It's been a strange year for the Nintendo Wii, with a sparse release schedule and many proclaiming the death of the console. Yet here we have Xenoblade Chronicles, which debuted in Japan simply as Xenoblade in June 2010. This current release is only available in Europe and PAL regions, prompting fan-group protests in North America. To be blunt, this is a game worth fighting for, and an adventure on a scale almost inconceivable on Nintendo's ageing console.
The setting of Xenoblade Chronicles is pure escapist fantasy; two colossal titans, Bionis and Mechonis, are frozen in place after an epic battle, the pair representing a world inhabited by people and machines. Bionis is the home of your character, Shulk, and the Hom people. The enemy of the Hom are the inhabitants of Mechonis; these Mechons are menacing machines that one can only truly defeat with the Monado, a mysterious weapon inherited by Shulk. He's surprisingly thoughtful and intelligent for a hero figure, while his main companion and best friend, Reyn, is likeable while more stereotypically brash and muscular. As the narrative progresses, a host of other characters play a part in the story, some accompanying Shulk for sections of the adventure. The storyline isn't prone to sentiment, however, as plot twists and major events can unexpectedly change character's roles, sometimes defying your own expectations for what is to come.
The plot is well-written, even touching at times. Localisation is competent, with voice acting that, generally, gets the job done. The voices seem mostly based on southeast England and come across as a bit of a parody at times – not that the regional accents are all bad, but a bit more variety and subtle delivery would have been nice. The characters are also a bit over-chatty during battle, however, repeating the same old phrases far too often. This title does include an option to switch to the Japanese voice track, which is a pleasing alternative.
Thankfully, the overall delivery of the storyline and the game world succeed in drawing you in. The environments to traverse are sprawling landscapes that prove some of the most impressive on the Wii. The diversity of locations and characters within each area represents a huge amount of content, a true accomplishment for the developers. While it is possible to run from checkpoint to checkpoint to progress through the story, you are encouraged to explore, speak to non-playable characters and complete side-quests. Collecting items, battling creatures and helping others enables you to accumulate money to spend as well as vital items and experience points. You continue to gain extra skills and abilities while developing stronger 'affinity' with your party members. There are a lot of areas to manage to make the most of Shulk and his teammates, too many to list here, but it is rewarding to see tangible improvements and enhancements in your capabilities.
The ecosystem and character attribute management are diverse and rich, and the gameplay itself has the same qualities. All of the work you do to buy equipment and boost abilities and affinities becomes important in battles. Most of the time you decide when to initiate a fight, though on occasions enemies will force you into combat. The actual battle mechanics are at once simple and complicated; on the simple side of things, you just move your character to within striking range of an enemy and they will automatically attack while you focus on movement. The level of detail required beyond that, however, is daunting.
Rather than turn-based battles, Xenoblade Chronicles employs a real-time system. As you manoeuvre your character you select from a number of 'Arts', each with a cool-down period before you can use them again. Some of these are offensive, some defensive, while others you strategically carry out with your party members. For example, you must 'topple' some enemies before inflicting significant damage; this requires one character to use a 'break' move, while another follows this up to knock the enemy down.
In addition, a 'party gauge' fills during the battle, needed to revive fallen comrades and, when full, initiate combo attacks. You can defeat some enemies only by way of these combos, which can lead to the occasional frustrating moment where you're unable to fill the party gauge enough to execute the move. A lost battle only means a return to a nearby checkpoint, however, with all experience intact. When you do fail here, the game makes it easy to learn your lesson and succeed the second time around.
If these mechanics sound complicated, it's because they are. There's no getting around the fact that when the screen is full of enemies intent on pulverising you, some confusion can form. Despite this, considering the sheer depth of the battle design, the interface and execution is exceptional. Not only does the game provide substantial and detailed tutorial screens with each new skill and function, but most players will find that the technique comes naturally with practice. Soon enough, you'll find yourself initiating combos and rapidly selecting specific attacks without hesitation. The game is well- balanced and introduces new elements, such as Monado 'visions' of impending danger, at just the right speed, urging you to learn more as each hour passes.
All of this complex gameplay, whether during battles, customising character clothing or forging gems, works wonderfully when controlled with the Classic Controller or Classic Controller Pro. Using the joysticks for movement and the camera is reminiscent of Monster Hunter Tri, with the exception of locking onto enemies during combat. Navigating battle menus with the d-pad also works well, and it's the best option for controlling this game. For those of you playing with a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, fear not, Monolith Soft have done a good job of utilising these for a solid experience. The camera is the only notable casualty, requiring that you hold C and look around with the d-pad. That aside, there is no waggle or pointing, the d-pad and assorted buttons working just fine.
The creativity Monolith has employed in producing the world of Xenoblade Chronicles is staggering. In terms of presentation, the immense landscapes are a delight to traverse and include some memorable enemies to battle. While some close-up camera angles expose graphical limitations, the art design more than compensates. Story cut-scenes use the in-game engine, your characters appearing in the customised outfits that you've assigned them, giving a wonderful sense of continuity. Although some of the voice acting is hit-and-miss, the soundtrack is superb, genuinely enhancing the experience.
Xenoblade Chronicles perfectly reaffirms the quality of experience possible from the JRPG genre. Epic in scale and setting, the story mode alone will consume over 50 hours of your gaming life. This isn't a title to rush through, however; you'll spend many more hours making the most of its incredible complexity, enhancing a range of abilities and exploring the world's ecosystem. Although the developers have done a terrific job of incorporating daunting detail with intuitive controls, this title is still best suited to gamers with the capability, diligence and passion to see it through. For them, this is an experience that must not be missed.