Xenoblade Chronicles X is complicated.
+Cohesive design that rewards curiosity and exploration
+An amazing soundtrack that I need to own
+One of the most impressive looking games regardless of platform
+Sexy squid lady
-Systems and menus that will be intimidating for even the hardest core players
-Anime clichés and designs that might turn some people off
-Sexy squid lady
Where do I even start? Xenoblade Chronicles X is positively massive in every sense of the word. The physical space of it’s world is massive, the depth of it’s systems is massive, the amount of content in general is massive. It’s no wonder that Nintendo has provided optional Installation Downloads to keep loading times moving at a steady clip for people playing using the physical disc.
But that dizzying amount of stuff doesn’t mean anything if the quality isn’t there to back it up. Luckily, Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t just pile on content for the sake of content; every aspect of this sprawling world is firing on all cylinders. Xenoblade Chronicles X is the JRPG we’ve all been waiting for. Every axis of this game’s design extends seemingly indefinitely and provides means of exploration that are sometimes obtuse, but always, always exciting and rewarding. And that exploration is key to enjoying your time spent in this expertly crafted space.
Xenoblade Chronicles X begins with the ominous 2001-esque imagery of the Pioneer plaque (a symbol of humanity's desire for expanding it’s horizons) drifting through the void of space. Mangled and detached from its vessel, the plaque’s hopeless drifting paints a bleak picture for humanity. In fact, this dark side of the human desire for expansion and exploration will rear it’s head plenty throughout the course of the game. In the mean time there is exposition to be had.
We learn of humanity's escape from Earth after it’s caught in the middle of an intergalactic battle. Most of the population is destroyed along with the planet itself and one of the few remaining arks containing humanity's last hope crash lands on a planet called Mira.
What becomes apparent from the get go is that the fantasy setting of the original Xenoblade Chronicles has been set aside to make room for a hard sci-fi story that sits more comfortably among director Tetsuya Takahashi’s earlier works: Xenogears and Xenosaga. Kunihiko Tanaka, character designer from those earlier Xeno games, also makes his return with Chronicles X. Different people will get different mileage out of these designs, with plenty remarking that they look like waxen dolls, but my love for anime and JRPGS from the turn of the millennium makes it difficult to not feel a nostalgic fondness for them.
Either way, it’s time to design a character that will serve as the primary avatar for the player. Character creation options are decent (nothing coming anywhere close to contemporaries like Fallout 4) and chances are you’ll find something to your liking (again, assuming that Tanaka’s character designs don’t put you off). The stand out feature in X’s character creation is the voices. In a move that I’ve never personally seen before, the voice actor’s names are provided when selecting options.
Mad props, Nintendo. Giving credit to these actors is such a small gesture but makes a huge difference. And the options are great. It was difficult to not go with Christina Valenzuela, the voice of Shantae herself. One option, referred to in-game as ‘Classic’, will give fans of the original Xenoblade Chronicles a nice fuzzy feeling inside.
And speaking of Xenoblade Chronicles, don’t think for a second that experience with it will be required to enjoy the world of X. Story-wise you’re looking at a completely new experience. However, there is a huge advantage that players familiar with Xenoblade Chronicles will have when stepping out onto the world of Mira that should not be understated…
Xenoblade Chronicles X is complicated.
Menus, numbers, text, sub-menus, and more numbers are all over the place. I was a good 30-some-odd hours into the original Xenoblade Chronicles before I had a decent handle on what I was doing and even then I was constantly finding new features that I’d never even touched. Going into X with that previous experience has been a huge help to understanding even how basic combat works.
Despite having a 2-3 hour tutorial period at the beginning of X, you can’t be blamed for ultimately having no idea what you’re supposed to be doing in moment-to-moment combat or in what ways gear and skills can be optimized. Because good lord there are so many things to optimize. Character experience, Class experience, Blade Levels, Art Levels, equipment upgrades, Affinity, Soul Voices, Tension, are all features that relate directly to combat. Delving into sub-sub-sub menus like Fashion Gear and Collectopedia will hardly be at the forefront of the mind of someone just starting out.
I’ve read through the in-game Instruction Manual a couple times and am still a little hazy on some of the X’s number values that get thrown at me regularly.
This might sound like a negative, but as far as I’m concerned it feeds perfectly into the game’s ethos of exploration. Talking to people in the hub world of New Los Angeles (so goofy) will sometimes provide you with information that probably should have been included in the tutorial. The combat mechanic that involves afflicting an enemy with Stagger and then following it up with Topple and then dealing massive amounts of damage is a tactic that those familiar with Xenoblade will be aware of but it’s hidden behind so many other effects and status conditions that its importance seems dreadfully understated.
But this all feels okay. It makes talking about the game with other people fun. It makes each discovery feel like it has the potential to be game-changing. All these layers that have to be manually pulled to the side to get just a peek at the inner machinations mirror the way that exploration of the game’s physical space itself is laid out.
Again, it’s hard to discuss X without at least mentioning the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles, but exploration of Mira is very similar to the way player’s navigated Bionis and Mechonis back in the day. Except better.
Discovering new locations rewards players with experience and points, yes, but that is hardly the main motivation for seeking out every nook and cranny of X’s world; seeing every nook and cranny is the main motivation.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is far and away one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. It cannot be understated to what extent the Wii U’s hardware has been pushed. If venturing out onto Gaur Plains in Xenoblade Chronicles did anything for you then prepare for a constant stream of elation. Every rock formation, every vista, every lake has been designed with so much care that it’s difficult to not just stand and stare. I’ve spent an alarming amount of time just looking at cliffsides. If there were ever a game that deserved a dedicated screenshot button, it’s this one.
And the design of the areas is so well crafted for exploration that it becomes a game in and of itself; every time a mountain is scaled there seems to be a bigger one just on the edge of the horizon. The game’s designer are constantly daring you with these landscapes; ‘I bet you can’t get all the way over there’, they say. And then you do. And life feels so perfect.
It helps that these immense landscapes are underscored with one of my favourite soundtracks in recent memory. Fans of anime like Kill la Kill and Attack on Titan might not recognize the name Hiroyuki Sawano, but they’re familiar with his work. And that anime-infused style fits perfectly with X’s world. Battles that rage on give way to adrenaline-infused vocal tracks that feel fresh and exciting. The lyrics are impassioned and incredibly cheesy, complementing the sci-fi anime tone of the overall game in a way that I couldn’t help but smile at. Jazz flute, butt-rock, and grand choral orchestrations have never felt so at home together. It’s been awhile since I’ve opted out of listening to podcasts while I play a game, but this score simply demands to be heard.
Combat is built around the same skeleton that Xenoblade Chronicles was: action RPG that relies on selecting abilites to use in conjunction with your other, AI-controlled allies. You can customize your ability loadout according to what Class you are currently subscribed to (another sub-menu that you might take hours to see for the first time). The combat loop will vary wildly from player to player depending on what skills you trust to your party members and which ones you want more direct control over. Gone is Shulk’s future sight-based mechanics from Xenoblade chronicles in favour of a few new wrinkles. Ranged and melee weapons can be swapped on the fly to adapt to different threats and different body parts of your opponents can be targeted. This can affect what moves the enemy will be able to execute as well as what drops you’ll acquire after the battle.
Victory will depend on a myriad of different aspects including spatial control, balance of support vs. offence, and paying attention to the moods of your party members. Reacting quickly to changing battle conditions is key.
I know that I’ve mentioned mechanics and systems and have done little to explain how some of them actually function in-game and that’s absolutely on purpose. Don’t be afraid to go into Xenoblade Chronicles X blind. There is so much to discover that it would feel against the game’s main themes to try to give a primer or beginner’s guide. X plants you in a foreign world with very few comforts. Embrace that and don’t be afraid to have no idea what you’re doing.
This review could have easily been two or three times the length and not been able to touch upon all of X’s aspects. Things like “Skells,” or taking on quests, or how satisfying it feels to jump. There’s so much to experience in Xenoblade Chronicles X and it’s all gorgeous, exciting and incredibly rewarding. It has successfully built upon every aspect of previous games in the Xeno-verse and has proven itself to be a must-play for Wii U owners and RPG fans of all stripes.
Food for thought:
I had a moment at around the 8 hour mark where I’d been exploring the game’s first area for about and hour and a half. I was perfectly happy jumping across chasms, into lakes and up the sides of mountains when I reached the top of a peak that I had seen earlier. As I panned the camera across the view I noticed that one structure in the distance didn’t look like the other natural outcroppings. It was deliberately designed. This was the first time I realized that there might be other intelligent life on this planet. I felt an unbridled sense of joy and discovery. This faint silhouette in the distance was more of a driving force for me to play than any quest marker or waypoint has ever been.
Review based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.
Release Date: Decemeber 4th, 2015