Friday, August 31, 2012

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles

It's been a long time since I've put more then 50 hours into a video game. Even longer since that game was on a Nintendo console. Xenoblade Chronicles released in Japan in 2010 and finally made it's way over to the states in April of this year. Outside of what I heard from friends about the game, going in I had no expectations. After 62 hours and 44 minutes my journey over and through the worlds of Mechonis and Bionis was complete and I still wanted more. In this review we'll take a look at some of the awesome features that made my 62+ hours (and counting) with this game one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had with a JRPG. So dust off that Wii, fire it up and get ready to finally use it for more then a cute, family friendly Mario game! There are no spoilers in this review.

Let me start by saying the story is this game is amazing. That being said I'm going to not talk about it too much in the review as I do not want to ruin anything for you. During the game, you follow the story of Shulk and the sword Monado as he ventures through the worlds of the Mechonis and Bionis, two giants which all life lives upon. The Bionis supports the life of biological based lifeforms (humans and the like) and the Mechonis supports life of Mechons (machines). These two giants were engaged in a battle which ended long ago and now life on the two giants has flourished. Shulk lives on the Bionis with his friends Reyn and Fiora in Colony 9. As to be expected, there has been conflict between the lifeforms on both giants.  The game opens with a flashback of an attack on the Bionis by machines from the Mechonis a short time ago and the use of the Monado by a man named Dunbar.

Now that we have the basic story out of the way, lets talk about the game itself.  We'll talk about my favorite feature of this game first; the combat.  Xenoblade Chronicles features what I like to call an "MMO Combat System". This means there is no cut away to a isolated combat area when a fight starts like most Japanese console RPGs. This allows you to do things like avoid fights entirely, use the environment while in a fight (i.e. bottleneck a group of monsters at the mouth of a tunnel) or maybe even get too close to other monsters while in a fight, allowing them to join in the current battle. The game also features an "Agro System" so the player pulling the most Agro in combat will be the character the monster will focus on. This leads to the strategy of building up one character to "tank" while your other two characters deal damage and/or heal.  During combat, you control one of the three characters available to you while the other two are handled by the AI.  You can issue basic commands to the two AI, such as which monster to focus their attacks on or to come to your current location, but what Arts (skills) they use is up to them.  While in combat, you'll also attempt to fill your Party Gauge. Filling your Party Gauge will allow your team to start a Chain Attack in which you link multiple attacks together without the enemy getting a chance to strike back.  The Party Gauge can be filled by using your Arts correctly and landing critical strikes.  You can also use the Party Gauge to revive your fallen teammates which adds a little more strategy to each fight as you may not want to initiate a Chain Attack as soon as you get if there is a potential for a teammate to go down. The last major thing in combat is Tension.  Tension directly affects your ability to land blows on a target.  Higher tension, the higher success rate of normal attacks and critical hits where as a lower tension will cause you to miss more often. If a characters tension is low, then you'll need to run over to the character and "Encourage" them (hitting the B button while standing next to them). This seems like a very complex combat system, which it is, but once you get the hang of it, it's fluid. Now if all this isn't enough, the character Shulk has the ability to see the future!  This means that if there is something that is likely to kill one of your characters (or harm them severely in some other way), Shulk will have a vision of what will happen.  This allows you to take the necessary steps to prevent this from happening.  This means you can do something as simple as healing the person about to take the damage or use one of Shulk's Monado skills to stop the attack form happening all together. The only issue I really have with combat is that your AI characters make a lot of poor decisions.  If at any point you're toppled (stunned) or have low Tension, your AI characters will both prioritize you.  This means they'll stop whatever they're doing and run over to you to encourage you (to bring you out of whatever negative state you're in).  Now this doesn't sound to bad, but if your character is stuck behind a monster (pinned between them and a wall we'll say) the character will continuously run into the monster or the wall trying to get to you until either they die or you come out of your stun. This has got me killed more then a few times and it is really a problem when you're standing far from them as you'll usually come out of your stun before they get there making their whole trip over to you pointless.  Monsters also have a lot of attacks that hit everything in front of them, so if you get stunned behind the monster, your teammates in front of the monster will run to you, turning the monster towards you, resulting in you getting clobbered by the attack. These kinds of things do not happen enough to take anyway anything from the game, but they can be pretty annoying.  This being said, this is still one of the best JRPG combat systems I've ever seen in my life.  It is easy to control whether you're using the classic control or using the combination of the Wiimote and Nunchuk. 

This game also features a huge questing system.  Each area has it's own set of quests which generally fall into three categories, gathering, killing a certain monster or killing a specific boss mob.  These quests are by no means required, but there is a TON to do and they help a lot.  Realistically, on your first play through, you're not going to be able to do all of these quests, but they definitely add some replay value to the game.  I would say on my play through, I completed maybe 20% of the quests available to me without really going out of my way to complete them.  They're pretty easy to just pickup and go and most of the time, it was a surprise to me when they were actually completed.  You'll be rewarded with experience and gold upon completing most quests, but some will actually include armor or weapons which are part of sets.  There are no bonuses to completing sets of armor but they do make you look cool as every armor and weapon updates how your character looks, including when they're in a cut scene. 

Xenoblade Chronicles also has a crafting system. Basically, you collect crystals and cylinders through monster drops or crystal deposits hidden throughout the world.  You can use these crystals and cylinders to create gems which you can then put into your weapons and armor (provided they are socketed items) to improve your stats or resistance to stuns and other negative effects. Crystals and cylinders are split up into several different elements and each elements has it's own effect.  For instance, a fire crystal will typically lead to gems that provide you with more strength or agro where a water crystal will lead to gems providing you with more HP or HP Recovery. You use cylinders to add to the completion percentage of specific statistics. This is helpful if there is one particular stat you're trying to get but don't want to use a whole crystal to get there.  Once a gem is made, it is given a rank based off of the rank of the materials used. Gems are divided into ranks ranging from 1 to 5. Rank 1 gems provide the least amount of bonus where rank 5 gems give you a huge bonus. Throughout the game, gems become more and more important as monsters and bosses begin to feature a wider variety of stuns and damaging effects. The actual process of crafting gems is pretty involved as well. Each crystal provides a certain percentage (out of 100) towards a particular skill. You basically stack crystals until the skills you want are close to 100%. Once you've select your crystals and cylinders, you then select two party members to work on making the gem(s). Your two party members will enter into a "mini-game" where, based off of their gem crafting attributes, it is determined which gem(s) are made. Each member of your team has 3 crafting attributes Strong Flame, Medium Flame and Gentle Flame which will changed based on which order you select them. These attributes are symbolized by 3 different colors while in the mini-game, a Strong Flame (Red) increases a single gem's overall completion percentage by a large amount, a Medium Flame (Blue) increases the completion percentage of all gems you're trying to make by a small amount and a Gentle Flame (Green) will increase the amount of gems you can turn into cylinders if they do not reach 100% during the crafting process. In the mini-game, you'll have several attempts to increase the completion percentage of your gems. The amount of attempts you get are based off of your affinity (I'll go into this more in a moment) with the party members you select.You also get bonuses to completion percentage from party members that you have high affinity with even if they're not one of your selected character. Overall, I found gem crafting pretty easy to understand once you do it a few times. I was typically crafting one gem at a time using Shulk and Reyn as their combination and affinity resulted in the most frequent Strong Flame outcome.

As I just mentioned, there is a whole affinity feature in the game that allows you to build relationships with people within your team and throughout the world. Building affinity with members of your team helps with many things and can be increased in a couple different ways. The easiest way to build affinity is through combat when successfully performing Chain Attacks and through encouragement in combat. You also get affinity with your current party when you interact with quest givers, either by getting the quest or returning a quest. Lastly, throughout the game you'll come across what are called Heart to Hearts. These can be found while wandering the world and will start a cut-scene between two specific characters when entered. To start these Heart to Hearts you need to have both characters and have an appropriate level of affinity already in place.  During the Heart to Hearts you'll be asked two questions specific to the two people talking. If your response is to the liking of of the person asking the question, you'll receive a large affinity increase; if not it will be a smaller amount, but it will still be an increase. While I was going through the game, I only built a high affinity with Shulk, Reyn and one other who I will not mention to avoid ruining anything.  I can definitely see how having a high affinity with all my characters would have made the game easier but I did not find that it was required as 3 people seemed to be enough. 

Having a high affinity with many characters will help develop your character's Skill Links as well.  Each character has 3 skill trees that they can focus on one at at time. Each tree has 5 skills and these skills can be shared with other members of your team through the Skill Linking system. Linking skills, does require a certain affinity level with the character you're trying to link with. The skills in these trees range from giving a light armored character the ability to equip heavy armor to increasing your critical strike chance. The Skill Link system is great because it really gives you the ability to create the ultimate character. Even with just 3 characters, I was able to turn Shulk into a one man wrecking crew.

There are some other features in this game that are totally awesome, like the 50+ achievements, but in the interest of not revealing any of the story, I'll let you find those out on your own. I will say, that the game offers a New Game+ function which allows you to keep all of Learned Arts, Bonds With Allies, Skills, Bond Coins, Money, Equipped Weapons And 30 Weapons Of Choice, Equipped Armors And 30 (Per Category) Armors Of Choice, 60 Materials of Choice, All Items (Books Of Arts, Gems, Crystals, Collection Items), and Achievements. Needless to say, the replay value on this game is HUGE and I can see playing this game well into the 100+ hour mark. 

I give Xenoblade Chronicles a 4.5 out of 5. I can't give it the full 5 for two reasons, the graphics and the AI. With this combat system, you need a flawless AI and unfortunately, that is not the case. The AI running to their death due to poor prioritization is not terrible, but could be better. The graphics are good for the system they're on, but if this was on an Xbox 360 or a PS3, the game would be one of the best looking games around. The environments are so detailed and would have greatly benefited from a better system.  Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope I've provided a helpful look into what is truly one of the best games on the Wii.  


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