Japanese role-playing games – those melodramatic adventures starring spiky-haired characters wielding swords the length of small cars – once ruled the game industry the way teen book adaptations now dominate the Hollywood box office. This hasn't been the case for some time. A combination of stagnant design, evolving tastes, and stiff competition from grittier games made in the West has relegated the genre to niche status.
Xenoblade Chronicles, which launches this Friday for Nintendo Wii, could be the first step on a road toward the category's resurgence.
It seems a lot like any other Japanese RPG at first blush. We're quickly introduced to a cast of energetically animated characters sporting unnatural hair colours and bizarre outfits, then set about learning an elaborate real-time melee combat system the intricacies of which will take most players dozens of hours to fully comprehend and master.
And its wildly imaginative plot, which sees a small population of humanoids living upon the massive body of a fallen god while fighting off murderous mechanical invaders, is decidedly within the domain of inspired Japanese fantasy.
However, look beyond these typical traits and you'll find a meaningful evolution of the genre, a game with a surprisingly Western design philosophy that places an emphasis on scope and diversity.
Players trek across the fallen god's body, and it is a vast expanse. It takes hours of dedicated cross-country adventuring simply to conduct a full survey of the grassy plains and hills that make up its leg. And as you're exploring you'll glimpse more foliage-covered body parts kilometres away that offer a tantalizing preview of adventures still to come.
But there's no need to hurry off to distant quarters. Collectibles scattered across the land turn meandering hikes into profitable ventures filled with satisfying discovery. Plus, non-player characters issue literally hundreds of side-quests that provide even more motive to scale out-of-the-way knolls and journey to the very edges of the god's hulking body.
These same characters are also a source of meaningful interaction. We're connected to both them and our party members through simple but important bits of dialogue that alter the dispositions and relationships of all concerned, creating a complex and dynamic social structure of a sort morecommon in North American games.
Indeed, the commonalities between Monolith Soft's game and many popular Western RPGs are plainly evident. Had Bethesda Softworks' wildly successful Elder Scrolls games been born of a Japanese mind, they might well look something like this.
But the big question is whether the adult gamers who tend to drive the popularity of RPGs in this hemisphere will warm to the game's distinguishing Japanese flair: its emo characters, fanciful monsters, bright colour palette, and often whimsical vibe. It's no secret that these players have a history of preferring somewhat darker entertainments.
Nintendo knows it's no slam dunk. After the game failed to find much of an audience in Europe last summer, the publisher stated it had no intention to bring it to our shores. Fortunately, that decision was recently reversed. Not only is Xenoblade Chronicles a lovely swan song for Nintendo's soon-to-be-succeeded Wii, it represents what could be a bright new future for a classic genre many had long since written off.
Developer: Monolith Soft
Special to The Globe and Mail