If you need proof that the Japanese RPG is struggling from the North American perspective, you need only look at the story behind Xenoblade Chronicles. Somehow, despite early showings at E3 and rave reviews in Japan and Europe, Nintendo of America very nearly didn’t bring the game to our shores. If you’re even remotely interested in JRPGs, give thanks that this dark future was avoided. Xenoblade Chronicles is a must-play game that single-handedly proves there’s still fresh, exciting ground to cover in this often-stale genre.
Xenoblade finds the first of many unique touchstones in its setting. The people of this universe have settled in makeshift colonies on the backs of two warring giants that are frozen in time. These colossi have adapted natural, well-tread terrain, including massive grasslands and labyrinthine swamps, but you’ll often catch sight of the opposing giant in the clear afternoon sky or flashes of a far-off body part during thunderstorms. These brief glimpses of future destinations build atmosphere for this strange world. As you progress from area to area, the game frequently reminds you where you’re located on the giant, letting you track your progress around and inside of the massive creatures.
Though the world is unique, the characters are disappointing archetypes. Protagonist Shulk is a bright-eyed teenager eager to leave his village and discover the world. He gets to do so when he discovers he is one of a handful of chosen warriors who can wield the Monado, a powerful weapon that can wipe out the game’s bad guys. His best friend Reyn is the loud-mouthed comic relief who always comes through in the end. They go on a journey to figure out how humanity can survive against the overpowered generic robotic enemies called Mechons. Similarly unsurprising new party members are collected at a regular pace along the way.
The characters may not stray from comfortable conventions, but this game has one important leg up on the average stereotype-heavy JRPG: voice acting. The refreshing British cast lends the strongly translated script an austere air that makes it easy to get drawn into the drama. At different points in the story, Shulk could easily have come off as either whiny or cloyingly optimistic. Thanks to both the writing and the voice acting, Xenoblade handily avoids that common problem.
Xenoblade backs up the story with a complicated but approachable battle system. Fast-paced encounters challenge players to use a wide variety of skills, many of which gain bonuses depending on your positioning. Combined with the mountains of upgradable loot and deep character development, players have a lot of strategy to uncover and master over the game’s imposing length.
One of the most innovative systems is Shulk’s ability to tell the future. While this power is frequently used to move the plot forward, it also has important gameplay ramifications. In battle, the game pauses to show you when an enemy’s next attack is going to kill one of your party members. This gives you time to react by shielding, healing, or even briefly taking over as that character and making a last attempt at survival. These psychic abilities lead to some incredibly tense moments, especially during the challenging, puzzle-like boss battles.
Outside of combat, premonitions also inform you when you’ve picked up an item you’ll need for a later quest. Xenoblade Chronicles is packed with user-friendly designs like this that are at odds with my expectations from Japanese games. Other smart design decisions that help prevent player frustration include fast travel, the ability to change the time of day, and the ability to save anywhere.
I fell in love with JRPGs in the 16-bit era because they constantly showed me things I’d never seen before. Somewhere in the last 15 years, most RPG developers in Japan have lost sight of that, instead rehashing the same fantasies and floating by on nostalgia. Xenoblade Chronicles is the first JRPG I’ve played this generation that has me excited for the future rather than simply reminding me of happy memories from my past. Monolith Soft deserves praise for creating it.
This must-play game single-handedly proves there’s still fresh, exciting ground to cover in the often-stale JRPG genre.