Xenoblade Chronicles X developed by Monolith Soft & Nintendo SPD. Published by Nintendo. Released on December 4th, 2015. Available on Wii U. Review disk provided by publisher.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fantastical space opera about exploration and the humanity of heroes. It has giant mecha and a sprawling open world. It’s Wii U’s biggest JRPG release in the United States and Europe, and this resounding sequel to fan-requested RPG Xenoblade Chronicles is a smashing success and a rollicking good time – even for those who don’t traditionally like this genre of game. Xenoblade X is a superb example of world building with a decent plot and fun gameplay, but is held back by a number of questionable game systems to understand. Overall though, it’s a superb ambassador for its genre, and will undoubtedly delight those who have been waiting for it.
The Power of Melodrama
Xenoblade X uses the JRPG genre’s history of melodrama to lay a twisting, if shallow, plot. It’s a meandering story of desperate colonists in a space opera universe, humans fleeing the wreckage of an earth destroyed as collateral damage in what appears to be some greater interstellar conflict. The primary protagonists are all part of BLADE, the paramilitary organization dedicated to saving the human race. That story is all based around setting up expectations and knocking them down using a set of key plot twists and staged reveals we won’t spoil here, but know that’s where the story is going and what its foundation is. The characters themselves are a variety of reductive stock archetypes – the hardened veteran, manic pixie dream girl, teenage prodigy, good-natured hardass, and flamboyant homosexual are the kind of shorthand the game uses. It’s convenient and well utilized, if groan inducing, in minor characters. It’s obnoxious in long term characters – if someone’s going to be around for every mission, you don’t want to be able to say their lines before they do. Using that wide cast of characters, the story focuses on themes of ethics, environmentalism, and morality against an unsure scale. It’s a story at odds with how much time you actually spend in the game wandering around and picking fights with random alien critters for the umpteenth insect jaw you need to craft your new weapon.
Melodrama is the heart of this game. Every conflict in the story is blown totally out of proportion and taken without nuance. Every misspoken world could end a friendship forever, every attack by unknown alien creatures could drive humanity into extinction. It’s so blown out, in fact, that you can easily miss some of where the game’s best stories are. Basic and Affinity Missions are very well crafted compared to anemic side quests in some other games, which is refreshing and pleasing. They often have a complete narrative arc and individual characters – sometimes even with a twist or two.
The game’s voice acting is mediocre, but at any given time any character could totally flub their delivery – or blow you away. Conversations are weirdly paced, with oddly long pauses between exchanges and what characters say to each other – sometimes stretching into seconds, but never feeling natural. One alien race is subjected to such a horrid voice filter that I muted the game whenever they showed up. It doesn’t help that the sound balance is often off – turn on subtitles if you don’t want the soundtrack’s lyrics to drown out dialogue sometimes.
The strangest part of the story – and of the game as a whole – is your character, newly awakened from stasis after humanity has been on Mira two months. You’re a rookie, struck with amnesia, and immediately assigned to the most elite commander BLADE has. It’s not clear at first, but you’re just along for the ride. This is basically a movie – or more aptly, an anime – and you get a front row seat and the ability to occasionally throw in a cheer or a dash of flavor commentary. It’s not very clear why you’re afforded special privileges at first… and it never becomes wholly clear. You’re a created character for the sake of having a created character. The story neither needs nor requires your presence. It’s weird to run combat and then watch NPCs take credit for your direction as soon as the cutscenes roll. The choices you make in dialogue are very much binary and often lead to the same outcome regardless of your choice. If the game wants you to have a fight, you’re having a fight. It’s disheartening, but you’ll get over it when you realize Xenoblade Chronicles X just isn’t about you and settle in to watch everything burn.
A Gorgeous World
The game’s graphics and world are technically flawless and aesthetically gorgeous. Vast alien vistas are populated with bizarre insect cum dinosaur creatures and strange, Jack Kirby-esque Alien Space Gods. The creatures, and the world of Mira’s alien ecosystem, are beyond fascinating, rendered with an attention to detail and whimsical inventiveness. The graphics and open world make the absolute most of the hardware, delivering the best exploration gameplay I’ve ever experienced. The size, scale, and scope of the world dwarf most other games in the genre. You’ve played MMOs with smaller worlds than this. The scale of the world is superb, with tightly-designed areas riddled with secrets contrasting huge open plains and mountains suitable for mecha combat.
The sweeping soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano hops genres from j-pop to hip-hop, electronica, and classical, all infused with an operatic sense of scope. It fits the game beautifully. Many areas and some combats have unique music, but some of the tracks will start to wear on you. Especially that one hip-hop bit that will get halfway through the first line by the time a combat ends. (I’d love to know how it ends, but I’ve never had a combat take that long while it’s playing.) You can’t adjust or turn off the volume of any of the game’s sounds. It’ll grate on you sometimes.
As you explore, you jog, sprint, jump, and leap your way across the alien landscape. There’s not much fear of the unknown, as you can’t die from falling and there’s nearly no penalty for death. This leads to an atmosphere of happy mistakes and clever triumphs. You’ll scale mountains by leaping from boulder to boulder, or leap from one tree to another to avoid the nasty critters on the ground below. In doing that, you uncover overlooks and undiscovered caverns, clever easter eggs, and secret enemies with special loot. You also find iconic places, which serve as respawn points, and place exploration probes that gather revenue and remove map fog of war. Both kinds of locations become fast travel points for future exploration. Sneaking around monsters and finding alternate paths is fundamental to gameplay, as the world is populated from very early on by things far larger, nastier, and higher level than you. Avoiding stuff to get around it is something the game doesn’t teach well, but you’ll get the knack of it soon enough.
Everything in the game aside from one building interior (your customizable HQ) is seamless. If you want, you can travel from one place to another without ever seeing a loading screen – though you’ll often see a short one from fast traveling. Never more than a minute, though. There are some downloadable data packs to speed play if you own a physical disk version, and I do not recommend playing without them as the game is significantly slower. You will see some weirdness with textures. There’s no true texture pop to speak of because the game uses texture fades, staging increasingly more detailed models as you get close. In practice, that means sometimes you hit a really detailed area before the game loads it and a truck suddenly goes from blobby to pretty. If you rapidly approach an area deep in the late game – such as by suddenly descending from the sky – enemies will often appear after you’ve arrived. They won’t attack you before they’re visible. It didn’t annoy me.
Navigating the big world is handled more than adequately, with a decent minimap, the ability to launch an overhead camera, and a followable quest guide, but the real jewel is the big map on the Gamepad’s screen. You use this to manage your probe network, fast travel, find mission locations, and keep track of which map segments you’ve found everything in. It can get crowded later on, but it’s hard to complain about so useful a tool with so much information in it.
Xenoblade X subverts the empty collection gameplay of other open world titles have by making item pickups a floating blue gem – an old-school abstraction you won’t mind in the least. It’s far more respectful of your time than opening every container and looting every corpse. More detailed interactions – “treasure chests” – are as simple as tapping a button repeatedly to download data, loot wreckage, or install a probe. Treasure is complicated by an utterly unnecessary “skill system” that really just gates off content you’ve already worked to find. It sucks to painstakingly climb a mountain only to find out that you actually need Mechanical 5 to install that probe or scavenge that wreck, thank you very much. (Raise Mechanical first. You need it most – trust me!)
There’s a few drawbacks to the world’s size and organization, though. For all that it’s packed with life and places to go, it can feel robotic. It doesn’t change very often, even in response to major plot events – after a base is attacked during a later chapter, it just adds a few new pieces of wreckage to scavenge and all the battle damage vanishes in a loading screen. New NPCs, missions, and tips appear and disappear with some regularity, and new types of people show up. You can do quest chains that will surprise you by adding a new store or feature to the city. Just don’t go into this expecting a big base-building and expansion element.
Where it really rubs you is when you find a bit of the story before the game gives you the mission for it. About six hours into the game I found a piece of the lifehold. We won’t get into what that is, but it’s of incredible, fate-of-humanity-determining importance. Then at about 20 hours I found another. Then at 32 and 50 hours respectively the game acknowledged these by telling me all about them, how they were so important, how someone (not me) had found them, and we needed to recover them as soon as possible.
For all the flaws with your character’s role in the story, characters themselves generally have interesting, unique design, and player-controlled characters have a range of customization. You have a standard range of customization options for yourself, though not to the level of obsessive detail often seen in modern RPGs. The majority of customization is in how you equip your character. In addition to whatever gear you’re getting the statistical benefits of, you can also equip a set of ‘fashion gear’ that only changes your outward appearance. If you find some armor you like, you can keep the look once it’s obsolete.
The game’s gear ranges from casual tank tops or turtlenecks to cyberpunk-looking carapace armor and alien force field outfits. It’s a scattershot of hit and miss designs, with some armor having far too much detail: An over-the-top sci-fi flair crowded with straps, spikes, plates, or curves. If you don’t mind your fashion gear you’ll end up with a mess of disparate parts that make you look ridiculous.
Character and gear design occasionally veers so far away from the believable, or is so sloppily composed, that it does genuine disservice to otherwise interesting characters. I recall one specific set of armor, a thick tactical vest with armored plates that has a gaping slash across the middle to expose the wearer’s belly button and abs. I once burst out laughing because not until a cutscene started did I realize that my new super-heavy armor was a set of robotic cat ears. That’s not to say the combat high heels, shoulder spikes, and battle bikinis are wholly bad – some of them are clever and thematic. The cleverest character designs even do some world building: Since there’s a game conceit that heavy armor with more mass makes you vulnerable to gravity weapons, a light, strappy array of shield generators and deflectors that don’t weigh the wearer down in laser-sword melee makes since. The worst gear and designs are just obnoxiously derivative though. The space-dominatrix thong armor or techno-gibberish power armor on an enemy is fun the first time, laughable the second, annoying the third, and just takes you right out of the story after that. Given the varied designs on so many characters, it’s annoying to see near every lady villain dressing in the same black straps.
Seek Out Strange New Life, Then Kill It
Exploring, fighting, looting, collecting, and every one of Xenoblade’s other activities has its own rewards, and all give experience. Gameplay is fluid, moving from combat to exploring and vice versa quickly – though missions will subvert this sometimes. It does exceedingly well in short bursts, with most non-story missions giving a satisfying chunk of gameplay and narrative in fifteen or twenty minutes.
Xenoblade X‘s combat is a real-time RPG system with a set of abilities and cooldowns, with varying auto-attacking based on weapon type. In fights, you move around a lot, swapping dynamically from melee weapons to ranged and back. Timing your plan right is more important than anything else, favoring strategy over tactics. Positioning matters though, as does elevation, giving you bonuses to hitting and damaging your opponents. You target many big opponents’ specific body parts, blasting them apart to disable pesky abilities. Don’t like that tail sweep? Get behind them, draw your swords, and cut off the tail. Managing your varying ability cooldowns and pool of abilities is about a balance of power and speed that’s satisfying if you like to build mechanical combos. Adding good complexity to this is the system of Soul Voices, where you time a button press on specific conditions to give your team some healing and a bonus. Likewise, your allies will call out for a specific type of attack – melee, ranged, or a buff – and if you deliver one you get a damage boost and a bit of healing. The bad complexity here is that there’s a bajillion fiddly pieces of customizability to deal with: Resistances, weaknesses, armor, evasion, to-hit, damage, attack value. What’s the difference between “Attack Up” and “Attack Boost”? Hell if I know, and the game’s not going out of its way to teach you.
In the end, what really matters in most combat is level. You can bull-headedly force your way through most of the game on getting the freshest gear and staying high level. If you’re higher level or close, and have a decent character, you’ll beat most combats handily. If you can’t beat the combat, just go get your Skell.
Skells are the game’s giant robots. Short for and derived from, I presume, exoskeleton, they’re an armored pod with legs and guns that you get access to about 30 hours into the game. It’s a remarkably late play for something so fundamental to the game, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t mind the wait – the game’s fun enough without them. Skells are big, stompy, and ridiculously fun to pilot. They expand the exploration game, with jet-assisted jumps and transformable vehicle modes adding serious height and speed to your travels.
Using a well-equipped party of Skells you can defeat even significantly higher-level enemies in short order. Skells are the only way to defeat the game’s largest enemies, like skyscraper-sized giants and primordial serpents, who get a huge damage multiplier against things too much smaller than them. Later on, the Skell flight module lets you take to the planet’s skies, conquering even the highest mountain. There’s absolutely nothing to hate about aerial duels with enemy fighters and mecha.
As much fun as Skells are, there’s a couple things about them that are, well… not fun. When you first get them, if you’ve been frugal with your money, you’ll be able to utterly crush combats for a long time. You’ll wonder why you shouldn’t just crush this boss, who is on foot, in your Skell. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t… other than that it’s not as fun. Skell combat isn’t as dynamic as foot combat, so at first you’ll feel like you’re just auto-attacking in god mode and waiting for cooldowns. Some late-game combat fixes this problem by disallowing Skells for fights, like where they can’t get inside a building, forcing you to keep up with your foot combat skills. Skell fighting also gets more complex all of a sudden, eventually becoming much more like foot combat in its range of options.
What supposedly counters Skells’ power are the limits placed on Skells. If you lose them too much they cost a ‘crippling’ amount to re-buy, but that’s actually pretty trivial if you’ve been gaming the FrontierNav system to make millions. Skells also have a nonsensical fuel gauge that ticks down during combat or flight, but which can be refilled very easily and automatically refills while you’re out of them. It’s a weird set of limits that punishes unskilled or inattentive players but won’t hold back anyone else in the slightest.
Which is not to say the game is too easy. There’s really hard stuff in here – especially some of the post-game and optional content – but I never died more than three times in a row on a Story Mission combat.
The Troubles in Xeno-Paradise
In the end, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a lot of layered subsystems. They’re all pretty fleshed out, and none of them (Skell fuel and insurance aside) feel like they shouldn’t be in the game. These make the game start weak, and many players will be frustrated in their first hours by the information dump. That can lead to a feeling that you’re playing a mediocre MMO. Where do I go? What do I do? How does combat work? What’s a melee combo? The game won’t explain all of this. It won’t even try to. You can read the manual, but even that doesn’t explain everything, so you’ll have to learn some by trial and error.
Other than those early hours, though, the layering doesn’t detract from the experience. There’s a hell of a lot to learn, but you can just let it slide until you care to engage with it. If you get too far behind, you can spend a half hour or so getting whatever you forgot to do up to whatever level you need it to be at. That gives the game accessibility way beyond its appearance. Sometimes you’ll have to rectify a mistake with a bit of grindy questing, but if you’re playing an RPG in the first place you likely won’t mind.
The only place where you can go egregiously wrong is in building your character, but since you can easily swap between classes, arts, archetypes, and skills at any time… you can fix that pretty quickly. The more complex character types are hard to build and play, but the simplest are very easy to pick up and go with.
The place where the game’s emphasis on customization gets weird is in the makeup of your party of NPCs. By doing Side and Affinity Missions, you get access to a wide variety of companion characters using an array of the class and weapon types in unique combinations. As you play and fight alongside them, you increase your Affinity with them, giving you new missions, special conversations, and eventually access to their unique abilities for yourself. Each has a unique, cute, and very much optional storyline – so you can invest in your favorites and ignore the others. Where this goes weird is in doing the actual Story and Affinity missions themselves. Most of those missions require you take along the same two very specific companions no matter what. While the game gives the appearance of having party variety, it’s a lie. Sure, you can run around and goof off with whomever you please, but – as we said above – who participates in the stories you’re told is mostly out of your control. Where the party variety ends up being useful will be in post-story game content.
Icing On That Layered Cake
Xenoblade X has multiplayer gameplay! It is very simple. In fact you can opt out of it entirely and never notice. That about sums up the multiplayer, actually. If you choose to participate, you can either join a squad with friends or with a random assortment of strangers. Squads are given a set of tasks – kill X creatures, gather Y berries – to do in their own solo game worlds alongside regular play. When a task is fulfilled it unlocks a Squad Mission that you can either do by yourself with your NPCs or with whoever else in the squad cares to join you. These missions range from fun fights against a swarm of opponents or a tough boss to wholly pointless jaunts where you kill three critters. Either way you’ll get some unique rewards and move on with your life. The principal frustration is that it’s really hard to communicate with others. You can’t tell if someone really wants to do cooperative play or if they just happened to fulfill a squad task while they were doing some regular missions. In the end, multiplayer will probably matter most to those who are interested in the hardest post-game content and serve as an occasional distraction or co-op fix for everyone else.
I played Xenoblade Chronicles X for about 60 hours and didn’t finish it, happily alternating between short sessions and long binges. It’s one of the most accessible JRPGs I’ve ever played, combining some of my favorite parts of games like Monster Hunter with a wonderful world to explore and a lot amount of content to consume. I say consume because a lot of that content is, in the end, repetitive – or tiring because of limiting mechanics. Despite that it’s a fun game, intensely satisfying to succeed at, and stands alone as a superb entry in the pseudo-series that started with Xenoblade Chronicles. An engaging world with interesting things in it, I expect I’ll get another 40 hours out of this game just exploring, seeing the sights, flying my mech, experiencing the story, and picking fights with random monsters. Just to see what happens.
Bottom Line: An accessible ambassador for its genre, Xenoblade Chronicles X makes good choices building a world, but stumbles on writing you a guidebook to it.
Recommendation: A must-play for RPG fans with a Wii U. Xenoblade is also surprisingly accessible despite its complexities, so the curious should definitely give it a try. Mecha genre fans should not miss it under any circumstances.[rating=4.5]