Xenoblade Chronicles – “A Poor Man’s Epic”

Videogames paved with cultural references are a long-standing tradition in Japan, with a constant mix of popular and high-brow, western and eastern citations being a mainstay not just in our medium but also in manga, anime, music and film. “Xenogears” mastermind Tetsuya Takahashi (executive director, concept and writer), upholds this logic wholeheartedly, making it a defining theme across his career. In fact, perhaps even more than with others, we can easily judge his merits solely guided by which authors and artworks serve as inspiration for his stories and design. Based on this, we can instantly understand “Xenoblade’s” greatest fault – its appropriation of good and bad in equal measure, with apparent blindness over which is which.

A long standing disciple of George Lucas’ space operettas and his Campbellian mono-mythology, Takahashi always strived to embody that unique sense of magic and faustian spectacularity in the interactive means. “Xenoblade” is, first and foremost, a baroque fantasy novel, devilishly ornamented with meticulous arabesques that spin the plot round and around, with quick and mad turns that make your head spin and tingle in anticipation of their insights and feel tremendous pleasure at the unfolding of their complex revelations. Dismally, unlike in his defining masterpiece “Xenogears”, Takahashi chose the easy way out for his newest release, catering to a larger audience by avoiding his trademark labyrinthine, overwrought philosophical ramblings which added much-needed depth to the lush, but inherently superficial exterior of his tales. You can still find subtle nuances to some of his most cherished obsessions, from classic science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick), to Norse Mythology to Jung, but you find these so subdued and diluted it pains to see them written in with such levity.
It’s not just that the narrative is too much “Star Wars” and too little “2001” but that the aesthetic framing embitters its unfolding, with Japanimation antics robbing dramatic charge out of nearly every cut-scene. The fact is that “Xenoblade” ventures equally as often into “Evangelion” as it does to “Gundam” and “Super Sentai” territory, never managing the right equilibrium between its serious fictional background and the action-frenzy, humoristic silliness which is inherent to anime. Even more terrible is that this ill-fashion is deepened by its interactive fluff, which speaks the same base language. Vehemently criticize it we must for its ludomaniac tendency to cater to videogame sugar-junkies and their needs of excessive longevity, number of quests and achievements and customization and mechanics, inherited from such ludic antichrists as “Monster Hunter”, “World of Warcraft” or “Dragon Quest IX”. The game manages to somewhat balance that off by embracing Matsuno’s “Final Fantasy XII” semi-naturalist tactical combat and copying the socio-temporal dynamics of unjustly forgotten and still sole 3D “Zelda” masterpiece, Koizumi’s “Majora’s Mask”. The largely artificial gamification-driven architecture so becomes a tiny tad more human and genuine thanks to that astute addition, meaning you’re not just grinding your way up the statistics ladder, but being rewarded with snippets of insight on major characters and inhabitants, their world’s lore, personal stories, daily lives and relationships.

But the ‘coup de grace’ that just manages to save it from redundancy and utter lack of taste lies in the most welcome of citations to Ueda’s second masterpiece, “Shadow of the Colossus”. Herein, that sense of scale and vast unhindered exploration is taken to whole new levels, exponentiated in a clear exercise of exorbitant, opulent ambition in terms of set design (also a whim which Takahashi seems to revel in). The whole of the game-world is, quite literally, on top of two giants, with each scenery representing a small anamotic part of them, from the knees to the arms to the torso to the heads to the internal organs. “Xenoblade’s” geo-architectural venture baffles the mind for its scope, but it is the minutiae of its characterization that brings about admiration for the virtuosity involved. Technologically, it is a feat that deserves praise, with a rich aesthetic treatment (led by Norihiro Takami) gently pushing you to explore that insanely large world. Each setting has its own unique sense of visual and aural style, forming a body of  eclectic work covering several different themes, from warm naturalist pieces with nigh absurd texturization detail, to gentle dream-like landscapes with soft, hazy light (again Ueda), to more traditional, industrial science fiction and bright sweet fantasy pieces. These are all accompanied by a profuse mix of musical tracks very in line with what’s expected from J-RPG canon – symphonic opuses, j-pop melodies, Black Mages style hard-rock, etc. The diverse variety in composers (ACE+, Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota and Yasunori Mitsuda) elevates it just slightly above standard fare, with some astute echoes of Sakamoto’s YMO work and Hisaishi’s melancholy making it shine in a few tracks.
Like its references, “Xenoblade” walks the fine line from genial to menial with uncouth bravado, leading to a confluence of pleasure and disgust that perfectly exemplifies the current state of its genre and even the medium itself. Bittersweet though it may be, we easily concede it to be one of the most fascinating epic adventures we have encountered in the recent past, it just pains us to also see it as one of the worst when it comes to delivery. In the end, we must look elsewhere to justify our verdict, and here dismay is the word of choice: “Final Fantasy XIII” is pathetic to say the least, “Fallout“, “Mass Effect” and their peers are all US, all muscle, no heart. “Lost Odyssey” is superior, but remains too classicist, too close to 90’s “Final Fantasy” to be understood as new. Truth of the matter is that traditional trope-constrained RPG’s have been on the decline, and whilst progressive ventures – “Folklore“, “Demon’s Souls“, “Yakuza 3” – have made the genre grow, propelling it towards the future, it would be dishonest not to admit we missed a nice, cozy little genre piece to keep us warm and comfy and dreamy and naive and childish at night. May “Xenoblade” be just that – a new and technically marvelous but fundamentally safe J-RPG. The popular and consensual reference for a generation where once none stood.


P.S: A small error was found by a user, concerning the name of J-RPG band, “Black Mages”. I apologize for the mix-up.

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  • Comments (9)
    • None of your business
    • October 17th, 2011

    Instead of trying to write a fucking poem, actually talk about the game and what it lacked to deserve that 3/5.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • October 17th, 2011

    Well, thank you for yout eloquent compliment. I never new I could write prose, let alone poems!

    The reasons for the 3/5 are pretty clear in the review. My criteria are unorthodox, which is probably what makes it more complicated to understand. Please read my follow-up post to better understand what my 3/5 means.

    Thanks for your comment.

    • Seabass
    • October 17th, 2011

    Wow, this is more referred game titles than review. It’s all very “Scary Movie”.

    • jpy
    • September 15th, 2012

    I am sorry, but If you are going to criticize art, you must do it by what it settles to do and not what you want it to be.

    Convince yourself it’s a product dumbed down for the average casual consumer, but it does not mean the story is weak. It might not be Xenogears, but it sure is an enjoyable tale. Not every story has to be a deep philosophical treaty like Xenogears or a minimalist yet deep and sutble story like Majora’s Mask (my favorite game of all time, both in the gameplay department and writing).

    Xenoblade is about a group of kids that embark on a journey of revenge to avenge a friend. If a deep psychological crisis was not needed to send the desired message to the receptor and it isn’t the focus of the tale, then there’s no need to make it fit there.

    “Vehemently criticize it we must for its ludomaniac tendency to cater to videogame sugar-junkies and their needs of excessive longevity, number of quests and achievements and customization and mechanics.”
    There is no grinding in this game, quests are optional (and the game makes sure you know they are optional) and thanks to the mechanics and customization, there’s a varied amount of approach to battles. Did you get the chance to defeat the Avalanche Abaasy? Many players can’t defeat him even at the max level while others can do it at levels under seventy.

    It looks like you are biased towards one kind of literature and when the writing in one game is far away from it, you set your mind to dislike it. You are acting like the conventional critic that criticizes the main characters cast if at least one member is flat. There is no rule saying character development is mandatory and honestly, these days it’s mostly used as a cheap way to make the story progress.

    • sophiasiong
    • April 15th, 2013

    I’m about 40 minutes into the game and I can’t help but feel like it is overrated. Great visuals and environment but there is no emotional connection to the characters. Fiora died and it wasn’t even a pressing moment for me. The fault with this and other RPG’s is the lack of emotional connection–it just doesn’t matter how beautiful or vast the environment is if its missing this crucial element. Also modern RPGs make a repetition out of side quests that do not further the story whatsoever which gets boring. It follows the same format from town to town. I don’t recall this happening in Xenogears.

    Now I still have to finish Xenoblade once I have time, but so far I’m disappointed.

    • sophiasiong
    • April 15th, 2013

    “There is no rule saying character development is mandatory and honestly, these days it’s mostly used as a cheap way to make the story progress.”

    In any good literature or film, character development is a must. What is the point of characters not developing? People change and grow from there experiences. A character that is unchanged, is unreal. For side characters that don’t matter much to the story, they don’t need development but main characters do.

    • Fenced
    • October 2nd, 2013

    “Xenoblade is about a group of kids that embark on a journey of revenge to avenge a friend.” The plot of a lot on angsty teenage dramas then? Sorry to be snarky but I really don’t think kids avenging their parents deaths by being psychic badasses/melodramatic/sophomoric or whatever counts as emotional depth.

    • Jack Pliskin
    • October 4th, 2013

    I’d rather play a game with great characters, than a game with purely good story. Though I’d rather have both.

    • Jasper
    • March 15th, 2014

    Definitely the biggest disappointment of a game this generation for me. I purchased this game as I love games with depth, be they rpg or otherwise. However I can think of not one single thing to compliment this game on. The story is bland, cliche and frankly childish Japanese easy-to-flush rubbish – just like every other jrpg. The characters are the usual bland, childish kiddy crap seen in almost all other jprgs. The gameplay is convoluted with terrible controls – I mean, either make it turn based, OR make it real time – not some arsehole mutated pathetic hybrid of the two! The music is decent in places, but again has that crappy Japanese feel to it – sorry, but Japanese dont have a clue with regards epic soundtracks – catchy ditties (ie Super Marios Bros) is where their talents seem to lie. The graphics are quick good considering the power of the wii, however, again, the shithouse Japanese anime style pisses all over any semblance of style or substance. The voice overs are atrocious! I have nothing against english accents, but the voice acting is so campy it makes you want to tie a rope around a cinder block and smack yourself in the head with it. I wonder if anyone actually play tested this abortion of a game? I mean surely someone must have commented “Jesus. Do we have to hear ‘I know we can win this’ 72 times a minute for the entire duration of this thing?” I purchased this game as I read it was an attempt to cross over the antiquated and frankly, utterly shithouse, jprg to the more sophisticated western style. I was expecting something like Skyrim, or at least Oblivion, but with lesser design values. What I found was a game so pathetic in all ways that it became a bin liner after a fought to play it for 90 minutes. Worst game ever? No way. Most disappointing/overrated? Definitely.

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