Xenoblade Chronicles is an Action RPG developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It was released on the Wii in Japan in 2010, then later in America in 2012 as part of Operation Rainfall. A port for the New Nintendo 3DS was released in 2015, and a Switch remake was recently announced to be released in 2020. I played Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii in 2019. Many of the screenshots you see are courtesy of NintendoLife.com.
Guys, I literally finished this game just days before the direct. Oh well.
Once upon a time, back in the late 2000s, Nintendo was struggling to have an acclaimed RPG series of their own (outside of Pokemon, of course). The Mother / EarthBound series died after 2006 as Mother 3 never released in the States; Golden Sun was initially successful but fizzled out with the DS entry; Fire Emblem also started out well but was struggling by this point. I feel like Nintendo of America didn’t even want to try localizing Xenoblade Chronicles when it released in Japan in 2010. Despite it reviewing and selling well, JRPGs were not popular at the time, entering a kind of “dark age” that the genre has only recently pulled out of.
And thus began Operation Rainfall, a project where fans banded together to request localization for Xenoblade Chronicles, along with two other Wii games The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower. And miracle of miracles, they actually did it! Fast forward to today, and its sequel Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a multi-million seller on the Switch and the original is now getting a gorgeous remake.
To an outsider, all that work might sound a bit ridiculous. Is Xenoblade Chronicles really worth both a grassroots localization effort and an overhauling remake? The short answer is yes.* But I do mean to put an asterisk there.
For the right kind of person, this could possibly be one of the best RPGs ever made. But it’s a difficult game to get into, with several systems to balance at once. I’d only recommended it for those already experienced in JRPGs, and even then, it’s not a game for everyone.
Shulk is an unassuming youth living in Colony 9, where he and his people live to protect themselves against a steampunk-inspired robotic race called the Mechon. During a Mechon invasion of their home, tragedy strikes and Shulk takes the mysterious weapon he has been researching, The Monado, on a journey of revenge against the Mechon. In a genre full of do-gooder protagonists, it’s refreshing to see Shulk be motivated by something a little darker than most RPG heroes.
After acquiring this weapon, Shulk starts having visions of the future, which forsees both story events and enemy attacks during battle. This mechanic a masterful blend of story and gameplay. Gameplay-wise, it allows you to respond to massive enemy blows and change the outcome of the fight; story-wise, it is used as an excellent foreshadowing device to tease events and subvert expectations. It establishes a blend of philosophical musing and emotional drive that remains the tone for the rest of the game.
Shulk and his friend Reyn journey all over the Bionis, across vast open areas full of unique landmarks and beautiful vistas. I still remember the Gaur Plains as I scaled up the Bionis’ leg, looking out over the hanging valley walls and seeing the Mechonis looming overhead. The massive trees of Makna Forest, the serene shores of Eryth Sea, the curled fingers of the Mechonis’ Fallen Arm…
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: the entire game is set on the bodies of two massive titans that once fought each other, but then were mortally wounded and now lie dormant. The game begins on Colony 9, the ankle of the Bionis, and gradually you explore up to its head, then journey down to go inside the Mechonis as well. Seeing the places you will eventually explore and then looking back at places you’ve been gave me goosebumps every time.
As I said before, the combat is quite complex. It’s an action RPG where you control a party of three characters and engage enemies in the environment at will, similar to an MMO. While all characters attack automatically, the player still needs to manage the monster’s aggro, the characters’ positions, the party’s motivation, counter the enemy’s future assaults, as well as select special attacks. Additionally, each character has their own unique skills that affect how you approach battles. It requires a lot of multitasking, and I often would choose to level grind just to get familiar with a new aspect of the system or a new characters’ fighting style. Once I got the hang of it, I loved juggling all these systems together and pulling off a massively strong series of attacks.
In addition to the battle system, the game has an affinity system, where characters in the party develop relationships and can, once they get high enough, unlock Heart-to-Heart conversations. These function similarly to Support conversations in Fire Emblem. Naturally, I loved these, though the writing in them was a mixed bag. You also develop a network of relationships with the NPCs in each area. Completing side quests increases that area’s affinity, which unlocks more side quests. My favorite areas to do this for was Colony 6, which reminded me of the Terry Town side quest from Breath of the Wild.
Speaking of which, I need to mention how Monolith Soft pioneered open world design with this game. Breath of the Wild wouldn’t have happened had Xenoblade not laid the groundwork for it. With such a unique setting, the locales you traverse are perhaps the most memorable part of the experience. What was initially a drab snowy mountainside on the arm of the Bionis became this magical wilderness at night when the crystals emitted beams of light into the sky. The Eryth Sea at night had meteor showers that fell so close I could almost touch them. It’s no wonder that Nintendo asked for Monolith’s help for finishing up Breath of the Wild. I’m amazed that they managed to fit this game on the Wii, of all platforms.
The biggest tragedy with this game is that as beautiful as the vistas are, they’ve aged terribly due to the Wii’s low resolution. The art direction can make up for a lot of that lack of power, but I still couldn’t help but think that a game this inspired needs a system powerful enough to fully realize the environments.
Now I know what many of you are thinking, does that mean I’ll double-dip for the remake? The short answer is yes*, with another asterisk. As much as I loved this game, Xenoblade Chronicles is so massive that the idea of playing it again so soon feels daunting. I’ll eventually purchase it, but it may not be for a while.