perhaps, reviving the two giant Gods.
Xenoblade’s story and setting are certainly more imaginative than those in most RPGs these days. What brings the experience home is the almost disarmingly “normal” cast of characters. Far from the usual quirky and kooky cast of Japanese titles (though there is a furry party member, of course), Xenoblade’s cast seems almost subdued. Revenge drives Shulk in his quest, but he carries an inner strength and intelligence not often found in present day protagonists. Dunban, the previous wielder of the Monado, undergoes a great deal of trauma in the opening act, but continues to serve as a mentor for the rest of the party. The more believable and realistic characters inevitably makes the cast fairly forgettable because no one stands out with a particularly engaging back story or character flaw. Arguments occur among the group in several key scenes, but mostly everyone is in for the adventure and lacks any baggage to help them stand out.
But the story and characters aren’t the main attraction. The fact that the whole game takes place on two massive continents made of living beings represents both remarkable game design and wonderful imagination. You begin towards the bottom half of the Bionis, but as you make your way up the creature’s massive thigh and stare up on the rocky face that is in fact a rocky face of a once powerful God, you start to feel the enormity of the world and the situation you’re in. Then there are the red hate-filled eyes of the Mechonis always in the distance, maybe obscured by the clouds, but staring at your party nonetheless. Working your way in and – literally – through these mammoth beasts allows for unique areas with their own climate and cartography. The shoulder blades encompass an almost endless sea dotted with tiny islands, massive snow storms and glaciers wreak havoc on the arms, and the legs harbor a sun scorched plane of grass covered hills.
Unfortunately, the Wii hardware requires a great deal of trickery in order to pull off this grand expanse of land. You may see the head of the Bionis high above, but you’re certainly not looking at the real game area. Separated into discreet zones, each area feels piecemeal when compared to some of the greater environments on the “current” generation of consoles. These technical limitations also lead to some underwhelming graphics. While not ugly, it’s hard to put Xenoblade up against Skyrim or even Oblivion on a purely graphical comparison. Thankfully, the art design helps mitigate this wide disparity. Each area feels distinct and unique, and the creatures and characters carry a great deal of detail and personality. Accepting the developers’ vision for the world requires looking past the man behind the curtain, and Xenoblade accomplishes this with large and varied environments.
More importantly, Xenoblade keeps you occupied by focusing your attention on a complicated, but wonderfully crafted combat system representing the best parts of western and eastern game design. Battles take place in a manner similar to MMORPGs. Your three-man party consists of the usual archetypes of tank, healer, and DPS, though each character is certainly capable of dealing death to the opposition. Engaging monsters dotting the field (that’s right, no random encounters in this bad boy!) involves a real-time fight while the player controls a single party member. Your computer controlled partners usually provide intelligent and focused support based on their role in battle. You can switch which character you control outside of battle, and I recommend doing so if you grow tired of the main character’s focus on buffing and backstabbing. It also gives you a chance to see how each character should properly use their skills and techniques. Sharla should probably focus on keeping the main tank alive with healing spells and buffs, for example, while Dunban draws attention from the more dangerous foes. Experimenting and leveling skills provides a flexibility and satisfaction often sought after with this kind of system, but all too often lacking in execution.
To go into too much detail on the battle system would do a disservice to this review and the reader. Simply put, there are an insane number of knobs, switches, and effects present on your characters at any given time. Briefly speaking about the Monado’s ability to see into the future for upcoming attacks – and thereby allowing you avoid them with the proper counter – doesn’t seem that complicated, but combining that with combination attacks, status effects, the encouragement system, ether attacks, break vs. topple condition, and many other facets of combat provides a sensation not unlike a migraine. Thankfully, Xenoblade does a pretty good job of slowly indoctrinating you into its world and systems. You’ll still have questions, sure, but a rather handy tutorial built into the main menu allows you a chance to learn (or unlearn) everything again.
Xenoblade may be complicated, but each of the systems plays into the story and character development in a better way than in most titles today. You earn affinity among party members if you congratulate or encourage them in battle using a simple QTE interface. Once your affinity reaches a high enough score, you can allocate certain skills and permanent buffs to party members. Not only are your party members talking and bonding in cutscenes, but they also bond on the battlefield as well. This simple act tears down the wall so often placed between story and gameplay, and I applaud Monolith on their focus and clarity on the subject.
The western influence on Xenoblade isn’t limited to combat. There are a lot of side quests to complete outside of the main story missions, and I do mean A LOT of side quests. There are over five hundred separate tasks to complete. Unfortunately, most of these missions amount to the standard MMO grind of find and kill X number of said monster, go and defeat this named threat, or please find and return my favorite pair of pants. The best missions raise your affinity within a certain area, allowing for – you guessed it – more quests and perhaps better items at the local shop. I recommend stocking up on side quests before you begin an area rather than trying to complete everything. I was only able to get through a little over half of the main story because of my OCD nature when it comes to exclamation points denoting quests on my mini-map! Questing usually supplies a great deal of experience for character progression, cutting down on some of the grind associated with constantly fighting the same monsters. In fact, a little extra curricular do-gooding results in an overpowered party capable of easily passing through the main story.
Unfortunately, Xenoblade seems schizophrenic when it comes to player interaction and UI development. Collectable items required for quests are clearly marked in your inventory, preventing you from accidentally selling them while trying to make a quick buck for that brand new sword or rifle. However, quest givers won’t show up on your map until you’re almost right on top of them. Good luck trying to find that one guy in Frontier Village that wanted a very specific item, especially given the day and night cycle which causes various citizens to disappear temporarily. The quest log tells you which quests will be locked once you pass a certain point in the story, which is helpful, but only marginally so. The worst part comes when trying to outfit your party with the proper equipment for battle. Xenoblade features a loot system more closely associated with a hack n’ slash RPG, but lacks a refined way of sifting through gear. You can filter through different categories such as damage or sale price, but it still means spending far too much time in a menu trying to find the right pair of shoes for the proper occasion. More infuriating is the fact that stat boosting gems placed into equipment stay there until you remove them by hand. It’s the role playing equivalent of forgetting that your phone was in your West Virginia University hoodie.
These minor complaints don’t really add up to much, however. Xenoblade works best when you run across this wildly interesting environment in search of adventure. Maybe you run into a level 90 frog capable of ending your day in one quick attack, or maybe a hidden area granting a large experience bonus and another item for your scrap book (yes, there is a scrap book for collectable objects). More importantly, Xenoblade encourages this type of sojourn into the wilderness by simply resetting you at the nearest landmark if your party is wiped out. By never punishing my curiosity or sense of wonder with the world, Xenoblade provides a wonderfully relaxing and fun experience of adventuring, lost among our quick save systems and complete reliance on quest markers and checklist tasks. You may find yourself occasionally frustrated with a design choice, but do yourself a favor and look past them, for the simple act of carefree exploration and discovery appears lost to most developers these days. Mr. Spock might ask why you climb the mountain, and you can calmly reply the same way as Captain Kirk:.
“Because it’s there.”