Things weren't always so lean. The genre saw its glory days shine brightest during the closing days of the SNES and throughout the PSOne era. A hefty chunk of years by any count, that saw the extraordinary Final Fantasy series grow into its most celebrated forms. Companies such as Atlus, Enix, Sega all were attached to the growth of a market that was always highly decorated by its home audience, only to grow a fantastical legion in the West.
Monolith Soft is noted, along with the well-regarded Baten Kaitos for Nintendo's GameCube, to have crafted the superb Xenosaga series under Namco's watchful gaze in what could be seen as the twilight period of the JRPG.
Despite the familiar name, Xenoblade Chronicles is not a new entry into the series; more spiritual heir. They share the same Game Director, Tetsuya Takahashi, and development team, although now they're completely tied to Nintendo. Amid the harsh crisis that shakes the whole J-RPG genre, criticised for continuing stagnation and inability to match the advancements made by its western counterparts, Xenoblade Chronicles arrives in Europe after the never-ending controversy of its no-showing in the American market. Here it is, a year after the Japanese launch, amid endless requests and love-letters from the fans.
So, what makes it so special?
J-RPG games are built upon three foundations: story, combat system and character progression.
Xenoblade Chronicles starts with an epic introduction, outlining the astonishing game world into which you're going to be immersed, as well as taking some bold first steps into the story you'll be tangled in. Thanks to wonderfully directed cutscenes the narrative is instantly engaging, while the beginning lessons in what will become a complex fighting system are interesting from the start. Dig in; there many hours of gameplay to be had, even more so than what's considered usual for the genre these days.
It's true that the main characters are in the same classic moulds. The young hero, turning from inexpertly blundering through situations before becoming the chosen one. The rough and loyal friend, the sweet but shy girl...and the setups will leave you with a sense of déjà vu.
But story concerns or cliches are rendered non-existent if it's crafting is excellent. In that aspect, Xenoblade Chronicles does an extraordinary job with the game pace. During the first hours you'll be enjoying a roller-coaster of events that keep you glued to your chair.
Due to a huge amount of side quests at certain times it feels like we're playing a MMORPG. Almost every NPC suggest a new mission, and we're able to slow down the story development and complete other tasks for the people in the city, levelling up, learning the surroundings and bettering our relationships with characters, getting new special items for the team's equipment... in a genre in which it's usual to have more or less guided paths, Xenoblade Chronicles allows for much more exploration. It's good to get lost.
There's good reason to explore other than regaining the sense of freedom lost in the genre this generation. Helping out people through side missions increases your Affinity, a mechanic that as it increases, unlocks harder quests weigh better rewards, as well as opening up special conversation branches with the main characters that delves into their stories and relationships.
The fight system and character progression are the other points in which a J-RPG is measured. Xenoblade Chronicles follows instructions for successful practice of both to the letter, and if you ignore the tutorials and don't make time to equip yourself correctly, you're in for a lot of hardship.
The game plays as an action-RPG, real-time battles that eschew menu scrolling for timed button taps. You still need to prep for each. You're allowed seven basic abilities during fights, each with a recharge once used. Besides that, there's a main ability that becomes available after you stack up enough normal attacks. The ability unleashes the Monado powers (central to the story).
There's a really nice addition to the combat in the form of slow-motion sequences. Rather than setting up a QTE, they show a brief future vision; usually a powerful attack that'll change the tide of battle in the enemy's favour. You're then slammed back into the here and now, but only there's a time bar now present on-screen, hurtling towards zero. You've got until it runs out to ready for the world of hurt coming your way. It sounds like a cop-out. It isn't. The sequences are random, and adds a sudden sense of panic mid-battle.
Special abilities gradually becomes available as you use your normal hits (without added abilities). Activate to unleash the Monado powers (the sword that is the core of the story), and you'll have to use them wisely.
In the midst of the combat you must keep an eye out and encourage, help or resurrect your AI-controlled colleagues, command them with basic orders, choose the best position in the battlefield (you should always look for rear, really damaging, attacks), learn which abilities have been used by the party and act accordingly to create beneficial effects and, finally, decide when is the best moment to trigger the chain attacks, which are crucial to defeat the hardest enemies. This game's combat system is really deep, demanding and complex, but completely satisfying when you get the knack of it.
Same applies to the character upgrades. You can spend earned points in improving your abilities and there are Affinity points for your allies (with even more abilities to unlock). Then you can create your own items and enhance them with gems, or decide which aspect of each character should evolve as they fight...
complex, but there's flexibility and customisation here that we usually miss in J-RPGs.
Monolith Soft has managed a magnificent job squeezing the most out of the Wii's graphics. While animations are not the best in the world, and there're ugly textures here and there, the art work is exceptional and imbued with personality, while settings are breathtaking, full of life and detail. This is a great artistic achievement, and backed by an epic soundtrack. And, for J-RPG fans, there's an option for original Japanese voice acting.
Xenoblade Chronicles is one of those titles that requires time set aside to learn and enjoy and there's many, many hours of exploration. It's got a fascinating main story buffered by multiple side quests and if you're the sort that enjoys exploring massive worlds that you'll loose yourself in and squeeze until it's dry, make sure to schedule in at least 100 hours for one of the last gems you'll find on the Wii, and one of the most engaging J-RPGs of this generation.