I recently decided to put my fiercely burning love for Xenoblade into words for a review site, and I thought I'd post the massive wall of text here as well, because I want you to know that you're missing out on one of the best games ever made, and that you should pick it up immediately if it ever gets localized.
To those of you who possess a "tl;dr" kind of mentality, know only this:
Xenoblade is effing awesome.
Anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese RPGs needs to check this out as soon as they can, because this is an experience unlike any other.
The long version:
First off, do not be put off (or indeed get excited, should you be so inclined) by the "Xeno" prefix.
This game was originally named "Monado: Beginning of the World" (it is rumored at this point that the game is being localized under the same title, but no official statement has been made as of yet), but it was renamed Xenoblade in honor of the Director who worked on the previous Xeno-games as well.
It has, in effect, NOTHING to do with Xenogears or the Xenosaga series, whatsoever.
And if you ask me, it is all the better for it!
Although there are some tangents in terms of thematics (big robots and god-slaying etc.) the story and gameplay are completely unrelated, so if you’re looking for a deep, complex narrative interspersed with turn-based battles, you will not find them here.
The game follows the adventures of Shulk, a young spiky-haired and rather annoyingly voiced tike brandishing a sword. So much, so thirteen-a-dozen JRPG! (Please know in advance that the story and cast are not this game’s strong points in the least. If you’re the kind of person to value an RPG for its storytelling, you’re likely to be disappointed (and, in the case of this game, also greatly missing the point).
Before long, Shulk is joined by a cast of characters that is way too reminiscent of Final Fantasy X, and he sets off on a quest to avenge the death of a loved one, and to put an end to the on-going war between man and machine.
And it is this war that has shaped the very world that Xenoblade takes place in. Ages ago, two gigantic Gods did battle in a vast oceanic landscape, one being a machine and the other of flesh and blood. At the end of the battle each God delivered a fatal sword strike to the other simultaneously, and from that moment on the two have frozen into position, their respective swords still stuck in their opponent’s body.
These humongous bodies now form the Machine World and the Human World. It is on these bodies that the game takes place, the Human World being a place of luscious forests, green pastures and blue oceans, and the Machine World being a place of desolate plains riddled with factories, power plants and robotic life.
This setting is one of the major points of appeal of this game. It’s a very original setting for one thing, and it is used to deliver some awe-inspiring and jaw-droppingly gorgeous vistas (you have never seen a Wii game look this good, believe me). A lot of time, effort and love has obviously been poured into creating the environments in this game, not only in terms of graphical prowess, but also, more importantly, of actual design and layout.
Mind you, this is still a Japanese RPG, so you’re not getting one huge overworld to explore freely, such as you might find in games like Oblivion/Fallout 3 or the GTA series. You are brought from one location to the next in a linear fashion, but each location in itself is HUGE and sprawling with life. The added advantage of not having one gigantic overworld, but instead multiple less-gigantic (but still huge!) areas, is that there is much more variety between each area and you’ll get to see much more diverse fields than just one endless forest or wasteland.
Every area is teeming with wildlife, ranging from tiny insects to humongous dinosaurs, and the game is actually set up in a way to logically reflect this through its system. Rather than throwing a lot of enemies at you that are all around the same level (implying that a dinosaur is just as easy to kill as any common fly), each area has lots of high-level monsters running around that you will not be able to defeat until much later in the game. Not only does this make actual worldly sense, but it’s also a great way to keep you on your toes and to fill you with excitement.
To accommodate for this hazard, the game introduces a system that indicates the (relative) strength of each monster in a quick and easy to understand way. Each enemy has a symbol over it indicating two things: what it responds to (sight, sound, ether (nearby magic), or nothing at all) and how strong it is compared to the character you’re controlling. If the symbol is opaque, the enemy is more than 5 levels below you; blue is 3 to 5 levels below you, grey is 2 levels below you to 2 levels above you, yellow is 3 to 5 levels above you, and red is more than 5 levels above you. Stay away from red. (Also, to those of you who can’t stand anything cluttering up the screen: these symbols can be turned off)
Combat is quick and straightforward. If you’ve played Final Fantasy XII, or the MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, you will be right at home. You choose which enemy you want to attack (if it hasn’t already chosen YOU), and your party will start hacking away at it automatically. Player activity comes from selecting which special attacks you wish to use and when (special attacks need some time to recharge after use) and very occasionally performing a timed button press to improve functionality.
Two important factors in combat are “Hate” and “Tension”. Hate indicates how much you have enraged the monster you’re attacking and basically determines which member of your party it will direct its attention to. Hate can of course be raised/lowered by using skills. Tension indicates your overall performance. The higher your tension, the better you will fight, and some skills even require a minimum amount of tension to be used in the first place.
And then there’s the Party Gauge. The Party Gauge consists of 3 levels, which will increase as you fight (much like the Combo Gauge in the Street Fighter Alpha series), and once it’s full, you can unleash a chain attack, where all members in your party get to attack in rapid succession without the monster being able to intervene. It also functions to revive fallen allies. There are no revive spells or items in the game (in fact, you can’t use items during battle at ALL), instead you consume one level of your Party Gauge to revive your allies. If your gauge isn’t full enough, your party will be wiped out. Fret not, for there is no Game Over in this game. You will merely be sent back to the nearest landmark, keeping anything and everything you have.
Landmarks are an important part of the map system. Once you get to a new area, the map will be completely blank, but it fills in automatically as you move around. There are basically two things that get indicated on your map: “Locations”, which are just names for areas (so that you know where to look when someone gives you a quest), and “Landmarks” which are major waypoints in each area. At any time you can travel to any landmark you’ve ever found. If the landmark is in the same area you’re in, the warp is instantaneous, if it’s in another part of the world there will be a very short loading time. This frees travelling from any kind of stress or frustration (you’ll be travelling back and forth a LOT if you’re going to bother with quests) and it’s testament to the Wii that it can load huge and detailed areas this fast. Once you’ve found all locations and landmarks, including the hidden areas (which tend to be very pretty, as well as earn you oodles of experience) the entire map will be filled in.
Each area, apart from having its own unique wildlife, also has collection items. These are blue flame-like objects that serve many purposes in the game. For one thing, you have a collection book (The “Collepedia”) that keeps track of all unique collection items for each area. Find all items in one category for a nice reward. Find all items in one whole area for an even nicer one. Furthermore, collection items can be sold for good money, traded for other useful items, or given as a present from one party member to another to increase their “bond”.
Each character has a “bond” with every other character. And your party has an overall “bond” to each city in the game. When you accept and complete quests, apart from gaining the usual experience, money and items, the citizens will also start liking you more, ultimately giving you access to better items for trade or sale. Members in your party when you accept/complete quests will also think higher of you, leading to a stronger bond, which leads to improved cooperation in battle (your bonds will also improve by helping each other out in battle). Also, the areas in the game are riddled with “Bond talk” points. These serve no other purpose than to gain some background on the characters and see how they interact, but they add color to the cast, which is nice. Each “talk” requires a certain level of “bond” before you can see it, providing some nice character-driven stimulation for gameplay to those who need it.
The most important function of the bond system is skill linking. Each character has 3 skill lines with 5 skills, with 2 additional lines waiting for the inquisitive player. By fighting enemies and exploring, you gain SP (skill points). Gain enough SP and you will learn that skill permanently (although some of them will not have any effect outside of battle). The interesting thing is that skills can be linked. So if one of your allies has a skill that the other does not, you can link that skill so that both characters gain the effect. This requires 2 things: “bond coins” (earned by leveling up and defeating bosses and unique monsters) which you use to “pay” for each skill (don’t worry you don’t lose the coins) and a sufficient bond with other character. At the lowest bond, you will only be able to link 1 skill. At maximum, you get to link 5. Each skill also has a “shape”, with some of the more useful skills having a shape that can only be linked when your bonds are strong enough.
Should you be the kind of person to actively spend time on everything the game offers you, you will find a HUGE amount of content. There are close to 500 quests, although most of them are pretty short and simple, requiring you to kill a number of a specific enemy, or collect an amount of a specific item. Don’t be afraid of tedium though, because you’ll never have to kill many, and item drop rates, even for rare ones, are fairly high.
Keep abreast of the quests the game offers you, and your level should always be high enough to get through the main story without significant trouble. Ignoring side quests, adversely, will most likely put you in some dangerous situations later in the game. Show an active interest in everything the game offers you (not even obsessively so) and you’ll find you’ll reach level 99 without ever having had the feeling you were grinding. Even if you do reach level 99, there are still a handful of enemies over level 100 awaiting the more skilled player.
What I would like to stress is that nothing in this game feels like a chore. Everything just happens naturally as long as you show interest in what the developers have lovingly created for you. This does not take the form of obsessive/compulsive behavior that might be found in the bigger MMORPGs, but at all times stays at a level that is acceptable to both casual and hardcore gamers.
I spent almost 150 hours on my first playthrough (although the timer stops at 99:59 for some stupid reason), and I immediately dove back in again, because it’s so awesome. People who love to explore and see wonderful things in their games, will get more than their money’s worth with this game. The areas in the game are large and impressive, with some brilliant and interesting design (you’ve never seen anything like this). There are hundreds of pieces of equipment, each with their own look (everything you equip is actively visible on your characters, during combat and cutscenes, and the same piece of equipment will look totally different depending on who wears it), close to 500 quests, a system that is easy to get used to and doesn’t punish lack of skill, and a rich, if rather trite, narrative, with the appropriately ridiculous twists and turns of JRPG story-telling.
Random numbers for the fanatics!
Graphics: 10. Doesn’t get any better. Super Mario Galaxy may look a lot smoother, but it’s nowhere near as detailed.
Music: 10. A great soundtrack with high-quality synth, with lots of beautiful and memorable melodies, that manage never to get annoying even when playing the game for over hundreds of hours.
Gameplay: 10. A fast-paced, low-on-stress battle system, a detailed map system with quick-travel function, and an unrivaled sense of adventure and exploration. Fantastic.
Replay Value: 10. Tons of subquests, rewarding, varied, chock-full of content. Comes with a system that tracks your progress and rewards you for your achievements.
Overall: 10. This, in short, is a Masterpiece in the JRPG genre, and indeed in the entire scope of console RPGs. It is a must-have for Wii owners who want to see what their console can do in terms of size and graphics (on one single DVD!), and any JRPG fan should buy a Wii, just for this.