(Warning: I have a lot of stuff to say, so this review is gonna be long as hell)
Xenoblade Chronicles should be a game I like more.
It has many elements I love: ambitious new ideas, a massive explorable world, an intriguing story and excellent aesthetics. The opening hours are gripping and had me intrigued from the very start; I really felt like this would end up being a new favorite for me. However, those feelings start to fade as it starts to buckle and bend under itself as it tries desperately to support all the systems it has in place; drawing ever closer to a feared breaking point. Luckily for me and the game that point isn’t reached, but I won’t lie it came close on multiple occasions. While I ultimately enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles and believe the good outweighs the bad, it has some crippling flaws that puts me off of ever playing it again.
Okay, that does sound a bit dire; let’s start with something I did love quite a bit: the exploration. As mentioned earlier, you give me a big beautiful open world to traverse and I will be immediately hooked, and Xenoblade Chronicles has that in spades. I love how much of the world is left solely for just exploration; there are many areas in the game that you never go to in the main story, but they are just as fully developed as everywhere else. It truly made me feel like I could find something super cool around any corner I turned. You are also rewarded excellently beyond just the vistas with unique monsters and heart-to-hearts as well. I was definitely at my most happy whenever I was given a new zone to explore.
Sadly, the exploration I loved so much gets chewed away at slowly over the course of the adventure. The zones get progressively smaller as time goes on until they become very linear. I’m not opposed to having the smaller linear areas dispersed throughout the game, but to backload most of them made the endgame far less interesting to me exploration-wise. It doesn’t help that many highly intriguing places were either tedious to traverse (Bionis Heart), depressingly linear (Prison Island) or both (Mechonis as a whole). Also, they lock areas off from the player without warning multiple times! I can forgive the original for this, but how does the remaster not have a pop-up simply saying “This will have permanent consequences. Do you wish to proceed?” or something to that effect when you’re about to lose access to an area. It doesn’t have to give away what would happen; just something to make it clear you should probably finish up any loose ends you have.
Another aspect of the game I loved was affinity. Since one of the themes of Xenoblade Chronicles is the power of friendship, having a system to put that into action is a great design decision. The rewards for raising are vast and varied, with effects on all aspects of gameplay. Affinity’s implementation into chain attacks and affinity skills is terrific and gives a great incentive to raise it between as many characters as possible. Heart-to-Hearts act not only as another reward for exploration, they also give us a deeper look into the relationships of the characters. It’s nice that you can earn affinity for doing Heart to Hearts as well, although it is a bit easy to cheese with save reloading. Even failing though isn’t that bad since you end up with net positive affinity regardless, and the wrong answers can be just as entertaining as the optimal path.
Xenoblade Chronicles also has the base for a super fun and tight combat system. Positioning yourself to strike with powerful arts, managing the agro of the enemy, supporting the party or a mix between multiple of these are awesome (The only exception being Sharla; the overheating mechanic is terrible). The horizontal menu does make picking the option you want quickly a little difficult, but it’s not hard to adjust to. Chain attacks are a fun if slightly overpowered mechanic that gives affinity a direct impact on combat which I appreciate. Visions are an excellent way to integrate the plot into the gameplay, and while not the most robust thing in the world, I enjoyed its inclusion. That’s not to say it’s perfect throughout, as the introduction of spike effects sour the experience for very little gain. The lacking options for dispelling it consistently, its low cooldown timer even when dispelled and the extreme danger difference between the effects that monsters have combine into a major annoyance that rarely feels interesting. Beyond that though the base combat gameplay is great; the real issues start with all the auxiliary mechanics that feed into it.
The weapon/armor system is the least egregious, but it still has its own issues. There is too much junk equipment you receive throughout the game and the sorting options given makes looking through your gear a drag. Luckily, you don’t need to change your gear often at all; I didn’t upgrade much since the difficulty is pretty light for the most part. I will say that I’m appreciative of the minimized menu time but honestly it’s a little disappointing. I do appreciate the ability to set specific outfits because a lot of the armor in this game is straight up ugly.
The gems by contrast might be the most befuddling designed system. The idea of using gems to specifically augment your characters is great, but the execution is lacking. First, there are frankly way too many kinds of gems that serve little purpose or are outclassed by a different gem entirely. They give you all these options, but they aren’t necessary (except for the superbosses) since the game is easy. I would forget to equip gems to my gear all the time (approximately half the time), but I barely noticed a difference in effectiveness. Then there's the terribly dull act of actually creating the gems. There is barely any interactivity to it, and it takes forever to make just a few gems. You have no idea how much I wish you could just skip the cutscenes involved. Also, because affinity is the biggest factor in making gems, there was little reason to use anyone else but Shulk and Reyn. Their bond grows so fast that no one else will be close for a long time. I wish the game gave the two characters involved affinity since there would be an actual incentive to be sub-optimal. It’s not like it matters very much since I gave up on making gems halfway through and just used what I made earlier on with no difficulties.
While gems and equipment feel lacking in their importance with suitable customizability, arts feel appropriately essential but they don’t have the ability to be very experimental. Arts being upgraded with AP is fine, but my issue arises with the inability to refund the points to switch up my character builds. There were multiple times I put investment into arts I later didn’t enjoy using, but I was forced to continue using them until I could suitably level up what I actually wanted to use. The game incentivizes specialization due to only allowing 8 arts to be used at once, but doing so can get you punished if you don’t know what skills you’ll end up liking long term. I find it baffling that the player is given so much control in how they build the characters, but lacks said control in its most important area. I also don’t really like skill books; I would prefer a more organic way to unlock higher level skills and the hunting for level 10 books in endgame is beyond obnoxious.
Finally, affinity skills and affinity coins are my favorite customization systems. They tie a lot of gameplay mechanics back into the base combat in such an excellent way. Being able to further integrate affinity into the combat is great, and incentivizing the player to fight unique monsters (which I would argue are some of the most fun parts of the game) is an excellent way to give a more tangible reward for beating them. My only issue is that some skills can be a little confusing or vague in how they work. Even with that, I think this system was excellently executed and ties into the themes of the game well.
All these systems together can be very suffocating to manage. Honestly, I’m glad half of them basically have little effect, because if they did, it would rebound hard into being absurdly annoying to keep up with. Luckily, this doesn’t hurt the combat much, but it did make me dread having to make upgrades to the party throughout the story. It’s kinda impressive, because I usually love that kind of micromanaging stuff, but there are simply too many systems that drag each other down.
Man, I can’t believe how bad the quests in this game are. For how many there are (over 450!!!), you’d hope that the objectives being given would be varied, but that is sadly not the case. So many of the quests just devolve into killing monsters/fetch quests which get very old very fast. There are quests with a decent set-up, but the follow through is almost always either killing something, getting something or talking to someone. There are quests that have unique objectives but they are few and far between. It’s really disappointing, because it does incentivize the player to explore the world, but I just found that the gameplay experience feels the exact same as what I was going to do anyway. The problem ultimately comes down to how many there are; if you cut the amount in half and expanded on what was left, the experience would be far better.
The annoyances don’t end with the quests themselves; the process to get them is terrible. To unlock the majority of the missions, you have to talk to people in the many settlements on the map. This isn’t a problem in of itself, but the complete lack of ways to figure out who you have and haven’t talked to yet is beyond annoying. There were many times while playing that I had to look up a list of citizens for the settlements online because I got sick of running around checking all the circles on the minimap making sure I got everyone. The day-night cycle doesn’t help this either; adding even more tedium to the process since now you can't be sure if that dot on the map is the same one that you talked to earlier or someone else moving into that spot.
Reconstruction has a similar problem to the quests since all it is fetching a bunch of collectables. However, the issues that collectables have affect reconstruction far more than any other part of the game. There is no menu you can use to look up where a certain item can be found, so I had to search the internet multiple times. Sometimes, certain items can only be found on specific spots on the map, which you will never be informed of. You can trade for items, but to figure out who offers that item you have to scroll through all the citizens one by one and check their profiles which takes forever. Why isn’t there a simple menu with all items, where they are found and who trades them? Maybe I missed something but it just blows my mind that collectables are this obfuscated for little reason.
-The weather system is a neat addition, but I didn’t really enjoy how annoying it made some of the quests. I swear I had to change the time over 50 times at one point just to finish one quest
-The final boss is very underwhelming. Really felt like it should have been longer, or at least a little bit harder to beat.
-The pacing after Gallahad Fortress suffers immensely. This is the point where the constant mechon start to get annoying, and yet there are still 3 full zones of just fighting mechon! I honestly had to put the game down for a little bit because I got so bored.
Overall, while the gameplay has its high points, there were so many annoyances that drove me crazy at points. It only got worse as it went along, and I started to get really tired of even playing near the end. The combat and exploration definitely cover for some of the shortcomings, but it can’t make up for everything. Now, if the gameplay was all that Xenoblade Chronicles offered, I would have dropped it very quickly. Thankfully, the game makes up for its mechanical shortcomings by having a great story and excellent cast of characters.
I’m a sucker for the “regular people fighting god” trope, so I was always gonna really like the story. That’s not to say it isn’t excellently written or anything like that; the game has an engaging plot that always masks where it is going well. I’m honestly impressed how unpredictable it is; you're literally shown a vision right at the start that spoils tons of future events, but it still doesn’t give anything away. The visions Shulk gets throughout help with this, as there is always tension with whether what he sees will actually happen or not. There is a lot of excellent foreshadowing that teases future events without giving anything away. That’s not to say the plot remains completely unpredictable (Saw Fiora and Gadolt coming back from a mile away), but even when it is, I still had a lot of fun following along.
Shulk is an excellent protagonist; he’s a very charming guy with some great development throughout. His transformation throughout the game from someone with unbridled hatred to being able to recognize the cycle of violence and stop it was nice. His voice acting deserves special note; it is probably some of the best I’ve heard in a long while. How the emotional scenes are acted is excellent, and I can’t imagine they would have nearly as much impact with even mediocre acting. Shulk is definitely my favorite character in the story.
Reyn has such a charming energy throughout the whole game. The friendship between him and Shulk is phenomenal, and one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed the opening hours of the game so much. His relationship with Sharla is fun; nothing amazing but I did like their interactions with each other throughout the game. His development throughout the story isn’t the most interesting, but Reyn is such a fun character at base that I didn’t mind so much.
Sharla is such a weird character; I just find that I do not care about her story at all but I still quite like her. The whole Gadolt subplot inside Mechonis was probably the clumsiest part of the story, and a big part of it is that I don’t think the conclusion between Sharla and Gadolt was satisfying. I honestly preferred the story if Gadolt could not be saved from his mind control and Sharla had to kill him to protect Reyn or something to that effect. The story we do have is confusingly executed and left me feeling nothing. She is still fine in other parts of the story, but this conclusion to her arc is really underwhelming.
Dunban is so fucking cool man. I appreciate the more mature element he brings to the party’s dynamic in not only the main story but also in heart to hearts. His arc revolving around Metalface and accepting he needs to end the cycle of violence leads to some of my favorite moments in the game storywise. His relationship with Fiora is also very sweet; I wish they had more scenes with each other throughout the game.
Riki just kinda feels like a nothing character? I get that he is there for comic relief, but I don’t really think that is much of an excuse for him to not get anything more interesting to do. Although, I guess considering his personality I don’t know what they could have had him do. I just think he isn’t really well constructed for the story he is in. I also don’t really enjoy how the Nopon talk in this game, so that got on my nerves at times. He does have the best heart to hearts, so that helps at least.
Melia is weird for an entirely different reason; it feels like she doesn’t have a conclusion to her arc at all. A big part of her character is her trepidation about being the ruler of her people, but the game doesn’t ever really give a conclusion to that. I would suspect that is why Melia is the focus of Future Connected, since that story gives her the resolution she needed here. She gets some closure with the stuff regarding her brother, but it feels like that scene should have been the stepping stone for her, not the end of it. Outside of that, I really enjoyed her dynamic with the party throughout and think she is a great addition to the cast.
Fiora might be the most frustrating part of the story for me. Her introduction at the start is great and really had me rooting for her. Her subsequent death was not something I was informed of going in and thoroughly surprised me. I am a little disappointed that they brought her back, but there are still consequences for what happened to her since she got turned into a face. I think she is a good addition, and I don’t really have any problems with her up until the very end of the story. I really don’t like the decision to give Fiora her body back; it makes her character arc regarding her body and coming to accept feel like it was pointless. I would much rather they had kept it ambiguous; maybe have the whole scene from her perspective until the end without showing her. The ending really takes a lot of the emotional weight of her story for me. It doesn’t completely kill her character for me, but it just left me really disappointed.
- Metalface works great as an early antagonist; his exit from the story was perfectly placed
- Egil is excellent, and is where the villains peak in my opinion.
- Lorithia is the only villain I do not like; just really boring
- Dickson is such a cocky asshole that you love to hate. His turn wasn’t unexpected by any means but it still works effectively.
- Zanza is conceptually interesting, but he comes off kinda bland. He should have gotten a few more scenes to flesh him out near the end.
- I usually have a tolerance for annoying characters, but Juju is annoying with very little to make up for it.
- Gadolt is just really boring to me. He drags Sharla’s story down but for no benefit whatsoever.
- Alvis is a very interesting character, and the hints to his true purpose in the story are excellently foreshadowed throughout. He was the character that gave me the most to think about throughout the story.
- All the High Entia are alright. They serve the story well but I didn’t really care much for them.
- The sexualized designs for a lot of female cast wasn’t surprising to see but was still disappointing. It was well within my tolerance but I’m not a fan of it.
Honestly, these are probably Xenoblade Chronicles biggest achievements
The music for this game is truly incredible, and I have found many new favorites from this soundtrack. I especially love how fitting a lot of the music is; it really adds to the atmosphere of exploring the world. Special shoutout to Mechonis Field; that song is one of the only reasons I don’t absolutely hate the trek through Mechonis.
I love the voice cast for this game; the European cast is a unique choice and it really adds to the charm. I’ve already mentioned how much I love Shulk’s performance, but Dunban, Dickson, Metalface and Fiora are incredible as well. I would say the only time I didn’t enjoy the acting was with the Nopon, but that’s more the writing’s fault so I don’t blame them too much. I’m glad this decision to use a European cast for the dub stuck around in later entries.
The art direction is honestly some of the best I’ve seen. I can only think of a few games that match Xenoblade Chronicles in its level of world design and art. Bionis and Mechonis as concepts are so interesting, and the game really makes you feel like you are traveling on a huge titan with how often you can see previous or future areas. Satorl Marsh, Makna Forest and Valak Mountain were the absolute highlights when it comes to the art direction.
The story and aesthetics of Xenoblade Chronicles are definitely the highlight of the experience for me. There are many characters and locations that are not matched by any other entry in the series. These were the areas that made me see what people loved about this game so much.
While Xenoblade Chronicles starts out strong, it ultimately drowns the player in tons of gameplay systems that vary so much in quality that it almost kills the gameplay dead. I see so much potential that the combat and exploration really deliver on, but the rest just misses the mark. The story, characters and aesthetics are doing a lot of heavy lifting throughout the whole experience. The main driving force for me was seeing how the plot would unfold and to experience more of the excellent visuals and music. However, even though the game doesn’t bottom out, it still tried my patience far too much. While I’m not in the majority when it comes to people’s opinions on this game, I do see what people love about it so much; it really is one of a kind.
I’m glad so many people out there love Xenoblade Chronicles; I just wish I was one of those people.