Connect with us
Xenoblade Chronicles Wallpaper - image courtesy of wallpaperaccess Xenoblade Chronicles Wallpaper - image courtesy of wallpaperaccess


From Bionis to Mechonis: Xenoblade Chronicles and Creating The Perfect Adventure

Xenoblade Chronicles is the kind of game that can make you feel like a kid again.



In an Iwata Asks with Xenoblade Chronicles’ staff, then-Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata asked the sound team to describe their thoughts on the game from a player’s perspective. One of the composers, Kenji Hiramatsu, opened the interview with a particularly poignant comment,

Xenoblade gives me that same feeling of excitement and adventure that I’d get when playing games as a child. I think it’s a game that can make even grown-ups feel like that.”

Shulk and Fiora concept art - image courtesy of the Pop Culture Worshipper Blogspot

There’s real truth to what Hiramatsu had said. Video games feel endless when you’re a kid. If you see something in the distance, your instinct is to go there whether the game wants you to or not. You want to uncover every nook and cranny in the hopes you’ll be rewarded with secrets. You never want the journey to end, hungry for limitless content in what is very much a limited world. Above all else, you want to do what you want when you want. That childlike wonder can not only be felt through every facet of Xenoblade Chronicles’ design, it’s realized with a level of depth only the best games pull off. 

Part of this stems from Xenoblade Chronicles’ freedom in spite of presenting itself as a linear RPG. Linearity keeps the story and overall adventure-focused. You always visit regions one at a time, but the game rarely forces you to get from Point A to Point B in a specific way. Xenoblade affords this by splitting its gameplay loop down into three key cores: exploration, combat, and side-questing. All three naturally overlap as part of a standard playthrough, but you get to engage with as much of the game as you want and in what capacity. And since each style of gameplay awards experience, you seldom need to worry about being under-leveled. There’s no wrong way to play through Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade’s diversity of gameplay also means just about anyone can find something compelling about the experience, even if they bounce off certain aspects. Gameplay is catered to suit all kinds of players. If you don’t care for how text-heavy or involved side quests are, you can prioritize traditional exploration and combat. If you just care about combat, you can indulge in a multitude of customization options to augment gameplay. If you don’t really care about fighting but do enjoy a well-crafted world, you can earn more than enough experience by completing side quests and simply exploring. You never need to grind between mandatory story battles and quest fights. Each third of the gameplay loop ends up with enough depth to carry a full playthrough. 

Xenoblade Chronicles World - image courtesy of Nintendo Life

Exploration is handled brilliantly. The game’s frankly inspired setting does a great job at immersing you in what feels like a living, breathing world. Life in Xenoblade Chronicles grew from the corpses of two mythical titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis. Both are vastly different worlds with their own distinct aesthetic, geographical, and design priorities. Bionis is made up of naturalistic landscapes. Areas are diverse set pieces full of life. The flora, fauna, and weather resemble our own, but with their own fantastical flair. Nature is lush and all-encompassing, laying a prehistoric claim over the land. Dinosaurs roam free alongside baboon-like apes called Gogols and enormous insects bound to make the entomophobic shudder. Neon gas changes color before your eyes, swamp trees luminesce all-blue in the dead of the night, and shooting stars fall from the heavens to touch the earth. You can see Mechonis looming across Bionis, and vice versa. Every detail serves to instill you with wonder. 

Bionis’ regions are more traditional than Mechonis’, often modeled after realistic biomes and designed like a traditional open world. Large, freeform fields allow you to ignore entire sections of a given region if you so choose. Unorthodox geography mixed with a good use of landmarks and empty space help craft each location’s identity. How you progress is almost always fluid. Gaur Plains only directs you to a few key areas before letting you move on, leaving chunks of the map unexplored if you simply follow the story. Alternatively, you can choose to explore everywhere else before advancing the plot. The fact Xenoblade Chronicles places smaller set pieces within its larger set pieces encourages you to break away from the intended path and go where you want first & foremost. 

Bionis Leg Concept art - image courtesy of creative uncut

Mechonis by comparison is artificial, technically lifeless but creatively pieced together all the same. There’s an almost claustrophobic quality to the level design coming off of Bionis’ expansive playgrounds. Areas are segmented in an almost artificial manner. Zones don’t overlap into each other as seamlessly, opting for vertical flooring over layers. Everything feels industrial and high-tech, from the aesthetic to the level design. Areas like the Fallen Arm feature a variety of one-way paths while the Central Factory feels like a standard RPG dungeon on account of its mostly linear progression and soft puzzle-solving. None of this is to say Mechnis is worse designed than Bionis, however. Just different. 

Together, the two Titans round out each others’ design priorities to make for a gameplay experience that evolves alongside the story. The mere premise behind Xenoblade’s world is conceptually rich, but it’s the minutiae that pulls everything together. Rich environmental details help immerse you into each setting as if you were truly there. Grass and flowers rustle in the wind. You leave footprints in the snow as it softly flurries. Clouds move overhead, casting shadow down below while the sun cycle paints the sky in a sea of colors. Amazing sound direction goes a long way in injecting life into each area–birds chirping, frogs croaking, the sound of water rushing and the wind howling. Mechonis benefits immensely from the noise of machinery taking over the previously natural sound direction. The music even changes depending on the time of day, opting for softer tracks at night.

Colony 9 - image courtesy of Pinterest

The world compliments the level design in a way where simply taking in the environment and following visual cues instead of the waypoint can lead you to secret areas. You are rewarded for engaging with the game’s world beyond what is asked of you. From Bionis’ Leg to Mechonis’ capital city Agniratha, there is a consistency to Xenoblade’s design. You, the player, always dictate how you want to proceed. Which sub-areas you want to explore. How much of each individual location you want to indulge in. The dichotomy between Bionis and Mechonis leads to a journey that never loses its luster and is always able to surprise you. Cohesive level geometry mixed with thoughtful environment detailing is Xenoblade’s recipe for good game design. 

There’s an area called Colony 9. The sheer scale of it is incredible. When I was working on the scenario, I had in mind the type of village that appears in regular RPGs. But then when I actually came to play the game, I found that this single village had so many ideas put into it that it could have made an entire game in itself.”
Yuichiro Takeda, Scenario Writer

Colony 9 - image courtesy of Make a Gif

Colony 9 establishes Xenoblade Chronicles’ level of depth immediately. You can spend hours immersing yourself in this first location before beginning the story properly. Time passes wherever you are, allowing you to observe each NPC’s unique daily schedule and take on side quests. Every named NPC has their own place in the world and simply speaking with them unprompted can activate entire quest lines you’d otherwise miss. You’re introduced to the level design’s smart use of verticality right away. Locations are layered with several sub-areas. Colony 9’s village sits center of the region, with surrounding hills leading to local caves and beaches while ascending upwards brings you to Tephra Cavern. Each sub-area has its own set of monsters, which keeps regions from coming off one note. 

There are islands full of powerful enemies you can only reach by swimming. Vangs (bats) only come out at night and generally stay inside of caves. Flammu (flamingos) stand by the coastline all grouped together. Stone Krabbles come out during the day while stronger Stone Krabbles wait until evening. Colony 9 isn’t just the first area in an RPG with low-level monsters. It’s a part of a fully thought-out world and its enemy design reflects that. You will regularly run into monsters dozens of levels stronger than you, simply coexisting alongside weaker enemies. It makes sense that each region would have its own share of weaker and stronger monsters quietly establishing a dominance hierarchy in the background. In more ways than one, high-level monsters serve as reminders that there is value in backtracking. You can’t fight everything or go everywhere right at once. 

Xenoblade Chronicles‘ monster design is elevated by the game’s behavioral system. Every monster behaves differently, broken down into three different typings. Most are docile and go about their business undisturbed. They will not attack unless provoked. Others respond to sound and sight. Insects listen for any movement, predators stay on the lookout for prey, and certain monsters have enough sentience to set up guards or simply travel in packs to pose a greater challenge. The Mechon even have fixed patrol routes they’re constantly checking. The use of a behavior system effectively eliminates random battles from the equation. If you trigger a fight, it was either on your terms or because you neglected to take surrounding monster mannerisms into consideration. More importantly, behaviors help give monsters identities beyond just their visual designs and combative abilities. They’re dynamic creatures who cohabitate in the same world as the main characters. 

Collectopaedia - image courtesy of miketendo64

Besides monsters, every area is filled with different items you can collect. These items can be sold, traded, or logged in your Collectopaedia. The Collectopaedia offers extra insight into each region, detailing the different fruits, vegetables, flowers, animals, and bugs you can find. It also lists any mechanical parts, strange curios, or miscellaneous pieces of nature the party finds. The use of flavor text for each entry lets you learn more about Xenoblade’s setting at your own pace and unlock rewards for filling out full pages.

Between a keen attention to detail, amazing leveling design, a variety of activities to partake in, and a commitment to player-driven pacing, Xenoblade Chronicles feels like an actual adventure. There’s something to discover around every corner. 

When you actually play the game, you’ll find a vast world which you are free to explore at will.
Yuichiro Takeda, Scenario Writer

As far as battles go, Xenoblade Chronicles makes use of real-time combat with a keen sense for strategy. Fights happen seamlessly in the field, requiring no transition from exploration to combat. Battles can range from perfectly relaxing to intense endurance matches. This means you never need to exert unnecessary effort for low-level fights, while always needing to bring your A-game against powerful monsters. Characters attack automatically based on their fixed animations, but that doesn’t mean fights are lacking in interactivity. Combat’s mechanics are easy to pick up and fun to master thanks to an assortment of mechanics that naturally play off each other.  

Shulk Concept art - image courtesy of creative uncut

It helps that all seven party members fulfill their own unique roles during gameplay. With a total of only three characters allowed per team, you’re alloted plenty of room to experiment with party synergy and different strategies. Shulk is the main character and has the most well-rounded tool kit. His Talent Art — Activate Monado — makes him the only party member who never needs to compromise their own abilities. Activate Monado grants access to a second Art Bar, granting him a total of sixteen Arts to choose from in combat instead of everyone else’s eight. Shulk is perfect for anyone who wants to control the flow of battle. He may not be the most fun to play as, but being balanced means he can swap roles on the fly. 

Reyn is a traditional tank. He hits hard, can take heavy amounts of punishment, and generally has health to spare. His main gameplay role is to chain combos and keep monsters aggroed on him. In fact, Reyn’s Talent Mad Taunt actually redirects enemy aggro right towards him. Sharla is your dedicated healer. Her play style is designed around supporting the rest of the party by either buffing or healing them. Her Talent, Cool Off, also locks her place so she can recover her own HP while saving Arts for the party. 

Melia concept art - image courtest of creative uncut

Dunban is functionally a dodgetank. His high speed and accuracy means he can avoid most attacks while almost always connecting his own. His Talent, Blossom Dance, is a powerful multi-strike attack that you can extend by pressing B at the right time. Melia is a summoner and has arguably the most complex play style in the game. Gameplay as Melia revolves around summoning different Elementals which buff the party once on the field. From there, she can keep summoning Elements or Discharge them with her Talent to unleash an effect. Once enough Elements have been summoned over the course of one battle, she can unleash a much stronger Elemental Burst. Gameplay as Melia is all about setting up discharges & bursts. 

The last two party members, Riki and Seven, are both multipurpose characters who can round out just about any party. Riki’s high health lets him tank ala Reyn while his Arts allow him to heal like Sharla and do a decent bit of damage just like Dunban. His Talent, Yoink, can steal items, extra experience, or even stats off of enemies. Seven isn’t as useful for support purposes as Riki, but a great mix of offensive arts and skills that raise crit rate ensure they’re one of game’s best party members. Seven’s Talent also changes depending on which Drones they have equipped, offering them a degree of choice other party members lack. Xenoblade’s party variety makes it fun to experiment with party synergy, figuring out whose Arts pair well together. 

The Art system always gives you a way to counter enemy attacks or set up dynamic combos. Arts come in a few different types, color-coded for your convenience. Red Arts are your standard melee attacks, some of which can inflict the Bleed status effect. Pink, Green, and Yellow Arts work together to make up the Break/Topple/Daze status chain. Pink Arts inflict the Break status effect, Green Arts inflicts Topple on any enemies suffering from Break, and Yellow Arts inflict Daze on any Toppled enemies. Each status effect has its own timer, so you need to quickly chain your Arts together. Proper timing plays a big role in accomplishing this. 

Blue Arts are mainly supportive, offering healing and party buffs that increase stats or help mitigate damage. Purple Arts are Ether abilities which can either deal damage or inflict status debuffs on enemies. Lastly, Orange Arts activate Auras as individual character buffs. A party member can only have one Aura equipped at a time, but they can also be deactivated during battle if the need to switch arises. Besides their colors, most Arts have unique effects that encourage positioning and setting up proper combos. 

Xenoblade Back Slash - image courtesy of Nintendo

Shulk’s Back Slash does extra damage if you position him behind an enemy. Likewise, his Slit Edge reduces an enemy’s defense by half when attacked from the side. Dunban’s Gale Slash is designed to chain into his other Arts. It functions as a starter attack which you then follow up with Electric Gutbuster, Tempest Kick, or Worldly Slash. Using your Arts strategically not only makes battles play out much faster, the gameplay is simply more fun when it’s fully engaged with. Not every fight demands your full attention (and that’s part of Xenoblade’s charm), but the ones that do demand the most out of the mechanics. 

I think we’ve come up with a battle system where, in a constantly changing situation, you can utilise your companions’ powers to overcome problems you can’t deal with by yourself.” 
Tetsuya Takahashi, Executive Director

Little gameplay quirks in Xenoblade help keep battles engaging. The Vision system adds even more room for strategy in a given fight. Shulk’s futuresight allows him to predict enemy attacks mere seconds before they happen (regardless if he’s in the party). This gives you an opportunity to prevent deadly attacks by warning party members and forcing an Art. The Tension system keeps track of each party member’s morale during battle, influencing accuracy and crit rates. Low morale can be improved by walking up to a character and Encouraging them. High morale can be built by countering visions, attacking Toppled or Dazed enemies, and helping your party recover from negative status effects. 

Critical hits and successfully triggering Art effects help fill up the Party Gauge. The gauge is made up of three bars which can be consumed to either revive enemies or trigger Chain Attacks. A Chain Attack freezes the flow of battle to let each party member select an Art. Chaining Ats of the same color increases your Chain damage. Likewise, the tenser your party is, the better your chance of continuing a chain past the third attack. Pressing B at the end of a chain when prompted allows you to extend your assault, potentially multiplying your damage output to ridiculous levels. 

Xenoblade Chronicles combat - image courtesy of Kotaku AU

Spikes are enemy debuffs which can force you to swap tactics in the heat of battle. There are three types to be on the lookout for. Close Range spikes trigger the effect by simply approaching the enemy. Topple Spikes are only activated once the enemy is downed. Lastly, Counter Spikes make your party members take damage every time they deal damage. Spike debuffs mean you can’t afford to coast through battles. Come mid-game, Spikes become more commonplace to punish players who aren’t paying attention.

Arts also retarget the next available enemy. If you use an Art against an enemy and it dies before the attack can connect, the Art goes wasted. Timing plays an important role in making sure you aren’t whiffing your attacks. Cooldowns punish spamming while forcing you to assert some strategic patience. Getting your next Art ready during your current Art animation ends up the best way to save on time between attacks. A little foresight goes a long way. 

On that note, Xenoblade Chronicles offers quite a bit of pre-battle customization to prep your party with. Along with changing each character’s appearance bit by bit, certain pieces of equipment can be augmented with equippable Gems. Gems offer all kinds of different benefits which radically shake up gameplay. Some are simple stat boosts, while others can speed up your mobility outside of battle (Quick Step) or give you a chance to auto-attack twice in the same beat (Double Attack). You can use Gems to buff your Spike resistance, decrease how much aggro is drawn during combat, or increase how much EXP you earn. There are dozens of ways to augment a play style that perfectly suits you. 

Shulk Art Leveling - image courtesy of Rice digital

Every party member’s Art Bar can be fully customized to your liking, even removing techniques you don’t care for. Each character can have a maximum of eight Arts equipped at once, which forces you to be strategic with your Art choices. Arts can even be leveled up with AP and upgraded to stronger tiers with Intermediate and Advanced Art Books. Characters also have their own Skill Trees which unlock passive abilities that other party members can equip via the use of Affinity Coins, tokens earned by leveling up or defeating Unique Monsters. Skills can buff your stats, raise experience earned, reduce equipment weight to increase dodge rate, and get you a better deal when trading with NPCs. 

At the heart of Xenoblade Chronicles’ combat is the Affinity system. Characters need to build their relationship with one another by battling side by side, completing side quests together, or gifting each other items. While the Affinity system has its gameplay benefits–namely allowing characters to equip more skills and increasing your success during Gem Crafting–it plays a huge role in characterizing the main cast. Raising Affinity between two party members eventually lets you access their Heart-to-Hearts, optional scenes which offer extra insight into character arcs and motivations. Since the main story is so focused and linear, Heart-to-Hearts allow you to develop your core cast without breaking the narrative’s flow. 

So much opportunity for customization and growth means gameplay is always evolving. Your party is constantly improving and changing based on how you build them. Gems, Arts, and Skills give you near-complete control over your party composition. Party members have their own distinct play styles and specialties, but you can customize any character to fit your desired party composition. Xenoblade’s customizable features are all fairly simple, but gameplay means more when you’re given an actual say. 

Xenoblade Shulk Equipment - My Nintendo Life

We want the player to feel that it’s not just they who are living in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles, but that all sorts of people are going about their lives in the same world . . . I wanted players to feel that they were fighting to protect this world inhabited by so many distinct characters.
Tetsuya Takahashi, Executive Director

Xenoblade Chronicles’ side quests are generally considered to be the weakest pillar of the game. On a surface level, most aren’t particularly engaging. You’re tasked with hunting a few monsters, collecting a few items, and occasionally solving someone’s problems. The reality of the matter is that Xenoblade’s MMO sensibilities obscure the Majora’s Mask levels of depth present in most side quests. Side quests are only shallow if you skip through dialogue. Rich world building gives context to what’s happening in the world outside the main plot and there’s actually quite a bit of variety when it comes to quest design. 

There are several basic collection and monster hunting quests, but that’s not inherently a bad thing. Simple quests like these serve as a good source of experience and gold without breaking the flow of gameplay. Just as importantly, they actually complete automatically. Not every quest demands you return to the quest giver, which is an excellent quality of life feature that prevents actual padding. Investigation-based quests take you all over the world, interacting with a colorful cast of NPCs, while timed quests instill a sense of urgency while showing that you are not the center of the world. Not every NPC will be patient enough to wait on you. 

Xenoblade Affinity Chart - image courtesy of Dolphin Forums

Like party members, NPCs have their own Affinity system. Every named character’s relationship with each other is logged, alongside the overall Affinity for all five major areas (Colony 9, Colony 6, Central Bionis, Upper Bionis, Hidden Village). The higher an area’s Affinity is, the more side quests you have access to. This is also what makes Xenoblade’s world believable–every NPC is their own individual with desires, dislikes, and unique relationships. Some NPCs even end up as developed as the main cast when it comes down to it. Relationships grow and change over the course of their stories. They go places, have actual lives, have conversations.

image courtesy of RPG Site

There’s an entire side quest devoted to creating a community out of nothing. Rebuilding Colony 6 from rubble is a game-long endeavor you cannot complete until the final chapter. The quest is easily ignorable but extremely rewarding to see to completion. You build new homes and shops, and gradually restore nature to a ruined land. NPCs from all over the world can be invited to move in, granting you access to even more side quests. More importantly, rebuilding Colony 6 ties into Xenoblade’s overarching theme of community and overcoming xenophobia. By the end of the questline, Colony 6 is a booming epicenter of the world’s different cultures and races. You help Homs, High Entia, Nopon, and Machina live in genuine harmony.

Side quests do a great job at tying into the story’s overall theme of community. Both because of how Affinity works–actively tracking everybody’s relationship–and the way most quests play out. You are helping NPCs in a tangible way. Once they’re helped, they actually acknowledge your efforts and sometimes even offer you a new side quest completely unprompted. Several games have a bad habit of draining NPCs of personality once their side quests are over, but not Xenoblade Chronicles. It makes the world feel all the more real and alive.

Xenoblade exploration - image courtesy of gyfcat

You are bound to discover new things that you didn’t notice the first time round, be it in the story, the battles or the quests. I think we’ve made a game that won’t betray the player’s expectations.
– Tetsuya Takahashi, Executive Director

At its core, Xenoblade Chronicles is a game about discovery — discovering yourself, the world around you, and its beauty. Destiny is often invoked as a central theme, but not in a wholly divine manner. The future is never set in stone, no matter what is intended for us. We have the willpower and agency to dictate our lives. To govern our own destinies. The script places a heavy emphasis on the concept of seizing destiny, so much so that it functionally becomes the main cast’s mantra when all is said and through. 

“Seizing your destiny” isn’t an especially profound concept (and it’s one that shows up constantly in RPGs), but Xenoblade deserves credit for how it weaves the idea into its gameplay. Seizing your destiny means being able to do whatever you want when you want. It means being able to progress the main story on your own terms. Whether that means ignoring entire parts of the game or doing every little thing you can find. The story is all about taking control of your own life, so why shouldn’t players be able to take control of their own experience? 

Xenoblade takes you on an awe-inspiring adventure across dozens of grandiose set pieces. The level and environmental design are meticulously crafted to the point where the whole setting cannot help but feel like a living, breathing world with distinct cultures. The story stretches nearly 100 hours not because of padding, immersing you in a vast setting filled with depth. NPCs are intimately connected to one another, you can explore as far as your eye can see, and pacing is ultimately player-driven. Xenoblade Chronicles is a passionate RPG full of depth and freedom that’s bursting with enough detail to come alive–the kind of game that will make you feel like a kid again. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.