It’s quite unfortunate that a number of anti-JRPG sects out there (and they do exist) believe that “J” realistically stands for juvenile rather than Japanese. If it requires proper attributing, the “J” could easily stand for joyous, as there’s definitely something to be said for the frequently staggering amount of emotional authenticity that most JRPGs instill into their gameplay experiences. While the majority of their outward appearances can be described as “cartoony,” or “immature,” they can often manage to evoke a sense of genuine place, time, and disposition with much more intrinsic humanity than other role-playing titles. The Xeno series, originally created by Squaresoft (now Sqaure Enix), has always been a champion for this breed of deeply emotive storytelling. Xenogears, from 1998, is one of the very first epic-length JRPGs to carry me to its terminus, intensely grabbing hold of my sentimentality, so much so that it sparked an early interest in the philosophies of Frued, Jung, and Nietzsche, whose particular ideologies snaked their way into the narrative’s perplexing plotlines.
Thirteen years later, Monolith Soft, who took over the Xeno franchise in 2002 with the respectable three-chapter Xenosaga canon, has delivered the worthy spiritual successor to Xenogears with the Nintendo-published Xenoblade Chronicles, a game so vast in scale and heart that it makes the universe of Mass Effect 3 give the impression of city blocks. Nearly sidestepped for localization in the States, Xenoblade Chronicles is a stunning achievement for Monolith Soft, one of the best RPGs—Japanese or otherwise—to surface in a decade, and a fitting swan song for the commonly neglected Wii.
For years now, linearity has been the thorn in the side of many JRPGs, tirelessly corralling players into enclosed routes, eliminating the freedom of exploration that was once the hallmark of the genre. Xenoblade Chronicles harkens back to the majestic days of JRPGs while still maintaining a remarkably contemporary overtone, allowing the bulk of its world’s openness to be available for trekking from the very start. While the Wii’s graphical limitations are indeed apparent, Monolith Soft does an exemplary job of pushing the console’s visuals to their maximum capacity, resulting in an expanse of impressively designed landscapes and character models that don’t instantly necessitate the enhancement of HD rendering—though this game would be jaw-dropping in high-definition. Xenoblade Chronicles brilliantly does away with many of the annoyances that have hampered the JRPGs of the aughts. Random battles, save points, and redundant backtracking have all been exiled in favor of an exceptionally smooth journey, complete with minimal hand-holding tutorials, appealing side quests, and a strikingly innovative and intelligent battle system that, like the rest of Xenoblade Chronicles, creatively combines JRPG elements past and present to form a combat architecture that, if examined as a fresh gold standard, prognosticates a luminous destiny for fans of the field.
Even though its overworld map approaches the size of the Nippon archipelago, principally taking place on the backs of a pair of prodigious and congealed mechanical titans, each and every move you make in Xenoblade Chronicles serves an evolutionary purpose in relation to your team. Simply moving about the environment equates to experience, as well as treasure collecting and the customary altercations with visible monsters. It’s these fighting sequences that place Xenoblade Chronicles high in the rankings of utterly in-depth and ingenious JRPGs, providing a winning combination of turn-focused maneuvering and real-time commands that make each encounter a unique undertaking. Similar to Final Fantasy XII, elementary party attacks will occur extemporaneously while you dictate the actions of a singular character. Simultaneously, sets of perpetually expanding special moves known as Talents and other various group assaults charge up, becoming available in certain situations. These options make early battles a breeze; terrific for getting acquainted with the layout, and later boss confrontations call for serious implementation of a variety of teamwork strategies, demanding an acute honing of a range of techniques.
Every JRPG hero has his or her signature weapon, and Xenoblade Chronicles cleverly integrates this device into battles as well as its plot. Shulk, our chosen foundling protagonist, wields the mighty and munificent Monado, a sword that bestows the ability to momentarily glimpse into the future. When engaged, sightly cues (screen coloration shifts, blurring, and slow-motion) enter the fray, prompting the initiation of extremely effective reversals. Enemies’ deathblows can occasionally be seen beforehand, changing the intended string of selections from offensive to defensive on the fly. The futuristic aspects of the Monado are helpful, but, thankfully, don’t downgrade Xenoblade Chronicles to a childish difficulty by any measure.
Although its aesthetics are less than terribly realistic, Xenoblade Chronicles boasts a notably engaging story that, despite its unarguably tame exterior, features an uncommon quantity of bloodshed, dramatic turmoil, and mortality as well as a distinctly magnetic charm originating from a strong script and memorable vocal performances. The aforementioned robotic goliaths represent opposing sides of a long-fought war between man (Bionis) and machine (Mechonis). Shulk and the remaining denizens of the Colony 9 outpost must rise up against their adversaries before they are overtaken by an onslaught of dangerous mechs, an end that seems all too evident. Shulk constantly stresses over the implications of the negative future, and the introduction of the intriguing Monado only strengthens Xenoblade Chronicles’s overarching theme of utilizing what is at hand in the present in order to erase an impending doom. Using a cast of largely British voice actors (the game was initially released in the United Kingdom back in late 2011), Xenoblade Chronicles joins the ever-growing list of fantasy/sci-fi tales populated with U.K. accents. A minor distraction at the outset (some across-the-pond slang terms are thrown about a tad too often), these specific voices quickly separate themselves from the JRPG pack, and through their singularity aid in making the imaginative macrocosm of Xenoblade Chronicles all the more convincing and emotionally involving.
Xenoblade Chronicles is absolutely jam-packed with tons of non-throwaway content. The main campaign alone will likely steal more than 50 hours of your life, and that’s without tending to any of the side quests or various other optional tasks Monolith Soft has sprinkled throughout this near-masterpiece. Gracious, resourceful, and enlightening at virtually every juncture, Xenoblade Chronicles concurrently highlights why JRPGs have been so important to the genre and how much more they can accomplish as the restrictions of technology are continually broken down.