Xenoblade Chronicles is perhaps the biggest example of very vocal fans influencing a localization decision, as Nintendo of America had no plans to bring this game over, even when it got released in Europe. Fortunately, it did eventually come over, and boy, was it worth the wait.
As of where I last got up to (the end of the prologue), I can’t really make a judgment on the story. Granted, there is a pretty large amount of story in the prologue, though the prologue has one of those First Episode Spoilers, so I can’t say more. The events of the prologue are pretty shocking, I’ll give the game that, but beyond that, I have no clue where the game is going to go. As such, I’ll withhold judgment on that part so far. Characters are pretty fun, though if you’ve played a fair number of JRPGs, you’ve likely seen all of them before.
However, perhaps the most impressive element of the game is the environments, and how you interact with them. Xenoblade takes some ideas from sandbox WRPGs in that environments are massive, and almost anything you can see, you can reach. But that doesn’t mean scratch if draw distance is really short. Well, it’s not. You can easily see miles into the distance, and since you can reach anything you see, you have the freedom to run all those miles. The environments look amazing, as well. The game’s pretty much an explorer’s dream. Now, you may find yourself complaining about having to waste time running around just to get to the next story sequence. Fret not, potential explorer! If you ever get tired of running around, you can always fast travel to any location you’ve already visited, a la Skyrim. Best part about this is that you’ll only ever run into loading screens when you fast travel and hit story sequences. So when you’re running around normally, you’ll almost never hit a loading screen.
There’s quite a lot to the gameplay in Xenoblade. You control one character, and the AI controls the other two in battle (usually doing a pretty good job). What I noticed right away is that the game plays like an offline MMO. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XII, then you’ll find Xenoblade similar. Essentially, characters attack normally via auto attacks, and can throw in skills (though that refreshes the auto attack timer). There is no sort of MP bar (as far as I know, though), as skills are on a cooldown system, instead. Additionally, you get access to one really unique skill that can only be used after performing several auto attacks. There are a number of small things you can do with skills, like aggro, skills based on which side of an enemy is facing you, status attacks that require party coordination, and more. Additionally, you gain access to a sort of limit break-like system where time freezes and abilities can be selected, even if they’re on cooldown. What makes this special is that you can do this for all three characters, so you can activate a break-topple-daze chain extremely easily (a break-topple-daze chain being a series of status effects that paralyze the enemy for a while, allowing you to do lots of damage in the mean time). It may seem like a mess of ideas, but they work quite well together. Combat is really engaging, and can be pretty challenging when you face strong enemies. Overleveling, unfortunately, can make the game extremely easy, so I wouldn’t grind or do excessive amounts of sidequests, if I were you.
Speaking of sidsequests, you’ll find yourself picking up tons of them. Sort of like an MMO, sidequests are pretty simple, at the very least asking you to do things like kill X monsters, collect X items, or kill a unique monster. Sometimes, you’ll run into more special sidequests, ones that may have some story attached to them. Sidequests will give you experience (beware!), various skill points, money, and possible items. Doing these will improve the reputation you have with the characters you take quests from (if named), and the questing hubs themselves (if applicable). Improving reputation will open up more sidequests, with better rewards.
There are various other systems in place. There is a gem crafting system, where gems can be attached to equipment, and provide various effects, like small stats and effects. Reputation also exists between party members, and represents how close they are to each other (yeah, bonds and stuff, like so many JRPGs out there). These affect performance in battle, skills learned, and other things. You get two different types of skill points. One is used to upgrade all the skills you get, allowing them to do more damage, heal, etc. The other automatically goes towards something like a talent tree. The talent tree has three different lines, so at any time, you’re learning things from one of three trees. This talent tree system is set up in such a way that you can eventually learn every talent, so it’s just a matter of when, rather than if.
I think the biggest strength of the gameplay is that everything complements each other in some manner. The individual elements are pretty good, yes, but all these elements mesh really well, and form what’ll be a pretty memorable experience. The massive environments, MMO-like gameplay, reputation system, gem crafting, and skill and talent trees all create an experience that literally feels like a grand adventure.
On the technical side of things, graphics are rather mediocre. Character models are pretty basic, and textures are muddled. However, as I’ve mentioned, environments are very breathtaking, so I guess that proves that technical superiority isn’t necessarily the best goal to strive for. Sound, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Music is composed by veterans Yasunori Mitsuda (just for the ending theme, sadly) and Yoko Shimomura (only for a few songs, unfortunately), and some more relatively unknowns, like Manami Kiyota (I don’t think I’ve heard any of his themes yet), and ACE+ (who are surprisingly AWESOME). Seriously, the music in this game is highly enjoyable. Xenoblade comes with both Japanese and English language tracks. While I haven’t given the Japanese track a listen to, the English voice acting stands out because they use the European release track. In other words, you get to listen to all the characters speaking British! I have no experience with British voice acting, but I really like the Xenoblade voice acting. The voice actors convey all sorts of voices quite naturally, and are generally pretty great. I sometimes find the voice acting annoying, as they do shout in battle pretty often. One particular character’s quotes have also become meme-worthy, and I don’t think that’s for positive reasons. Still, voice acting on a whole is pretty great.
I like to think that Duracell and Monolith/Nintendo have teamed up to have me listen to the entire menu theme every time I boot the game, thus making me buy batteries more often.
Overall, Xenoblade is a really great game. While the story and characters aren’t the best so far, and the graphics could be a bit better, presentation, gameplay, and sound are all quite amazing. If you have a Wii, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t check out Xenoblade.