From Monolith Soft, the team that brought us Xenogears and Xenosaga, we get Xenoblade Chronicles, yet one more story about human beings questioning the rights of gods and breaking free from the shackles of predestined fate. Generally, I like this idea. Xenogears is my favorite game of all time, and I put Xenosaga high on my list even if Episode I plays like a ten-season anime series that periodically gives you quizzes to make sure you’re paying attention. Still, the theme of rising up to challenge the will of God might ring a bit more inspiring if we weren’t constantly given characters with superhuman qualities who are powerful enough to be gods in their own right. Yes, I know this is a game and it has to be engaging and challenging without being impossible, but there’s still an element of fantasy in playing as characters who can shrug off a napalm shower by chugging a few bottles of Mr. Pibb and recover from mortal wounds with a good night’s sleep and have no lasting effects. As much as I want to identify with game protagonists, I know it’s because I have as many heroic qualities as a bald hedgehog with lymphoma. My personality isn’t quite forceful enough to let me confidently stroll into the Vatican with a buster sword and demand to “speak with the manager.”
Xenoblade Chronicles sets up a scenario in which two ancient gods fought a battle in an endless ocean and just sort of simultaneously zoned out long enough for entire species to evolve and develop civilizations on their bodies. The flesh and blood inhabitants of the Bionis are locked in an eternal struggle with the Mechon, the residents of the other titan, Mechonis. As such we set up an interesting and unique Man versus Machine scenario that has never been done before. Except in the Matrix, Terminator, Blade Runner, I Robot, the Paul Bunyan myth, the John Henry folk song and about six thousand other things over the last thousand years. In a Mechon attack early in the game, protagonist Shulk sees his will-they-won’t-they girlfriend, Fiora, murdered by a machine, setting the pace for what ends up a 70-hour string of cliches (Including, “The girl is at the fortress. Come and get her,” a villain with the courtesy to get himself killed right after the protagonist takes the high road by sparing his life, and a system of quests wherein everyone in the world only wants things that require combat with monsters to obtain). Shulk vows revenge, and fortunately discovers he’s the Chosen One who can control the legendary sword of the Bionis, the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monad_(philosophy)”>Monado, because what Xeno game would be complete without a dense basis in graduate-level philosophy that will sail over the heads of nearly everyone who plays?
So other than the unique perspective of titanic bodily parasites, what does Xenoblade have to offer? At first, it doesn’t seem like much. The first two or three hours of gameplay give the impression that the writers intended the story to be verbal diarrhea of cliches, tropes, and characters with no apparent ability to engage in inner monologue, all acted out with the pacing of Speed Racer dialogue by voice actors who sound like refugees from a Monty Python sketch. I thought the game had topped itself when the characters stumbled across an ATV spewing black smoke like it was trying to provoke a Prius into a fistfight, and Shulk said, “Who would abandon a buggy in such good condition?” Fortunately, that served as more of a turning point than a sign of things to come. The dialogue slowed down, edited itself—mostly—for redundancy, and while the story still meandered lazily, following around its older brother’s and sister’s shadow, the recycled ideas from Xenogears and Xenosaga still kind of work.
Combat suffers from the same standard RPG combat issues: long repetitive battles, a cast of seven playable characters of which you can only use three at a time, and such a painful awareness that most of the time we’re just going to use the basic attack that they’ve taken away the option and just make your characters attack if they’re not doing anything else. Plus the game throws junk at you like it’s in the middle of a fierce domestic dispute, so 99% of the items, weapons, and armor you receive have less of an impact on your stats than bringing an angry duck into battle to bite your enemies. At the beginning of the game, I thought it was amusing that even the level 1 grasshoppers lugged around 18th century style wooden treasure chests filled with junk, but by the end of the game I understood that anyone living in this universe is, by default, a chronic hoarder who would need several shipping crates to store there crap were it not for the miracle of hammerspace. There’s also a weird quirk I’ve noticed on the few good modern RPGs I’ve played wherein the emphasis is shifted to an action format, thereby sacrificing control of all but one player. Based on some of the character’s unique fighting styles, certain combinations of characters can’t be used because whichever one you aren’t controlling will stand around like an idiot doing whatever will most likely destroy themselves and everyone around them.
But it isn’t terrible. Characters have a selection of skills that take focus over auto-attacking, and each one has a unique set, and with that comes strategy. Shulk is the only one regularly capable of attacking mechon. One characters has defensive stats and the ability to draw enemy attention, contrasting with another who has high HP, but stealth attacks and minor healing skills. Since you can only control a single character, battle strategies mostly rely on the characters you choose to use, and different monsters call for different combinations.
Suffering from another RPG trope, most characters remain relevant to the story just long enough to prove their worth and be handed a membership card into the Rag-tag Band of Adventurer’s Club. Afterwards, they fade into the background except to call out the occasional platitude of inspiration about teamwork and/or friendship during a particularly emotional cut scene. Xenoblade takes this one step farther, creating battle music out of the wall of sound emanating from characters slurring out battle cries and announcing their attacks like three marching bands placed back-to-back in the same parade. This leads to some amusing mispronunciations, such as Thunder Buddy, Aflack!, Jail Slash and my personal favorite, Electric Dustbuster.
But for all the tropes and sins it commits, one character steals the show. As soon as you get control of Heropon Riki, the bureaucratically appointed hero of the Nopon tribe, all the focus shifts onto this obese chinchilla with the appetite of a garbage disposal. It’s worth playing the game just for him.