I just picked up Xenoblade Chronicles since I have the fortune of living in Australia, where it has been released a short time after Europe. So far I've played the title for around two hours, so I thought I'd share some initial impressions. In short: I'm very impressed.
I've read a lot of reviews on the internet about Monolith Soft's new game, it's currently sitting on 92% on Metacritic, and that's from 22 reviews1. I didn't want to get my hopes up - but this title certainly looked like it could be a game breaker for a tiring genre. I admit that I play RPGs more for the story than the gameplay, but when the same frustrating elements are in almost every RPG even I have grown weary. I'm talking about save points, lots of running around and pointless NPC characters - these have been around ever since I started with Final Fantasy VII. Fortunately Xenoblade has either elimated or eased back all three of these frustrations leaving me a happy man.
The game has NO save points. Think about this. Countless times I've been trudging through a cave/structure/other annoying place fighting random battles one after the other when all of a sudden I need to stop playing. I've got to go somewhere, I've got to cook or maybe it's time for bed. Nope sorry, I have to either turn off the console, pause it and leave it on or continue until I hit that stupid save point. In my teen years my parents never understood this concept, having no idea why I could not simply turn the console off and put down the controller as I could do so for a film. Years later I now also don't understand why I cannot - why do we really need save points? Xenoblade has addressed this, you can simply pull up the menu and save anywhere outside of battle or event scenes. It's amazing. It may be a small feature, but it's the little things that really count.
Xenoblade also has a fast travel option which is not simply similar to that of Oblivion - in the first town you reach you can instantly travel between various areas that you have already visited. Want to go back to the area outside the town you started in? A few menu choices and you're there. No more running all the way back fighting battle after battle. Speaking of battles - the game has no random encounters (least none that I've seen yet) and you actually have to initiate combat. Perhaps later similar to an MMO the enemies will become hostile and attack you as you walk by, but for the time being it's very laid back.
Battles are a mix of World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XII - you have a party and control one party member. Like WoW, you have a number of abilities you can use in real time which have their own respective cooldowns. You also have one particular move that can only be used again after a certain amount of auto-attacks. This system is very quick - killing a simple mob is a surprisingly easy and simple process with no loading times or drawn-out victory sequences. It's a very fluid system which encourages you to battle on your travels.
The town I have visited has a number of NPCs - some named and some not. The named ones are added to a affiliation map - each character is listed, along with their traits, location and purpose. As you meet more people and talk to more (or the same) people - you will slowly link them together. For example, I met a very shy young Nopon (small round happy looking creatures) who wanted to make friends with a local boy but was too shy to approach him. He gave me a letter to deliver to the boy as a quest - the boy then was happy to make friends with the very lonely Nopon - this caused the Nopon to appear next to the boy and his other rougher friend. On the affiliation map they were linked as 'kind friends' - where as the rougher friend was a 'scary friend'. The game alludes that as you do more quests you become more known to the town and more quests open up, which sounds similar to WoW's reputation system.
The English translation and dub from what I've seen/heard appear to be well written and the British accents are a very refreshing change from the standard American dubs I'm used to. That said, with my minor Japanese language background I prefer to have the Japanese audio on with subtitles. Though as the game advises the subtitles are timed for the English language and therefore are a little off, though personally that gives me time to process the difference between the original script and the translated one, which as said, is so far very solid. Also, only a few minutes in I heard Norio Wakamoto's voice - I couldn't help but smile.
The setting is fresh; you are running around on top of a giant being - a titan - that was locked in battle and is now frozen in time. There's a war between the race from the other titan and your own, and a mysterious sword is being researched as apparently it is the only defense that is able to win the war. The story so far isn't very complicated, but then I'm only 2 hours in.
Graphically as reviews have pointed out the game is not an amazing high definition experience - it is after all on the Wii. The game graphically appears to be an advanced PlayStation 2 game - especially through the facial and speech animation there's a noticable fluidity that was not on any PS2 title. The world is bright and beautiful - and as has been pointed out elsewhere the world really is very accessible. Want to drop down from the level you're on to the ground below? Just jump over the railing. If you can see it, you can get to it one way or another.
Items are often described in a somewhat humorous way and the game tips are detailed enough to throw away the manual entirely. Anyone familiar with an MMO will be right at home with common terms such as aggro and cooldown used appropriately with further explanalations for the uninitiated. There's a logical pattern to the battle system and aggro management which while I have not had enough time yet to fully experiment with (you really need some bosses/tough mobs to play around) it is refreshing to have a system that just works.
There's a lot to come - apparently I have talent points and story quests, as well as a huge amount of side quests to do. There's a story going somewhere here, and I'm happy for the gameplay to take the driver's seat if it means I don't groan and sigh while playing an RPG. Xenoblade is shaping up to be something I haven't experienced in years - a single player RPG that (so far) has no features that anger me and is pure pleasure to play.