On “Xenoblade Chronicles”

Back at Christmas, I finally received Xenoblade Chronicles. I had spent a lot of time looking for it and despite seeing it online a few times, I never ponied up for the cash. I was pretty excited to finally play it. It’s hailed as an evolution of the JRPG genre, a breath of fresh air from the perceived static Japanese development scene, and hours upon hours of gameplay.

Is it all its cracked up to be? Is it the next step for JRPGs? Is it their equivalent of Christ’s second coming?

Sorta.

I’ll try to keep this light on spoilers, but as always, be warned.

Xenoblade Chronicles also has one of my favorite title screens.

Let’s talk about some of the things I liked:

Xenoblade is a pretty gorgeous game. While it is limited by the Wii’s hardware, Xenoblade makes up for it with enchanting environment design. Stepping into the Gaur Plain for the first time with the mirrored cliffs and the Mechonis in the far background is impressive. In addition, making your game take place on two fucking mechs is pretty radical. The environment design in this game is crazy.

Screenshot of the Gaur Plain. A surprising amount of this landscape is explorable. Screenshot of the Gaur Plain. A surprising amount of this landscape is explorable. Note the second mech in the background.

The combat system is pretty interesting. You control one character out of a party of three. Combat works in real time, like the Tales series instead of earlier, turn-based Final Fantasy games. Even the Chain Attack is reminiscent of Tales of Symphonia’s Unison Attack. Combat is influenced by hotkey MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. Abilities are balanced around positioning and cooldowns, with those cooldowns limiting your party’s actions. Balancing cooldowns between your party members and combining different effects across the party feels super good. Combat is a greater sum, as all of these aspects work together to make it fast paced and fun.

Character customization is done in a few ways. There’s a three-pronged talent system, much like vanilla WoW‘s talent trees. Locking into one and battling gives you points in that tree, which unlocks more abilities. However, you’re free to swap at any time, and with enough grinding I think you can unlock every ability in that section for every character. Item customization also uses a gem system, where the player can make their own gems at shops and fill empty slots in their gear to tailor their party to their own tastes or builds.

Additionally, there’s an “affinity” system. By interacting with party members in plot events in the overworld or by participating in combat with each other, their affinity with one another increases, allowing connected party members to use abilities normally reserved for other party members. This encourages the player to not get complacent with one party setup, as it can allow for some cool builds.

The music in this game is stellar. Yoko Shimomura (of Kingdom Hearts fame) does some of her best work that I’ve heard yet. This game’s soundtrack belongs up there with the greats. Highlights include the game’s title screen track, “Gaur Plain,” and battle themes like “Engage the Enemy” and “You Will Know Our Names.” I’ve spent a lot of homework time listening to this track and am writing this piece to the soundtrack.

Xenoblade also has strong writing. While the story has its ups and downs, the characters carry this game. I can hardly think of a game with writing in this sort of setting that made the characters seem so believable. For the most part, relationships between the characters of this game feel organic and there’s a real sense of growth throughout. Highlights include Shulk’s relationship with Reyn, Seven, and Dunban, and Reyn’s relationship with Sharla. Melia has strong relationships with Sharla, Shulk, and Riki, too. Actually, everyone does. I could really list every relationship in this game. This is truly one of the highlights of Xenoblade. I haven’t seen such a refreshing JRPG cast and story since, I don’t know, 2003 or something.

There’s also a ton of stuff to do in this game. I mean, literally. A ton. My playthrough clocked in at over 50 hours and I tried to beat the game’s main story as fast as possible. 50 hours includes no sidequests, except for a few at the beginning. I didn’t touch the Colony 9 sidequest once and hardly ever backtracked to older zones. The amount of stuff to do in this game is incredible.

However, none of this is to say that Xenoblade Chronicles is without faults. As my girlfriend who watched me play Xenoblade can attest, there is a lot that I don’t like.

There is a ton of stuff to do in this game. Almost too much. A lot of the sidequests boil down to filler. Go to another area, kill ten of these enemies, turn in the quest for a small sum of money and experience. These sidequests contradict the core flow that leads you through the game’s setpieces. They’re unrelated to the main story and a lot of them aren’t interesting on their own. Ultimately, they just slow down the game and turn it into a checklist.

This also means that a lot of the game’s “content” isn’t really content at all, but filler. Xenoblade Chronicles is a 100+ hour game, sure. If you do all of the filler. I didn’t find a lot of these sidequests to be fulfilling and ended up stopping them toward the end of the Gaur Plain, which is pretty early in the game.

This might be a significant part of another problem I had with the game, which was the need to grind. I found that towards the end of the game, the levels of my enemies were increasing at a rate far faster than my own. I began to do some of the sidequests in these later sections of the game, but often ran out of quests before I could catch up to the required level. This led to a lot of grinding. Based on my research for good grinding spots, this wasn’t an isolated problem. Grinding almost seemed to be required toward the end of the game.

Which kills the pacing of Xenoblade Chronicles. It opens so well. You get a kickass weapon that lets you see the future, you’re propelled into this exciting quest for revenge, and just enough is left unanswered for you to always want to continue on. It’s about halfway through the game, when almost every major player and party member is introduced, that this begins to fall apart.

The third quarter of the game survives on the first half’s excellence, but the last quarter (around 15 hours) is pretty poorly paced. You’re often thrown into large, sprawling areas with countless enemies and more of those empty sidequests to try to keep your levels up to snuff. Combined with the need to grind, narrative progress is really spread out and slowed down. Everything starts to pick up toward the end, but you’re forced to fight through these padded sections. Pacing is completely killed. A lot of your excitement is lost when you have to grind for 5 hours to get ready for the final boss.

Most of my other problems are minute details. For one, I never felt like stats were explained adequately in the game itself. I was never able to find what each stat did or how it affected me. A significant portion of the game was foreign to me because I never got a good grasp of it. I was also unable to find anything in the instruction manual, so I never ended up min-maxing.

Menus and options take just a second too long to load. Just long enough to be disconcerting. Game feel is interrupted when every menu has you waiting a bit longer than it should. Because the game is heavy on menus for equipment, skills, party set-up, quests, and travel, it all adds up to a lot of wasted time. The delay made me want to not do any of those things. Actually, this is a significant reason why I quit doing sidequests. I would even stop looking at loot just to not have to go through the menus.

Prepare to be looking at this a lot while you wait for menus to fill in. UGH. Credits to the source listed.

Xenoblade Chronicles does a lot of things right. In those ways, it is a step forward, the evolution of the JRPG genre that it sorely needed. It demonstrates what you can do with strong characterization, dialogue, and writing. The combat system shows that you can retain the traditional JRPG spirit while also updating it for a more contemporary experience. But it also has its faults, with pacing problems and system-related growing pains. Even FPS drops are a big problem for this game in some of its fights. In order for Xenoblade Chronicles to be the evolution that it is said to be, developers and players will have to understand its successes as well as its failures. It not only demonstrates what can be done right, but also how things can be done wrong.

Whenever I finished Xenoblade Chronicles, I was really pissed off. I was bitter from grinding for so long, tired of being bored while doing so, and for all of my excitement for the climax of the story being killed off. I did nothing but bitch those last 15 hours. It was a relief to finish it. But here I am, five months later, still unable to get it out of my head. Despite everything that I found frustrating about it, it’s a really charming game. It reminded me of being a kid and playing my first Final Fantasy games, sitting in front of a glowing television screen while I lost myself in a different, fantastic world.

Sure, I didn’t like a lot of Xenoblade, but it’s sincere and earnest. It tries to do something new. To do something bigger and better. I have to love it for that.

Author’s note: I played the Wii version of Xenoblade Chronicles. I am unaware if any of my aforementioned problems about menu loading or FPS drops exist in the New 3DS version.

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Lectril

I like video games and have strong opinions about "World of Warcraft."

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