Xenoblade Chronicles -
Without a doubt, Xenoblade Chronicles is the best single-player PS2 MMO on the Wii. If that sounds like a huge contradiction, then you’d be correct. It almost feels like what Japanese RPGs would have turned into in an alternate dimension where Western development didn’t begin dominating the industry in the early 2000s. Right off the bat we’re introduced to a story that could easily be a satire of the Scifi genre if the characters themselves didn’t take it so seriously, but that’s really half the fun.
Two giants who simultaneously killed each other in an ancient battle began sprouting life all over their bodies. The robotic Mechon on the Mechonis, and a slew of humanoids on the Bionis. As you would probably expect, the inhabitants of the Mechonis are at war with those of the Bionis, and the result is a scattered war torn world where the cities live independently of one another. The entire plot is based around the Monado, an ancient sword that is the perpetual deus ex machina throughout the story. Whenever the characters run into some kind of trouble the sword unlocks a fancy new power and saves them. All story oddities aside, the charm in the game comes from the interactions between the characters themselves. I found myself actually chuckling at some of the cutscenes, as well as some of the flavor dialogue after a battle. They can feel a little bit like your cliché spiky-haired anime stereotypes at times, but some strong writing keeps them interesting.
The combat is definitely the high point, and the absence of random battles is a very welcome addition. Similar to most MMOs, you can see your enemies on the field. This allows you to pick and choose your battles, and forces you to stay wary of your surroundings. At first it feels like your typical MMO combat as well, with auto-attacks and occasional souped up special maneuver. The departure begins when you start running into enemies with special abilities that you have to counter using the Monado’s visions of the future. Before too long you’re working to topple large enemies, countering special moves, managing aggro, and watching for counter abilities all at once. Chain attacks and part management keep you juggling the entire party, although you only control one character at a time. Things get hectic quick, and force you to really think on your feet during even the most basic battles. The only hitch in this is that it’s after learning a new ability to feel overwhelmed, because you’ll be using the immediately. It’s definitely trial by fire at times, but if you die you just get bumped back and get to retry the section over again.
This all makes for a great game that is worth your time, but the respect it has for that time is where I really began to fall in love with Xenoblade Chronicles. The biggest timesaving feature is the ability to instantly warp to major locations just by opening the map, making backtracking and quest hunting a much less tedious task. This is a feature that a lot of games have had for quite some time, but seems to be taking its time permeating Japanese game design. You can save the game wherever and whenever you please, and there is a constant quest marker showing you where to go. At the same time, the game doesn’t force any of this on you, and allows you to really dig into the deeper aspects of the game. This depth comes from linking skill trees, maxing out stats with equipment and managing abilities.
By far my favorite timesaving feature is that whenever you finish a side quest, wherever that may be, it immediately pops open a window to reward you. That’s right, you don’t even have to turn in the quest. This makes the rather boring side quests into a fun bonus that you may or may not decide to pursue along your way by taking out all the tedium. If you happen to kill ten of something for a quest, then enjoy your reward, don’t worry about who gave it to you or where they have wandered off to in an area.
The visuals are about the best the Wii can muster, which is to say they’re on par with PS2 graphics. However this didn’t stop Monolith from putting in some fantastic backgrounds that almost make you forget the way characters look like they have gaping fish mouths when talking. I would love to see this redone in HD, but until then I’ll settle for the great background scenes. Plus, the fantastic soundtrack really pulls you in without feeling too faux epic. Upon first turning on the game I sat at the title screen for a solid minute just taking in the scenery and opening theme, and I still pause before hitting loading my game to revel in it.
Overall, it’s a really enjoyable JRPG with all the fluff taken out and a frustratingly but satisfying combat system put in. The dialogue is witty, and floats the sometimes trite story without feeling forced. Granted, there is the occasional groaner delivered by a character, but not anymore that you would see in a sitcom. At first glance Xenoblade Chronicles looked like an offline MMO chugging on a last gen engine, but it turned out to be a new take on a classic genre that really pushes what the Wii can do. It’s great to see someone doing something new with JRPGs, and hopefully we can see another entry in this series.