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SummaryQuality, Vision, Innovation, Adventure.
The Good‘Xenos’ is a Greek word meaning "stranger" or "alien", and it is true in the best sense that Xenoblade Chronicles is indeed a stranger in a strange land – sitting at the end of the Wii’s diminishing software library quietly, patiently, full of potential wonder and awe. A series of games that sees itself spread out across the chasms of console generations Xenogears/Xenosaga/Xenoblade make their mark rarely, but they make it in their own time, in their own way, and always with eminence.
Software of this calibre proves that when dedicated enough, a talented team of developers can make the familiar not just relevant again, but a study in excellence. Xenoblade Chronicles does everything right, and does it gloriously. As an RPG adventure game, it is superb; as a video game, it is sublime; as a technical achievement, it is brilliant.
The mystifying mix of game mechanics, game-play, story, art-direction that eludes even the most experienced of software teams has been nailed down very tightly in this title. Cohesion between all of these elements has never been better on the Wii, and it is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what the software library for the Wii would look like now if a game of such accomplishment had been released early in the console’s life. We can only guess.
Cut scenes open the adventure, and it is here we are introduced to the Monado, a sacred, mysterious, potent and technologically unexplainable weapon. Like a cross between a double-handed glaive and perhaps a light sabre, this smart, red-coloured weapon has a history, and promises adventure unknown to the pivotal character: Shulk. He and his small group of playable cohorts are who we will follow across this truly grand quest.
Strikingly, the initial area revealed to the player is one of the most impressive to hit any console. While the Wii struggles to match rival consoles in terms of video resolution and detail, we are nonetheless shown exactly what the limit of the Wii is – and it is still quite inspiring to see. Grassy, sloping and rolling hills littered with flora, fauna meets with the embedded, smooth (yet worn) and lived-in constructs of Colony 9. Here, we are introduced to just how special this game is – and our imaginations soar with possibility when it is discovered that it really does matter who you talk to, what you collect, who you help, what you wear, and where (and when) you go.
But, do take your time, for soaking up the atmosphere is crucial to the experience. Take a long walk, battling (if you wish) the native trouble-makers (at this point they’re more cute than deadly), filling out your ‘collectopaedia’, helping locals with their personal problems, and just craning your neck up, gazing at the awe-inspiring sight above you – the rest of a massive corpse of titan, now littered with countryside, villages, colonies and Homs such as yourself.
Creatures litter the landscape, but these nearby threats seem little more than annoyances once we are introduced to the game’s darker side and true threat: the ‘Mechon’. These smartly built machines are delicate-looking, insect-like droids that could have been crafted by a Victorian artisan. There motivations are unknown, their attacks are brutal, and it is a powerful scene when their true violence is revealed early on in the game – a Mechon’s blood-soaked claw is one of the more sobering images in any game.
None of this would mean much though if the game hadn’t improved upon established battle mechanics. Xenoblade Chronicles does this expertly though, and after the strange sensation of having your character automatically attack has passed, you’ll forget having it any other way. So, while battling is real-time, they are still only initiated through the player’s choice. This means exploration and fighting can be mixed at the pleasure of the player, and it is surprising (and a testament to the core mechanics) that I rarely intend to skip voluntary fighting anyway – the mechanics are just that good.
Auto attacks are just the minimum of the fight; it is each character’s Arts that are the real meat of the brawl. They are selected mid-fight and give a new level of strategy. Using ‘break’ arts to prepare enemies for ‘topple’ arts to enable great damage is just one example of how these arts inter-relate. They re-charge (‘cool-down’ time measures this) mid-battle and can also be linked in ‘chain attacks’. These incorporate each of your party’s members in an orchestrated ballet of damage dealing.
Items (equip-able with gems), skills (assignable and progressively earned), gem-crafting (a complex generator of power-ups, much like Monster Hunter Tri), affinity (within your party and across the game as whole) are but some of the inter-related features crammed into this robust, clever and plain fun game. Not to mention the soundtrack – a suitably integrated and yearning back-track to the plight of the Homs. Mysterious at times, dramatic where suitable, but always consistent in quality – the marriage of sound and vision is so good you will often need to stop yourself to just notice the synergy.
The BadBeyond this, cut scenes are never too indulgent, and are directed and edited with punch. A desperate and pivotal battle scene early on in the main story demonstrates the fine balance between moving the plot along and advancing characterisations clearly. Voice acting is refreshing, if not strangely other-worldly. Who could have guessed that Cockney accents would make it across into the world of the Monado? Nevertheless, it is yet another distinction this game makes: the unusual accents give the characters (dare I say pathos?) a flavour that our tastebuds have not been saturated with. Shulk himself is suitably voiced and never too whiny or explanatory; his partners (while occasionally obtuse) are usually welcome to open their mouths as well.