WARNING: SPOILERS! I'm not going to try to mark them all, so just stop here if you're not finished the game.
I'm going to cut to the chase: I think Xenoblade is overrated. It's not a bad game, but I think a lot of the hyperbolic rhetoric (and scores) used to describe this game, paired with the tempestuous history of its North American release, has created somewhat of an echo chamber in which everyone playing it is already seeded with the idea that it's nearly flawless. I'm very deliberately not trying to be overly contrarian in some sisyphean effort to right the internet's wrong -- this is simply what I think. This is also very specifically a list of stuff I didn't like -- it's a laundry list of complaints, not a balanced review.
Before I begin, I should also say that I've played precisely two JRPGs in my life: Golden Sun, and a bunch of Tales of Symphonia. I never owned a SNES, PS1, or PS2. You have a lot of reason to take what I say with a grain of salt, and I suggest you make use of that liberty where you see fit. This is simply what I think, and although much of it may be written in the objective voice, that's just because one can only read "I think" so many times. I'm not hoping to change your mind, but I don't think I'm alone in thinking Xenoblade is a far more flawed game that I expected.
With all of that out of the way, let's get started:
The story is anemic, slow, and predictable
I have always believed JRPGs, moreso than most other genres, to live and die by their characters and story. By that metric, Xenoblade didn't do a lot for me.
The characters are fairly one-dimensional, and though I wanted to say “with exception”, I can't really think of a good one. Shulk is a standard quiet, determined hero with a mysterious past, special power, and desire for revenge that transitions into task to save the world. Fiora is the classic small-town love interest, catalyst for revenge, and to nobody's surprise, doesn't actually die. Reyn is his oafish but loyal and loveable friend. Sharla is the mother figure (except with crazy breast physics, so don't read that with too much of a Freudian lens). Riki is the earnest comic relief character. Melia is the awkward, high-class princess with magic powers and serves double-duty as the third wheel in a love triangle. Dunban is maybe the least stereotypical character, but he's still basically a father figure, and isn't really the subject of much storytelling. I'm obviously oversimplifying, but I don't think the characters have a lot of depth to them.
I spent the whole game holding out for the slightest indication that the characters would have even a mild arc, and ended up disappointed. For a 70+ hour game, there's remarkable little character development. I've cared about characters in video games, but found myself utterly unmoved during even the most emotional scenes in the game, which I think is the result of the game not really convincing me they were realistic, multifaceted people. In the game's favour, none of the characters (even Riki) are particularly obnoxious, the things they do and say mostly make sense, and the voice acting is fantastic.
The story similarly didn't do a lot for me, and again, there's way less story than you'd expect given the game's length. The faced Mechon plot that takes up at least a third of the game ends up being mostly a sideshow that has very little bearing on the way the story ultimately plays out -- you could play through the ending of the game, not know what a Faced Mechon is, and not miss a thing. This is emblematic of a larger issue in the game -- many of the most important events don't take place in front of you, and almost all of the interesting parts of the story happened hundreds of years ago.
The foreshadowing is so obvious that it effectively ruins most of the surprises in the game. I actually thought the game was trying to fool me into thinking that Lorithia and Dickson were evil so it could later reveal that they were secretly trying to help you, so in that sense, it was surprising that the story wasn't that devious. I never once thought that Alvis was anything but on your side (though I had a theory for a while that he might be Shulk's father). The revelation that Egil's goals were actually fairly logical and that Zanza was the real villain was hinted at so heavily that when the game finally told you, it was eye-rollingly obvious. I didn't quite see the revelation that Zanza was inhabiting Shulk coming (before Egil told you), but it was clear that the game was witholding something about Shulk that would be revealed around when it was. With the exception of the revelation at the very end of the origins of Meyneth and Zanza/Klaus, the plot was severely lacking in “OH SHIT” moments.
Very long stretches go by without anything of note happening, leading me to believe this game very deliberately had filler added to it. Aren't we beyond having to hit four switches strewn across a map to open a door, or fighting through a soulless 6 story dungeon to get to one boss fight? Why is Valak Mountain so large if they only really make use of two small parts of it for a story event and boss battle? This gets especially bad after you enter the Mechonis -- every area feels soulless, deliberately padded out, and lacking interesting goals. The combat was perfectly fine, but not good enough without story events being doled out at a good clip.
I could elaborate -- I've really only picked out a few examples and skipped over a lot -- but suffice it so say I don't think this game's story is particularly noteworthy, or even close to dense enough given the game's length. Considering story is usually the pull factor in an RPG, I'm kind of shocked people haven't held this against the game more than they have (which is to say, barely at all).
The equipment is boring and laborious
At no point in the game did I give a shit about the loot, and I was constantly putting off re-equipping my characters due to how time-consuming and uninteresting it was. This game's equipment reminded me a lot of the original Mass Effect, in which you're constantly picking up identical items that don't seem to matter at all. Over the course of the game, I seemed to end up picking up at least 10-20 of most pieces of equipment. Why? What about constantly selling or dropping trash loot is fun? This game was utterly lacking in interesting loot that actually felt like it had a significant effect on your battles.
The gem system had promise, but the gem inventory screen is so abysmal that I dreaded having to dig through it. No sorting method ever seemed to do what I wanted, and a search function was desperately needed. So many of the gems are overly specific, meaning that unless I wanted to be constantly revisiting that nightmarish screen (and the arduous gem-making process), I basically just gave each character gems that underscored their general stats and roles, along with HP up and (way-too-rare) aggro up/down gems where necessary. There was at least a couple points in the game where I spent over an hour grinding out gems, stripping down the characters, and rebuilding them.
I suspect that if I was way more into experimenting with different character loadouts and combinations, I might find more depth to the equipment, but I'm absolutely not that guy, and would have loved if the game just had a “do everything (including gem crafting!) for me” button.
The materials and collectibles in particular drive me nuts. Neither were fun to collect in the slightest, and I have to question what Monolith were thinking. Would anyone have missed them if they weren't there? Could the “useful” materials indicator (which my materials inventory was full of by the end of the game) be any more vague? They felt like grinding for grinding's sake.
The side quests are uninspired
I think side quests are usually boring at the best of time, but compared to Xenoblade, the side quests in, say, World of Warcraft are pulse-pounding epics. It's as if the developers looked at MMOs, said “I guess people love pointless “Kill # of <mob>” or “Collect # <item>” quests, let's put way too many in each zone. The way the writers try to make them sound even remotely relevant (“Hey, I've been trying to garden and those <monster>s are really annoying!”) is practically insulting. I really tried to pay attention to the quests, but by Alcamoth or so, I just stopped giving a shit. I can't remember any of them except for one that was notable in how shamelessly it orders you to run back and forth across an empty field 6 times, which is telling.
It didn't help that it's often very difficult to complete quest objectives without a web browser open. More often than not, it's totally unclear which monsters drop items, where to find specific monsters, where to find collectibles, and even where to find the quest giver themselves (as they move around, are only active in certain hours, and are so generic and forgettable you'd be hard-pressed to remember them anyway). This stuff should have all been marked clearly on the map, and no, while there's a case to be made for games not always telling you exactly what to do, expecting people to roam around aimlessly to solve a throwaway fetch quest is way over the line.
The Colony 6 rebuilding quest is the purest manifestation of this bullshit. It's pure collectible harvesting with no justification other than “hey, we need 6 rabbit bones and some fucking slime to rebuild this area of the town!”. I ragequit Colony 6 at the point at which I hit a collectible that I could only collect from a specific variant of a monster, and only if I managed to aggro 3-4 monsters at a time so they would (occasionally) drop a silver chest. There's nothing fun about an objective that is basically impossible to figure out without exhaustive trial-and-error (or some judicious use of Google), and even with all of the knowledge required, takes 20 runs of an area to complete. This kind of stuff seems designed for and by people high up on the autism scale.
More than anything else, it's just too damned long
Ultimately, a lot of my problems with this game wouldn't be nearly as significant if it was maybe half the length it was. The story would have moved at a much more acceptable pace, they could have thrown away most of the fetch quests and pointless areas (especially near the end of the game), given you way less (and more significant) loot, and ensured that you weren't sick of the combat and mechanics by the end of the game.
I spent over 92 hours over the course of three months playing this game, in part because I don't always have a ton of free time, but also because I was playing other stuff at the same time to avoid burnout. I resent a lot of the bullshit time wasting in this game because it's time I could have spent having far more interesting experiences in other games. I'm not against long games as a rule, but the longer a game gets, the more it has do to justify the time it's asking of you. It was one (also exasperating) thing for Uncharted to pad itself out by 2-3 hours; it's quite another for Xenoblade to pad itself out by what felt like 30. Hitting the endgame and basically being forced to spend 4 hours grinding (after spending the rest of the game overlevelled without a lot of effort) was really icing on the cake
Look, I really don't hate this game
If I were to give this game a score on a Giant Bomb-style scale of 1-5 (which I won't, because I'm too ignorant of JRPGs to justify it), it would be a 3. I think the combat is surprisingly engaging considering how much of it I did, the music is fantastic (so much so that I'll be doing a separate post with my favourite pieces), the game mostly looks great (though not always up close), the voice acting is great, it has some great streamlining features (which are all the more bizarre considering how badly streamlined other mechanics are), the characters are likeable despite their shallowness, and the ending at least concluded the game on a good note with some interesting implications.
None of this stuff, in my mind, quite makes up for the game's slow story, lifeless characters, deliberate time wasting, inconsistent pacing, and weird design decisions. If you don't like MMORPGs, it's very likely that you also won't like this game, because it shares a lot of the traits people love and hate about that genre. A lot of people (myself included) probably shouldn't play this game, and I wish the rhetoric surrounding it would acknowledge that it's got some glaring flaws, and is insultingly padded out. I don't think I've ever played a game with such a gulf between expectation and (subjective) reality.