Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii) review
"Eons ago, two titans clashed in the middle of an endless ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – essentially the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought each other for reasons unknown. Neither side prevailed; locked in an eternal stalemate, both beings eventually died with their bodies petrified in mid-battle stances. Rather than succumbing to the ravages of time, their corpses gradually became a new world. Forests, valleys, whole civilizations grew on top of the fallen ..."
Eons ago, two titans clashed in the middle of an endless ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – essentially the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought each other for reasons unknown. Neither side prevailed; locked in an eternal stalemate, both beings eventually died with their bodies petrified in mid-battle stances. Rather than succumbing to the ravages of time, their corpses gradually became a new world. Forests, valleys, whole civilizations grew on top of the fallen gods. The mythical battle between the ancients has trickled down into the modern world; the human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of sentient killing machines. As the casualties and chaos escalate, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors are in dire need of a miracle.
Instead, they get Shulk.
He doesn’t look or act heroic. He has neither the physical capability of a soldier nor the wisdom of his war-weary elders. He’s a quiet, introverted researcher who would rather study than go adventuring. He’s far more interesting than his friend Reyn, who begins as a thickheaded, muscle-bound stereotype. Shulk’s naivete makes him – and setting itself – much more believable. He is an unlikely bystander who gets swept up in a war, endures, and gradually evolves into a savior. Despite the creative background, the plot is dragged down by cliches and predictable twists. For some reason, Shulk is destined to wield the Monado, a legendary sword and the sole weapon capable of slaying Mechon. While he doesn’t have amnesia, his background is questionable at best. His plan is to team up with Reyn and avenge their homeland by destroying a particularly evil robot. The revenge angle is overused, but at least the game does a decent job of getting the player emotionally involved; the villains are sadistic and difficult to kill, making confrontations more satisfying. The story doesn’t become interesting until the second half, but the steady pacing and healthy doses of character development keep it bearable.
Shulk starts his crusade with only a basic understanding of how to fight. His move set is little more than awkward slashes and stabs. Rather than focusing on finesse and variety, the combat revolves around positioning, ability buffs, and teamwork. Battles take place in real-time, but attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s really easy to frantically button mash through all of the skills and leave characters wide open for the slaughter. Instead, you have to carefully pace your offensive while using it as effectively as possible. One move might be more damaging if you hit your target from the side, as opposed to the back or front. Some enemies can’t even be hurt until they’re brought down with the Break and Topple maneuvers. With each successful critical hit, you’ll build up a morale meter that can be spent on reviving fallen party members. If you build up enough morale, the heroes can initiate a Chain Attack, which allows you to choose specific moves for each character and dish out extra damage. This system is not only easy to learn, but it’s absolutely vital; the AI-controlled characters are rarely reliable in terms of complex strategy and tend to ignore status effects. Shulk can occasionally warn someone of an impending attack and let them decide what move use, but it’s inconsistent at best. You’ll have to split your focus between keeping your teammates alive and killing everything else. Such limitations are annoying and make fights needlessly difficult. Had there been more ways to modify behaviors or choose abilities, the battles would have been far less tedious.
It’s the adventure itself that keeps you hooked. Revenge aside, Shulk’s journey involves wandering around the two continents, taking on hundreds of side-quests, and killing random creatures along the way. Unlike most recent RPGs, Xenoblade discards linear design in favor of open-ended exploration. The sheer amount of places to find is staggering. Not only does the game let you discover new areas on your own, but it rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for doing so. There’s almost no penalty for getting hurt in-battle; health regenerates quickly, inventories and stats remain unhindered, and you’ll re-spawn nearby if you die. This design allows you to tackle the game at your own pace; it’s easy to spend over a hundred hours uncovering every last feature. There’s even an ability to warp to any previously visited landmark, thus eliminating tons of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed a new area or missed something necessary to finish a quest. Those jobs are usually nothing more than slaying enough monsters or collecting pickups, but they go a long way towards obtaining new gear and boosting affinity-based relationships between party members. Given the amount of item crafting, trading, collectibles, leveling up skills, and other features, there are plenty of reasons to take your time and get lost in Xenoblade’s world.
The game isn’t huge in terms of just content, either. The Bionis and Mechonis are absolutely massive in scale. Even a bustling, fully fleshed-out colony is little more than a dot on the leg of one of the behemoths. Depending on your location, you can look up into the sky and see parts of their corpses looming on the horizon. Wandering off the beaten path often results in the discovery of gorgeous vistas and locales. The unusual nature of the setting allows for more fantastical designs; you can see the multicolored haze drifting through a murky bog, or how lush forests and valleys follow the curvature of the continents’ body parts. Regardless of where you roam, you’ll always find some form of life. An open plain usually provides an assortment of low-leveled creatures to help rack up experience points, but you’ll often find an obscenely powerful monstrosity lurking somewhere nearby. You don’t even have to fight; if you keep your distance, you get through many areas without having to raise a sword. It gives the impression that the world is a cohesive, living whole as opposed to a structured and linear journey. Unfortunately, things don’t look quite so good close-up; the texturing is muddy, the characters’ models are blocky, facial expressions are bland at best. Such shortcomings are forgivable, though. Xenoblade pushes the console to its limits, and the stunning results are more enough make up for its faults.
It’s fitting, in a way. Both the Wii and the JRPG genre have both been practically forgotten over the past few years. But by coming together, they’ve created one of the most memorable and engaging titles in recent memory. Xenoblade takes several established concepts and uses them in more productive ways. The game is designed to reward players for their curiosity; it not only allows you to explore at your own pace, but it encourages you to do so. With hundreds of side-quests and other features to uncover, there’s always something to do and see. For all its creativity, the story becomes overshadowed by the vast scope of the adventure itself. Shulk’s revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Xenoblade lets you go along for the ride and discover it all, one amazing experience at time. When was the last time you got lost?
Community review by disco (May 28, 2012)
Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.
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