In most game-playing households, Nintendo's Wii is the console that gets powered up when the whole family wants to play, whether engaging in the lighthearted antics of "Mario Kart" or "Wii Sports" or the more exhausting physical activity of "Just Dance" or "Wii Fit."
With a few rare exceptions -- like last year's "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" -- Wii games don't offer the kind of immersive, time-consuming adventures that hardcore players love. So when it appeared that the sweeping Japanese role-playing epic "Xenoblade Chronicles" was going to bypass the U.S., Nintendo of America was deluged with complaints from Wii die-hards.
The aggressive fan campaign did the trick, and "Xenoblade Chronicles" ($49.99) has finally made its way to the U.S. As one of the most ambitious Wii games ever, it was certainly worth the wait -- although it doesn't quite live up to the standards of homegrown RPGs like Bethesda Softworks' "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" or BioWare's "Mass Effect" series.
It's a continuation of director Tetsuya Takahashi's "Xeno" series, which includes the 1998 landmark "Xenogears" and the PlayStation 2 trilogy "Xenosaga." It's not a direct sequel, but fans will recognize plenty of thematic connections -- particularly Takahashi's man-vs.-machine obsession.
That's displayed quite literally in the geography of "Xenoblade," which takes place on the massive corpses of two ancient warriors, Bionis and Mechonis. At the story's beginning, the humanoid Homs of Bionis are under attack from the mechanical Mechons. A girl named Fiora is killed, and her childhood friend Shulk sets out to avenge her death. Over the course of this 70-hour-plus tale, Shulk attracts an entourage of appealingly drawn characters, like the gung-ho brawler Reyn and the businesslike medic Sharla.
The landscape constantly changes, moving from the verdant plains of Bionis to a shimmering floating city to the metallic gloom of Mechonis. Some settings -- such as a vast tundra punctuated by luminescent towers -- are so gorgeous that I wished I could experience them on a high-definition console. There's no such problem with the lush soundtrack, which delivers all the right notes of joy and menace, triumph and despair, depending on the circumstances.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of "Xenoblade" is its vast menagerie of enemy beasts, starting with easy pickings like insects and rabbits and working its way up to towering robots. For the most part, you can check out your foes from a distance, so if your party isn't ready, you can head in a different direction.
Combat is hectic. You control one character, while the other two warriors in your party are handled by artificial intelligence. This can be frustrating: There are just a few limited commands you can give to your partners, and depending on an AI-controlled Sharla to know when you need healing is a good way to end up dead.
There are a couple of innovations that make combat more interesting. Shulk's sword, the Monado, also gives him visions of the future -- so the game will occasionally advise you that an enemy is about to unleash a devastating assault, giving you time to brace yourself or warn a teammate. You can also build up energy that eventually lets you pause the fighting and combine your party's most powerful attacks.
The main story in "Xenoblade" is fairly linear, although it has enough unpredictable twists to justify its length. And there are hundreds of side missions, from simple fetch quests to rebuilding an entire Homs colony. You can easily return to just about any site you've already explored, so you can always take a break from the high drama and go back to visit old friends.
"Xenoblade" represents something of an evolution for the Japanese role-playing game, combining the genre's melodramatic storytelling with the open-world exploration of Western epics like "Skyrim." Wii owners, who have been deprived of this generation's most innovative RPGs, won't want to miss this one. Three and a half stars out of four.
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