"Xenoblade Chronicles X" is a confusing game. On one hand, it’s a pretty classic Japanese role playing game about saving the world in giant armor suits, but it’s also sort of built like a modern MMO with clans and raids. There’s a central story to tie it all together for solo players of course, but "Xenoblade Chronicles X" is far more interesting when you put the story on the back burner and chart its vast, breathtaking world. There’s not a terrible amount of structure, and the game never holds your hand, but it brings Nintendo’s beleaguered console some real RPG credibility for the first time in its lifespan, and some of the best use of the WiiU Gamepad to boot.
Say what you will about the WiiU’s lack of power (and I will, later), but Xenoblade can be absolutely awe-inspiring. What it lacks in polygons is overshadowed by its beautiful use of color, weather, atmosphere, and scale. It’s been described as “pure scenery porn,” about as accurate of a description as you’ll ever see. The first time I saw an aurora in the night sky, there was an audible “wow,” followed by a few minutes of silent observation. I can’t remember the last game that gave me the same feeling.
But it’s not just the sky, the oceans, the mountains -- what populates them commands respect as well. "Xenoblade Chronicles X" manages to pull off the same effect that made its predecessor so memorable, with a great variety of indigens (the monsters indigenous to the planet) that make the planet Mira feel like a tangible ecosystem. You’ll encounter plenty of foes who are your size or smaller, but they exist to feed into the larger beasts in the chain, some of whom are as large as the mountains you’re trying to scale. They drink lakes for breakfast, and they’ll have you as a snack if you approach them on foot. Once you can take to the sky, you’ll cross paths with wondrously fantastic aerial enemies that shimmer and glow.
The sheer volume of places to visit and quests to complete is astounding. Even 30 hours in, I had barely surveyed of the starting zone of “Primordia,” nevermind the other areas of the planet. Mira’s landscape is well-varied, with a treasure trove of secret locations and mountains to traverse, and you can go literally anywhere you can see. I’ve poured dozens of hours just into wandering.
Exploration isn’t the only open-ended feature. There are 16 character classes to pick from, and you can switch anytime you like without repercussion. Your class progress remains even when you switch, so you’re encouraged to try out new combinations whenever the mood strikes. Generally, you can be successful with any class, as long as you adapt your tactics to different enemies’ fighting styles and weaknesses.
What’s also versatile is the WiiU GamePad. This is probably the best integration of the GamePad since ZombiU; most titles use it as a second screen (which this will do too), but it’s designed to be an essential part of the game. It’s used for fast travel points, maps, survey probes, and communication.
More impressive is the dynamic weather system. Regions of Mira have their own random weather patterns, and it’s not uncommon for the skies to open and unleash a torrential downpour as you take down a massive boss monster. It’s not just for show, either -- different weather conditions change the buffs and debuffs at play, so you might find yourself super susceptible to shocks all of a sudden. Weather creates some truly -- and I hesitate to use the word, but epic -- moments, especially combined with the game's frankly outstanding soundtrack.
There are a lot of other small touches that show Monolith’s attention to detail here, like armor and clothing customization (a feature carried over from the first game, but in much greater detail), sassy NPC dialogue , and references to previous Xenoblade and Xenosaga titles. "Xenoblade Chronicles X" really does do a lot right, and I’ve enjoyed almost all of my time with it thus far.
Yet I can’t help but think what it could have been.
One thing constantly nagged at me was how it looks. When you scrutinize it technically, "Xenoblade Chronicles X" looks like a game that could have come out four or five years ago. The WiiU can do only so much -- in fact, you have to install four data packs to get the game to run well, at the expense of half the WiiU’s hard disk space. Half! Imagine how beautiful this would be on PS4. But Monolith Soft is wholly owned by Nintendo.
Also, the story in "Xenoblade Chronicles X" is...well, it’s a good concept but the execution isn’t so super. “Save humanity” is a classic Japanese RPG story trope for good reason, and when you add in gigantic, pilotable mechs, you’ve got a good recipe. But "Xenoblade Chronicles X" falters in its pacing and character deliveries. Your own created character is a blank canvas (drawn from a disappointingly light character creator) but that leaves the two major party members Elma and Lin to serve as the game’s big personalities, and they leave a lot to be desired.
Lin is funny, impulsive, and actually rather enjoyable to watch, but Elma is, for the most part, the taciturn leader. They’re the only two who will really be with you the whole time. There are plenty of other characters you can recruit for certain missions, but they don’t level up outside your party. As you would imagine, taking a level 12 fighter along on a level 25 mission never goes very well.
There are “Affinity” missions and “Heart-to-Heart” cutscenes that flesh out these characters’ backgrounds (aforementioned secondary characters included), but they’re so far removed from the main story that it’s difficult for anyone to make a consistent impact.
The main missions progress at a snail’s pace; often, they require not only a certain level (which makes sense, you’ll need to fight enemies of a particular strength echelon) but also completion of mostly unimportant side quests. You can’t just start Chapter 6 after Chapter 5; you’ll have to spend another 6 hours doing side missions and farming some insignificant materials first. It’s not terrible if you happen to have already completed the right side and Affinity missions beforehand, but usually it just serves to distract you from the main plot for another handful of hours. As a result, I found myself coming back to story chapters, listening to the commander’s instructions and thinking, “Oh yeah, those are the people we’re fighting right now. Forgot about them.”
Of course, this is offset by the extreme freedom you have to take things at your own pace rather than worry about a narrative, but I’d say that the first Xenoblade Chronicles had the better idea.
Speaking of the first game, "Xenoblade Chronicles X" retains the skeleton of its predecessor’s battle system. It’s a real time/MMORPG mashup with auto-attack and sets of skills, but toned down for easier fights. If you’ve played the first game, you’ll find this much simpler, with better-explained and more effective skills along with the lack of “Chain Attacks” and “Premonitions” to worry about. It’s not a bad system, though it definitely has its quirks (such as relying on skills’ side effects and timed button presses to heal, rather than have direct healing skills).
Controlling the flow of battle can be overwhelming, however. Your computer-controlled partners are mildly intelligent, though they tend to push their luck. You can issue individual orders, but to do so you have to open up a cumbersome submenu in real time. Instead, you wind up relying on the simpler hotkeys (assemble, melee attacks, ranged attacks) for the entire party. A good human party won’t run into these issues as much, though it won’t be terribly easy considering the WiiU’s lack of voice chat.
Also, the lip-syncing in cutscenes is spotty at best. Maybe they’re lined up for the original Japanese performances, but there’s no option to switch to them. More worryingly, the dialogue struggles to compete with the game’s score during cutscenes; dialogue is a few decibels too soft, and often overpowered by what’s supposed to be underlying music. Thank God for subtitles.
And it’ll probably take you 40 hours (or about halfway through the story) to get your first “Skell,” the mech suits Xenoblade teases on its menu screen. The Skells are insanely cool, and they allow you to go new places and fight previously inaccessible enemies. I wish it didn’t take so long to get one, but I can see the wisdom in the wait.
But there’s one simple design choice that really bothers me. One save file. In a 100+ hour RPG.
If anyone can explain the reasoning for that, I’m listening.
With all that said, "Xenoblade Chronicles X" is still one of the best games I’ve played this generation. Sure, there are technically better RPGs out there, but its sheer devotion to exploration and the atmosphere it creates never ceased to elicit a smile. To get the best out of it, you’ll have to spend at least 75 hours in the world -- but that’s the draw. If you’re looking for a WiiU game to really sink your teeth into, this is it.
Xenoblade Chronicles X was reviewed with a copy provided by Nintendo of America. It released December 4, 2015 in North America and Europe.