With Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition only a month away, lets look back at what made the original release so beloved. No, stop, I see you already scrolling down to the comments section to explain how some other game is technically better. And maybe, to some degree, it is. A lot of what Xenoblade Chronicles did was far from original, but a combination of multiple elements somehow led to this weird harmony that resulted in the game becoming so beloved for myself and many others. But why is that, exactly? I think, for starters, its because it acted as the perfect gateway to more technical role-playing games.
Before Xenoblade, most of my role-playing game experiences came from Pokémon, which was intended as a much more casual series for younger players. The turn-based combat meant I could take my time with the battles and not become overwhelmed by a bunch of different abilities and stats, with random numbers constantly flying up in my face. Xenoblade does not let you take you time. While not an action game like Kingdom Hearts, combat does occur in real-time. Your partys basic attacks are triggered automatically (provided youre within range of the enemy), while you have access to a range of different special moves called Arts that, once performed, require a cooldown period before they can be used again.
By having the basic attacks be automatic, it means more time can be spent on focusing on what the enemy is doing, what its capable of, changing your position to better suit the battle, and checking your list of Arts. Weirdly enough, removing certain aspects of the role-playing formula does wonders for making Xenoblades combat slightly simpler to grasp. There are no items to use and health is gradually restored whenever youre not in battle. How many of us have found ourselves stood in an in-game shop wondering whether we should invest our money in antidotes to heal status effects or save it for later to buy that really good set of armour? In Xenoblade, the focus is entirely on the battle and while the game does have an admittedly steep learning curve, I remember managing to learn so much about how the battle system worked just through playing. And whenever I got completely stumped, the tutorials in the menu were always still there for me to re-read. It also meant that whenever I stopped playing for a while and forgot everything, I could quickly get back up to speed instead of fumbling about, pressing the wrong buttons.
The tutorials even persist in battle. Get hit with a status effect? A little prompt appears that you can press to remind you what the effect does. I cant think of many other role-playing games that do that. Xenoblades battle system made me more confident in my own skills. I can remember so many battles that should have ended in me dying due to a lack of preparation. But, through an understanding of how everything worked and some good old tenacity (and admittedly some dumb luck), I was able to turn those battles around, crawl back from the brink of death, and claim victory. It was especially thrilling when I had consistently had enough of the Party Gauge filled to keep reviving my teammates. This is all very appropriate given the whole theme of the game and main character Shulks ability to see and change the future (itself an awesome battle mechanic that is accompanied by this piece of music whenever you succeed).
Some role-playing games tend to fall into the trap where theres only one real way to play them (or at least they create such an impression), but Xenoblade never made me feel that I was playing it wrong. Between the radically different party members and their large array of Arts (of which only a certain number can be equipped at a time) and various other passive abilities and equipment, I was able to freely experiment and discover all manner of strategies and mostly feel like, even in the toughest battles, I had a good chance of winning. Role-players live or die depending on their battle systems, but the ones that are most fondly remembered are done so because of their stories, worlds, and/or characters. And Xenoblade offers all three in spades. I obviously wont be going into too much detail regarding the story in case any of you will be experiencing it for the first time with next months Definitive Edition, but I assure you that its one of the most engaging and well-written stories Ive seen in a video game.
Some role-playing game plots can get a tad convoluted at points, ranging from mild confusion to players having to crawl through tons of fan-theories and fan-made wikis to try and understand what the hell just happened (hello again, Kingdom Hearts). Xenoblades story, however, while certainly not lacking some of the usual clichés and trademarks of the genre, is easily followed throughout and rarely breaks its own established rules for the sake of a shocking twist. I vividly recall playing the game immediately after finishing it, and every bizarre moment in the cut scenes that initially had me scratching my head instead made perfect sense thanks to hindsight. Seriously, the foreshadowing in this game is something else. I will admit that a lot of the plots big reveals are predictable, especially the identity of the villainous Metal Face, but for every twist youll probably see coming a mile off, there will be another one right behind it to smack you in your unprepared face. What really makes the story as enjoyable as it is, though, is the cast of characters youll familiarise yourself with, particularly the main party. While they all follow certain archetypes of the usual kinds of characters you see in these games, they display personality traits that allow them to be more than a band of recognisable stereotypes.
Shulk is the perfect example. I genuinely dont think theres any role-playing protagonist quite like him (although feel free to argue your point if you disagree). Hes not a moody loner like Final Fantasy 7s Cloud, nor is he a hot-blooded idiot like some of the Tales games heroes. Hes actually incredibly intelligent, a scientist by nature, who takes great wonder in discovering new things and actively seeks to learn more and educate himself. At the same time, when his hometown is ravaged by the Mechon, the machine enemies of the game, he becomes consumed with anger and grief, wanting nothing more than to take revenge. It makes for a multi-layered character, giving him a broad range of emotions without ever sacrificing who he is as a person. The same can be said for his best friend Reyn, the brawny tank of the group. While he is a bit of an idiot at times, hes rarely ever rock-bottom stupid to the point where you question how he dresses himself in the morning. He is incredibly protective, loyal, and occasionally displays some great insight of his own.
These characters only become more endearing thanks to the voice acting. The performances do seem to be a lot like Marmite (appropriate given the entirely British cast), but much like that weird black substance half the country likes to put on its sandwiches, I absolutely love it. Instead of relying on the usual voice actors that regularly appear in video games and anime, it instead has a cast of mostly TV and stage actors, which makes the world and its inhabitants more distinct and unique – they do not sound like your stereotypical fantasy village from a Dungeons & Dragons game or something. Not to mention the performances are incessantly quotable. For me, a sign of good dialogue, especially mid-battle lines, is if hearing them over and over again doesnt annoy you and you take great pleasure in joining in yourself. There is a reason why fans of this game love to yell certain lines at each other, like the now infamous Reyn time and Im really feeling it, the latter of which being how Shulk was announced for Super Smash Bros.
This isnt even getting into some of the side-characters that populate the game, both those that are actively involved with the story and the non-player characters that populate the various towns and such. Yes, you can become emotionally attached to the random villagers. Aside from them having their own personal stories to get involved with, progressing with said stories and the main plot will see them interact with other non-player characters, creating new relationships with each other and those relationships can further change, as chronicled by a helpful Affinity Chart. And I havent even touched on the games fantastic soundtrack yet, a glorious mixture of atmospheric pieces, dramatic choirs, and thumping rock. Each track perfectly captures the emotions the player should be feeling, whether it be tension from being spotted by an over-levelled enemy or the calmness of being in your hometown village. The renowned Yoko Shimomura (the legend behind Street Fighter 2, who is also contributing to the upcoming Streets Of Rage 4) even contributed several pieces, one of which was only played a grand total of once and is considered by many to be the best song in the game (heres hoping thats fixed in the Definitive Edition).
Xenoblades only real major quibble is its visuals. With it being a Wii exclusive, its not exactly the best-looking game. But while its easy to simply write it off as ugly, I beg to disagree and view it more as an impressive achievement that, in spite of the limitations, the game manages to display so much at once. Because of the games setting of the body of a dead god, with your journey beginning on its foot and progressing up to the head, any location you can faintly see in the distance is somewhere you can go. And during some of the more important cut scenes, the character models are still able to exude a lot of emotion, with some amazing little details occasionally thrown in. The game takes full advantage of being on the Wii and then some, pushing the console to its absolute limits. Its one of the few Wii games to have been released on a dual-layered disc just so it could all be fit on there.
Admittedly, though, Id be lying if I said the revamped graphics in the Switch release werent massively welcomed. Honestly, that couldve been the only thing Monolith Soft changed and Id still have happily bought it day one. At this point, I run the risk of rambling because there are so many aspects that contribute to my love of this game and this articles already gone on long enough. How vast the world is and how you can spend hours getting lost exploring it, the way characters armour changes how they look both in-game and in cut scenes (meaning you can have super serious scenes play while everyones in bathing suits), the optional heart-to-heart cut scenes that further flesh out the characters relationships with each other, characters cheering each other on in battle when one scores a good hit – the list goes on.
But I think what I may love the most about it is how it surpassed even Nintendos own expectations. Xenoblade Chronicles was a spiritual successor to Bandai Namcos Xenosaga series and was originally intended for just a Japanese and European release, with no plans to bring it to North America. Now, the game has spawned a spin-off, a 3DS re-release, a popular sequel, a big presence in the Smash Bros. series (to the point where the sequels lead, Rex, is a popular choice for a new playable character) and studio Monolith Soft has only grown bigger and bigger, even getting to contribute to some of Nintendos first party products like the upcoming Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild sequel. What could have been a niche, cult-classic remembered only by a few has gone above and beyond and gets to stand alongside some of the all-time greats, like Final Fantasy. And best of all, it will soon see a new audience and a new generation of fans who might love it as much as I do, and I cannot wait to greet them.