Monolith Soft's magnum opus is a fitting last hurrah for the Wii.
As Monolith Software's Wii opus approaches its North American release date, I figured something should be put up here on Giant Bomb to help advise those who are still on the fence about this game. Specifically, the ones pondering the purchase of a Wii to play it on. I could quite easily recommend the purchase of a Wii, either now or when they become even cheaper after the imminent advent of the Wii-U, due to a quite well-hidden library of distinctively unusual yet wholly entertaining exclusives. However, when it comes to Xenoblade, I'm of the opinion that it may be the system's nonpareil: Never to be surpassed as the console reaches the end of its lifespan, at least in terms of scope and quality. Whether that's factually accurate or just idle hyperbole as a result of my predilection for JRPGs, I couldn't say for sure, but there's a good chance you'll find it every bit as phenomenal.
I guess the chief complaint against JRPGs is how dependent they are on well-established tropes of the genre; a perpetual act of auto-cannibalism that has seen diminishing returns over the years. A secondary complaint would be the lack of care and detail that goes into the characters and the story, which tend to include the same one-note anime archetypes you've seen a thousand times before.
I can't say Xenoblade completely escapes either of these problems, but I found the plot to be compelling and completely outlandish but in a far more grounded way than, perhaps, Brad was recently discussing as a problem he has with FFXIII-2. Though it deals with two giant dead Gods, the metaphysical origins of the protagonist's magic sword, a lot of twists that don't make a whole lot of sense until they're expounded on later with some post-event exposition and an entire tree village full of ersatz Ewoks, it's a story that slowly unravels and pauses for breath frequently, affording you time to absorb recent developments. It's also consistently gripping, which occasionally felt like a detriment to its open-world gameplay since I'd often abandon exploring a new area so I could hit the next waypoint to see what happens next. I can't say I've played an open-world RPG that bothered to craft a story as elaborate and layered as this one, including even Skyrim's Wagnerian dragon saga. Dragnerian?
Similarly, I found characters to be more appealing than those of recent JRPGs I'd played. No-one feels superfluous; each has their own reason for fighting, their own little arc that they're following, their own moments of growth and reflection that flesh the character out beyond their stereotype-adhering first impressions and they receive satisfactory closure when addressing their various problems and misgivings. This is enhanced further with the entirely optional Heart-to-Hearts, which play out similarly to Tales' skits in that you get a little more of the backstory of the characters and how their friendship is progressing. Mechanically speaking, they all have a unique role in combat that the player can mix and match with if they're having difficulty with a particular fight. On a similar subject, the way the affinity system works - it increases by cheering your companions in combat, picking the right things to say in Heart-to-Hearts and offering each other items as presents - may at times feel a little cloying and "Team Discovery Channel!", but generally helps establish just how close-knit the group is slowly becoming, an aspect which occasionally feels incongruous in games where a guy might suddenly decide to follow you for the flimsiest of reasons just so you'll have one more member to fill out a battle party with. Sup, Amarant?
A considerable amount of time is spent either exploring or completing side-quests, as is standard for your average non-linear open-world RPG. However, the game makes what might be a slog of a grind more accommodating to players with a suite of perhaps the most convenient features ever exhibited in a JRPG. You can save anywhere. You can instantly quick travel to any landmark you've visited. You will instantly complete most insignificant fetch quests upon reaching the required total of items/kills, disregarding the need to return to the quest sponsor. You will occasionally be gifted XP for achieving milestones, simply as a form of constant positive encouragement. You can trade with NPCs for all sorts of useful items for the random objects scattered across the many varied landscapes. You can also use those same random objects to fill an OCD-friendly "Collectopedia", which grants you various items upon the completion of lines and entire grids in a Bingo-style manner. Your plot-vital precognitive powers tell you the outcomes of certain NPC quest decisions, as well as telling you the items you picked up will at one point in the future have a quest attached to them and you should hang onto them for the time being. The game is chock-full of these sorts of components, and it's probably best I omit any further examples and let you discover the rest for yourself.
Of course, even when made as painless as possible, the exploration and combat would still need to be enticing to want to dedicate hours into the triple digits on them. Thankfully, that is more or less the case: The exploration is aided with a veritable trove of stunning vistas and gloriously rendered landscapes that have an appealing alien quality that is in some way defined by how they all correspond to a colossal entity's anatomy. The rolling green fields on top of the Bionis' Leg, for example, or the peaceful serenity of the Eryth Sea that sits within the Bionis' scalp. The robotic Mechonis, inversely, has locations that appear to comprise an endless expanse of immense, inscrutable machinery. Each of these locations, as well as being geographically and tonally diverse (thanks in part to an amazing soundtrack that dynamically changes with the game's day/night cycle), can often be several square miles in size, prompting inquisitive adventurers to uncover all sorts of hidden areas and secrets ensconced throughout the topography. The game emphasizes the importance of exploration by granting a significant XP bonus for each landmark discovered: Not only does this encourage some trailblazing, but the compulsory waypoints you pass and the rewards they grant you ensure that you've never too underlevelled for compulsory boss fights, even if you decide to avoid every wandering monster. But the game gives you ample reason to want to fight as well, so...
..I suppose that brings us to the combat, which deserves the same commendations FFXIII/XIII-2's battle system begrudgingly receives by its detractors for how it truncates the duration of individual battles without ever diminishing the level of strategy involved. Xenoblade's combat system is based to some degree on the MMO model, where battles happen in real-time and the player is given a palette of special abilities that require varying levels of cool-down time before they can be used again, depending on power and utility. It separates itself from the herd with two specific features: A) The precognitive "visions", where you're given a small time frame to either prevent or lessen the severity of a particularly brutal enemy attack of which you are given a preview and a countdown, and B) the curious methods with which it streamlines aspects of common JRPG combat fixtures of the past. For one, there's no items - or to be specific, no potions, ethers, phoenix downs or other consumable battle accoutrements that are generally the norm. Curing a member of a status effect is as simple as walking over to them and snapping them out of it. Similarly, you can resurrect fallen members by helping them back up - though as this is tied in to the combo system, your capacity to do so is fortunately (for challenge's sake) limited. Healing is done entirely with specific Arts (a set of abilities unique to each character), so it's a good idea to ensure you have someone in your group that can use them. Battles tend to be measured in seconds rather than minutes and subsequently there's less emphasis on longterm tactical ability than there is on situational awareness: If members start falling, get them back on their feet and figure out how the enemy is overpowering them. (Usually for me it's because they've put up some sort of damage reflection aura that needs to be broken.) The AI of your team is remarkably competent, so there's no need to worry about the usual braindead idiocy of AI companions - every character has their designated role in combat, whether that's healer or aggressor or what have you, and follows it adroitly. As if to once again reiterate the importance of camaraderie, helping team-mates and encouraging one another also builds up a morale-based gauge that is key to many of the more powerful tools at your disposal, such as chain attacks and a "high tension" state that greatly enhances one's accuracy and evasion. On a final note, the penalty for death is non-existent; you're simply dropped off at the nearest landmark checkpoint with no penalty to the party's experience or wealth. If you die during a boss battle, you start a couple of feet away with the opportunity to check your battle palette and equipment before leaping back once more unto the breach. This isn't to say the game is too easy (as an open-world game rife with side-quests, it's as challenging as you decide to make it) but rather that it adheres to the Super Meat Boy philosophy of "don't worry, we've made it as convenient as possible to let you have another stab at that guy."
While the history of Xenoblade is interesting enough - how it took the spiritual predecessors Xenogears and Xenosaga and mutated their more traditional JRPG turn-based format into something far different, or how its US release was in some part orchestrated by a passionate fan letter-writing (or modern internet equivalent) campaign called Operation Rainfall - it is the future proffered by Monolith's latest that is of greater curiosity. Like fellow Operation Rainfall companion The Last Story, it suggests a new paradigm, a whole new course, for the JRPG genre. Escaping the hoary trappings that have seen audiences of that style drop to naught but its most ardent fanbase, it reinvents the format by bridging the gap between East and West, creating an experience that feels congruous to games from either side of the divide.
In not-haughty-jerk speak, it's designed by a team that knows it must evolve to stay in the game. The video game game, as it were. So while Xenoblade could be considered impressive on its own merits, what it represents is perhaps more exciting still. I urge anyone with an interest in the JRPG genre, past and present, as well as those fond of the larger, non-linear western RPG, to give it a chance come April 6th.