Originally published in 2015, for The Australia Times Games Magazine.
Xenoblade Chronicles X
Format: Wii U
Developer: Monolith Soft / Nintendo SPD
When reviewing a videogame, it’s generally expected that the author has at least some grasp of the software in question.
Usually, this is achieved by spending the appropriate amount of time with it – such as delving deep into every feature it offers, or completing the campaign. However, there are those certain games that have us poor wordsmiths nervously chewing our lip as we decide the appropriate course of action. In this case, I’m specifically referring to big games.
You know the ones. The hundred-plus hour epics that threaten to suck away what little social life is left remaining. MMOs. RPGS. In 2015, there have been a few of ‘em; most notably The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4.
It’s these kinds of games that provide a somewhat of an ethical conundrum for us – namely, just when do we decide to submit that review?
You see, these kinds of games are not only long – but sometimes (like Bethesda’s games) they warrant multiple playthroughs. This can take an obscene amount of time, and is completely at odds with the instantaneous mentality of being ‘first’ to publish something. So, a choice has to be made – deliver a timely analysis that probably isn’t all that it could be? Or wait until the game’s depths have been thoroughly plundered, so justice can be done to the hard work put forth by the developers?
For Xenoblade Chronicles X, I chose the latter option.
The long-awaited sequel to the surprise JRPG hit on the Wii (titled, funnily enough, Xenoblade Chronicles), Xenoblade Chronicles X is a massive game – rivalled only by Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate as the most content-stuffed game on Wii U.
First, let’s get that pesky plot out of the way. Unlike its predecessor, Monolith Soft’s latest epic is a sci-fi tale which eschews the fantasy stylings of Shulk’s adventure. Starting in the year 2054, the game opens with a huge battle between two alien forces over our poor Earth. Realising that the planet’s annihilation is imminent, humanity gets the hell out of dodge, and launches interstellar ‘arks’ that contain our best and brightest. Most are destroyed in the crossfire, but one is definitely known to make it out – the American ‘White Whale’. USA! USA!
After spending a couple of months adrift in space, the ship is accosted by its extra-terrestrial pursuers, before crash landing on the nearby planet of Mira. Lucky, huh?
This is where the game begins, and you play as your own custom character. After creating your own hero, you awaken from a stasis pod, and meet Elma, a soldier who informs you that the White Whale’s denizens have survived, and that they have founded the city of ‘New LA’ in the crashed residential remains of the ship. Conveniently, you have amnesia, so the exposition handily informs you of everything that’s going on – and what happened previously.
After a lengthy introduction, you visit New LA and become a member of the military organisation BLADE (Builders of the Legacy After Earth’s Destruction), and it’s here where everything really kicks off.
The plot is good enough, but if you focus solely on the main story missions, you’ll be disappointed coming in from the fanciful tales of the Bionis and Mechonis. The meat of the game’s world-building is done through side-quests, where relationships are built and Mira is explored in more detail. Many of these are mandatory in order to progress the campaign – but I honestly didn’t mind. I’m the type of gamer that likes to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb, but more impatient players will undoubtedly be frustrated.
So, how does it play? Well, very much like Xenoblade Chronicles, actually. Being a JRPG, the mechanics are quite dense – yet nicely streamlined at the same time. Combat is much like an MMO, which mixes real-time movement with turn-based ability selection (complete with cooldowns). You fight in a maximum party of four, though you’re only responsible for the main hero. Instead of traditional items, healing is done through ‘soul voices’, which is basically a quick-time-event that occasionally pops up on the screen. Do it right, and your crew recovers a bit of health. Additionally, abilities can have an enhanced effect if you choose to wait until a pal bellows for you to use it, and doing so can increase your affinity with said character.
Still with me? Good, because that only scrapes the surface. Eventually, you gain access to ‘overdrive’, which is essentially Limit Break ala Final Fantasy VII. Doing this increases your power for a limited time, and combos can be racked up depending on the types of attacks you use. You can even extend the duration of overdrive by spending ‘TP’ (which is kind of like an in-battle currency) and many intrepid types online have managed to keep the whole thing going indefinitely by making smart use of TP-gaining abilities.
But I’m stuffed if I can do that.
Battles evolve even further with the introduction of Skells, which are basically mechs. Each party member must equip their own Skell (more in the boxout), and these can take on more fearsome foes. Blimey.
As complicated as all that sounds, Monolith does do a good job of teaching you the fundamentals by not punishing experimentation. Unlike the JRPGs of yore, dying doesn’t send you back to your last save – instead, you are simply teleported to the nearest ‘landmark’ (notable areas you can discover), with all of your experience and items intact. No fuss, no muss. It’s a wonderful exploration system, which makes players unafraid of traversing Mira in wonder. It also helps that you have a sweet jump, and damage can’t be taken from falls – no matter how high.
Diving further into Xenoblade Chronicles X reveals a game that is almost overwhelming in its content – quite literally so.
First, BLADE. When joining the group, you must choose from one of ten different divisions, each of which specialises in things like combat, archaeology or police work. This actually influences the types of missions you can take – though some crossover is allowed. You can change divisions, though there really isn’t any need to – not until you achieve the maximum division rank of 10. Every time you go up a rank, you can choose to upgrade your mechanical, archaeological or biological skills, and these help you find treasures and install probes on the world map.
Ah yes, the probes. Whatever BLADE job you take, you are still required to expand ‘FrontierNet’, which is a network that aims to gather more information about the strange planet. This is done by planting probes at certain sites, and doing so unlocks more segments of your map, which is split into hexagons on your GamePad. Not only do these probes act as landmarks, but they can also be used to mine valuable resources, or generate revenue. Depending on the probe type (mining or research), you can tap the Wii U’s second screen to set them up, and can even link up the same types in order to achieve a combo, which maximises their productivity. Other info revealed on the hexagons can include special treasures and strong bosses (known as Tryants) that roam Mira, and completing each ‘segment’ will show a gold shield, as well as contributing to the overall survey of the world.
As you level up, your character will unlock new classes, which let him or her carry new weapons, armour, and use new arts. Using points earned in battle, you can upgrade these arts, as well as special skills that can be equipped on every character. These give them further buffs, like increased health or elemental damage.
You want more? You got it! Using the shop terminals located in New LA’s Armory Alley, you can buy new equipment (or course), as well as craft new upgrades that can be inserted in blank armour slots. These provide even further buffs for your characters, and there are even multiple arms companies who will reward you the more you use their own products in the battlefield. This of course, unlocks even more upgrades.
Aside from combat, there’s a lot to take-in in New LA itself. Split into multiple districts, you can converse with NPCs and fellow BLADEs, and build relationships with them (which are archived in the affinity chart). Since this is an RPG, they’re more than happy to dish out quests, or provide hints to interesting stuff that’s going on outside the city walls. Some missions can be taken on the spot, whilst others need to be accepted at the BLADE mission terminal.
Now, this has probably been a lot to take in, dear reader – but trust me when I say I’ve barely scraped the surf—wait, I already said that. Still, it’s true, and Xenoblade Chronicles X’s content is its biggest strength – but also its undeniable weakness.
Make no mistake; this is not a game for casual players. The entire thing is far from user-friendly, and I myself struggled greatly to understand everything. Indeed, Monolith does a poor job of adequately explaining many of the features found, and as such I had to read up on the manual on more than one occasion. If there’s one thing you need to take from this review – it’s that you should read the manual.
Similarly aggravating are some of the absurd design choices that permeate the game. Too often, it ventures into mindless collectathon territory. You know, ‘collect 20 gumdrops’, ‘slay 45 boogiemen’, that sort of thing. It’s lazy design that only aims to pad out the game’s already-bloated length, and Monolith desperately needs to abandon these tropes in future games. Not to mention, many of the quests are so inanely obtuse, using a guide is pretty much essential – which is a major game design sin, in my books.
Graphically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of the most inconsistent titles I’ve played in recent memory. Sometimes, the game is simply too ambitious for the modest Wii U hardware – yet, the fact that it runs as well as it does is a true testament to the programmers. First, the negatives. Characters models are bland and toy-like, and look like they came straight out of a PS2 game. Similarly, pop-in (or fade-in, more technically) is horrendous, with character models often times spawning long after I’ve ran past them. This also happens (to a lesser extent) with enemies, as well as textures when warping from one place to another. Keep in mind, I played this game with the Data Packs downloaded, which are separate pieces of DLC on the eShop that help improve performance (disc version only, the digital copy has it all included), so this is a major bummer.
Now, the positives. Mira is absolutely, undeniably breathtaking. A massive world that is roughly five times bigger than Fallout 4, it is both a technical and artistic achievement. The design of both the creatures and terrain are truly alien, and some of the most imaginative locales I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Additionally, it is completely, 100% open from the very start, and every single thing you can see in the distance is fully traversable. This freeform design is amazing, and probably a big reason why the game looks so average in other places. Nintendo’s console is pushed to breaking-point, and the fact that it runs (mostly) at a smooth 30fps, with virtually no bugs and non-existent load-times (aside from warping) is truly astounding. It gets even more incredible once you gain the power of flight…
Sound too, is another mixed bag. The scores for Mira’s continents are masterfully produced, yet battles and New LA itself are strangely subjected to barely-there rapping. It’s really weird at first, but it does become a non-issue after an hour or so. Unfortunately, voice acting is a step back from Xenoblade Chronicles (which was localised by Nintendo Europe), with generally bland performances – though there are some highlights, like the alien ‘L’ and drunkard Frye. Written text fares much better, with some truly hilarious lines and translation that almost made me wish the entire game was text-only.
This review has been a big one – probably the biggest I’ve ever written. Just know that Xenoblade Chronicles X is (or was, whatever) one of 2015’s best games. In some aspects, it’s infuriatingly old-fashioned, yet in others, it shows some truly advanced design. Really, it’s a true ‘gamers’ game; one that doesn’t pull any punches in its complexity, yet one that rewards those that are willing to take on the challenge.
8.5 out of 10
As you’ve probably seen in the game’s marketing (hah), Skells play a large role in Xenoblade Chronicles X. Despite this, I didn’t get my first one until about 60 hours into the game. When I finally did, it was pretty damn liberating. Accessing out-of-reach areas that taunted me for so long were now within my grasp. Still, these mechs come with a few frustrating caveats. If you happen to wreck yours in battle, you have a chance to salvage it via a QTE. If you don’t? Well, you end up using a salvage ticket – and when you run out, you have to pay an obscene amount of insurance in order to get it back. On top of that, you need to be a certain level in order to use stronger variations – including that of your comrades. Fortunately, your partners’ Skells are completely free to repair.
Playing on the (Frontier) ‘net
Yes, Xenoblade Chronicles X has online play. No, you can’t frag n00bs (or whatever it is the young ‘uns say these days). Instead, you play nice with other gamers in a passive way. Whenever you start the game up, you can choose to either join a squad of other peoples’ Xeno protagonists (hence why you create your own hero) and take on monsters for rewards, or simply play on your own and accrue riches automatically. How? Well, even when you play alone, you’re part of a squad, and the screen will highlight tasks that you can choose to do or completely ignore (hunting or collecting). If your entire crew completes all tasks within the time limit, you get materials and reward tickets (which can be traded for hard-to-find items). Yet even if you fail, you’ll still get a few tickets, which is nice. As expected, Miiverse messages can be viewed (or disabled), and you can trade gear.