There have been many “grass roots”Â movements over the years in attempts to get video games with a dedicated cult following either a localization or sequel. In fact, a quick Google search will turn up movements that are going on right now, such as groups trying to resurrect Mega Man Legends 3 or bring Valkyria Chronicles 3 out west. The thing about these movements, whether because of lack of support or because most companies could care less about a noisy internet group, is that they are rarely successful. There has been at least one success in recent years though, and that is Operation Rainfall.
Operation Rainfall was established in order to localize three Wii RPG’s: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. Of those, Pandora’s Tower has yet to be announced for a North American release, while The Last Story is being published by XSEED later this year. Xenoblade Chronicles is the first of the trio to make its way here, being a GameStop exclusive.
I was ecstatic to hear news that I won’t have to jump through hoops in order to get a chance to experience Xenoblade Chronicles. I enjoyed Monolith Soft’s previous works, including the Xenosaga franchise (and whose team members worked on the excellent Xenogears title), and was much looking forward to this. Now that the game is out, was it worth the wait?
In the beginning, there were two beings known as the Bionis and the Mechonis who fought for supremacy. This clash of two titans eventually ended in a stalemate, leaving behind remains that would eventually become the home of brand new life. However, the conflict didn’t end there.
The Mechonis spawned machines known as Mechon that wage war with the races born of the Bionis. As the game opens, we are introduced to one of the conflicts between these two sides known as the Battle of Sword Valley. One of the Homs (or humans as we would recognize them as) wields a powerful weapon known as the Monado that is the only effective means of dispatching Mechon. It takes its toll on the user after continued use, and only certain people are capable of using it. The use of the Monado is enough to drive back the Mechon attack though, and the Homs commit to rebuilding their colonies.
Fast forward one year to a place called Colony 9, where the Monado-wielder, Dunban, is a local hero. His arm is damaged from continued use of the Monado, but his sister Fiora aids in nursing him back to health in case the Mechon strike again. A boy by the name of Shulk studies the sword in hopes of discovering its secrets in preparation for the day that its abilities may be needed to drive the Mechon back again in the future. Shulk soon learns that Dunban isn’t the only one able to wield the Monado.
Veterans of Xenosaga might expect the extremely long winded cutscenes to make their return, but they’re actually quite reasonable this time around. There are some that go kinda long towards the tail end of the game, but they aren’t as particularly chatty as other JRPG’s are. It helps that the story is consistently engaging throughout, with some heavy scenes that take place very early in the story and plot twists that keep you guessing despite some obvious foreshadowing. And best of all, it’s not nearly as convoluted as Xenosaga ended up being, so it’s quite easy for anyone to get into without feeling overwhelmed with the amount of terms and information being divulged at once. It’s one of the better JRPG stories I’ve experienced in a long time, and worth taking the plunge alone.
Story/Modes Rating: Classic
Despite being barely more powerful than a late generation PS2 game, Xenoblade Chronicles manages to bring its expansive world to life around you. The areas you visit are generally wide open and filled with random creatures both hostile and not that go about their business or run about in packs. Each area also has a general theme, though they all transition together in a believable fashion. It’s absolutely breathtaking to go up on a hill or a tall cliff and look off into the distances and see the either the Bionis or Mechonis looming in the distance. You really get a feel for how small you are when you realize the large plains you had been traversing is nothing more than an arm or a foot.
The actual characters themselves are much less impressive looking, though you don’t really notice how dated they look until you get up close. When the camera zooms in on faces or hands you start to see the curvature of the models far more obviously than when things are zoomed out. Aside from that, the character designs are very good and fit in with the art style quite well, and the facial animations are played off convincingly. The dialogue doesn’t match up with the lip movements perfectly, but that’s not uncommon for an English dub and it’s not distracting in the least.
Graphics Rating: Good
I’m a huge fan of the Xenogears and Xenosaga soundtracks, so it comes as no surprise to me that I can add Xenoblade to that list. While the things you hear traversing fields and strolling through towns is fine enough, the music that plays during battle in particular stands out. Especially since the songs are situational depending on how the battle is going and who the battle is with. When your party’s tension is really high, it might play one song, but if it sinks too low it will start up another and it does so seamlessly. And then another song might trigger if you happen to aggro a unique enemy. It’s all just so damn good.
The voices for the characters are the same as the ones in the European version, so be prepared for some heavy accents. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was certainly different to have a voice cast that I actually haven’t heard before. They all did a great job too. I can’t think of one character that was poorly done or otherwise grating. The worst thing I can say about the voice acting is that the characters are incredibly chatty during combat and end up saying the same things after battle over and over again (and you will be fighting A LOT of battles). Their conversations during combat were very fascinating though. It was interesting to hear one party member reassure or encourage another by saying things like “It’s okay! We all miss sometimes!”Â
Sound Rating: Amazing
Right from the get go, combat reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy XII, though it requires far more involvement than the typical MMO-style gameplay. You will control a party of three, though you are only in direct control of the party leader as the other two are led by the computer A.I. As you wander around and encounter monsters or Mechon, they may have some symbols next to their name and level. If it looks like an eye, it means they will attack upon sight. Ones that look like sound waves will engage if they hear you run by. Still others will not attack unless you use ether in their presence or attack another enemy near it. Once you have its attention, or if you decide to engage a passive foe, an icon will come up that looks like two swords that will let you begin auto-attacking.
As you gain levels with your characters you will gain skills that can be assigned to a bar on the bottom of the screen. The cooldown time on most of them is pretty generous, so you’ll be using these quite frequently. However, some skills have effects that will only be gained if you are facing the enemy a certain way, such as from the side or back. Others won’t trigger their effects unless the enemy is in a particular state. For example, Reyn has a move that will topple an enemy, but it only works if Shulk has used a move that inflicts break status. These skills can be improved in your menu and you can even switch them up depending on the role you want that party member to play, as you are limited in what skills can be carried into battle.
On the top left of the screen is a party meter that fills up if you land critical strikes or encourage your teammates. There are three bars in the meter and should one of your party members fall, you can use a bar of it to revive them (or have them revive you). If the gauge is full, you can perform a chain attack with your party members in order to string together a set of attacks unhindered, regardless if your skills are on cooldown or not. The only catch is a party member can’t use an attack more than once per combo, so if you have a lot of skills equipped that have no offensive properties, your damage output is limited. After each person has had a turn, you may get a prompt to hit the B button at the correct time in order to get more turns. It’s not as flashy as team attacks in other games, like say the later Persona titles, but you’ll come to rely on it should you find yourself needing to interrupt an attack or heal your teammates while remaining damage and cooldown free.
Each character also has something called Tension. Tension is measured by the expression on the face of your character portrait on the left hand side. If Tension is really low, attacks tend to miss whereas high tension will allow you critical strikes and a higher damage output overall. Missing attacks or getting beat down pretty bad will lower this status quite quickly, but as the party leader, you can press B next to your teammates in order to encourage them and raise it back up again. If it happens to you, you’re at the mercy of your other party members, though they’re generally pretty good about making sure you’re okay.
Your party members are each delegated a skill tree that is designed to improve one aspect of that character at a time. The trees are linear, so the most you have to decide on is which you want to embark on, though you’ll eventually be able to learn them all. Having certain party members along during battle and side quests will increase your affinity with them, allowing characters to learn skills belonging to other characters, as well as granting access to “heart to heart”Â cut-scenes that add characterization to the people involved. The skills you can equip and how many is limited by Affinity Coins which are earned through level ups and defeating unique monsters.
Some of the items that you pick up can be used in an extensive gem crafting component to make items used to socket some of your equipment. The process requires two party members and the results vary depending on who you use and their affinity with each other. The end results can be anything from additional strength to increased aggro or even defense to a particular brand of attack. Enhancing a character’s role with gems that play to their strengths can make all the difference in a tough skirmish.
While the default Wii remote and nunchuk combo is serviceable, it pales in comparison to the Classic Controller Pro. I picked one of these up with the purchase of the game and I haven’t regretted it one bit. The basic buttons are the same; A to select things, directional pad to alternate between skills, etc. But the CCP has the added benefit of having a right analog stick to rotate the camera as opposed to holding the C button down on the nunchuk and moving it. There are also shoulder buttons that can cycle between enemies forwards and backwards rather than just having one Z button delegated to the task. It’s a shame that the Gamecube Wavebirds can’t be used if you don’t want to spend the extra $20, but since not all Wii’s have Gamecube capabilities anymore, they probably felt it wasn’t worth the time to code in a controller layout for that.
Control/Gameplay Rating: Classic
You will not be disappointed by a lack of content in this game. Aside from the main story, which took me approximately 60 hours to finish with minimal sidetracking, there are literally hundreds of sidequests that you can undertake during the course of the game. Granted, many of them are very similar MMO style quests that often involve killing a certain number of monsters or collecting a specific number of items. But in doing these tasks you build up Affinity with the various NPC’s you do the quests for. This in turn opens up new quests with new rewards, plus they may offer to trade you much better items that what they would have otherwise. There’s even a quest chain that involves rebuilding an entire colony.
After you complete the game, you have an opportunity to start a New Game Plus. You get to keep your equipped items and levels, plus you can choose to carry over 30 of each item type to bring with you. The core game is made easy if you do this, of course, but there are also a ton of high level enemies wandering the land that you otherwise would not have been able to take down at those stages of the game. There’s a lot crammed onto the Wii disc, and it’s worth every cent.
Replayability Rating: Classic
While Xenoblade Chronicles is very generous in introducing new facets of the gameplay piecemeal as you go along, it doesn’t make it feel like one long tutorial. This is good, because once you have a full arsenal of moves at your disposal, you’ll be making full use of all of them. The later part of the game becomes very brutal, especially if you don’t keep up with your levels. And even if you are properly leveled, you have to employ specific strategies in order to be successful.
Despite the sharp difficulty hike in the late game, very few deaths seem particularly unfair. Especially since your computer controlled teammates actually behave in an intelligent manner. Characters like Reyn will try to grab aggro from enemies and behave like the tank he is designed to be. Likewise, someone like Sharla does a good job of keeping the party healed and even employs crowd control techniques by keeping extra enemies asleep for you. There are times where you may aggro a level 90 monster while journeying through a low level area and suffer a one hit blow as a result, but the penalties for losing are practically non-existent, so it’s not really an issue.
Balance Rating: Great
While the combat builds on the foundation already established by other RPG’s like it, it introduces a few groundbreaking elements that I’d never seen utilized in a game before. The biggest one of all is the Monado’s ability to allow Shulk to see the future. This comes into play not only as a story mechanic, but a gameplay one as well. When you are out collecting items, if you pick up one that you don’t have a quest for, but is a requirement for a future quest, Shulk will have a vision about it. And not only that, the item is marked in your inventory as one that will be used for a future sidequest. This alleviates selling a bunch of junk only to realize that you accidentally sold something you needed for a quest you just obtained.
This also comes into play in battle. When an enemy is about to initiate an attack that could potentially cripple you or your party members (either causing death or paralysis or whatever) Shulk will have a vision about it and a countdown begins. You have until the countdown ends in order to “change the future.”Â Whether it be by healing that individual, taking on aggro, or using a skill to prevent damage by that attack, your foresight grants you the capability to prevent the enemy from potentially shutting you down completely. While it becomes a nuisance if you have to watch a number of these visions in a row, the fact remains that it’s integral to your survival.
Originality Rating: Great
I found myself in the same fix as I was with games like Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Age: Origins before it. I simply couldn’t put it down. There were times towards the end that got on my nerves a little bit since it seemed to have needlessly padded out the experience. Particularly the moments where I realized I had to grind five levels to not be slaughtered by a boss, or being told “You have to take this elevator to go to the next dungeon, but before you do that you have to enable four energy towers!”Â But by then, I was so close to the finish line and the stakes were so high, that I didn’t care. I think if the worse thing that I can say about your game is that it’s too much of a good thing, you just may have won me over.
Addictiveness Rating: Classic
And here lies Xenoblade Chronicles‘ greatest weakness: not many people will buy or even play it. Nintendo absolutely refused to bring this game to North America and probably for good reason. We are in the midst of a recession and the game appeals to an audience that probably hasn’t kept their Wii around this long. It’s a JRPG for a system that doesn’t carry many JRPG’s. Despite having the largest install base of any of the systems, you have to think about the market who purchased said systems. These are casual gamers that bought the system for Wii Sports and party game collections.
Even so, if you like JRPG’s and you own a Wii, you simply must buy this game. If for no other reason than because it’s going to be a collector’s item. Given the limited print run and GameStop exclusivity, not to mention it is releasing towards the end of the Wii lifecycle, I practically guarantee this is going to be hard to come by, even in the short term. The lack of marketing on the part of Nintendo and the limited reach of GameStop means that this will fall completely off the radar for some, despite being something I think a lot of people will like.
Appeal Rating: Above Average
I have to give props to Xenoblade Chronicles not only for being great, but also for not being a pain in the ass to experience it. Since I can save anywhere, even in between some of the major cutscenes, I can play for small chunks at a time and not have to worry about finding a save point. Additionally, any sidequests I complete don’t always have to be returned to their quest giver. Most of the quests that involve defeating monsters or collecting certain items will automatically complete as soon as I finish whatever task was set before me. If I do need to return to town for something, I need only bring up my map and instantly warp to and from places I have already visited before. Main quests are marked on this map too and a handy arrow will point you in the general direction of where to go. Even an untimely death will send me to one of these conveniently placed checkpoints with all of the enemies respawned. I don’t lose any progress just because I forget to save.
If you are for some reason against purchasing this game from GameStop because you have beef with that particular retail chain, you can also purchase the game directly from Nintendo themselves. However, GameStop pre-orders did come with a limited edition art book which in of itself I’m sure will become a rarity. Some locations didn’t even have enough of them to fulfill pre-orders (a co-worker of mine ran into this very situation), which is a shame if it was the sole reason you had reserved a copy in the first place. That’s neither here nor there though, and certainly no fault of the game itself.
Miscellaneous Rating: Classic
Appeal Factor: Good
Final Score: Incredible Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
The long wait is finally over and Xenoblade Chronicles is out in North America. I can hardly believe it myself, but the agonizing “will they or won’t they release it?”Â attitude has finally culminated in what will likely be my favorite Wii game of the year if not one of my favorite of all time. The world looks fantastic despite being showcased on dated technology and both the soundtrack and voice overs are simply superb. The gameplay is an extension of games like it, only it requires far more involvement from the player and seamlessly integrates the ability to “see the future”Â as a gameplay mechanic. The gameplay gets a tad grind heavy and padded out towards the end, but by then you are so invested as the player that you’ll hardly care. If you’ve been waiting for this game for as long as I have, then I can already confirm what you’ve known all along. If you own a Wii and love JRPG’s, you should check this one out, and soon. Chances are, it won’t be around for long. And you won’t need a vision to know what a shame it would be to miss out.