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Xenoblade Chronicles

Fire Boar
Best JRPG of this generation? Definitely. Xenoblade Chronicles is an absolute joy to play, and since I live in England and it's been released over here, I've been able to pick up a copy before they went out of stock. Simply put, Nintendo would be mad not to release this game in the US.

So, what's this all about? I'm going to give a summary of the game here, but keep spoilers to a minimum.

Xenoblade Chronicles is set on a world consisting of two titans: the Bionis, which bears organic life such as humans (called homs in this game), and the Mechonis, which bears mechanical life known as the Mechon. These two titans are frozen in battle, with the sword of the Mechonis lodged in the Bionis' side. It is upon this sword that the game starts: Sword Valley. Mechon have suddenly invaded, and the homs living nearby are attempting to repel them. Only trouble is, Mechon are immune to normal weapons. Hmm.

It is here that we first see the Monado, a mystical weapon that when activated glows with a bright light. The Monado cuts through the Mechon easily, but takes a terrible toll on its wielder, the hero Dunban.

Forward a few years, and Dunban has lost the use of his right arm. At this point, we meet our protagonist Shulk, who makes a living in a place called Colony 9 collecting and recycling scrap mechon parts which have fallen from the sky (remember Sword Valley? Colony 9 is situated on the shin of the Bionis, directly underneath. The "two titans" setting is used in ways like this throughout).

After a brief getting-to-know-the-characters, the Mechon attack Colony 9. The heroes have great difficulty in repelling them, until Dunban arrives, using the Monado once more. But when it proves too much for him, Shulk takes it up and finds that he can use the sword easily, with no ill effects.

Stuff happens, and Shulk ends up embarking on a mission of revenge against one particular Mechon, who seems immune to the Monado's light.

There are a great many interesting mechanics. Let's start with the encounters. You can see enemies on the field, there are no random encounters, and you can also see the enemy level. Enemies stronger than you award more experience, but if the gap is more than five levels they will be almost unbeatable. You'll often find enemies that are well out of your league. For example, Colony 9 contains a few level 35-ish enemies on distant coasts. Enemies may attack under different conditions too: some will only attack if attacked, some will attack on sight (go behind them to avoid being seen), some will attack if they hear you (walk slowly to avoid battle) and some will attack if you use a magic ability. Battles themselves involve controlling one character directly, and giving general orders to the rest of your party. It's a simple system that nevertheless has quite a bit of depth, and you definitely won't be auto-attacking all the time as you might in some RPGs, thanks to the fact that all your combat abilities recharge after battle.

Next: the voices! Some would find them annoying, especially in battle, but it makes a great change to hear British voices instead of American ones! I mentioned voices in battle... yeah, your party talks a lot. There are only so many times you can listen to Melia shouting "Star-searing flames of absolution!" as she unleashes her summoned fire elemental without cringing. Some after-battle quips are quite funny though. Depending on your active party, very occasionally you might hear a gem like this.

Reyn: "You can't have a rainbow without Reyn, baby!"
Melia: "Er... Dunban, I think we need to have a talk with Reyn."
Dunban: "No, Melia. Let's just pretend it didn't happen."

What's most interesting is perhaps the Monado's special powers: the ability to change the future. When Shulk wields the Monado (basically the entire game), he can get visions of the future, so at certain points during the story, you will see glimpses of events that are going to happen in the future, in particular events that you will want to change. This is cool and all, but it also slots into battle as well. Sometimes you'll see a vision, which will tell you when a certain enemy is going to make a certain (typically devastating) attack, on whom, how much damage it will do, and any other effects. You can then try and change the future, either using some of your own abilities, or by warning another party member and telling them to use a specific ability. For example, Shulk's "Monado Shield" ability reduces all damage to the party from certain kinds of attacks to 1 for about 15 seconds. This is very useful for changing the future. Or Sharla's "Cure Bullet", which removes debuffs and prevents any further debuffs from being applied for a short amount of time. Or you could Topple the enemy, delaying their attack, Taunt the enemy into attacking a less squishy character instead, etc. Every time you alter the future, your party's confidence (tension) rises a little, and if you can prevent the attack from ever happening (e.g. by killing the attacker before it happens), everyone's tension hits 100% and they perform that much better for the rest of the battle.

"Changing the future" is the overarching theme of the game, which tells an epic tale of exploration, discovery, retrospect and inevitability. The plot twists are genuinely surprising, especially in the second half of the game: many times I thought I had it figured out, only to discover that most of what I'd thought was wrong. I can't really describe what they are without spoiling, but suffice to say that you will be surprised over and over, and want to keep playing all the way through.

The game is massive too: there is a huge amount to see, and it's easy to spend hours just running around enjoying the environment and occasionally finding secrets. The main game will probably take around 40 hours if you skip all the sidequests, but I sunk 120 hours into my first playthrough, and enjoyed every minute of it.

So, my recommendation? Buy this game. If it's not out in your country yet, buy it when it is.
Honestly, I think I've heard more about this game's zonelock controversy than the actual gameplay. Unfortunately it looks like Nintendo has no plans to release the game in the US, and pretty much everyone I know who's played it ended up resorting to piracy.
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