Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles

Platform: Wii

Rating: Teen (Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence)

Players: 1

Xenoblade Chronicles has finally reached American Shores!  It's been over a year in the making, and about time.  I couldn't wait to dive into this title from the moment I picked it up.  And dated engine aside, it's got its charms.  For the readers across the pond in Europe, put up with us for a bit.  This game is new to us, even though it's a year old.

Those of you that remember Operation Rainfall from last year know exactly what's going on with this review.  For the rest of you, here's a quick refresher:

There's a whole stack of Nintendo Wii games that have been released in Japan and Europe that haven't seen play time on the American shores. Xenoblade Chronicles was one such game.  Nintendo fans organized online and submitted a petition with almost half a million signatures to get at least some of these games in the United States with local releases.  Most of these already had English dubs from the European releases, so bringing it stateside would be easy.

As it turns out, Nintendo listened to their fans.  Xenoblade Chronicles is the first game from the Operation Rainfall list to see a release.  The Last Story will launch in May, and Pandora's Tower has also been confirmed.  Fans hope the others will come out soon, but Nintendo won't comment on speculation.

Anyways, on to the review.  Xenoblade Chronicles tells the tale of humans and machines, fighting to the death on top of two gigantic robots.  It's almost as if they ripped the story right out of Gurren Lagann.  The main character, Shulk, learns how to wield an energy blade called the "Monado," a beam sword that can slice through the Mechon, the machines.  As he progresses, he gains new allies, learns new skills, and completes quests to earn extra money and experience.  If this sounds like every other JRPG out there, that's because it is.

What separates Xenoblade Chronicles from other JRPGs out there is that the Monado is Shulk's only weapon throughout much of the game.  It's also the key to being able to do so much as a dent to the Mechon.  The battles also have a distinct "MMO" feel to them, in that one character will "tank," (draw attention from enemies), one will "heal," and one will do all sorts of damage.  Since this game is single player only, your teammates are controlled by the game.  The last time a game did something like this, it didn't turn out so well.  Final Fantasy XII, I'm looking at you!  Thankfully, your teammates are smarter than a stack of bricks and can actually fill their roles.  About time...

Parties also have morale as they fight.  When they do well, they increase their chances of critical strikes, Team Attacks, and improved affinities (see below)  High morale also makes it easier to recover when the team missteps.  The Team Attacks essentially stop the battle to go into slow-motion time, giving the player time to choose each party member's attacks carefully.  This is a great way to rack up lots of damage on a boss, as well as boost affinity for everyone.

With any JRPG, having a big, open world to explore is a given.  Xenoblade Chronicles is no exception, sporting vast prairies and confined military installations.  Visually, it looks spectacular.  Many people have praised it as the best looking Wii game to date.  Whether or not that's actually the case is up to personal opinion.  However, the cinematics are pretty and the world immersive.  Some areas are downright huge, so the developers included fast travel to landmarks the party has already visited.  This helps a ton when you want to go back to Colony 9 to craft or unload junk.  It also makes the side quests a lot easier, too.  Actually, on that topic...

With exploration come the obligatory side quests.  And Xenoblade Chronicles has a lot of them.  On my playthrough, I had to remind myself to stop working on the side quests so I could continue the story.  I was already close to 12 hours into the game and just starting to set out!  Many side quests provide bonus gems, powerful equipment, and a helpful amount of experience to push the party closer to levelling up.  While helpful, the sheer number of quests available can be daunting.  At times, players might start to feel quest overload.

One unique feature to Xenoblade Chronicles is the Affinity Chart.  At its core, it shows relationships between party members, townsfolk, and individual towns.  What it also provides, is added bonuses in combat.  Party members with high affinities for each other will help each other out on the battlefield.  In addition, party members with high affinities can enable QTE attacks with their partners, to deal extra damage.  Successful attacks build party morale and further improve affinities.

Hey! It's not an RPG without some sort of crafting system!  Xenoblade Chronicles delivers on that front, too!  Players can craft gems from fallen enemies to boost stats on socketed armors.  The power of the gem is dependent on the items used, the affinity of the party members doing the crafting, and the types of flames used.  Every character brings something different to the crafting table, which encourages players to build affinities and experiment with possible combinations.  It's a fun diversion, and a great way to boost the powers of your characters.

This release uses the European English dub, most likely to save time and money.  For those of you who don't want English in your JRPG, the Japanese audio track is also available in the options.  For the purposes of this review, I used the English dub.  The characters' accents fit reasonably well, and are not particularly grating on the ears.  Overall, however, the voices took a bit of getting used to.  Having not played any European dubbed games before, certain syllables are difficult to understand.  For the uninitiated, accents require a careful ear, or at least a keen eye on the subtitles.  It's not game breaking, but for the average American, it takes some getting used to.  Reyn's voice made me do a double take when he started using the "Bone Upper" skill in battle.  His diction of "Upper" sounded quite a bit like a grunt from taking a rough hit.  Pic related.

The scores in JRPGs are always something of an art form in their own right. Xenoblade Chronicles is no exception.  The background music is the sort of stuff that makes me want to import the soundtrack straight from Japan.  Considering that Yoko Shimomura contributed to the score, this isn't surprising in the least.  She's has been hailed as the best female video game composers to date.

And, as always, there's always this trope to deal with: the bikini.  You can buy this armor set fairly early on for Fiora and Sharla.  It also happens to be one of the best early armors for female characters.  You know what they say, "the less it covers, the better it protects."  I understand the whole joke, but really?  Was this really necessary?

Controlling Xenoblade Chronicles can be easy or cumbersome, depending on how dextrous you are and whether or not you have access to a classic controller.  The standard Wii Remote and Nunchuk method makes heavy use of the d-pad on the Wii Remote and the B button on the underside.  Switching between the two can be tricky, especially if you're lacking in the dexterity department.  Thankfully, the classic controller method fixes much of these issues.  If you start getting frustrated by the standard control scheme, try out the classic controller.  It usually fixes the issues you encounter.

All in all, there is a ton to do in Xenoblade Chronicles. Fans of JRPGs should definitely check this title out, as there are few games like it in the current console generation.  Veterans of the SNES and PS1 eras should find plenty to like in this game.  Honestly, I was not interested in this title when I heard about Operation Rainfall.  I was more interested in Pandora's Tower and Fatal Frame 4.  But, I figured Nintendo was likely using this game as a test subject to see if there would be enough demand for the other titles.  If half a million petition signatures isn't enough motivation, I don't know what is.  Do you need Andrew Eisen to personally deliver the money he showed you in this video?  Would that help?

But no, on a more serious note, Xenoblade Chronicles is a pretty awesome game.  If you want to get your money's worth out of your game, this is it.  You should expect at least 30 hours just for the main story.  Add in all the side quests, exploring the maps, filling out the collection pages, and affinity charts, and there's a lot to keep the bored gamer busy.

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