Though the aim of PALGN's little adventure down to Nintendo of Australia's headquarters was to spend some quality time time with Star Fox 64 3D (check out our preview here), the publisher had a treat in store for us. After packing away the 3DS units, PR representive Jamie Wilson picked up a Nintendo Wii Classic Controller Pro, and proceeded to demonstrate for us what will likely be one of the Wii's swansongs. We are, of course, talking about Xenoblade Chronicles.
The production history of Xenoblade Chronicles is a curious one. Developed by the Nintendo owned Japanese studio Monolith Soft (Baten Kaitos, Xenosaga, Disaster: Day of Crisis), the game originally debuted (if you can call it that) as Monado: Beginning of the World, appearing briefly in a Nintendo's sizzle reel of trailers shown at E3 2009. Quiet as Nintendo often is, information about the title was hard to come by, until it's release to critical acclaim in Japan mid last year, renamed Xenoblade as a homage to famed video game writer Tetsuya Takahashi (Xenogears, Xenosaga), who also penned the story for Xenoblade.
Though response from the Japanese market was almost unanimously positive regarding Xenoblade's quality, word of localisation was nowhere to be seen. Fans asked, and even begged, for Nintendo to bring the role playing game over to the English speaking world, and a few months ago Nintendo of Europe answered those prayers, announcing Xenoblade for PAL localisation as Xenoblade Chronicles.
As most of you will no doubt be aware, Xenoblade Chronicles is on track for a September release in Australia. This doesn't give us a whole lot of time to learn just how big this game is going to be. Thankfully, Nintendo of Australia gave us the scoop. Read on to find out why Xenoblade Chronicles is going to send the Wii out with a bang.
Due to the kind of game it is, that being ridiculously huge, demonstrating Xenoblade Chronicles to us was, on paper, a difficult task. With so much to see and do, we were wondering where the demonstration would begin? Jamie Wilson felt there was no better place than the opening cinematic, of which would give an overview of the game's universe, lore and plot.
The premise of Xenoblade Chronciles would have to be one of the most original to grace the medium in a very long time. According to the game's lore, long ago, at th beginning of time if you will, two great gods came into existence, one mechanised and one biological. Towering above an endlessly sprawling ocean, the gods had locked swords in a seemingly eternal battle, until eventually each landed a crippling blow against the other. As death became them, life grew on their surface, creating the world we play in. Yep, you read that right; the entirety of Xenoblade Chronicles takes place on these two gigantic godly corpses.
The story of the game takes place many centuries after this event, where the humans residing on the biological god's corpse are caught in a conflict with mechanised creatures from the mechanical god's corpse. The opening cinematic we witnessed apparently takes place a year before the main game, and introduces us to the 'Monado', an ancient blade of magnificent power, as well as few characters that would become relevant to the main plot. For the actual game, we play as a blond-haired chap named Shulk, who with his merry band of friends embark on a quest to destroy the mechanised threat.
Outside of the impressive premise, one of the first things we noticed about Xenoblade Chronicles was the localised voice acting. There's no American accents here, as localisation by Nintendo of Europe has resulted in decidedly thick British behind each character. As with all games from Japan, fans can be fickle about English dubs. Thankfully, Xenoblade Chronicles offers the ability to switch between the English dub and the original Japanese recordings with English subtitles, giving gamers the best of both worlds.
At its core, Xenoblade Chronicles appears to be a fairly traditional role playing game. Wandering the world, the player will find themselves caught in in various quests, primary and secondary, collecting loot, battling strange beasts, and discovering new lands. Though this system of absolute basics will be familiar to most, it is how Xenoblade Chronicles executes this that makes it special.
Scope is perhaps the most unique and impressive aspect of the game. Compared to so many games out on the market, few offer a sense of grandeur than the environments players will traverse across the two dead gods. The horizon is littered with buildings, forests, cliffs and oceans, while looming above are the remnants of the two great goliaths that fought eons ago. But this sense of scale really comes together when you realise that if you can see somewhere, odds are you can go there. Travelling to that spec in the distance, or scaling that gigantic tower - there's a phenomenal amount of ground to traverse, and a wonderful feeling of accomplishment when you reach your destination. To start at the toes of a god and eventually find yourself at the knee, only to look down and immediately recognise all the places you once were, is something special in itself.
Most importantly, the environments you traverse through are as varied as they are beautiful. Huge towns, crumbling ruins, drenched rain forests, snowy peaks, sun lit fields, murky swamps, industrial wastelands - you name it, Xenoblade Chronicles has it. Each of these locations also makes full use of a dynamic time and weather cycle, allowing for a sunny beach to be transformed into a moonlit stroll, or an otherwise bright field to be overshadowed by a crackling thunderstorm. All of these environments are backed by a powerful soundtrack, each specifically composed to suit their surroundings.
Wandering the worlds of Xenoblade Chronicles, as gorgeous as they might be, isn't of much use unless there's something to do. Thankfully, these worlds are full of quests to do and monsters to fight. To give us an idea of how the combat mechanics work, we were shown a few combat scenarios, one earlier in the game and one later. Interestingly, before each encounter you can clearly identify the enemy's strength level. This gives players an important heads-on on which enemies will be too far beyond their skill level to defeat, preventing them from unwittingly engaging in an unwinnable battle that will only result in death. Additionally, monsters appear in real time in the game world, not as random encounters, so players won't have to worry about pesky enemies bothering them mid quest unless they chose to engage directly.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles strikes parallels with many other role playing games, particularly MMOs, which offer a hybrid of real time and turn-based combat. Players, within each given 'turn', select from various arts to initiate their attacks. Arts can be as simple as basic attacks, powers such as healing, to more specific special and super abilities. Once an art has been used, players must wait for a cool down before that art can be used again. Basic arts are automated should the player take too long to chose a special ability. Even though there is a turn-based quality to these attacks, players are given full freedom of movement. More than a simple gimmick, this actually allows specific areas and locations of an enemy to be attacked, making it necessary to position your character in the right spot to attack weak points or damage vital body parts.
Xenoblade Chronicles gets interesting with the introduction of the party gauge and visions. As players fight battles, the party gauge will increase, and when filled up will allow the initiation of a combo party attack. This essentially freezes time, and allows the player to select a special art from each of their party members, all to attack at once for crippling damage. The party gauge also acts as a buffer against damage. Should the party gauge be part way filled and the main player die, companions will revive them. The other interesting point, being the visions, are a component of the story. Wielding the aforementioned Monado blade, players are granted the ability to see into the future. Not just a story point, this is used occasionally in battles, giving players a premonition that details a hugely devastating enemy attack. The purpose of visions is to give players a chance to turn the tide of battle, and prepare for seriously dangerous attacks.
We were most impressed by how fast the combat flowed. Unlike many RPGs that force players to grind against overly powerful enemies or waves of opponents, Xenoblade Chronicles battles play out as quick and exciting duels. You'll still need to work at those really tough enemies, but you won't find yourself trapped in combat that drags on for hours. The absence of random encounters, allowing some enemies to be avoided, is a cherry on top.
However, exploration and combat are only two parts of role playing. The other part most fans expect is customisation and depth, and here Xenoblade Chronicles delivers in droves. On a basic level, players will discover a wealth of armors and weapons to find and buy, allowing them to deck out their party in an assortment of goods. All loot has a visual impact on party members too, allowing them to be styled to your liking. On top of this, each of the weapons and armor can be enhanced beyond their basic attributes with gems, not unlike Diablo II, giving each special abilities and statistics.
Customising your party's equipment is one thing, customising your party itself is another. A host of characters are available for party recruitment, and though only three can be used in a party at any one time, players are able to swap party members in and out whenever they feel. Each party member has a range of arts and skills to learn through levelling up, and even develop relationships with one another. In the case of the latter, players are able to see how party members are getting along. Using party members more frequently will increase their relationship level, as will discovering areas on the map important to that specific party members. Better relationships with your party members makes for better performance in combat, giving good incentive to stick with your favourites and seek out those special map locations.
What we've detailed above is just scratching the surface of Xenoblade Chronicles, and even our Nintendo representative was finding it difficult to explain everything that is on offer in this tremendous package. What is clear though is that Xenoblade Chronicles is destined to deliver an outrageous amount of hours worth of playtime, and from our preview looked to be a lot of fun. Though it was in many ways quite traditional in formula, we were impressed at how well expressed so many of the mechanics were, as well as the game's attempt at ironing out the grinds and tedium found in other RPGs to create a more to-the-point play experience that always keeps the player engaged.
A welcome demonstration after Star Fox 64 3D, we thank Nintendo for finishing the day with this gem. Keep with PALGN for more news of Xenoblade Chronicles in the near future.