Xenoblade Chronicles is the latest installment in the Xeno-series, the joy and pride of game developer Monolith Soft. While the game bears little to no connection to the previous entries, the name carried over because the team behind Xenoblade is the same. In what turns out to be an epic attempt to overthrow the negative spiral JRPGs currently find themselves in, Monolith Soft churns out one of the greatest games of all times. Mission accomplished.
I've played a fair few JRPGs in my time so I'm quite aware of their limitations. Some critiques are grounded, others seem the result of genre-fatigue and developing tastes. I for example don't really mind random map battles and turn-based combat, but these mechanics are quite out of fashion these days. Xenoblade keeps the setting and vibe of the JRPG but ditches some of the older basics and replaces them with some Western influences. The results is a superb mash-up of two worlds that will keep you occupied for quite a while.
After a rather lengthy intro animation the game drops you in the wild. The first thing you'll notice is that the map is huge. As you start exploring you can only follow one straight path, but soon the map opens up and I still remember feeling quite lost the first time the game confronted me with this freedom. Things didn't get better when I entered the first town, which was bustling with activity. Stuff to buy, people to talk to, quests to accept. The first 7 or 8 hours or so I spent on this part of the map, exploring the surroundings and completing tasks for the villagers, while slowly progressing with the story.
Turns out this "huge map" is just a small part of the entire game world as there are somewhere around 20 places to explore, one even bigger than the other. In total I spent 212 hours to finish the game, though that includes a lot of extra content that is fully optional. Somewhere around the 110 hour mark I got the first chance to take on the final boss, but I opted to explore further. Those 20 maps that make up the game world receive a major overhaul just before opening up the path to the final boss, with all new quests, enemies and even some new secret places to explore.
Xenoblade is not only big in size, there are also plenty of stats to manage. You can acquire techniques, which then need leveling up. There are skill trees, each acquired skill can then be shared with other party members for a small price. By completing missions you can enhance your affinity with NPCs and cities, by working together you enhance the affinity between characters. Once your affinity is high enough you can access several optional dialogues spread around the game world. You also need to find different items on each map to complete your item collection, earning you special items. Then there are minerals to collect, which can be forged into crystals that grant you extra powers. There are 6 types of armor and 7 playable characters in total. Even after 212 hours I still didn't max out everything, though I did come quite close (I guess 2 or 3 hours additional hours would've done the trick). Believe me ... this game is massive.
Technically the Wii is one of the weakest consoles around, but the crew behind Xenoblade really took the machine to its limit. While from up close the detail is a bit lacking, the scenic views are tremendous. As you walk around on the maps you'll continuously be surprised by how wide and far the vistas stretch (with the Eryth Sea vista being my absolute favorite). The level design is absolutely stunning too, so I have really no complaints about the visual side of things. Nice extras come in the form of customized costumes (all equipment has its own specific look, which is visible on your character at all times) and some superb battle effects.
The soundtrack is absolutely killer too. Even though the game is huge and maps can take ages to explore, I never really grew tired of the songs. I even found myself ignoring shortcuts just because I didn't mind listening to the music a little longer. One clever detail is that the main map song always continues where it stopped before (battles feature a different song, even though the view doesn't really switch and all battles are fought on the map screen), making sure you can always hear the entire song rather than get stuck with the same intro time and time again. Luckily Monolith Soft was brave enough to keep the Japanese audio track on the European release. I tried the British voice actors for a short while but quickly switched back. There is a lot of voiced conversation, so having the Japanese language track on there is a real necessity.
The battle mechanics take some time to master. Even though the basics are extremely simple (each character has one special technique and several optional techniques that slowly replenish over time), there are some interesting peculiarities to master. Enemies can be easily ignored if needed, as you can sneak by them. Lower-level enemies will never engage in battle, only the equal and higher-level enemies will automatically attack you when you get close. The difficulty of the battles lies rather low, only near the end will you find a couple of enemies that take some tactical preparation before they can be approached. All in all it's a fun battle system that makes for a nice change from traditional JRPGs.
It's difficult to get bored while playing Xenoblade. There are always things to do: new places to discover, new equipment to try out, crystals to forge or techniques/skills to master. When you're bored doing one thing, you can easily focus on something different and keep yourself occupied with that for a while. The crazy thing is that even though it took me 212 hours to finish the game, Xenoblade is constructed in such a way that you lose as little time as possible on annoying technicalities. Many of the quests are auto-completed once you reach your goal (so you don't need to return to the person who requested something), you can save at all times (outside of battle that is), you can warp between many landmarks and you lose nothing when you die, so there are no real setbacks that require you to do things from scratch. I did manage to lock the game once, which is the only time I had to fight through the same bit twice. All these improvements are very nice features that keep the irritation level at a minimum.
Depending on how you play the game, the difficulty level changes dramatically. I always tried to keep up with quests and exploring, so for most of the time I was a little overpowered. Not too weird if you consider that the game even grants you experience points when discovering new landmarks on the map, when completing NPC quests and even when unlocking achievements (and the game has plenty, even silly ones like "falling from a really high place"). If you play through the game with a tight focus on the storyline, things can become a little tougher, though the fact that the game doesn't punish you for dying keeps the difficulty at a moderate level. You do have to take care not to engage with the wrong enemies. From the very start you'll encounter enemies that you can't beat (level 70-80 while you are only level 10). These can be easily avoided though, so if you're a little careful they won't pose much of a threat either.
So is there nothing wrong with this game? Only some small things, like not being able to carry all possible items (meaning you need to throw stuff away once in a while - no fun for a collector like me) or lacking better means to compare/equip new equipment. There are so many different equipment items and trying to figure out their weak/strong points can be a real chore, especially when you need to manage 7 characters individually. But that's about it really. Just some minor quirks that hardly affect the overall feel of the game.
Xenoblade Chronicles is without a doubt the most complete game I've ever played. When I finally finished it, I felt satisfied. I had seen everything, I had done everything and there was really no reason to return to the game. This is partly because you can practically play through the same game world twice in one single game, giving you time to revisit your favorite spots, only with new challenges. Even though I could come up with a few small improvements left and right, these are just minor tidbits. Instead I fail to imagine how much time must've gone into designing this game. Xenoblade is so massive that it almost seems inhuman to create such a game. So it should come as no surprise that this is easily the best and most complete game I've ever played. It held my attention for more than 210 hours (more than 6 months in real time) without ever getting boring or failing to keep my interest locked. No other game has ever accomplished that, nor that I ever played a game that even attempted such a thing.