Sunday, 9 February 2014

Xenoblade Chronicles - Soulful Gamer review (GamePeople)

As the Wii stumbles anaemically towards the end of its life cycle for core gamers, Xenoblade Chronicles provides a surprising stab of adrenaline for those starved of soulful Wii titles. As a parable about Man versus Machine it delivers a dramatic story leaving the setting of Bionis to shine has a truly unique world to journey in.

As Shulk, the orphaned protagonist, Xenoblade puts you in the midst of a war between Homs and the Mechon taking place over the most unique setting I’ve ever played in. This isn’t a world copied from usual fantasy or science fiction with its hermetically sealed races and cliches, as the twin lands of Bionis and Mechonis have been borne from the bodies of two enormous dead Titans.

This setting alone does enough to tug at the soulful heartstrings I look for in a game. Beyond the story and characters the world itself has to deliver something tangible before investing in an 80-hour RPG can be worthwhile. And here Xenoblade delivers on nearly every level.

Initially you’re in control of Dunban - the heroic warrior defending the Homs Colonies from a devastating Mechon attack - before the game takes the pace down a notch and shifts forward a year to Shulk. The change of protagonist from a strong powerful hero into a mild, gentle soul is usually achieved poorly in other games - nerfing you in plain sight with no other motive than to tease the full weight of the battle system. Here, the change feels natural and Shulk as the main character is immediately likable and sympathetic.

Aided by the brash Reyn and the caring Fiora the opening act does a wonderful job in portraying the life of a colony struggling to recover after the Mechon attack. I have to admit that this opening part of Xenoblade completely hooked me and I fell victim to the twist that sets you on a path of bitter revenge.

Again, Japanese RPGs have always taken the route of setting their games in a village or pastoral town and turning the lives of those inhabitants on their head as a means of providing the basic story beats to push on. Xenoblade is no different but it pushes these buttons without slipping into contrivance and keeping the pace of the story intact.

The appearance of a Faced Mechon, adding a human element to something as mindless as metal killing machines, is as dramatic as the battle system you learn to control with the Monardo - the magical sword that underpins the entire drama of Xenoblade.

Much like the darker mythology of Excalibur, possession of the Monardo comes with a hefty price, as demonstrated by the first few hours where our picture-book hero Dunban is crippled after saving Colony 9. It was this attribute to an heroic weapon - the bitter pill of success - that made Xenoblade so unique to me. Rarely does a videogame draw upon a self-created mythology in the same way an Arthurian legend would and the slow unfolding of the Monardo’s power and its eventual price was the best kind of drama videogames can create.

This drama didn’t always hold up in the manner I had hoped though. The story itself, of the battle between the Homs and the Mechon, of the pursuit of revenge, of love, the true nature of the Monardo and the relationships between all the characters all interwove beautifully. The dialogue however, did not. Some this could be down the the Wii’s limited hardware. Character faces are capable of expressing about three emotions and the delivery of spoken words appeared to rely on something as infuriatingly technical as the disc spinning up. As a result conversation felt stilted and forced with many scenes playing out in a laughable fashion.

It was never enough to destroy the soulful nature of Xenoblade and this is thanks to the unique locations the game takes you on. Even with the restrictive hardware the impressive vision of a world created around the dead bodies of two ancient Titans is utterly compelling. Xenoblade has the immense plains of Final Fantasy XIII’s Gran Pulse looking like back yards compared to the vast and explorable fields, mountains and valleys.

One of Xenoblade’s other aspects is the ability to see the future thanks to the Monardo’s mysterious power. Time travel has been served well in RPGs. Chronotrigger set the bar back in the SNES days and has arguably never been surpassed - with only Radiant Historia coming close. Xenoblade integrates the idea of time so completely into its gameplay and story that I feel confident this sets a new high watermark for the concept.

This foreknowledge of the future doesn’t just reside in the untouchable story segments of Xenoblade. The developers have cleverly integrated it into item gathering and combat. Picking up a nondescript item whilst running through Bionis’ glorious fields can sometimes show a brief moment in the future. These tiny moments are usually useless throwaway gimmicks telling you to keep what junk you’ve picked up for a later sidequests. Sometimes though they can drop story-based threads into your conscience hours before you know what they mean. At first I dismissed these as a gimmick but catching a hint at what might befall a character or location added so much colour to an already vibrant world.

Again and again I found myself moved by the depiction of the worlds in Xenoblade. When I look for the soul of a game it usually only resides in the story, of characters interacting and producing drama or themes that resonate with me personally. It rare to find a world created for a videogame to have the depth, colour and uniqueness to have that same effect. That’s what the developers of Xenoblade Chronicles have done.  As I stood on the edge of a precipice and saw the shadow of the Bionis’ arm reach upwards into the unseeing distance it was clear that Xenoblade’s soul is with its setting. The vision of all those unique environments is astounding and unforgettable.

Sure, the level of visual quality in Xenoblade Chronicles is hampered by the Wii’s hardware but its charms and beauty shine from the love poured into this world and the characters that inhabit it, rather than the resolution. Nothing may be truly revolutionary in either story or gameplay but sheer breadth of content and the realisation of an unusual world is enough for its soul to blossom into an epic that should be played and loved without reserve.

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