I simply cannot find fault in this masterpiece of a game.
Not often does one get the opportunity to play a game that is absolutely everything it promises to be. These are the rare titles where any complaint you could possibly have is entirely conditional with a “but” or an “if” attached to it, and those complaints are so trivial and outshone by the positive aspects that even bringing them up seems nothing more than grasping at straws. Xenoblade Chronicles is, without a doubt, the best RPG this generation.
A game for newcomers and RPG veterans alike, Xenoblade holds your hand just enough to keep things flowing at a steady pace, but makes no reservations about throwing you a sudden challenge.
At the beginning of time, two titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis, engaged in an epic clash that saw them simultaneously killing each other. It is on their gargantuan bodies, eternally locked together in frozen combat, that Xenoblade takes place.
The Homs, a race of humans living on the Bionis, are under constant attack from the vicious Mechon, robotic beings who come to lay claim to their land and kill anything that stands in their way. The only known weapon capable of damaging the Mechon attackers is a mysterious sword called the Monado. While its wielder is a valiant warrior, the Mechons’ attack is overwhelming: there are only two Hom settlements remaining.
In one of these colonies lives the game's hero, Shulk. An attack on his hometown ends in tragedy, leaving it to him claim ownership of the Monado. In an effort to get revenge, he sets off on a quest to stop the Mechon once and for all.
The storyline seems a little cliché at first, and the characters a little cookie-cutter. All the standards are here from the ignorant soldier who thinks with his fists to the obligatory cute, talking animal mascot. However, the longer you spend with the cast the more they'll grow on you. They all grow as people, and even the “annoying emo lead male” persona quickly dissolves away, leaving behind a character whose trials you can relate to and sympathize with. Fortunately, if there's a character you really can't stand you can just pack them away in the party reserves and leave them there; everyone gains experience whether they participate in battle or not.
Exploration is probably the biggest factor in the gameplay. There are many vast areas to wander around in the game, and most of them are easily on par with the size of Twilight Princess' Hyrule Field – all of Hyrule Field. As you travel you'll uncover landmarks that get added to your maps, which are used as destinations for your fast travel ability, allowing you to quickly jump from area to area. Along the way you'll encounter one breathtaking location after another, each with such a distinct, picturesque look that it's very hard not to be awed by the scenery. As the locations are literally on the bodies of the titans, you can often see where the other is located with a glimpse to the distant sky, or point out the massive shape of whatever body part you're walking around on by the layout of the land.
There are no random encounters, enemies all appear on the map and react to your presence differently. Some creatures are harmless and ignore you unless you attack, some will attack on sight, and some will even chase you down. Right from the start you might notice that each area has a very large range of creatures to discover, and many of them are far too big and powerful to even consider taking on until much later in the game. Say you're exploring some plains, taking down little level 10 monsters to beef up your party, when some gigantic, vicious, level 90 monstrosity stomps across your path. The only option is to run like hell, and hope it doesn't notice you until you're at a safe distance. Battles will only begin when you choose to engage an enemy, but there's nothing stopping enemies from taking a swing at you as you move through their territory. While fighting, the action will sometimes draw the attention of surrounding monsters who will hurry over to join in the fray.
Throughout the game, you take control of the one character that you put in the party leader slot while your two reserves follow along. In battle it is no different. You get free run of the field during a battle, where you can select which enemy to attack, or maneuver around to strategic positions and avoid their attacks. Park your character close enough and they will automatically hack away at the monsters with standard attacks, but at any time you can choose to initiate a special attack or skill. Everything happens on internal, unseen timers in the battle, so there's no waiting or turn-based mechanics. This speeds up the process tremendously and keeps everything running smooth. Most importantly, battles are hardly ever dull. You can choose to allow your two supporting characters free reign to do what they wish, focus their attacks on the monster you're currently fighting, or simply surround you and wait for further commands. There's also a chain attack option in which you get to dictate a special move performed by each party member, and strategic use of status inflictions caused by the various attacks can prolong the chain and allow for bonus hits.
One of the coolest aspects of battling is the mysterious power of the Monado to grant you a kind of future sight ability. This allows you to see a powerful move that the enemies are planning, who it will attack, how much damage it will do, and whether or not the character being attacked will survive the hit. Once this vision takes place, you get a timer bar at the top of the screen counting down as you race to prevent it from happening by either incapacitating the foe that will use it or using the Monado’s skills to intercept the attack. New elements are added to the combat gameplay but it never feels like you're juggling complicated mechanics – it's a breeze to conduct.
If you do fall in battle, there is no punishment, no game over – you simply revive at the last landmark you visited and any experience gained until the point you died will stay with you, and any treasure the enemies drop will remain there waiting for you to come back and collect it. The challenge instead lies in exploring, leveling, and effectively avoiding enemies until you're strong enough to navigate each new area, keeping grinding to a minimum.
There are no restorative items to use, your party's health replenishes automatically over time while you're not engaged in battle, putting the monotonous RPG cliché of backtracking to that last hotel or stocking up on tents and potions firmly in its grave. That doesn't mean there aren't a ton of items to collect, though. Vanquished enemies will always drop treasure chests containing crystals, weapons, equipment and a plethora of lootable trinkets and remnants. Items can be traded between NPC friends you make throughout the world, collected and given to people in side-quests, or used as ingredients to craft stat-boosting gems (which can provide bonuses such as elemental abilities, HP multipliers, or damage modifiers).
If that weren’t enough, each area of the map has a checklist of naturally occurring items that can be found in glowing blue orbs scattered around the land. When the checklist has been completed you're rewarded with rare equipment or other valuable prizes. As for the equipment and weapons, whatever your party wears will be physically seen on the characters at all times, even in cut scenes. And yes, that does mean you can strip your buxom lady allies down to their underwear if you so desire – they even have “secondary animation.”
The soundtrack is nothing short of beautiful, covering a huge range of musical genres and tastes. Graphics, on the other hand, can look a little bit dated with slightly blocky character models, but with such an intricate design direction and whimsical beauty behind everything that goes into the game, whining about a few jagged edges is missing the point and entirely pretentious to even mention.
Apart from the epic main story, there's much to do. There are literally hundreds of side-quests that NPCs request of you and a huge cast of named NPCs in every populated location, each of which can be added to a giant friendship chart that traces the their interpersonal relationships. There are achievements and accomplishments to unlock by meeting certain requirements. You can build friendships and romances between your party members in the Affinity chart, allowing you so see little extra story-developing interactive cut scenes known as Heart to Hearts. And you can even play the role of city builder when you're tasked with the restoration of a major city that was destroyed by the Mechon, which opens up yet another series of side-quests and collection requests to complete at your leisure.
Add to this a large list of branching skill trees to develop and special attacks to learn, swap, and upgrade, and you've successfully combined the best elements from every RPG in the last 20 years into something gigantic that somehow works incredibly harmoniously. It's amazing that the whole thing fits on one Wii disc. If I were to give one suggestion though, it's to play the game with its original Japanese audio track. I'm sure the English voices would be fine if I sat down and gave them a chance, but the performances are just so hammy that I really can't take the English voices seriously. If you're ever curious, you can simply swap the language over at any time. All cut scenes are accompanied by handy subtitles, and the translation is, for the most part, very accurate.
I could easily go into greater detail on any of the above points, but there’s not much to say beyond the following: If you don't have the game, go out and get it, even if that means having to bug Nintendo to release it in your region.