By Ishaan . April 2, 2012 . 5:30pm
Whether or not you’ve been following Xenoblade Chronicles, you’ve probably heard at least a couple of people raving about how good it is, considering it’s been out in Japan and Europe for quite some time now. With that in mind, I decided to focus my own impressions of the game on specific points of interest that jumped at me while I played it.
Regardless of whether or not you’ve been following the game, hopefully these tidbits will give you some insight as to why Xenoblade is constantly entertaining, while giving you some practical info on the game as well.
What you see is what you get. See that faint silhouette of a cliff, far off in the distance? That’s just a piece of lo-res art separated from you by some sort of invisible wall, right? Wrong. The world in Xenoblade is exactly as vast and detailed it appears to your eyes, with very little fakery. If you spot something far off in the distance and make a mental note of it, you’ll eventually be able to make your way to it somehow, even if it seems impossible at first. To sum it up: if you can see it, you can probably go there.
Another example: let’s say there are two trees next to each other in a field. The trees are close together, but slightly apart, and the space in between them looks like it should be just wide enough for you to squeeze through it. If you go ahead and actually attempt to squeeze yourself through, you’ll find that you can. The trees are actually two separate objects instead of a single object made to look like two objects. Xenoblade is a game where you can trust your eyes.
The game always has something cool to show you. Xenoblade, as you know, takes place on the bodies of two large gods that died battling each other ages ago. Your characters—the Homs—live on the corpse of Bionis, while the enemies in the game—the Mechons—live on the other god, Mechonis. The bodies of both gods are connected by a “sword bridge”.
Depending on where in the game you are, you’ll be able to see a portion of Bionis or Mechonis’ body. For instance, while in an area called the Gaur Plains (situated on the Bionis’ leg), the first time I looked into the distance, I saw the Mechonis’ gigantic upper body, towering menacingly over the land, high up in the sky. It was quite the sight to behold.
A little while later, night fell, and I tried to find the Mechonis again. This time, the sky was so dark, all I could make out were his eyes, glowing a violent shade of red, far off in the distance. It was both frightening and awe-inspiring, and the knowledge that I would eventually cross over to the Mechonis side of the world emphasized that feeling even further. Xenoblade is always showing you cool little things like this to stare at.
The world is huge and has a lot of different monsters. Just the second major area in the game, the Bionis’ Leg, is so vast, it’s incredible. It’s so big that, sometimes, you’ll even find yourself missing enormous portions of the area and coming across them much later entirely by chance, and you’ll wonder how you could’ve missed them in the first place. One time, I ran all the way across the Gaur Plains and back, and fought a bunch of horses and monster rabbits and Triceratops-like creatures along the way. The next time I attempted this same feat, I saw this absolutely massive monster-gorilla creature stomping around, followed shortly by a giant level 70 turtle near a waterfall I missed the first time.
The game also has day and night cycles, as well as weather effects, and different monsters appear depending on these conditions, which makes the world seem even more grand in scope. Now, to be honest, I’m normally not a very big fan of games that have huge worlds as I tend to feel lost, but…
Landforms are created in a way that you’ll want to explore them. Landforms in real life are often far more spectacular than anything one could artificially create in a game or a movie. Xenoblade is one of the very few exceptions to this rule. Landforms look convincing and can be incredibly interesting to look at. They’re structured in a way that you’ll want to explore every nook and cranny—and not because you’re hunting for items or anything of the sort, but because they’re just so visually interesting.
Xenoblade loads gigantic portions of the environment at once. Just the first area in the game consists of an entire town and the grasslands and lake surrounding it. I would estimate that the lake + grasslands are about 4 or 5 times the size of the town itself, and there’s absolutely no loading in between any of these areas. They’re all completely seamlessly connected. What’s more, during the instances in the game where there is loading between areas, the loadtimes are pretty short.
You can warp between areas. Since the world of Xenoblade is so vast, it’s nice that you can warp between the areas that you’ve already visited by selecting the appropriate landmark from your map. At first, I didn’t want to use this feature, since running around Xenoblade’s world is a lot of fun, but it does come in handy when one of the game’s many distractions ends up taking you a little too far from your goal, and you find that you just want to go back and get on with the story.
You can save almost anywhere. Xenoblade goes out of its way to be be both convenient and considerate of the player. One of the ways it does this is by allowing you to save almost anywhere, and you can resume from that exact same point when you load your game. Additionally, there is no “Game over”. If you die, you’re returned to the last checkpoint with your party at full health and all your items and experience intact. No penalties whatsoever. Feel free to go confront that giant angry Level 72 turtle that you spotted wandering around that waterfall earlier, just to see what happens.
New features are rolled out at a steady pace. New additions to the battle system and inventory and party management pop up every few hours with a quick, to-the-point tutorial. At the same time, the game never introduces features too quickly. For the first few hours, you won’t even need to open up your inventory and worry about what gear you have equipped (unless you really want to). All of these features are emphasized bit by bit and are never overwhelming. You aren’t encouraged to constantly muck about in menus or worry about your stats unless you really want to. That said, if fussing over stats and crafting and whatnot is your thing, there’s plenty of that to do.
The user interface for item management is very convenient. When viewing your equipment, the game does a good job of telling you which pieces of gear have already been equipped to your party members. You’ll never have to worry about selling an item or piece of equipment that is currently in use. Additionally, you can arrange your equipment by their stats, their class (unique, non-unique etc.) and their selling cost, usually making it pretty easy to figure out what you want to hoard, equip or sell.
Your party automatically heals to full health after every battle. This means there’s no digging around in menus, trying to heal your party after every battle. It happens automatically, and you can just move right on ahead with the game without having to worry about your HP. It also means that the designers could afford to make even regular battles challenging, and they’ve done just that. Which brings us to…
The battle system is fun. First up, no random battles. All enemies are visible on the field. To initiate a battle in Xenoblade Chronicles, you approach an enemy (or group of enemies) and target them. Targeting them tells you what level they are, so you can choose not to engage them and simply walk away instead, if they’re at too high a level for you to take on. Once you do enter battle, your characters attack automatically, which means you aren’t constantly fiddling around in menus to perform your regular attacks. Instead, your choices will focus on your character’s position relative to the enemy (you can move around completely freely in battle) and what Arts (skills) you’re going to use, which means that you can focus on strategy instead of how to land every single blow.
Positioning yourself well is key to battles. There’s a lot to take in here, but I’m going to try and keep it simple and give you a macro-level understanding of how Xenoblade’s battle system works. Once you enter battle, your party starts to hack away at the enemy group. The character you’re controlling—this is decided outside of battles—will only use his/her regular attacks, but the rest of your party will use their Arts as well. From this point on, the simplest, most high-level strategizing decision you can make is your character’s position.
Enemies in Xenoblade tend to turn their attention to whoever is doing the most damage to them. If they turn their attention to one of your party members, it means you can circle around behind them or to their side and attack from there. This is important because certain attacks do more damage from the enemy’s rear or flank. But what if your character’s the one inflicting the most damage? No problem. Just take a few steps back out of attack range and let someone else wail on the enemy for a bit. They’ll get their attention soon enough.
Cooperating with your party is also key to battles. Once you’re comfortable with using and manipulating position to your advantage, you can think about further strategies. “Break” and “Topple” are two important functions in this regard. Some enemies don’t take much damage until you topple them OVER. Before you do that, you need to break their defense. Let’s say Shulk has a move that inflicts Break. I could use this move, and then wait for Reyn to use one of his moves which inflicts Topple. Don’t worry, the AI is pretty smart.
Your party members get better, the closer you are to them. You share “Affinity” with your party members, which can be raised in various ways. The more affinity you have with your party members, the more effective they’ll be in battle. One example of this is Chain Attacks. In battle, you’ll see a Party Gauge that will build up as you attack the enemy. Think of this as Street Fighter IV’s “Super” meter. It fills up level by level.
Filling up one level means you can revive a party member that has fainted. Filling it up completely means you can do a Chain Attack with your party. Chain Attacks let you and your party members in coordination with one another, and let you decide which Art each party member will use, too. So, for example, If the AI isn’t playing ball, you can use a Chain Attack to set up a Break-Topple combo manually.
Affinity plays into Chain Attacks in the sense that, the higher your affinity with your party members, the higher the chances are that they’ll get to perform an extra move during a Chain Attack. This can really add up, and if you’ve got your affinities going strong, you could perform up to 15 additional attacks.
If none of these options are available to you, there’s yet another element of cooperation in Chain Attacks. Arts icons are colour-coded. If two characters use Arts of the same colour during a chain attack, they’ll be more effective.
There’s a lot more to Xenoblade’s battle system than what I’ve mentioned here, of course, but these are the very basics.
You can lure monsters away from their pack. Monsters that travel in packs tend to cooperate with each other. If you attack one of them, the rest will join in the battle as well. However, before engaging them in battle, sometimes, you can target a single monster and try to lure the monster away from the pack (your character throws something at them to get their attention). Once he starts to come after you, you can retreat further away from the pack and take him on all by himself. Smarter monsters aren’t lured away as easily, but it’s always worth trying, especially when you come across a particularly large group of them.
Visions of the future. These usually happen in battle. The Monado, Shulk’s sword, gives you the ability to see a glimpse of the future. You can use this to warn your teammates of incoming attacks if you happen to sense them. However, these visions also happen while you’re running around the game’s world, picking up random items. Picking up something might trigger a vision of a sidequest that you’ll be able to take on in the future, so you’ll know not to throw away or sell that particular item. For further convenience, these items are marked with a “!” in your inventory.
There are tons of sidequests. TONS. Several of these are fetch quests (get me three of these, kill five of those etc.). The key improvement here is that they’re completed the moment you accomplish your task. You don’t have to return to the person that gave you the quest in order to get your reward either. The first time the game actually did make me go all the way back to the quest-giver, I wondered why it was making me put in that extra effort. When I finally returned to him, I received experience points and a new skill.
Chatty characters. Depending on which characters are in your party, you’ll hear different chatter from your party members, which is fun to listen to and makes it feel like you’ve got company. Sometimes, conversations are just a couple of lines, but other times, they can go on longer.
[At the end of a battle] Reyn: “Did you see that?! Did you see what I did?!”
But at other times, you might get a longer version:
[At the end of a battle] Reyn: “Did you see that?! Did you see what I did?!”
Sharla: Oh, umm…sorry. I wasn’t looking.
Reyn: You’ve got to be kidding me!
Also with regard to dialogue and characters talking with each other, I often felt as if there wasn’t much “useless” dialogue in Xenoblade Chronicles. Nearly every conversation felt like it was telling me something interesting about the characters or the world, whether it was in a subtle or upfront manner.
The English voice-acting is nice. There’s something about British voice-actors. They have this ability to sound casual without making it seem forced. The British actors in Xenoblade Chronicles give the game something of an exotic sort of feel. Perhaps the best way to describe it is the kind of feeling of newness a particularly well-voiced PSOne RPG might give you. That said, the Japanese voice track is included as well (but I really would recommend the English one).
You’re rewarded for everything you do. If there’s one thing Xenoblade is really good at, it’s giving the player incentive to keep going. You’re constantly rewarded in different ways for exploring and doing quests, whether it’s in the form of experience points for discovering new areas, experience points (or items or money) for completing sidequests, a new bit of chatter during battle, or simply another visual spectacle to stare at.
Food for thought:
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if someone paired a good JRPG developer with a forward-thinking publisher and gave them a generous development budget, Xenoblade is the exact answer.