I’ve sat on this writeup for months. I couldn’t just plop why I loved Xenoblade Chronicles so much on the internet. Not without the right context frame. It was more than its sprawling world, incredible soundtrack, and its incredibly interlocked mechanics. It was more than it being a huge game in a time when game makers have to sell content bit-by-bit in order to recoup its development cost through DLC, preorder bonuses, and multiplayer battles. It was more than a hardcore game on a Nintendo machine, which its American arm didn’t wanna touch for not being an already existing franchise. I found the right context through two reasons: Xenogears and a review for the 3DS criticizing its ‘padding’.
I never had any interest in Xenogears during the boom period of RPGs on the Playstation. But I remember the discussions and the hype surrounding it. It had a lot of biblical allusions and a scene of a crucifixion will always bring negative attention. Ask ECW about it. Plus, there was a time when long games intimidated me. In my younger days, I wanted games that took hold of my interest and never let go until I beat the game. RPGs were given stiff arms at that time. It wasn’t until I kept reading about Xenosaga and Final Fantasy and Squaresoft in the years after that I began to realize just how ambitious that period was for gaming. While the wait for Xenoblade X has been unbearable, I decided to finally try Xenogears on the PSN.
I remember reviews raved about this game’s entire existence from the cutscenes, gameplay, and the story. I remember some of the criticism included how jumbled the plot got at times and just how little game was there. Both were right. My time with the game saw an amazing story about a cycle of reincarnation and death through three characters and the lives they touch, leading to an epic conflict of power struggles, double crosses, and angst that hasn’t been seen in gaming. And there were mechs you can control! But I also saw a game who’s combat system, especially in a mech, never clicked or gelled. The game’s insistence on staying with the plot within the confines of RPGs back then, neutered any chance of exploring the world and getting any better at the combat. The grind actually deterred me from exploring and the subplots neighboring the main story kept me more engaged in the main story with Fei and why his power is some important to so many people. Then, the second disc just dumped all the story and its context. So,Xenogears had amazing ambition but hindered execution. This would follow Tetsuya Takahashi and his development team, which went on to become Monolith Soft, for years, rather unfairly. Xenosaga tried to re-use the same story of gods, human life, creation, death, and rebirth across three games before the publishers got cold feet and it had to get aborted as well. It makes the success with Xenoblade Chronicles all the more astounding.
Eliminating most of the angst, the story of Xenoblade seems like a simple 'revenge tale leading to a global struggle of two species’ tale but even then, that sells it short. Truth is, you don’t see a lot of character development in the cutscenes. If you just stick to the main storyline, there isn’t much to keep you there until the biggest climax where you see Tetsuya’s amazing ideas from Xenogears actually reappear, which was actually built up pretty well in terms of surprise. So, if the main story line isn’t amazing as the hype would have one believe, why did the characters get so much praise? I believe Monolith made a cynical bet where they believed that of all the things people bitch about JRPGs when it comes to exploration, freedom, and linearity, they wouldn’t actually take advantage of it. Some of the criticisms seem to reflect that.
The beauty of Xenoblade unfolds when you go off the rails and explore a new world on your own accord. No main quest or side quests, just randering and walking around some stunning vistas and seeing an ecosystem come to life. Even on my third playthrough of the game, I spent a lot of my time finally gettingh access to a new world, only to spend hours upon seeing what lived in the borders and how long it takes to find those borders. Best of all, you can find some really sweet locations where one can just move the camera to a certain point and just take in some amazing views. One gets to really see how immense the world is, how much detail there is, and best of all: how much one can interact with, which was a lot.
In terms of gameplay, it means collecting a lot of items that can solve quests, and this is where the different game systems become connected so well. This is a huge world and not everything you need to complete side quests is one area, so by taking initiative and exploring with no arrow that says 'GO HERE!’, you get to use create landmarks to go back to easily and get that last piece of fruit to help out that person. This eliminated a lot of backtracking, which was just a dishonest way developers go to make a game seemingly longer. While this easy way of completing quests didn’t extend to the 'kill 5 of these animals’ variety, it killed of time that could’ve been wasted trying to find something that should’ve been done the first time. And why there’s a lot of these quests, it still didnt feel like padding because there were all optional and they actually brought color to the world.
The game’s Affinity system was a remarkable system that promoted actually talking to NPCs. You didn’t just complete tasks for them to get that item that would give that one bonus that did that one thing. You start to recgonize that despite the looming threat of war and possible genocide, life has to go on for people and they have their own concerns to take care of, or rather wait for the player to take care of. Seeing the Affinity chart come together like a spider-web gives one a sense that game doesn’t want to wait for the final boss to be killed and evil to be vanquished for peace to reign. 'A world without gods’ isn’t just an important line, it was basically visible in the Colony 6 recontruction where people of all races and species come together and try to create better lives than the had before.
When it comes to Affinity between the characters, this is why all the non-story combat becomes important. Not only are the in-n-outs of the combat being taught and exploited, your party is growing close to each other, which not only leads to better passive skills bonuses that can make battles and leveling up easier, but it leads to some special interactions between each other. Much noise has been made about the Riki, the heropon who some reviewers labeled as annoying for his dialogue in the face of serious tone of the story. Not only is he a tank that makes so many bosses and Unique Monsters easy to take down, there was a heart-to-heart, the game’s designated points where two characters talk to each other about stuff outside of the main story and allows them to be seen as dimensional characters with depth and emotion, that showed why Riki’s lighthearted tone was so important to the characters. One revealed just how he doesn’t know what’s next for him because he has no family to go home and it’s jokingly suggested he should just live with Riki. Riki suggested it because he doesn’t want to see his friends feeling so sad. It does cheer the guy up and it was done with out any voice acting. by going out of the way of the main quest and exploring on your own, you find some emotionally potent stuff like this, without the developers going 'LOOK AT THIS EMOTION AND FEEL!’. You’re not being manipulated into feeling something for these characters and you only get that by actually investing time into exploring the entire world.
So, by exploring the world on your own, you not only complete quests for others that makes you stronger, you get to explore some beautiful areas and take on some tough challenges that brings your party closer together and makes the main story quests way easier. I’ve always read the combat was tough because you can be underleveled, but it never came up with people who actually played it. Since you’re no longer grinding just to keep up with the challenge and you’re gradually getting stronger due to completing all those side quests and getting XP for just exploring on your own, Xenoblade doesn’t become the challenge some reviewers think it is.
And that’s whats great: if you only focus on what the game is telling you to do, it becomes tough to play or put up with. If you go on your own and do what you want in the game, you’re rewarded for it immensely. It fits with the game’s narrative of going against ancient myths and scriptures and doing things the way its been done in the past. Like Wind Waker, Xenoblade is about communicating the idea of how important it is to break away from tradition and not rely on old ideas.
That’s why I love Xenoblade Chronicles so much. Like great art, it took ideas and tools used in the past and blended it in a way that felt amazingly fresh. A western MMO with a Japanese narrative and asthetic made the epic game Tetsuya Takahashi has always wanted to make since Xenogears and with Xenoblade, he finally hit out of the parkl.So. ignore any of the piddly quibbles about this game, Xenoblade Chronicles is truly one of the greats and one of the best ways to lose 150 hours.