Nintendo goes it's own way more often than not, sometimes with spectacular results, sometimes with a resounding thud. And in the case of Xenoblade Chronicles, Nintendo and their first party studio Monolith Soft tried to go their own way through every step of making this game.
From finished development of Xenoblade in 2010, all the way to marketing and localization, the final game shows a company with an immense amount of talent; one that is stuck between market schisms within a volatile industry, and is unsure how to sell it's own product to a fractured customer base. Hence, the fan outrage and the Birth of Operation: Rainfall.
It is now clear looking back, that just like everybody else, the Wii phenomenon caught Nintendo off guard in 2007-2008. With an installed base that was rapidly swelling and generating record profits, and a large base of gamers that had not yet been spoiled by the High Definition graphics on more powerful systems, the go ahead was given to Monolith Studios to make the game.
And what a game it is that director Tesuya Takahashi has delivered to a declining and under appreciative Wii audience. When taking into consideration the scope of it's ambition and the size of its world, as well as the staggering amount of content Xenoblade Chronicles has to offer, the game can be described as nothing short of a flawed masterpiece.
Firing up Xenoblade, the player is informed that there are two cosmic beings, the Bionis and the Mechonis, each locked in a deadly struggle like giant Robeasts from the Voltron cartoon. After they destroy each other and are adrift in space, life in all of it's forms evolves and comes to inhabit the surface of these beings. It is against this backdrop that the descendants on each floating titan—the Homs, Nopon, and High Entia on Bionis, and the Mechons of Mechonis---are engaged in a great war with each other.
Our hero is a young Hom from Colony Nine on Bionis named Shulk. Shulk is a scientist at heart, and ever since the Mechon attacked his friends at the battle of Sword Valley, he has been trying to unlock the mysterious power of the Monado Sword so he can prevent another attack on his friends. Shulk is joined on his adventures by his friend Reyn, a loyal and dim-witted defense force soldier, Dunban, the one armed hero of Sword Valley, and Melia Antiqua, Princess of the High Entia. Sharla, a sniper and healer from Colony Six, and the Nopon Riki as comic relief, help to round out the main cast of playable characters.
Aside from the main party, all of the characters populating Xenoblade are extremely detailed and have deep personalities, and there are literally hundreds of characters to interact with. An affinity chart even exists in the game to track relationships between all of the people. Within your party, the higher the affinity level goes between your characters, the more special abilities and talent arts you are able to unlock. You can even choose which emotional characteristics your characters strengthen each other's affinity with. There also are spots on the map that are called heart to hearts. If you meet a required affinity level between characters, you can add more even more affinity by participating in these heart to heart scenes together. And if you change the affinity level between townsfolk in the game, new quests will filter in to replace the old ones that you have completed. Beware though when accepting new quests. Some quests are on a timer and once accepted, you have to finish them in the allotted time frame, or lose whatever item or experiencing you would have gained.
In fact, there is so much content in Xenoblade, it actually can become problematic for some people. If someone is a completionist or obsessive compulsive, this game could take several months of their life and drive them nearly insane because there is so much to do. Also,the menu system is not an ideal setup to deal with this much stuff. You have to wade several menus deep just to sell and equip stuff, and to mess with talent arts and affinity levels, and at times it can really bog the game down. A menu feature with different options such as “sell all” or “sell all unequipped” would have really helped speed things along.
The same issues exist with the quest system. First, you have to read what the quest is and who to talk to in the quest menu. Then you have to go into the affinity chart and zoom in to find what time of day that person is active. The game also never exactly tells you where a person is going to be, so it can get frustrating trying to find people. There are workarounds to some of the games weaknesses, such as a day-night time changer, but it is never an ideal setup. One idea that would have saved time, is to let you pick a quest like in Borderlands, then replace the story memo on the main screen with all of the relevant quest details, such as where the person is active and what time of day to find them. An arrow guide on your map would have also been very helpful while doing side quests.
The geography of Xenoblade Chronicles is massive. It is filled with peaks and valleys, huge oceans and teeming cities, and desolate tombs. Each area in the game is so huge that it requires extensive traversal and revisiting to find everything. Thankfully, there is a quick warp to all the different areas to help alleviate the travel woes.
As with other aspects of the game, the map system is flawed, but not enough to break the game completely and ruin player enjoyment. You can only see where you are going once you have been there, and to get a better view of things you usually have to go into your map subscreen. Either that or you have to have the vision of an Air Force pilot. A 3D map like the one featured in Metroid Prime would have been ideal for Xenoblade. On that map, no matter what the topography was like, you could see your characters direction and relationship to it's surroundings. Do Nintendo studios ever talk to each other? Probably not.
There are over two hundred types of monsters in the game and many of them are too powerful to kill at your current level. So you have no choice but to come back and kill them later in the game. The monster names in Xenoblade are so cheesy and cracked me up at times too. Names like “Beelzebub Gogol” or “Flabbergasted Jerome” are pretty commonplace. Another silly one I liked was “Gentle Rodriguez” All I could think of when hitting that guy with my sword was, where was his cousin, Dirty Sanchez?
When battling against such fearsomely named creatures, Xenoblade employs a real time active command battle system that does not appear too deep at first. But appearances can be deceiving. As you level up, and gain more abilities, and begin to master the combo system, you can begin to slay monsters that are above your level. And once you figure out how to match colors, and talent arts, and draw aggro from away from your strong characters, you begin to dole out combos and deal death with sufficient aplomb.
So here we are at the end of the review, and due to time constraints I have left out other stuff like the importance of gem crafting, or gift giving, or the fact that you can even change the future in battle in Xenoblade. The conundrum in the game is the same one I am facing in my review: there is too much to do, and so little time to do it in.
Honestly, I have walked away from this game a satisfied customer, wowed by some aspects, irritated by others. There is probably 150 hours of good solid game to play with Xenoblade Chronicles, but due to some questionable design choices, it will take about 30 to 40 hours longer than it should to complete it and get everything. If Nintendo provides a watchful enough eye over the next Monolith Soft game, and insures that they cut the fluff, gamers could be in store for something truly special on the Wii U.