Review Shooter: Xenoblade Chronicles

“The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

The theme of fate and destiny has been prevalent in all forms of media from plays to movies and now even video games. People believe that they are in control of their own life, and these tales tend to help reinforce that notion. For those who know the opening quote is from the Terminator franchise, you know just how important fighting your future is to the series.

Xenoblade’s central theme seems to be about fighting your future and living for yourself. But its also about destiny and the control you have over it. The main thrust of the initial plot seems like a series of unconnected events, but as the larger more intricate web opens up you see that almost everything is connected. Even the worlds of Xenoblade are connected, but in a much different way.

The worlds of Xenoblade Chronicles are fairly interesting. In a unique twist, the world of the Mechonis and the Bionis are actual living creatures. Formally gods, the two beings engaged in a battle which drained them both of their strength. They remained dormant for some time, and eventually life sprung up on both worlds.  The inhabitants of the Bionis are organic beings including the Homs (a humanoid esque race), the High Entia (still human-esque for the most part, but with wings), the Nopons (the game’s cutesty animal race) and a mixture of creatures that you will do battle with throughout the game’s 100 hour campaign. On the other side, the Mechonis is home to mechanic creatures called the Mechon. I will say, while it is a minor complaint I do find the names a bit too generic.

The idea of a living world is put to good use throughout the game. It becomes even more prevalent near the back-half of the game. That said, one of my favorite minor joys of the game was seeing what part of the body I would end up in next. You start in the feet of the Bionis and make your way up and around the entire body, which was kind of cool. The Bionis is also extremely hairy if the Bionis’ legs and Back are anything to go by. Lots of grass!

The main plot of the game though focuses on a young boy named Shulk. Shulk like so many characters in this genre starts off as an unassuming lead. He is actually a lab rat when we first meet him. Soon, events beyond his control thrust him into the heart of the battle between the Mechon and the Homs. Even with his home in danger, there is one final twist that finally allows our hero to put his heart into the battle and the game truly begins. While this sounds like typical jRPG fonder, I will say that the bulk of the game focuses more on revenge than anything else. It is a lot more personal, which I quite liked.

Along with Shulk, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters. Though if you’ve played one jRPG, you would probably recognize most of the major types. There’s the battle-tested vet of the group, there’s the wise-cracking but good-natured friend, there’s the adorable animal, there’s the mysterious girl from a royal background and there’s the feisty female lead. Being archetypes of the RPG genre doesn’t really hurt though because it is done so refreshingly in here just due to the size of the world.

Aside from the characters who join your party, there are dozens upon dozens of NPCs that you meet. But these characters aren’t just here to give you side quests and move on. Many of them offer their own little story in this massive world. There’s the female soldier who is a little unsure of herself, but slowly rises in ranks. There’s the Nopon who wants to continue his grandfather’s research into some mysterious ruins. There is a sister who seeks redemption for her brother, and dozen more of these relationships.

The game does a great job of keeping track of all the NPCs you meet for a variety of reason. The first, and perhaps least interesting (and at times frustrating) is the time of day the character is usually around. I like games that have day/night cycles and think Xenoblade does a terrific job with it (more on that later), but it can be a bit annoying when there are several major areas and hundreds of NPCs its always difficult to remember where AND when a specific character should be when you need them. The second is far more interesting but has less effect on the overall game, and that’s building relationships between the NPCs. Doing various quests and interacting with characters will build up affinities between them. What is interesting is you don’t just build relationships with people in the same area. Some characters from the beginning will have some bond or friendship with characters you meet 60-70 hours into your adventure. Its a neat concept to make you know while it is a large world, it is somehow all connected. Like I said though, it doesn’t have much barring on the overall experience but still nice.

The final thing however is perhaps the most important to game play and that’s building an affinity between your party and the various locations in the game. Not only does it mean you are doing a good job, but it also opens up more side quests and allows you to trade for rare ideas with NPCs. This is doubly important for Colony 6, which is a location you venture to about half-way through the game. Destroyed during the last battle between the Mechons and the Homs, one of the tasks you are given in the game is rebuilding this colony. This includes gathering the necessary equipment needed for construction but also recruiting members from other locations to move there. This turns out to be more interesting than one could imagine. I think because the game only forces you to find the items and not really work on the construction aspect. A lot of the equipment will be gained naturally during the course of the game.

The rebuilding of Colony 6 is only one of the hundreds of side quests in the game. With about 250 side quests to complete, the game runs the risk of feeling like its nothing but filler or fetch quests, but it somehow strikes a balance that weaves them into the game naturally. Part of it is that not every quest needs to be turned in, so if you are asked to kill like 4 enemies or collect 3 of item X, most of those quests are ended as soon as you complete them. Screen pops up, you get the money and XP associated with the quest. Others are a bit more elaborate and force you to return to the quest giver, but luckily they are marked with a red ! on the map so you at least know who you need to return it too. Though, I will note some frustration with collections that deal with rare drop items. While the developer’s intentions may have been to get you to explore more, its more frustrating than fun to run around for an hour hoping that the right enemy drops what you need.

Much like the NPC affinity chart, the game does a decent job of keeping track of all of your side quests. All of your quests are kept in your journey. Each has a green crown next to it, which really doesn’t mean much (as far as I can tell). Some of them are marked with a red clock, which means these are “timed” quests. It generally means that those tasks are tied into certain plot points in the game, and I feel at times the game doesn’t do the best job of telling you when said point is going to happen. On the flip side, it kind of forced me to focus on those side quests before making too much progress into the story. So I guess, it got the job done.

Each quest is logged, and you can click on it to know what items you need to find, how many of enemy X you need to defeat or if its a unique monster/mob quest generally gives you a rough idea of where and when they can be found. Its a handy guide, which can be broken down by region, current and completed and even newest quest. So it isn’t ever too much of a hassle to find the quest(s) you are looking for.

The game attempts to be as hassle-free in other areas as well. It was mentioned earlier that the game has a day/night cycle, and roughly each hour is about 2-3 minutes in the real world, but if you don’t want to wait around, you also have control of that. So you need to find someone, just go in the menu and set the clock for about 12 hours, and instant change. This is of course important when dealing with NPCs, but also with the world. You see many of the environments you venture to have specific day/night situations but also weather conditions. For example in the Bionis’ Leg it rains, in the Eryth Sea you get shooting stars. Both are just random occurrences, but since you can mess around with time you can keep changing it until you get the desired result. Again, it makes a somewhat random element a lot more bearable when you don’t need to just luck out.

Traveling is also made slightly easier in this game as long as returning to an area you’ve been already. Before I get there though, I would mention that this is one of the things that is hidden away in the menus and the game never explicitly explains to you. I actually didn’t know about it for the first 10 hours or so of game play, and only stumbled upon it in accident. But let’s back up for a second, the game offers a quick travel system to any of the many landmarks about the world. The problem is that the game tells you that 1 brings up your map, but it only does it for the current area so at first assumed could only quick travel through the immediate area. But there is a second option which is hidden in your menus to see the full world map, and you are able to immediately jump between any and all areas as quickly as you want. I’ve seen some complaints that there is no real reason for this in the game, and while I agree it does seem a bit out of place, I’d rather taken the convenience in this instance.

Speaking of the quick travel system, as I said it is tied into the landmarks which you discover. And this is another neat little hook for the game is that it rewards exploration. So each new landmark gives you XP, another spot to teleport to when needed and also serves as your respawn area if you die in battle. While most areas will be found through exploration and side quests, there are some hidden areas that you really need to seek out, but giving XP to the player makes it worth it really. There’s something satisfying about leveling up while just walking around.

A more streamline approach to travel, to questing and even to a day/night cycle are appreciated, but would all be for naught if the game itself wasn’t that good. Luckily, the battle system is perhaps the most engaging aspect of the game.

I honestly don’t play enough RPGs to know what to compare it to, I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to Final Fantasy XII, it feels partially like a Tales of game, and some comparisons can be drawn to an MMO like WoW. It takes many good parts from RPGs to combine it into something special.

The core battle structure is a free movement system. You have direct control of your main character at all times, you can position them wherever you want, and this does play out in your strategy. There are some moves that are more effective from behind or from the side, there are some moves that have status changing abilities depending on where and when you use them so moving around isn’t just for show.

Combat itself works in roughly 2 ½ ways depending on the character. The first is the auto-attack, which your characters will do when they are within range of their target. These attacks are based mostly on the weapon you have equipped, you can also improve the stats and stuff with gems you equip. The second part is the artes, which are the more powerful attacks that is unique to each character. These are controlled by the player (at least for the character you are in control of, though you have some options to pick CPU partners moves at times) and these are the moves that are dependent on location and other status changes. This is also the area of battle you will find the most difference between characters. For example, Shulk is more of a swordsman, but he doesn’t have a lot of HP so you want to attack, but not too much that you draw the attention (aggro) of the enemy. Then you have a magic user later on, who doesn’t really have any physical attacks

instead they are gifted with ability boosters so you want to activate those and hold back as much as possible. Everyone has a role, and depending on who you play as your play style will vary.

Now the ½ is kind of odd to explain because it goes back to being character specific. The ½ refers to everyone’s special ability. For Shulk, its his ability to wield the Monado (the titular sword in some fashion) which serves in many roles. Its an offensive weapon, it can be used to shield your teammates, and its most important task for most of the game is it the only weapon that can harm Mechons. Yeah, there are specific enemies (The main enemies) who can not be harmed by normal weapons so you need the Monado or the Monado ability to grant this power to your party. It does kind of force you to keep Shulk in your party at all times, but he is a well-rounded character.

But for other characters like Reyn (the aforementioned goofy best friend) his special ability is less battle-tested and more focused on drawing the attention of the enemies to him. I would go into others, but would spoil some of the characters and their role. But each is vastly different, which makes some of them more useful than others in my experience.

To that degree, the game tries its best to make every character unique, which is great, but with a 3 man party it sometimes hampers your team dynamic. There are only a handful of characters who have healing abilities for example, but only 2 or 3 of them are really useful for extended periods of time. Then as far as I know, there is only one character who can heal aliments like poison or sleep, and its useful at times, but don’t always need to keep in party. Its really difficult to have a well-rounded team, but usually any combination you come up with will have a winning strategy as long as the computer isn’t completely brain-dead.

The game also caters more to melee than long-distance/magical abilities. There are some in the game but pretty much divided up amongst two characters, and both have their uses but its such a small element of the game.

There are spike/auras that certain enemies have. So for example in the latter half of the game, a lot of enemies deal damage when attacked while toppled. There are ways to combat this either using gems or with the two characters who are able to temporarily remove auras from enemies. This also works the other way, as you can equip your team with gems to create some auras. It can be a bit frustrating since you don’t have direct control over your teammates, they will control to attack an enemy even when it does massive damage to their own health.

Finally, the review started off by taking about the control of one’s destiny. Going with that theme, the game introduces “visions”. These occur usually when an enemy/boss is about to do massive damage/deal death to a party member. You are able to see what the move is and who it is targeting. The game then give you a window (about 10-15 seconds in general) to do whatever you can to alter this vision. In that regard, the game gives you a lot of control on dealing with the problem. The most immediate way of course would be to take out the enemy before they defeat your teammate. If that isn’t an option, you can get them to focus on a teammate who will be able to withstand the brunt of the attack or heal the teammate they are focused on so they have enough XP to survive. There are also more creative ways to deal with it you can topple a foe, and since they won’t be attacking it breaks or delays the timer, if you have Shulk in your party he can use the

Monado Shield to protect them from a direct attack or to absorb some type of damage. And then there’s the direct approach, one of the few times the game gives you control over the other party members as you are able to “Warn” them of impending attack and pick some type of counter.

The final option is tied into the Burst meter, which is a gauge at the top of the screen that has three bars. It is filled while attacking enemies but also when you get a Burst affinity during battle, which is triggered when you do an impressive move if you time it correctly you get some burst and help build the affinity of the characters in the party. The gauge is shared between 3 main tasks. The first as mentioned already is it allows you to “Warn” your teammates during a “Vision” phase. The second is you need a fill slot of the meter filled to revive a teammate. This is also important because even if the human controlled player is KO’ed the battle will control if you have enough for one of the CPU to revive you, if you don’t the battle will automatically end. The third and final thing needs a full meter, and when full you are able to do a Chain Attack, which can do massive damage in one go to the enemy(ies) if used properly.

That is the offensive aspect of battle, there are still several other key points to the system. One is the gem-system. This is like the badge system in the Paper Mario series (I told you don’t play many RPGs). They augment your characters abilities and stats. Some are used to expand your HP, your defense, some make you stronger, some cause aliments to your enemies and the likes. There are several ways to obtain them, you get some through completing side quests. Bosses/unique monsters tend to drop them. But the mass majority of them will be created by you.

During your adventures, you’ll gather stones and elements that you can use in the game’s crafting system to form special gems. Now completing the game and making hundreds of gems, I can tell you I’m still not 100% on how the gem system works, but I do know its tied into your characters’ affinity for one another and the strength of the elements you are using to make the gems anyhow. You can pretty much brute force it by the end and get some fairly great results. I was stacking up on level VI gems with no problem. The system just has too many things working for it for a mini-game really.

It may sound like a lot, but the battle system is so well thought out that you never really feel overwhelmed in battle. Most of the time, you can find an effective strategy and stick to it for the majority of an area. And none of the elements are too random or too chaotic to the point of not making you feel like you are in control.

Battles are all on the maps, and for the most part you can choose to engage or ignore enemies as you see fit. There are some exceptions, and there are signs to deal with. Some enemies for example will engage in battle with sound so if you aren’t careful about sneaking past them, they will attack first. Others are based on sight, and the range seems to vary, and there is final group who is attracted to the use of magic/ether so you have to be wary who is nearby when you start a battle.

The battle system holds up well over the course of the 100 hours, and its helped by the variety of creatures you fight along the way. While there are some repeat models, there are enough unique ones in each area that you never feel like you are trudging along in the world.

The enemy design though isn’t always Xenoblade’s strongest point, actually that could be said for some of the graphics. Overall, the package does look remarkable, but there are some moments that make you yearn for this game to be in HD. Usually, it deals with the characters themselves. The models and designs are pretty cool, though I question their choice clothing. It just appears that the models are wearing items that are flat textures on top of their designs, and its distracting especially during cutscenes.

Much like Zelda, the ground textures and some of the more confined environments also look rough, but aren’t awful.

On the other hand, what the game lacks in pure HD goodness, it makes up for with a solid art style. There are some fantastic looking environments in this game, and the scope of some of the areas is quite the feat. The day/night cycle also comes into play with the environments. Not only do they each have their own cycle, but some of them even feature some unique features during either time frame. One of the latter environments, is just a feast for the eyes when it hits night, and the music that accompanies it is just fantastic as well.

The music is something to behold as well in this game with most tracks just fitting like a glove. Even the battle music, which you’ll hear often never becomes stale. Actually, the game does a great job with that as it features several different battle themes. There’s a boss/unique monster theme, and the actual battle music changes depending on where you are in the game.

Finally, the game features full-on voice acting, and since this game was localized by Nintendo of Europe, the cast is full of British voice actors. It is a refreshing change of pace for video games. The cast is fun and likeable, and the voices make it seem a bit more exotic because they all have accents, which is just great. Some may be turned off by the repeated lines the characters utter during battle, but I guess only so much witty banter one can record.

Recommendation: Buy It- Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t without its share of tropes, but one man’s tropes is another staple. The game manages to streamline a lot of bloat and tedium associated with the genre, and it does make for a refreshing experience. It is one of the most solid RPG to come out the gates in some time, and is worth buying if you are a fan of the genre.

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