I didn’t mean to take a whole month and a week off. Honest. It just happened. Anyway…
I’m not really much of a JRPG guy. I tend to find the style of gameplay fairly boring unless it’s got an active hook, like the Mario series of RPGs’ Action Commands. I used to be quite into them, but for some reason, they’ve just fallen out of vogue with me. Even ones I would previously spend dozens of hours on, the Pokémon games, have fallen flat. So it’s fairly surprising that not only do I like it, but I wholeheartedly loved most of my over-one-hundred-hours in Xenoblade Chronicles.
Set in a world of endless ocean, two titans called the Bionis and the Mechonis duel it out for supremacy. However, the mutual final strikes end up slaying both giants at the same time. Hundreds of years later, life has begun to thrive on the still-standing corpse of the Bionis in the form of many creatures, primarily the human-like Homs, and the small-round-and-fuzzy Nopon, both intelligent races. The Homs are threatened, however, by an invasion of nigh-invincible metal monsters from Mechonis called the Mechon, seemingly intent on ending the life of every Homs on Bionis. The sword the Mechonis plunged into the Bionis is now called Sword Valley, acting as a bridge between the titans, and it is here the Homs make their last stand, lead by a trio of soldiers called Mumkhar, Dickson, and the wielder of the legendary Monado, Dunban.
The Monado seems to be the only weapon capable of not only harming the Mechon, but completely destroying them – alas, using it has taken its toll on Dunban, and his body begins to give out. Mumkhar abandons the trio, intent on stealing the Monado for himself later, but is killed by a group of Mechon. In one final, desperate attack, Dunban unleashes the full extent of the Monado that he can, single-handedly ending the Battle of Sword Valley and seemingly destroying the Mechon, but also losing the use of his right arm and ending up bedridden and cared for by his younger sister, Fiora.
One year later, a young man named Shulk is a humble scientist in Colony 9, situated at the base of the Bionis’ leg. He’s been studying the Monado, you see – he wants to find out all of its secrets. He’s already figured out it has many different powers, and that for some curious reason, it cannot harm a Homs. He’s also close friends with Fiora, who has a not-so-subtle crush on Shulk. They also have another friend named Reyn, a trainee in the Defence Force. While helping Reyn collect ether cylinders for the Defence Force, a Mechon raid strikes Colony 9, lead by a powerful new Mechon with a metal face. Dunban tries to wield the Monado once again to fight them off, but he is simply unable to.
… However, once Shulk grabs the Monado, he’s not only in complete control, and completely unharmed, but the Monado grants him the power to see brief glimpses of the future – which he immediately uses to destroy some attacking Mechon. However, the Monado is powerless against the metal-faced Mechon, and even his future sight doesn’t help Shulk save Fiora from being killed at its hands. The raid over with, Shulk swears vengeance, so he and Reyn set forth to find the metal-faced Mechon and avenge their fallen friend.
And that’s just the first few hours.
The story from there has Shulk and Reyn encounter a variety of characters, meet new travelling buddies, visit incredible places, fight dangerous monsters, discover ancient secrets, and unlock the many powers the Monado hides – as well as uncover the truth of just about everything in their world, from the mundane to the fantastic.
The story’s fairly cliche, but it’s charming how it doesn’t seem to want to shy away from that. It almost revels in it. It’s a story about revenge for a fallen friend, and really, for most of the story, that’s the entirety of the driving factor. It doesn’t change until the opportunity for said revenge is presented, and the reasoning for the change… is actually fairly sound for the characters, and it’s from there the game starts presenting a more complex narrative. There’s still hints at deeper story before this turning point, but it’s at this junction that the plot really really kicks in. By then, you’re either hooked on it and eager to see more, or you’ve given up.
Admittedly though, at some points it does feel a little predictable. At one point the game started bringing up a fairly important character who was narratively out of the picture, and as soon as it was doing that I knew that character was about to make an important appearance. The metal-faced Mechon’s design is… pretty unsubtle, so his big reveal lacks a lot of punch the developers may have wanted it to have. Playing through a second time also reveals an astonishing amount of complete spoils the game gleefully dangles in front of your face.
Gameplay-wise, it’s all about exploration. The game world is… for lack of a better phrase, gihugantically massivetronic. It’s so freaking big. While Colony 9 certainly isn’t small, it’s not a very good indicator of just how big some of the later areas in the game get. Specifically, once you hit the Bionis’ Leg and find your way to Gaur Plains… that’s when it sets in. That’s when you know that this game might take you quite a while to finish.
It’s fortunate, then, that exploration is very rewarding. Finding new areas and landmarks rewards the party with experience. Landmarks can also act as fast-travel points, and if you find all the areas and landmarks in a zone, you unlock a full map of it. There’s loads of monsters, oodles of collectable things, and by the time you’ve finished every quest, you’ll probably have trekked every square inch of the game’s world.
That said, the size can be an issue at times. There’s a reason you have a fast-travel system – the world is so big that running absolutely everywhere, and you will have to go back-and-forth a few times in that running, will get tedious. In areas with relatively few fast-travel points, this gets pretty tiresome – Alcamoth is an area in particular I’m thinking of that could have done with either a few more or just being ever so slightly smaller.
In the game’s many areas you’ll encounter a variety of NPCs, many of which are generic but several are named. They all have random tidbits of babble, some useful some not, and a variety have quests for you to complete. They range from the generic “kill this many bad things for me” from most non-named NPCs, to more intricate named NPC quests which often feature interactions between several characters. To this end, every named NPC is added to an Affinity Chart that fills out as you talk to them and complete their quests, characters being linked by a line that indicates what they think of each other. By the end of the game this inter-personal web gets rather large and tangled.
A nice feature about the quests is that most of the generic ones don’t require you to turn it in – as soon as you’ve found the last thing or killed the last monster, the job’s done and you immediately get the rewards, no questions asked. Also, any time a quest can be locked out by the progression of the story – say, a character moves to another area in the world due to some event or something – it’s marked with a stopwatch symbol so that you know it has an expiration date. The game won’t clarify when that expiration date is however – so if you want to hundred-percent this game, it’ll probably wind up meaning “do it now buddy.”
So it’s an RPG, what about that combat, eh? Well, in the overworld monsters are everywhere. Roaming about, doing their own thing. It’s set up like an ecosystem, so an area with a bunch of level ten passive Armus could very well have a level seventy-seven “Will Attack If It So Much As Smells You” Armu standing in their midst. Fortunately, the game will tell you if the monster is actively hostile or not when you lock-on (and there’s an option to simply display an indicator above their heads at all times as well), and even what will incite its wrath, be it your ugly faces or your heavy footfall or your daring to use an ether-based Art. (Ether’s basically this game’s word for “magic,” but it also has a bearing on the plot at large as well.)
Even amongst these regular monsters however, there are the elite. The Unique Monsters all have their own names, they tend to be a little bit bigger than their brethren, and they are always hostile, even if you’re fifty levels tougher than they are. Their level is also not an accurate indicator of their strength – it may say that it’s level five, as one early Unique Monster does that you can encounter in the first thirty minutes of play, but chances are you’ll need to be at least a few levels higher to stand a chance against them. And don’t worry – if one joins a fight, you’ll know, because the music will change (and I’ll get to that in a moment.)
Actually fighting’s a fairly simple task – you move your character around in real-time and they perform “auto-attacks” if you’re close enough to the monster you are targeting, and they do much the same. You have two AI-controlled buddies in combat as well. You can tell which character a monster is attacking because the party member will have an “aggro ring” around them pointing at the monster in question. It’s important to know who’s being hit by what because positioning is fairly important in this game once you start using Arts.
Yeah, similarly to an MMO, every character has access to as many as eight Arts at a time, which they can use for different effects in battle. It could be as simple as just a very very strong attack, it could be a healing spell, or it could be some other kind of buff, or a variety of other effects. Some Arts, however, are more powerful when either performed in a combo with another Art or performed in a certain position against a monster. For example, Shulk’s Back Slash does significantly more damage when done to the back of a monster than from the front or sides.
Performing an Art puts it into a brief period of cooldown where it cannot be used. Over time, it recharges and you can use it again. In addition, characters have more unique “Talent Arts.” Most characters recharge these by performing auto-attacks, but there’s also Sharla, who uses an ether rifle, whose Talent Art fills up simply by using her other Arts. Her Talent Art is “Cool Off” which is basically a recovery period where she uncharges the Art because her gun overheats, but the amount the Talent Gauge is filled also affects her Arts’ power. Another character can use their Talent Art at any time, and this is indeed how you fill it up – filling it up lets them use other, more powerful Arts and supercharges the Talent Art itself for a while.
All Arts can be levelled up, which increase their stats in a number of ways. It always reduces cooldown, but other effects depend on the Art – increasing the length of a buff, for example. Talent Arts, however, can’t be levelled up, with the exception of Shulk’s. His Talent Art is actually split into several thanks to wielding the Monado, and they can all be individually levelled up, which is quite important, especially in the case of Monado Shield.
You see, if combat is proving to be a bit more difficult than a cakewalk, just before a monster activates an Art of its own, you may be given a glimpse into the future. These visions so the Art being used, the character or area of effect it’s targeting, and the end result of the attack – often a significant amount of damage or a crippling debuff. When this happens, you can either try to warn another party member (which lets you force them to use any of the Arts, even ones that haven’t completed a cooldown), or use an Art of your own to change the future. Different monster Arts require different tactics – in the case of their Talent Art, they are denoted with a Roman numeral. Shulk’s Monado Shield is the only thing that will protect a character from a Talent Art – but only if its level matches or exceeds the enemy Talent Art’s.
All the while, you and your party members are building up a Party Gauge, which has three sections in it. You use up these sections to revive a fallen buddy or warn them for a future change, and you fill them in by performing Arts in a way that does their bonus effect, or by achieving “Burst Affinity.” Throughout combat, characters are constantly shouting things but sometimes, they’ll shout in response to a really strong attack or something and you’re given a short quick-time event. Succeed and you not only build affinity between party members (which just makes them fight more efficiently with each other), but you fill the Party Gauge even more.
Once it’s full, you’re able to pull off the almighty Chain Attack. During a Chain Attack, time is frozen and all three characters focus their efforts on a single monster. Attacks become more powerful, effects are easier to pull off, all of your regular Arts are available regardless of their cooldown status, and chaining together attacks of the same colour even multiplies their power (with Talent Arts acting as a “wild card” bridging any colour to any colour). This is another area where affinity between party members is important – it makes it more likely you’ll be given a chance to extend the Chain Attack beyond the initial three.
There’s other components to combat as well. There’s a mysterious stat called “Tension” which builds or falls depending on what’s happening during combat. Higher Tension is better because it makes your attacks a bit stronger and they land a bit easier. There’s also the Break-Topple-Daze chain where you first “Break” an enemy, then “Topple” them to leave them unable to fight back while you whale on them, and then “Daze” them which weakens them even further. Toppling is also the only way for characters who aren’t Shulk to damage Mechon if they haven’t been empowered by Monado Enchant, and it’s entirely possible to run a party that doesn’t have the Monado boy active.
There’s one mechanic, however, that I found very irksome, and it’s called “Spike.” Essentially, some monsters have an “aura” (which describes a lot of things in the game and is usually a temporary thing but these monsters have it on all the time) where they damage your party members simply by… existing. There’s a few different kinds of Spike – there’s the kind where they do damage any time a character hits them, there’s the kind where they do damage any time a character hits them while they’re Toppled (which… defeats the purpose of the otherwise tactically-sound manoeuvre), and then there’s the kind where they just damage a character that has invaded their personal bubble. It’s impossible to tell if a monster has Spike until it’s already damaged you with it, and the only way to get rid of it is to either Topple them if it’s the not-Toppled version, avoid Toppling them if it is the Topple version, or simply use the “does not last nearly as long as it should” Monado Purge… which you can only do with Shulk.
Sometimes your buddy AI can be a bit bothersome as well. Granted, they’ll always avoid Toppling an enemy with a Topple Spike aura (so take that as a hint when you inevitably attempt a Chain Attack), but sometimes their tactical decisions… leave much to be desired. They’ll very rarely try to make use of positioning for Art effects and sometimes seemingly waste potentially good effects on… not much. AI controlled Shulk is especially a pain – he really doesn’t know how to effectively use his Monado Arts at all. Some AI characters also refuse to help other AI characters in trouble even when they’re standing right next to the buddy in question, which can be frustrating when you’re trying to grind out everyone’s Affinity.
Inter-party Affinity takes a long time to build up (fortunately there is an easy method for grinding it but… it’s still grinding and still takes a long time), but it can be sped along by Heart to Hearts scattered throughout the world, which explore the relationship between the two characters they focus on. You’re prompted to choose between two potential responses at times, and the conversations do change based on what you say, but if you’re not careful, they won’t get as much of an Affinity boost as they could.
Loot and stuff, well, there’s a lot of collectables in the game, that’s for sure. There’s also a trading system, there’s just a lot to keep track of, and various weapons and armours with different effects, and gem crafting and whatnot – talking about all the mechanics in this game would take a very long time. The game’s got plenty of tutorials for all of that stuff, though, and it generally does a pretty good job of not throwing it all at you at once. Let’s just move on.
How are the visuals, well, this was originally a Wii title. Now it’s on the 3DS. Similarly to its companion Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D the texture quality has taken a noticeable drop in places. Character models are nicely detailed but the faces can be a bit blurry and environment textures, well, some are a bit stretched. The game world still looks very nice and it’s impressive for a 3DS title (well, New 3DS title, I suppose), and the 3D effect is nice, if a bit understated. At times the framerate can dip if a lot is happening on the screen – this happens a bit more in the latter half of the game. The rain effect is absolutely terrible, however. It’s a joke, honestly.
Audio? Well, it does come out slightly more compressed than the Wii version’s, but it’s still an excellent soundtrack. Some of the loops aren’t as clean as they should be but my god, the soundtrack can go from at one moment calm and beautiful to pounding hard rock in an instant. Yoko Shimomura worked on this title and you can tell, and she’s done an excellent job as always. You’ve also got ACE+ in here and the tracks they kick out are pretty amazing. Toss in at least two other very good composers and you’ve got a winning soundtrack. Like I said above, every single Unique Monster plays a special combat track, You Will Know Our Names, any time they enter battle and… it’s amazing. It’s just amazing.
As for the sound design, well, the localization team responsible for this cast should be commended – they’re great. These actors put their heart and soul into their performances and it shows. Unfortunately, they talk during combat, and they talk a lot. They shout when starting a fight, they shout when the Party Gauge fills up, they shout when using an Art, they shout when doing Burst Affinity, they shout when attacking, they shout when missing, they shout when doing a Chain Attack, they shout when you’re able to do a Chain Attack, they shout when the future changes, they shout when charging their Talent Art, they shout when their Tension level changes, they shout when they win… they never stop. And you have to actually pay attention, too, because all that shouting will clue you in as to what they’re doing. It will get kind of annoying though, hearing “Now it’s Reyn time!” for what feels like the millionth time, or listening to the same post-battle quotes a hundred-thousand times (fortunately opening chests and waiting for the current line to finish ends the conversation early).
So all in all, what is Xenoblade Chronicles 3D? I’ve not played much of the Wii version, so I can’t really speak too much as to how it stacks up, but honestly, I’ve had a lot of fun with this game and look forward to having a lot more. It’s definitely the kind of game where you’ll have to stick through a somewhat slow opening, but once I did the first Chain Attack the game let me, I was hooked something awful. Is it slow at times, yeah sure. Is it a bit clunky and rough around the edges, definitely. Is it love-it-or-hate-it, absolutely.
But hey. I’m really feelin’ it.