Three things that make Xenoblade Chronicles an RPG you must play

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One of the biggest liabilities Xenoblade Chronicles has to deal with is that it’s a JRPG. The first letter in that acronym comes with a lot of baggage that will deter many people who enjoyed Skyrim, Mass Effect, and The Witcher. It’s also only on the Wii, and only available from Gamestop. Yet what Xenoblade Chronicles accomplishes, what makes it as great as it is, are the things that make any RPG great, regardless of their culture of origin, their platform, or an annoying clerk steering you towards a pre-order.

Three of those things, after the jump

The three pillars of Xenoblade Chronicles’ greatness are the combat, the relationship system, and the world. The lifeblood of almost any RPG is its combat. As much as you might enjoy talking to barmaids and kings, spelunking dungeons, and inventorying your treasure, the main vocabulary of an RPG is how you kill stuff. The means of killing might be a JRPG style numbers game, or an MMO style cooldown watch, or maybe an action brawler like The Witcher and Kingdoms of Amalur. The other alternative is all that fumbling about in Skyrim.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a combination of all of the above, except for the Skyrim fumbling about. It’s very real time, but also very numbers based, with clear feedback on who’s hitting and how hard and with what bonuses. It’s very positional, very tactical, and surprisingly thoughtful, but with the speed and pace of an action game and the character interdependence of any good MMO. You always only control one character, but you also always have two AI companions, and you almost always choose who these will be. You eventually have seven characters, and choosing three at any given time can be agonizing, much less choosing which one you’ll play. It often comes down to what you’re feeling today. Tank? Healer? Ranged attacker? Mage? Rogue? These classes aren’t in Xenoblade Chronicles by name, although the roles are implicit in certain characters. But it’s almost never that simple. Each character has a lot of flexibility, with an equal emphasis on customized gear and evolving changeable character builds.

You usually mark progress in an RPG with your character’s level, how much of the world you’ve explored, or how many quests you’ve done. These are all in Xenoblade Chronicles, but the overarching measure of your progress is relationships. You know, those things that unlock embarrassing romance options in a Bioware game. And not just the relationships among your party members. There’s an entire display far too big for a single screen to chart the relationships among the NPCs in the world. You fill in that chart with people you meet. You draw the lines between them to describe who they are to each other. It’s like a giant family tree. Or Facebook. Consider it a form of social networking.

But the real gameplay substance of the relationship system is among your party members. Your characters of choice will interact constantly, complimenting each other, encouraging each other, weighing in on quests. This is a chatty game, and as you listen, you realize that these comments are usually accompanied by an improvement in two characters’ relationship.

This matters because when two characters like each other, they can equip each other’s skills. The type and number of skills is based on various factors, but the main factor is how much the characters like each other. Their relationship. Skills are passive bonuses and not active combat abilities; skills are like a talent tree in World of Warcraft. So characters always retain their distinctive roles, but you can modify them heavily using skills unlocked by relationships.

Relationships also figure into crafting, exploration, cutscenes, and especially the quest system. It’s a pretty impressive feat that the “starting area” remains relevant throughout the game. Heck, any area. There are no throw-away levels in Xenoblade Chronicles. This is a huge game, ridiculously huge given that it’s on the Nintendo Wii. And for all its real estate, it is not a series of places through which you pass. Like Skyrim, it is a world that lingers and invites you to explore, return, and explore some more.

The setting is that typical JRPG blend of fantasy and sci-fi, but it isn’t just a setting. It’s quite literally a pair of characters in the story, which is about two warring titans frozen in mid-battle. Each of them has become a world, each spawning its own form of life, one mechanical and one organic, and now these forms of life are at war even though the titans themselves are frozen. Or are they?

It all starts simply. The warring titans are presented as a brief creation myth that gives way to a doodad-based story. For many hours, you might think Xenoblade Chronicles is about a yet another young hero traipsing around with yet another magic sword. Which is fine in a game with combat this good. But as the story progresses, it folds in some political intrigue. In fact, the guy with the magic sword seems to stop mattering much. Here come new lead characters with more interesting stories. And even the political intrigue gives way to larger themes about war, revenge, technology, mortality, religion. By the time it ends — and Xenoblade Chronicles does end, decisively and irrevocably — you can see how director Tetsuya Takahashi would name his previous games after Nietzsche’s works. That’s the kind of guy who’s telling you this story. But he knows how to earn your attention, to make you care about characters, to make you interested in what happens before he starts holding forth on things like gods and destiny and free will. Xenoblade Chronicles is epic only gradually, without being tedious or presumptuous.

And since the story itself is the world, which is itself a character, this world unfolds in surprising ways. This story is under your feet and suspended in the distance, stirring to life and sometimes changing dramatically. As much as Xenoblade Chronicles resembles an MMO, it is nothing like an MMO.

It all culminates in a trippy and satisfying ending, even if it does rely on a final boss with a crazy spike in difficulty level. Although, to be fair, when you finally get to the option to progress to the last boss, the world is still full of stuff to do. Like with so many of its other features, Xenoblade Chronicles opens the door to its conclusion not to show you out, but to allow you to step through at your leisure. Is it the game’s fault that I left so many places unvisited and so many levels unearned in my hurry to find out what happens? And can you really call it a hurry when it took me well over 100 hours to get there? Freedom and generosity should never be a liability in a good RPG.

I would normally be reluctant to widely recommend a game this long, but the beauty of Xenoblade Chronicles is that none of its 100+ hours felt like filler. There was no grinding. There were no empty stretches. If an area got tedious or felt overlong, I could almost always do something else meaningful. It’s astonishing to me that the pacing in a game I played for 120 hours is so much better than the pacing in 30-hour games like Mass Effect 3 or The Witcher 2.

There’s a lot more to recommend Xenoblade Chronicles. The dialogue, the humor, the artwork, the prophecy system, the music, the variety of environments, the character progression, the crafting system, the crazy quest density, the quest quality, the memorable characters, the collectibles, the secrets, and so on. This is a landmark achievement in the genre. As of its release, you can no longer talk about great RPGs, or maybe even great games, without also talking about Xenoblade Chronicles.

5 stars

The Xenoblade Chronicles game diary starts here.