We seem predisposed to find themes and ideas in our stories that relate to our immediate circumstances. The teenager experiencing the first blush of infatuation; the divorcee newly mistrustful of love; the life-wearied octogenarian… each will see something of their own life refracted through the prism of a story, often with equal intensity. Even so, Xenoblade Chronicles speaks with peculiar force to the discombobulating times in which we all now exist, with a premise to which, arguably, an entire species can relate.
Humanity – the Homs, as they’re known in the game’s nomenclature – is at war with a deadly invading force, newly arrived on the planet. The Mechon, as the attackers are known, are impervious to existing weapons, vulnerable only to a mysterious blade known as the Monado – the sole vaccine, as it were, with the potential to destroy the invaders.
It’s a kind of virtual hiking holiday in the Med, albeit one where the local fauna will try to bite you in the neck
An applicable (if bluntly unsubtle) story is just one of a clutch of reasons why this re-release of Xenoblade Chronicles, a game first released for the Nintendo Wii in 2009, is well-timed. The adventure also takes place on a pair of 20-mile-high, moss-covered stone giants surrounded by an endless sea. In a medium often accused, not unfairly, of presenting identikit post-apocalyptic vistas – all mud, smoke and various shades of brown – here is a world of vivid, colourful brilliance.
For anyone who has been forced to cancel holiday plans, the game offers vertiginous clifftops with 50-mile-wide views and the freedom to explore anywhere. It’s a kind of virtual hiking holiday in the Mediterranean, albeit one where you’re forced to wear outfits that wouldn’t look out of place at an Elizabethan dance, and where the local fauna will try, at every turn, to bite you in the neck.
In 2009 the game gained a sturdy reputation as one of the most technologically advanced for Nintendo’s popular Wii console. For this rerelease, Xenoblade’s textures have been snapped into a high-definition sharpness. While all this crispness is a bit unflattering to the underlying models – much like the first time we saw newsreaders in the devastating clarity of 4K – the sheer ambition of an entire world that takes place on the limbs, torso and head of a stratospheric giant has never been more thrilling.
Eleven years ago, Xenoblade Chronicles revitalised one of the staler video game genres, the Japanese role-playing game. Die during one of the game’s clockwork battles and you’ll simply respawn, without penalty, nearby. You can save anywhere, fast-travel between points in an instant, and the game is filled with extracurricular activities: twinkling collectibles to fill in your sticker book (with equipment rewards for collecting sets), and almost limitless number of loitering characters ready to inveigle you into their dramas and errands, if only you’ll hear their pleas. The novelty of Xenoblade’s ideas, and general improvements to the template were subsequently widely adopted and, as such, have less impact today. Still, for a game in which you and your growing band of fighters are struggling to save the world, it remains joyfully easy-going and well-oiled.
Not everything has weathered time’s assault so well. The voice-acting is competently delivered, but when paired with the stilted animations can give everything the feel of a sixth-form play. And there is, as so often is the case in video games, a disconnect between the complexity of the combat system – rich, textured and labyrinthine – and the characterisation and storytelling: rudimentary and adolescent.
Nevertheless, aside from the bonus new story, the immersive ambition of this world, the joyfulness of the exploration and the knotty allure of its interlocking systems make this a captivating adventure, especially for anyone who has recently finished Final Fantasy VII: Remake and is still clamouring for spiky-haired heroes trying to save the world.
If you like Xenoblade Chronicles, you’ll love…
(Square-Enix; Super Nintendo, iOS; original release 1995)
One of the late classics of the Super Nintendo-era, Chrono Trigger offers the seismic power of time travel alongside the opportunity to use it for a high moral purpose. Here you can bring about wars or avert them, wipe out lineages or birth them, right the wrongs, or wrong the rights, of generations. As you whizz between a clutch of time periods with your band of friends, you’ll see how an act of kindness hundreds of years ago can ripple through the centuries to change the fabric of the present.
The game brought together two of Japan’s finest (and hitherto rival) game-makers, Final Fantasy’s Hironobu Sakaguchi and Dragon Quest’s Yuji Horii, and leading lights in their respective teams. The result is a game full of vibrancy, humour and clever little ideas that delight. An initially poor conversion for iPhone and iPad has been improved and upgraded for contemporary audiences –just as well, as a genuine copy of the original game would set you back several hundred pounds.