Xenoblade Chronicles: Impressions so far
I have owned Xenoblade Chronicles for a little while, but because I’m both easily distracted and not primarily a console gamer I have only been able to put 23 and a half hours into it, and reached level 30 (out of a max of 99, though I’ve heard monsters can reach 120, yikes). I have no real clue how far into the game I am or how much is left, but I’m guessing I might be halfway. It is a very interesting title, so I figured I’d give some of my impressions so far.
Xenoblade Chronicles is an exclusive for the Nintendo Wii developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo themselves. Considering all I had really heard about the game was that it was a JRPG with an interesting story, I had certain expectations of what was in store. I am not a JRPG veteran as such, as I never owned a PS2 for monetary reasons, but I have played my fair share of them from all the way back to the SNES days.
Be warned there will be a few minor spoilers in here.
Starting up the game you are treated to your first taste of its phenomenal musical score at the main menu. Choosing new game will lead you into the opening cinematic, which does reveal just how blocky things look on the Wii. Character looks and animations are hardly fantastic either, but the game does sport a very nice artistic style with a lot of charm to make up for the shortcomings of the GPU. Usually I wouldn’t even talk much about graphics when discussing a game, but I know this will be a point of contention for a lot of people, and I’m just urging you to look past it.
The plot goes as follows. In the beginning there was just an endless ocean until two titans came into existence. They were the Bionis and the Mechonis, and they were mortal enemies, fighting for ages in a battle that never seemed to end until they both remained lifeless and still. Eventually they evolved life and became the homes of several types of creatures and people. At the time of the game the Bionis is inhabited by several organic races, including the Homs (humans) and the Nopon (some strange little round things that like to bounce) who are the two most numerous, and several types of monsters/animals (other races are hinted at and talked about, but not yet seen by me). The Mechonis is as far as anyone knows only home to the Mechon, a savage race with of mechanical beings that for some reason tend to assault the races of the Bionis and eat them. (I must admit the eating part confuses me. Why do they do this? Do they need to do this? Why would they need to? Maybe that’s explained later on.) Mechon armour is too thick for conventional weapons to do any real damage to, but the Homs and Nopon have a magical macguffin sword called the Monado that is super effective versus Mechon and can even enchant other weapons with the ability to penetrate Mechon armour. The downside is that few people can control the Monado, and even those that can tend to become rather damaged from the experience.
We get to see a huge battle a year before current events where the Mechon march on the last few remaining Homs/Nopon colonies, and only a valiant effort by Dunban, the current Monado wielder, and his closest compatriots manage to push them back at great cost. After a brief combat tutorial that left me more confused than enlightened, we are given another brief cutscene before they fast-forward a year and introduce us to Shulk, a young man who is part mechanic and part scientist, resident of Colony 9 and main protagonist. He is out scavenging in a wreckage site for Mechon parts, because of their superior durability, when he is attacked by an angry, territorial hermit crab, and his friend Reyn has to come to his rescue. We are given another combat tutorial which thankfully explains things better.
Combat is done all in real time, where you have to manage aggro, position yourself as best as possible and make use of the fact that a lot of attacks have extra effects when they strike a certain part of your enemy (usually sides or back). You only control one character at a time while the rest of the group fight according to their AI. You can change who leads the group, though not in combat. You can have max 3 party members active at a time, which does make it a little hard to pick when you get more to take along, but I’m certain you’ll find a dynamic you like soon enough. Though you can (and might prefer to) use the Classic Controller, I have had no real issues sticking with the Wiimote + Nunchuk setup. Using the D-pad you can select what ability you want to use, and A activates it. Your character will also auto-attack so long as you’re in range (and in line of sight for ranged characters) of the enemy. There are also little compatriot moments during combat where if you hit B at the right time, one of your party members will gain a little boost/buff and your affinity with them will increase. I am not sure what triggers these moments, but they do help you stay alert. The combat system isn’t ground-breaking, but it’s certainly different from what I was expecting, and I quite enjoy it.
After the tutorial is over, you got another brief little cutscene before you’re let loose on the world. My first instinct was to test out all the buttons to see what they do, and as such discovered my first novelty. Pressing B makes you jump. The game has a jump button. A JRPG has a jump button. So long as you’re not in combat, in a cutscene or navigating the menu, you can jump at will. This intrigued me greatly.
C is used to control to camera. Hold to use D-pad to move it around, quick tap to centre it forwards in the direction you’re facing.
Z is used to target the closest enemy in camera view. Hold it for a second to lock on, then keep holding and use D-pad to change between available targets. Now you can choose to initiate combat, which brings up another B prompt that can give you a little bonus to start out combat with if you get it right (it’s not that hard, really). I’ve never found it to be strictly necessary, but it’s a nice touch. Could be it’s more important later in the game.
The analog stick moves you around, even if you’re doing something else with the menu or camera or targeting, so long as the game-world is visible. Nudge a little to walk, press all the way to run.
– (minus) is used to open the menu. This doesn’t immediately pause the game, which might be annoying to some, but I quite like that I can still keep running while I find the option I want and select it to go into a different screen (which does pause the game). You use the D-pad to move between the options, A to select and B to go back/close (so you can’t jump while navigating the menu).
+ (plus) is used when little announcements occur. The game does occasionally forcefeed you tutorial and gameplay exposition, but mostly it simply pops up a little hint window in the bottom-right to indicate a quest or the affinity chart has been updated, or that some effect happened in combat and maybe you’d like an explanation, so you can hit + to get more info on that.
1 is used to open the map of your current location. Convenient to see where you are, where you’re going, or to quickly access local quick-travel points. See, when you reach certain points on the map they are activated as a Landmark, and you can use them as quick-travel points. If you go into the map menu, you can quick-travel to anywhere in the world you’ve already visited, or at least to its closest Landmark.
2 is used to initiate trade with named NPCs. Trade can score you neat things, like armour, weapons, components or even quest items. As far as I’ve seen, it is entirely optional, but if you find the right NPC, it can save you some trouble, as certain items are easier to get than others, and those might be valuable enough to get the rare item for. If you give them something with a value far surpassing what you want to trade for, they might even give you a bonus item to go with it.
After horsing around for a bit experimenting, I went with Reyn to the colony entrance, where he told me he had to go check on some stuff while Shulk told him he had to go to work. So my next objective was to go to work. However, thought I, can’t I just run around some more? And indeed I could. The world, or at least the whole area of colony 9 was at my feet, so I ran off into the hills. I had already started collecting these little blue things that were strewn around the ground, which turned out to be collectibles that also work as components, quest items and trade items depending on what they are and who wants them. I also found while checking the item menu that were was a sub-choice there that led me into a Collectopaedia where I could spend one item to register it in my scrapbook to get a little flavour text, and also a reward if I completed a whole category, or a bigger reward if I completed a whole page. So it was immediately my goal to see if I could find them all (the blue orbs seem to randomly spawn a collectible. If you find a red one it’s a unique special quest item).
At the top of the hill I found some guards by a cave that I reckoned it wasn’t safe to go inside on my own. I had also noticed that most monsters didn’t pay any attention to me. I only later learned they have three types of alertness. Regular types that don’t attack you unless you attack them. Vision types that are marked by a little eye symbol above their name next to their level will attack if they see you (unless you’re too high level) and auditory types that have a little speaker above their name. These are blind, but will attack if they hear you, so you can sneak by if you walk carefully. Using this information I’ve been able to get by creatures way above my level. Plus you can also just run away as fast as your legs can carry you if you’re spotted by something you don’t want to fight. If the enemy is faster than you though, you might be boned. Certain enemies are also marked with a … which means they will attack you if you attack any of their kind nearby. When targeting an enemy you can also do a range pull if you want to get them away from others by using the D-pad to go down and change the initiate combat action.
On my way down from the hill, I noticed a cliff, and thought “wouldn’t it be funny if I could jump off that?”. So I leaped, expecting an invisible wall, but instead found myself falling over the edge. “Oh shit,” I thought, before I luckily landed in the lake that was below. Maybe the game developers expected this kind of behaviour. This is also how I discovered that it’s possible to swim in this game, and that swimming is no slower than running. The protagonists must be pro athletes. It’s also a nice touch that how deep you go in the water depends on how high you fell from. If you hit land though, you might die from a high fall because there is fall damage in this game. Luckily all death does is warp you back to the nearest activated Landmark. It’s a game that encourages you to explore by removing all the invisible walls and giving you the ability to get almost anywhere. It is also not afraid to kill you if you go to an area where the enemies are way too high level for you, which can be anywhere, so be sure you target monsters to see their level and alertness type, and if anything suddenly spots you and comes after you, it’s best to just run to be on the safe side.
So I ran and swam around all over the place for well over an hour (maybe two) before I finally went into town where I discovered my next time sink: Named NPCs. Talking to a named NPC for the first time adds them to your affinity chart. Which NPCs are out when is determined by the in-game day/night cycle. The affinity chart tells you when they’ll be about if you’ve already talked to them. Named NPCs will be marked by a little dot on your minimap, but it can be really hard to see. As you find more and more of them, you can sometimes link them together by talking to them several times and finding out who’s connected/related to whom. This might open up extra sidequests to help them improve their relations with eachother and up your reputation in the town. It is a mini-game of sorts that I have spent hours on. I wish I’d found out sooner that from the menu you can actually change the time of day to whatever you want it to be, to try to trigger different conversations with different NPCs. You don’t need to do any of this, really, it’s just a side attraction, and one that’s highly engrossing for me. Some of these people I’ve started to feel like I know. And I found out quite recently that improving your reputation in the area also improves the stuff they’ll trade with you, which tempts me to go back and check my trading options with everyone again. I will never finish this game.
There is of course a leveling system in the game. You get three main forms of experience. The regular kind that just ups your combat level, which levels your stats automatically, and then you also earn AP (art points), which you use to level up your arts, as your combat abilities are called. You get new arts automatically as you level up, and you can only have 8 equipped at a time, so there’s some strategy into picking the right ones and then choosing which to level up and how much.
The third kind is SP (skill points), which levels up your skill tree. Each character has several skill trees and can unlock more during the game via quests. As they level up the skill tree, they can set up skill links with other characters (which costs affinity coins). I must admit that I don’t fully understand how this system works, but from what I’ve gathered it’s like a linear talent tree. Picking different trees gives you different bonuses, and they can even decide what class of armour you can use.
I must say I quite like the voice-acting in this game. It’s not spectacular for the most part, but it’s refreshing to play a game where everyone talks in various British dialects/accents, and it gives a certain personality to the world that makes it stand out even further from other games. I’ve heard they kept those vocals when they released it in the US, and that is great, because there are some absolutely, fabulously spectacular voices in the game, and those belong to the villainous Mechon. See, most Mechon don’t speak, or even really seem to think much, but there are a few that serve as generals for the armies, and they are glorious. Their performances are absolutely amazing, and the game is worth playing just for them.
I am enjoying the story quite a lot as well. The world is full of mysteries and intrigue, the biggest mysteries being the Monado, the Mechon and their generals, but there are loads of other smaller things to immerse yourself into as well. I do wish I remembered to take the time to play this game more often, because between the characters, the music, the world and all the little distractions it’s a wonderful place to be, even when terrible things are happening. And I haven’t even mentioned merchants or crafting yet. I’ll leave some things for you to find out on your own though.
After Shulk picks up the Monado (as we knew he would) and discovers he can use it without any obvious repercussions (as we knew he could), the game introduces another mechanic: visions. The Monado gives Shulk visions, usually of the future, that might tell him the fate of someone close to him, what happened or is going to happen in the area he’s in, or just give a glimpse into a possible future for someone he talks to. A lot of the visions are quite horrible, so part of the story is how Shulk and his friends try to prevent them from coming true. This can even occur in combat, if an enemy is about to use an ability which will KO (or severely hurt) a party member, you’ll be warned, and can then try to do something to prevent it.
A small thing that I’d nonetheless like to mention. Different armour has different looks in this game, so changing what your characters are wearing actually changes their appearance. Like I had Shulk running around in a pair of swim trunks for a while because of the awesome stats. He has nice legs.
If there are any issues, well, it does sometimes feel a little cheap when you suddenly run into high-level monsters in otherwise low-level areas. I’m just glad there’s no real penalty for dying. I sometimes get annoyed when I forget to close the menu properly and I click a button to do one thing, and it does something completely different. Raising affinity between team members can take a long time, and becomes extra difficult when you can only have 3 of them out at one time, yet you have 4 or 5 total. As with my skill tree/link example above, the game can feel a bit impenetrable at times, and you get into the same old JRPG feeling of needing a strategy guide to play the game properly.
I regard those as minor niggles though. All in all I’ve had a blast with Xenoblade: Chronicles so far, and I see it as a rare treat compared to other more traditional JRPGs. Maybe something will change and I’ll hate the game by the time I’m finished with it, but if it’s stayed good for over 20 hours, I think that’s improbable, though not impossible as it has happened before.
So if this sounds at all interesting to you, I highly recommend you check it out, maybe even if you don’t normally like the JRPG genre. I would go so far as to call it a must-buy for the Wii.