This is an impressive game, and I truly mean that: though not perfect, what Tetsuya Takahashi and his team accomplished here is nothing short of magical. Xenoblade is an absolute treat for anyone craving a JRPG with wondrous worlds and larger-than-life storylines, and on the whole, offers an experience unlike many others, one that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Right in the first minute of the game, Xenoblade throws its crazy-ass mythos into your face. In ages past, two colossal gods, 巨神 (Bionis; literally Giant God) and 機神 (Mechonis; literally Machine God) fought each other to the death like this was the ending to fucking Highlander and perished pretty much at the same time. But wait, there’s more: the massive, now immobile corpses of Bionis and Mechonis actually serve as the world the entire game takes place in. Yes, really. People established entire towns and colonies atop the corpse of a god. I mean, okay, I’ll admit it’s not exactly a giant space-faring turtle with four elephants on top but hell, it’s probably the next best thing.
As a side note, what was wrong with keeping the original JP title of just Xenoblade? Why did it have to be Xenoblade Chronicles in the west? I mean, that’s right up there with “origins” and “revelations” as one of the most boring, unimaginative words to ever be used in the title of a… well, anything, really. But I digress.
So anyway, the storyline of Just-Xenoblade-Without-Chronicles focuses on a young man by the name of Shulk, a year after a climactic battle against the Mechon, the denizens of the Mechonis who came to invade the populace of the Bionis, that is, humans and various other sentient creatures. Now, I’m not gonna spoil much about the plot itself, but it’s a very… JRPG plot, for lack of a better term. That’s not to say it’s generic or bad, though. It’s quite the grand journey with twists and turns, laughs and tears, ups and downs – and by the end of it, things are so staggeringly grander in scale compared to the first few hours that you’ll almost forget just how humble your beginnings were. So, like I’ve just said: it’s a very JRPG plot.
Though the story does heavily lose steam at certain parts that feel like they were added in to be mere padding (“oh hey the path ahead is blocked by ice, let’s take a detour to the lava caves to find something to melt it with”, etc.) and some of the foreshadowing felt kind of heavy-handed, the game makes up for it in spades with its captivating atmosphere and a final narrative stretch that will likely have you on the edge of your seat due to how much shit goes down in it.
Probably the one thing almost everyone remembers or tells you about Xenoblade is how insanely gorgeous and fun to explore its locations are. Seven years later, this is still absolutely true: Monolith Soft single-handedly proved that art direction and a creative vision will beat sheer polygon count any day, any year, any universe, delivering one of most (if not THE most) impressively vibrant video game worlds the Wii’s limited hardware capabilities could conjure up. From vast green plains through lush, humid jungles, all the way to a grand floating metropolis above a sparkling turquoise sea, Xenoblade has it all, and you will seriously struggle to scrape your jaw off the floor every time your party travels to a new location. Long story short, it’s an absolutely joy just to be in this game, even after 100+ hours, and that’s a feat not every title can claim to have achieved, even today. Honestly, the only type of location I sorely missed from Xenoblade was a desert, but sadly, no such area made an appearance in the story. Which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorite location types in JRPGs along with oases. Now that I think about it, I probably have FFXII to blame for making me fall in love with them.
Speaking of which, Final Fantasy XIII actually came out roughly around the same time as this game on a more powerful system, and its idea of an “open world theme park” looks absolutely pitiful by comparison. But I’ve already ranted about how much I hate Gran Pulse back when I wrote about FFXIII, so go read that review in case you’re interested.
Xenoblade, being the Good Samaritan that it is, absolutely rewards exploration. Its locations are teeming with various optional locations and secret areas to find, and though the levels are fairly big, it’s worth trekking through all of them. Well, provided you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys exploring every nook and cranny. If not, you can simply follow the beaten path. But for everyone else… boy, this game sure is a treasure trove of cool shit.
Like, let’s say you’re traveling along these huge floating platforms above the Eryth Sea, right? If you see some island down there in the distance, you don’t just go “oh, that must be part of the background”. No, you go “so who wants to go for a swim, ONE TWO THREE JUMP”. At the cost of sounding like Todd Howard of Every Mountain Can Be Climbed fame, yes, you can swim to that island in the distance and explore it. For reals. Or swim further and find a little cave, or find some isolated ruin that has nothing to do with the main story but you can go there anyway. I’ve had dozens of moments like this in the game. And you can explore as much as you want without the fear of losing progress, too, as dying merely places you back to the last checkpoint you visited with no penalties whatsoever, so you can pick up your severed limbs from the ground and go on your merry way like you didn’t just get curbstomped by that Lv80+ giant ape that happened to fart in your general direction. By the way, did I mention the day-and-night cycle? Or the weather system? Trees will sway gently in the wind, and you’ll see split-second flashes of the Mechonis’ colossal husk in the distance every time lighting strikes during a storm, just to mention a few things that stood out to me. Oh, and there are separate musical tracks for day and night, which is just the cherry on top at this point.
On the flip side, some of the areas, much like the narrative, do tend to drag on too much. There are a handful of dungeons that I honestly feel like should’ve been cut in half because trudging through them felt like a massive patience-trying grind. Looking at you, Ether Mine, Mechonis Field and Central Factory, you trio of bloated, fat pigs. At several points, I really wished this game had a turbo button like FFXII Internatioal / The Zodiac Age.
Right, so before we go any further with this review, there is something we need to get out of the way. Are you ready? Because I am. Okay, here goes.
Melia is best girl.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that we all understand and accept this one sentence as the universal truth that governs the multiverse. So say it with me: Melia is best girl. She is too pure. Too good for this world. A beautiful cinnamon roll.
Okay, now that we’re done with that, let’s talk some more about the characters, especially since I feel like your mileage may vary on this front. Do you want every other character to have a tragic past they must spend 40+ hours to get over? Then the Xenoblade cast is not for you. Do you want a group of friends that bond during a long journey and support each other through thick and thin? In that case, you’ve come to the right place. Mostly.
I personally don’t think every JRPG character must be a bastion of brooding to be interesting, which is probably why I had no trouble warming up to the cast here. Sure, they’re not fantastic or anything, and we’re certainly not talking Kiseki levels of character development here, of course, but they were decent enough, especially if you do the game’s optional mini bonding events (Heart-to-Heart in English, Kizuna Talk in Japanese) and pay attention to their various mid- and post-battle quotes. I’m not kidding, some of my favorite funny moments came from post-battle quotes. And that’s what I liked about Xenoblade’s cast: they weren’t a band of whiny teenagers, but a close-knit family of sorts who had each other’s backs in battle, but also had the time to crack a joke or two. Hell, the way how Reyn casually calls Riki “ossan” (roughly “old man”, I don’t know how/if it was localized) is, in itself, just super adorable and really illustrates what I mean.
And while I did make that joke earlier, Melia is legit my favorite character in the game. She basically personifies everything I love in a female character: emotionally strong, noble, loyal, all seasoned with just a sprinkle of feminine bashfulness. Also she’s just cute af holy mother of shit she is the most adorable thing in the world jesus FUCK. Anyway, she was voiced by Katsuta Shiori, who seems to have had very few roles in the industry since. I find this a little sad as she has a really cool voice and did a fantastic job as Melia, which, by the way, was actually her debut role.
Okay, so about the combat. It’s actually fairly easy to learn, but gives you enough options to prevent it from getting too stale. It practically plays like an MMORPG: you have your tanks, your DPSs, and your healers. And various other skills to play around with. The cool thing about it is that each character has plenty of battle Arts to choose from, so you can plan your own builds and party compositions to your heart’s content. This resulted in me rotating my party quite frequently to play as different characters and introduce some variety.
Melia, for example, operates with elemental projectiles that can both do damage (if you shoot them at the enemy) or provide constant buffs if you keep them around without hurling them off. She’s a fantastic damage dealer, though it’s best to control her yourself since the AI can’t really utilize her to her full potential. Reyn is the traditional tank who nonetheless has a few interesting tricks up his sleeve to deal monster damage (Magnum Charge), while Dunban is the evasion tank whose agility will let him pretty much dodge everything as he dishes out rapid bursts of damage and steals aggro from others.
And let’s not forget Riki, who’s basically MORE DOTS: The Character. He might seem fairly gimmicky at first, but he’s probably one of the most useful characters in the game, with his shit-ton of HP, sick-nasty DoT spells and a decent area heal, among other things. Guess he’s not called a legendary hero for nothing. My other personal favorite was probably Seven (the fandom’s codename for the seventh character that joins you), whose quick auto-attacks combined with Haste turned them into an unstoppable beast of non-stop DPS. My end-game strategy was basically to put both Riki and Seven in the party and watch as the damage numbers (and the enemy heads) began to roll.
Ironically enough, Shulk is probably among the more boring characters to play as, since his Art setup is very limited and other than some positioning (think backstabs and such) he doesn’t have to do much. For late-game bosses, all I basically did as him was spam Monado Armor and that was it. Moving on: Carna (Sharla in the west) is your dedicated healer, who doesn’t actually have too many damage Arts, making playing as her fairly uneventful. Unless you like healing. She does have this one Art that basically insta-kills an enemy under certain conditions, though, so that’s always fun to pull off.
I’ve already implied that the battle AI isn’t as effective at controlling some characters, and this is more or less true. Melia was one example I used, but Shulk’s Monado Arts are also better left in the player’s hands, since in my case, AI Shulk often ended up using Arts I didn’t really want or need. Nonetheless, the AI won’t get you killed, and will do its best to have your back (they’ll even hastily run over and revive you, should you be KO’d), so overall I didn’t have too many problems with it aside from a few isolated incidents.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that I found myself constantly trying new things and different characters during my playthrough due to the vastly different play styles and options at your disposal. Every time a boss kicked my ass for whatever reason, I’d switch in this or that character to try a different strategy. Which is always cool.
And now for the not-so-great parts of Xenoblade. I’ll try to sum it up in one sentence:
This game is a completionist’s worst nightmare.
The side quests. My fucking god, the side quests. There are so many. This is the primary criticism brought up when it comes to Xenoblade, and I more or less agree with it. The game completely fucking overwhelms you with just how many tedious, MMO-tier hunt/fetch quests it dumps on you, like a a porn star with a big ol’ dong who simply doesn’t know how to stop ejaculating, so in the end you’re left with your face covered in a glorious mess of Side Quest Bukkake. I mean, you’d walk into this new area, and the very same NPC would unload 4-5 quests on you in quick succession. And then you’d meet three more NPCs like that in the area. The vast majority of these brain dead quests consist of collecting random drops (get ready to pray to RNJesus, by the way) from enemies or the field, or killing X number of a certain enemy. Which, thankfully, also means that by simply playing the game normally and exploring/killing shit in your way, you will likely complete a portion of these quests without even really trying.
Still, I would recommend not doing every single one, unless you’re a hopeless completionist: partly because you’ll get seriously burned out, and also because the sheer amount of XP you’ll gain in the process will leave you severely overleveled and make every fight in the game yawn-inducingly simple. I mean, if that’s your thing, go knock yourself out, but I figured I’d give a fair warning: if you actually want to enjoy the game’s combat mechanics as intended, try not to go too crazy with the leveling. Anyway, the fetch quests got so boring that after a while, I ended up just spamming through the dialogue and blindly accepting everything to make the process as painless as possible. If there’s one minor positive thing to gain out of the whole questing process, it was that it gave me an excuse to revisit some of my favorite locations in the game.
Oh, but it gets better. And by better I mean worse, because in order to unlock your characters’ additional skill trees (they grant you various cool buffs), you have to do certain side quests. Sounds normal so far. Except… the prerequisites for these quests can be INSANE and require you to essentially keep doing side quests until your brain fucking fries. So it works like this: some of the quests you need in order to unlock additional skill trees for characters require you to have a certain level of Affinity with an area or town. Like… four out of five stars, for example. You raise this level by, you guessed it, doing side quests. A LOT of side quests. And by lot, I mean I must’ve spent at least 10 hours fucking around with this. Maybe more. Because guess what, you’ll already max out your default skill trees way before the game ends, which means all the points you accumulate afterwards would all go to waste. So you’re sort of compelled to unlock more skill trees, but for that you have to do these quests, but in order to unlock those quests in the first place you have to do a bunch of other quests but in order to unlock THOSE you first have to do some OTHER quests AND FUCKING END MY SUFFERING I’M GONNA SHOVE MY SHINY MONADO UP THE ASS OF EVERY NOPON IN FRONTIER VILLAGE I SWEAR TO CHRIST DON’T TEST ME
Ahem. As a result, I actually reached the 99 hours 59 minutes time limit way before finishing the game. Sadly, the Japanese version doesn’t count your play time beyond that (quite baffling considering how much shit there is to do in the game), so I’m actually not sure how much I had spent with the game by the time the credits started rolling. Based on pure feeling, probably somewhere in the vicinity of 120-130 hours, maybe? Guess I’ll never know.
If I’m to be candid, the bonus skill trees are probably not a must-have necessity, which makes this whole thing mostly a minor issue at best. But tying them to something so mercilessly tedious and time-consuming is… a questionable design choice, I feel. So is the fact that in order to fully max out your combat Arts, you have to collect the necessary Art Books from… get ready for this… random treasure chest drops. Like, you can finish the game without all this, I’ll admit. It’s totally optional. But the fact you can’t even max out your simple, everyday Battle Arts without having to trek across half the world looking for the right monster that may or may not drop the Art Book is just… I mean, I’ll readily defend Xenoblade from “lol it’s just an offline MMO” type of arguments, but this particular aspect is kinda hard to defend.
The other thing is that finding quest-related NPCs can be an absolute pain. Why? Because the game doesn’t have a quest compass for side quests, so you’ll basically just have to run around the place until you find the person. It doesn’t help that due to the day/night cycle, different characters will appear during different times of the day, and some of them will even be patrolling around the area, just to make your life even harder. Now, there’s actually an in-game chart that lists when NPCs are active but 1: you have to first talk to an NPC to have them added to the chart and 2. said chart doesn’t list the exact location of the NPC, just that they’re in “Town X”. Gee, thanks, I know he’s in Town X, but it would be nice to also know exactly which one of the myriad floors of Town X he’s on, you know? The solution? Use a guide. Seriously. I would’ve gone insane otherwise.
The game’s menu system is also a bit of a mess, and you’ll spend a lot of time navigating through its cumbersome windows. Furthermore, inventory management is extremely tedious, with you having to manage and sell everything one by one. Like, there is no mass-select or mass-sell option at all. Similarly, gem-crafting, that is, creating gemstones that you can insert into your gear’s open slots to gain nice bonuses, is another thing I simply never enjoyed. It felt like repetitive busywork. To me, it also seemed a little luck-based, so get used to the idea of having to reload a few times when a gem-crafting attempt doesn’t quite come out the way you wanted it to.
And while we’re on the topic of gear, this game is a constant struggle of trying not to look hideous vs. having good stats. Like, I’d spend long minutes picking and choosing equipment for my characters that gave them acceptable stats but also didn’t make them look like a walking freak show attraction. And it’s hard, because a good chunk of the armor sets in the game are really quite… ugly. There’s just no other way to put it. There are a handful of very good looking ones, but for the most part, your party will look like a band of circus rejects unless you take the time to go all Fashion Souls on this shit. And even then it’s a bit of an uphill battle.
We’re nearing the finish line of the review, and I want to end things on a positive note, so… let’s talk about the soundtrack. You thought I was never gonna bring up the soundtrack, I bet. But no, it actually contributes a great deal to what makes Xenoblade, Xenoblade. Composed by ACE+, Manami Kiyota, Yoko Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda, Xenoblade’s OST is like a secondary main character and very much deserves to be up there with NieR and such as one of the most memorable video game soundtracks of all time. Compositions like the bold and powerful main theme, heart-rending tunes like “Parting, And…” and “While I Think”, or the adrenaline-boosting masterpieces of “Mechanical Rhythm” and “Those Who Bear Their Name” are all tracks I will forever remember and point to as shining examples to be followed.
So here we are. After 3500-ish words, I can finally wrap up this monster of a review. I wouldn’t say Xenoblade is the flawless, world-saving JRPG Jesus Christ that will forgive your sins and cure cancer while also doing your laundry, but… it’s still pretty damn good. To call it a flawed gem would be quite apt indeed: though sadly burdened with varying levels of tedium and a few questionable design choices, Xenoblade still deserves a place in the JRPG hall of fame as a title that is unique, memorable, and absolutely worth experiencing at least once.