Xenoblade Chronicles X was released in the West at Christmas 2015. A spiritual successor to revered Wii JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles (but not a sequel – that’s coming to Switch later this year), X is a sprawling open-world sci-fi RPG set on the planet Mira. The game’s story quickly establishes that Earth has been destroyed by hostile alien races; because humanity had some advance warning, as many people as possible were sent into space on giant ark ships to try and stop us going extinct. The struggle to survive against the odds is a major theme throughout the story, and X tells an often inspiring and moving story, largely due to a strong script and a varied and likable cast of characters.
The player character, canonically known as Cross, exhibits that most convenient of storytelling devices – amnesia – and his introduction to the planet Mira serves for us as well. The humans on Mira all come from an ark known as the White Whale, which crashed on the planet with hostile aliens in pursuit. The stranded humans have set about establishing a colony which they’ve christened New Los Angeles. Fortunately, Mira is a miraculously Earth-like planet, and so humans can get by pretty well. The game is host to a vast array of flora and fauna, many of which are quite spectacular, and the game’s visual design is a real highlight. Although the character designs might not be the most sophisticated, the landscapes and vistas unfurled as you traverse Mira are often jaw-dropping. I really missed having a screenshot feature on the Wii U, as this is a game that was really made for such a function. The Wii U is not the most powerful games console, but X shows that design and artistry are more important than raw power. This is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played.
The sound design is on a par with the game’s visuals, a testament to the passion that went into building the game. At first I was a bit put off by the soundtrack’s unusual nature and the fact that many of the songs feature vocals: most games prefer instrumental, ambient tracks, which are less likely to distract the player’s attention. However, after a while I really started to get into the music, and it won me over as one of the most enjoyable and memorable game soundtracks I’ve experienced. It reminded me of the excellent Kill La Kill soundtrack, which is no coincidence as it was composed by the same guy, Hiroyuki Sawano. There are several stand-out tracks I came to look forward to hearing, and some real earworms. That said, with over four hours of original music, there are inevitably a couple of tracks that will get on your nerves. Although the music is epic and very good, it’s not perfect.
X plays a bit like an MMORPG, even though it’s primarily a single-player game. It is possible to team up with other players online, but that’s not something that appeals to me these days. The main story is divided up into 12 ‘chapters’, some of which are quite short, so much of the story and context is filled out with a bewildering array of side missions. Some of these are picked up from a central mission board, and are often MMORPG staples like gathering or hunting missions, but there are also a huge amount of flavour missions you pick up from the denizens of New LA. The city expands considerably over the course of the game, but it can be a bit of a feast or famine situation as far as missions go. Some missions unlock a huge number of new side stories, and so completing the right missions at the right time is important to ensure you have a steady flow of content. If you go through the main story missions too quickly, you will soon find yourself under-leveled, and miss out on a lot of important content.
Gameplay revolves around exploration and combat. Once you initiate combat you can cast ranged and melee special attacks, buffs and debuffs, and can launch a high damage ‘overdrive’ mode if you build up enough ‘tension’ from your other attacks. You can also spend tension to perform more powerful attacks. Your teammates’ attacks can trigger combos to increase damage, restore health, and so on. You can also target enemy appendages to do increased damage and make them less threatening. I honestly found the combat to be a bit over-complicated, and this sort of gameplay is really better suited to a keyboard than a console controller, even a monster like the Wii U Gamepad.
Combat is more fun once you unlock Skells, giant mechs that reminded me a lot of Transformers. Skells also make it a lot easier to travel around Mira: while for the first 30 hours or so you have to go everywhere on foot – sneaking round powerful monsters that can kill you in one hit – Skells make getting around a lot easier. But even then, you’ll have to be careful not to aggro powerful beasts, as there is an abundance of elite and high-level monsters throughout Mira who can easily kill you even after you complete the game. It’s a bit frustrating, as replacing your Skell can become prohibitively expensive, so having it destroyed is not a trivial matter. The game only allows you one save file, so you need to ensure you save regularly, especially if you’re worried about replacing your Skell. The game doesn’t auto-save, and losing an hour or more of progress due to the game crashing (which happened to me more than once) is not fun.
X makes good use of the Wii U Gamepad, using the touchscreen to manage an interactive map, as well as your mining and exploration probes which generate revenue and resources. The whole game can also be played on the Gamepad screen, but it really benefits from being seen on a big screen.
This is a game that eschews holding the player’s hand and expects you to find out a lot on your own. There is an enormous variety of combat and exploration mechanics which are not thoroughly explained: there is a cumbersome in-game manual, but most people will end up relying on the internet for advice. I don’t think I’ve ever gone online as much while playing a game as I did during X, not just for help with quests and battles, but also for help understanding the myriad combat and leveling systems.
I’m all for complexity, but this game takes things too far with its obtuse systems, and seems contemptuous of the player’s time and convenience. The party management system is a case in point. You can have up to four characters in your party, but to add someone to your party you have to physically find them in New LA and talk to them – you can’t just switch them out using a menu. Moreover, to unlock character-based side quests (‘affinity missions’) you have to raise the affinity level between that character and your avatar, which takes ages and can only happen if they are in your party. The icing on the cake is that characters only gain experience if they are in your party, so you’re almost certain to have a host of squadmates who are seriously under-leveled and therefore useless in combat: which is a problem because fights can be very tough. It’s a shame because many of the side stories are really well-written, but getting to experience all the content with each of the fifteen or so party members is a massive chore.
Once you complete the game, there are a few repeatable missions you can do to raise your affinity a bit faster, but even then, it takes much longer than it should. Some missions are also just ludicrously difficult, and completely out of sync with the level requirements specified for the mission. Even after beating the game, and having played for over 100 hours, I finally gave up on trying to do everything when a level 37 mission featuring a level 46 boss repeatedly wiped my squad of level 55+ characters. Frustrating as it was, this wouldn’t have been such a problem were it not for the fact you can’t abandon missions once you start them. So, in order to do anything else I would have had to go and grind for hours to be able to complete the mission before I could move on. Then there are things like a character recruitment mission you have to be level 44 to begin, but at the end of said mission the character who joins is level 32 – guaranteeing they are at least 12 levels below you, and requiring you to grind for ages if you want them to be remotely useful.
The often disrespectful and sadistic nature of the gameplay is at odds with the positive tone of the story. It really is an inspiring tale which features a wonderful cast of characters, and both the main story and the side missions are a trove of joy and entertainment. X features some wonderfully-designed alien races, at times even giving something like Mass Effect a run for its money. Though it’s ostensibly set in a grimdark universe, X has an optimistic, light-hearted and childlike sincerity that you rarely see in a genre dominated by more cynical Western games, and it’s a refreshing and beautiful take on the space opera formula. The stand-out character is Elma, wonderfully voiced by Caitlin Glass, who is basically the protagonist of the main story and an inspirational lead in the Shepherd mould.
Elma and Cross enjoying some down-time.
X is a long game, and the Western release contains additional content that was released as DLC in Japan, which stretches things out even further. If you’re looking for a hardcore RPG to play on the Wii U, this is probably your best bet, and it could last you for ages (I was playing it on and off for about six months). It’s just a shame that the game makes it so hard to experience everything it has to offer. Xenoblade Chronicles X could and should have been a great game, but it falls frustratingly short through fault of its own.