I've fallen a bit behind on posting, and the reason is pretty clear: I've been playing Xenoblade Chronicles. The game is massive. I've been playing the Wii version, which was released in North America in 2012 after a big fan campaign, and it was subsequently released on New Nintendo 3DS a few years ago.
I'm usually not the biggest RPG player, but I've been getting more into them recently. Maybe the slower pace is becoming more appealing in my advanced years, or maybe it's just that they provide a marked contrast to the quick and easy pick up 'n play mechanics of the majority of smartphone games. Xenoblade Chronicles is definitely the complete opposite, and is ginormous, with hours upon hours of gameplay just in the main story mode, and double or even triple that if you get into the sidequests. With RPGs I almost always have to force myself to slog through to the end, and nowadays with more limited free time I just stop when I feel like I've seen everything there is to see and can't bring myself to traipse through yet another dungeon with more random battles. This usually translates to about 20 to 30 hours into a game, and is even true for RPGs with engaging characters and high production values, like Bravely Default, which I played earlier this year.
So it came as a surprise to me that I enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles as much as I did. The game's Executive Director, Tetsuya Takahashi is clearly a kindred spirit of Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the Smash Bros. games, in that they both clearly eschew the "less is more" design philosophy and instead stuff their games with so much content that they're overflowing. Xenoblade Chronicles doesn't just have a large cast of playable characters (several with unique battle mechanics) and a huge number of locations and a lengthy story, but it has a huge number of sidequests and NPCs, enemy drops, and unique-looking weapons and armor (all of which are shown on your characters and in cut scenes). The sheer number of weapons and armor would be one thing, but having them visually change your character's appearance is no mean feat. Similarly, the huge number of sidequests would be impressive enough, but some are mutually exclusive or lead to alternate sidequests and most also have unique dialogue if you happen to have a certain member in your party at the time you take it on. Also, the large cast of NPCs is impressive, but most of them have multi-stage quests that develop their relationships with other NPCs. The relationships are tracked in the "affinity chart", which is somewhat like the Bomber's notebook from Majora's Mask but times 100. These relationships help bring the world to life, and help elevate what are otherwise fairly standard MMORPG-like quests.
I enjoyed the vastness of the game and the characters, although the story didn't particularly grab me. Many of the locales are the usual environments, e.g. plains, jungle, cave, etc., but there were enough more unique ones to keep me engaged. Being a Fire Emblem nut, I enjoyed tracking down the "heart-to-hearts", which are the game's version of support conversations between playable characters that are accessible after the pair reaches a certain level of friendship. The plot develops at a pretty good pace, so much so that I was still surprised by the game some 50 hours into it. I would be more inclined to finish the game if I weren't such a completist, as the game includes timed quests which expire after a certain point in the game. I've gotten to a point where a lot of those quests are going to become unavailable, which means I would have to stop and pour a fair amount of time into sidequests, so rather than continue I'm going to put the game on hold and move on to the sequels. Sidequests in general tend to be overly tedious as they often involve rare enemy drops (a monsterpedia would definitely have helped), or finding some NPC who you probably only talked to once. For someone who avoids consulting FAQs this is a big pain, although less OCD people will have less of a problem.
Xenoblade Chronicles does suffer visually from being on the technically limited Wii and I wasn't a huge fan of the character art style, but from what I've experienced of the follow-up on Wii U it's clear that the developers made great use of the Wii U's increased capabilities. I'd played Monolith Soft's previous RPG Baten Kaitos on GameCube and a lot of the aesthetics of Xenoblade Chronicles reminded me of that game. This isn't a bad thing, but the later Xenoblade games seem to have a more unique look to them.
Much as I enjoyed my time with Xenoblade Chronicles, it didn't quite make it to my list of greatest games of all time. It's the biggest RPG I've ever played, and if ever a game deserved the description "epic", Xenoblade Chronicles is one. I liked it more than Breath of the Wild, a similarly vast and open adventure game, and I had more than a few moments where I was wowed, but I didn't find myself quite loving it enough to give it the gold star. I can see why it makes other people's greatest games of all time lists, though, as it's huge, has a fun battle system, and is stuffed with secrets and details and hours and hours of gameplay. Still, I've definitely become a Xenoblade fan, and I'm looking forward to delving deeper into the game's follow-up on Wii U.
Check out these epic Xenoblade Chronicles links:
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