My experience with RPGs pretty much started and ended with the Super Nintendo. Back then I had much more of an attention span and way more time to play video games, so I meticulously made my way through Earthbound, Final Fantasy III, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG and more that I can’t remember right now. After that, it pretty much stopped. I still play the occasional Paper Mario entry or retro-themed game, but for the most part my knowledge of hardcore JRPGs doesn’t extend past the early 90’s.
So I was kinda nervous going into Xenoblade Chronicles, but I’d heard fantastic things about it and I wanted to give my shiny new New Nintendo 3DS a test run. But I was positive this game would break me – that the story would be undecipherable nonsense, the gameplay would be confusing, and the combat mechanics would be completely incomprehensible. As it turns out, I was only really half-right on those things.
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a fucking crazy world. Years ago, two continent-sized giants – one organic and one mechanical – had an epic swordfight and then, for reasons I don’t remember, froze in place mid-battle. Eventually life formed on these frozen corpses – humans and animals and fantasy creatures on the bionic giant, and evil killer robots on the mechanical giant. Like the land masses they populate, these two factions are locked in perpetual war with each other, and that’s our backstory. It only gets weirder from there, if you can believe it.
The player takes on the role of Shulk, a typical spiky-haired RPG “chosen one” archetype, who starts off as a nobody hanging out with his friends in a small town, and ends up having to reluctantly save the world. Shulk reminded me a lot of Sora from Kingdom Hearts, and I imagine that if I were more well-versed in RPGs, he would also remind me of a lot of other characters.
All of this kind of sounds like I’m trashing the story and the characters, but I actually grew to love them. I played this game for a long time, and as such I became really attached and invested in Shulk and his friends, and especially the world they spend the game exploring. I mean, just look how beautiful it is:
The story really grew on me as well, at least the parts I understood, which I’d say comprised about 75% of it or so. It suffers sometimes from being too convoluted and Japanese for its own good, but it’s easy enough to follow and offers some twists along the way that genuinely surprised and excited me.
The unique combat mechanics are what really threw me. Or maybe they’re not so unique and that’s just the reaction of someone who’s been out of the RPG loop for decades. Battles take place in real time, and you have full control of your characters movements, but you don’t directly attack the enemy. Instead, as you’re running around them, you have to simultaneously choose attacks and actions from a really complex menu. Meanwhile your party members fight entirely independently, with character interactions taking place based on (I think) proximity. It was all very daunting at first, but eventually I got, like, half the hang of it.
And that’s another thing I found really impressive about this game: There were entire system of gameplay mechanics which I completely ignored. Things like character affinity trees and gem-crafting, which perplexed me so thoroughly when I first encountered them that I never even tried to fuck with them again. Hell, I didn’t even bother to change out my party – I played as the same three characters the entire time (Shulk, Sharla and Reyn were my power trio), even as more and more characters with diverse power-sets became available. And even with all those self-imposed limitations, I managed to play, enjoy, and eventually beat the game. But they were still there, available to make life easier for people more patient and less stupid than myself.
Perhaps if I’d utilized some of those systems, I wouldn’t have been so utterly unprepared upon reaching the final boss. The first time I encountered him, I received one of the quickest and most thorough beatings I have ever received in a video game. Partially because of this, and partially because I just didn’t want the game to be over, I decided to spend a few zillion hours on that old RPG past time, grinding. I ended up leveling Shulk up to his maximum level, after which the final boss was a breeze.
And so, I beat the game.
It only took 106 goddamn hours!
What’s really remarkable is that, since this is a portable game, the lion’s share of that time was in hour-long chunks during my commute. It ended up taking three months to finish, which is a crazy long time for a game I never put on the back burner during that time.
Overall, I loved Xenoblade Chronicles. The characters, settings and narrative completely won me over. And that’s the thing – if you’re playing something for 106 hours and three months, it damn well better win you over. I hadn’t played a “real” RPG in so long that I’d almost forgotten just how immersive they can be – they create worlds that you basically live in for the time you spend playing through them. I missed that feeling, and I’m grateful to this game for reintroducing it to me. While I don’t think I’ll be diving headfirst back into the world of RPGs any time soon, I do plan on playing the Xenoblade sequel that’s coming to the Wii U in a couple of months. Wish me luck!