"I've played 6 straight hours without touching the main story"
That is a piece of non-fiction. I did in fact play 6 or more straight hours of this JAY rpg, in which case I moved, in literal space, in the complete opposite direction of the main story. Probably would have played more if the realization that six hours is a long time and I like sleeping occasionally didn't crash down on me.This isn't unheard of in gaming, think to Elder Scrolls games and such, games that almost explicitly tell the player that the side quests are your real purpose, not the main narrative and progression of Main Player X and his/her cronies. However, this is something I have never encountered in a JRPG, outside of perhaps minigames that purvey the infamous "end-game" sections. The difference here is that I'm not near the endgame of Xenoblade Chronicles. This is mid-game and this is the same scenario that presented me in early-game. For as much as JRPGs and in fact this game in general present the main story as the main or even only motivation for advancement in any stance, this game provides a lot of "stuff".
The side quest in JRPGs normally feel like filler, probably are designed as filler too. Maybe you collect some this and that for some no-story NPC because they'll give you healing item X or maybe a weapon that is marginally better than the spiked bat your brute character has. The only thing about these is that they seem to be out of your way in almost every sense. The side quests are usually hidden, the items you get are frequently stuff that you wouldn't get on a normal playthrough, and the NPCs have nothing interesting to say. This isn't entirely different in Xenoblade, and just in passing you're sure to get plenty of quests filling your journal that just tell you to go fight some monster at some point, which I don't mind... good way to provide some challenge (if you fight the monster before you are hideously overpowered for it that is) and it's just a thing to add, but for the most part, your quests are just sort of things you'll get while exploring. If you kill all the bunnies that attack you on your way to story part Z you'll likely find enough bunnie feet to fufill the "get bunnie stuff "quest, and that's a charming little experience when in the middle of moving and exploring you get a nice "quest finished pop up" and whatever little story quip the conclusion screen has written down. But for those quests not among those mindless little "find X" missions you get the real heart of what this side quest fetishization really means.
What a side quest in JRPGs normally mean, again, is an item. The greatest bit of capital that comes out of these are literal capital... goods or gold that is meant to make the narrative just a bit easier, even if for a short time. For every part of your journey, you're building towards that know-able end. At one point, you're going to attack Kefka, or Lavos, or whomever, and you want to be ready! Xenoblade has a wonderful invention called "affinity". For each little named NPC you find a small biographical blip is placed on this sprawling web containing each and every cute little being the creators decided to make. They are all very simple, one like saying something like "troublesome boy" or "motivated artist" or "loves her daughter", and really that's as much backstory as you're given. Then all the sudden you talk to someone who mentions someone, and there's a noise a star and the wonderful feeling that you know these people they are talking about. This honestly doesn't get old. From the first time some women mentions that kid down the road is her kid to some weird elf hours upon hours later giving you a quest mentioning he can't choose between these two elf girls you've seen. In my 6+ hours moving away from the main story, I went back to the original city, and found out I had a flurry of quests I just hadn't done. In Final Fantasy whatever, this is pointless, and for the main story goer it still is. All I'll get is some gem way underpowered compared to what I have or some weapon that was obsolete hours ago. But for every little thread I create on that web and every little relationship I see flourish I marvel. It's fantastic, in all honesty. Each little NPC has no backstory but the one that you can interpret from their couple sentences of dialog and future relationships. You find that this kid wants friends and through the interactions you can find out these little kids personalities and beliefs in quick intuitive ways. As it goes, no one will come out and tell your who they are... you have to observe. These aren't Persona's social links or anything, but this is a fantastic way to create life in your world.
For some backstory, the world you are on is literally alive.. or was at some point. The "bionis" you live on a is a giant that once in battle with a giant "mechonis" that now holds these "mechons" in which you are in a sort of war with. They attack your city, and another (which leads to a charming little city-builder quest... there is a lot of "stuff"), and you're on your way. So in some ways it is you, the little boy from a destroyed city out to save the world, destined to a powerful weapon, we've all heard the story, the same writers have sort of commented on the idea of it in previous works. Of course, as a mid-game player, I don't quite know the full extent of story there's little to mention about how it goes, but I must say I admire these charming british kids. Your first characters, a triage of friends, their little stories seem obvious without them telling them, their relationships seem nearly set in stone. This older gentleman, a war hero, one of the three's older brother, seems half mentor, half friend, and as the story goes so do they, on their path to do a spoilered event that involves one of them and whatever (horrible at this describing a story without spoiling it I suppose). You keep getting characters and for what it's worth, they all seem quite genuine... even the comedic relief, pet-like character. Little in-jokes, like this pet being significantly older than anyone in your party with a bundle of children and his entire "prestigious title" a result of crushing debt. They are well devised characters, for what they're worth, and certainly nothing you'll groan about.
Oh and one of the first bosses defeated sends off with a fantastic piece of voice acting and professional regret. Lovely moment.
Of course, this is a game. It's also a JRPG, which implies a certain idea of gameplay, which is, attack, magic, level up and every problem is solved. The key is that "strategy" doesn't actually appear in that. It's not that I think turn based systems aren't strategic, of course they are, that's the appeal, but with the majority of JRPG, strategy is either incredibly plain, or incredibly forgiving. Aside from your Final Fantasy Tactics and SMTs of the world, this really doesn't change much. Most games get around a demanding fight with a clever levelling or class system, just something that adds variability at the least. More lately, it's been about action, instead of making something that demands planning, it's about making snap decisions. Xenoblade requires the snappiest. Each battle is as chocked full of as much "stuff" as the rest of game. Each attack pops a number and each attack is usually the result of an art popping up a status effect, and forcing your player to scream out its name. There's a lot of noise and numbers and words that pop up, and suddenly you realize you're not doing damage until you hit X move first, or you realize that half your party is about to die, or you're taken out of this wild fight with a glimpse of the future that your "destined" sword and it's power has provided so you can make a quick change to protect that person. It's clever and fast and even though it's not particularly demanding (well, sometimes) it's a system as charming as the lively world you go around, with all the little affinity stars popping up that you expect.
Don't really want to give it a score, considering I haven't finished the story and with all these gods and destinies and "changing fate" it could be something really genuinely great and who knows maybe it will last too long without much variability and idk. For what it's worth, the game I've had so far is fantastic and also average.