When Xenoblade Chronicles first came out for the Wii in 2012, thanks to Operation Rainfall, people had a hard time believing me when I said it was my JRPG and possibly my RPG of the year. It didn’t get anywhere near enough attention locally, for three reasons. 1) JRPG is still niche here, to my anguish. 2) It was a Wii game just before the Wii U launched. (Or we could just put: “Wii? Lolol” as option 2). 3) For some reason, review code for only one of the three Operation Rainfall games made it here, and as luck would have it the worst of the three by a long, long way got reviewed. (Pandora’s Tower, never forget!)
The New 3DS is here and it needs something meatier to show off the extra grunt. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is the game to do that. This game is massive, from the massive warring titans to the large verdant landscapes and the scope of your actions to the number of quests and people you will meet, massive doesn’t really encompass and describe Xenoblade. Take what you are thinking of and make it bigger. Then double that, yeah now we are getting close to the scale of this game.
The place you call home, the large plain where your village is, is actually the shin of a dead or slumbering being called the Bionis. The Bionis was fatally wounded while striking the killing blow on its equally large counterpart, the Mechonis. Now the residents of the two titans are at war, with powerful machines, Mechons, coming from Mechonis and they consume people for nourishment. The machines are so heavily armoured that small arms are almost useless against them, except for one weapon. The Monado. A weapon supposedly wielded by Bionis itself, this lightsabre-styled sword tears through Mechons with ease, but it takes incredible toll on the wielder.
I don’t want to go any further into the details of the story than that. You see, Xenoblade Chronicles 3DS is a game about exploration. You explore vast areas, places so vast the game made a point of scattering fast travel points over the map to help you traverse the open plains while hunting down prey or helping townsfolk. You will find yourself evading monsters 70 levels above your own as you try discover all the secrets of the first large zone you get to explore, and you will learn the telltale markers of the higher level beasts and the elite wanderers that offer great rewards to those who can beat them. Those that return later.
The exploration isn’t just related to landscapes. The various forces in play, the motivational forces of pain, power, revenge, control and more draw you into a world that lives and breathes. Its also a game about relationships. Between the party and the citizens of the various regions. Every character in the world has a schedule, a place to be at night or during the day. Their quests will help you gain trust in the respective community, which can lead to advantages with later in the game. Your progress through the story will often detour to help a group of traders or to resupply a colony or, if your memory is good, to return and fight those monsters that were far too powerful the first time you visited a region. There are a lot of side quests and if you are a completionist, prepare for a mountain of tasks. Thankfully, the quest system is generally rather helpful, often letting you complete a quest out in the field, rather than returning to town. It stops what would be a fatal break to the exploration, the grinding and strengthening of your party. Because you will need every scrap of experience, every level and good piece of gear you can lay your hands on to succeed.
Xenoblade doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to tough battles. The field you run around in is your battlefield and real-time use of skills and positioning of the character you are controlling are intrinsic parts of the melee. Your two party members will generally behave as expected, but sometimes you might need to give them some encouragement or go remove a debuff. Every character controls really differently, with various unique mechanics and abilities in play, should you need to spice things up. I’m a boring ‘always control the main protagonist’ kind of guy, but in my second playthrough I relaxed that a bit to learn more about the skills and which ones I really wanted to level. Levelling skills and characters is really important too, which you will realise if you skimp and run into a massive boss that turns you into a puddle of chewy goop. It isn’t exactly frantic, but the system can call for a few snap decisions to avoid death and sometimes, you might get knocked off a ledge and end up in a new heap of trouble thanks to the silly beastie you just landed on. To prevent your head from caving in during the long road, your characters regenerate health out of combat and instead of MP or mana, your skills are all based on cooldowns, meaning fights are more about health and cooldown management than worrying if you will have enough mana left for the boss that is inevitably behind the corner. During combat your character will auto-attack, giving you time to focus on using skills and getting into position. Many of the skills do extra effects or bonus damage if used either when a target is in a certain state, or when attacking from behind or the side. Managing aggro is important too, so you might want to give a character gems that improve aggro gains, or use skills that generate aggro, which is pretty easy to get your head around if you have played an MMO, but might take some getting used to for others. The downside with the combat system is that a lot of information is provided by audio cues. Your party members will tell you what skill they are using, or if they miss in combat or manage to block a particularly powerful attack. The information can be crucial to survival, but it brings the biggest failing of the game into sharp focus: the overly British voice acting. While the voice acting is not bad, having a full cast of extremely British folk tramping through a fantasy land has a rather unnerving quality to it, especially when you realise multiple races in the world are all British, even if their dialects and mannerisms are different to one another. Prepare to hear the same one liners over and over, as you leave it to Reyn!
Don’t let the scope and length scare you though. The game has a pretty comprehensive quest log to help keep you on track and the in-game help explains all the mechanics that might be confusing you. A story memo will also help you remember what was going on and where you are heading to next, in case you took an extended break from the game. It might sound mind-boggling, but the super massive labyrinth of systems can all be tackled one quest, one kill at a time, without losing the fun.
At first I thought playing a really long game on a device that needs charging every six hours or so wouldn’t work. I thought the length of the game would end up frustrating me as time after time, my 3DS’ batteries would weakly plead for rest. I was happy to be wrong about it. Every time I had a few spare minutes, I would flip open the handheld and kill a few monsters, or finish a quest or two, before returning to whatever task I had put on hold. This dance between work and gaming, a short break stolen as chores got completed became a ritual, one that continues even now as I hunt through post-game content. Xenoblade works brilliantly in small bursts, almost too well as I kill a bounty while I wait for the kettle to boil and, uh, why is the water only warm? I better replace that faulty kettle. The downside of playing this title on the New 3DS? The scale, the use of superlatives like massive and epic and gargantuan lose a bit of their power thanks to you seeing this world through a pretty tiny screen. The textures, while improved from the Wii version are still muddy in places, with character faces sometimes looking poured onto the models. Then your eyes get caught by something else, there on the far side of the realm thanks to the amazing draw distance, and you forget.