Oh, sure, I've only played an insignificant fraction of every game ever made, but whatever in what remains wants to stake a claim to that title has its work cut out for it. As of this writing I have a handful of endgame quests left to go, as well as the superbosses, but I seriously doubt these will affect my verdict in any way.
Note that while most of the post is hidden under a jump, spoilers will be confined to a few paragraphs near the end, and they'll be appropriately marked, so you can click without worry.
Perhaps the most important aspect of what makes Xenoblade so brilliant is the fact that it was carefully designed to never annoy the player. It does away with RPG staples like healing items and resource systems, instead replacing them with automatic healing between battles (the trade-off being that you'll take more damage than in most RPGs) and cooldowns being the only restriction to how much you can use arts (and those cooldowns are reset after a fight to boot). This means that you never need to interrupt whatever you're doing to go back to the nearest town to restock and heal, you can just keep on exploring or fighting or questing or whatever it is you're doing. Now that I've experienced that way of doing things, I can safely say it's a criminally underrated aspect of RPGs, one that is often ignored just for the sake of genre staples that Xenoblade demonstrates are unneeded.
Another less in-your-face example that's still a fine example of that design mantra is the cylinder mechanic of gem crafting. Since you'll often end up with a property you can't make a gem out of, without cylinders you'd always end up with the impression that you're wasting your crystals' potential. Cylinders are a great answer to what would feel like a slap in the face, allowing you to use the "remains" of the gem crafting process to make another gem later on. Heck, you'll probably need to abuse that feature to get the very best gems possible, but at the end of the day there's nothing wrong with that, since it'd be a grating endeavor of endless save scumming otherwise.
The ability to instantly travel anywhere and change the time of day (and as collateral, sometimes even weather) at will may be unrealistic, but it's an absolute must considering the insane amount of content (more on that later) that will force you to travel all over one of the most massive game worlds around. So gameplay-story segregation is a card that's often played in order to make the game more enjoyable. Because honestly, when it gets in the way of enjoyment, fuck realism. But you already know I'm a huge fan of that school of thought...
Another neat thing is that Xenoblade goes out of its way NOT to give you the finger with status/DoT stacking. Some other games have systems that at best make no sense and at worst are meant to piss the hell out of you. Not here! If you Topple an enemy for three seconds, then another character uses a Topple art (for another three seconds) one second later, the topple counter isn't reset, instead you get the full six seconds regardless of when the second Topple art lands. Same with DoT stacking, where, say, Riki's Burninate and Melia's Summon Flare don't overwrite each other. You can stack an insane amount of DoTs, it doesn't matter, every last one of them will do full damage.
I could go on and on and on, but suffice to say that it shows that the game's been playtested to hell and back, and anything that was deemed "annoying" they found a way around. You can even save scum for rare drops, and I don't know whether that's intentional or not, but you can. When my biggest pet peeve about the convenience aspect of the game is excessive storage space for art manuals and not enough for materials (seriously, who lugs around 30 different kinds of manuals at once, let alone 300? Especially when there are a grand total of 208?), gold has clearly been struck.
Xenoblade's outrageous amount of content is without a doubt its signature. 480 - that's the amount of quests programmed into the game. Some are story quests, some are exclusive to each other, but even eliminating these there's around 400 side quests to do. It's so much that it's actually a turn-off for some people, which is sort of ironic in an age where the price vs. amount of content ratio is closely scrutinized for every major release (see the shitstorm surrounding Destiny for proof).
It's also ironic because Xenoblade commands huge prices on the used game market (because the geniuses in charge decided to make ten copies for North America), and I would never hesitate to call it a good value in spite of the price tag. Sure, if you're planning on getting a New 3DS you might be tempted to just go for that version when it comes out, but I'll be brutally honest: a game with such a vast world and beautiful landscapes deserves to be played on a TV screen. You know how I say it's a crime to play Twilight Princess on anything but a Wii? Same goes for Xenoblade. Let's see how the view from the top of the Fallen Arm stacks up on a New 3DS. I promise it just won't be the same.
Oh, right, I was talking about the amount of content. There's a pretty good reason why the character models look a bit last-gen-ish (by Wii standards, I mean) - the vast expanses of the Bionis and the Mechonis are, well, just that - VAST. Even the smaller of the game's 20 areas (well, there's the legitimately tiny Mechonis Core too, but even the quest log considers it part of another area, so...) will take quite a while to explore to get everything done there. Speaking of the world itself, the overall concept behind it is so much more interesting and creative than your typical RPG world, being set on the dead bodies of two ginormous titans rather than your average map with a bunch of generic continents sprawling over generic seas.
But just how much content is there in Xenoblade? Well, if you're playing the game for the first time (or any time, really) and are trying to do everything, you WILL need a wiki to help you. No ifs and buts. With the huge majority of quests given by NPCs that can be found at a specific place and time, you WILL need some help to get everything covered. Especially with most of the later areas getting locked out as you inch closer to the end of the game, which leaves you likely to miss out on some quests or unique monsters (which you absolutely should hunt down for their affinity coins, every last one of them). Heck, you WILL need outside help to know when each lockout point occurs, though as long as you do every timed quest on Bionis' Leg before moving everyone back to Colony 6 you don't need to worry at all until you reach Mechonis Field.
The amount of content is also reflected in the sheer amout of different game mechanics. You've got aggro mechanics reminiscent of MMOs, socketable gems (that you can craft yourself, no less), passive skill trees, the ability to level up your arts, a compatibility chart between playable characters, a compatibility chart between NPCs (you heard that right!), achievements, item trading with NPCs, and so on... I could be here all day. The point I'm trying to make is, at no point do any of these features feel redundant, despite their sheer quantity. They all serve their own purpose, and the game eases you into each of them in such a way that such a complex game, although it does feel intimidating at first, quickly becomes natural. As much as it LOOKS like Xenoblade suffers from a bad case of feature creep, it really doesn't, which is a testament to the greatness of the overall design.
You know how in most RPGs with a certain amount of possible party members, many of them can be branded as useless? Well, the way Xenoblade handles character archetypes leaves no room for that. Every character is great at what they do, so you legitimately have the chance to pick whichever party suits your style the most. Well, as long as you don't go with three frail characters, and as long as you don't let the AI anywhere near Shulk or Melia, because the kind of AI required to make optimal use out of their abilities is well beyond Monolith's budget. But otherwise, knock yourself out. Reyn is a fiend at taking damage, Dunban just dodges everything, Melia is very much glass yet even more cannon, and Seven (note: there's no actual character named that, it's just a fan-given nickname to avoid burying entire conversations under spoiler tags) with her signature setup is just glorious. Chopchopchopchopchopchop. They even gave us Riki, the god of all joke characters, who was seemingly made specifically for me. Buffs, debuffs, DoTs, healing, massive HP, all that neat stuff I love so much... can you guess who I played as for most of the game?
One issue I have with the game's balancing is really not as much of an issue with the game's balancing as a criticism of my own tendencies towards sidequesting. You know how much I obsess over sidequests... Many of them give money and experience points, and in fact they're the best source of experience points in the game. What this means is that if you're like me and you do every sidequest as they show up, you're going to end up overleveled. And your level in Xenoblade matters more than in most RPGs, as your battle performance is directly affected by the difference in level between your character and the enemy. If you don't believe me, check this out. Even one level can screw you over big time. I tried taking on a level 86 monster with a level 79 party, and won (though it was a rough battle). Then I tried the SAME TYPE OF MONSTER at level 87, and got obliterated.
To be fair, the fact that most quests are available early on (due to the fact that most of the later areas become locked out after a certain point) mean that eventually the opposition's levels is going to slowly catch up to yours throughout the Mechonis arc, and thus the game WILL progressively get tougher. Heck, some unique monsters practically REQUIRE you to be a sidequest fiend if you want to have any chance at defeating them when you first encounter them (as I first learned against a certain one at Sword Valley).
The soundtrack? A treat. I can imagine whoever was in charge of picking the songs for SSB4 losing sleep over what to choose for Gaur Plain. By all means the best soundtrack out of any game I've ever played. Even that one moment late in the game where cheerful music plays when everything's gone to shit doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. The songs always seem to fit whatever mood is appropriate, and it gets especially impressive in cases like Alcamoth, where the Alcamoth you first visit part of the way through the game and the Alcamoth at the end of the game are NOTHING alike, and yet the song still manages to fit both of them to a T.
One thing that got an eyebrow raise out of me, however, was a case of censorship applied to the game. This isn't something you'll find out just by playing the game, but you might read about it elsewhere. In the Japanese version, Metal Face was known as Black Face. The name change was allegedly changed because of Metal Face's villainous nature, and to avoid associating black people with said villainy. But come on, anyone would be able to see that there would be no association to racism in the name "Black Face"! He's a Faced Mechon, he's black, there's the name, no racism involved! The fact that the game was localized in the UK makes it even more surprising - I might be wrong on this, but I'm assuming this is a less touchy issue there than it is in North America (mostly because it's touchy as all hell here). (Edit: apparently "blackface" itself is a term with severe racist undertones. That explains a lot. Still keeping that paragraph here just because.) Another rather funny occurrence of censorship involves a series of sidequests in Frontier Village where an obvious reference to opium is replaced by, of all things, caviar. Seriously? Caviar? I absolutely fail to see the link with opium, but whatever. They could've gone the Elder Scrolls route and made up something entirely fictional, but... freaking CAVIAR.
Now, actual, legitimate criticism of the game. It doesn't have many weaknesses, but the big one is something Japanese RPG makers have a lot of difficulty with, and not even Monolith managed to get it right. I'm talking, of course, about an absolutely unbearable female lead. Since I'm about to delve into spoilers here, this is as good a time as any to skip the next few paragraphs if you so wish, and scroll straight to the part where I say spoilers end.
***SPOILERS, HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW***
Right from the moment she's introduced, there's little endearing about Fiora. One of the first things she does is get all pissy the moment Dunban utters the word "Monado". Then a bit later Reyn goes apeshit trying to hold the thing, slashing the everloving crap out of Fiora. Doesn't seem to bother Shulk, though - I want to pretend it's because not even he can stand her, but it's really just the fact that the Monado can't cut people*. Fiora then throws a hissy fit because Shulk isn't concerned at all, Shulk explains why, to which she answers "THAT'S NOT THE POINT". Oh, just die already. And miraculously, IT ACTUALLY HAPPENS not long afterwards. Heck, the game was so kind as to let me watch Metal Face make a fine powder out of Fiora's innards TWICE. I was so happy at that point!
(*Or anything from Bionis, for that matter, but it doesn't stop Shulk from being able to attack any of the enemies found on Bionis regardless. Let's just wag the gameplay-story segregation wand and move on.)
Ah, but no work of fiction would kill off its female lead THAT quickly. The moment when she's first revealed to be the one inside Face Nemesis (possessed or not, it really doesn't matter) is one of the biggest disappointments I've ever experienced when playing a video game. Especially since it obviously meant she was going to be the mysterious seventh party member no one mentions by name (in real life, I mean). At least the equally intolerable Aeris STAYED dead.
Unfortunately, she's not much more likeable in her cyborg state. No matter how much Shulk asks her to tell him if there's anything wrong with her body or anything else, she keeps everything to herself. This wouldn't be so bad if she didn't ask the EXACT SAME THING out of Shulk. Of course, Shulk also never says anything (despite getting chewed out something awful by Reyn all the way back at the Ether Mine), so I guess they deserve each other. Either way, this plot point makes it clear that Fiora is living on borrowed time, especially after Meyneth dies, and then... nothing comes out of it. That is, until Fiora reappears during the ending in what is probably a brand-spanking-new organic body, presumably courtesy of Linada, who did mention trying to restore the bodies of people who were trapped in Faces, albeit in a very, VERY don't-get-your-hopes-up kind of way. So the decay of Fiora's Mechon body was a story arc that never really went anywhere, in the end - unless I'm missing something.
Speaking of people trapped in Faces, I simply have to address the way Mumkhar was handled. The problem with him is that he basically died two minutes into the game, giving him virtually no time to establish his character. And then he comes back later, revealing he's Metal Face's pilot. Well, it wasn't the case for me, but I could reasonably see a first-time player saying, wait, who's this guy? At least until Dunban mentions the Battle of Sword Valley. AFTER the boss fight, mind you. Of course it can be argued that Mumkhar simply had to have a reason to appear in the prologue, else he simply wouldn't have been there at all, it's just that he died so quickly it's possible for people to not even remember him, given the time gap between the beginning of the game and Valak Mountain. I guess you could say he's Xenoblade's resident Chekhov's gun.
One thing I found interesting is how atypical Shulk was in a few ways. He doesn't seem to see himself as heroic, all he wants is revenge. And he doesn't even hide or sweeten that fact, even going so far as to tell it straight to the High Entia emperor's face. And it's not just words he's saying either, at one point he really comes close to follow through on it. Mumkhar's dead for good, Fiora's alive and not possessed by Meyneth anymore, Shulk really feels his job is already done when Jabba the Bot asks him to kill Egil, and it takes Dickson to persuade him to keep going and do it. Oh, and that ending. Shulk achieves godhood, and yet manages to say "no, fuck that, I don't want absolute power". Let's be honest, if most of us were in his shoes, we'd probably have a different answer. Having the cajones to turn down godhood? Of course, it's a work of fiction, the writers can do whatever they want, but just that one decision manages to make me appreciate Shulk a lot more.
Speaking of the ending, you know that ultra-radical Christian site that does game reviews and legitimately thinks Bible Adventures is the best game of all time? Imagine if they reviewed Xenoblade! The ultimate purpose of the journey is to create a godless world! If the goddesses from Zelda get under their skin that much, imagine how praising a godless world as ideal and making it the ultimate goal would melt their brains!
*END OF SPOILERS*
So those are my thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles. No game is absolutely perfect, but I'd be lying if this one didn't come the closest out of any game I've ever played. Every single nitpick I have to make is just that, a minor nitpick. Xenoblade has virtually no major flaws to speak of, and I guarantee you'll get your money's worth even if you pay the market's price for a used copy. I still can't believe they made this few copies of the game. With digital downloads now a standard thing on every system, it's safe to say that Xenoblade is the last of its kind in regards to rarity.
By the way, you probably know this, but they're making another Xenoblade game. Now that I've played the original, I can frankly say I'm not sure about this. The first one set the bar so high, it's difficult to see it ending in anything but disappointment. Then again, if someone can pull it off, it's gotta be those who made the first Xenoblade, right?
I've honestly never given much of a hoot about the "are video games art?" debate. After all, what changes if video games are considered art? Absolutely nothing is my best guess. Yet at the end of the day, I can only wonder, if Citizen Kane is art, why can't Xenoblade be?