How times have changed, eh? For years, it seemed as though Europe was little more than an afterthought to the games industry – latecomers and no-shows became something too common to constantly complain about, localised US releases often showing up years before a PAL version, if such a thing even came to be at all. The recent sway towards simultaneous Western releases makes us almost forget those halcyon days of importing Chrono Trigger – or pretty much any of Square’s 16-bit output, for that matter – or getting hold of Pokémon Blue years early. And while it’s not a hard and fast rule across the board that PAL releases are either timely or guaranteed (as the likes of fellow Trauma Team, Arc Rise Fantasia and ExciteBots all sadly prove), the situation is certainly far brighter than it once was. And now, it’s all gone a bit Shenmue 2. We’re in that strange position where occasionally, the tables are turned and America gets screwed just as we have so many times in the past. Only in this case, America is really getting screwed – Xenoblade is hands-down the Wii’s best JRPG, and arguably the most competent and refreshing example of the genre this generation.
While the technical constraints of its chosen home mean it can never stack up to the crisp artistry of Eternal Sonata or the stunning 1080p slickness of everyone’s favourite playable corridor, FFXIII, Monolith’s latest work pushes Nintendo’s little white box so hard that its amazing it doesn’t melt. Crude textures, some simplistic modelling and the odd whiff of slowdown, while initially a little jarring, soon fade in importance as Xenoblade’s design sees it evolve, the artistic triumphing over the technological before your very eyes. NOE’s English dub is for the most part decent rather than great – a British voice track on a JRPG is a rarity and leads to such delights as one giant robot boss talking like a Cockney bruiser, though this kind of over-the-top audio caricature just makes dress rehearsal performances from several of the main characters feel even flatter by comparison. The score, on the other hand, is utterly superb; everything from sedate strings to wailing battle guitars hits all the right notes, even if Xenoblade could probably do with a handful more tunes in its repertoire in order to stretch the ear love across something so huge.
This ludicrously expansive game world (set on the bodies of two defunct titans) is fascinating to explore and, even without such RPG staples as chests scattered about the plains, caves and swamps, exploration is still rewarding – area-specific loot litters the land, new landmarks and locations grant experience boosts upon discovery (and offer new fast travel options) and unique named enemies hide among mobs, coughing up the best gear if you can cut them down to size. Like Final Fantasy XII, it’s a matter of choosing your battles carefully – with high-level creatures roaming most of the maps, a momentary loss of concentration or the hot-tempered pursuit of experience often leads to a sticky end.
Fortunate, then, that Xenoblade falls closer to FFXIII than to XII in its progressive and imaginative solutions to the JRPG’s most common pitfalls. Death sees no penalty beyond getting whisked back to the nearest landmark; most quests are cleared without having to return to the issuer; speedy post-battle recovery does away with item use in combat; being able to fast travel and change the time of day at will means exploration is never a grind. In many ways, it’s as user-friendly a JRPG as you’ll ever play and, with comprehensive tutorials for its more in-depth elements, it’s almost impossible to get lost. But yeah, that depth is still there and as easy as it is to get lost in some of the game’s more confusing field areas, it’s every bit as easy to lose hours just tinkering with your party. There are passive skills to learn, link and share, battle arts to level up, stat-boosting gems to craft, collection logs to fill, hundreds of errands to run, an entire settlement to rebuild and relationships to be forged with not just allies but any named character in the world. In summary then, there’s a staggering amount to do whenever the story offers a little downtime, as it so frequently does. Enjoying the story at your own pace is actively encouraged here, a welcome change for the genre and one that couldn’t be further from Square Enix’s approach with FFXIII.
While Monolith has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making exploration fun again, its battle system is no slouch either. Falling somewhere between FFXII, World Of Warcraft and White Knight Chronicles, combat is fast-paced and fluid – clever and careful use of healing arts and buffs/debuffs are crucial with no in-fight item use, though the subsequent death of potion spam isn’t something the genre will mourn. Enemy Aggro is visualised on the targeted party member and since many talents have bonus effects if used from certain positions or in a set sequence, tactical Aggro management can net favourable results that defy the odds while overly aggressive play will almost always get you splattered.
Beautiful, feature-packed and brimming with creative remedies for the ails of a stagnating genre, that NOA should overlook such a shining example of what a JRPG can be paints a very different company to the Nintendo that went out at E3 with a call to arms for the hardcore. Still, by the time you read this, it might finally have been announced for the US. Or, more likely, it won’t. Either way, consider this a universal recommendation of Xenoblade in all its forms. If nothing else, we’re just glad we’re not the ones doing the importing for once…