Gaming is capable of remarkable things. It can give you challenges to overcome. It can give you incredible stories to experience. But more than anything, it can give you a world. It can give you a world not merely to examine and marvel at, but to be a part of, to interact with. It is in that respect that Xenoblade Chronicles X finds itself a near unmatched success. The world is an unbelievable one, utterly immersive, with something to look at or do always mere seconds away. Unfortunately, the rest of the game has some major issues that hold it back from being everything it could and should have been.
Welcome to Mira
The basic gameplay comes down to exploring the world of Mira. Planting probes, collecting everything you can find, interacting with NPCs, and fighting indigenous life forms are just some of the activities you will be partaking in. Indeed, the variety of activities are perhaps the most important thing about the gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles X. A giant world is nothing without stuff to do in it, and everything from the collecting, to the exploring, to the fighting makes sure the world is constantly surprising and interesting.
Mira is truly enormous. There are five regions, and they all feel endless when you first start to explore. Massive mountains and ancient structures tower over the scenery as you move about the seamless landscape. Every region is vast, yet all have incredible diversity in them; one moment you will be walking along a mountain pass, the next through a grassland, the next by a massive lake. The area stays consistent and feels like one ecosystem, yet has enough diversity that you don’t feel like you are exploring the same thing over and over again.
In typical Xenoblade fashion, consumables are nonexistent. After every fight, your health automatically refills, and you don’t have to worry about managing your inventory as you head into enemy territory. You also don’t lose anything after you die. The benefits this gives to exploration can not be overstated, as it gives you unlimited freedom to take risks and do stupid things that are fun for fun’s sake. That is something all-important to an open world.
Now, while there are five major regions, there is only one town. New Los Angeles acts as a hub of sorts, the only bastion of civilization in a wild, unexplored world. New Los Angeles is exceptionally realized, with four districts (Industrial, Administrative, Commercial, and Residential) all coming together to feel like a real, living, breathing city. There is enough variety and so many people who have things to say and quests to give you that you’ll never get tired of running around this city, interacting with new people.
Quests are well done for the most part. Some have you take down enemies, other have you collect objects, still others are deliver quests. The addition of an arrow on the map (as well as a “Follow Ball” which leads you to your goal if you run fast enough) changes many sidequests from being open and challenging into a more directed experience. Gathering quests do not have these additions, however, and since you can choose which quests you get for the most part, the title ultimately allows you to choose whether you want a guided experience or an unguided one for much of the time. It will just come down to which quests you prioritize in. Main Quests, however, will force you to play the game in a way you may not want to at times, which can be frustrating.
But of course I can’t forget to mention the most important addition to Xenoblade Chronicles X: the Skells. About halfway into the game (it took me almost 40 hours) you get the ability to ride around in a giant mech suit. So how is it? Well — totally awesome of course. It’s an insanely satisfying experience to suddenly change from running around on foot to jumping higher and going faster. The sheer awesome factor of giant mechs is worth mentioning as well, especially once you get into fighting enemies. You can even customize your Skell’s color to make it feel all your own, something I obsessed over quite extensively.
Even later in the game, you gain the ability to fly, and that changes everything. Not only can you access new areas and data probes, but you can go anywhere at any time with no problem. It totally changes the nature of the gameplay – you go from slowly making your way around the world to instantly being able to reach anywhere. It’s a drastic change, but a brilliant one; it keeps the game from becoming a slog as you finish discovering all the areas and start getting into the minutiae of the quests and tasks.
Everything just works together so insanely well. It is a blast to explore the world, admiring the expansive view, seeking out probes and landmarks, collecting objects big and small, fighting enemies, leveling up, interacting with NPCs, and completing quests. This game is just unbelievably addicting, and it all comes down to these gameplay systems meshing in a way that makes you feel like you are a part of the world.
Engage the Enemy
The battle side of things is a straightforward set of systems that are easy to understand, with a whole lot of complexities to master over the course of the game — and all of it is brilliant. It’s fast paced, requiring both quick and smart thinking and fast reflexes. Going up against a wide variety of challenging enemies leads to countless thrilling battles over the course of the game. While it could have easily gotten repetitive, the game manages to keep itself fresh through a constant stream of new abilities. Plus, the combat is just intrinsically fun, even when fighting the same easy enemies for several hours while grinding.
One thing I love about the game is that in so many ways it allows for different playstyles. It supports those who want either an unguided experience or a guided one in the world. Then it allows for many different combat options, with various classes and weapons and abilities. But then it also supports both talented JRPG players who want to master the system and find a way to take down extra hard enemies, and those who would rather just grind a bunch, slap together the best gear found on accident, and try to win by just overpowering the enemy.
The combat and RPG elements are a marvel to behold. There is so much to the systems, so much to discover and mess with and master. The combat is thrilling, and the RPG elements all benefit the core gameplay in some way. In truth, there is so much to figure out it’s utterly confusing for a long, long time into the game. I’m still not entirely certain why some things happen, and that is probably not good. But it is all worth figuring out, because there is so much on offer, and it is bound to make you obsessed for a long time to come.
A Lackluster Tale
Unfortunately, the story is where the quality starts to take a noticeable dip downwards. Earth is destroyed in the cross-fire between two alien races, and a small section of humanity manages to escape on massive ships. The aliens catch up to one of these ships and destroys it, forcing it to crash down on a mysterious planet called Mira. Two months later, the main character wakes up, joins a military unit called BLADE, and sets out to find an all-important part of the ship’s wreckage.
While the set-up is appealing, the plot ultimately does not develop much; your goal at the start of the game is basically the same as it will be by the end — and there are hardly any real plot twists, certainly none that elicit much surprise or excitement. At the same time, the characters in the story range from average and unimpressive to utterly annoying. The writing lacks any nuance and results in a total lack of successful drama, the beginning takes forever to get going, cutscenes are poorly shot and cut, and the ending is totally disappointing. Not only that, but the main character is designed by the player. He doesn’t talk, nor does he have a personality or personal motivations. This can work for many Western RPGs, but a dead weight in the middle of such a story/cutscene focused game is a disaster. Branching dialogue options don’t make up for that.
On the plus side, the set-up is indeed solid, and there are a few appealing characters. Making your own character at the beginning is admittedly quite fun. But so much brings down the tale, and thus, the story winds up being one of the worst parts of this experience. This is not a game you will be replaying for the story — it’s all about the world. Which again, can be fine, but there is too much of a focus on the story and characters for it to be as lacking as it is.
A Faltering Soundtrack
Now, music is hugely important for an open world game, and unfortunately the music of Xenoblade Chronicles X is an utter disappointment. The first problem is that there are no quiet moments. Hiroyuki Sawano’s score is entirely upbeat, intense, and electric. While that works in some cases, it also does not allow for moments of reflection. At a given moment the music is encouraging you to run, to jump, to explore. But sometimes you don’t want that. Sometimes you find a beautiful new view and want to sit and stare at it for a while. Yet every time I tried, the music would not support my desires, and I would give up trying, instead going to fight another giant monster. The desire to be constantly epic does not allow the game to take advantage of an equally important part of an open world: the serenity. The lone exception to this rule is the region of Sylvalum, which does have a slower, more atmospheric track. As a result, that is by far my favorite area.
One of the best on the soundtrack.
This all leads directly into my second point, which is that little of the music fits anyways. Even when more exciting stuff is necessary, it doesn’t quite work with the environment. Primordia is a sweeping, epic vista, and the music does not get that across. It is a bit hard to explain, but so few of the songs really work with the area; Oblivia has a song that feels perfect for an enemy base, but less so for the desert region that it is. Primordia’s tracks would feel perfect in a jungle, but it does not fit the sweeping plains and towering mountains. Even the excellent tracks of New Los Angeles make no sense in the setting. Running through a quaint park with exciting music in the background just doesn’t work. Not that ALL of the music doesn’t fit — just most of it.
Really though, this all comes down to the simple fact that most of the soundtrack isn’t very good. There are some definitely incredible songs, don’t get me wrong. Many of the New LA tracks are excellent, the aforementioned Sylvalum music is great, Noscilum’s day theme is terrifically atmospheric, and there are some solid battle themes. But for most part, it’s just not that great. I wouldn’t look up any music outside of the game. There are certainly no classics present. It’s a huge step down from the previous game’s unbelievable set of tracks.
A great song once it gets going – but it still doesn’t fit.
Beyond that, so many of the songs are lyrical. The songs that start out the best suddenly stop the awesome melodies to have some singing kick in. It is jarring. I don’t want to hear a rap about how I’m stuck on a different planet while fighting a giant mech. I want to hear something that gets my blood pumping. The flying theme was the greatest offender; after sixty-plus hours waiting to fly, I soared up into the air for the first time, and I could not have been more excited. Then the music kicked into gear, and it was basically disco. Flying is not the incredible experience it should be because the music during it is painful.
Memories of Green
This is a pretty game. An incredibly pretty game, in fact. The scope on display is utterly remarkable, and the art direction does not let it down; at a given moment, you can look around your surroundings and be blown away by the incredible view as mountains, structures, and massive beasts loom in the distance. The attention to detail is superb as well, as even up close, textures look great and animations feel real. Enemies look especially incredible, with the designs and animation bringing them all to life in alien and enrapturing ways. There are beautiful weather effects, with rain, shooting stars, and auroras lending a new look and feel to already stunning vistas. Characters’ faces look a bit off, sure, but this is easily forgivable.
One of the few things to actually complain about is how small the text is. So much is packed into the HUD that everything has to be way too small. As such, it is hard to read your quest details, stats, or what NPCs are saying without leaning forward and/or squinting.
My main problem, though, is one many are sure to disagree with: the game lacks for sheer charm. Everything is dark and a bit gritty. It doesn’t lend to quite the same sense of wonder as before. There are still plenty of occasions where you will want to stop and gape in awe at a new view, or laugh at how insanely awesome something is, but it doesn’t have quite have the same effect as maybe it could have if things were brighter, more cheerful, more encouraging of an adventurous spirit rather than a spirit of desperate survival.
But again: many will disagree, and the game is not lacking for stunning views. Make no mistake, this game looks incredible, and the technical prowess necessary to make it all fit together with no loading times is quite the marvel.
Only on Wii U
Xenoblade Chronicles X is, of course, exclusively on the Wii U, and that lends it certain advantages. The Gamepad allows for off-TV play, first of all, which is always an awesome addition. In this case, it always feels like you are looking through a window into another world. It works especially well during grinding segments, as I found myself watching Netflix frequently while leveling up to beat a challenging boss.
When the TV is showing the action, the Gamepad is used to show the map. It works terrifically, as you can glance down at your map and see where you are at a moment’s notice; there is no waiting for it to be pulled up. Understanding your situation is a head tilt away. The touch screen allows for easy maneuvering through maps and the like, as well.
There are also a large variety of online features. I didn’t do much with these, but I did get a taste — and that taste was very enjoyable. You can recruit other players’ profiles into your party for a short time if you so desire; these profiles will show up all across Mira, as well as in the multiplayer hub. It’s a cool addition, though I rarely used them. You can join squads with 31 other people and complete quests that pop up every few hours as you play; quests that have you kill a set number of certain enemies. Regardless of who kills these enemies in the squad, everyone gets a reward. The developers call this “passive” multiplayer, and that is a good description. It is easy to ignore, but they are there if you get in the mood.
Completing these will open up real Squad quests, where you can directly team up with up to three other players to take down enemies in a gauntlet of sorts, and these are the main attraction. Teaming up with another player or three as you fight your way through a series of increasingly challenging enemies is just a blast; my only problem is how you have to unlock them. Me and the other guy in my squad wanted to jump right into another quest after we died the first time, but the game wouldn’t let us without completing more passive Squad tasks, so we shrugged our shoulders and turned off the game. Still, it was super fun while it lasted, and those who invest more time and attention into this system will find a lot to enjoy, because it promises many good times with friends.
There are many complaints to be made with Xenoblade Chronicles X. The game is certainly not lacking for issues, both small and large. And yet when I look back at my experience as a whole, I find myself just not caring about those problems. The story and characters are a bit dull, but I still played the game over five hours a day. The music may not have fit very well, but I still was in love with exploring everything I could. There are almost no moments of serenity, but I still stopped to stare at the view. I was confused about some elements 50 hours in, but I still kept playing and figuring stuff out. Some quests are a bit frustrating, and most lack any real depth, but I still did them anyways and had a blast doing it.
That is because ultimately, in what the game tries to do, it succeeds completely: it creates an incredible, breathtaking, awe-inspiring world that is an absolute joy to run around in, to fight in, to collect in, to look around in, to be in. It may not have done so flawlessly, but Xenoblade Chronicles X gave me one of the finest worlds gaming has to offer, and it populated that world with incredible things to do. You have the option to be a part of that world as well. And while you should not expect perfection or anything near it, I can say with absolute certainty that you should play Xenoblade Chronicles X.