Xenoblade Chronicles Review

We’re honest here at the ‘plante, so we can say straight out: Xenoblade Chronicles didn’t exactly get us giddy and excited. Having played Xenogears a fair while ago, we were immediately Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) haters. We never got the genre in its entirety, and realistically, we’re not sure we ever will.

But that brings us to Xenoblade Chronicles. We’re not entirely sure this game will convert us into JRPG fans, but holy crap does it ever try.

The first thing you feel from Chronicles is an overwhelming sense of story and lineage. Somehow, the game’s developers manage to cram a historical weight into a game that is really only hindered by its lack of powerful hardware beneath the hood. It is very clear that the adventure you’re about to embark on is one of importance and one of great prestige. It reminds us of the original Pokemon series when Ash first leaves Professor Oak’s Lab.

The pacing in the game is probably the first thing we should note. From our experience (which admittedly is not much), JRPGs tend to be painfully difficult and overtly challenging. While Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t the easiest game we’ve ever played, it’s not as sharp a jab to our gamer egos as we expected before popping the disc in. There is also a ton of stuff to do here – four hundred or so side quests – so the pacing needed to be right. We’re not saying we did (or even attempted) all the side quests, but kudos to the development team at Nintendo for not making it seem like this game was quite as big as it actually is.

The storyline is the next feast of magic. Sure, you might say that it’s been done before, what with a lone hero that is the only one who can possibly save the world from a mysterious evil. And you’d be right, it has been done before. But honestly, if any one of the characters could be the one to save the world, where’s the tension? Where’s the need to fight? There you go.

Now, while Chronicles does a lot of service to existing trends of RPG games, it isn’t all bad. The developers didn’t seem too concerned with getting far away from some of the typical cliches you see in JRPGs. For one thing, you’re not stuck in a straight line through the whole game. Even games like Grand Theft Auto IV felt contrived and linear at some points, but something about Chronicles makes us feel like it really is up to us which way we progress in the game. Sure, the game ends up virtually the same way in the end either way, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel that way, which is something extremely difficult to accomplish.

The game does hold on to a few too many of the “collecting” mechanics we’ve seen much of in games lately. For example, the grounds will be just spattered with junk to collect, and it’s tedious and annoying having to collect it all. Animals are the same thing; they’re everywhere, which can be good for training and sparring, but when you’re just trying to get from one area to the next, it can get more than a little tiresome. Remember the tension of going through a patch of grass in Cerulean City in the original Pokemon series when you already at the end of the game? Now you’ll see.

But these gripes are hardly even gripes. The game may be rife with collectables, but at the end of the day, that’s what makes Xenoblade Chronicles a great JRPG. Without it, the game would be just a game.

The balance in the game beyond this collecting is what truly makes it shine. You’ll end up splitting your time between fighting and exploration so that neither game mechanic ever really has a chance to get stale. It would be very easy for one element or the other to take over given that the game offers nearly two-weeks of full time gameplay (that’s eighty hours for the unemployed out there), but the developers manage to balance out the mechanics so well that it’s never contrived and always seems smooth.

The biggest part of one of those oh-so-well-balanced mechanics – the fighting, that is – is the Monado. This ancient weapon not only provides tons of offensive power as one might expect, but it also allows its user to see the future, the latter of which is of course key to a game with the word Chronicles in its title. The Monado quite frankly makes the entire game what it is. The blade is an incredible storyteller all by itself, even if only because it shows you so many things you can not undo that you try even harder to make it as if you can. Every time you use the Monado to change something, you’ll certainly see something that is about to happen that you have, no matter how much you try, zero control over. And damn if that isn’t an insane trade-off.

There’s an odd bit of science fiction in the way some things work. If you actually pay attention to what’s going on, the world you’re traversing is actually the frozen remains of two robots stuck in some sort of death grip. They’ve been frozen (fossilized?) for so long that they’ve become overgrown with natural land, grass, and animals. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition between beautiful nature and sharp-edged man-made beings, but man is it ever bizarre.

Voice acting in Chronicles is the last thing we ever expected to enjoy, but suffice it to say that we did. It wasn’t exactly something that would make or break the game – just make it less palatable – but it is good to see so much attention was put into making sure it was done right. Don’t get too greedy and expect that the dialog actually matches the movements of the characters’ lips, but be thankful the audio is as good as it is.

This is a massive game with so much to do that you really should take a look at it if you have any sort of desire for a role-playing game whatsoever. Visually, it’s not an Xbox 360 game, but that’s not Nintendo’s mandate. They’ve said it from the beginning that gameplay is more important than graphics, and Xenoblade Chronicles proves it.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a game about the details, and even the little ones have been superbly thought out. Right down to the box art. Almost a year ago, Nintendo let users vote on their favourite design for the inside of the game’s sleeve. The winner was put into print, and makes the game a beautiful collectable on your shelf. Sad thing is that the cover doesn’t look nearly as good with the case closed, but it would be a beautiful piece to have in a frame hanging on your wall.

The beautiful inside cover of Xenoblade Chronicles.

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