My experience with Xenoblade Chronicles boils down to a perpetual sense of nostalgia and wonderment. I was raised on the epic grandeur of titles like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII, and the standout qualities of those JRPG classics are rampant throughout Xenoblade Chronicles. Nostalgia isn’t a crutch here, as the game touts plenty of forward-thinking ideas that cater to the modern-day gamer. This balancing act is Xenoblade Chronicles‘ most impressive feat, especially considering the JRPG’s continual degradation in recent years. The mix of old and new injects life into the genre and shows other JRPG developers how to get it right.
Gone is the bland “save the world” plot I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. Instead, I’m treated to a tale of humanoid/mechanical warfare where a mysteriously powerful weapon draws the attention of heroes and villains alike. It may not be the most original narrative framework, but elements of clairvoyance and colonial unrest give the plot its own distinguishing feel. At the same time, I’m reminded of Final Fantasy III. The stakes are high in Xenoblade Chronicles, and every critical moment in the game’s narrative creates palpable tension. This is the kind of emotional investment I often chalk up to the “good ol’ days,” but my jaw drops to the floor in shock and disbelief at one particular moment in the early stages of Xenoblade Chronicles. In just a few short hours the game has actively engaged me in its character development and I’m locked in for the journey ahead.
More so than anything else, the characters in Xenoblade Chronicles make it a journey worth seeing through to the end. Unlike JRPGs of the past decade, the heroes in this game aren’t composed of contrived clichés and glaring annoyances. Questionable fashion choices may remain, but the motivation behind these characters and the relationships they establish feels genuine. Protagonist Shulk is edged on by his inquisitiveness as a researcher, childhood friend Reyn tags along to protect his best friend, and Dunban helps the young heroes in an effort to prove his own worth despite crippling physical injuries. These few examples represent the diverse cast of characters. It’s a cast reminiscent of classic Final Fantasy entries in which each individual embodies an archetype and a power. The fantastic British voice acting also helps matters, providing a breath of fresh air when other spoken dialog often underwhelms.
Also noteworthy in Xenoblade Chronicles is the world and its background, which involves an epic clash between two titans. In fact, the game takes place on these massive figures, providing yet another way in which Xenoblade Chronicles distinguishes itself from the crowd. Yes, the epic grandeur of a classic Final Fantasy is there, but the unique setting leads to inherently interesting races, conflicts, and an overall mythology that this game can call its own (as opposed to classic “fantasy retread”). As I traverse the expansive world, I create new memories that I’ll call back to years from now. Xenoblade Chronicles will take the place of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII as one of those classics I return to often.
The epic scope of the game’s world also ties directly into its mechanics. To put it bluntly, there are a ridiculous number of quests to pick up throughout Xenoblade Chronicles. An exclamation point above citizens’ heads denotes a quest opportunity, and everywhere I turned I’d see the attention-grabbing punctuation mark. There were instances in which I spoke to an individual three times in a row to pick up three separate quests! The limitless number of things to do may sound appealing, but there’s a right way to go about it (Skyrim) and a wrong way (most MMORPGs). Unfortunately Xenoblade Chronicles often falls into the latter category, constantly encouraging numerous fetch quests and similarly mundane activities. Including various sidequests is an admirable attempt to bring modern conventions to a genre often stuck in the past, but in this case Xenoblade Chronicles falls flat.
Xenoblade Chronicles‘ battle system proves far more successful in that area. Centered around real-time encounters, the game makes extensive use of character-specific skills, or “arts” as they are called in the game. Each art has its own cooldown time, meaning players will have to chain together various attacks in an effort to defeat enemies. Arts can be upgraded with experience points, and there are even skills that tie directly into the game’s main weapon, the Monado. These skills are the only way to do battle with the game’s mechanical enemies.
With these mechanics in place, I enter each battle as a blank slate. I’m not reminded of an old SNES or PlayStation RPG that I used to love; each battle feels new and exciting, unlike most games currently on the market. The addictive crafting system also helps establish that modern identity, allowing players to create their own gems to improve weapon and armor stats. This is that side of Xenoblade Chronicles that appeals to a wider audience and also creates a memorable experience for a JRPG fan like myself.
There’s nothing quite like a game that unites audiences, and Xenoblade Chronicles does so with its focus on new game mechanics within a familiar framework. My fond memories of JPRG classics revolve around epic storylines and dynamic characters, and Xenoblade Chronicles successfully recreates those qualities. At the same time, its battle system and overall game mechanics manage to stay compelling in 2012, creating an experience that is both “oldschool” and fresh. It’s the kind of hybrid that the JRPG genre will always crave.
Review based on Wii release.