Xenoblade Chronicles, a new RPG from the makers of Xenogears

The first four letters in “Xenoblade Chronicles” come with a lot of baggage attached to them. They are also the first four letters of “Xenosaga” and “Xenogears,” and they stand for the most loved and most hated and otherwise most polarizing Japanese role-playing games of all time.

Sharing the whole story of these three games’ creators and what they have in common would take a while, so we’ve shuffled it off to one side of the next page. The important part is that Xenoblade Chronicles leaves most of its baggage behind. In fact, in a lot of ways it’s the last thing we would have expected from the outfit that made it.

Xenosaga was routinely mocked as a game made by people who would rather have been making movies. It was, one might say, only grudgingly interactive. Xenoblade, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like it wants to keep our hands off the controller. It’s fun to come to grips with, and it wants us to play with it for a long, long time.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Massively single-player offline RPG

Xenoblade is built around a real-time combat system. Characters attack according to a steady, set rhythm, but otherwise they move around the battlefield and use skills with complete freedom (and the bad guys can do the same). Strategy and tactics involve maximizing regular damage output, keeping the enemy’s attacks focused on the toughest defensive party member, managing helpful stat bonuses, making sure support characters keep the healing spells coming, and maneuvering to land special attacks in the right places.

In other words, it’s World of Warcraft, or something a lot like it. Xenoblade shows a huge influence from massively multiplayer online games, even down to the jargon in the tutorial modes. It uses all the familiar lingo, like “buffs” and “debuffs” and “aggro.” As far as their roles in combat go, the characters fall into familiar categories, from the DPS attacker to the tank to the summoner to the healer.

Fighting things is most of what you do in this game, and it’s most of the fun. There’s a mental and physical challenge to it, not just a steady process of picking options out of menus. The pace of combat hits the right level of controlled chaos – rarely does the game become unmanageable, but there aren’t many times that you can slack off and stop paying attention, either.

Likewise, the overarching process of developing characters takes just enough involvement that it doesn’t get boring. Tweaking equipment and crafting a party that works well together is a fun, interesting process, not a head-scratching festival of higher math.

Xenoblade Chronicles, a new RPG from the makers of Xenogears

Outside of combat, wandering through the dungeons feels a lot like an MMO as well. There’s no transition between the field map and the battlefield – just trigger a wandering enemy’s aggro and it’s on. There’s a lot to be said for this way of doing things, as opposed to the old-fashioned “battles pop out of nowhere at random” style. Even before a fight starts, there’s a separate layer of tactics for dodging the bad guys or engaging them in the right place. Pulling enemies into a spot where it’s safer to take them down is absolutely a viable tactic, and sometimes it’s crucial. Some dungeons host enemies that low-level characters do not want to aggravate.

In a few cases, bringing the MMO concepts to a single-player game doesn’t work. Once in a while, Xenoblade tries to incorporate environmental hazards into a boss battle, things like lava or rivers of deadly energy. This is fine in a game where the players are all human and smart enough to avoid those hazards, but in a game where most of the party is under the computer’s control, the artificial intelligence has a nasty habit of falling off cliffs. Luckily, most of the key story encounters are sensibly lava-free.

Putting in work

Do you love side-quests? Are you compelled beyond your will to do every last little extra bit of questing a game has on offer? Then you may or may not want to play Xenoblade, depending on whether you feel like seeing the sun for the next six weeks. There is a fearsome collection of bounty hunts, collection jobs, and other extra objectives scattered all over the game world. Some are out in the open, some are linked to story triggers, some show up at certain times of the day. Only the truly mad will get them all – or rather, only people who follow a guide so closely that it’s hardly any fun anymore.

To Monolith’s credit, there’s more to the extra quests than just doing a job and getting some cash or experience. Many of them are bound up in a larger side-story where the party rebuilds a destroyed human colony – different quest chains fix up different parts of the settlement. Some quest chains affect the party’s relationship with key NPCs, who’ll pitch in to help with other projects when they get friendly enough. It all works to make the side trips more interesting, giving them some context and a place in a larger progression.

With so much extra stuff to do, it’s very hard to estimate how much time the average player might get out of Xenoblade. An adept RPG’er could probably bash through the central story in 40 hours and change, pretty typical for the genre. Tearing through the bulk of the side-quests, though, might take three times that long, and no player is going to knock off every quest in just a single trip through the game. Not without following a guide, anyway, and following it so closely that all the fun would wash right out of the experience.

Xenoblade Chronicles, a new RPG from the makers of Xenogears

A beautifully realized world

Doing lots of side-questing has an extra side benefit, in that it lets you see every little corner of the game world. Just as there’s plenty to do, there is plenty to see, and most of it’s worth seeing.

Going all the way back to Xenogears, the Monolith crew has always had a talent for epic, imaginative world design. A moment that will hook a lot of players comes just after the prologue to Xenoblade, when the camera pulls back through a long tracking shot and we see just where our heroes have set up their home. They live in a tiny divot carved into the knee of a giant dead petrified god.

Their adventure takes them out of the knee, over the leg, through the guts, up to the head, and then across the way to the heart of the other petrified god, which may or may not be planning to stay entirely dead. For about the first ten hours of the game the background concepts are fairly restrained, but then it breaks wide open, showing us a long string of huge, beautiful vistas. From the dense primeval forests to the massive sci-fi floating cities, they’re almost all worth sitting back for a second to admire the view.

On a mechanical level, some of the dungeon designs become a touch too complicated for their own good. The layouts are so multi-layered, with interlocking pathways tangling above and below and around each other, that it gets pretty hard to find the way to quest objectives with only a flat 2D map to show the way. It’s not a pervasive problem, but it could have used some work – either simplify the layout or create a 3D map, in the style of Metroid Prime, to show all the ins and outs and where to go.Xenoblade Chronicles, a new RPG from the makers of Xenogears

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Distracting character design
So the world, the inanimate parts of the adventure, those are inventive and beautiful. All that’s just the backdrop, though. The focus is on the characters in the foreground, and those have some problems.

We’ve gotten used to pretty goofy character design in Japanese RPGs. When Tetsuya Nomura’s costuming in Final Fantasy X defines the mainstream, the bizarre can seem perfectly normal. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Xenoblade crosses some kind of line.

Xeno, The Saga
Back the ’90s, Tetsuya Takahashi headed up a team at Square to make Xenogears, a science fiction RPG with an ambitiously-conceived game world and expensive anime cutscenes. It came to America in 1998, where it instantly found a cult following among the branch of western geekdom that considers Japanese cartoons about robots and teen angst the peak of man’s artistic achievements.

Cooler heads pointed out some problems, things like repetitive combat, abuse of religious symbolism, and the fact that development seemed to have run out of steam halfway through. Xenogears’ second disc summarizes chunks of its story with plain text, there having been no time to make cinematics or gameplay for those bits. However, the critics were shouted down, and among many RPG fans Xenogears remains an object of sacred veneration.

Later, Takahashi and his fellows formed Monolith Soft, and they started on a spiritual successor to Xenogears. This would realize their vision of a six-game-long epic – yes, count ’em, six – covering time, God, and the meaning of life through a story about robots fighting aliens. Monolith planned to subtitle all six games after books by Friedrich Nietzsche, to show they were really serious.

Namco published Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht in 2003. Many more critics shouted back this time, arguing that the “game” was a 35-hour movie with occasional interactivity. They had a point. Some of ‘Saga’s cutscenes were so long they needed two save points in the middle. Two more episodes followed before Namco said “enough.” Monolith chopped the hexology in half, forcing Episode III to open with an uncomfortable throwback to Xenogears. A plot gap left by a cancelled entry in the series was filled in with text.

So why the history lesson? Well, if nothing else, now you know why some of your RPG-playing friends shudder whenever they hear a word with “xeno” in it. And perhaps you can appreciate that Xenoblade is not just a good game, but likely the first game where its creators have hit the mark. You don’t need to be a cultist to enjoy it.

The playable characters generally look like a terrible train-wreck between Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and The Road Warrior. Everyone’s wearing butched-up chunky armor, overly accessorized, splattered with brightly clashing colors. Things get especially bad when, as happens so often in an MMO-style game, the party puts on different bits of different gear sets to maximize their stats – you’ll see characters sporting high-tech robo-armor on their bodies with wacky feathery headdresses on top of them, and all of it’s represented on the character models at all times, including every cutscene. Meanwhile, Non-player charcters turn up dressed in all kinds of inexplicable nonsense, up to and including neo-Regency formal wear. Complete with cravates.

It’s not that it all adds up to a bad look necessarily, but it’s the wrong look for a game that wants to have its cast deliver ostensibly serious dialogue. The style would work just fine in, say, another Phantasy Star Online, something where the characters aren’t supposed to be anything more than colorful action figures. In a game like that, building a ridiculous-looking character is supposed to be part of the fun.

In a story like Xenoblade…well, there are times when we’re supposed to feel a tug on the old heartstrings, and instead we’re just goggling at the mismatched day-glo clown outfits. Toning it down might have made life less amusing for the concept artists, but their sacrifice would have made the story more effective.

No new story ideas
Would the story work perfectly if somebody made the character design team take their meds? Well, it would help. It might not solve every problem, but it would help.

That said, someday the Japanese RPG business is going to have to call a moratorium on certain tendencies in storytelling. Yes, it’s nice to see love conquer all and triumph over the forces of fear and mistrust, but it’s been done. Sure, it’s great when two races of age-old enemies find a way to grow beyond their ancient struggles, but we’ve heard that song before. There’s something to be said when the hero of a game is a fresh-faced empty vessel with no personality beyond being a really swell guy, but…wait, no, that’s just stupid, period, and it needed to stop happening many years ago.

Western console RPGs have smartly started exploring different themes and story possibilities over the last 10 years or so, which might have something to do why they’re becoming more and more popular the world over. Japan could stand to follow the same path.

Long-time Xeno fans may have an extra layer of trouble processing the story, because they’ll be able to spot the specific bits and pieces that Takahashi and company recycled from their earlier projects. Not to spoil too much, but they really, really seem to like taking dead supporting characters and bringing them back to life as evil masked cyborgs. It was a neat surprise in Xenogears, almost 15 years ago. In 2012, we can kind of see it coming.

CONCLUSION

Baby steps, though, baby steps. Xenoblade has a reasonable average cutscene length. It more or less tells its story in the space of a single game. It does not contain wildly inappropriate religious imagery. It does not require a semester’s course in Gnostic philosophy or a copy of Twilight of the Idols to explain what is going on. The screen doesn’t ever go black for long stretches with nothing but white letters superimposed on top.

Most important of all, though, Xenoblade Chronicles is genuinely fun to play. It’s an RPG with an extra-capital G, a gameplay-driven game. That’s a sign of real progress from Monolith Soft, and hopefully promise of even better games to come.

Score: 82/100

Xenoblade Chronicles will be released on April 6, 2012 for the Nintendo Wii. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.