The western release of Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those wonderful moments where gamers came together to bring about an absolute good. This niche JRPG was never planned to reach a worldwide audience, but a group known as Operation Rainfall came together to show Nintendo that this game could easily achieve a positive reception in the west. It’s hard to believe what now seems the definitive JRPG of the seventh console generation required an audience to beg for its release – if only such a plan could have worked to bring over the still missing Mother 3.
Xenoblade Chronicles feels like the one game to really capitalize upon Final Fantasy XII’s example as a bridge between the traditional and MMO RPG experience. Each new area is simply massive with tons of minor quests to fulfill. With some areas blocked off by high-levelled enemies, there’s always encouragement to come back later. This game is simply loaded with content from beginning to end and perfectly establishes an expectation for more.
More than just the size, these areas are simply beautiful. Stepping onto the Gaur Plains for the first time is breathtaking, with all its jutting rock formations and roaming packs of rhino-like Armus. The bioluminescent glow and eternal fog of Satorl Marsh creates a dreamlike quality. Throughout many of these areas, the titanic Mechonis looms in the background. This game is set on the bodies of two dormant giants, a world truly like no other.
While most modern JRPG games have avoided random encounters, the way in which Xenoblade Chronicles handles this aspect is quite inventive. Some enemies will chase down the heroes on sight, while others go on sound and can be snuck by with care, while others will respond only when a nearby member of their species is attacked. Thus, many late game areas can be navigated purely by watching your step around the enemies. Meanwhile, enemies six levels lower than the party simply won’t engage on their own, making older areas easier to navigate. There are enough quests which provide experience that the player will never have to grind – in my most recent playthrough, there was never an area I entered under-leveled. This game is perfectly paced.
The gameplay feels like a perfect midpoint between turn-based and action combat. Like FF12, the characters are set to auto-attack every couple seconds, but they also come loaded with special moves. Shulk’s abilities highlight the way positioning works in this game. Two of his attacks only work to their full potential from the side, while another works from behind. Meanwhile, enemies choose their targets based on an aggro system related to damage received. Thus, if Shulk is dealing the most damage, the enemy will stay focused on him, resulting in these weaknesses not being exposed. However, Shulk has an ability which temporarily reduces his aggro, which results in them turning their focus to an ally. Thus, most battles revolve around a rhythm of dealing a big early attack, shedding the gained aggro, and then getting a few more hits. Making another teammate specialize in drawing attention is almost essential. Each party member is playable and require their own unique rhythm to function at their full potential. This focus on positioning and timing gives the right oomph to make even basic encounters exciting.
Shulk also has the ability to foresee disaster, which is perfectly integrated into the combat. He can warn allies when an attack is likely to leave them dead or seriously wounded, allowing the player to give a direct command to these otherwise AI-controlled characters. Shulk’s weapon, the Monado, also has several abilities to mitigate these disasters, such as being able to generate shields which reduce certain attacks to nothing. As enemies become more complex, juggling these abilities is both essential and a lot of fun.
Xenoblade Chronicles is defined by constant promises of something bigger and better which it manages to fulfill over and over again. The progression is obvious from the beginning – Shulk and pals start from the bottom of the giant Bionis, climb to the top, and eventually cross over to the other giant, Mechonis. The narrative starts off in a rather familiar place, but the pacing is exceptional enough to make it work, while the second half finally starts going into surprising places. Some moments seem inevitable, but seeing them in action leaves quite an impact.
While several of the party members first appear like standard JRPG fare, little ‘heart to heart’ moments are scattered across the map which flesh out their individual characters. Each pair has several of these moments. It’s simply a nice feature to see the party members interact on their own, without the context of forwarding the central narrative and without necessitating the presence of the protagonist. I knew this game was working a special charm after realizing even the cutesy mascot character had hidden depth.
Xenoblade Chronicles is simply a massive JRPG with a ton of heart and a battle system which remains engaging throughout.