a review of Xenoblade Chronicles
a videogame developed by Monolith Soft
and published by Nintendo
for the nintendo wii
text by ben hornsby
This is the kind of entertainment that can make you wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life (“am I really literally systematically checking fetch quests off of this list right now,” you might ask yourself). Xenoblade Chronicles, played in a state of near-unemployment at age 24 with an electric bass guitar plugged into a switched-off amp in the corner of the room, is the kind of game that maybe gets you to realize that you don’t have to do this anymore – which is about as much praise as I can give anything that doesn’t taste like gourmet root beer. Play it in a state of financial stability and it might make you realize that you never had to do this in the first place.
Not being a jerk: Man, these skies really are blue. That’s nice. And man, these characters really do sound crazy and British. That’s alright, too! Entering one of these overworld areas is maybe an Actual Fantastic Feeling. It’s crazy how far you can see and how you can just walk through all of it. Sure, jumping off a mountain into a lake is no Super Mario Sunshine jetpack-blast – but it might just be a Super Mario 64 tree-flip. I don’t want to just write the same thing over and over, but man: the visual scope of this game is really something.
Jerk time: Unfortunately, there’s this arrow, which literally grins straight at you through the screen, and literally drools, and literally yells at you through your Wii Remote to go kill three more goblins and get three more goblin hearts to get one more pair of shoes that increases your defense by one but lowers your speed by one so that you’ll have a pair for every member of your party, and it literally gets bigger, pixel by pixel, if you stray from the path that whatever sidequest you select is leading you along, until eventually it gets big enough to cover up your avatar, and then big enough to fill up your whole screen, and then you have to turn your Wii off if you want to see around it. Luckily, once you reach this point, the whole thing might not even be a metaphor anymore, and you can play something else instead.
The battle system is a horrifying, immovable lump in the corner of the room. The phrases that you’ve been avoiding your whole life – “Break,” “Stagger,” “Back Attack,” “Cooldown,” “Auto-Attack,” “Affinity,” et cetera – have all been waiting to ambush you right here. You collect all kinds of different experience points and things that help push these menus into each other; one kind of numeral allows you to upgrade the levels of the Skills (or is it Abilities?) of individual characters, which does things like lower the cooldown time of your back attack from 8.5 seconds to 8 seconds.
What the hell is that? What kind of jerk do these jerks think I am that I’m susceptible to the pleasures of decreasing cooldown times by half-seconds? And hey, it’s not like I don’t like numbers; I find the little numbers attached to every little piece of equipment in Dragon Quest totally adorable. When I realized that hitting an enemy with a spell they were weak to in Persona 4 would knock them out of their next turn, I almost giggled. None of Xenoblade Chronicles’ mechanics are adorable, and none of them tickles my brain at all. I don’t want a menu called “Collectopedia” and I certainly don’t want another one called “Achievements.” I have books to read, darn it. You are very inconsiderate, videogame developers!
This game is packed with nonsense, though hey, let’s be nice again: At least it feels like it’s there because these guys think we want it. It never feels as smug as, say, Skyrim, condescending to reach down and deliver boxes for you to check and then all but showing you the bell ringing on your screen. Instead Xenoblade Chronicles is like, “Hey, check out all these sweet boxes we came up with! You can totally check off all of them, if you want!” It’s cute – but eventually you start realizing that the two dozen types of trinkets you’re holding can all be taken to a special shop that synthesizes them into different gems based on the numerical relationship between the two characters you choose to work the machine and that you can attach them to the multiple slots in any of the dozen pieces of each of the half-dozen different types of equipment that any of your three characters can equip, and you sigh; you’re the sitcom dad with the loving but comically-terrible cook for his wife, and that’s sure as heck your birthday cake on the table.