Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii)

So after much waiting, poking of Nintendos, and yet more waiting, we've finally got Xenoblade in North America. It's a good thing too, because the game is by far one of the best RPGs to come along in the last few years, and it does a lot to reaffirm one's faith in the floundering JRPG sub genre. If you like big worlds (and you cannot lie?), exploration, side quests, and a battle system truly deserving of the adjective "snazzy", then you owe it to yourself to play this game.

The game takes place on the lifeless bodies of two titans, Bionis and Mechonis, who thousands of years earlier were engaged in an endless battle. Now creatures of a biological nature have formed new civilizations on Bionis, and a mechanical civilization has risen on Mechonis. It seems that the Mechons don't much like the biological Homs, and have been attacking them constantly in recent years. This is where players come in as they help Shulk, his buddy Reyn, and a slew of other adventurers that come along for the ride, as they try and take the fight to the Mechons and end their shenanigans. Oh, and Shulk has a fancy pants sword called the Modano that you will hear about constantly.

Outside of seeing how many times party members can say Modano in a conversation, the story is actually pretty decent. When it comes to JRPGs of late I've had to steel myself constantly against a potential onslaught of annoying tropes and characters that make me just want to slit the throats of half my party members, leave them in a ditch, and carry on without them (I'm looking at YOU Hope and Vanille! D-:< ). This didn't happen in Xenoblade and for that I'm happy. The adventure was a fun ride, and there were even a few curve balls tossed my way that I didn't see coming.

Xenoblade is also by far the least linear JRPG that I've ever come across. Sure, you could try to just follow the main story arch and steamroll to the end (and I use the word "steamroll" lightly here given that this game is bloody huge), but there are just so many side quests, and places to explore that you'd really be selling the game short by completely ignoring them. Some of the quests are just fetch quests or kill ten rats kinds of things, but they're the game's way of gently nudging players to go take a look around, see what's in that ravine down the way, explore a cave, playfully poke passing wildlife in the face with your sword. That sort of thing. The whole process of going on these quests really drives home how big and wondrous Bionis and Mechonis are. Since Shulk can see into the future a bit (by the way, Shulk can see into the future a bit! \(@ ̄∇ ̄@)/ ) he can tell before hand what some of the items he'll need to collect for certain quests are, so players can start gathering them in advance, then BOOM! easy experience points when they actually get the quest because Shulk already has a big sack of the crap the NPC wanted him to get. While there is an epic story to be told here, questing is also a mechanism to get people out in the game's world and seeing what there is to see. Seriously, get out there and explore.

Of course the second you get out in the wilderness there are legions of creatures, mechons, and the like that are ever so eager to bonk Shulk and the gang over the head repeatedly, so there's plenty of opportunity for battle in Xenoblade. Thankfully you can see all of the enemies in the world, so you don't have to worry about annoying random battles, and there's also no lack of opportunity to go around these baddies, thus avoiding a fight, or just run away if they do chase after your party. Much of the time players can avoid battle if they aren't in the mood to fight, which is okay by me.

So, battles themselves? Where to begin because there is a ton of stuff to discuss here. First we'll look at the relatively mundane aspects like how your characters can link attacks together that will have certain impacts on enemies. There's also chain attacks where your party has a chance to really unload on an an enemy. These are things that one can find in various other RPGs, and they're quite well put together here, making for some good good times. However, there is so much more in Xenoblades battles. First your characters have a morale gauge. So long as that has a bit of juice in it, they can keep fighting. If someone is rendered unconscious another character will help get them on their feet, give them a pep talk, and the battle will continue (there's actually a worrying level of positive high fivin' energy in Shulk's party). Once that morale drops too much the battle ends. However, it isn't off to the game over screen, and time to reload a save state. Instead, the players' party is sent somewhere a little before the fight where they can either try again, or scamper off to do something else. It makes life so much easier for taking another kick at the can on a boss fight, and removes a lot of the tedium that can sometimes come with failure in an RPG. Shulk's ability to see the future also comes into play in battles as he will sometimes see a special attack that an enemy will do before it happens and can either initiate his own defenses against it, or let others know what's incoming so that they can counter it accordingly. Then, of course, their's his sword, the Modano, that has it's own abilities that can be brought to the table in addition to Shulk's regular abilities. There is just a ton of stuff at players disposal in Xenoblade's battles, and at first it can be a bit overwhelming, but after a little while one can adapt, and battles become a very full, satisfying experience.

With all of the stuff you can do in a battle, these things are actually a lot of fun, and I don't get that feeling of "Ugh, another battle?" since I can avoid most of them at will, and when I do decide to cross swords, there's just so much I can do with my party. It's a lot of fun playing different attacks off one another, cheering party members on and doing certain attacks via QTE events, manipulating the future, chain attacks, party member positioning, or just changing things up by choosing a different party member to control while everyone else does there thing. It may sound like a lot to take in, but it's actually quite manageable, and the game does a decent job of explaining things and easing players into all of the stuff battles have to offer.

Another interesting facet of the game is that characters perform better the more they get along with one another. Some of this is done by taking quests to help people, or by cheering each other on in battle, or going to certain areas in the world that allow something called a "Heart to Heart". In these characters will have a conversation about something and depending on the responses that you choose, they will like each other a lot more by the end of their chat. This isn't just some quaint feature to extol the power of friendship. It actually has a practical purpose, that being that your characters will be able to do more chain attacks in battle the better they get along. It's not a huge feature, but it makes for a nice distraction from all the adventuring, and bashing monsters over the head.

While the Wii may not be a very good platform for gamers seeking something with high graphic fidelity, Xenoblade's visuals are still quite nice. The art is fantastic with some very interesting monsters, and the game world itself looks amazing with absolutely fantastic environments to explore. It really feeds into the game constantly encouraging players to take a look around and smell the roses. I constantly found myself seeing some geographical feature in the distance that I thought was kinda neat, then trying to get to it for a closer look while playing. About my only minor gripe with the game's visuals is that it suffers from fuzzy text issues on an SD television. Granted most people in this day and age have a decent HD TV now, so this shouldn't affect many, but if you're like myself and have your Wii connected to an older SD set, be prepared for some eye strain trying to read menu screens and whatnot.

Music and sound is also very well done. In fact, Xenoblade has one of the best soundtracks I've come across in a game in years. I especially like a lot of the tunes that are played at night while adventuring. Voice acting is also decent. It's not going to win any awards, but it got the job done and kept me entertained without causing me to cringe, which is something I find myself doing entirely too often in a JRPG of late.

Overall, Xenoblade is by far the best JRPG to come out on any platform in at least the last five years. Every developer out there with an interest in making RPGs should take a good hard look at this game because it just does so much right, and is able to implement so many different features into a single experience without them feeling tacked on. If you have any interest whatsoever in this genre, you absolutely must spend some time with this game.

- Mr. Nash

The Good:
- Tons of quests
- So much to explore
- Really nifty battle system
- Entertaining story
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Art direction is excellent

The Bad:
- Fuzzy text on SD televisions
- If you're easily distracted by side quests, this game will completely consume you

Score: 9.0 / 10