Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those games that you probably know exists but may have never seen in physical form. Due to the Wii having a barren 2010 and Monolith Soft's RPG gaining overwhelmingly positive reviews in Japan, Nintendo fans campaigned for this title, The Last Story and Pandora's Tower to get Western releases. And, following several months of intense localisation, they got their wish. Actually finding a copy of Xenoblade in Europe was another matter, but as someone who has learned the hard way that games on Nintendo machines can spiral up (rather than drop) in price, I banked correctly on Blockbuster (RIP) being their usual shit selves and having an unloved copy in stock.
For many, the lack of tangible ways of playing Xenoblade have been a constant frustration – the game might be compatible with the current Wii U, but with Amazon's prices reaching beyond £70 it's a rare RPG fan that can afford the experience. But if you own a New 3DS, your luck's in – a port of Xenoblade, plus the requisite "3D" in its title but minus the original Japanese voice acting, is imminent. And you'll be able to get a brand-new copy for significantly less than the Wii version is selling for.
Intrigued? You should be, but no doubt you've questions. Just how good is this game, and how much should you care? Well, I put over 120 hours into the Wii version, so let that be some kind of indication. Secondly, what the hell is the game, anyway? Let me explain.
THE GENERAL GIST
Xenoblade is your usual tale of moon-sized god meets moon-sized god, they fall out, mortally wound each other and collapse, their bodies falling into the ocean to create two huge and diverse landforms, one called Bionis and the other Mechonis. Life exists on these islands, one a humanoid race called Homs and the other robotic beings known as the Mechon. The guys leave each other alone until, one day, our hero Shulk's home colony is attacked and he heads off for revenge with a vagabond bunch armed with a cool-looking sword called the Monado (which, Sword of Omens-like, gives him visions of what is going to transpire if he doesn't shake a leg). With me so far?
In plain gaming terms, Xenoblade is a JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) that broke a lot of the rules and reignited a dying genre – the upcoming Final Fantasy XV bears many of its hallmarks, for starters. You wander across insanely inventive, impressively massive terrains battling monsters and enemies, making allies and trying to learn more about what the hell is going on.
So why is it so good?
THE WORLD – SORRY, THE TORSO OF A HUGE, DEAD GOD – IS YOUR OYSTER
One of the greatest joys of Xenoblade is just spending time in its unique and imaginative world. I don't know about you, but chances are the last game you played wasn't set on the back of a deceased deity the size of Portugal.
The land masses are beautiful creations – alive and inhabited. I got a similar feeling playing it to my experiences with Metroid Prime and Shadow of the Colossus, where there was a sense of being inside a living ecosystem. As the game unfolds, the world changes and the people living within it do too, in accordance with plot developments. Ice worlds are barren, the swamps death traps, the plains roamed by huge but passive beasts. Tribes flee areas after unexpected attacks, and characters turn up later in the game in new locations depending on your side-quest decisions.
The universally adored score helps make the experience memorable too. With the music being something you're inevitably going to hear a lot, you'd imagine it'd wear thin. But it never gets old. The voice acting is more divisive, but I largely found the English dub a whole lot of fun – even if hearing Clara from Doctor Who (Jenna Coleman) verbally abusing a cockney robot was a bit odd.
The art style and terrain is so gorgeous it makes you forget the game first came out on an underpowered, non-HD platform. Just the title screen is a thing of beauty, essentially just a grassy field, moved by the wind, with the Monado embedded in the ground. That screen is the video game equivalent of Prozac; I'd sometimes play the game differently because of it, walking for hours to see the next amazing view or investigate a cave, a journey made more enjoyable by the fact that there is no on-screen info when not in battle mode. It's a beautiful, panoramic world to explore.
Tip! While you can uncover the blacked-out map by scouring every last millimetre of the surface and swimming for miles, there's another way. As I discovered several hours in, you can simply visit the landmarks in each area to have the map unlock fully and give you fast travel. So, you know, maybe save yourself a three-hour swim around the Eryth Sea's remote recesses.
FIGHT, FOR YOUR RIGHT, WITH A PARTY (OF THREE)
You're going to use the battle system a lot, so be thankful it's insanely good. Most JRPGs were unsure how to evolve turn-based fighting, so when Xenoblade got rid of the genre's trademark mechanic many eyebrows were raised. In truth, it was a game changer.
Freedom to fight in real time was transformational. The ability to move around and control your own destiny never grows tired. Once you have your target selected, you'll start automatically attacking. After a few hits, your gauges will fill up (at differing rates depending on what you've levelled up and the strength of several stats) and you have a call to make: wait to get better attacks, called Arts, or weigh in now. Mid-strength attacks can be used multiple times before an Art will appear, but waiting those few moments more could be what turns the fight, or heals your entire party. It means there is a huge amount of variation within the system.
You can also set up your party and circle your enemy to attack as you see fit. Want to charge in? No problem. Happier orchestrating proceedings from further away, via healing and charged attacks? So be it. The combination of the team of three you put together greatly influences the ease of these battles and you can also lead the group with any character (some mech battles will need Shulk to be in charge, though). I found certain combos that toppled huge beasts wouldn't scratch other meagre opponents, so experiment if you hit a wall. And remember it's real time, not turn-based combat, so treat it accordingly. Use one person to draw heat while the others attack from behind or, if an offensive move is called something like Side Slash, maybe think about attacking from the side.
Another interesting feature lies within Shulk's weapon, the Monado. Occasionally it gives him a forewarning of events to come, meaning you can proactively react. The sword's abilities get more interesting as the game unfurls, so think carefully about which ones to level up first.
Being able to pick and choose your battles is also a brilliant touch; weaker foes will avoid you when you're overpowered, thus avoiding the repetition of many Final Fantasy games. Likewise, enemies 40 levels above yours won't even notice you unless you deliberately pick a fight with them. You can often kill enemies ten or more levels higher than you if you get your tactics right, but also be prepared to run very fast if you're getting schooled (though the save feature dumps you back at the start of the battle).
Tip! There are a few basic things you should prioritise. The first is to perfect your timing on that initial battle start prompt. It boosts your party's affinity (more on that in a bit), raises your attack effectiveness and allows for powerful chain moves. Pulling the latter off eluded me for hours, but when I realised that connecting attack choices by colour worked, I started making some headway.
Watching the tutorials on how to break, topple and daze helps make sense of chain attacks, but these are skills you should master anyhow – an upside-down enemy is a lot easier to kill than one stamping on you. Perfecting these can reduce higher-levelled enemies to mere babies.
This "how to play" video explains the game's combat system
GEM OF AN IDEA
Another way to succeed is to upgrade your equipment. Powerful enemies and trickier side-quests drop new gear, and shops and traders also have supplies; but there is another way. After a few hours' play you are able to craft ether crystals from mining rocks or defeated enemies, back at your home colony and eventually while on the move.
Match similarly coloured deposits of connected qualities so that certain added values exceed 100. The higher the value you reach, the better the gem level created. Any leftover material is returned as cylinders that you can reuse, allowing you to refine and extract traits. The character responsible for the crafting, their role in the process and the party's affinity level can also affect the finished gem's standard.
Tip! Equipping these gems to find which armour or weapon complements them best is almost a mini-game in itself. The effects of these pairings can range from weapons inflicting double hits to speeding up your meter's refill time. Some weapons have multiple slots, meaning you can create devastating combos. Play around to see what works for you and don't forget to bring across any gems you're reliant on when you upgrade.
TWO AFFINITY, AND BEYOND
As you play, your actions build up affinity with the characters you meet. Nailing that initial battle prompt also helps. This boosts the connection between the three people within your chosen party in your skill trees, but unselected characters do not benefit, so rotating your team occasionally and finding your preferred cliques is worthwhile.
Doing side-quests relevant to your party's story arcs also strengthens affinity. Likewise completing quests for named characters helps to bridge people and even entire regions. It's a bloody massive world, so be sure to check your affinity map to jog the brain as to where and when that person in particular resides, as some people (and monsters) only appear at certain times of day or night.
There is also a great point in the game where you find Colony 6, which has been destroyed in the on-going battle. At this point you can either carry on and ignore their plight, or take the colony to heart and try to rebuild it. It's a huge task and I only managed to do half of it, but seeing long-lost lovers reconnected and schools opening was one of the best (and totally optional) sections of the game.
Tip! Many quests are variations on fetching items and tend to automatically complete for you, but ones that require you to return to the quest giver will often yield better rewards or more interesting side missions.
Also, I completed the game having put many more hours than I needed to story wise, and still hadn't built up enough affinity between some characters to view their Heart to Hearts. These brief interludes are multiple-choice conversations that allow you to learn more about someone's back story or inner feelings – hardly vital, but they build the story nicely. If your playtime is limited, check out this site called YouTube for the sequences.
The trailer for 'Xenoblade Chronicles 3D' – the game is released worldwide in early April 2015
"I'M FEELING IT"
To see Xenoblade through to its end is going to take a while. After my 120 hours, I'd reached level 80, with monsters left alone 20 levels above that, dozens of side-quests ignored and half a colony left to rebuild. You can probably complete the story alone in 60 to 70 hours.
Yet despite the bonkers plot and punishing length, I never got bored of Xenoblade. I rarely play games longer than 15 hours, but I was disappointed when this ended.
In a world that has already given 3DS owners the tremendous time sink of Monster Hunter 4, and with a smaller screen to frame the game's wondrous sights, it'll be interesting to see if Xenoblade is still as awe-inspiring to new gamers as it was when I picked it up four years ago. But the ability to dip in and out, as is the way of mobile play, could give it a new lease of life. Even if you never reach the end sequence, I urge you to give Xenoblade a go – it's a game world that can't fail to live in the memory, finally affordable to those who missed it first time around.