This is a review that has been looming over me for roughly four years now. I originally bought Xenoblade at launch after the participating in Operation Rainfall, planned on reviewing it, but after seventy hours with the game my disc drive broke, and my interest in the game dissolved as complications delayed repairs. So the game was dropped, and I always felt bad for not finishing it. Now, four years later, I decided to replay the game using the Dolphin emulator and an HD texture pack. About a hundred hours afterwards, I really wish I had cleared this game years ago, if only so I wouldn’t have spent the past few weeks rushing to finish it.
Xenoblade Chronicles Review
Platform: Wii (Played using Dolphin Emulator)
Developer: Monolith Soft
The core principle behind the design of Xenoblade was to create a truly vast, expansive, and detailed world that would leave players awestruck at the scale, scope, and magnitude of everything. One that can rely on formula in order to create something that can be seen as an evolution of JRPGs that was unfortunately not seen because of the growing cost of game development and the lack of console support in Japan within recent years. Or at least that’s what I think.
Regardless, Xenoblade Chronicles is centered around a world formed from the corpses of two warring giants, the biological Bionis and mechanical Mechonis, and the ensuing war between the lifeforms of these two worlds. Robots attack humans, along with their furry puffball and wing headed friends, and send a pair of young men on a quest for rusty vengeance with the only weapon that can reliably destroy robots, the legendary Monado.
What follows is pretty basic in regards to what happens throughout the lengthy story, but I nevertheless well executed. Characters are basic, but work well off one another. The villains are downright malicious in some cases, and seal every scene they are featured in. There is enough detail and distinctive elements interspersed into the world to make it remain appealing. Plus, the entire production doe shave a very dramatic and enticing flare to it all, with some rather excellent cutscenes. There really is a lot of heart placed into every facet of the game, and I was genuinely looking forward to what came next along the journey, which does ultimately manifest into something that almost warranted me revisiting this game.
Another factor that drew me into the story was actually the British localization, which interjects a distinct personality to the characters and story due to the presence of certain wording, colloquialisms, and accents that are not very common in the realm of video games, and almost unheard of in this genre. Even putting aside the novelty factor, it is a well done dub that helps inform the characters through their dialog, and somehow manages to avoid being hair pullingly annoying while the cast constantly spout the same lines ad nauseum.
In addition to the main story, Xenoblade also boasts an absurdly oversized cast of minor characters, all with their own basic personalities, questlines, and relationships with other characters. Amounting to over 160 characters and over 400 quests. While impressive, most of these characters are disconnected from the main story, and offer little more than a fairly predictable storyline tied to a mission asking the player to kill monster X, collect item Y, or locate and find person Z.
Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this model, but none of these quests are as streamlined or simple to do as they should be. Incomplete and completed quests are lumped together by default. It can be difficult to remember what monster X, item Y, or person Z are for a given quest based on how disposable they are due to their massive quantities. Plus, the act of locating person Z is made far more difficult than it needs to be due to massive areas, namely the empty park that is the city Alcamoth, and a schedule that characters abide by, only appearing in certain locations at certain times. Their schedules are listed on the massive relationships chart the game provides, but as for their exact location in an area, you just need to remember it yourself or consult an external source.
There’s also weirdly no icon that appears near enemies who you need to kill for a quest, yet if you locate an item needed for a future quest, the game informs you with a flashforward of the character’s name and location. It’s halfway near being a streamlined and fun escapade, but there’s a reason why my favorite series of quests were the ones given by a group of static robots who effectively rewarded you by going through one of the final areas of the game. Because that’s all I really want from quests if you’re going to give me hundreds of them. Not branching questlines that result in different relationships or quests that can be locked out if you want to focus on beating the game first.
Actually, there’s a very odd trend with the final area that I found weirdly preferable to what the game is built around. The innards of the Mechonis are cold industrialized areas to contrast the vibrant landscapes from before, and the environments are now intertwining passageways with comparatively little open space. Which I actually found preferable, and was actually upset when the game opened up afterwards with another wave of side quests.
For as much joy there is to be had in traversing a world that is and feels colossal, the act of trying to do everything in one is just tiring. Which has become my problem with games that boast such a massive scope in recent years, and Xenoblade is no different. It is a boundless world and enjoyable to go through, but after a certain point Xenoblade is more hindered by its scale than it is helped by it. Trying to do everything and explore everything became boring, and I genuinely wish the game were a more compact adventure. A great ten hour game is a better purchase than a good twenty hour game. While a hundred hour game is going to get old no matter how good it is.
I also wish the combat was a bit… different. Taking a page from MMORPGs, Xenoblade’s real time combat system has you auto attacking enemies while using eight Arts limited by a cooldown meter. Meaning you try to switch between them all when appropriate, using your position around an enemy to your advantage and inflicting a series of status conditions while trying to break, topple, and then daze enemies. Occasionally letting out a chain attack or special move for each character.
This system ultimately works, but there really wasn’t really any strategy or variation in my methods. I just used my Arts when they appeared and won. Mostly due to how I was overleveled throughout most of the game due to the quests, which offer a set amount of experience, while enemy experience scales based on your level. This didn’t work during some of the latter parts of the game, where I guess extensive grinding is expected even though the way experience works undermines it, as the difficulty spiked, and there way no way I could compensate for my numbers being lower. Or if there was, I have no idea what it could have been.
Throughout all the time I spent playing the game, I still barely understand what party combinations are truly good, if I’m using the right loadout for Arts, or if I should even pay attention to the affinity system. By putting characters in the same party and pressing B whenever an on-screen prompt appears during battle, you’re rewarded with affinity points, which raise your affinity level.
By doing so several hundred times, and by listening to quest specific dialog, you’re given the ability to share passive skills between characters and access to a series of two character vignettes scattered around the world. A novel idea, but one that ends up discouraging the use of characters with maximized affinity more than anything else, discouraging certain party set ups.
The counterargument to this that pops up in my head is that, “at least the game looks pretty” even though that’s probably just a reflex honed after writing over two hundred game reviews. But that comment is not wrong, as Xenoblade is gorgeous… in a sense. The art direction and vision of the world are appealing, as the Bionis is a vibrantly designed collection of areas with plenty of numerous and interesting designs among both enemies and characters alike. But I am of course playing using an emulated version of the game with a texture pack, antialiasing, and produced at a higher resolution than originally intended. When presented like that, the game is a visual treat.
If I did have something negative to say about it, I would bring up the weird fixation to zoom the camera so far back. I’m more inclined to say a camera is too close, but in Xenoblade, especially at its native resolution, it can be hard to determine what something is, or a character’s design unless you go out of your way to reposition the camera at an awkward angle. Plus, I’d argue that making the characters larger would also make the world feel or at least appear to be larger.
Even though I spent half the review complaining about nebulous things, I still enjoyed Xenoblade quite thoroughly. It is an enjoyable journey that kept me engaged throughout its duration. Yes, the quest system is a massive time waste whose scope demeans its very existence, and I still don’t quite get the combat, assuming there is actually anything to get, but I would be lying if I said I did not have fun with it. It’s a good JRPG that is unique in its world and general execution, one that I’m genuinely glad to have finally finished. But it’s a lot better if breezed through, and I would love to see what the developers could do if they made a smaller, shorter, and more compact game. Maybe with a spiritual successor… Or they could always do the exact opposite.