The first game I ever played was the original Legend of Zelda on the NES, my first console. My favourite game ever is Secret of Mana on the SNES, my favourite console. I question sometimes how much the power of nostalgia has over those feelings. Do I still believe it's the best game I've ever played? No; Demon's Souls and now this take that crown and the console scepter could quite easily go to the PS3. Old things don't always have to be better, technology improves and we move forward with it. As a kid, If someone had told me that some day in the future I'd be shooting zombies with three other people at various places around the world as we scream down open mics at each other I'd have thought that was the greatest thing ever. And it is. But looking back on a game that absolutely defines my childhood, a game that I bought by accident, a game I can still load up now and love playing makes relegating it to anywhere but the top of my extraneous list feel like a betrayal.
Xenoblade is the first of three translated JRPGs (the other two being Pandora's Tower and The Last Story) to hit a console I never play and it took me a little by surprise. I was planning to play it but I'd semi-intentionally done no research and only started getting excited about it the week before it came out. I realize how completely fucking sad this sounds but I've often drawn up characters, story arcs and combat systems in my head that I thought would make a great JRPG. Heck, I'd even been toying with the idea of getting them out of my head, into notepad and tying it all together in to some form of narrative. I'll never create a game but I could write an interesting story to be proud of that I'd be content to entertain even a single person, right? Well, that pretty much went out the window when I got my hands on Xenoblade, a game that bizarrely incorporated some of the core features I'd dreamt up.
First and foremost, I didn't play this game on the Wii, I played it on PC, in pseudo-HD, with a PS2 controller. I believe it's important to get this out of the way as I was constantly blown away by how incredible the game looked and it could (fairly) be perceived that playing the game in settings far beyond anything the Wii could offer would skew my perspective. But, damn, Xenoblade really is visually outstanding. As with any superlative game released on the Wii, the phrase "why can't this be on the PS3?" was uttered several times between BTB and I as we played through it. The picture above, for example, is from Satorl Marsh, a barren bog during the day that absolutely springs to life during the evening. The dried out trees wait for something wild is well and truly sated as they gain a phosphorescent bloom of leaves that continuously flow skyward. Valak Mountain is another area that comes to life when the lights go out. After the initial impression that it's just the same generic snow level every RPG must have during the day, yellow beams shoot into the sky during the night. It's not just the visual splendor that appeals either; walking into the second zone, Gaur Plains, you're hit by this HUGE open field that overwhelms you with how much there is to explore. You get the feeling the game knows its about to create an Ocarina of Time Hyrule Field moment as it holds off the glorious music until you turn the corner at the last second. Finally, some of the armours and weapon designs are good (whoever designed Riki's weapons is a hammer user in Monster Hunter) but when you get a character I will refer to as KOS-MOS, marvel at the art direction of her gear - it's some of the best I've ever seen in a game.
I've linked a few musics and will link a few more but no matter how great of a soundtrack the game has, I don't think it can truly be appreciated until you're experiencing them within the context of their respective zones. I can show some splendour though. As I've mentioned, the game has a clearly defined night and day system. The music for Gaur Plains I linked above is played during the day. This one is played during the night. I really love the concept of having a piece of music that spins off into a more mellow version for the evening or does the opposite to create an upbeat version for the day, all the while retaining a clear connection between the two. My absolute favourite piece of music in the game is what plays in Mechonis Field. To set the scene, you're inside a giant robot and everything around you is moving mechanical parts. It wasn't just that an incredible piece of music fit the area so well that was unlike anything heard in game up to that point but it reminded me very heavily of Phantasy Star Online. Specifically, Tricktrack. Until the area became unavailable, Mechonis Field was always the place I would go to while spending the tedious hours required for gem crafting. Yes, a big sticking point I have with the game is the need to spend so long creating gems for your gear. I realize I'm the architect of my own downfall trying to minmax but sitting down for two hours preparing and crafting gems for an eternity was horrible. I did like the enforced caps though which allowed you to tinker in other stats you would not have taken otherwise. I thought this was a neat idea that would be pretty good if Blizzard had the courage to extend it to WoW.
I've often talked about battle systems in JRPGs and how they can carry me through a less than stellar offering if they're good enough. Playing through Eternal Sonata was downright painful at times (FOR FUCK SAKE JUST DIE CLAVES) but damn if I didn't love its sensation of forming your own party synergy and the unique play style in making Viola ridiculously overpowered. Grandia II has my favourite battle system with Tales of Symphonia close behind it. Xenoblade's is good, really good, and up there with them. If you're familiar with Final Fantasy XII's, take that as a very fundamental building block and stack aggro, positional requirements and shared healing responsibilities on to that.
The game has a total of seven characters and you can play any one you want. Each one has three skill trees that eventually branch out to four then five that dictate how they play. Initially, you just look at what seems cool or useful and pick it. As they level up they'll go down that path and when they reach the end you can switch them to the next tree, retaining everything you've already learned but giving up the passive bonus for the tree you're now learning. The characters cover a wide range of roles so you can play or have one played how you'd like. For example, the tank you start out with is Reyn, your standard meat shield. One of Dunban's trees allows him to evasion tank if he's completely naked. Riki, though a DPS, can be steered toward a tank due to his insane HP and AoE abilities. Each character can choose eight abilities out of a wildly different amount to play the role you want them to. Don't want Reyn to be a tank? Switch them all out for DPS abilities! As you build affinity between characters you can interlink many of their skills which creates some incredible synergy, something that excites me like nothing else in a JRPG. Toward the end of the game, assuming you have the coins to do it, you can give Shulk 80% double attack, make all his double attacks crit and make all his crits heal. It's crazy, it's overpowered and it's fun, something all offline RPGs should really endeavor to achieve in this world of balancing everything with patches.
The battle system itself is pretty straight forward. Using Shulk, you'll auto attack till you get what we'll refer to as TP, then you use that TP to activate the Monado and do a powerful attack or buff your allies. Melia, for example, gains TP by just using her abilities. When she's full those same abilities will do a lot more damage. Riki's TP ability is 'Yoink!' (steal) and Dunban's is a mini QTE event so there is a fair bit of variety. You really can comfortably play anybody you like though I'd suggest leaving tanking to the AI as it's really damn good at it. On the other hand, Melia when controlled by the game is absolutely woeful but under the tutelage a knowledgeable player is the strongest DPS in the game (until you get boots with Sword Drones X for KOS-MOS anyway). Obviously it doesn't have the flexibility of FFXII's gambit system but then I wouldn't want it to. As great as that was, I felt there were too many times it was balanced on a knife edge and the game was either too easy or too hard because of it.
Something that'll become apparent while playing the game is the brilliant voice acting. Truth be told, when I first heard it I wasn't sure whether it was legitimately good or just good because its bad in an ironic English way. The more I played and sought secondary opinions the more I came to the conclusion that it really is that damn good. It's nice that they left the option to have Japanese voices in but you'll really be missing out if you choose them. Reyn in particular is hilarious. No matter how many times you hear "what a bunch of jokers", because of the accent you'll always be expecting that last word to be "wankers". The voice actor for Shulk in particular deserves special praise for his ability to convey emotion in a stereotypical character that could so easily have degenerated into a whiny, annoying bitch in the throat of a lesser talent. In fact, there was not a single moment where I went diving for an audio change as I did every time I started up Black Butler and realized dubs were on by default.
One of my most respected reviewers said that the story for Xenoblade was quite cliche, which I disagree with. Until a certain point in the game it does seem like that so I would assume they just never beat it before completing their review. Once you're beyond that and you realize that the done-to-death save the girl scenario is just a minor plot point in an overarching story you see its greatness. Sure, it's no Shakespeare but among a cluster of betrayal you never seen coming, arcs that evolve so far you can't even return to zones, entire areas that completely change, fully fleshed out side stories for every character and over 400 side quests to do all rife with their own little tales, you won't be disappointed in the end.
The side quest system is something I've seen come under criticism a few times. Are there too many? I don't know, thats for you to decide. I'm told that the game is balanced for you doing zero of them but thats not something I'd feel comfortable suggesting. You'd miss out on so much too. Some of them are fetch quests but you'll always get a large collection of them at once and be able to do them as you're passing through the zone. The one criticism I would have is the way you get them. With a day and night cycle, some NPCs are only out at certain times. It's quite lenient in that you can look at 10:00 and 22:00 and always find them but I have to say running around the enormous Alcamoth twice to collect all the quests took about 45 minutes. That was about as engrossing as crafting gems for two hours. Overall, you're looking at about 150 hours to do everything at which point you can move on to new game plus, my biggest gripe with the game.
When you start up NG+ you get to retain a certain weapon for Shulk that gives him 75% crit. Now, keep in mind the aforementioned double attack synergy and add to that the ability to round that crit up to 100% with 50% haste instantly and it's going to be a long time before you don't one shot anything that moves. I suppose the point of NG+ is to allow you to re-farm all the named monsters for more affinity coins which in turn will let you link up more abilities thus making the handful of super hard mobs ranging from 100 to 120 (level cap is 99) beatable. But you don't need to do that. With creative use of game mechanics, you can knock an enemy to the floor and never let it stand up, beating it easily. That sound like bullshit you'd never want to try? Well, no matter how many abilities you link, I see no way to get beyond the horrendous miss spam inherent with fighting something so many levels above you. I toyed with the idea of doing a few new game pluses to speed run the game in seven hours and get some easy affinity coins and taking them on the 'intended' way. What stopped me doing that though was losing out on all the key items you'd need to get five star affinity everywhere to be able to re-quest to re-obtain them, tacking on about fifty hours. It's a shame they didn't think the NG+ through better. If I ever get the itch to play through Xenoblade again I'm far more likely to just start a brand new file and experiment with all the characters earlier than I did on my first go when I had a fear of breaking the Shulk/Reyn/Sharla triumvirate.
Xenoblade is one of the best games I've ever played and if you've grown up with JRPGs you'll absolutely fucking love it. It's a travesty that Nintendo of America didn't think it would sell for shit over there when it sold out everywhere here but in this day and age there are plenty of ways to play it. The Wii can be made to accept the game inside five minutes with nothing more than an SD card and it can be played on the PC if your processor is a beast. Don't let a carnival of idiots decide what you play and cause you to miss out on a classic. In 1995, we got stiffed out of Chrono Trigger and could do little about it. In 2011, it doesn't need to be that way.