Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U
I just couldn’t do it. I normally make a point of ensuring that I finish every game that I review here, but 60 hours in and several hours of grinding ahead of me, I had to call it quits. I reckon my playtime has given me enough time to justify giving a verdict however. Xenoblade Chronicles X has the greatest open world of any JRPG that I have ever played and one of the most striking settings in gaming ever; it’s also exhausting and, at times, a little dull.
With no connections to the excellent Wii Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X begins in 2054 with the destruction of Earth when it is caught in the crossfire between two warring alien races. Several ark ships were sent out to save a tiny sliver of humanity, but the White Whale, the ship from LA, is the only one to survive. After drifting through space for two years, the White Whale is attacked again by the alien force known as the Ganglion and crash lands on the planet of Mira. There, they establish the city of New Los Angeles, or NLA. A beautiful and dangerous planet teeming with life, it is the task of the elite military group BLADE to scour Mira for life pods containing other survivors from the White Whale, along the way meeting many alien races, some friendly and some hostile. Most important is the Lifehold Core, which holds a vast number of human lives and is lost somewhere on Mira.
There are elements of the story which I liked, but overall it isn’t nearly as effective as that of the original Xenoblade Chronicles. The whole experience is less linear, with only 12 core main missions. This isn’t a problem; in fact the structure is quite interesting, but the sense of adventure inherent in the gameplay is lacking in the story. More effective are some of the side quests; some are voice acted and tell some good stories, but the best ones are some that aren’t, which is a shame. They’re inconsistent though and separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t easy. Mira is a fascinating setting and I loved the range of alien races introduced, some with well thought out and interesting cultures. The tone is all over the place though, with the return of the Nopon species from the original Xenoblade Chronicles often throwing in lashings of goofy comedy in moments which really don’t call for it. I’m also not a fan of the player generated character; I liked the goofy, good natured Shulk of the original and missed having an actual protagonist with a personality. Lin and Elma, two BLADEs who join you for most of your journey are great characters, but few others get much of a chance to shine. The story isn’t terrible, but it was far from my main motivation to keep playing.
Xenoblade Chronicles X takes a wise sequel approach, taking the best element of the original and blowing it up into the core mechanic. The first time I entered Gaur Plains in Xenoblade Chronicles, after a fairly irritating and linear opening, was stunning. Even on the little old Wii, the sense of scale and grandeur was astonishing, with the wonderful music making everything better. As fantastic as the setting on Xenoblade Chronicles was, there wasn’t always much reason to explore, but in X that now becomes the main focus. There are five vast continents to explore; there’s the grassy plains of Primordia, the mysterious jungle of Noctilum, the barren plains of Oblivia, the ice wasteland of Sylvalum and finally the volcanic hell hole of Cauldros. Your plot reason for exploring is FrontierNav, which sees you planting data probes around Mira to seek the location of the Lifehold Core. The FrontierNav map is displayed on the Wii U gamepad and contains a lot of information and you can fast travel at will. Mira is stunningly beautiful and varied, but the exploration is massively helped by how good the core movement mechanics are. You run ridiculously fast and jump very high, which makes exploration feel exciting rather than a chore. It’s interesting; I play a lot of games for that feeling of discovery and exploration, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of the few which focuses on it as its primary mechanic.
Less successful is the combat, which is similar to Xenoblade Chronicles but ultimately less satisfying. It’s still MMO style, with auto-attacking and a bar with attacks which cool down between use. The topple system returns, but is simplified and feels less satisfying to pull off. The chain attacks are also gone, which removes a really satisfying element from the combat. The lack of the Monado doesn’t help either, with the lack of visions from the future making the whole thing less interesting. There’s more going on at a granular, statistic based level, but in terms of the actual fun and enjoyment of the combat it’s a real step backwards. The ability to switch at will between melee and ranged weapons is interesting, but ultimately not that meaningful. I loved exploring Mira and gawking at the weird creatures which populated it, but killing them wasn’t nearly as fun.
I haven’t even mentioned one of the most notable things about Xenoblade Chronicles X; the Skells. If you know anything about this game, it’s probably that it involves piloting giant mechs. This is one of the most hyped features but doesn’t become available until roughly 20 hours in. The ability to fly isn’t unlocked until about 10 hours after that! Now, this sounds awful but in practice it really isn’t. The pacing for Xenoblade Chronicles X actually works, up until the final hours, very well. The fact that the on foot movement is so fluid and fun helps and the addition of the Skell comes at the perfect time in the story to reinvigorate your desire to explore. I wasn’t a huge fan of the 10 side missions of busy work which you have to do, but I genuinely didn’t see the pacing as an issue. Regardless, the wait is very much worth it. Riding around in the Skell is an absolute joy and the addition of flight later on feels glorious. It brings with it a shift in perspective; you move from a tiny figure barely surviving in a dangerous world to a master of the land and skies, soaring above it all. One downside is that I enjoyed the Skell gameplay so much that I didn’t want to go back, which the game occasionally forced me to do.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is an almost aggressively complicated experience, with a vast number of systems in play. For example, there are two separate currencies. There’s your standard credits, used to buy new weapons/armor etc, but there’s also Miranium, which is used to fund arms manufacturers to create new weapons as well as some other odds and ends. There are three separate upgrade paths: your standard level, one based on your class and a third BLADE level which determines which resources you’re able to harvest in the field. Honestly, for me it was a bit much. I know some people go gaga for this level of number crunching, but it just isn’t for me. Coupled with how little I enjoyed the combat, I soon found myself hitting a difficulty wall. Now, this is where a lot of internet types would blame me for just being bad at the game, but the simple reality is that I write this blog to express my feelings about the game and I felt that the level of complexity took away from the chief strength of this game; its magnificent and beautiful world.
Let me talk a bit more about this world; the Wii U may not exactly be a powerhouse, but you wouldn’t know it from the vistas on display on Mira. The vast draw distance helps make the world feel truly epic and the sense of scale is glorious. It’s also wonderfully weird and imaginative, with the most beguiling JRPG setting since..well, Xenoblade Chronicles. I really cannot express how wonderful it feels to explore Mira. Even though many of the core mechanics didn’t work for me, the opportunity to see more of the planet made it all worth it to me. The one downside visually are the truly hideous character models, which are a bit too anime for my tastes, with the majority of female characters seemingly designed to facilitate waifu fantasies. The voice acting is decent, but I’ve got to say I preferred the cheesy performances in the original. It’s slightly more grounded, but the silliness was such as big part of the original’s charm. However, there is one area where Xenoblade Chronicles X is much sillier; the soundtrack. Put simply, Xenoblade Chronicles X has quite possibly the most bizarre soundtrack I’ve ever experienced in a game. So many of the musical choices are utterly strange, with a soundtrack which ranges from operatic grandeur to cheesy power ballads to hip hop. I can tell that the soundtrack is going to be divisive but…well, I love it. I don’t often listen to game soundtracks, but I can see myself listening to this game’s.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fascinating, maddening game. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, but I really enjoyed most of the time that I spent with it. As I get older I’ve realised more and more that JRPG micromanagement of stats and details just isn’t my bag anymore, I just don’t have the time. Some people love this stuff and fair play to them, but I’m in it to experience the world and a sense of adventure. It is a testament to how wonderful a world Monolith Soft created, and how fun it is to explore, that I was able to power through a fair few mechanics that I just didn’t like. If you like nothing more than exploring a strange, bizarre world, Xenoblade Chronicles X is for you.