Xenoblade Chronicles is the most enjoyable JRPG I’ve played in years. But the keywords here are “most enjoyable,” not “best.”
Back in 2011, there was Operation Rainfall. Operation Rainfall is, without a doubt, one of the most successful grassroots movements in gaming history. People came together to petition Nintendo to get its ass in gear and release in North America three high quality games for the Wii, best known for its large library of atrocious motion-based shovelware. Release, not localize - they had already been translated and dubbed, in English, for European gamers. Basically, people were begging the company to do something that was honestly a no-brainer.
Xenoblade Chronicles was one of those three games. I read plenty of reviews and articles about it around the time it came out. Despite all the hype leading up to its release, and its staggering score of 92 on Metacritic, some reviewers and players seemed to be underwhelmed. Kotaku’s own review lead with the following sentence: “Xenoblade Chronicles taught me an important lesson: Never trust the Internet.”
Xenoblade Chronicles has taught me an important lesson, too. Never trust Jason Schreier. (ZING!)
Being serious, I think his review is probably pretty fair for people who play a ton of JRPGs. He describes it as a “single-player MMO”, which is 100% true. He complains about the combat, referring to it as a button-masher with little strategy where you can’t kill anything without being the right level. He praises the music and the game world, but blames the sub-par story on the blandness of its characters.
But the thing is: I don’t play a lot of JRPGs. I’ve actually come to dislike them, for reasons not too different from Zarnyx’s concerns about the genre. And for someone like me, Xenoblade Chronicles was a breath of fresh air.
It’s interesting - when I was a kid, I grew up on Nintendo but asked my parents for a Playstation just so I could get Final Fantasy VIII. All my friends were talking about it. It was a game for big kids. Violence! PG-13 swearing! Characters who actually resembled human beings! AMAZING FMV GRAPHIX! But nowadays I look back on FF8 as a train wreck. It’s a game that doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore. As I got older, those “adult” games became childish to me, more repetitive, more cliche, more overwrought... while colorful kiddy Nintendo continues to keep my attention by the sheer power of their inspired game design.
Have JRPGs, in 2015, moved beyond the problems I have with them? Maybe. I really enjoyed Persona 3 and 4, but I suspect it’s because of the ways they’re not like typical JRPGs. But for the genre as a whole, I have no idea. I mostly stopped playing them years ago.
On the surface, because of my bias, I have every reason to hate Xenoblade Chronicles. Its biggest strengths are its aesthetics and music, two elements that I appreciate but which certainly do not make or break a game for me. And yet, here I am with 120+ hours invested into it. I’m obsessively trying to get 100% completion in my NG+ file. I play with the game’s wiki in front of me and do every available quest before moving on to the next area. I have almost all of the item collections finished. My party is at max friendship. I like the characters. I like the story. And the battle system is excellent. Schreier must have really sucked at this game if he honestly believes that defeating higher-level enemies is impossible. My own experience, and countless Youtube videos, disproves him.
At the same time, the side quests are all the same thing (kill X number of monsters, collect Y number of items, talk to Z person). The story is not executed as well as it could’ve been and the writing staff was in dire need of a different dialogue writer. And as beautiful as the environments are, the story developments are poorly integrated into the game world itself.
This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care for most JRPGs lately, and this game seems to have a lot of the genre’s flaws that make me feel that way in the first place. So why do I love it so much?
Here’s the short answer: the game itself is incredibly solid, and while the story has some issues, it’s honestly a pretty minor part of the total experience it provides. For me, it’s not an issue of Xenoblade overcoming the flaws of other JRPGs, but of putting way less focus on those flaws, and therefore never evoking that distaste I feel when walking down one of Final Fantasy XIII’s hallways to start another cutscene.
If you loved Final Fantasy XII, you will love Xenoblade Chronicles. Back when it came out, FF12 was also described as a “single-player MMO,” with the speaker usually saying it as a bad thing. For me, it’s a good thing. As a certified insane person, it’s the single-player experience in MMOs that I like. I have never been remotely interested in dealing with guilds, PVP, raiding, or any of the other social aspects of MMOs. I just wanna play a game on my own time, on my own terms. Both FF12 and Xenoblade give me that MMO flavor without the hassle of dealing with other people.
However, XC is different from FF12 in two important ways: 1) no license grid, 2) real-time, action-based combat. To put it another way, it avoids Square-Enix’s tendency to make every playable character super customizable to the point that the only difference between them are their base stats. Instead, each playable character in XC is unique, with their own exclusive weapon and set of skills to choose from, hearkening back to more traditional JRPGs. Part of the challenge is figuring out which party members are best for any given situation. Do you want to use the damage-soaking tank, or the high dodge tank? Should you use the dedicated healer, or fill the party with characters who can spot heal each other while doing damage? Physical attackers, or magic attackers?
When you have fewer options, when characters can’t be “edited” to fit every situation, it makes the game more challenging. I know this is a staple of the JRPG genre - Chrono Trigger comes to mind - but there’s a reason for that, it works. The game gives you a toolbox with a limited number of tools, and you have to learn how and when to use them. This is much more fun and strategy-based than simply finding the easiest way to take advantage of the battle system and applying that build to all of your party members, which is what I usually do in games that let you do anything with any character.
Combat in XC is fast-paced and time-sensitive. Here, again, it resembles a MMO - you’ve got what is essentially a hot bar at the bottom of the screen to select your attacks. During battle, the PC has nine attacks to choose from, eight chosen from the total list of abilities, and one static ability that has to be charged up. For Shulk, our protagonist and the character you’ll probably be playing as the most, this static ability opens a separate menu for his Monado skills. Reyn, the damage-soaker, gets an increase in his aggro - yes, aggro, just like in a MMO. Your primary magic-user, Melia, charges up her static ability by summoning and sacrificing party buffs; once charged she can use a super attack. The most interesting static ability is that of Sharla, the healer, because it actually acts as a limitation on her utility - she uses a magic-based rifle that gets hotter as she casts healing spells, so after a while, the character must stop for several seconds to release the heat from her weapon. And so on, for the other characters.
Each character’s role is essentially focused around how their static ability works, requiring you to pick the other eight abilities carefully, tailoring them not only to the situation but to the abilities selected for your other two party members. On top of that, the only character you control is the one listed at the top, while the game’s AI controls the others. The AI is not bad - there are only one or two characters I would only use as the controlled character, rather than the second or third. Nevertheless, it would’ve been nice to have some kind of gambit system like we see in FF12, although the lack of any way to tweak the AI is absolutely not a deal breaker. The tanks and healers reliably do their jobs (within the limitations inherent to each of them), which is the only thing the AI really needed to accomplish in order for this system to work.
Again, I had an incredibly fun time with this and by no means was I completely unable to beat enemies that were higher level, contrasting Schreier’s complaints. Most of the time it was achievable after tweaking my party and strategy and making the right decisions during battle.
The entire reason I wanted to write this article was because of how false Schreier’s review of the battle system is. It’s not a “button-masher” by any means. Kingdom Hearts is a button masher. You “mash” the A and B button in XC the same way you “mash” the confirm button in any JRPG in order to select what abilities you want to use. Describing the combat in XC as “button-mashing” is just a factually incorrect statement.
To be fair, Schreier’s criticism about being unable to defeat higher level enemies might be valid very early in the game, when you don’t have a lot of abilities unlocked yet or characters to choose from - but that could probably be said for literally every JRPG. I also get the feeling that Schreier was trying to rush through the story a bit too quickly, perhaps for the sake of his review. For example, his complaint about not being able to defeat higher-level enemies implies that he was frequently under-leveled. But as I played, I never found that I had to stop and grind because I wasn’t high enough level for the area I was in. Ever. In the first half of the game, I was an average of 2-3 levels above the other enemies, and when I did start coming across trash mobs that were higher level than me it was welcome, because it was a challenge. You need to remember that a main part of the appeal of this game, one of the main things it has to offer, is wandering through vast, beautiful environments, just exploring and seeing what you can find (more on that below). Fighting monsters and leveling up is a natural side effect of doing that. If you’re rushing along and not actually experiencing the content, of course you’re going to be under-leveled.
Kotaku’s review for Xenoblade Chronicles is old, and it doesn’t include a blurb about how much time the reviewer spent playing the game, unlike their reviews now. I really have to wonder how far Schreier got into it before passing judgment, and if he beat it, how long it took him to do so.
Finally, there’s one thing in particular that really makes the combat memorable - Shulk’s ability to foresee the future. You can see this in action in the above video (which, on the above note, is not particularly skillful gameplay and still shows someone beating a higher-level enemy). Basically, if a monster or boss is about to use an especially nasty move against you, Shulk will have a vision of it about 8-12 seconds ahead of time. This gives you a chance to take appropriate action in order to “change the future” - maybe cast a shield spell from Shulk’s Monado to block certain abilities, or run over to Sharla and tell her to heal the tank before the attack hits, or use a chain attack to interrupt the enemy’s cast bar. For the same reason, character positioning and placement is an important consideration. Should you be going for increased damage by attacking an enemy’s back, or should you stay close to the tank in order to issue commands promptly when needed? Should you use up an armor upgrade slot with a buff to your movement speed so you can quickly run to party members, or should your prioritize your stats and resistances? It’s just another decision that must be weighed during battle. The future visions are a critically important part of the game, especially for tackling bosses or unique monsters, and it adds quite a lot of strategy to a combat system that is already pretty good.
When used correctly, and with the right party make-up and the right skills equipped, higher-level enemies can be dealt with easily. I would actually recommend playing this game under-leveled. The combat becomes much deeper and your decisions much more important. With no difficulty options available in XC, this is the best choice for people like me who want to feel challenged.
Now, here’s the thing. Maybe you don’t want a battle system like this. Maybe you want something turn-based, or maybe you like having every character 100% customizable. I bet that most people can read the above paragraphs and watch the video and guess at whether they’d like the combat in this game. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine! Not everyone likes the auto-attacking, AI-dependant MMO-style of combat in games like Xenoblade or Final Fantasy XII.
But if this is because of personal preference, you ought to recognize that. Xenoblade sets out to do a specific thing with its battle system, and I think executes that specific thing pretty well. That’s a different situation from saying it’s objectively bad simply because you don’t like this kind of battle system in general.
The real meat of this game is the exploration. XC offers an incredibly vast game world full of collectibles, monsters and kill quests. In order to complete them, you’ll have to scour every inch of the map in your hunt for specific items or enemies. If you love games with highly detailed, incredibly beautiful natural environments, and you love the feeling of traveling to these places, exploring them, looking out over the landscape from high vantage points and appreciating impressive draw distance, Xenoblade Chronicles is a must-play.
The game takes place on the literal backs of two dead gods, the Bionis and the Mechonis. They killed each other in a legendary ancient battle, and lifeforms sprang up on their corpses like coral and fish reclaiming a shipwreck. The Bionis’ thigh is a sprawling grassland. Its shoulder is a snowy mountain. An ocean sits in the long, slightly curved crown that extends from the back of its head. If you look up anywhere in the game, you can see the silhouettes of these titans in the very, very far distance. They are ENORMOUS. This concept - that the whole world is made up of these two dead gods - is just so fuckin’ cool, probably the coolest part of the game. It plays a big part in how breathtaking the environments are.
The world has the same sense of scale and danger as a MMO. Stepping into Gaur Plain made me feel like a level 64 Rogue looking out on the lush grass of Nagrand. I maneuvered my level 13 characters a safe distance around a level 81 Territorial Robart, because I remember the lesson I learned from Durn the Hungerer. I walked slowly through a nest of endgame-level spiders - who would only attack me if they could hear my character running - all so I could get up to a cliff near the top of the waterfall to complete my map and look down at the sprawling landscape below.
I know the designers specifically set these moments up for me. They made the spiders sound-sensitive just so I could sneak past them when I was still 50 levels below their level. And yet, when I do these things, I get a very victorious feeling, like I’m going somewhere I’m not supposed to be, or discovering something secret and hidden. That is a wonderful feeling to evoke in a game that is all about exploring and experiencing exotic and mysterious environments.
My desire to explore the game also made it incredibly easy for me to complete quests. One of the big criticisms of this game is that the quests it asks you to complete for each area are repetitive: kill a certain number of monsters, kill a unique monster, collect a number of items from the environment, collect a number of items dropped from enemies, go to a specific location. Considering how much Xenoblade’s gameplay borrows from MMOs, this is a fitting criticism. But, again, if you play this game the way it’s supposed to be played - wandering through each map for hours, just to explore - many of these quests get completed on their own. I’d often pick up a collection quest only for it to immediately complete itself because I already had all the items it asked for, or I’d already found the unique item that was hidden somewhere on the map. Kill quests are also no big deal because you’ll usually have to fight your way through those enemies anyway as you explore or complete other quests.
I can’t argue that these quests don’t lack depth or integration into the story, but I don’t think they are intended to be deep or story-driven, nor am I sure that making them more elaborate would have improved the game. They are tasks for you to complete so you can gain experience and gear, like in a MMO.
Now, once again - does this appeal to you? Do you want to uncover every inch of the map, collect tons of items, sneak behind level 90 pterodactyls to grab their eggs, and hunt down unique monsters? Are you perfectly happy to do this for hours, often while ignoring the story objective, just because you can and it’s fun? If the answer is yes, you’ll like this game. If the answer is no, you’ll be bored with what the gameplay has to offer and be under-leveled the entire time because you don’t stop to chew the scenery and do quests. Again, I don’t think this is really a game flaw. XC offers a particular experience that may just not appeal to you. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, but if anything that makes it a niche game, instead of a bad game.
The music is awesome. And I don’t just mean Gaur Plain, its most famous song...
or You Will Know Our Names, which you’ve heard in Smash a million times by now...
but also most of its other tracks. This OST has some of the catchiest atmospheric music I’ve heard in a video game.
The sound design is also great, and the voice acting is refreshingly natural. One of the benefits of this being localized for Europe first is that the entire voice cast is British. Maybe I’m just a dumb American, but I thought this was awesome. They weren’t American actors putting on that fake half-accent thing we use in movies, but actual British persons. Shulk’s VA, Adam Howden, did a particularly fantastic job, really selling the character to me as a kind, gentle space cadet driven by his need to fight his own powerlessness.
So, the ideas in Xenoblade sure are great. If you read a summary of the story on Wikipedia, it would sound really interesting. “Homs,” or humans, sprung from the Bionis, and the robotic “Mechon” sprung from the Mechonis. For reasons unknown, the Mechon are constantly attacking the Homs, who are at a huge disadvantage - we’re small, squishy, and virtually defenseless against these massive flesh-eating robots. There’s only one thing that can harm them reliably: a mysterious sword called the Monado, which cuts through Mechon metal like it’s butter. The sword is rumored to be the very same sword used by the Bionis to kill the Mechonis.
The story that unfolds is pretty good. Things are not as simple as they seem at the beginning. Enemies become friends, and true foes are discovered. The story is filled with clever foreshadowing that’s innocuous on the first playthrough, but becomes wonderfully, painfully relevant on the second. I highly recommend playing through NG+ just for this reason; it will make you appreciate how tightly-written and carefully planned out the story really is.
But story is people’s number one complaint about this game. Even if I loved the story, with so many people criticizing it, there’s got to be some kind of problem worth looking closer at, right?
The problem is the way the story is executed. To start out this discussion, let’s talk about the difference between “foreshadowing” and “treating the audience like they are stupid.”
On one hand, there’s foreshadowing, as mentioned above. This is when a story subtly hints at an event that happens later on. Once you know what’s really going on in this game, it is amazing to play through it again and see how much the characters were slaves to their emotions and preconceptions.
On the other hand, there’s doing something so transparent and stupid that it ruins a future reveal. There are MULTIPLE scenes where side characters mutter suspicious lines, only to have one of the party members turn to them and go, “Did you just say something?” which of course ends with them saying, “Er, haha, nevermind!” When you spell things out for us so blatantly, it’s not a shock when that character later turns out to have had ulterior motives. Even worse than that, that whole cliche of someone saying something aloud in front of others, only to pretend they’d said nothing - and no one questioning them about it afterwards - is cartoonishly silly and stupid.
Now I will say that, in the grand scheme, there is FAR more of the good foreshadowing in this game than the bad kind. It’s probably 90% good vs. 10% bad. However, most people are not going to be able to appreciate this on their first playthrough because you don’t know where the story is going yet, so you don’t always recognize foreshadowing when you see it. (spoilers) For example, you’re not going to find it significant when Shulk says that he feels conflicted on something, as if two voices in his head are telling him different things. It will just sound like a turn of phrase... but on later playthroughs, the meaning behind this line is impossible to miss. (end spoilers) On top of that, most people probably aren’t going to enthusiastically play through NG+ immediately after finishing the game, like I did, so they are unlikely to see and appreciate how insidious the foreshadowing is. So, even though there are only a handful of the weaker “bad foreshadowing” moments, they bring down the story and keep it from being truly great, instead of just good.
The other problem with this game is the scenario/script writing. When I say that, I’m specifically talking about the character dialogue - the atoms that form the molecules that make up the overall story. The building blocks.
“Stupid” is unfortunately a word that people often use to describe the characters in this game. I feel that this is only half-true. The characters aren’t actually stupid. There’s no point in this game where I felt angry at a character for doing something illogical or out of character. Each of them have established motivations, personalities and flaws. As the story plays out, the decisions and thoughts of the characters feel reasonable and relatable in light of what they know at the time and what their goals are. I never felt angry with them for taking an obviously unwise course of action and always understood where they were coming from.
Rather, what’s stupid is how the game CONVEYS some of this stuff. Again, Xenoblade’s story is good! The problem is with the dialogue, not with the story beats or the characters themselves.
Here’s an example. Early in the game, as you’re climbing towards the top of the Bionis, you hear about an ancient race of people called the High Entia. You don’t know precisely where they are or what they look like, but you’re told that they exist and you should find them and get their help. Along the way, you run into a new party member who keeps referring to your party as “Homs” (humans). She is dressed in unusual clothes and wears something like a nun’s habit over her head. She knows a lot more about the area than you do, and the locals refer to her as a “bird lady.” This mysterious person exercises her unexplained familiarity with the locals to get you to the top of the Bionis, where you immediately see a fantastical, futuristic floating city in the distance - which the mysterious person recognizes and helps you get to. When you arrive, you find that it’s inhabited by people with wings sticking out of their heads, who possess incredibly complex technology.
Yeah, obviously these people are the High Entia you were told about earlier in the game. But how do the characters react to all of this? COMPLETE BAFFLEMENT. They have to be told that these people are the advanced non-humans they were specifically told about earlier in the game, living in the same place they were told they’d be, and they act shocked at this revelation.
C’mon. Get a better script writer.
And the thing is, this isn’t even important to the story! It really doesn’t matter in the big picture whether they recognized the High Entia or not. It’s an insignificant detail. And yet, it completely takes you out of the game. It makes you lose faith in the main characters and feel frustrated with them. It makes you say to yourself, “These characters are stupid.”
This doesn’t happen all that often during this game. Most of the dialogue is perfectly fine, and the above example is probably the most egregious instance of bad dialogue. But unfortunately, just like the bad foreshadowing, the bad parts happen enough that they pull the story down and keep it from being great. Even when the characters don’t act stupid - which they don’t in Xenoblade, look back on their decisions and tell me I’m wrong - if they have stupid moments like this, it will feel like they are. What an enormous disservice to a game with such an excellent overall story and likable characters.
This isn’t to say that the story’s execution is all bad. While the character dialogue could be better, overall I would say that the writing is still better than those JRPGs that have turned me off to the genre.
My problem with a lot of JRPGs, especially around the time XC came out, is that they’re horribly over-written, over-produced, over-elaborate messes. Repeat after me: an elaborate story is not the same thing as a good story. Characters being emo and talking about their feelings constantly is not the same thing as making us care about them, or making their problems feel real. Using tons of unintelligible jargon and making the story so obtuse you have to read a wiki to understand it (I’m Luigi Death Staring at you, Square-Enix) does not make a game mysterious and intriguing on its own.
Xenoblade doesn’t do any of these things. The story neither under-explains or over-explains: we’re given enough information to understand what’s going on, and we’re also allowed to digest and contemplate that information. Characters have clear motivations and clear goals. No one’s inner turmoil is dwelled upon for too long. There are no insufferable tsunderes or other annoying anime tropes. The characters are much more subdued and natural. They feel like real, normal people instead of having cookie-cutter personalities.
Shulk never has a long monologue where he’s lamenting the responsibility of being the heir to the Monado. Instead, we get to see how it affects him. At first, he’s a normal young man, kind of a nerd, not very good at reading others but kind and sweet. This is shattered by trauma and necessity, and he voluntarily takes on the responsibility of the Monado because he wants to protect what’s important to him. Then he starts having visions of the future - he can see when people are going to die - but he doesn’t understand their context or circumstances. The visions are set in places he’s never been before, involving people he’s never met. He desperately wants to change what he sees in his visions, because he doesn’t want anyone else to die to the Mechon, especially not when he could have stopped it. But he doesn’t know how to do so.
Can you imagine the weight of all that? Knowing that someone else is going to die in the very near future? Not knowing what to do exactly - tell them, follow them around, ignore it? Not knowing how to interpret what you see, and then when it’s too late, finally understanding what your vision meant. Feeling like their death is now your fault, because you were aware of it beforehand and there must have been something you could’ve done.
That’s really heavy stuff. And yes, I can imagine how all of that must feel, because the game lets it breathe instead of over-explaining it and shoving 10,000 cutscenes down my throat. There are just enough scenes where Shulk is uncomfortably trying to talk things out with his friends, just enough quiet seconds of him staring at the ground in silence, to convey this stuff without it going overboard.
There’s a third, less discussed flaw with the story of this game. The events in the story are, unfortunately, poorly integrated into the game world. Things happen in the story, and the only reflection of these events in the world itself is some changed NPC dialogue. Considering how dire and dramatic some of those events are, this was a major missed opportunity.
The Monado is literally the only thing in this world that does effective damage to the man-eating robots. On top of that, it has a distinct appearance. If the Monado is so unique and important, why isn’t it a mythical object that every single person on Bionis would recognize immediately as Shulk travels around?
Shulk is allowed to leave Colony 9 with the Monado right after a severe attack from the Mechon. That severe attack ended because the Mechon withdrew, not because the Homs were successful in fighting them. By leaving with the Monado, Shulk takes away their one weapon to use against the flesh-eating robots. And yet, this issue doesn’t come up. No one objects to him taking away the all-powerful laser sword.
And that severe Mechon attack? It’s pretty horrific. The game does a wonderful job getting across the message that, hey, these robots are terrifying and the human characters are basically defenseless against them. People are eaten alive in the streets. But as soon as the cutscene following the attack is over, the town is back to normal. There’s no property damage, no damaged Mechon littering the town. People walk around leisurely as if nothing has happened.
Shouldn’t there be, like... rows of bodies, doctors triaging the injured, the military’s soldiers milling about in a panic? Or at least some kind of reflection in the game world that a serious event just happened? I understand that this would’ve been extra work for the developers, but it’s work that really needs to be done in RPGs, and especially for stuff in the very beginning of the game.
There isn’t enough worldbuilding in this game, either. You learn a lot about what happened thousands of years before the present day, but very little about what happened in-between. For example, there are two main Homs towns, Colony 9 and Colony 6. This alone implies that there were Colonies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 as well, and perhaps more after 9. But what were they colonies of? Where did the Homs originally live? When did the colonization happen? What happened to the other colonies, and how long have they been gone? We never learn.
Now I will say that the game is not completely devoid of worldbuilding. There are lots of tantalizing visual hints in the game environments, just barely suggesting an unspoken story and giving you that feeling of exploring an ancient wilderness. Some of the best hidden backstory has to do with the Giants, an ancient Bionis race that died out centuries before the start of the game. The world is littered with their old ruins, and finding and exploring them were some of XC’s most rewarding moments.
Moreover, not every game event is inconsequential to the world at large. About 75% through, there’s a major plot development that not only shatters your interpretation of what was going on up to that point, but permanently blocks off entire sections of the game that would naturally be inaccessible considering what happened in the story.
Unfortunately, the above positives don’t entirely make up for the too-frequent dissonance between the plot and the world. There remains too much of a disconnect between the dramatic events in the cutscenes and what you see when they end, and there’s just enough big unanswered questions about the world that leave me feeling starved for more. This game really could have benefited from a more dynamic game world that incorporated the obvious implications of the setting and story progression.
A few weeks ago I posted that gamer personality test to TAY, which analyzed what you want most in games. It was amazing to see how everyone differed, with some people playing games for the action and multiplayer, others (like myself) for challenge and completion, and others in order to be completely absorbed in another world with a complex story. Depending on what you value in games, what I’m about to say may mean nothing to you, or may be highly agreeable, or may convince you that you won’t like Xenoblade at all.
But I think the reason I loved Xenoblade as much as I did is because it’s a JRPG that dares to put story second.
Or, does it? Well, honestly I have no idea if that’s what the developers actually intended. But that’s how I feel walking away from this game, enjoying it as much as I did: the story exists to service the gameplay. Not the other way around. [EDIT: Turns out I am right, according to the Iwata Asks interview for Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. The developers felt that JRPGs were becoming too story-heavy and made a conscious decision to “rebalance” story and gameplay in XC. Thanks to user Ankfank for pointing this out!]
Cutscenes are short and to the point. There is no padding whatsoever. Typically they only convey whatever information is necessary to move the story forward. Character moments are either brief or incorporated into whatever is happening in the cutscene. The next cutscene is clearly marked on your map, allowing you to choose when you want to continue. You are never abruptly interrupted by an unforeseen cutscene. Scenes depicting events happening elsewhere are usually sandwiched in the gaps between chapters, rather than tearing attention away from what’s happening with the main party.
And everything you need to know to understand the story is included within those cutscenes. There’s no shitty side quest you have to complete to get a basic explanation of the ending (The World Ends With You), no in-game datalogs to scour through in order to understand a bunch of unexplained jargon (Final Fantasy XIII), and no fan-made wiki page you have to read in order to piece together the convoluted story (Kingdom Hearts).
...I’m starting to think that maybe I just really hate Square-Enix games. Anyway.
Maybe that’s why I, personally, still love the story so much, even with its flaws. For a JRPG, the story is relatively minimalist. It’s straight-forward. It respects my time. It doesn’t try to do too much or go overboard with the characters.
And its flaws are not as glaring because the story doesn’t have the responsibility of carrying the entire game. I’d rather spend four hours exploring Gaur Plains than rushing on to the next 30 second cutscene, so who cares if that cutscene isn’t as good as it could be once I get there? I’m having fun. My time is being well-spent. When story isn’t the biggest, most important thing about a game, it’s okay if it’s simply good, rather than great.
So, there you have it. I really enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles, despite my ignorant cynicism. It’s not a game for everyone, but it was most definitely a game for me - a casual player of JRPGs, who hasn’t enjoyed many of the games from the genre that I’ve played.
Should every JRPG be like this? No. I certainly don’t think Xenoblade is a perfect game, and as I’ve stressed repeatedly, some people want certain elements in their JRPGs and that’s perfectly fine. I’m not even saying that I want every JRPG to be like Xenoblade Chronicles - again, I love the Persona series, which is about as cutscene-heavy as you can get.
But damned if this wasn’t a wonderfully refreshing break from the pretentious, overly cinematic navel-gazing of those JRPGs that made me lose my faith in the genre.