BY BILLY O’KEEFE, MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE (MCT)
No single gaming genre is mired in a longer slump than the Japanese role-playing game, which (scattered exceptions aside, naturally) has been consistently reeling for years.
“Xenoblade Chronicles” is the arguable slump buster — a massive adventure that ar- rives with significant fanfare and, instead of using that hype as a crutch, cashes it in to teach a tired genre some overdue new tricks. It liber- ally adopts concepts that have propelled Western RPGs for- ward, but merges them with a flavor and storytelling ap- proach that leaves no doubt where its lineage lies.
Crucially, “Chronicles” lays most of it — a monstrous open world, versatile side quests, customizable armor and weaponry run wild — almost immediately at your feet fol- lowing an opening sequence that’s similarly generous with its combat system.
When it doesn’t get in its own way, that combat is stel- lar. Like an early Bioware RPG (or, for JRPG fans, “Final Fantasy XII”), “Chronicles” combines real-time battlefield awareness and turn-based strategy. You have continuous, direct control over your char- acter’s position, and because the action doesn’t break for turns, he or she will default to a basic attack against the nearest available enemy un- less you dictate otherwise.
And you will, because de- fault attacks get you nowhere. Thriving in battle means managing an array of skills, monitoring allies’ statuses and health, and keeping party morale high enough to exe- cute special chain attacks and (if necessary) revive fallen comrades.
With a story that lands comfortably in the 50- to 100- hour range (depending on your affinity for exploration, side quests and other elec- tives), “Chronicles” affords plenty of time to get comfort- able with combat and master the advanced techniques it gradually introduces.
But if there’s one aspect that stands out alongside the system’s depth, it’s how fast it is. There are no random bat- tles in “Chronicles” — many potential enemies outright ig- nore you unless you engage them — but as soon as you’re in an enemy’s sights, the ac- tion kicks straight into fifth gear. Managing the particu- lars would be a cakewalk in a turn-based RPG, but it’s an exciting challenge when there’s no breather between snap decisions.
Occasionally, the system is caffeinated to a fault. If nearby enemies sniff a fight, they may jump in, and sud- denly four enemies swell to 12. The camera is problematic by default, and it’s a mess when attempting to contain battles this sprawling. The chaos will frequently cost you the fight, especially if those wandering enemies are level 75 creatures that can obliter- ate your level 16 hide in one hit. (Fortunately, death is merely an inconvenience: De- feated enemies respawn, but “Chronicles” revives you at the nearest landmark with all items and collected experience points — even from the losing battle — still intact.)
Other nagging issues abound. “Chronicles” takes a convenient cue from Western RPGs and lets you warp to landmarks you’ve previously discovered, but the map inter- face is a hassle to use for gen- eral exploration. A passive mechanic that stops a fight to show you an enemy’s future attack is, while clever, disrup- tive to the combat’s tempo. The story itself is watered down by its immense length, and characters repeat the same annoying catchphrases way too often in battle.
Finally, though primarily the Wii’s fault, “Chronicles’” visual presentation leaves something to be desired. It’s visually sufficient, but it’s im- possible not to wonder what this world would look like in highdefinition.
But “Chronicles” does too much too well for long-starved JRPG fans to fret over quib- bles like these. Though strained, the story nonethe- less gratifies with strong, lik- able characters who embrace rather than sulk toward their destiny. And with so much left up to players to decide — from character relationships to gear customization to the minor but wonderful ability to save anywhere — it’s a treat rather than a chore to carry that story to its conclusion.
Platform: Wii/Also available on: PC
From: Monolith Soft/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, partial nudity, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence)