The lights are on
I wanted to finish the game before writing a review, but damn, my instinct as a writer is to get my ideas on paper before they slip out of my mind, and with the way things are looking, I have a while to go before finishing up this game. So, here it goes:
From just a glance, you wouldn't be able to discern the amount of depth that Xenoblade Chronicles provides, but believe me, there is a helluva lot of depth in this game, so much so that it's enough to be a turn-off to casual gamers. This is a game for hardcore gamers if I've ever seen one. The amount of complexity the combat, progression, and customization contain is incredibly overwhelming at first, especially since the game doesn't do a very good job of teaching you how to use them. Tutorials consisting of text and some illustrations provide the basics of what you need to know, but rarely are you told about some of the more in-depth elements of the game, such as the tension system, or ether. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily a bad thing. Whether intentional or not, learning how different elements impact the gameplay adds a sense of discovery that I found enjoyable, but some people may be annoyed that the game didn't tell them about it in the first place.
The progression system has a very MMO feel to it; every time you level up, your stats increase, and every now and then one of the characters may learn a new "art", which are skills used in combat. The real progression system, I found, was upgrading said arts to make them more powerful. Every fight gives you AP points, which you can spend to upgrade an art to the next level, making it more powerful, or reducing the amount of cooldown needed to use it again in a battle. Every level adds a usually significant stat increase from the previous level, and I got a kick out of upgrading my favorite art after spending a lot of time earning up AP to be able to afford the upgrade. Also at play is the affinity skills system, which consists of choosing a branch of skills for each character, and then earning SP points in battle to learn a new skill from the chosen branch. You can then spend affinity coins for one character to gain a skill that another character has learned. The better relationship between two characters, the more skills they can share between them. You can improve the relationship between two characters by using them both in battle, since every time you hit a QTE, the relationship between the two characters increases slightly. You can also have heart-to-heart chats between the characters at a specific location after their relationship has improved enough. This provides a unique spin on why you would want to improve your standing with a certain character, and I found it incredibly enjoyable after figuring it out for myself, no thanks given to any tutorial.
However, the combat really takes the cake as my favorite part of the game so far. What's unique about it is that unlike the usual JRPG, if you die in a boss battle, it's most often the result of a flaw in your strategy, and not a result of being underpowered. While you can still grind to gain an advantage in the story, you could make a run for the finish line instead of soaking up all that the game has to offer, if you think you're good enough (which you're not, I assure you.) In fact, if you try to battle a creature more than 5 levels below you, the amount of experience gained is reduced significantly. For example, I fought an enemy who was 3 levels below me, and gained around 500 XP after defeating it. After returning later, it was 6 levels below me, and I was only given 20 XP for defeating it this time. Strategy is the name of the game during battle's, and the closest I can come to comparing it to another game would be a blend of WoW and FF XIII. I'm not going to bore you with the specifics of this one, since it's better if you experience the combat for yourself instead of being given a written summary, and deciding it's not to your liking. It really is my favorite combat system out of any JRPG I've ever played, and you won't understand that until you've experienced it for yourself.
That was what I liked about the game, but here's what kept it from getting a perfect 10: Like I said, the tutorials didn't give a good enough of explaining the game in detail. Side-quests feel uninspired, often just being "go here, and kill this many of this type of enemy", or "defeat this mini-boss in this area". There isn't a ton of incentive to even try and do this side-quests, since you could just kill a bunch of enemies yourself, and sell any loot to gain just as much or more gold than any of the side-quests provide. And that's about it, really, the rest of the game is fantastic in every way possible, and I can't help but think about it every time I have to turn it off and work on stuff for school.
Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the best games I've ever played. I don't think I've ever played a game with this much content, while also including a great gameplay system, addicting progression and customization options, and an intriguing story to top it all off. I don't want to explain the story in detail, but I'll say that I'm actually liking it a lot. The amount of bang for your buck is endless, and I can't wait to continue my trek through this masterpiece in the hope's of a thrilling, worth-while conclusion to a game I've promised to devote all of my free time to, and if you haven't picked it up yet, then I suggest you scrape up all the cash you can to pick it up. Also, play it with the Classic Controller Pro. Don't think about it, just do it. Seriously.
I'm in strong agreement with your review here. Especially so about the battle system. However, I have one game in my memory that edges the battle system just slightly, and that is Tales of Symphonia on the GameCube. That was a truly fun and engaging active battle system that worked somewhat similar but required you to be in control of hitting combos and balancing support attacks with air juggles and such. Xenoblade Chronicles is definitely very close to it, maybe only behind a point, but if you've never checked it out I would suggest finding a way to give ToS a try.