A Bold Step Forward for the Modern JRPG
It should be no secret to anyone that the Japanese RPG has seen better days. Once upon a time, it was the genre of choice to deliver sweeping epics full deep characters, magical worlds, and riveting tales. Challenging mechanics, like random encounters and classic turn-based combat, were seen as sophisticated; fighting for the thinking man. But in a crowded, Western-dominated industry full of grand setpieces and increasingly cinematic gameplay, the 100-hour Japanese epic comes off as a ponderous trudge. The commitment and patience required by such games become difficult to sell in the face of the quicker-paced competition. Perhaps more than any other genre, the JRPG has simply failed to age well, and has occupied an awkward niche in this generation of consoles. Thankfully, Xenoblade Chronicles largely manages to buck this trend and break away from the industry standard with some bold new ideas for the genre.
When it comes to judging a JRPG, two elements stand out as the most important: the story and the combat system. While these are important for almost any game, the longevity of a JRPG makes these two components exponentially more significant. For a game that lasts 60-100 hours, the story better keep you hooked, and the battle system ought to remain entertaining from your first fight to your last. I am pleased to report that Xenoblade doesn't disappoint in either category.
The game's plot-driven tale is a bit of a slow burn in the first couple of acts, but ramps up steadily enough afterwards to keep you interested. Xenoblade tells the tale of a young man named Shulk, who inherits a mysterious blade called the Monado early on in the game. Aside from its immense power, the sword also allows Shulk to glimpse into the future, thereby giving him the opportunity to change it. It's certainly an interesting narrative hook, and the story takes great care not to wear out its novelty.
The world inhabited by Shulk and the Monado is similarly unique. Inhabitants of the game world reside on one of two rivalling colossi, the Bionis or the Mechonis. As the names suggest, the former is home to organic life, while the latter shelters synthetic life. These two massive beings, and their residents, are engaged in an eternal struggle for dominance, and this conflict makes up the greater background of the story. While this may sound like an everyday human/robot, good/evil struggle, it evolves in several interesting ways thanks to some major plot twists that really blur the lines of friend and foe. For all of its efforts, however, the game's story cannot escape some more common RPG tropes--an early attack on the main character's hometown stands out. Thankfully, the game manages to overcome these outplayed story elements early on, and by the time you enter the final act of the game, Xenoblade manages to craft one of the best-paced and most dynamic stories of this generation.
Xenoblade's worlds are immense, closer resembling the open plains of an MMO than the linear, corridor-based maps that plague many of today's JRPGs. These environments encourage exploration, and collectables dotted throughout the landscape provide great incentive to gaze upon the game's diverse backdrops. While Xenoblade offers impressive draw distances and pretty vistas, it fails to deliver in terms of raw graphical power. Frankly, the game looks like it belongs on the PlayStation 2: character models are passable, but you don't have to look very hard to find muddy textures and jagged polygons. As far as the audio goes, Xenoblade has a few memorable tracks, but nothing groundbreaking.
In terms of gameplay, what makes Xenoblade so impressive is that it is extremely aware of the market it is entering into. Most importantly, it shamelessly abandons traditional JRPG tropes, and is a far better game for it. For combat, it adopts engaging real-time, cooldown-based mechanics that draw inspiration from modern MMOs; it eschews cumbersome overworlds for fast travel that is practically devoid of load times; and while offering hundreds of side quests, it never requires you to go all the way back to the quest-giver to hand them in. It's little things like these that help Xenoblade stand out as an objection to the stubborn conservatism of the genre.
Furthermore, perhaps in no other JRPG has the narrative and the gameplay been married so seamlessly. While in possession of the Monado, you can use your clairvoyance during combat to see lethal incoming attacks and prepare for them accordingly. Not only does this make the Monado so much more than a simple plot device, but it prevents careless deaths and reloads--thereby keeping the game apace. It's a remarkable innovation, and a perfect example of what makes this game so special. Xenoblade's gameplay is outstanding more for what it excludes than what it includes: it's perfectly-tuned for the modern gamer, and trims the perfect amount of fat to keep a JRPG relevant.
Xenoblade will no doubt be studied and emulated by every JRPG developer in the near future. It delivers a solid story and exciting gameplay, and even manages to develop them in tandem. While the progressivism this game represents cannot be understated, Xenoblade still manages to cling onto some of that classic JRPG charm that gives it its heart. It's not perfect, but it is a welcome shot in the arm to a genre that has been on life support for far too long.