Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X

Wii U owners and JRPG fans alike have been hotly anticipating Xenoblade Chronicles X since its reveal back in 2013. Monolith Soft’s sequel to the 2010 Wii epic, Xenoblade Chronicles, has garnered widespread appeal and mainstream attention of those who have even a passing interest in the genre. It’s hung its hat on the giant open world in which players can do practically anything, yet it’s more than just its massive environments; it’s one of the most robust, fully-featured roleplaying games around — Japanese or otherwise — thanks to its core story, a cast of unique characters, deep customization options and its fleshed out multiplayer suite. Needless to say, gamers have been anxiously awaiting Xenoblade Chronicles X with good reason.

Let’s get this out of the way now: X‘s story is nowhere near as involved or developed as its predecessor. There’s a central narrative and its cast of characters do an admirable job of delivering big climax moments, but overall the core story this time around almost feels like an after-thought. It starts off slow, gathers steam after the first ten hours or so, includes a few climactic twists, but never fully executes a tale that feels as thematically important or interesting as the first game. In fact, it’s safe to say that the plot in X is merely an impetus to get players traversing the massive landscape and doing all the things it lets folks do. What’s strange is it’s so not the game’s focus that you indeed spend more time exploring and fighting than you do watching important cutscenes or learning about character’s histories. This is partly because of how the story is designed.

Certain requirements must be met in order to take on story quests. Once players accomplish one of these narrative missions, however, they usually are not the level needed to immediately take on the next one, essentially requiring them to grind between plot segments. This is an intentional design decision and one that is both beneficial and detrimental to the play-experience. Clearly — and unlike the original Xenoblade — story is not X‘s focus or strong suit. The developers knew this and worked around it, because while it takes a while to see the story through because of the parameters put on the aforementioned missions, more time is in fact spent on side quests, customization, multiplayer and just traipsing across the enormous planet of Mira. As a result, players are somewhat spared of the story, which is nice because that means they get to spend their time on other parts of the game that evidently got more of the developer’s love and attention. On the flipside, however, this means that those looking to play X strictly for its narrative will be left disappointed by the lack thereof and frustrated by the number of proverbial hoops they have to jump through just to get to the next portion of story quests.

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Moreover, what is there in the way of story isn’t terribly compelling. This is mostly due to how trope-ish it is. Granted, story “quality” is mostly a subjective thing — because one man’s J.R.R. Tolkein is another man’s Stephenie Meyer — but there isn’t a lot of gravity to the events that unfold in X, despite on paper there clearly being plenty of gravity to said events. It’s how these narrative crescendos are built up to that get in the way of enjoyment, as well as the sheer amount of time that passes between story segments, often times taking players out of the moment. Don’t get us wrong, there’s a decent, albeit it formulaic, space opera to be told in X; there are even scenes and entire story pieces that are gripping and consequential — primarily as the conflict bubbles to an eruption between the humans that have been forced to settle on Mira and the various factions of aliens and native-creatures. There are a few substantial battle scenes that involve countless numbers of soldiers, mechs and ships, and it’s in these moments that glimpses of the epic story that could have been are seen.

The cast is also a bit of a mixed bag. Elma and Lin are standouts, feeling like well-realized characters with clear motivations and personalities, but there are other throwaway characters who are just along for the ride, seen and/or cared about onlu when outfitting them for combat. Fortunately, the characters that are good are really good. Elma is a richly developed character, made all the more affable thanks to some wonderful localization work on the part of 8-4. 8-4 and Nintendo may have decided to cut out certain parts due to censorship reasons, but the quality of the actual prose is good. It’s made even more impressive by just how much dialogue there is. So much of the interesting characters come from the dialogue that was written and then localized effectively. It’s also remarkable that, despite how titanic the script is, there’s rarely any kind of typos, writing errors or grammatical faux pas.

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The writing, characters and overall story are only a fraction of what X has to offer, because gameplay reins supreme. For starters, the world is massive which means that the amount of things to simply do in it feel overwhelmingly limitless at times. There’s a formula at the center of it all: get a quest, do some searching around New Los Angeles (the hub-world), mess around with equipping all the right gear for one’s entire party, then venture out into the field and kill stuff. Combat is the name of the game in X and the majority of the experience will be spent locked in the tide of battle.

X has employed the battle engine of its predecessor, making it a hybrid system of turn-based and real-time combat. Think of the fighting as something akin to an MMORPG like World of Warcraft; players are free to move about the battlefield as much as they want, but while they do this, setting up positional attacks and selecting commands from a skill-bar via the d-pad are integral to making it through any of the fights. It takes some getting used to at first, because while players will initially fight with juggling the controls and setting up situational attacks to net bonuses granted by attacking enemies from particular directions, they also have to grapple with limb targeting on monsters, switching between foes, giving instructions to AI teammates and timing QTE-like button prompts for certain skills to gather some kind of positive status effect.

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This is confusing and monotonous at first, but once the systems have been understood and subsequently mastered, fights are works of art. There’s so much to do in a single run-of-the-mill fight that after 100 hours, we still weren’t bored when we had to throw down with some random baddie who attacked us on our way to the next mission location. It all feels so fluid too once getting used to everything. Being able to switch between melee attacks and ranged attacks also keep things interesting. It too helps that monsters are so varied in attacks, weaknesses, and aesthetic design. It could become unfathomably boring if there wasn’t monster diversity in X, but just as expansive as its lands are, its beastiary is too. Fighting one of the tyrants (the ultimate bad guys who tower above players, giving off a sort of Shadow of Colossus vibe) are the culmination of the well-oiled combat mechanics.

Like its indigenous creatures, the planet of Mira where this all takes place is just as distinct. Mira is one of the largest game worlds ever, bigger than The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 combined. It’s mind-boggling just how large it is; trekking across all of it would literally take an afternoon. But the actual land isn’t the only facet large in scope — what players can do outside of the story and combat is as well. Customization in X is extensive. Its initial character creation tools won’t necessarily make that known, as they’re actual rather limiting in terms of how avatars can be customized, but it’s what can be done with them after that that’s extraordinary. Armor is updated in real-time, so equipping a new piece is reflected in one’s physical appearance — and there seem to be more pieced of armor than one can shake a stick at. Being able to customize arts, skills, class and a character’s “division” (their chosen branch of New LA’s military), however, shows how deep this rabbit hole really goes.

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Other systems include fast-travelling, an affinity system that shows the relationship players have with other party members, burying probes across Mira to put together a comprehensive map of the world, and Skells. Skells are giant flying mechs that are completely customizable and every character aspect that can be modified more or less applies to Skell customization as well. They are central to the experience in X and that is made known from the get-go.

To obtain one of these flying machines of death, though, players have to obtain their Skell License. Sadly, this doesn’t happen until about thiry hours in. Those who are patient won’t mind having to wait around for them to become available. Those seeing the cover art and wanting to pilot one of the bad-boys early on will undoubtedly be frustrated. Clocking two and a half dozen hours is a lot to have to clock in order to unlock such a central part of the gameplay, but if there’s a silver-lining behind this gated content it’s that it makes getting one feel all the more significant. The Skells don’t change the gameplay drastically — their most obvious influence being on how quickly one can travel — but the core combat mechanics are basically the same as they would be otherwise. While it’s awesome to jump into the cockpit of one of them and mow down helpless, lower-leveled beasts, a lot of what will be fought in them will be evenly matched, making fights feel fair.

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The other big part of what X has to offer is its multiplayer. It’s more front and center than the single player content in a sense, which is good because teaming up with a squad of up to 32 other players to tackle a massive raid boss is hands down the best part of the game. The amount of coordination involved in toppling one of these massive monsters is a highlight of the package. If something like that sounds too daunting, however, folks can just hop into a party with a few others and take on low-key side quests with little pressure or consequences. If they don’t want to interact directly with other players at all, but still want the feeling of tagging along with their buddies, they can recruit their friends’ characters and use them in single player. Being able to join or set up guilds is equally great. X should have a long lifespan because of this mode and how well it’s implemented. It’s without question Wii U’s most involved multiplayer game, but also one of the most robust console multiplayer RPGs experiences around, regardless of the system in question.

Unfortunately, in order to render such a massive world, there are a few load screens when going from places like the barracks or a shopping screen back out to town, between some regions when fast-travelling and a pretty lengthy one when first firing up the game. The developers have also cut corners in the departments of draw-distance and aliasing. The biggest graphical offender in X is it’s awful pop-in. It’s easily some of the worst in the last decade or so. It makes sense given the scope of the game, but it’s no less noticeable and at times jarring.

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Fortunately, the framerate doesn’t often take a hit. It’s stable and smooth from start to finish, which is a testament to the developer’s knowledge of the Wii U’s infrastructure and how to optimize code. Character animations, on the other hand, are less consistent. Some of the times characters appear stiff (the shorter jumping animation looks especially wonky) and character faces generally look a bit warped; but on the whole, the amount of diversity among character models is impressive. The biggest issue with X‘s visual presentation — outside of the previously stated pop-in issues — is the interface. It’s organized well enough, but it uses small text, making it difficult to read. This is made all the worse when playing solely on the GamePad (which overall works flawlessly, mind you) as the text becomes even smaller and somehow blurry, rendering Off-TV play hardly ideal.

X‘s sound department fares a bit more consistently, though. It’s fully dubbed and the voice actors are surprisingly phenomenal, which should give you pause because of how freakishly massive its script is. Seriously, they deliver some of the best dubbed performances since Ni no Kuni. Elma’s actress, Caitlin Glass — of Street Fighter, Tales of Zestiria and Crystal Chronicles fame — is the star of the show thanks to her splendid performance, but all of the actors have been directed well. Like the rest of the game, the soundtrack is also gigantic, and shockingly eclectic. While it was neat to hear rock anthems mixed in with traditional JRPG string pieces, J-pop and rap, it felt disjointed and not always fitting of the tone. There’s no theme or composition consistency here; it’s just a bunch of random tracks from varying genres. The tracks aren’t bad, but when they don’t match the situation or environment appropriately, it’s easy to get pulled out of the experience.

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Closing Comments
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Xenoblade Chronicles X is epic in scope. Most of the time, it’s better for it; other times, it’s clear that the developers didn’t have a golden thread sewing together all of its various parts. It’s an unconventional JRPG in many ways, most notably in its reliance on gameplay and multiplayer over an involved single player adventure ripe with quality storytelling and climactic plot twists. Its narrative is lacking at times — pulling inspiration from some of the most overused tropes out there — and its presentation is problematic to say the least. All of that aside, the sheer number of ways to custom tailor the experience, the wonderful combat, the inclusion of an astounding multiplayer mode and the compelling, massive world that’s presented make it one of the Wii U’s best games as well as one of 2015’s most complete RPGs. It may not be the follow-up that hardcore Xenoblade Chronicles fans were hoping for, but it’s a worthy sequel all the same — just one that marches to the beat of its own drum. Its unflinching tendency to do things that were not part of its predecessor’s legacy will solidify it as not only its own game, but the best role-playing experience on Wii U.

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Xenoblade Chronicles X
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