Tuesday, December 4, 2012

An Imperial Game

XenoBlade: Chronicles (aka: Monado: Begining of the World)  is one of those great games that (for some unfathomable reason) Nintendo had initially decided not to market outside Japan. It has been available, fully translated, since August in Europe (where my copy came from). This used not to be true for the US. Luckily, Nintendo North America (finally!) yielded to the pressure of the fans and announced the release of the game.

Now, all of us who decided to go with the Nintendo Wii, we knew that it was not the most graphically powerful console. Its strengths lie elsewhere. Having said that, Xenoblade is the most beautiful and graphically detailed game on the Wii. Ever.
Set on two ancient biomechanical Titans frozen in mid-battle centuries ago, the world is simply enormous. There are about 20 maps, almost every map is huge and it is all open to exploration. Because there are only few and short loading times, you are practically flowing from one into the next as in a continuous world. And exploring the endless and open Xenoblade world is not only fun to do but also very rewarding.
The grass moves around your feet, birds sweep over your head, clouds roll by day, the galaxy scintillates at night and the whole world comes alive around you. In the heat of the battle the hits and special moves will be accompanied by impressive anime graphical events. Up close the characters may not be that detailed but the characters, their weapons and the environments have all been designed with great artistry. When the limitations of the Wii are reached you probably will not notice it either. Xenoblade has far better graphics than all the other notable Wii JRPG, such as The Legend of Zelda, Okami or Rune Factory: Frontier. My Wii had never produced such a visually advanced game!

As any seasoned RPGer would tell you, the story is equally important to the graphics and the music, if not more so. And Xenoblade excels in this aspect as well. A tad clichéd at times, the story advances with beautifully made cinematic sequences and it manages to feel both reassuringly familiar and surprisingly fresh.
The human colonists (the Homs) are living on one of the frozen titans, Bionis, and are attacked by mechanical life-forms (the Mechons) who occupy the other. So, after the initial battle, it is up to Shulk, your hero, the young survivor from Colony 6 and the new bearer of Monado, together with (up to 3 of) his companions to save their world.
You bond with your companions by the choices you make - and this affects their abilities. Your choices also affect both the conversation options with Non-Playing Characters (NPCs) and the quests becoming available to you. In fact, everyone and their sister seems to have a quest for you. Conveniently, you do not have to go back to them once completed.
Xenoblade will enchant you with its sound vistas and ensnare you with its story.

This is the first thing that hits your senses. The music of Xenoblade reminded me of playing Final Fantasy VII years ago and being mesmerized by its music. The Prelude I can still remember. In Xenoblade, the music will range from atmospheric to epic rock, and all the shades and colors in between.

It will be a familiar companion while you travel and a strengthening presence when you do battle, greatly enhancing the overall experience. Every map has its own theme (most with day and night variations) and you will catch yourself humming them long after having turned your console off.

Sometimes the importance of the music in a game is underestimated and the focus remains on the graphics. Xenoblade is a perfect example of how essential music is in order to achieve a total immersive gaming experience.

As with any true RPG, there is leveling up, looting, crafting, bartering and re-equipping your character as well as his companions. Interestingly, the custom appearance you chose for them will not be lost during the cinematic scenes. If you enjoy earning achievements, Xenoblade has you covered. The game allows you to save almost anywhere but it also autosaves at nicely spaced Landmarks - and dying will only take you back to the last one encountered (without any XP or loot penalties).
The battle system is real-time but both the distance to their enemy and your relative position are factored in (hint: for such an oversized sword, backstabbing strangely pays off). Monado has powers that are unleashed after building up normal attacks. The legendary sword also allows you to glimpse into the future in order to avert enemy blows. Moreover, your hero and his companions have special abilities, called Arts (that need to recharge before they can be reused).
The enemies, especially the bosses, will focus on the character inflicting the most damage to it - and this allows for flanking maneuvers by the rest of your party. Most battles are not that hard however some of the bosses will tax your understanding of the game mechanics.
Equally important is that is not a one-ride-pony. Once the game is completed you can restart the entire story with your high level character to complete and explore everything you missed the previous time around.

Xenoblade-Chronicles gives you the option to experience it either dubbed in (in the UK version, British accented and not lip-synched) English or in (partially) subtitled original Japanese. After I had clocked in about half a dozen hours in the game I decided to restart it and opted to keep the original Japanese instead. After all, this is a JRPG and it feels much more authentic.

A classic masterpiece, not to be missed.

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