My relationship with Xenoblade Chronicles started at my local Game Stop. Having acquired a Wii for the first time just a few months prior, I was looking for a game or two to round out my collection—something without Mario or Link on the cover. Hidden among the myriad of Nintendo games was one I’d never heard of before. On its cover was a peaceful grassy meadow with a bright red sword stuck in the ground, and an ancient-looking titan looming in the background. It wasn’t the cover art that caught my attention, however, nor was it the subconscious connection I made to the much-heralded PS2 title Shadow of the Colossus. No, the thing that caught my eye was the price tag: this two-year old Wii game was being sold at a price of $55.00, used! How was it possible? A Wii game I’d never even heard of couldn’t possibly be worth that much, even if it were a rare title. I checked the internet for background information and learned that the game was actually released in Japan in 2010, localized in Europe in 2011, and finally brought to the USA in 2012 through the efforts of a grassroots campaign known as Operation: Rainfall (which also managed to bring The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower across the pond as well, making for a nice trifecta of Wii RPGs right at the end of its lifespan). A limited number of copies were shipped over initially, and only GameStop was selling them, hence the high price tag. The clerk reassured me, however, that Xenoblade was hands-down the best RPG on the Wii, and one of the best he’d ever played. Intrigued enough, I opted to give it a go despite the hefty cost.
To say I got my money’s worth would be a gross understatement.
Playing Xenoblade Chronicles was a revelation; a breath of fresh air after drowning in the sea of mediocrity called Modern RPGs. Right off the bat, Xenoblade sets itself apart from its peers. The game takes place on the petrified bodies of two god-like behemoths, the Bionis and the Mechonis (that colossus on the game cover is the Mechonis). The Bionis is home to carbon-based life forms such as the Homs (humans), while the Mechonis is the land of the machines known as Mechon. After decades of peace between the two continents, the Mechon launch an attack on the peoples of Bionis, and most of the game revolves around fighting back and discovering why they attacked in the first place. Much focus is also given to the titular blade, the Monado (the red sword pictured on the box cover). The Monado is the only sword capable of harming Mechon, and can grant its wielder visions of the future, though it ends up destroying anyone who wields it long enough, with the exception of the main character. Discovering the mystery behind the sword is a quest that will last the entire game, which itself takes an average of 80 hours to complete (before sidequests, which pushes that number into triple-digits).
The story is compelling enough, but the gameplay is the true highlight of Xenoblade. The world of Bionis is huge in scale, with a variety of lands to explore that take you from a city set over a lake surrounded by cliffs, to a snowy crystalline mountain with ice arches that soar overhead, to an ocean with islands that float above its surface. Exploring the game world is one the best parts of Xenoblade, and while some of the regions are truly vast (some can take close to half an hour of real time to cross on foot), the game does a great job of making it easy and encouraging. There are a handful of landmarks in every area, and not only do you get experience points every time you discover one for the first time, but you can also use them to fast travel across the map. There are also Secret Areas in every region which award higher experience points, and are usually involved in a side-quest of some sort. And it helps that each area is absolutely gorgeous; watching Gaur Plains open up in front of me for the first time will be a moment I remember for a long time, and seeing Satorl Marsh at night literally made me stop and look in awe. It’s an incredible feat to do all of this on the Wii console, and while the actual graphics and character models are admittedly outdated, the art direction helps to make this one of the most visually impressive games on the console.
Top: Run free across Gaur Plains; Middle: you can actually swim right up to those falls; Bottom: The sunset makes for a dramatic shot of the Mechonis
The characters of Xenoblade start out stereotypical enough, though as the story moves along, they all grow and develop in satisfying ways. There’s Shulk, the main character; Reyn, a big, burly, act-first-think-later soldier in the defense force, and Fiora, his will-they-or-won’t-they love interest. They’re later joined by Fiora’s older brother Dunban (the original wielder of the Monado), a field medic named Sharla, a member of the High Entia race named Melia, and a Nopon named Riki. Together, they make for a compelling team, though one that might feel a bit too familiar to veteran JRPG players.
It’s worth it to invest in their character development, however, because the benefits are plentiful. Party members gain affinity points the more they interact with each other, either by completing quests together, helping each other in battle, or in game events called Heart-to-Hearts, which help give development and backstory for each character. A better affinity between party members means greater battle success, more access to Heart-to-Hearts, and higher quality gems (which can be attached to equipment to raise specific stats). Each character also has specific passive skills that help boost effects in and out of battle, and these skills can be shared between team members; the higher the affinity between characters, the more skills can be shared amongst them. Getting to know your battle party has never been so rewarding!
Xenoblade takes a lot of inspiration from MMORPGs when it comes to the battle system. As you enter a battle, you control only one of your three party members. The enemy will lock onto one of the party members (usually the one dealing the most damage), while the others are free to position themselves around the enemy. Each character has a unique palette of battle techniques, called Arts, which they can choose from. Once an Art is chosen, it can’t be used until its cool down timer reaches zero; if no Art is chosen, the character does basic melee auto attacks. Some arts do more damage or have an added effect when used from a certain position; as you might expect, Shulk’s Back Slash Art does much more damage when performed behind an enemy. The general goal of battle is to have the party members work together and use a combo of attacks that will cause an enemy to become Dazed, thus disallowing it to attack for a long period of time. In order to become dazed, an enemy must first be toppled; in order to be toppled, a party member must inflict the status Break. Performing this combo is a staple of the battle system, and those who truly master it can break the game, defeating foes dozens of levels higher than they are.
Aside from the Break/Topple/Daze combo, there’s also the Party Gauge. There are three sections of the gauge to fill; as attacks hit, they help fill each section, with positional attacks filling it up more. When one section is completed, a party member who has been knocked out can be revived (this is the only way to do so, as there are no healing items in the game), and when all three sections are full, the party can perform a Chain Attack. Chain Attacks function as Xenoblade’s answer to Final Fantasy’s Limit Breaks, with each party member taking a turn using an Art without being interrupted by the enemy. The higher the affinity between party members, the more turns the Chain Attack will allow. In addition, the Monado grants Shulk the ability to see visions of powerful attacks before they happen, allowing the party to try and counter them. The battle system is one of the most innovative and addictive parts of the game, one that takes nearly the entire run to master.
The thing that truly sets Xenoblade apart from its competitors, though, is how much effort is put into making the game-playing experience as pleasant as possible. You can save anywhere at any time, and change the in-game 24-hour clock to whichever time you need it to be. Old RPG mainstays like random battles and grinding are not present here; not only can each and every enemy in the area be seen, but with all the experience gained from questing and exploring, there’s little need to battle them unless you want to. If you’re knocked out in battle, the only ill effect is being transported back to the last visited landmark; all of your money and possessions remain untouched. Side quests can be a mixed bag, however; while some of them are superlative, others can truly be a pain sometimes, with nameless NPCs piling on fetch quests and monster battles one on top of the other (oftentimes against enemies you’ve already faced…), though the stress is alleviated somewhat by not needing to return to the quest giver once you complete the objectives—the moment you beat that fifth Krabble, the reward is given and the quest is over. The characters are superbly voiced in British accents (though there are those who prefer the Japanese voice actors), and while things can get distracting in battles with everyone calling out attacks, there are certainly some mimetic lines in the game (“Now it’s Reyn time”). And the soundtrack, composed by veterans whose former credits include Chrono Trigger and Kingdom Hearts, is one of the best I’ve ever heard in any video game, with masterfully crafted tracks that set the mood perfectly no matter what the terrain—just listen to “Gaur Plains” and try not running to every corner of that grassy meadow! These features may seem relatively minor, but when combined with stellar gameplay, incredible visuals, and a unique battle system, they stop Xenoblade Chronicles from becoming just another JRPG, and instead help turn it into one of the best titles the genre has seen in years.
It’s astounding to think that this game almost didn’t make it to the United States. Without Operation: Rainfall, I, along with thousands of other gamers in the US, might not have been introduced to this incredible game. Since then, however, Xenoblade Chronicles has caught fire in the gaming world—a sequel has been announced for the Wii-U, it’s getting ported to an upcoming handheld system, and Shulk has been announced as a playable character for Super Smash Bros. There’s never been a better time to explore the world of Xenoblade Chronicles, even if a used copy still runs upwards of $50. If it means owning not only what is generally considered to be the best JRPG of the 7th console generation, but also possibly a new entry on your personal “favorite games of all time” list, I’d say that’s a steal.