Xenoblade Chronicles Finally Arrives in America Today — Here Are Some Early Impressions

I have an admission — I have a Wii, and it’s not collecting dust. I actually, you know, play games that aren’t Wii Sports on the thing. No, really. For people like me, the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles is available in GameStops across America today is kind of a big deal.

Nintendo of America just didn’t want to give us this game — it didn’t seem to matter how many glowing reviews the game collected or that Nintendo’s European branch had already translated it into English.

In response, Wii owners who actually play games on their Wiis launched “Operation Rainfall”, an impressively well-organized campaign waged via Facebook, Twitter, Email and snail mail, and shockingly, for pretty much the first time ever, a fan campaign actually worked. After months of dragging their feet NoA announced a limited GameStop-only North American release for Xenoblade Chronicles.

So of course, the question now is, was all the fuss worth it? Because I’m hotshot games journalist, I managed to work my connections and get Xenoblade Chronicles a day early (okay, so maybe it was just released early in Canada) and have put in around five hours so far. Hit the jump to read my early impressions…

Stuff I like

Freedom to Explore

No Final Fantasy XIII “One Long Narrow Tunnel” world design here. I’m only in the early stages of the game, and already everything feels very expansive — I can only imagine how massive the world will be once the game really opens up. There’s a refreshing lack of barriers in place here — early on in most JRPGs you find yourself constantly bumping up against roadblocks, locked doors, and grumpy guards keeping your from all the cool stuff. Not Xenoblade — the game’s already giving me more to explore than I know what to do with.

New Ideas in Comfortable Old JRPG Clothes

I’m a JRPG guy. Western RPGs and MMOs just seem kinda, I don’t know, scary to me. A lot of Xenoblade’s “new” ideas are lifted directly from western RPGs and MMOs — the huge open world, the focus on loot and quests, the action-based battle system — but it also retains enough classic JRPG hallmarks that it feels approachable for a JRPG fan like me. The silly hair, the frequent cutscenes, the sappy love-triangles — it’s all there, and makes the western/MMO elements go down a lot smoother.

It’s Not Too Comfortable in it’s JRPG-ness

Yes, Xenoblade Chronicles retains a lot of JRPG hallmarks, but it also trashes a lot of dated design that most other JRPGs stubbornly cling to. Having to carry around a million health potions? Gone. Save points? Gone. Constant backtracking? Gone — right from the start of the game you can warp any place you’ve been before, and when you complete a quest you don’t have to go back to the person you got it from to get your reward.

Take a Step Back and the Graphics Are Pretty Great

Xenoblade Chronicle’s graphics are all about scale, and when you take a step back to appreciate that scale they’re pretty impressive. The world of Xenoblade is huge, detailed, imaginative and rendered without any draw-in or slowdown — an impressive feat given the Wii’s lack of horsepower.

Environments are very pretty.

Great Soundtrack Man

So far Xenoblade’s music has been top-notch stuff — rich without being overbearing or cheesy. I’m no music critic so I’m not sure what else to say about it. Uh, it’s orchestrated! Yeah, they totally orchestra-ed the hell out of it! Um, and I’m also pretty sure it’s in stereo and…uh…Dolby…or something? It’s just good okay?

Everyone Sounds Like They’re From Downton Harry Potter Abbey

NOA didn’t bother to re-record Xenoblade’s dialogue. They just left the British voice work intact, you know what? I’m fine with that. Classes things up a little, ya know?

So far everything sounds pretty swell huh? Hit page 2 to check out some stuff about Xenoblade Chronicles I’m not so wild about…

Stuff I’m on the Fence About

The Battle System

No turn-based battles or random encounters here — all the critters you fight wander around the map fully visible. Once you attack (or are attacked by) a monster combat initiates seamlessly, with your characters dealing out basic attacks automatically. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is — at least when you’re fighting easy creatures below your level. Once you find yourself in a fight with a more challenging opponent things get confusing fast.

There’s actually quite a bit of depth to Xenoblade’s battle system — arts, combos, aggro, chain attacks, team spirit — there’s a million things to keep track of when the battles actually get tough, and often the action is simply too fast and chaotic to keep a handle on it all. The tougher battles can go wrong in a heartbeat — your characters can all have full health one moment, then all be dead 10-seconds later.

I’m hoping I’ll get a better at it with practice, but for now I find myself powering through tougher battles through brute levelling, which is usually a sign that there’s something not quite right with the battle system. We shall see.


Stuff I Don’t Like

The Damn Menus

Menu navigation is a big part of any RPG, and unfortunately it’s pretty frustrating in Xenoblade. The game uses an odd control scheme that involves navigating lots of small, difficult to distinguish icons using the Wii Remote’s D-pad. I’m sure things would be somewhat more comfortable if I was playing with a Classic Controller Pro, but even with two analogs, controlling your character’s movement with one stick and menu navigation with another would continue to be weird.

Look Too Close and the Graphics Aren’t So Great Anymore

Xenoblade handles scale well, but it kind of craps out when it comes to the fine details. Lots of blurry textures on display and character models that look like refugees from an early Dreamcast game.

Character models aren’t so pretty.

The Main Character’s Name is Shulk

…and no, the main character is not a large breasted green lawyer, so there’s no excuse for it.


Final Thoughts

It seems like Xenoblade Chronicles has been specifically designed to be a nice gentle introduction to modern RPG design for diehard JRPG fans like myself. It feels fresh, ambitious and open, while still delivering the goofy anime-style flavor. The battle system and menus remain, for the moment, a bit baffling, but I’m sure I’ll get the hang of them. Mechanical nitpicks aside, I’m just glad to see a JRPG that embraces modern design instead of endlessly dredging up 16-bit conventions with better graphics.