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Xenoblade Chronicles by Nintendo of America

It's always possible to innovate within a comfortable and well-established template. Nintendo is traditionally the master of this art, secreting gems of novelty within game designs that are often a decade or two old, perfected through years of iteration. Just because a game conforms in many respects to the conventions of its genre, that doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and it certainly doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful.

So yes, in Xenoblade Chronicles, you play an orphaned young hero who, for reasons unexplained, is the only one capable of saving the world from a mysterious evil. (He doesn't have amnesia, though, thankfully.) Yes, there is an ultimate weapon with untold power. Yes, you wander a giant world in a party of three, following a story punctuated by enough cutscene to make the Godfather Trilogy look comparatively brisk. But this is also one of the freshest and most innovative Japanese RPGs of the past decade. It feels more modern than anything else in its genre.

You see, although Xenoblade Chronicles honours many positive JRPG traditions, it's not afraid to dispense with other, more tedious ones. It's impressively non-linear, letting you wander from the story to explore its gorgeous world, toddling off in search of side-quests and extra-mean monsters to kill and caves to loot. It has fast-travel. Its story, which initially seems a little predictable, is actually a deep and varied tale that spans some 60-odd hours without ever feeling painfully drawn out. There are no random battles and the combat system is brilliant, a mix of real-time and command-based fighting that feels like an updated Final Fantasy XII mixed with a splash of White Knight Chronicles' chain system.
It begins with an epic battle, a clash of titans in a world without time or form. The scale, the scope, and the vast expanse of the gameworld are established in this moment. The two giants collide, swords clashing in the misty gulf of the universe, and developer Monolith Soft makes it very clear that you're about to embark on something special. Much like the thundering behemoths that mark the game's opening, Xenoblade Chronicles is groundbreaking. It's a true evolution of the Japanese role-playing game, shedding the restraints that have caused the genre to stagnate, while retaining the tropes that made it popular in the first place. It's fast-paced yet in-depth, challenging without being punishing, and features a combat system that draws on the best parts of the RPG world, both Eastern and Western. It's remarkable to think that this understated release--which sadly hasn't even been confirmed for North American territories--might justifiably be hailed by many as one of the most important JRPGs in years.

The focus on accessibility extends to more than just the battle mechanics. The world of Xenoblade Chronicles, the land that's sprouted up on the corpse of a giant, is vast and beautiful. Expansive plains stretch across ancient thigh muscle; waterfalls tumble from naturally formed cliffs. Swamps are moodily drenched in shimmering purple mist, and colourful forests populate the Bionis' chest. The sheer scale of each area is a sight to behold. Traveling around the Bionis could have been a pain, particularly as you frequently want to return to older areas or head to the other side of a huge map. Thankfully there's a fantastic fast travel function that lets you return to any previously visited landmark. There are often up to five or six landmarks within a given area, so when it comes to backtracking you're never required to spend time walking around pointlessly to get where you're going. And with so many interesting things to discover and so much going on, revisiting areas is an appealing concept.

Xenoblade Chronicles' vast array of side quests range from the simple--killing X number of enemies--to the complicated, such as performing a series of tasks to rebuild an entire colony. These side quests are varied and provide insights into the lives of the other characters, with entire subplots strung out over seemingly minor questlines. Unlike in the majority of RPGs, most of Xenoblade's side quests don't require you to return to the quest giver upon completion. For the most part you can stack up on fetch/kill quests, and then as soon as you complete them in the field, you reap the rewards. It's an elegant system which negates the need to traipse around looking for the correct non-player character. On top of this, the day/night cycle that affects which NPCs are present can be manually changed, with an in-game clock allowing you to set the time of day.
Xenoblade Chronicles is the best Japanese RPG of this generation. The fact that it looks like it's from the last generation is its only drawback, but its technical limitations are offset by imaginative artistic direction, innovative and compelling combat, and thoughtful design. It's a throwback to the glory days of the genre, proof that there are always new ways to tell a story. If you've ever felt neglected by the lack of in-depth gaming epics on the Wii, you owe it to yourself to buy this.

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