Xenoblade Chronicles 3D - Review  

The Adventures of Daddypon and Friends
by Michael "Wheels" Apps

Click here for game
New 3DS
More than 80 Hours
+ Enthralling story in a unique world
+ Fun, deep, and fast-paced battle system
+ Fantastic soundtrack enhances the action
+ Massive environments to explore
- Graphics are a mixed bag
- Not balanced for a straight story run
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Xenoblade Chronicles was the most acclaimed of the three RPGs that made a splash during the late stages of the Wii era. Now on the New 3DS, this game from the creators of the Xenosaga trilogy comes with a lot of hype, especially for those who didn't really get into the Wii release. While the port leaves a good amount to be desired in term of technical prowess, Xenoblade itself more than lives up to the hype, providing a grand adventure on the go. It even manages to make a very strange setting work so well that players will hardly question it by the end of the game. Xenoblade Chronicles is the rare complete package of gameplay and story.

   The story begins with a brief history of the game's world where two massive titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis, battled until they both stopped moving. Many years later the struggle appears to be continuing as the Homs, a human-like species, battle against invading Mechon, mechanical creatures from the Mechonis. Here the player is introduced to Dunban, a fierce warrior who wields the Monado, the only weapon capable of damaging the Mechon, though it can also share this power with nearby allies. Dunban and company are able to repel the invaders, but he overuses the Monado and becomes injured and can no longer wield the blade. A year later, Shulk, who becomes the protagonist of the story, takes up the Monado when the Homs' colony is attacked by Mechon.

   Thus the journey begins as Shulk and friends seek to put an end to the Mechonis menace, but of course the story is far more complicated than this simple setup would imply. Xenoblade Chronicles does a tremendous job of building up the lore of this strange two titan world, and does so without ever speaking down to the player. Instead, things come up in the natural progression of the story so the player is able to gradually learn the story of the Bionis and Mechonis worlds without having massive story dumps. Cutscenes generally have a good length, being long enough to provide solid development, but not so long as to drag on and keep the player from the action.

   The playable cast further enhances things, as the all-British cast does a fantastic job bringing them to life without falling into any anime stereotypes. Even the one mascot character is anything but annoying, and as it turns out is the oldest party member complete with a wife and kids. Shulk is the blandest of the party members at first, but he grows as the game goes along, making him a very worthy party leader by the time the game reaches its later stages. Character interactions between the companions are constantly one of the highlights of the game, and additional scenes between them can be unlocked based on who the players uses in battle. Xenoblade's story mixes these entertaining characters with an epic, and at times thoughtful, story in a way that is very rarely seen in games. As events reach their conclusion, players will find themselves caring quite a great deal about what happens to Shulk, his friends, and the strange world they live on.

Despite the graphics
                                        downgrade, Xenoblade's
                                        environments can still look
Despite the graphics downgrade, Xenoblade's environments can still look great.

   Seemingly to match the grand scale of the story, gameplay is focused on exploring and battling in the game's massive environments. Going with a party of three at a time, battles happen seamlessly in real time as players encounter enemies. Xenoblade is not an action game, however, as players use an action bar for the character they are controlling. Skills have cooldowns instead of using any sort of magic points, so players can focus on watching those and using skills at the right time without having to worry about a resource pool. Characters also continuously auto attack whatever they are targeting during battle, so combat is not button mashy at all. What makes the skill system interesting is the majority of skills have a secondary effect such as a status ailment or will interact with the skills of other members in the party. For example, one character may have an attack which inflicts the break status ailment on an enemy and another will have a skill that inflicts an even worse status ailment if the enemy is already suffering from break. Effectively, equipping the right skills on party members and using them at the right time becomes fun and engaging, encouraging players to use all the party members to learn their skillset.

   What keeps the player from being too overpowered is the fact that only one character is player controlled, with very limited power over what the rest of the party is doing. Full party control is limited to simple commands such as having everyone attack the same target. Party members' AI does behave reasonably, but skill combinations won't be easy to pull off on a regular basis. The party get a shared "chain meter" to use, which builds up as combat proceeds. This serves a few functions including a chained attack when completely full which gives the player gets full control of the party for a single instance of entering commands. In addition, singular segments can be used to revive fallen party members.

   The most interesting usage however, involves the flashes of the future that Shulk gets. When a powerful attack is incoming, combat will pause and the player will get a glimpse of an oncoming attack, including how much damage it will inflict and whether it will knock out the character in question or cause status ailments. After this a countdown begins, allowing the player to react to the oncoming attack in a variety of ways. The player can increase or decrease their aggro to change the target of the attack, use various healing skills, or use the chain meter for single segments to warn one of the other characters. This gives the player the opportunity to use one of that character's skills to try and change the outcome of the attack. These flashes make an already fantastic battle system even better. The one downside to this is in some tough battles the flashes can come far too frequently, bogging down the pace of combat.

   Players can upgrade skills as a character levels, using points earned in combat, but oddly the higher levels of skills are locked behind books that must be purchased or found later in the game, which feels a bit forced. In addition, each character has three trees of passive skills that can be switched between, and these can link to other characters they have gained affinity with, allowing a bit of customization of passive skillsets. While not allowing an overabundance of customization, combined with the fun of finding a good party setup, there is plenty for players to mess around with.

Xenoblade's boss battles
                                        are fun and intense. Xenoblade's boss battles are fun and intense.

   Progress in Xenoblade is largely linear with the next story objective clearly pointed out. The player is free to fully explore all open areas and complete as many sidequests in them as they please. Making this much more enticing is the fact that all previous areas can easily be teleported to, with multiple checkpoints available, which makes getting around the large game world super easy. The game's areas are fun to explore, and though the next story location is always pointed out to the player, exactly how to get there isn't always clear. This makes exploration an essential part of the game and having a map on the bottom screen is a nice improvement over the original. There are many available sidequests, but they're mostly fetch quests with only small amounts of additional story. They are a nice incentive to have while exploring, as they award a good amount of experience, and often don't require returning to the original request maker.

   One major problem with Xenoblade's openness is that it appears to be balanced towards those who spend a good amount of time exploring. Players who just want to stick primarily to the story will find the need to grind at various intervals, halting the progress of the story and likely causing frustration. It seems like this port would have been a fine opportunity to find some balance fixes, but there don't appear to be any changes to difficulty. It's a shame, as given the quality of the story, a path that doesn't require players to veer off from it would have been nice. Even so, the grinding required is never a great amount, so players won't be stuck too long. All in all, Xenoblade's mix of exploration and combat is intoxicating, with only an occasional bump along the way. The game is quite long, but there's a nearly endless amount of fun to be had along the way.

   Graphics in the original version of Xenoblade certainly weren't always great, but they prove to be a bit more of an issue in this port. Character models look particularly jaggy when up close, and at times don't look better than late PS1 era graphics as many textures in environments look even blander than they did on the Wii. The trade-off is that the game runs smoothly with only a rare bit of slowdown during gameplay. It's still mostly a good looking game, as large areas are impressive and character models look fine when the camera angle isn't zoomed in on their jagged edges. The game's soundtrack was great in the original and remains so here, with a variety of orchestral and rock themes that perfectly fit whatever situation they're used for. Players will definitely want a good set of headphones to play this game.

   Xenoblade Chronicles is a phenomenal RPG that hasn't been given the most extensive port that one would hope for, but is still impressive for being scaled down to a handheld. The story is interesting and entertaining, with a loveable cast of characters that are well written and well-acted. The graphical downgrade and lack of any real updates will be disappointing to fans of the original, but all of the quality found in the Wii version still shines through. There are some balance and character progression issues of course, so it isn't perfect. Even with these problems, Xenoblade Chronicles still embodies everything we love about RPGs and remains entertaining throughout its incredible eighty plus hours.

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