The bigger, the better.
Xenoblade Chronicles is known among many as the greatest JRPG of the last generation. Boasting a roller coaster narrative and spine-tingling soundtrack, the game was further applauded for its grand open-world and impressive visuals as it pushed the Wii hardware to its very limits. It’s been over four years since the initial English release and now we’re mere days away from developer Monolith Soft’s highly anticipated Wii U project, Xenoblade Chronicles X, but has it been able to live up to expectations?
To avoid any confusion, this is not a direct sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles. It is, however, a successor in spirit and shares many similarities in gameplay and design. It’s not necessary to have played the predecessor, or even have any prior knowledge of it to enjoy this game. Those who have played the original will appreciate the odd nod to past characters and locations. In addition, the references are subtle and infrequent, so newcomers don’t significantly miss out.
Experience with the combat wouldn’t hurt, mind you — Xenoblade X shares a very similar battle system. Action plays out in real-time, consisting of both auto-attacks and moves selected from the Arts palette. Arts are a mix of both offensive and defensive commands, resembled by colorful symbols. Once used, an Art has a “cooldown” period before it can be selected again. Auto-attacking gains tension points, while specific Arts require a set amount of TP to execute. Text descriptions instruct the player on how to effectively use each move. If specific criteria is met, such as a “Back Slash” attack being landed behind a foe, additional damage will be dealt.
For those who already have a rough idea of how it all works, the gameplay should feel instantly familiar. The main difference this time around is the inclusion of both melee and ranged weapons. Some Arts are equipment-specific and will automatically switch weapons upon use, otherwise they can be manually swapped out with the press of a button. Surprisingly enough, the transition feels natural right off the bat.
Xenoblade X does well to expand upon the formula of the previous game early on. Almost immediately accessible, the class system allows the player to switch between different Art move-sets and weapon types on the fly. Skill trees and affinity charts have also been significantly beefed up. There are more intricacies and depth to the gameplay than you can probably imagine. This is the stuff of dreams for any RPG enthusiast, and there is literally something to excite every type of player.
There are even a few returning features which will be sure to please fans. Most notably, the Collectopedia. Split into various sections, from fruits to fauna, it will reward players for registering obtained collectibles. Completing entire rows or individual “lucky” star panels will net items and battle points for upgrading Arts.
Despite these initial similarities to its spiritual predecessor, Xenoblade Chronicles X is an entirely different beast when it comes to theme and subject matter. Set in a futuristic era, Planet Earth has been destroyed by hostile alien races. A portion of mankind managed to evacuate in the White Whale, an enormous interstellar ark ship. After spending years in space, the aliens track the evacuees down and attack, forcing them to crash land on an unfamiliar planet later known as Mira.
The American survivors built a city from the remains of their destroyed ship. “New Los Angeles” is split into numerous districts for work and living purposes. BLADE, the organization in charge, was founded with the intent of securing humanity’s future. Survivors are placed into various divisions in order to complete specific tasks and ensure everyone does their part to help rebuild society. BLADE members must gather resources and help civilians while attempting to live harmoniously alongside the planet’s native species and indigenous creatures, aptly named indigens.
The structure of the narrative and the world design is incredibly different this time around. Aside from its large and open environments, Xenoblade Chronicles offered a linear experience, whereas this title adopts more of an MMO approach. This is made apparent at the very beginning when first creating a protagonist to serve as the player’s avatar throughout the course of the game.
The customization options are fairly standard for an open-world title. There are a selection of base character models to choose from before being able to customize individual features. It’s arguably the longest and most difficult process in these types of games. That’s especially true here — you’ll want to spend as much time as possible making sure your character is perfect, right down to the freckle on the nose, because there’s no easy way to change it later.
After being under the assumption that it would be possible to modify appearance on demand, I was distraught to learn that wasn’t the case, while at the same time, slightly relieved I decided against the purple skin and facial scar. It makes little difference either way; any character whipped together using the interchangeable anime-esque assets is likely to fit into the overall sci-fi aesthetic. For a game with such huge emphasis on freedom and choice, it’s a bizarre and generally disappointing choice to not include it. There is apparently a hidden quest which allows alteration, but there’s a problem: it’s tucked away and never once pointed out to the player.
The story itself is dished out over twelve chapters. However, a number of prerequisites must be met in order to progress. These usually require the player to complete specific “affinity” quests or explore a set amount of a particular region. These restrictions won’t impress everyone, but it’s clear they were included with good intentions. It forces the player to explore and have a taste of everything the game has to offer, instead of rushing straight through the story.
A chapter will typically open with a briefing from BLADE’s commander, and occasionally a humorous and light-hearted cut-scene featuring the main characters. Elma is — for story purposes — the squad leader, Lin is a talented young mechanic, and Tatsu is a lovable Nopon creature who joins the group early on and immediately becomes the heart of the game’s personality. The player’s avatar is a mute for the most part, so the odd dialogue choice is more than welcome every now and then.
Aside from that, the characters are all a likable bunch, while the narrative itself is mostly solid throughout. Unlike the original game’s plot, it didn’t blow me away. While there are a few twists and revelations, they were all a little too predictable and cliched this time. However, the game does explore some interesting and thought-provoking themes. Those, along with some exciting and memorable boss fights, made playing through the story missions worthwhile.
A lot of fans will be upset to discover there is no option for Japanese audio. Personally, I see no issue as the English voice actors have all done a tremendous job at conveying a variety of emotions. At first I was a little skeptical, having heard nothing of the voice acting beforehand, but it didn’t take long at all for me to warm up to the charming cast. Besides, it’s possible to give your avatar a “classic” voice for battle. Depending on gender, you’ll be able to hear the voice of Xenoblade Chronicles’ Adam Howden (Shulk) or Carina Reeves (Fiora) once more — and that’s all you really need.
Upon completing the initial story chapters and joining the BLADE ranks, you’re granted access to the game’s hub, the BLADE Barracks. This is where story missions are initiated and where the Network Console is located and where the majority of online functions are managed, from temporarily recruiting other players’ avatars to initiating online play.
Basic missions can then be accepted from the BLADE terminal in the Administrative District. Defined by social, gathering and bounty requests, up to twenty of these can be accepted at any one time. Normal missions are requests that have been taken up by directly talking to the client and are usually far more personal and time consuming. From here on the game opens up to the player entirely — and that’s where it begins to feel a tad overwhelming, even to a fairly competent JRPG player.
Very little is offered in the way of tutorials. Instead of being eased through each mechanic, everything is dropped on the player at once — from field skills, to division rankings, to various Art classes. This will make adjusting to the gameplay a nightmare for newcomers. It wasn’t until the end of the game that I learned how to revive allies because I got frustrated and decided to look it up. Basically the digital manual is your best friend and there’s no wonder why it’s pinned to the pause menu.
The main duty as a BLADE operative is to survey the land in order to expand FrontierNav. To explore the world effectively and increase the survey rate, there are many tasks to undertake. First and foremost, installing data probes. Once placed, these collect information about their surrounding area as well as rake in revenue in the form of money and Miranium (an equally valuable resource). Managing these is a rewarding game in itself. Different probe types can yield a larger amount of resources and can be chained together to maximize profits.
The GamePad acts as the communications device, and is likely the most useful tool at your disposal. On the map view, each region is divided up into small segments. These detail quests, unique monster or treasure locations, and FrontierNav sites where the data probes are located, as well as other bits and pieces of “recon” which can be completed to increase the survey rate. Segments update as more information is gathered from the residents of New LA, encouraging the player the periodically return to past areas.
While this might sound like an overwhelming amount of tasks to manage, the GamePad makes everything simple once you’ve wrapped your head around the UI (user interface). Wherever you are, it’s possible to check up on literally any event in Mira or quickly fast-travel to different locations. Say you’ve forgotten the mission requirements to progress to the next story chapter, you don’t have to trek all the way back to the hub; instead, you’re able to immediately view its status from the map.
The GamePad can also double up as a secondary screen. Perfect for a spot of Off-TV grinding while you catch up on TV shows. In terms of being able to fully immerse yourself, it’s made very difficult thanks to the game’s notoriously tiny text. While manageable on a HDTV, the controller screen’s lower resolution means reading is quite taxing on the eyes.
As we know from past projects, Monolith’s developers are masters of thoughtfully welding together absolutely massive, yet breathtaking, environments — and now they’ve crafted something larger than the likes of The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. Mira’s five continents are equally enormous, all suitably themed. Primordia is the beginner’s grassland, Noctilum the wild secluded jungle, Oblivia the harsh desert, Sylvalum the icy glacier, and Cauldros the hazardous volcanic mountain.
Exploring these gigantic regions is nowhere near as intimidating as I first imagined. Even without a Skell, the player character is able to effectively cover large areas by endlessly sprinting with no stamina limitations, as well as being able to jump to super-human heights. The lack of fall damage is also useful and makes for some thrilling moments when traveling across the land.
The soundtrack which accompanies you during every step of the journey is absolutely phenomenal. Composer Hiroyuki Sawano has done an outstanding job on his first big game scoring. From powerful orchestrated numbers, to rock music, to rap infused tracks — it all works in favor of the futuristic sci-fi setting. There isn’t a single song I felt was out of place at any point during the game. Each one complemented the scenes and action perfectly.
When it comes to presentation, Mira is hands down the most captivating and believable game world I’ve ever experienced. Each region is teeming with life, whether it’s the great outdoors or the bustling Commercial District. Indigen species themselves even have their own personality and traits. Creatures don’t just aimlessly roam around as they did in the original Xenoblade. Monsters can be seen chasing after each other, rolling around and playing, or even feasting on Mira’s produce — or one other. It’s fascinating to observe and there will always be something new to see.
The attention to detail doesn’t just end there, either. During battle, damage is reflected in the appearance of creatures. By targeting a specific part of the enemy, it’s possible to physically hack appendages off with enough damage. As well as being incredibly satisfying to perform, it can also award specific material drops which would have been otherwise impossible to obtain from the enemy.
Even more impressive, this dynamic, detailed world is entirely seamless; there are no loading screens. Once out in the field, it’s possible to travel between the huge continents without interruption. Load times are only necessary at the start of a cut scene, entering a building in New LA, or using fast travel.
Over 55 hours spent exploring and not once have I encountered a single glitch or bug. No clipping through mountains, no audio or graphical cut-outs, no crashes. Nothing to once break my sense of immersion. Impressively enough, the game remained consistently stable from start to finish. For an open-world game of its size and scale, this is so refreshing to experience, on Nintendo hardware no less.
Aside from technical and aesthetic advancements, a number of smaller design choices made have greatly improved upon the existing formula. Many steps have been taken to ensure the game is as convenient for the player as possible. Gone are the days of treasure chests falling down mountains; battle spoils are now presented to the player as soon as the fight ends. It’s also possible to sell items from the inventory no matter where you are on the map.
However, the most useful and immediately noticeable example of this can be seen when executing missions. If related to a quest, a bold green exclamation mark will hover above the heads of monsters and CPUs. Don’t remember the name of the monster you need to kill? No matter, simply scout the area until the sign pops up. Best of all, the mission doesn’t even need to be set as the navigation target for this to kick in – the handy feature applies to all on-going quests.
The developers went to great lengths to ensure the gameplay feels accessible yet enjoyable for both genre newcomers and JRPG fanatics. Take the equipment customization, for example. While experienced players can get stuck into the complexities with weapon and armor stats, picking out the most powerful items doesn’t have to be an intimidating process for newbies. There’s an option included in both ground and Skell gear to automatically equip the “strongest gear” for each character.
There is but one glaring inconvenience in the game’s otherwise spot-on design: a party member needs to be active to gain experience and level up. This becomes a problem when a specific character is required in the party to undertake and finish a mission. Remember that guy you unlocked at the beginning of the game and haven’t touched since? Well, after 30 hours he is waiting, and at a good twenty levels beneath you too, giving you a great disadvantage in battle until he inevitably catches up. While it’s certainly no game breaker, it’s a frustrating step backward from the original game which handled leveling perfectly.
My small grievances were all but forgotten at around 25 hours into the game. Halfway through the story, the mission to earn the Skell License becomes available. Skells are humanoid robots that are about four times the size of regular humans. Simply picture a Transformer and you’ve got the idea. Upon completing a number of small quests, you obtain your very first — and boy is it worth the wait.
In terms of control, the Skell feels like a natural progression from foot. Jump height is dramatically increased and the speed of vehicle mode is unmatched. Adjusting to the new pace can take some time and is initially a little clumsy. You’ll accidentally ride your bike right into the sights of a hostile enemy that’s a good twenty levels above you. Sometimes you’ll get away without a scratch, other times you won’t be so lucky; Skells have their own HP and once reduced to zero, it’s destroyed. Thankfully the game is very forgiving to learner drivers; destroyed vehicles can be replaced free of charge up to three times, courtesy of Skell insurance. There is also a quicktime chance to nab a free recovery for each mishap and, best of all, it doesn’t eat into the insurance.
Skell combat is near identical to ground. Fighting is carried out through auto-attacks and Arts. The only difference being that the latter is also attached to physically equipped weapons — no weapons means no Arts. Overdrive is an interesting addition which grants a short burst of invincibility in exchange for TP/GP. Then there’s Cockpit Mode, a randomly triggered event which temporarily cools down all Arts. The difference in power between ground and Skell is noticeable. It isn’t long before you end up with a whole squad of robots and start slicing through larger enemies like butter.
When you start believing it couldn’t get more satisfying, you obtain the flight pack which allows Skells to go airborne. As soon as I took to Primordia’s skies in a mech and the main theme kicked in, I got some intense goosebumps to say the least. It was like playing the game for the first time and being taken back by the world’s sheer beauty. Everything can be seen from a whole new perspective. It was as though any and all restrictions had been lifted. Suddenly, it feels as though you’ve conquered Mira and nothing is out of reach, and it’s brilliant.
Better still, Skells are much smoother to pilot than they are to drive around, plus a great deal more convenient. Floor hazards and aggressive ground dwellers are bothersome no longer — you can just fly right over them. Traveling around the sky is pure bliss. It’s just a shame that the mechanisms require fuel to perform most tasks. Fuel is consumed while in battle, each time an Art is used, and while in flight. Fuel is refilled automatically, but very slowly when not using the Skell, and that even includes when the game is turned off. Otherwise fuel is a costly resource and nuisance, typically requiring lots of Miranium to fully restore.
The last feature worth mentioning is the online play. Up to four players can form a party online to take on squad missions and there’s even a time attack mode which pits your team against a boss from the story mode — the idea is to compete with players for the best result. While I haven’t been able to try it out for myself, it’s a promising feature and an attractive bonus for multiplayer fans.
The game is so stuffed with content, I’m genuinely baffled as to how it all managed to fit on a single disc. At 55 hours in, I’ve completed the story missions and worked through an adequate helping of quests, yet it feels as though I’ve barely scratched the surface. For context, I managed to get around 250 of 750 achievements, max out half of the sixteen battle classes, and was left with an overall survey rate of around 18 percent. There is a good 300+ hours to squeeze out of the game, and that is a simply insane amount of value in my eyes.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is the most ambitious console RPG I’ve ever played, and quite easily my favorite Nintendo game of 2015. The overall scope and the sheer amount of content is mind-boggling. Monolith Soft has once again demonstrated its fantastic ability to push hardware to its limit. Whether it’s a continuation of the Xenoblade series or not, I’m extremely excited to see what this talent could do with an even more powerful system. Until then, I’m climbing in my Skell and getting stuck in every nook and cranny of the astonishing world of Mira.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It debuted in Japan on April 29, 2015 and will launch in North America and Europe on December 4, 2015.
Review copy provided by Nintendo