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It's always possible to innovate within a comfortable and well-established template. Nintendo is traditionally the master of this art, secreting gems of novelty within game designs that are often a decade or two old, perfected through years of iteration. Just because a game conforms in many respects to the conventions of its genre, that doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and it certainly doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful.

So yes, in Xenoblade Chronicles, you play an orphaned young hero who, for reasons unexplained, is the only one capable of saving the world from a mysterious evil. (He doesn't have amnesia, though, thankfully.) Yes, there is an ultimate weapon with untold power. Yes, you wander a giant world in a party of three, following a story punctuated by enough cutscene to make the Godfather Trilogy look comparatively brisk. But this is also one of the freshest and most innovative Japanese RPGs of the past decade. It feels more modern than anything else in its genre.

You see, although Xenoblade Chronicles honours many positive JRPG traditions, it's not afraid to dispense with other, more tedious ones. It's impressively non-linear, letting you wander from the story to explore its gorgeous world, toddling off in search of side-quests and extra-mean monsters to kill and caves to loot. It has fast-travel. Its story, which initially seems a little predictable, is actually a deep and varied tale that spans some 60-odd hours without ever feeling painfully drawn out. There are no random battles and the combat system is brilliant, a mix of real-time and command-based fighting that feels like an updated Final Fantasy XII mixed with a splash of White Knight Chronicles' chain system.

The game world is littered with two things: shiny collectibles to nab for loot and questing, and wandering animals that can be either engaged in battle or safely ignored – unless they're particularly aggressive. Get in the way of a Level 74 troll on your way to an oasis and you'll be flattened in seconds, but you can practice your team combos on relatively docile animals and then strip their corpses for loot to sell or use later. Everything, from exploration to item-collecting to battle victories, earns experience points that strengthen your team. Side quests are totally optional, but you'd be a fool to pass them by. They give you an excuse for forays into the furthest corners of the map, letting you fully absorb the scale of this adventure.

When you're not following the story, Xenoblade Chronicles is equal parts fighting and exploration. Once in a battle, basic attacks happen automatically, but those won't get you far. Keeping control of one character in the party, you select from an ever-widening selection of Talents – special moves, essentially – that recharge over time. Let the party tank draw all the monster aggro, and you can get behind them for a deadly backstab. Knock a monster off balance, and another party member will smash it to the floor with another appropriate move. Occasionally, mini-QTEs let you cause a bit of extra damage, earning plaudits from your team-mates. It's fast-paced, tactical and really engaging.

You're constantly working together with everyone else on the battlefield, watching to see what they do and reacting dynamically, guiding them on what to target and when to run away. Work in harmony with teammates for long enough and you can unleash a chain attack, matching Talents from each character to devastating effect – the only way to cause significant damage to the biggest, baddest beasties. It's always possible to dash off and regroup if you find yourself in a tough skirmish (unless it's a boss battle). But dying in itself isn't really a problem; you simply reappear at the last landmark you passed, all loot, health and stats intact.

But it's the weapon at the centre of Xenoblade Chronicles' story, the Monado, that really gives the battle system its edge. The Monado is an ancient weapon that gives its wielder, the aforementioned gifted orphan, the ability to see the future. In cutscenes, this is a great plot device; young Shulk, our hero, spends much of the story struggling with his ability to see the future and his inability to change it. For every time one of his visions enabled him to save the life of a valued friend, there's another occasion where nothing he can do makes a difference.

In battle, though, the power of the Monado lets you see a devastating attack before it happens, giving you a stylish warning. The screen greys out and the action quickly turns to slow motion, showing a boss cutting through your party with a deadly special move; you then have some time to warn your teammates, putting up a magic shield, getting them out of the way or incapacitating the enemy, allowing you to change the future and keep on fighting. It's a dramatic-looking and well-implemented feature, and innovative too.

A lot of Xenoblade's appeal comes from its unique world. Essentially, it's set on the fossilised bodies of two giant robots (stay with me), who were locked in an eternal battle until time finally took its toll, freezing them in place. One of these robots, the Bionis, is colonised by humans who live on expansive patches of fertile land across the titan's frozen limbs. Look out across the scenery, and you see greenery and fauna stretching out into the distance; look up at the sky, and you can make out the shape of gigantic robotic arms jutting out above you. It's a breathtaking setting, one that allows for amazing, natural outdoor environments as well as indoor caverns and structures with a sci-fi tinge.

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    Wednesday, February 12 2020 6:45 AM EST2020-02-12 11:45:23 GMT
    Wednesday, February 12 2020 6:47 AM EST2020-02-12 11:47:29 GMT
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