Early on in my journey across two lifeless gods, I clambered out of a huge cave that I’d been stuck in for ages and found myself on a grass covered cliff at night. Above me, there was nothing but the vast, starry sky. In front of me, way off in the distance –barely visible — was a red eyed titan, inconceivably huge. Anything looking across from that creature would have seen a similar sight. On that distant giant, all the ills that had plagued the protagonist resided. So I ran, without looking back, right for it. I fell off the cliff and plummeted to my death. Xenoblade Chronicles is a beautiful, imaginative game and it lets you jump off cliffs. All the time.
Ostensibly, Xenoblade is a story of vengeance and one you might already be familiar with. A young man, Shulk, orphaned and connected to a magical sword seeks to slay some despicable mechanical villains who have been making a nuisance of themselves for quite a while. What sets it apart from other games that employ a similar, traditional storylines is almost everything else.
The setting alone makes it worthy of praise. Instead of being on some typical fantasy world, Shulk and his ever growing team of heroes traverse two petrified deities; the Bionis and Mechonis. Thousands of years ago the two beings fought each until they fell into a torpor, eventually their bodies would become home to multiple civilisations. On the Bionis the Homs, Nopon and High Entia reside, while the Mechonis is where the malevolent Mechons come from. To put the scale of these beings-turned-worlds into context, the Homs living at the bottom of the Bionis (as in its feet, not its arse) aren’t even sure if the High Entia (who live near the Bionis head) even exist, despite the fact that they have an ancient and thriving civilisation.
The Bionis itself is a gorgeous place, ripe for exploration, proper exploration bereft of invisible walls or the lack of a jump button. When the world first opens up — just after the scene I described earlier — it’s a wee bit intimidating. Verdant plains teaming with life are flanked by sheer cliff faces and bluffs, hiding caves and secret passages; natural bridges come together in a web on the edge of the world, and all the while there’s an upbeat score that hints of adventures soon to be had. The whole area instantly appeared to be full of promise, and it didn’t disappoint. This continues throughout most of the game’s areas, many of which have their roots in the mundane or tired, but get presented in a distinct way which gives them tons of personality. Xenoblade is one of those rare titles that can make even a marsh beautiful.
The graphical fidelity leaves a lot to be desired, but when you’re faced with such a strong art direction, HD and AA and any other conceivable acronyms don’t seem to matter all that much. After enjoying the charms of the Bionis for many, many hours, you’ll probably be a wee bit disappointed in its opposite. The Mechonis, while still being imposing and starkly juxtaposed compared to the Bionis, is unfortunately a bit on the bland side. The probable rationale behind it is understandable, but wandering around a giant factory killing loads of stuff becomes something of a chore, especially after the vast time sink everything up until then proved to be.
Despite the large number of areas, most of which are pretty expansive, the day and night cycle is so well implemented that you might treat some areas as two. The time of day affects everything, it changes the enemies, what NPCs you can find, what quests you can do, even the music and general atmosphere of the areas are altered. On top of that, weather also has an impact on certain enemies. Quite a few rare, unique monsters can only be found during specific weather conditions. Luckily changing the time of day takes very little time, so it remains a welcome mechanic, rather than something that becomes a bit of a hassle. I still find the concept of actively waiting for torrential rain, thunder and lightening to be utterly bizarre, though.
Shulk and company really emphasise the sense of adventure, as many of them are not particularly well traveled and thus are suitably blown away by what they see. Their general enthusiasm is one of their most endearing qualities, at a time when so many RPG characters are deeply troubled individuals. Or hungry irritants. That’s not to say it’s all rainbow kisses and drunk unicorns, though. It’s a tale of revenge at its core and as it goes on it’s increasingly one of destiny and predetermination. You see, Shulk’s oath of vengeance against the Mechon isn’t an empty threat. He’s one of the few individuals who can wield the Monado, a special sword with a name the game refuses to let you forget. It’s the only weapon that’s really effective against the Mechon and it imparts several abilities on its wielder, not least the power of preternatural foresight. In the narrative, Shulk’s visions of the future drive the game forward, guiding the party, but it also becomes a key combat mechanic.
Combat is surprisingly robust and draws inspiration from a lot of different places. Like an action game, you control one character in flashy, hectic brawls; it’s tactical and requires quick thinking and good party combinations, using them for chain attacks and AI assistance; there’s an ability bar and everything is on a cooldown, a la MMORPGs; there’s even pseudo QTEs. At first it seems a bit all over the place, even with the fairly detailed tutorials, but it should become rather simple once you get into a rhythm with a good party. Even though battles can get a bit crazy, attacks are actually not very fast, so there’s usually time for adjustment, there’re also quite a few features that give you a chance to correct a mistake. Button prompts appear often, allowing you to recover from a botched attack, encourage a party member or even revive them. All characters are able to resurrect one another, as long as a section of the chain attack gauge is full. So there’s a cost, but it actually becomes very easy to fill the gauge up again.
The Monado’s vision conferring powers come into play when an enemy is about to unleash a particularly savage attack that will most likely kill one of the three person team, possibly being followed by me crying “curses!” After seeing a painfully slow vision of the impending disaster, the controlled character can warn an ally who can then suitably prepare. For instance Melia could send them to sleep, or Reyn could topple them, or Dunban could aggro them. Unfortunately the vision mechanic becomes as overused as the “chest infection” excuse I used to spout in attempts to skive work. Every vision is in slow motion and in boss battles — which can go on for rather a while — they happen frequently, making an already long battle even longer. It also dilutes the impact of Shulk’s visions in the story, every vision is a big deal and when he sees people dying in them it affects him pretty badly outside of combat. That becomes a little bit hollow when he’s having several visions in a row during a fight and he just shakes it off. Oh no, Sharla’s about to die! Oh crap, looks like Sharla’s in trouble! Shit, Sharla’s about to get eaten! Hey Sharla, you have a gun, how about you just stay the fuck back?
What makes Xenoblade‘s combat really compelling, is the way it’s tied into all the other aspects of the game. In fact, that’s something that can be said about the title on the whole. Despite being a smorgasbord of mechanics and ideas from vastly different games, it all comes together perfectly. Camaraderie and bonds of friendship play a big role, and it extends well beyond the party getting along. Every named NPC you encounter has a place on a giant affinity chart, by talking to them and learning about their lives you see their connections to others. As you help people out, usually by performing a mundane quest of kill X or find Y that would seem more at home in an MMO, you’ll raise your affinity with the area, which will unlock new quests, storylines and trade items. In one town, Colony 6, you actually aid in the reconstruction of a whole settlement.
The hapless one time refugees have a plethora of quests for the heroes and they need items from all over the world to help them add new buildings, which in turn offer the player some nice benefits. The “Reconstruct Colony 6″ quest could be a game on its own. Not an engrossing game, maybe not even a fun game, but a game with lots of content. As something to do in between enjoying the rest of the story, the Colony 6 stuff is actually quite a groovy diversion, it’s also great to see your actions have a big effect on the game world from something entirely optional. In the party itself, affinity improves gem crafting attempts, opens up new dialogue sequences and dictates how many linked passive skills characters can have — which are massively helpful in combat. Affinity can be raised by certain actions in battle and by accepting quests, because everyone you travel with loves to help. They’re so bloody nice. Affinity coins, the currency used to create skill links, can be gained by slaying unique monsters. So there’s always a reason to hunt down a rare beastie.
If the optimistic, enthusiastic heroes get a bit too much, the cure is also contained within Xenoblade. The Mechons, or at least the talking ones, are some of the most colourful and delightful villains I’ve had the pleasure of fighting. If you think giant, man eating, nigh invulnerable mechanical fiends sound like trouble, imagine if they all came from the East End of London. Terrifying, right? They’re like slightly camp Bloodbottler giants from The BFG (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you had a misspent youth) who also happen to be made of metal, and they can bloody fly. It’s like a really fucked up panto.
These lovable psychopaths make everyone else seem a bit ho hum, as they saunter about, slaughtering everyone, munching on bones and slagging people off. The rest of the voice cast is pretty solid though, but some of the dialogue comes across as somewhat unnatural and freakishly optimistic and naive, it’s weird to hear adults repeat it. I confess I could have done with a few more regional accents too, but that’s just because every time more than one Englishman appears in a video game, I immediately start demanding where are the bloody Scots? Representation, please. I don’t even care if it’s only for drunk, angry characters.
While the Mechons are undoubtedly the coolest looking chaps in all the the Bionis and Mechonis, most of the vast number of foes are imaginatively designed. The larger monsters tend to be impressive beasts, slowly patrolling their territory, casting a shadow over everything. Some of these enemies can be taken down with smart (or more often cheap) tactics when you come across them, but generally they’re meant to be revisited once you’re party has become more accomplished at kicking arse. However, even once you reach the level cap of 99, some of the tougher monsters will just laugh at your puny double digit level, as they go all the way up to 120.
While Shulk and friends get torn apart by ferocious monstrosities, they do so in style. There’s a mind boggling array of weapons and assorted gear and equipment to buy and collect and augment, and they actually change the party’s appearance, often in horrifying ways. Bright green space marine armour and a feathered hat? Check. Trunks and bikinis for everyone? Check. Airship pirate costume? Well, that one was actually pretty awesome. To be fair, a lot of the gear looks great, but nothing beats making the whole party look like they are off to a beach party with guns, swords and whatever the hell Reyn’s weapon was meant to be. A shield drill?
We waited a long time to get Xenoblade Chronicles, some more than others (you poor Americans), so it seems only right that it turned out to be the gorgeous sprawling epic that it promised to be. Undoubtedly it could wrap up quicker, and the standard MMO quest structure which it adopts is abhorrent even in the genre in which it makes its lair, but it’s just so laden with content, amazing content, that I can’t help but forgive it. I have the soundtrack stuck in my head, I’m starting to hear the horrendously cheesy encouraging battle banter every time I feel a bit tired, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that I keep whispering “Monado” in my sleep. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become somewhat jaded with the state of modern JRPGs; Xenoblade makes me optimistic again. Maybe not as optimistic as Shulk or Reyn, but it’s a start.