You see, for the past few months, everybody everywhere on the web has been hyping the hell out of Monolith Soft’s new Wii role-playing game, which publisher Nintendo will release in the United States this Friday (though it’s been out in Europe for almost a year, and in Japan for close to two).
You’ve probably heard about the campaign that helped bring Xenoblade to US shores, but the hype started long before that. Fans and reviewers have slapped the game with hyperbolic labels like “the best JRPG of this generation” and “an evolution point for JRPGs”, which makes me question whether any of those people actually play JRPGs.
Don’t get me wrong: Xenoblade is a good game. But it’s no revolution, and it’s certainly not the best Japanese role-playing game of this or any generation. It’s just another RPG.
The important thing to know about Xenoblade is that it’s basically a singleplayer MMO. Developer Monolith Soft has taken a great deal of inspiration from massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, particularly when crafting Xenoblade‘s real-time, automated combat system, which only occasionally requires you to have hands.
I exaggerate. Though you don’t need them for standard attacks, you’ll be mashing the A and B buttons quite a bit during Xenoblade‘s many, many battles. B lets you revive and boost your allies, while A selects through your lead character’s special abilities, each of which has a damage or healing effect and a cooldown.
You’ll also have to use the powers of your main character’s sword, the Monado, to weaken and eliminate the giant robots that serve as this game’s Big Bads. Like in many MMOs, your characters will attack automatically; you just add a dash of garnish in the form of what Xenoblade calls Arts.
But while battle strategy in an MMO largely revolves around teamwork and timing, Xenoblade‘s fights will only challenge your patience. Combat feels like one long script that you’re destined to follow. If you’re not the right level for a given challenge or boss, it doesn’t really matter what you do. You will lose. You’ll pop up at a nearby checkpoint and you can always try again, but you’ll just continue to lose until you go out and grind a level or two. You will then win.
You’ll eventually find yourself falling into the same patterns every time you fight. This is not exactly unpleasant if you get into it, much like washing the dishes or brushing your teeth. It might not be as productive, but the music is better.
And oh, the music! Gentle guitar strings strum as you wander around your hometown in the middle of the night. A purring violin accompanies your treks through mountains and caverns. Funky jazz tunes bop and boop while you jump down waterfalls and bounce through teleporters. I hope director Tetsuya Takahashi gave whopping high-fives to all six composers that dreamed up the glorious soundtrack to Xenoblade Chronicles, because they deserve non-stop accolades for their work.
It’s a fitting score for Xenoblade‘s lively, enormous world, set atop two hulking gods whose bodies, once at war, are now frozen and filled with caves, swamps, forests, mining colonies, and floating cities. This is a glorious, intricate world that doesn’t deserve to be saddled with the Wii’s archaic hardware. This is a game that should be rendered in high-definition.
The world also doesn’t deserve to be stuck with this story, a thoroughly dull affair involving revenge fantasies, giant robots, and a prescient sword. Its plot — that is to say, the series of events that happen around you — is not the problem. Some of the ideas are quite imaginative. What makes this story fall flat is its heroes, a group of characters so boring and trite that it’s extremely difficult to care about their desires and goals. Your protagonist, a personality-less, unequivocally bland warrior by the name of Shulk who won’t shut up about the power of the Monado, makes other JRPG heroes look like Marlon friggin’ Brando.
And there’s Riki. Riki, like Chu-Chu in Takahashi’s 1998 masterpiece Xenogears, is the obligatory critter character who has no real purpose other than to get on your nerves. This is a Japanese tradition that should have gone the way of invisible random encounters and dodo birds. Again, I have no idea why people have claimed that Xenoblade is a huge evolution for the genre.
At times it feels like Xenoblade has reached into the heart of archaic Japanese design and ripped out many of the flaws. You can fast travel between areas. You complete sidequests automatically once you’ve met their goals — no need to trek back to questgivers to hand in those rabbit pelts or dwarf ears.
But for every step forward, Xenoblade takes one shaky half-step back. Item management is a royal pain in the arse — an unforgivable blunder for a game that seems to have tens of thousands of unique items. You can’t equip new weapons at a shop. You can’t optimise your characters’ equipment.
And the user interface often feels like it’s there more to hinder than help. One example: A marker saying “Story Memo” will hover at the top of your screen whenever you’re not in the area the main storyline wants you to be in. Since there are many, many sidequests to plow through and locations to explore, you’ll see this marker quite a bit. And it never goes away. No matter how many buttons you mash or controllers you break.
The ultimate and unfortunate truth is that Xenoblade is constantly at odds with itself. It’s dissonant. Its strong points are so strong that they make its weak points look even worse, like when LeBron James played on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Xenoblade‘s aesthetic qualities — its world, its music, its spectacular views and splendid landscapes — deserve better than its tepid combat system and irritating characters.
Of course, that’s all easy to ignore if you’re the type of RPG fan who likes to spend hours and hours immersed in gorgeous landscapes, running through sidequests and hunting down powerful monsters for sport. This is a game for the many people who just want to dive into their televisions and get lost in the bridges and waterfalls of a wonderful world. And it’s a world worth exploring. I just wish you could explore it as somebody else.