Xenoblade Chronicles, and Monster Hunter too, are like this for a reason. Work and school start early and end late in Japan, and any time at home is usually either devoted to the family, or sleeping. Many gamers have migrated to manga cafes, which have been dominated by MMORPGs like Lineage for about a decade now. MMOs have in turn influenced loot-centric cooperative handheld games like Monster Hunter, which serve as the other alternative for busy students and salarymen.
This trend presents a dilemma for Japanese developers. Japan simply can't get enough Monster Hunter and its ilk, which is all the more reason for developers to keep cranking them out. Global audiences, however, have been slow to embrace co-op RPGs. That's where Xenoblade Chronicles comes in – an RPG with all the trappings of an MMO or a Monster Hunter, but wrapped in a traditional, single-player JRPG.
The MMO side should be obvious enough. Familiar concepts like monster aggro and damage per second serve as the foundation of the battle system, and quality loot is a constant driving force. The combat, for its part, is also classic MMO. Attacks will draw monster aggression, or they will expose a monster's defenses so that another character can knock them down. Buffs and debuffs – the alpha and omega of MMORPGs – are likewise a huge part of Xenoblade's battles, and much of the strategy revolves around managing cooldown (rather than magic points).
But here are where the differences become apparent. For instance, combat in Xenoblade is almost never automatic. Instead, enemy mobs can be engaged with a press of a button, which puts players in greater control of their destiny and instantly makes Xenoblade feel like a more active, console-like experience. And what to make of the super combination attacks, complete with charge bar, which are as console as console can be?
It's elements like these that give me the impression that Xenoblade is out to bridge the gap between traditional JRPGs and the more mechanical, loot-centric grinds that have become fashionable among Japanese gamers. In fact, when I first started playing, the mix of science fiction and fantasy, and the early death of a major character (stabbed through the midsection, no less, just like Aerith), made me want to compare it to Final Fantasy. It certainly has the right flavor. And where else but a JRPG would a world be set on the back of a pair of dead gods?
What's most impressive is that all of this works. Traditional JRPGs and the MMOs both fall under the "RPG" banner, but otherwise they can be very different animals. Dragon Quest, which was arguably the first modern JRPG, was created with the intention of combining an entertaining story with easy-to-grasp mechanics. That's obviously not the case for all JRPGs – Etrian Odyssey comes to mind – but the original template remains very relevant today.
Compare that to World of WarCraft – or Star Wars: The Old Republic – where every number is examined with a fine-toothed comb, and every stat is optimized to within an inch of its life. I've been playing Star Trek Online almost every day for the past two months, and I've spent more time thinking about how to optimize ability cooldown than I have in my entire life. I give plenty of credit to Xenoblade for featuring some pretty heavy stat crunching of its own, but without sacrificing the flavor and immediacy of the traditional JRPG.
Even if it only does middling sales numbers here in the States (I doubt it will be an outright failure), I expect that Square Enix, among other Japanese publishers, will be watching Xenoblade Chronicles very closely. It's not every day, after all, that a JRPG garners near universal acclaim and strong word of mouth outside of Japan. Hopefully they realize that Monolith Soft's biggest achievement is not just crafting a popular game, but finding a way to mix the past and present of Japanese gaming, and take it to the global stage.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.