Long before there was time, there existed two ancient gods locked in an eternal struggle across a vast ocean of emptiness – the Bionis and the Mechonis. Their fierce battle shook the very core of the infant world upon which they fought. Endlessly they clashed, until their mammoth frames could no longer withstand any more. Simultaneously, the two gods struck a final blow against his rival. Then, both ceased to live. Frozen, locked in this eternal pose, the two gods remain, lifeless, as from their corpses the very essence of creation begins.
Born of the Bionis’, culture and prosperity spreads across the body of the slumbering god. But the Mechons, a race of sentient machines born out of the Mechonis, threaten the sanctity of peace. One year following the Battle of Sword Valley, at which the race of Homs held back the invading Mechons, a new breed of machine has risen, this time with a higher plan. And the only thing that can stop them is the Monado, a powerful sword that is believed to have once been wielded by the Bionis himself.
Xenoblade Chronicles, formerly known as Monado: Beginning of the World, was renamed as such to honor its director, Tetsuya Takahashi, who previously worked on Xenogears for the Playstation and the Xenosaga trilogy for the Playstation 2. And while this game bears no direct connection to either of those two, fans of his work will no doubt see the inspiration.
With a strong emphasis on characters, intense action sequences, and giant machines, whatever the name, this is definitely another classic Xeno title. Revenge and redemption are at the forefront of this epic, but filtered in are your fair share of political betrayals and archaic religious conspiracies. But don’t let these common themes fool you. Once you’ve entangled yourself in this well-paced and finely crafted story, you’ll see just how brisk this breath of fresh air really is.
The journey begins on Colony 9, located in the lower regions of the Bionis’ leg. As the hero, Shulk, you’ll quickly come to inherit the Monado, and with it, the enmity of the entire Mechon race. More than just a superficial sword, the Monado is actually both a relevant plot device and Shulk’s weapon of choice. Its purpose in the game’s evolving story translates directly into combat. Initially, you’ll only have the powers of Enhance, an aura that strengthens your party members and makes Mechon vulnerable to ordinary weapons, and Buster, a powerful swing of the Monado that damages all enemies in a straight line.
But as you progress through the story, certain events trigger latent powers in the sword that you then have access to in battles: powers such as Speed, which increases a character’s evasion and accuracy; Shield, which nullifies a special attack from an enemy; and, perhaps one of the most unique features of the sword, its ability to predict the future.
Visions, as they’re called, occur during story sequences that allow Shulk to foresee an event before it’s about to happen, and therefore allow him to change it. In battles, these are triggered automatically against particularly dangerous foes, or those of significantly higher level. Generally, a vision will occur if a future attack is guaranteed to kill one of your party members.
Once you see it, you’ll have a bar at the top of the screen counting down the time until the ability is performed. During this time, you’ll have a number of options available to affect the outcome. Alter the future or prevent it entirely – that’s all up to you.
Apart from these abilities, Shulk has a number of regular actions the player can choose to specialize in. Every playable character you come across is unique in his or her own way, with a majority of the abilities being specific to him or her. Shulk’s primary function is as a pure damage dealer. He specializes in positional-based attacks which have a chance to inflict various status ailments depending on where you strike in relation to the enemy.
The first accompanying party member you get is Shulk’s longtime friend, Reyn, who is a tank. His role is to draw the attention of all of the enemies on the field so Shulk can go about his business, and because of this, he specializes in high defense, blocking, and threat management. If you’ve played any MMO, you’ll be quite familiar with this formula.
The other side of a character’s development comes in the form of Skills, passive abilities that either strengthen your character’s stats in battle or offer other enticing benefits. You initially start with three skill trees per character, and through late game quests, you can unlock two more, giving you a hefty bit of customization you can tinker with. To add, Skill Links are possible wherein you can essentially borrow the benefits that are offered from another character’s skill tree. All of this creates a tremendous sense of personal touch to your party, truly allowing every player to mix and match his or her ensemble in the most unique of ways.
Combat itself is multifaceted, but never too daunting to seem overly complicated. The closest thing to compare it to is Final Fantasy XII. Actions are performed in real time and whichever character you control can move freely around the field. You’ll see monsters grazing about and can choose to fight or flee, although with some you must be extra careful. Certain foes will attack by sight or sound, so take caution.
You’ll be able to clearly identify the level of each enemy and its detection from the name plate that pops up when you lock on to them, so you’ll never be in the dark. Once a battle ensues, you will only have direct control of the party leader, but this can be anyone in your group and is not limited to Shulk. The group AI does a fair job of handling themselves in combat, but some are better suited for player-control than others, and the option to prioritize a character’s actions could’ve made things a touch more conducive.
On the bottom of the combat screen you’ll see your list of abilities that have been set prior to battle. Every action has a cooldown time before they can be reused, so choosing the most effective and time-sensitive ability for the right moment is an important tactic. Melee characters will auto-attack when in range of a foe if no other actions are being performed, while ranged characters will do the same from any distance.
All of this is happening in real time, so quick thinking is an absolute must. Whether to heal or to put up a defensive buff, just like Shulk you must be able to predict events before they happen so you that can prevent them. Of course your style of play will change quite dramatically depending on the character you’re controlling, and that’s what makes the system so great. No two characters are exactly alike.
But combat is just a small, dare I say fractional part of this game. The world that has become the lifeless corpse of the Bionis is vast and varied. From the early plains of Colony 9 to the stunningly beautiful Eryth Sea, the scope of Xenoblade Chronicles is absolutely mammoth. This is one of the largest, most delicately crafted worlds in recent years. You will spend hours simply exploring each and every location you come across. The quests that will have you venturing out into this magnificent world come in a small handful of varieties, and once again, those familiar with an MMO will certainly be accustomed to them: fetch quests that have you go out and scavenge up X amount of items; kill quests that beg you to go and exterminate Y amount of monsters; or discovery quests that want you to go visit someone in a distant city.
Rarely will the quest formula differ from these, although sometimes the kill quests will have you search for and fell one foe instead of a pack, and these usually consist of the special named mobs that are significantly more difficult than those around them.
The quests that do stand apart from the traditional are definitely the ones you’ll remember, such as an entire subplot revolving around the reconstruction of a colony, or the little character-driven storylines that have you exploring the development of incidental NPCs whom you might not have ever thought twice about. These latter quests are measured in the affinity chart, a literal web of interconnected non-playable characters.
Interacting with and helping these people out will affect their relationship with others and their opinion of you, thereby opening up the way for new quests. Every major location has its own individual affinity web, and the more you work at it, the more quests available to you.
If there is a single gripe I have with the quest system, it wouldn’t be that the quests lack variety, because the world itself is such a living, breathing character that it’s an absolute joy to go out and explore. Rather, the flaw in the system is its vagueness. Most quests are very broad in their descriptions of where a pack of enemies or a person might be. The lack of a quest tracker makes many of them a little tedious to complete, especially given the sheer amount of them there are in the game (there are roughly over 400 quests).
However, such is another instance when the Monado may come into play. Like his visions in combat, Shulk also has the ability to see events when picking up items. Come across something you currently have no use for and you may see a scene that hints at a future quest. These items are then noted in your inventory with an exclamation mark, reminding you that they will soon have a purpose. This helps to alleviate some of the running around you might need to do in order to complete the quest after you’ve received it and creates a bit of anticipation when exploring.
In addition to that, the game utilizes several time-saving features. An active day and night cycle will affect many things, such as what enemies you encounter or which NPCs you can speak with. At any time out of combat you can turn the clock back or forward and this will in no way affect anything story related. The game also has a dynamic weather system which is not directly under your control, but if you change the clock frequently enough, you may bring on a thunderstorm. This, too, has some effect on certain enemy spawns. Something that Xenoblade does which too many of its contemporaries neglect is the ability to save anywhere in game.
In the field, in a dungeon, in a city – if you need to save, you can. And possibly the most helpful tool is the fast travel system which allows you to move freely to any previously visited landmark in the game. Landmarks are scattered around each map and there are usually a significant number of them to make traveling simple. Exploration has actual value as well, not just in seeing and absorbing the beautiful world, but you’ll earn experience, ability points, and skill points for every landmark and location you discover (which in turn opens up more fast travel destinations). An in-game achievement system also tracks your exploits and awards you similarly, and these can record everything from battle prowess to questing.
Throughout the world you’ll find collectibles – blue orbs that translate to various types of items once you pick them up. These items are used for a variety of features, but their primary function is for the Collectopedia, a type of scrap book where you can store the items you’ve acquired to earn rewards. Each item is separated into a specific category inside the Collectopedia, and each area of the game has its own individual page, so you’ll never be required to find an item in the first city that you need to fill out for a late-game page. Complete a row in the book and you’ll earn a reward. Complete the entire page for that area, and reap an even greater prize.
The collectibles are also used as part of those vision-quests, and many of them will also be needed in the colony reconstruction subplot, both mentioned earlier, so it’s always smart to hold on to them even if you’ve already filled out that page. Finally, you can trade them as gifts to your party members to help increase their affinity. Much like the affinity quests for random NPCs, party members will build affinity depending on certain actions. Build it up high enough and you can activate certain scenes across the Bionis with two characters. These scenes, known as Heart-to-Hearts, are largely independent of the overall story, but serve to help strengthen the emotional bond between player and character.
Affinity with a party member can increase in a number of ways both in and out of combat. More than just a tool to learn about your characters, like the Monado, affinity has a direct correlation to combat. The higher your affinity is with a party member, the more skills you will be able to link together with them.
The game is certainly pleasing on the eyes. Considering the obvious limitations of the console, it’s amazing that Monolith Soft could even craft such a massive world. From a distance, the environments are nothing short of brilliant: cascading waterfalls, glimmering floating cities, a lush forest on top of a crumbling canyon. Up close, however, textures are flat and character models look stiff. Faces in particular are noticeably doe-eyed and lifeless. This is partly offset, of course, by the game’s scope and its intelligent monster and costume design. Because the visuals are rendered entirely in game, this allows the armor and weapons of a character to appear anywhere in or outside of battle, including during story events.
Like those that were named before it, Xenoblade Chronicles boasts a tremendously diverse score that makes every accompanying scene twice as entertaining. From combat to simply running around the fields on the Bionis’ leg, or the hauntingly beautiful melody of the Satorl Marsh at night, the music is perfect. The voices do great justice to their characters, as well. On very rare occasions, someone like Reyn may spit out his lines with unintended haste, but for the most part every character is voiced responsibly and adds to the incredible heart of the story.
The story alone does a fine job of building character development, and it’s not long before you start to get a real sense of understanding of these people and their plight. They are a legitimate group of companions, and even the typical mascot character has his moments of insight. But the Heart-to-Hearts are where a lot of the subtleties of a character reside, and players who seek to watch them all will undoubtedly be rewarded.
The end result is a game that understands the faults of its forsaken brethren and has sought to overcome every prejudice and tradition of the Japanese RPG. Instead of abandoning its roots, however, it learns to improve them and bring them up to current standards without losing its touch. Never punishingly difficult, not apologetically easy, Xenoblade Chronicles strikes the perfect chord, allowing you quick and immediate access to everything a game normally neglects. It’s a wholly satisfying experience from start to finish, a finish that will last those who endear themselves to this fabulous world nearly 100 hours.
This game is indifferent to your opinion of Japanese or Western titles. Don’t let a superstition fool you – Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the finest role-playing games this generation.