Xenoblade Chronicles X review
A full 178 hours later and we finally get my first Rare Gamer article of 2016. Took me long enough.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is the spiritual successor to the Wii JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles. Produced by good old Nintendo and developed by Monolith Software, this open-world game may have story and quests like a Western-style RPG but also sports a combat system and art style that you'd expect from more Japanese-type games.
The premise here is that not long in the future, two alien races decide to use our solar system as the next battleground in their galactic war. Earth is caught in the crossfire. In one last, desperate move, the major governments of our world come together to build giant space ships to escape certain doom. As far as we know, only one ship even escaped Earth's orbit: the White Whale, an American ship. The White Whale and her crew evaded the raging battle and wandered the cosmos for two years.
Eventually, one of the combatant species, the Ganglion, hunted down the Whale and destroyed it almost completely. It crash landed on an unknown alien planet where our game takes place. The player controls a customizable avatar as one of the last survivors of mankind. After being revitalized, you are introduced to planet Mira, a world that conveniently has a breathable atmosphere, a living ecosystem of plants and animals, sapient life, and gravity similar to Earth's. You are brought to New Los Angeles, part of the habitation unit of the White Whale and the impromptu hub of an organization called B.L.A.D.E (the Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth). With all of B.L.A.D.E. ex-military, scientists and engineers, the best and brightest of humanity must pull together and locate the Lifeholds, the containers of all of our species' history that have been scattered all over the planet.
After a lengthy introduction to the premise and game play, Xenoblade Chronicles X basically lets you out into the world to figure everything else out for yourself. No hand-holding here. Pick a class, grab some armor and weapons, find some team mates, and go out and find something. Before taking on a single quest, I wandered blindly around Mira for over twenty-five hours. The game world is that gigantic. Mira is divided into five continents:
The denizens of NLA have hundreds of quests for you to accomplish, usually in the realm of item collection (find a number of the glowing, blue things on the ground), material gathering (strip enemies of unique craftables) and bounties (hunt a number of a specific enemy type). Some of these enemies can be regular monsters out in the field. Like grexes, leviaths, duogills, adseculas, sylooths, millesaurs or Prone soliders. Others may be Tyrants, or singular foes so powerful that they are given names, such as Caesar: the Hundred-Eyed, Asana: the Azure Star, or Telethia: the Endbringer.
The combat system used to fight any of these baddies has been improved upon greatly from the first Xenoblade. When in range, all four members of your party will auto-attack with either a melee or a ranged weapon. Weapons vary by class of which there are sixteen. At the bottom of the screen are your Arts, also specific to a class. Arts can do melee damage, ranged damage, buff up your party, debuff your enemies, or employ an Aura which can have a wide variety of effects on the battle. Once an Art is used, it will take time to reload before reuse.
An interesting addition to X is secondary cool-down. After an Art reloads, it will start reloading a second time. If you let an Art complete its second cool-down, it will give you bonus effects, usually in the form of huge damage boosts or increased stat buffs. These Arts can be upgraded through the course of the game to improve efficacy and cool-down times.
Part way through the story, you will unlock an ability called Overdrive. Overdrive allows you to consume 3,000 Tension Points (gained by auto-attacking or some Arts) to enter a mode in which all your Arts reload at a rapid pace. Continually pump out your Arts one after the other to land extra damage, help your allies, and extend Overdrive time. It's a cool idea, but I much prefer Shulk's Monado from the first game. Predicting the future felt so much more rewarding than stringing rapid-fire colored icons together.
To add even more variety to the game, B.L.A.D.E. eventually allows you to pilot a Skell, or this game's answer to piloted mechs. Your avatar can climb into a walking, transforming robot that you can equip with its own array of weapons and armor. Skells may be extremely expensive, but their sheer power is undeniable. Skell mobility is essential to traversing the plains, jungles, deserts and mountains of Mira. What helps even more is when your Skells can learn to fly. Then the whole world opens up to you.
In terms of design, I can hardly think of a game world that I can get lost in exploring more than Mira. With no loading times between areas, the planet is packed with deep caverns, high peaks, animal hordes, merchant caravans, alien military bases, and FrontierNav Sites. All around Mira there are pillars of light glowing in specific segments of the map. These sites are for planting Data Probes for B.L.A.D.E.'s mining network. Probes harvest money, materials, and a useful resource called miranium, all of which are used in NLA's gear shops and in completing quests. But really it's a reason to get you out and exploring.
This whole exploring business I love, but not it's not without its faults. When questing to recover certain collectibles or materials, the game gives you little to no indication to where those things actually are. Collectibles are divided by region. You could explore a continent for hours and still not find any if you don't know where to look. Materials are gleaned from enemies. Yet the game doesn't tell you where those enemies are. Guess you just have to keep an eye out for them during your travels. Why not add a cursor on the radar? Or at least more details in the briefing.
Visually, the world of Mira is stunning. Hidden scenic vistas are hidden in every nook and cranny. Sunsets, aurora borealises, Tyrants flying in the distance and floating islands in the sky all compose these landscapes that take my breath away every single time. I'm continually spellbound. The remarkable imagination required to not only think of such a sci-fi world but to cram it with so many collectibles, creatures, people and things to do is just staggering to me. Every canyon, cave and crevice is so packed with content. I have never tired of traveling across this planet so far and I probably never will.
The problem with such a world is the hardware. The Wii U can handle a game of this graphic intensity, but at a cost. There is some serious pop-in with textures, people and animals. Some pop-in isn't a huge problem. But sometimes I'd drive across a bridge, only to find myself right in the center of a troop of guardian robots still waiting to be loaded. In a few cut scenes, the dialogue starts before the floor and walls appear. Come on now. If you can, download the free data loading packs from the eShop. They'll do wonders.
One aspect of the first Xenoblade that returns here is the Affinity Chart. In short, the humongous, inter-connected web of NPCs has grown even larger in X to accomodate all of NLA and a few alien species: the Nopon (tiny wandering merchants), the Man-on (peaceful yet naive race also stuck on Mira), the Prone (warrior clans), the Definians (shape shifters up to no good), the Orphe (asexual insect people), the Zaruboggan (artificial beings in protective suits) and the Wrothians (proud feline race). So far I've spent over a hundred hours easily simply talking to people in NLA and becoming involved in their lives. There are lots of stories of people adapting to living on Mira with aliens after spending most of their lives on Earth. Lots of Earth nostalgia going on here. Many NPCs feel lost, angry, and confused with all that's going on. Others are just as vexed by losing their home world but are optimistic and willing to collaborate with alien races to survive. Of course, there are some bad apples who are less than accepting of a multi-species society. You also complete quests for your xenomorph allies as they work tirelessly to adapt to human society. The unique stories and perspectives on this plot's premise had me engaged in a pretty profound way.
The writing itself plays out simply enough. Your avatar is retrieved by a B.L.A.D.E. colonel named Elma who introduces you to New LA and to all your other B.L.A.D.E. comrades. You have Lin (thirteen year-old engineering genius), Irina (cold-hearted warrior), Gwin (honest guy), Lao (angsty, silent dude), L (blue alien with poor grasp of English), Doug (ballsy soldier), H.B. (kind of a prick), Hope (goodie-two-shoes), Alexa (adorkable Skell enthusiast), Bozé (a samurai at heart), Yelv (ex-military bro), Celica (timid alien with a heart of gold), Murderess (supreme bitch), Mia (lovable ditz), Frye (robust alcoholic), Phog (beta male among beta males) and Nagi, the secretary of the stand-in human government. It's an extended cast of well-written characters each with a strong presence and great voice work.
As the plot progresses, there are some nice twists and turns. There are lies, betrayal, and secrets hidden in the wreckage of the White Whale. The main antagonists, the mob-like Ganglion armies, are given some purpose and motivation by the end of the story. The role of the Ganglion and humans and Mira is all rather convoluted, but I suppose it's all explained concisely enough. The plot here is more a vehicle to explore the setting and characters than anything. In that, it works.
There is also an online component for those willing to be more social. While you can't play the same story with friends locally or online, you can team up with friends or strangers to accomplish timed bounty missions. Each mission will earn you exclusive loot that is needed for some high-level Skell and gear crafting. Even while playing the single player, everyone with an active internet connection will be assigned a squad with thirty or so other players. Squad members are all doing their own things offline. They have the option to hunt down specific species of creatures in return for squad tickets which can be spent on crafting materials.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a very niche game. It's very Japanese in story tropes, art style and game mechanics but very Western in its world design and quests. This blend of cultural tastes fascinates me as much as the unique and breath-taking landscapes across Mira. I fell in love with the combat system, the depth of interaction with the people of New Los Angeles and the unfettered sense of adventure that colors every corner of this tremendous world. Sure, X has its flaws in the graphical department and the stuff-gathering department. For me, those don't even come close to denting the visage of one of my new favorite RPGs.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is not for everyone. But anyone willing to put the time and energy into this very complex system of combat and connectivity will surely be rewarded with a deep and mesmerizing experience that I cannot recommend enough.
Categories: Reviews, Wii U