Oh, Xenoblade, why did you have to make it so difficult on me?
After helping in my small way with Operation Rainfall, and the unparalleled elation that came with a North American localization announcement, I should have been an easy mark for Xenoblade Chronicles. It checks off nearly every box en route to my gaming heart.
Huge locales? Check.
Hours upon hours of exploration? Check.
Mysteriously-powered sword? Check.
Anime girl in thigh-highs? Check.
So what could go wrong? A whole lot, it turns out. And a lot of it had little to do with the game, and much more to do with my own expectations of Xenoblade. You see, for years now I’ve been waiting on the one. I’ve been waiting on the Japanese role-playing game that would at long last deliver me from Chrono Trigger, my long-time love. The opinions I had read about Xenoblade made it seem like it would be the one game that could do the task, to unmoor the JRPG dream team’s opus from the center of my role-playing soul.
I picked up my copy, gently skimmed through the bite-the-back-of-your-hand beautiful art booklet from GameStop, drove home and popped in Monolith Soft’s long-time-coming game, a title that had already achieved a sort of cult-legendary status.
Then, the strangest thing happened. I didn’t like it.
After a whiplash-inducing introduction, the game settled into…a very different experience than what I was expecting. All of the hype surrounding Xenoblade suggested an old-school JRPG; a breath of fresh air in a genre that has strayed so far from its roots. What my first few hours of playing revealed was something quite different. To quote EGM’s Andrew Fitch:
“…this is most certainly a 21st-century role-playing game; for all intents and purposes, Xenoblade is a single-player MMO in the vein of Final Fantasy XII.”
Yes, yes it is. And if you’re like me, and aren’t necessarily a fan of MMO-type mechanics, this puts a damper on things (combat, in particular, as there’s so much of it early on; the whole conglomerate real-time-meets-minor-menu apparatus simply didn’t resonate with me). It isn’t the only culprit, though. Ally A.I. can wander off to fight monsters out of your league while you’re trying to level grind, and the game assigns you a nearly useless jump button when the overworld almost screams for a run/sprint function. The opening location, Colony 9, isn’t ugly, but because you will be spending so much time there (questing, doing favors, gaining experience, leveling up), the big town’s imperfections are made more noticeable. Lastly, do you have an itchy trigger finger? That can be problematic, as a big early fight requires using a chain attack; if you happen to accidentally hit a button during the opening tutorial, you’re a bit out of luck, as the “Chain Attacks” and “Chain Attacks and Break Art” sections in the Tutorials menu do not tell you how to actually initiate a chain attack (a minor oversight on the part of the localization team that leads to real headaches if you just happen to press a button at the wrong time).
There you have it, an opening act that can take you upwards of 10-15 hours (if you’re really intent on exploring all of Colony 9, which I was), and a fairly large chunk of time that left me frustrated.
The good that Xenoblade offers is just so gob-smackingly good that it has won me over. This is a game that absolutely refuses to be accepted in any other fashion than on its own distinctive take on the JRPG genre at large. Yes, after a bit, I sorely wanted a run button, but good gracious look at that horizon.
This world isn’t large, it’s Biblical in its scope. It is the cure-all antidote to RPGs that confine themselves to corridors leading from one cut scene to another. There’s a gigantic world out there with fields to run across and monsters to master. No, the combat scheme isn’t my idea of ideal, but I’d be lying if I said it was unwieldy or insufficient. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it is cleverly tailored to this game.
Despite what you may have heard, Xenoblade is most definitely not a return-to-classic-form JRPG. It isn’t what I had hoped it would be.
But it may end up being better than that.
How much better? Stay tuned for our full review.