Long ago, a war raged between two gods, the Bionis and the Mechonis. Now, those gods have fallen still, and their bodies have become home to all manner of life. On the Bionis, the humanoid Homs face continued assault from the mechanical Mechon, with only one weapon in their arsenal able to defeat them – the legendary blade of the Monado. As the only Homs who can wield the Monado without injury, it falls to eighteen year old Shulk to take up the blade and avenge those lost to the Mechon.
It’s taken me a while to get around to the original Xenoblade Chronicles. I’ve owned the game for years, and before I ever played a single hour of it I knew most of the story and gameplay from watching my brother’s playthrough. Back in the winter of 2015 I even lost most of my Christmas holiday to putting hours into its spiritual successor, Xenoblade Chronicles X. At the time, XCX became one of my favourite JRPGs of all time – and now, the original Xenoblade has joined it.
On paper, Xenoblade sounds an awful lot like every other JRPG. The hero’s home village is attacked and his girlfriend is killed, prompting him to take up a legendary weapon and become the Destined Hero of Destiny who must pursue revenge against the Big Bad. He’s even joined by some familiar character archetypes – the hot-headed best friend, the furry mascot character, the sheltered princess, the healer, and the mentor swordsman. But rather than coming across as tired old tropes, all of these characters are likeable people who I enjoying journeying with and having in my party. It comes to something when the mascot character and his race are actually cute and amusing rather than irritating – although unfortunately these qualities did not propagate to the sequels, in which the Nopon race are nothing but annoying.
The overall story of the game also ticks a lot of trope boxes – there are misguided villains along the way to the Big Bad; a fantasy world that has some sci-fi origins, and various revelations that things aren’t what they first appeared. Nonetheless, the story is solid enough, and never felt tiresome.
Xenoblade Chronicles is not an open world game, but like Final Fantasy XII, it does a good job of simulating the open world experience. Maps are large and expansive, with plenty to explore, but with readily available fast travel that means you can quickly return to almost anywhere you’ve already visited. There are plains to run across, cliffs to scale, and caves whose depths absolutely must be explored. The game also boasts a day/night cycle plus variable weather, all of which affects which monsters show up- but fortunately, the time of day can easily be changed from the menu if you need to do so.
Naturally, this world is populated by monsters of all kinds, from puny weaklings to massive superbosses whose level exceeds the maximum your party can ever achieve. Some of these monsters will attack on sight, but others will only engage if you pick a fight – however, it is well worth fighting as much as possible to avoid needing to grind before a tough boss. This is a game where level difference is a big factor in damage calculations – if you’re more than five levels below an enemy, most of your physical attacks will miss.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles is a little different to your standard JRPG. There’s no MP (or equivalent), and there are no items that you can use in battle. Instead, your character has a standard auto-attack, and a variety of physical and magical Arts that, once used, cannot be used again until a cooldown phase has passed. On top of this, there’s a range of other mechanics:
- The Party Gauge is a three-bar gauge filled by certain arts and actions in battle. One bar is needed to revive a KO’ed character, or warn them of an impending attack. When the Party Gauge is full, the party can string three or more Arts together into a powerful Chain Attack.
- Tension is a measure of how well the battle is going, and as such is a bit of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. If you score lots of hits and withstand the enemy’s onslaught, your tension increases and you get better at scoring critical hits. If party members get KO-ed or hit with negative status effects, then their tension goes down and attacks start missing. If a character’s tension gets too low, you can manually ‘encourage’ them to perk them back up.
- There are various status effects which must be applied to an enemy in a particular order. An enemy in Break status can be Toppled, causing them to fall to the ground and be unable to act. Toppled enemies can be further Dazed, stunning them for a few more precious seconds.
- Thanks to his possession of the Monado, Shulk sometimes get visions of what the enemy’s next move will be. Thus forewarned, you have the chance to prepare for the onslaught, or perhaps even nullify the enemy’s upcoming attack.
- As characters land attacks, they fill up their Talent Gauge. A full Talent Gauge allows for the unleashing of a powerful Talent Art. Talent Arts and their effects vary massively between characters – I’ll go into more detail below.
- Using special attacks on enemies draws aggro. The more aggro a character has, the more they will be targeted by an enemy – hence tank characters should focus on drawing aggro away from the weaker party members.
- As well as Arts, characters can learn passive skills that provide a boost in battle. Characters can also share these passive skills with each other.
- Characters can craft and equip gems that confer stat and ability bonuses.
Although this range of mechanics might sound like a lot to get to grips with, in practice it all meshes together rather well, creating an exciting battle experience. There are only two real complaints with the combat. First is the tendency for monsters to pile on and mob you once you initiate combat – it’s very difficult to pick off one enemy by separating it from the crowd, as all its mates will show up and start beating you to a pulp. In the worst case scenario, you might even attract a Level 80 monster to a Level 20 fight. The second issue is the game’s difficulty curve. There are a few points in the game where the difficulty really jumps and you suddenly find yourself getting repeatedly slaughtered. If you manage to grind enough to overcome the new challenge, you can easily find yourself feeling overlevelled for a while afterwards. It would have been better to have a much smoother difficulty gradient.
Outside of battle, building relationships between playable characters and NPC is an important aspect of the game. Party members will build so-called ‘affinity’ with each other, allowing for the sharing of more of their passive skills and the crafting of better gems. Higher affinity levels also unlock more ‘heart to hearts’, special cutscenes that explore and deepen the relationships between the characters.
Completing the game’s extensive range of sidequests will also build affinity between the party and the world’s numerous NPCs. Not only can you directly affect the lives and relationships between the NPCs, but building affinity with them, you’ll be able to trade with them for better items. Trading items is a robust alternative to trying to find rare items in the field, some of which have a frustratingly low 17-20% spawn rate. There’s even an entire settlement in the game – Colony 6 – that you can rebuild from scratch after a Mechon attack. Over time, you can even invite dissatisfied NPCs from across the world to make new lives for themselves in Colony 6.
Visually, Xenoblade Chronicles is showing its age a bit now (note that I played the original Wii version and not the New 3DS remake), and it’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t an HD remaster to really show off the world to its fullest potential. Despite these limitations, the environments are still sweeping and spectacular, and populated with all manner of majestic beasts that you’ll want to hunt down and destroy. The characters are well designed, and use a more realistic look and muted colour palette than most JPRPGs, offer something a bit different to the usual colourful anime style. Character outfits change as they equip different armour, and it’s quite fun to make a character dress completely differently to how they did at the start of the game – at one point I had Dunban running round in just a pair of swimming trunks!
Background music is consistently high quality, and suits the epic scale of the Xenoblade world well. To fit in with the game’s day/night cycle, most areas have both their energetic daytime theme, and a calmer, more subdued night-time remix.
Although you can’t switch playable character in the middle of battle, you can choose to play as anyone. At first, it feels safest to stick with Shulk, but later in the game it’s worth getting the hang of at least a couple of the other characters.
There is a spoiler ahead, but we’re probably beyond the statute of limitations for it by now.
- Shulk: As the main character, Shulk is the typical blade user with balanced stats. His normal Arts focus mainly on attacks whose effects vary depending on his position with respect to the enemy. He also has a decent healing art which comes in handy both early on, and when you’re in a pinch, plus support abilities to decrease aggro and fill the Talent Gauge.
Shulk’s Talent Art is to use the power of the Monado, which offers a range of attack, buff and debuff options.
- Reyn: Reyn is your typical strong but slow character, who is designed to be used as a tank. He has high defence and HP, and special abilities that draw aggro to him. Since his auto-attack is quite slow, he’s not that fun to play and is best left under AI control.
- Sharla: Sharla is your go-to healer – she has numerous healing and buff abilities at her command. She does have a few offensive skills, but is not designed to do massive amounts of damage – although one of her attacks can insta-kill Dazed enemies and also does a lot of damage when used in a chain attack. Her weapon of choice is an ether gun which periodically overheats and has to be reset using her Cooldown Talent Art. This gameplay mechanic is not at all fun to play as, so unless you want direct control of the healing for a tough boss, I wouldn’t recommend playing as her.
- Dunban: Although he doesn’t have the same HP and defence growth as Reyn, Dunban is a strong attacker who can also be used as a tank character. He has some decent attack arts, and has the ability to reliably Break and Topple enemies by himself (most characters can only do one or the other). His Talent Art involves some perfectly timed button presses to execute a sword slashing combo. All in all, Dunban is a solid character to play as.
- Melia: Melia is the closest thing the game has to a mage – her attacks are based on ether (magical) rather than physical damage. Playing as Melia involves summoning elementals to her side – whilst summoned, they provide buffs to Melia and any nearby characters. Melia can then damage enemies (but lose the buff) by firing the summoned elementals at them for big damage. If she does this enough times, she’ll enter an Elemental Burst state, where she can do more damage and access new skills.
Melia takes a bit of getting used to but is ultimately fun to play as, and is probably the only character who can reliably take on enemies many levels higher than the party. There’s a lot of criticism about how poorly the AI handles her – it’s not bad, per se, but it doesn’t take full advantage of what she can do.
- Riki: Riki is a bit of an all-rounder – he has some attack arts, a useful healing skill, and a range of support abilities. His HP is high, but he doesn’t draw much aggro, so although you can use him as a tank, it’s not as successful as using Reyn or Dunban. Riki’s Talent Art is the ability to steal from an enemy – at first this just means items, but later he will be able to steal EXP and ability points, making him useful for grinding. He is quite boring to play as, however.
- Fiora: After briefly being playable at the start, Fiora joins the party permanently quite late in the game. She wields double daggers, and is a decent physical attacker with a nice range of skills – mostly offensive, but with some support thrown in. Her Talent Art depends on what armour she has equipped, and can be either offensive or defensive. She’s one of the more fun characters to play as.
Little changes that could have made Xenoblade Chronicles perfect
- Remember in FF7 how the game would keep as many of your materia equipped as possible when you switched weapons or armour? Well, despite encouraging you to plonk as many gems as possible into your weapons and armour, Xenoblade Chronicles does not do the same. Instead, if you want to transfer your gems over, you must memorise what they are, manually remove them from whatever piece of equipment you want to swap out, put on the new equipment, and then, if there are the slots available, scroll through the gem menu looking for the gems you want to put back. All in all, it’s a bit tedious.
- Optional quests are a big part of Xenoblade Chronicles, and often enough, you’ll need to report back to the NPC who set the quest, or a related NPC. There’s just one problem – from the quest screen you can see the location of the person who set the quest, but not the times they are active. This information is available, but only on the affinity chart. Before you waste time looking for an NPC who might not even be there, you could waste time in a different way – trying to locate them on the affinity chart to check which hours they’re active. Or you could just go straight to the Xenoblade wiki to see exactly where and when to find any NPC.
- Continuing on from the last point, when you do find an NPC on the affinity chart, you’ll notice that their location is only given in general terms – “Colony 9” or “Frontier Village”, for example. Given how expansive some of these locales are, it would be nice if the game gave a more specific location for its NPCs, to either the nearest landmark or named location.
- When it comes to RPGs, I’m a real hoarder. I hate selling off my inventory unless I absolutely have to. But in Xenoblade, the limit of what you can carry means you’ll eventually have to start letting things go.
Fortunately, the game does have a mechanic which marks up items that will be useful for future quests you’ve yet to accept, so you won’t accidentally sell those off. Still, it would have been nice to get to the end of the game without having to micromanage my inventory of ether crystals, or reluctantly part with all those Insect Legs.
- Many games these days let you equip your newly purchased weapons and armour directly from the shop menu – not so Xenoblade Chronicles. Admittedly, this function wouldn’t be too useful without the aforementioned gem transfer, but put them both together and it could save a lot of menu traversal.
- When you’re on the hunt for a key person or item, they will be highlighted on the top-right minimap with a red exclamation mark. However, not only does this take a bit of time to load in when you approach, but it isn’t marked at all on the larger map you can access from the menu. Maybe this would detract too much from the tedious challenge of finding items and people, but I’m willing to take that risk.
Despite the minor niggles outlined above, Xenoblade Chronicles is a fun and addictive JRPG. It’s easy to lose far too many hours to this game, but rest assured you won’t regret a minute of it. Now all we need is a Switch remaster.