Five years into the Wii’s life, many developers looking to make traditional or hardcore games had all but abandoned the Nintendo console – with even great games like Platinum’s MadWorld and Capcom’s Zack & Wiki underperforming to catastrophic degrees, it looked to be a platform where only first-party franchises and throwaway dancing games could make money. Undeterred by the cold, hard facts, Monolith Soft continued its trend for favouring Nintendo consoles and development continued on Monado: Beginning Of The World – a Wii title coming so late in the day that many expected it to be among the last great Wii games.
And many were right – an original RPG set on the bodies of two fallen gods, it offered freedom of exploration, battle mechanics and an overarching narrative that put its peers to shame. Aside from a few standout titles like Eternal Sonata, this was not a great generation for the Japanese RPG but Xenoblade was proof enough that there was still plenty of life in the genre when the developer in charge has something interesting to say. The Xeno- prefix isn’t a sign of a continued universe or even franchise – it’s a badge of quality, and it’s one that Xenoblade polished to a glorious sheen not seen since the glory of PlayStation RPG Xenogears.
Forget characters – it’s the sword that’s the real star here, a legendary blade known as the Monado that precious few can wield. Main hero Shulk is the latest in line to enjoy its power, and his slow acceptance and comprehension of the blade’s power is as interesting a journey to be a part of as any other the genre has thrown up over the years. This is thanks in no small part to the supporting cast, mind. Friendly meathead Reyn and the feisty Fiora are your only buddies to begin with, but the party grows as per genre tradition as the adventure draws on – Shulk is later joined by the Monado’s previous owner, Dunban, princess Melia, sniper/medic Sharla and the token odd creature thing, Riki.
The main narrative isn’t the only story being told here, either. As relations grow and blossom between party members, mini-stories come to light in the form of short side quests and special cut-scenes that will only play out when affinity hits a certain level. It’s as good a reason to keep switching up party members as you’re likely to find in an RPG – the more friendly your party members are with one another, the more content you’ll have access to. Some of these are daft (but hey, like dating Barrett in FFVII wasn’t…) but others are truly touching. And others involve Riki, but you can sort of ignore those ones unless you really like being squeaked at.
It’s not even the characters or their relationships that have the most impact, rather the sprawling and beautiful open world that’s yours to explore from the get-go. Xenoblade does scale like pretty much no other game on Wii, its lush landscapes (which range from thick jungle canopies to sparse desert wastlelands, all set on the bodies of two giant and long-defunct Bionis) expanding for miles and ensuring that only the most adventurous will ever chart the entire map. Seemingly innocuous paths and passes can lead to huge new areas teeming with lives to end or save, with all the rewards you’d expect for doing so.
While you can play with a Wii Remote, you’d be a fool to do so – a classic RPG such as this deserves the Classic Controller treatment, especially with such a deep and complex combat system to master. The mix of action, strategy, planning and combos makes for a system that is incredibly daunting at first but quickly becomes satisfying and rewarding, particularly once Shulk’s visions start to have an effect on combat and key boss attacks must be countered or cancelled before the ticking clock crushes one of your party members. Unique, oddly beautiful and one of the best RPGs of its generation, Xenoblade deserves the legacy it is sure to receive.
Why It’s A Future Classic
With all the shovelware and mini-game nonsense that drowned the Wii, owners were always holding out for that one game that proved that the console was capable of something more. While that game came along a few times, there’s no better example of a gamers’ game on a console designed for an entirely different market than this. Many will remember Xenoblade for this reason alone – it was one of the few what the Wii was truly capable of, both on technical and gameplay levels. Monolith Soft could have targeted the significantly more powerful PS3 or Xbox 360, but the game simply wouldn’t have had the same impact on those platforms. It had to be on the Wii, and the history books will concur that this was the right choice.
As great as it may be, Xenoblade simply wouldn’t be Xenoblade if it were on any other console – if anything, those visuals will stand up better over time given the platform than those of many similar JRPGs on PS3 and 360…