From the Archives: Xenoblade Chronicles and the Wii’s Swansong

If you owned a Wii, whinged about there being no good games for it and didn’t own a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles then, well, frankly we need to have words.

Xenoblade Chronicles, you see, is awesome. I’d probably go so far as to say it’s one of my favorite RPGs in recent memory. I’m not convinced it is my all-time favourite — with so many great games out there today, I’m pretty hard-pressed to pick an all-time favourite, to be honest — but it’s certainly right up there with the best of them.

Let’s take a closer look at what makes it such a remarkable game.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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The reason Xenoblade Chronicles is so good is the fact it bucks almost all of the trends of the JRPG genre to create an experience that is fresh, exciting, sprawling, engrossing and likely to keep you busy for a very long time.

Allow me to set the scene a little, on the offchance you’re unfamiliar.

Xenoblade Chronicles is an open-world JRPG in which you, as ever, assemble a band of plucky heroes to defend the world from whichever menace is threatening it this time. So far, so predictable, you might think, until you discover that Xenoblade Chronicles’ world is far from normal. Nope — in fact, it’s one of the strangest, most imaginative worlds I’ve seen in any game ever.

The world’s lore runs that two titans known as the Bionis and the Mechonis fought many years ago, and each struck a fatal blow at the same time. Frozen in time forever, the two giants gradually began to play host to life — biological life on the Bionis, mechanical life on the Mechonis. The people of the Bionis have long been at war with the Mechons, the indigenous mechanical lifeforms of the Mechonis, who appear to be little more than cold, soulless killing machines. As time goes on, however, it emerges that something far more sinister is going on when Mechons with faces and voices start to show up, throwing our hero Shulk and his friends’ relatively peaceful existence into turmoil.

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Thus begins a grand adventure that is somewhere between Final Fantasy XII and World of Warcraft in execution. Controlling a single active character out of the three party members available at any one time, the player has freedom to roam where they please in the game’s massive, sprawling zones and do what they wish: uncover parts of the map, pick up quests from the relevant people and get into fights with wandering baddies.

When it comes to combat, it’s a sort of real-time affair — you take control of the character you’ve chosen and can trigger their skills from a hotbar at the bottom of the screen, while the other two party members cooperate with you thanks to some surprisingly solid AI. Positioning is important, as some skills deal additional damage or inflict additional effects if they strike the enemy from the side or back, so a big part of fighting effectively in Xenoblade Chronicles is somewhat akin to the intricate dance MMO players do on a daily basis — managing aggro with the “tank” characters, slipping behind with a damage-dealer and using a support character to ensure everyone is fit and healthy and/or the enemies are on fire.

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The fact that you can freely switch who you’re controlling at any time you’re not in combat makes for a hugely flexible experience. Each character plays markedly differently from one another when you’re in direct control of them, and each has their own wide selection of abilities for you to unlock as they progress through the game, allowing you to customize each of them as you see fit. If you don’t enjoy the play style of one character, just leave them up to the AI and take control of another — the same is true if you’re just getting tired of seeing the same spread of abilities and want to try something new.

The game features a fantastic visual feature where every piece of armor and weapon has its own unique “look” on each of the characters, too, so by equipping characters with various items you can customize them visually just as much as in terms of abilities — and their potentially-ridiculous outfits persist in cutscenes, too, which is always nice to see.

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Gameplay in Xenoblade Chronicles largely involves a bunch of questing in a zone to build up experience and collect equipment, money and then like, then moving on to the next story beat. It’s a simple structure, well-beloved of MMOs, but it works well here, meaning that you can always feel like there’s something to do, even if you don’t have a lot of time to play in a single session. Some of the quests are mildly frustrating, requiring the farming of enemies and gathering points for rare ingredients and the like, but there are often multiple solutions to a problem, causing the quest to have a different outcome.

Then there’s all the other stuff you can engage in — finding the “Heart to Heart” lookout points to trigger intimate interactions between two party members (not that kind of intimate, hentai), building up your “affinity” with the residents of an area and discovering the social links between all the characters in the game world, trying your hardest to complete all the maps, or perhaps challenging the game’s comprehensive achievement system.

There’s a veritable bucketload of things to do, in short, so if you’re hungry for something that will take you at least 100 hours to get to the end of — possibly twice that if you want to see everything — then Xenoblade Chronicles is the way to go.

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It’s not perfect, of course — what is? The Wii’s technical limitations mean that the 480p visuals look increasingly rough the larger your TV is — though it’s worth noting this is still one of the best-looking Wii games out there in terms of overall art direction and world design.

The game gets a bit grindy when you start getting towards the end, too — though if you’ve been fastidious about cleaning up your quest log before moving the story along this shouldn’t be an issue — and the New Game+ option seems largely redundant for little more than romping your way through the story with overpowered characters. None of these issues are enough to detract significantly from what has come to be regarded since its release as one of the best JRPGs of all time.

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And if you’re still being sniffy about it because it’s on the Wii, consider this: this game almost certainly only exists because of the reduced development costs that the Wii’s technical limitations pass on to developers. Developing assets for a game like this on HD consoles would have likely been prohibitively expensive, and the relatively niche nature of JRPGs today means that it would probably never have gotten greenlit by a big publisher only to sell a fraction of what the latest and greatest first-person shooters and open world action games sell.

We’re lucky that Nintendo took a risk on publishing this in Europe and the U.S. — let’s hope this willingness to court “risky” titles continues well into future hardware generations.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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