It's always possible to innovate within a comfortable and well-established template. Nintendo is traditionally the master of this art, secreting gems of novelty within game designs that are often a decade or two old, perfected through years of iteration. Just because a game conforms in many respects to the conventions of its genre, that doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and it certainly doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful.
So yes, in Xenoblade Chronicles, you play an orphaned young hero who, for reasons unexplained, is the only one capable of saving the world from a mysterious evil. (He doesn't have amnesia, though, thankfully.) Yes, there is an ultimate weapon with untold power. Yes, you wander a giant world in a party of three, following a story punctuated by enough cutscene to make the Godfather Trilogy look comparatively brisk. But this is also one of the freshest and most innovative Japanese RPGs of the past decade. It feels more modern than anything else in its genre.
You see, although Xenoblade Chronicles honours many positive JRPG traditions, it's not afraid to dispense with other, more tedious ones. It's impressively non-linear, letting you wander from the story to explore its gorgeous world, toddling off in search of side-quests and extra-mean monsters to kill and caves to loot. It has fast-travel. Its story, which initially seems a little predictable, is actually a deep and varied tale that spans some 60-odd hours without ever feeling painfully drawn out. There are no random battles and the combat system is brilliant, a mix of real-time and command-based fighting that feels like an updated Final Fantasy XII mixed with a splash of White Knight Chronicles' chain system.
The game world is littered with two things: shiny collectibles to nab for loot and questing, and wandering animals that can be either engaged in battle or safely ignored – unless they're particularly aggressive. Get in the way of a Level 74 troll on your way to an oasis and you'll be flattened in seconds, but you can practice your team combos on relatively docile animals and then strip their corpses for loot to sell or use later. Everything, from exploration to item-collecting to battle victories, earns experience points that strengthen your team. Side quests are totally optional, but you'd be a fool to pass them by. They give you an excuse for forays into the furthest corners of the map, letting you fully absorb the scale of this adventure.
When you're not following the story, Xenoblade Chronicles is equal parts fighting and exploration. Once in a battle, basic attacks happen automatically, but those won't get you far. Keeping control of one character in the party, you select from an ever-widening selection of Talents – special moves, essentially – that recharge over time. Let the party tank draw all the monster aggro, and you can get behind them for a deadly backstab. Knock a monster off balance, and another party member will smash it to the floor with another appropriate move. Occasionally, mini-QTEs let you cause a bit of extra damage, earning plaudits from your team-mates. It's fast-paced, tactical and really engaging.
You're constantly working together with everyone else on the battlefield, watching to see what they do and reacting dynamically, guiding them on what to target and when to run away. Work in harmony with teammates for long enough and you can unleash a chain attack, matching Talents from each character to devastating effect – the only way to cause significant damage to the biggest, baddest beasties. It's always possible to dash off and regroup if you find yourself in a tough skirmish (unless it's a boss battle). But dying in itself isn't really a problem; you simply reappear at the last landmark you passed, all loot, health and stats intact.
But it's the weapon at the centre of Xenoblade Chronicles' story, the Monado, that really gives the battle system its edge. The Monado is an ancient weapon that gives its wielder, the aforementioned gifted orphan, the ability to see the future. In cutscenes, this is a great plot device; young Shulk, our hero, spends much of the story struggling with his ability to see the future and his inability to change it. For every time one of his visions enabled him to save the life of a valued friend, there's another occasion where nothing he can do makes a difference.
In battle, though, the power of the Monado lets you see a devastating attack before it happens, giving you a stylish warning. The screen greys out and the action quickly turns to slow motion, showing a boss cutting through your party with a deadly special move; you then have some time to warn your teammates, putting up a magic shield, getting them out of the way or incapacitating the enemy, allowing you to change the future and keep on fighting. It's a dramatic-looking and well-implemented feature, and innovative too.
A lot of Xenoblade's appeal comes from its unique world. Essentially, it's set on the fossilised bodies of two giant robots (stay with me), who were locked in an eternal battle until time finally took its toll, freezing them in place. One of these robots, the Bionis, is colonised by humans who live on expansive patches of fertile land across the titan's frozen limbs. Look out across the scenery, and you see greenery and fauna stretching out into the distance; look up at the sky, and you can make out the shape of gigantic robotic arms jutting out above you. It's a breathtaking setting, one that allows for amazing, natural outdoor environments as well as indoor caverns and structures with a sci-fi tinge.
The other fossilised titan is home to menacing, evil robots, the Mechon, who have recently taken to descending upon the human colonies and eating the inhabitants. The plot initially centres on the battle against this invading force, fought by young Shulk and his fellow survivors from Colony 9. There's actually rather a lot of gore and drama in Xenoblade, despite its rather cuddly looks. The first high-profile grisly death occurs about three hours in and it's definitely not the last. It's hardly Dragon Age 2, admittedly, but it doesn't shy away from violence and death.
Despite this gorgeous setting, though, there are many, many moments where you'll wish that Xenoblade Chronicles was running on a more powerful console. There's no denying that it looks like a game from four or five years ago. Character textures are fuzzy, there's a lot of clipping and only the far-reaching outdoor environments truly impress. It's amazing how quickly you get used to it, but the Wii really struggles to do justice to the game's excellent artistic direction. It's also a real shame that nobody bothered to lip-sync the English dialogue, which mars the otherwise very good localisation.
It's testament to the game's quality that it still draws you in so deeply. There's more imagination evident in the monster and environment designs than in most entire JRPG epics of the past five years or so. And brilliantly, because Xenoblade Chronicles has been localised for Europe, the voice acting is all charmingly British-accented. Shulk sounds like he's just come out of finishing school, his best mate Reyn sounds like a plucky Londoner, and other characters contribute accents from Yorkshireman to Welsh. Only the Especially Evil Robot Bad Guys miss the mark with their way-over-the-top Cockerney guffawing, which makes them sound like robot Cockney pirates. (Which, come to think, is pretty cool in itself.)
The likeable voice acting makes it easier to form lasting relationships with the characters, who are better-written and more believable than most. Their relationships with each other really make sense; rather than a band of random people thrown together by circumstance, your party really feels like a band of brothers (and sisters). They talk constantly during battles, encouraging each other and yelling awesomely British battle calls ("Get stuck in!" "Nice one mate!" "Come off it!"). If anything, they talk too much, but at least they're not the sterile pretty boys that we've come to expect from Japanese RPGs.
That's what's really at the core of Xenoblade Chronicles' brilliance: it defies your expectations. After the corridors of FF XIII, the openness of this world is a revelation, as is the unselfconscious plotting. It's got a lot of action and some moments that pack an emotional punch, but none of the pompousness and melodrama of less accomplished Japanese epics. I'd forgotten that JRPGs could be anything other than depressingly linear and a heavily over-written; we've grown to accept it as a feature of the genre, one we have to live with. Xenoblade Chronicles shows us that things don't have to be this way, that there's still room for innovation in this struggling genre.
There's so much more to this game that I could tell you. I could talk about the gem crafting, skill trees, talent arts and myriad collectibles that deepen the experience – things that are there to play with if you want, but that don't bog down the game in reams of detail. I could talk about the thoughtful little touches that make it such a pleasure to play, like the ability to fast-travel and the comprehensive but easy to understand inventory system and the story memos that give you a gentle, optional reminder of where you have to go and why.
It's a proper epic, too, with hour-and-a-half long boss battles that take place in several parts, more than 50 hours of story, and an abundance of side-quests. It keeps your attention throughout by offering such a selection of things to do, never forcing you along a rigid story path.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the best Japanese RPG of this generation. The fact that it looks like it's from the last generation is its only drawback, but its technical limitations are offset by imaginative artistic direction, innovative and compelling combat, and thoughtful design. It's a throwback to the glory days of the genre, proof that there are always new ways to tell a story. If you've ever felt neglected by the lack of in-depth gaming epics on the Wii, you owe it to yourself to buy this.
Beautiful design makes up for Xenoblade's graphical shortcomings – but it's disappointing that the dialogue isn't lip-synced.
This is the best that the Wii can do, but it's not really up to modern standards. The artistic direction makes up for a lack of technical grunt.
A super, varied score with generally excellent localised voice acting. After 35 hours or so you'll have heard one or two of the battle themes a few too many times, though.
A fantastic battle system and literally hundreds of optional quests make this a more exciting experience minute-to-minute than most other games in its genre. There's repetition, but it doesn't grate.
9.0 Lasting Appeal
There's so much of Xenoblade Chronicles that you can't even tell when the end is in sight. A true epic.
OVERALL SCORE 9.0 'AMAZING