If you need proof that the Japanese role-playing genre 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. 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 robotic enemies called Mechons. New party members are collected along the way.
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.
"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.
"Xenoblade Chronicles" is packed with user-friendly designs such as Shulk's ability to tell the future and premonitions to inform you when you've picked up an item you'll need for a later quest. 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.
"Xenoblade Chronicles" is the first JRPG I've played in this latest 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.
- 3 1/2 out of four stars
- Publisher: Nintendo
- Platform: Wii
- Price: $50
- Rating: Teen