Operation Rainfall will probably be one of the few gaming events from this year that will be remembered for quite some time to come. Thousands attempted to make their voice heard and persuade Nintendo that there was an American audience for JRPGs on the Wii. So far it seems that that effort has been for naught, but maybe that’s alright. Maybe the three games that North America will be missing out on aren’t even that great. Fortunately, for those of us lucky enough to live in Europe (how often do you get to say that as a gamer?), or who have the money to spend on importing Xenoblade Chronicles, that isn’t the case.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the story of a world built on the back of two deceased giants: the Bionis and the Mechonis. After an earth shattering battle the two mammoth gods were injured and their combat ended, but the residents of each god continued the fight in their stead. Robotic Mechon from Mechonis and the pretty much human Homs from the Bionis are at constant odds. Shulk is the main character of this story: an orphaned researcher living in Colony 9 of the Bionis, studying the power of a sword called the Monado. The Monado was used by the hero Dunban to almost single handedly save the Homs during a Mechon invasion a year prior.
Any happy town you start in in a JRPG is almost invariably doomed and Colony 9 is no exception. During an invasion by the Mechon, Shulk finds out that he is one of the few people that can use the Monado and it also has more power than anyone suspected, allowing him to get glimpses of the future. Shulk and his friends manage to fight off the Mechon but at the cost of many lives, and so they set off to exact vengeance.
I actually really liked how the story focused more on the journey of people moving towards a self-centered goal like revenge, but of course it veers off into the usual world saving after a bit. Shulk’s ability to see into the future is worked into the story as well as the gameplay, sometimes showing him events that he manages to change, and sometimes showing him things that he can’t. Surprisingly, even though Shulk spent a lot of the game lamenting his inability to save someone or something, it didn’t get on my nerves in the same way that whining main characters have in other games. Overall the story had enough twists and turns to keep things interesting, but some of the more emotional moments were made less believable by voice actors that didn’t sound like they were truly in the moment. It’s a serviceable and enjoyable story that kept me moving forward, but it isn’t the star of the show by any means.
The true star of Xenoblade Chronicles is easily the environments that you encounter along the way. Having a game world designed around two dead giants seems like the developers’ excuse for including some extremely cool vistas to look at. Sometimes you’ll have simple planes turned into something fantastic because you can see bits and pieces of the giant to remind you what you’re walking on, but even without that there are places - like a marshland that sparks up with thousands of luminescent light sources at night - that just make the world you're exploring a joy to wander around. Unfortunately the game’s story dictates that, in a reverse Final Fantasy XIII-like situation, you go from these huge, open and beautiful areas into something closed off and dull, but that lasts only for about a quarter of the game and then it’s back to interesting landscapes.
If the environments are the star of the game then the character models would have to be the Black Hole in which textures go to die. I love how everything looks from a distance, but the second the camera zooms in during a cutscene you can see that making such a massive world has left the game with some definite areas of neglect. This is most obvious when it comes to characters’ eyes, which are noticeably pixilated and yet are the focus of numerous emotional scenes. There were also some framerate hiccups during especially busy fights with 7 or more enemies at once, but that’s to be expected somewhat and is quite a rare occurrence regardless.
The sound design in Xenoblade Chronicles took me a while to get used to but after a while I grew to enjoy the British accents most of the characters have. Voice acting was serviceably done but a few scenes came off as less dramatic than they should have. Songs were enjoyable and actually changed during combat based on the situation which is a great way to remind you that something is going wrong.
Xenoblade Chronicles’ gameplay is a lot like an MMO in more ways than one. You wander around the world and you can avoid or engage in battles at your will. Once the battle starts each character will auto-attack the enemy as long as they are in range and then you can select from up to 8 'Arts' to use during the fight (by selecting them with the d-pad and pressing the “A” button). It’s a very similar system to White Knight Chronicles, but whereas that game felt plodding and you spent far too much time just waiting for something to happen while your character auto-attacks, Xenoblade Chronicles is very fast paced. Characters are built around classic MMO archetypes and I had a blast playing as the rogue-like character, constantly running to different positions around the enemy to maximize the damage and effect of my Arts.
Even once you’ve gotten into the swing of how the character you chose to use plays, you can’t just rest on your laurels and get into a bored routine. Timed button presses pop up every now and then and if used correctly they’ll help fill up your party gauge, which can be used for powerful chain attacks or to revive downed party members. Party members can also become downtrodden if they miss with their attacks too many times in a row or have debuffs put on them too often, but you can get them back into fighting shape by running up to them and pressing B. The Monado’s ability to see the future also comes into play during combat, giving you warning of coming enemy abilities that might otherwise kill someone or leave them with a debuff. If you play as Shulk you can use the Monado to cancel out some of these predicted events. All in all the battle system is a lot of fun, but there are some definite annoyances.
The two party members that you don’t directly control are controlled by the computer AI, and herein lies the source of most of my problems. MMOs work because when someone screws up you can yell at them over a headset or at least express your annoyance with their actions by typing in all caps. Xenoblade has very few options for commanding the characters you aren’t directly controlling. You can tell them to gather around you or to switch from fighting one enemy to another, but some situations can’t be solved with such simple commands. My healer would quite often hang around the tank after cheering him up and get hit over and over again by any area effect attacks the enemy decided to use. There was no easy way to stop this situation because I could only give commands to both of them at once. I would really have liked the ability to quickly switch the character I’m controlling during the fight instead of just outside of it, give the other characters specific positions to move to, or at least have context-driven commands like those in Final Fantasy XII.
Not everything that Xenoblade Chronicles borrows from MMO design is worse though, some is actually done better than any MMO I’ve played, perhaps precisely because it’s a single player game. Like an MMO, Xenoblade Chronicles has an almost overwhelming number of side quests that you can complete while on your mission of revenge. Thankfully, even though most of these quests are simple fetch/kill objectives with little back story behind them, you won’t be trekking your way back and forth massive distances to complete and turn them in like you would in most MMOs.
Xenoblade Chronicles simplifies things by having a very easy fast-travel system that can instantaneously teleport you to landmarks that you’ve been to before. Also, most of the quests you take on will auto-complete after you fulfill the requirements, so there’s usually no need to go back to the quest giver. This is a great way to make side quests less of a chore and, even if you don’t want to focus on them, it’s worth picking up as many as you can while wandering around populated areas as you are likely to complete some of them during the main storyline anyway.
Xenoblade Chronicles’ main storyline took me 50 hours to complete, which included a good amount of side questing and gem crafting and random wandering, but I barely scratched the surface of all of the stuff that it has to offer. Collectibles randomly spawn in each area and you gain bonuses if you can gather every type. Affinities between characters can be worked on to view “heart to heart” moments that delve a bit into their relationships with each other, and there are a massive number of quests to complete. Like I mentioned before, a large number of these quests are nothing more than simple fetch/kill quests, but there are a number of quest lines that actually explore the story of the unique characters in each town.
After you beat the game you can also play a new game+, but the enemies seem to stay the same level/difficulty, so this is probably only useful in order to re-gain access to some of the time-dependent side quests. There are also enemies and quests beyond the level of the “final boss” (I beat the game at level 81, but you can go up to 99), so there is still a reason to work at your character after the credits roll.
While I wouldn’t personally call it the greatest JRPG of this generation, I can definitely understand where the sentiment comes from. Xenoblade Chronicles’ fast paced battle system never got boring, and the simplified questing structure combined with a massive number of quests means that people who love the game will be busy for quite some time to come. Hopefully Nintendo of America and Reggie will soon realize the error of their ways and release this to the rest of the world. Until then, I guess the UK will have quite the video game export business going, and European gamers finally have something to hang over North American gamers’ heads.