Xenoblade Chronicles is the best console RPG to come out of Japan in a decade. It is a game that routinely touches upon the great titles of the JRPG golden era while modernising many of those areas that have increasingly turned contemporary audiences away from the genre.
Perhaps this should be no great surprise. Tetsuya Takahashi, the man behind the game, is a designer whose credits include Final Fantasy V, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana and Xenogears.
This really is a jaw-dropping game to look at and it's a huge game world to lose oneself in, even before the story gets its claws into you, pulling you through its landscapes until it's complete, 60-odd hours later.
The Incredible Shulk
You play as Shulk, a wiry man who wields an improbably large sword. He's one of the Homs, a race of people from Bionis. While Bionis is a green land, filled with lush flora and fauna, it's far from pleasant for its dwellers who suffer relentless attacks from a vindictive robotic force known as the Mechon.
Shulk is supported by a growing cast of other characters, from Reyn, a muscle-bound cockney childhood friend, to Sharla, a rifle-bearing healer who is searching for both her missing brother and her fiancee. Together, this ragtag group seek to uncover the truth behind the Mechon invasion, while working to free those who have become enslaved by it.
As you explore the world your motivations are varied, from the big ticket story objectives down to the optional quests for characters you meet along the way. Very often these side missions can be as exciting and engaging as the core story.
The battle system may seem a little confusing at first, but soon becomes second nature. You control just one of the characters in your squad (Shulk, by default), leaving the other party members to largely get on with it by themselves, although they can be given some basic commands.
To attack you need to position your character in the proximity of an enemy. As soon as he is near enough, he'll start striking at the targeted foe with his weapon automatically. Where you come in is in deciding which of your character's special attacks to trigger at what point. Along the bottom of the screen a panel holds all of your chosen character's 'Arts', special moves that can be executed at any time, but which also have a cooling off period before they can be used again.
Arts range from powerful attacks that can break an enemy's armour or daze them, to healing moves that restore your team's hit points, to special 'buffs' that temporarily increase your skills and 'debuffs' that temporarily decrease your enemy's skills.
While your party will generally fend for themselves, you can issue general commands to your teammates, requesting that they focus their attacks on the foe you are targeting, or rally around you.
Likewise, there is a party gauge that slowly fills as you work together. Once this is full, you can issue a 'Chain Link', which stops time and allows you to queue up a specific Art for each character to execute, even if the Art in question is still cooling down.
The Mechon themselves require a bit of extra strategy as normal weapons won't effect them. At the start of any battle with a Mechon, Shulk must cast one of his special Monado arts to enable everyone else's weapons to damage the target. The game can be tough in that, if you forget to do this, sometimes you'll be unable to progress.