October 19, 2011

Xenoblade Chronicles: You say Monado, I say Monado.

Mechonis vs Bionis

Editor’s note: Xenoblade Chronicles is not currently available in North America at the time of this writing. Paul’s review is based on an imported copy of the game.

Guys, this is a tough review for me to write. If you’ve listened to VGH #20, then you heard me gushing over how incredible Xenoblade is. As a fan of the genre I was absolutely floored that a developer could release a modern day JRPG that dismissed the conventions of yesteryear while also updating its gameplay mechanics to be more in line with the modern day gamer’s tastes. Why did it take me so long to write the review?  Xenoblade is absolutely MASSIVE. I wanted to write this review when I was a “paltry” 50 hours into the game, since I figured I’ve nothing more to see and I had a pretty firm grasp on what the rest of the game was going to be like. D.J. was awesome enough to suggest that I complete the game before reviewing it, so I took his advice to heart. When all was said and done, it took me roughly 75 hours to complete.

Word on the Internet is that is that Xenoblade is the best JRPG to come out in a decade. It’s the savior of the genre. On Metacritic, It’s the 6th highest rated game in Wii history with a 93 overall, eclipsed only by the likes of Super Mario Galaxy and other Nintendo staples.

For a while there, I thought that I was going to feel the exact same way as majority of people that have played Xenoblade. But if you need a sound bite that sums everything up nicely, Xenoblade Chronicles is a masterpiece that never was. Just a fair warning folks, Xenoblade is a massive game, and even without delving into everything I want to talk about, this review is going to run a little longer than our usual fare.

Lets start at the beginning. Xenoblade has one of the most ambitious, unique and enthralling game universes I’ve ever seen in my entire life. The game begins with a brief battle between two mountain-sized titans (as opposed to regular-sized titans of course). These titans form the base of the Xenoblade world, literally. In what I consider to be one of the most creative ways a developer can instill a feeling of scope (remember that word, it may come up a lot), the protagonist Shulk and his friends, actually live on one of these titans. Right from the get go, you’re reminded of just how tiny and insignificant you are compared to the titan you live on, Bionis. The overall plot starts up simple enough. Those two titans at the beginning of the game?

Well, they actually entered into a stalemate after their epic battle. Both titans went into a dormant state, and all of the lifeforms that evolved on Bionis and Mechonis (the EVIL, mechanical titan) have been locked in a brutal war for survival, essentially carrying the mantle of their creators. It’s a very old sci-fi trope. Humans vs Machine. Sometimes a simple plot works brilliantly, and in Xenoblade it works just fine until the final portion of the game where suddenly the developers decided to go into full blown “boy’s manga” mode. Hey, don’t take my word for it. Just watch this behind the scenes interview with the main man behind Xenoblade, Tetsuya Takahashi. Don’t worry, it is spoiler free. So yeah, I might not be the target audience for this game since my manga library is pretty thin, hint: it is non-existent except for the 4 volumes of Akira a friend accidentally forgot at my house 10 years ago, I’m still waiting for him to pick them up.

But I digress, I was really enjoying the main plot in Xenoblade up until this strange shift into manga mode. For the record, I spent approximately 15 hours of this game swimming in ridiculous plot twists, evil villains twisting their metaphorical mustaches and ridiculous one-liners explaining how Shulk and his friends will overcome all obstacles using friendship and love and other ridiculous notions. I have no idea what the hell happened, but the plot completely fell apart for me and it was a significant detriment to my enjoyment of Xenoblade. By the way, those behind the scenes interview with Mr. Takahashi (part 1 here) really shed some light on the priorities of the development team. I’m just going to come out and say it, if it wasn’t for the sheer quality of the rest of the game, Xenoblade would be nothing more than a throwaway title. That sounds harsh, and it is, but the fact of the matter is, if I’m going to invest 75 hours of my time in ONE game, and one of the focuses of that genre is an epic narrative, then it damn well better hold up from start to finish. I’m absolutely crushed that the Xenoblade plot fell apart so hard, and so fast, and it wasn’t just a blip. It was roughly 15 bloody hours.

Gaur Plains concept art

The flip side is that if the plot was half as good as the rest of the game, we’d have that masterpiece that people are claiming this title is, and you know what, some people probably enjoy the plot, and that’s great! However, I didn’t enjoy a large portion of it, and I owed it to you to explain why.

Now, that “rest of the game”, is simply incredible. It really is. Xenoblade boasts one of the most complete game soundtracks I’ve heard in years. The music is absolutely sublime, and I think it will have a permanent spot in my gaming soundtrack library next to such pantheons of the genre like the Final Fantasy soundtracks or the Chrono Trigger soundtrack. The rich and varied sounds of Xenoblade perfectly encapsulate the moment at hand. Yoko Shimomura’s masterful compositions lend a whimsical and comforting tone to her tracks. ACE+ put together an incredible compilation of rocking and bad ass guitar riffs for some of the more monumental battles. I’d never even heard of ACE+ until this game and they have quickly vaulted to the top of my “must watch” list of game music composers. Also lending their talents are Manami Kiyota and my personal favourite game composer of all time, Yasonuri Mitsuda, who composed the fantastic ending theme. The sheer scope and range of the music is a sight to behold (so to speak), and stands as one of the brightest highlights of my Xenoblade experience. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of game music specifically, you owe yourself a listen to this one.

It is sheer poetry to see how the Xenoblade world comes together in such a cohesive vision.

Xenoblade is also one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen. The only thing that could have made the game prettier would be if it was in full HD, but that probably would have bankrupt the developer. It’s no secret that creating HD visuals is an expensive portion of a development budget so it was probably wise that Monolith Soft released this game on the Wii. It would have never finished production if it was an HD title. The sheer brilliance of the art direction is really quite special. When I first ventured into the Gaur Plains section of the game (the Bionis’ knee for those of you keeping score), I literally gasped. I had just spent the last hour spelunking through a claustrophobia-inducing cave, so when I emerged to this incredibly vast and open field and ACE+’s incredible composition kicked into high gear, my breath was taken away. I was moved.

Clearly, the development’s team soul went into constructing these superbly designed areas. I haven’t had so much fun exploring a game world since, well… I can’t even think of the last time I had such fun simply running around exploring every nook and cranny. Also, it was really great to receive tangible rewards in the form of experience and ability points for exploring the game world and finding hidden areas. One particular aspect of the art direction that I really appreciated was the subtle (or not so subtle) design decision to let the player see their final destination from almost all of the exterior locations of the Bionis. From many of these exterior locations, if you look far off into the distance you’ll see the looming figure of the Mechonis, like a distant celestial body in the heavens. It is sheer poetry to see how the Xenoblade world comes together in such a cohesive vision.

Unfortunately, the gameplay mechanics of Xenoblade did not coalesce in harmony like some of the other aspects of the game. I must quickly note that thankfully Monolith Soft deliberately eschewed standard JRPG conventions and built the game around more contemporary RPG design schemes. However, their approach to this paradigm led to some major issues with the game feeling very bloated.

So much inventory.....

For example, the quest system follows a standard MMO style where you go to a central hub location, talk to various NPCs and then adventure off into an area and kill 5 bunnies for Mary the Sous Chef. The game boasts well over 450 different quests, more than enough for even the most die hard of Elder Scrolls fans. That might sound like a lot of content, but in reality the variety of quests is really quite poor. It was fun slaughtering enemies for 30 hours or so, but after that it did start to get on my nerves because I never really felt any connection with these NPCs I was killing stuff for. Sadly, I am here to inform you all that indeed, you can only kill so many rabbits before you’re nothing more than a bunnicidal maniac.

The game also features an “affinity” chart, detailing the connections between various NPCs and your party members. My poor summary of the affinity system is: depending on which quests you do you can boost the affinity between say a mother and son, by helping poor old mom convince her son to do his chores. If you succeed, mom will love Timmy a little bit more and down the road you may be able to do a quest for little Timmy. Completing quests also has a nice side benefit of boosting affinity between your party members. Members with a higher affinity will fight more effectively together so it was great to see another tangible benefit to an entirely optional portion of the game.

In keeping with the rest of the gameplay’s obvious influence from MMOs, the game’s battle system is more in-line with a game like World of Warcraft than an old school Dragon Quest game. You control one of seven characters and the AI will very deftly handle your partners, and parties are maxed out at total of 3. Once you engage in battle, your character will automatically attack enemies, allowing you to focus on setting up combos by using one of your 9 available special abilities on your command bar at the bottom of the screen. For the most part, the majority of the battles are actually quite fun and brisk and I was also very happy that some of the longer boss battles kept me on my toes and felt like real epic fights. I’m someone that tends to stick with what works, so I didn’t fuss with my party’s makeup too much, but many of the characters will fall into standard MMO archetypes like “tank”, “damage dealer” and so on. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel compelled to use two of the seven available characters unless I felt they were absolutely needed for specific boss fights. That was merely my personal play style, and isn’t at all a knock against the game! In fact, in a hilarious form of irony, the two characters I never wanted to use, are widely considered to be borderline overpowered by people that have spent far more time with Xenoblade than I have!

Look, I could go on and on about some of the finer details of Xenoblade and if you’ve read this far into the review, I appreciate your dedication! There are so many more things I could talk about, like the gem crafting system, skill tree links, the excellent voice work, the major side quest to rebuild a city and how poorly it was implemented, the hilariously cumbersome inventory system and on and on. This game is massive in scope and I can’t help but think that it tries to do too much and instead of doing a few things with a masterful stroke, it ends up doing some things exceptionally well, and other things very, very poorly. What really made me sad is that if  the development team had just tightened things up instead of trying to do so much, this game could have been an absolute masterpiece.

Clearly the story completely fell apart for me, and that’s just a matter of taste. Honestly if I was 16, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more. Part of me appreciates that there is so much content here, and that you can spend 270 hours with this game were you so inclined. But at this stage of my life, I’d much rather play a 40 hour game that is mind blowing from start to finish instead of a game that features hundreds of hours of content. Let’s be honest here, if a game offers hundreds of hours of content, a lot of it is probably “grinding” in nature. That holds no appeal to me.

Stunning concept art

I absolutely adore the art direction, and really, the entire Xenoblade universe is simply incredible. But I cannot get over the fact that I started to feel really bored near the end of the game, and my only motivation for completing it was so I could see the ending and just be done with the game. It’s incredible just how high I was on this game at first and just how low I felt when I was done.

What the hell happened? I think I know, and the answer scares me a lot.

I think that my favourite genre of the last 16 years, the JRPG… might be completely dead to me. My taste in games has changed over the years, and JRPGs simply haven’t kept up. Xenoblade is definitely a step in the right direction, but it stumbles far too much for me to consider it anything other than a really solid game with some fundamental flaws.

Note: Since this review ran way too long and I didn’t even cover a lot of things I wanted to discuss, please feel free to ask me about them in the comments. If you take the time to ask, I will most certainly do my best to answer any questions you might have, as best I can.

 


Score: 3 out of 5

3 out of 5

Recommended if you like:

* Over 200 hours of gameplay! (especially if you don’t mind if things get a little repetitive or “grind-y”)
* Sexy British accents.
* Your party members wearing thongs and swim trunks in battle.
* Extremely ambitious and creative art direction combined with fantastic music.
* Final Fantasy 12, World of Warcraft

Highlights:

* Gaur Plains. Absolutely beautiful.
* A certain boss battle that lasted over 30 minutes, and was fun from start to finish.
* Choosing my 30 pieces of helmet to carry over into a New Game+.

Title: Xenoblade Chronicles [Wii]
Developer: Monolith Soft (Twitter: @Monolithsoft)
Publisher: Nintendo (Twitter: @NintendoAmerica)
Release Date: 8/16/11 (EU region)

Xenoblade Chronicles in the Amazon UK store

Xenoblade Chronicles was purchased for review by Paul Sandhu. Played to completion in roughly 75 hours, and approximately 10,000 bunnies were killed in the making of this review. For more info on how VGH approaches game reviews, please read our reviews philosophy.

 

 

  • zenprime

    Leporidical Manic. Rabbits belong to the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha (had to look it up, thought it was the other way around).

    And on being “done” with JRPGs, I’m in the same boat I think. Though I want to want to enjoy JRPGs, I have to wonder is this a cultural thing, merely a change in tastes, or a refusal/inability to change. This would make for an interesting roundtable discussion I think. Has your stance on Nintendo not releasing this in NA has changed because of your experience of playing Xenoblade?

    • http://vghangover.com Paul Sandhu

      Thanks for the correction Zen, I may have to edit the review to reflect the correct family of species that I helped wipe out.

      It’s funny that you mention you’re in the same boat regarding JRPGs in general. I’ve come across a lot of people that grew up loving the genre but are increasingly disconnected from it now, and yes it would make a fantastic round table discussion!

      Funny thing, my stance on Nintendo not releasing the game here in NA is actually even stronger now. There is definitely an audience for this type of game, it just so happens that I don’t think I fall into it. Also Xenoblade really is a step in the right direction in terms of pure design. It just really fell flat in terms of narrative and a stumbled in a few places due to sheer bloat.

      I *highly* recommend that people watch those behind the scenes interviews that I link to in the review. They really shed to light what the design philosophy of development team was (summary: the game universe was the most important thing, and the narrative was essentially an afterthought).

  • Cillianfloood

    Out of curiosity what point did the story fall apart for you?

    • spaulsandhu

      It’s been a long time since I’ve touched Xenoblade but if I recall things really started to go downhill about 4-5 hours after I moved on from the Eryth Sea section of the game.

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