These days, all RPGs feel as if you're setting up a game of Dungeons and Dragons. I know I'm showing my age here by asking, "Whatever happened to games like Chrono Trigger where you spent a minute in exposition and then you're hurling fire spells at enemies as easy as pie?" What happened is that kids keep getting a lot smarter and I don't have time to keep up with them. So as I did with the last two Final Fantasies, I spent the first hour grumbling at the screen while walking through the assorted tutorials that make up Xenoblade Chronicles.
The game starts out strong, showing two titanic figures locked in eternal battle. One is Bionis, and the other Mechonis, and their war is the entirety of existence until one fatal cut by the Bionis locks them in stasis. Years later, civilizations grow up on the bodies of the gods and, like all good civilizations, they go to war.
On one side are the humans, and on the other are the machine-like Mechon. The only thing that has any effect on their armor is the Monado, an energy sword that is the titular xenoblade. A brave soldier named Dunbar manages to stop the Mechon's advance using it, but at the cost of losing the ability to use his right arm.
Later, we pick up with the party proper, a military researcher named Shulk and his friends. It's here, while Shulk is scavenging for Mechon scrap for weapons, that the game really gets going.
It's very clear that Monolith Soft was trying to strike a magic balance between the likes of Skyrim and more conventional and linear RPGs. Though you control a party, in reality only the actions of your leader are really under your command, and save for specific arts and skills, they mostly just attack. Learn to effectively manage your party's skills and you'll be an unstoppable force.
The only unfortunate thing is that the game does throw an awful lot at you very quickly, and it's a bit too much to digest. Frankly, if the early enemies didn't avoid attacking you unless you attacked them first, and if you pretty much had to try to die during battles, I doubt I would've gotten far.
Then, once you get to your first town, Colony 9, you are inundated with something like 20 fetch quests delivering biscuits and telling people you love them. Being the insane completist that I am, I started trying to go down this list one person at a time, and here's where it got really frustrating.
First off, even this initial area is huge. It utterly dwarfs any starting point in any RPG I've ever played, not the least because there are no boundaries. You can hop over fences and swim across water. You are as free as you would be in real life, and for some players that freedom can be downright terrifying.
"What if I miss something?" "What if it's important?" "What if finding this jerk's wedding ring has dire repercussions later on and I get some kind of bad ending?" Don't knock that last one. That kind of trivial thing happened in Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin and I have never forgiven the game for it. Plus, the game makes a big deal out of building affinity with the NPCs as a way to help you win, so the threat of ignoring that aspect looms.
It's very easy to become tangled in the lines of freedom. Some of the people in side quests appear only during certain hours, determining where people are sometimes requires looking between two different maps, and the mini-map is really not of sufficient size.
Two hours in, I was thoroughly sick of the game and went to bed. In the name of journalistic integrity I tackled it again the next night, saying, "Screw this. I'm going to go on with the quest and all these townsfolk and sit and spin." That's when I discovered what a truly magnificent game Xenoblade is.
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If you pick up this game, and I highly recommend you do, just don't worry so much about the massive world. Get started on the first real story quest. Fight some monsters, get to know the characters and get used to the battle system. The rest can and will wait. Once you get back from the first mission, you'll feel much more at ease trying to navigate the hordes of people asking you to kill crabs. Hell, you'll probably have already done some of it.
Once you're at ease, you'll see that Xenoblade is willing to work with you. The in-game clock can be set to any time you like, thank God, enabling you to accomplish any time-sensitive goal easily. Though small, the mini-map is quick to let you know when something that needs your attention is near, and you can traverse the massive map easily by teleporting between landmarks for free.
There are two things that scare us old-school linear RPGers about big, open-world MMORPGs. One, we don't want to spend our precious few hours of leisure time having a 14-year-old call us gaylords over a headset. Two, we come from a time where you could carry a game in your head. The branching paths didn't lead so far you could get lost. In short, there was an answer. A single answer.
Coming out of that shell has been hard, and Xenoblade has hit the magic spot. It comes on a little strong, but it's not long before you start viewing the incredible customability with awe instead of fear about doing the wrong thing. Xenoblade's designers set out to make a world that was roughly the size of Japan itself. If that doesn't sound very large, try walking from one end to the other. The result is a game you live, not master.