It was a heck of a year for gamers! 2011 brought an embarrassment of riches to those who indulge in the interactive digital arts. Dead Space 2 proved that it does Resident Evil better than Resident Evil. Minecraft (our GotY from last year) finally reached version 1.0. The Witcher 2 redefined state-of-the-art graphics. Saints Row 3 put the fun back into GTA. The horribly broken economy of Apple’s iTunes App Store shows us how we’ll never have to be bored again. Wasteland Empires proved that Facebook gaming can be fun. Deus Ex not only redeemed the franchise, but brought the thought back to the traditionally vapid FPS landscape. Speaking of FPSs, Serious Sam 3 not only made old school new again, but proved that the classic style of shooter requires much more skill and tactical awareness than anything created in the post-Xbox era. Even free titles like Rebuild 2 or Forever Dive were unforgettable. And then there was The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Skyrim taught us… well, everything.
Yet through it all, there was one title that topped them all. Through all the sequels; All of the also-rans; All the clones and homages and remakes; Only one game made me think, “Hey, someone actually thought about this. Someone bothered to see what worked and what didn’t before releasing it. Someone cared about the craft of gamemaking.” And, shockingly, it is was hardcore Wii title.
It is, with no small amount of surprise on my own part, my decision to name Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii Growing Up Otaku’s Game of the Year for 2011. Read on for some insight as to why this beautifully crafted JRPG that no one will play is the game of 2011.
This whole console generation I’ve been waiting for the next great Japanese role-playing game. It has been a long, long wait. Between banal, pandering attempts like Blue Dragon or Enchanted Arms and… ‘interesting’ experiments such as Neir or Resonance of Fate, the JRPG subgenre is practically a dead. The foretold messiah of Final Fantasy 13 turned out to be a charlatan with Call of Duty on the mind. If you were a JRPG fan and didn’t own a PSP, you were out of luck unless you wanted to play yet another Tales game. Only now, six years worth of mediocre home console releases later, on a platform already pronounced dead, do we finally see a title that fulfills the promise of what a JRPG could become.
Cribbing the combat system from Final Fantasy 12, the vertical level design and free movement of action RPGs, the interpersonal relationships and party banter from western RPG makers like Bioware, the loot and respawn mechanics of Diablo, Xenoblade Chronicles blends the lessons learned over a decade of role playing games and serves it up on a unique world the likes of which have never been seen before. Moreover, each system has been examined and tweaked to feel more fluid and waste less time (with the exception of inventory management, which is still a chore). From the ability to navigate the main system menu while remaining on the move, to quests that do not require a return trip after completion, to fast traveling back to any location, Xenoblade Chronicles seldom imposes itself on your time for tedious reasons. Grinding is non-existent in this game and progress is continuous through the game’s massive adventure. Even all new mechanics, such as the ability to see the future, and used thoughtfully and meaningfully throughout the game as if they were old hat.
While the story and characters may not be anything new or, in all honesty, very interesting, the journey you take across and through the bodies of two ancient, slumbering giants frozen in mortal combat is unforgettable. Be it the twin leveled plains and crags of the Bionis’ Leg, the thousand foot temple that practically begs the player to jump off of into the water below for fun, or the alien, and surprisingly enemy free, Bionis’ Lung, Xenoblade Chronicles’ adventure takes players to locations never before dreamed of. Even a dreary swamp level, usually the bane of video games, explodes into a new world of color and beauty when the game’s dynamic night cycle falls.
It is impossible to discuss Xenoblade Chronicles’ importance to 2011 without also mentioning the controversy involving its release. A grass roots fan campaign called Operation Rainfall made an appeal directly to Nintendo of North America for the localization of three RPG titles: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower. Putting their money where the mouth was, Operation Rainfall supporters made Xenoblade Chronicles the most pre-ordered Wii game ever on Amazon.com. While Nintendo would go ahead with a European release featuring an English translation, a North American release was not in the cards. Nintendo of America confirmed on their Facebook page "there are no plans to bring these three games to the Americas at this time." Nintendo would finally change their minds after the positive reception in Europe on December 2, 2011. A North American launch is now scheduled for April 3, 2012.
With a unique setting, thoughtfully crafted mechanics, and a beefy campaign length that never stops offering something new, Xenoblade Chronicles is not just great in its own right, but good enough to save a stale and dying subgenre. This is particularly notable for a brand new game not sporting a number after its title on a console pretty well considered dead by traditional video gamers. Add in the David versus Goliath controversy surrounding its journey across two oceans to America, and there was no other choice in this matter.
Xenoblade Chronicles is, by virtue of both the product and the behind the scenes story, Growing Up Otaku’s Game of the Year for 2011.