Rumours of the JRPG’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
That’s not to say it wasn’t touch-and-go for a moment there. While Western RPG developers such as Bioware and Bethesda have thrived on the technical capabilities of the current generation, their Japanese counterparts have seemed at a loss at what to do with the extra console power. Ultimately, the result has been games like Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls being able to deliver experiences that were unimaginable 10 years ago, while current-gen JRPGs have either showcased graphics at the expense of the gameplay experience (à la, Final Fantasy XIII/2) or retreated to the safety of the familiar with a cartoon art-style and a classic battle format (à la, everything else).
It’s fitting then that the genre’s bright new hope comes from the current-gen console with the most modest of specs. Held tantalisingly out of reach ever since being teased at E3 in 2009, Xenoblade Chronicleshas grown in infamy as the hit JRPG that might never be – the figurehead of the Project Rainfall campaign that set out to ensure three little Japanese Wii games didn’t languish forever in localisation hell.
Now, after being released in Japan, Europe and even the traditionally ignored Australia, Monolith Soft’s acclaimed RPG finally comes to the US, so that everyone can enjoy the JRPG’s glorious resurrection. But can one game really revive a genre in critical condition? And what if that game is released on a console that isn’t in much better shape itself?
Xenoblade Chronicles’ charm is in its dichotomies – not least, its careful balancing of the familiar with the unique. One has to look no further than the game’s setting to see proof of the latter. The game-world consists of two behemoths: the Bionis and the Mechonis. Locked in an eternal struggle in a featureless landscape, these two deities have been frozen for a millennia in the killing blow in which both finally brought about the demise of the other.
Yes, I did say these figures were the game-world, as Xenoblade Chronicles takes place on the lifeless mass of both colossi. The Bionis is home to all types of flora and fauna, including human-like ‘Homs’ such as your hero, Shulk. However, the bodies of the two great beings now being linked by the blade of the other means that the relative peace of Bionis is regularly upset by raids from the machine-like Mechons of the Mechonis’ dark mass.
It’s insane, barely comprehensible and exactly the kind of illogical fantasy conceits that launched a thousand JPRGs. Yet, far from being a good yarn to spin-off with a typical narrative of the orphan boy armed with only spiky hair and an impractically shaped sword with which to save the world (the latter is the Xenoblade of the title or the ‘Monado’, the former is Shulk ), this odd concept is only the start of Xenoblade’s strange wonders. The rabbit-hole goes deep, making it exactly the kind of wonderland you’ll want to sink days of your life in to.
More Than Meets The Eye
Xenoblade Chronicles is beautiful. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s also a graphically dated, standard definition world where character’s faces often appear flat and you will regularly catch yourself imagining it on a more impressive console. Nevertheless, Xenoblade’s unimposing art direction presents a vibrant, open world full of undulating fields and scurrying inhabitants, in which to explore, often leading to discoveries of otherwise overlooked corners of the already expansive world. With the MMO-like eagerness with which NPC’s will add one of the game’s 500 side-quests to your log, it’s clear that Monolith are not remotely interested in rushing you through the core experience, as the game wills you to get lost in your own little endeavours.
Though this will not be another JRPG where you will find yourself far from the beaten path on a long-forgotten side-quest with no idea how to return to the main plot. Xenoblade is willing to break from this time-honoured tradition long enough to deliver some very desirable modern conveniences; fast travel being one, saving the player from the indignity of countless random battles between them and their objective; random battles being another notable absence, not to mention that the game does away with save points, quests that demand you speak to a quest-giver twice in case you’ve completed it already, quests where you have to return to the quest-giver for your reward, quests you’ve accepted and now have no clear reference on how to progress…
Xenoblade borrows from the greats without fear of leaving out the elements that weren’t so great. Its combat is most reminiscent of Final Fantasy XII’s gambit system, as allies and your own character will all attack at will when near a foe, leaving you in control of positioning and the strategic implementation of various context-specific attack and buffs, each with their own cool-down periods (MP, also gone). As the revelations come thick and fast about the mysterious Monado and Shulk’s role in the mythos the combat system also adapts, leading to the Monado’s narrative role as a window to the future eventually feeding in to the way battles play out, seamlessly blending gameplay and storytelling.
Something Has Survived
Xenoblade Chronicles is easily a 60 hour experience without scratching the surface of its item crafting, party customisation and ability trees, all of which are deep enough to reward thorough study without being exclusive enough to dissuade the more cursory player. The key being, that not only does it offer 60 hours of game time, it offers 60 hours of fun game time. Within minutes you’ll be legitimately controlling your hero’s path, within hours you’ll be getting to grips with the game’s deeper mechanics, within ten hours you’ll be reminding yourself to eat.
Xenoblade is not the second coming of the JRPG, it’s a throw-back to the genre’s heyday and (despite a brave showing) the cracks in its technical capabilities are obvious. And yet, for those willing to overlook the game’s humble delivery, there is trapped within its amber the DNA of the great giants that once inhabited these lands. Ham-fisted Jurassic Park analogies aside, Xenoblade Chronicles is not really the resurrection of the JPRG we were promised – it’s more important than that – it’s positive proof that the genre was never dead to begin with.