The Xeno series has had a weird history. It began life on the Playstation under Squaresoft with Xenogears, which I think everyone agrees is a classic. Then, the Xeno series was picked up by Namco after Hirohide Sugiura and Tetsuya Takahashi left Square and founded Monolith Soft. The resulting trilogy, Xenosaga had varied quality, and managed to lose most of its players due to its disastrous second game. It is telling that the series was reduced from six installments to three. So then Namco decided to drop Monolith (but keep the IP) so the company released the spiritual successor to their spiritual successor to Xenogears on the Wii. The result was Xenoblade Chronicles, one of the most original JRPGs of the past generation. It was surprisingly vast considering the Wii’s under-powered hardware. However it was held back by some strange design choices that seemed to want the game to become an MMORPG, a flaw particularly noticable in the way the side quests were designed. Still, I was a big fan of the Wii entry, so when I heard that Monolith was working on a follow up game for the Wii U, I couldn’t help but be excited. Xenoblade Chronicles X ended up being a fantastic game, and would have been the best RPG of the year were it not for some major issues that hold it back.
In the future, humanity finds itself trapped in a war between two alien species who have decided to use Earth as a battleground. With the planet’s destruction inevitable, humanity launched Arks from each of the majors cities in an attempt to find a new world to inhabit. Most of the Arks were destroyed when they left Earth, but yours, the Ark from Los Angeles, made it through. After two years in space you are attacked by aliens once again, and forced to crash land in a new, incredibly hostile world called Mira. During the descent the ship breaks apart, the residential unit detaches and becomes humanity’s new base of operations, a city called New Los Angels (NLA). Your involvment starts when a soldier named Elma finds your stasis pod and brings you back to life. She takes you to NLA in the tutorial sequence, where you are recruited into the new military that was formed upon landing on Mira, BLADE. The plot is interesting enough, it keeps you engaged, and it has some good twists and turns that are revealed at a reasonable pace even if they don’t always make sense. The game does commit the mistake many open world RPG’s make of trying to give a time element to the plot to increase its urgency while the player is really free to do whatever they want at their own pace. There are also contrivances to the plot and the characters that will be familiar to anyone who regularly consumes Japanese content, such as Lin being the best mechanic and also being 13 years old. My personal take on it is I feel the plot is interesting in spite of these tropes so I would advise to not let it detract you if you are interested. But know its there if you decide to pick it up.
Make no mistake, your main character is involved in the game’s plot, but more than anything Xenoblade Chronicles X is Elma’s story. You are a part of her team, the missions are given to her, and she is mandatory for pretty much all of the quests. I thought about why the game doesn’t just have you play as Elma, since the plot revolves around her more than any other character. I think the answer to that is that Xeonoblade Chronicles X was designed with customization in mind. You can customize pretty much everything in the game. You get to make your own character, of course, but you will also be able to unlock a wealth of clothing and armor options for them all. The game doles these out as rewards from everything from completing missions, to loot for defeating strong enemies.
You are able to invest in the manufacturers you want if you like their products in other to increase their stats and the products they make available, as well as use parts of monsters you kill to enhance your existing gear or develop new high-level gear. You can also discover new manufacturers from story and side quests, and these manufacturers focus on different things. Some might make equipment more suited for raw stats, while other may perform better against certain types of damage, or enemies. This means the customization is not only cosmetic, but you will have a large selection of equipment to make sure that each character is equipped in a way that matches their play style, and to approach enemies with some strategy in mind. The same goes for assigning a Skell (the game’s giant mechas) to each of your party members which they will use during battle and to traverse the landscape. You can even customize the Skell’s colors and LED lights. If you like a particular outfit or don’t want to look like someone who put their outfit together from stuff they found in the garbage, there as a fashion outfit you can set that will determine how you character looks while allowing you to equip the best available equipment for the situation.
Characters work in a similar fashion, particularly the main character you choose to play as. Xenoblade Chronicles has a wide selection of classes, all with their own skills and arts. Skills are passive buffs that are applied to the characters, such as rising HP, dealing more melee or range damage, and other buffs. Arts, on the other hand, are the offensive moves, buffs, and other skills and spells you will be using during battle. Skills and arts that you find particularly useful can be upgraded with Battle Points that you earn from exploring and completing other stats. Companions are locked into a class and so only have access to a limited set of skills, but your character can change classes and carry over skills and arts. This is encouraged. The way classes work is that there are three large types of classes: offensive, tanks, and support. When you get to rank 10 on a main class you open up a access to more specialized but more powerful versions of that class. The trick is to change class often so you can acquire a great number of skills to round up your character the way you would like.
Aside from Battle Points and your class level, Xenoblade Chronicles X will have you tracking an enormous number of stats. There is your character level, which is not the same as your class rank, and its a measure of strength, HP, resistances, and other character progressions. There is your BLADE level, which lets you purchase field skills to access specific types of treasure. There are credits, which are the currency of the world, and Miranium, the currency used to develop gear and invest on Arms Manufacturers. Battle Points, which are used to upgrade skills and arts are earned mainly through collection and exploration. If it sounds like a lot to keep track of, it is. But the game doles it out in a way that can make it easy to understand fairly easily. That said, I would not blame anyone for feeling lost the first few hours of the game, or people who aren’t used to the genre decide to drop it after being faced with all these complexity so early on.
While a lot of the game is complex and deep, the actual combat is not. Once you have your equipment, skills, and arts set combat works in a cool down system. You can switch between a rapid and weak ranged attack and a slower but stronger melee attack on the fly. Doing so will fill gauges on your arts which will determine how strong they are when you use them. It will also fill up your Technical Points (TP) which you need to use some of your stronger arts, and revive fallen comrades. Your arts work on a cool-down timer, and so a lot of the combat depends on just timing your abilities to create the conditions in which they will do the most damage. It sounds deep and complex but it is really just a damage race against enemies that have a lot of health. This is not helped by the fact that you cannot change characters during combat. You will always be in control of the character you create, often leaving it up to the AI to heal or buff the party. As expected, the AI is not stellar at these tasks. Fortunately, the combat is not very challenging, as long as you are fighting enemies that are around your level, and the story and affinity quests will tell you which level you are expected to tackle them at, but after so many RPG’s this year have shown you can be creative and tactical with combat, it is sad to see even the best of JRPG’s (save for Atlus games) drop the ball on a core aspect of the game.
Combat isn’t really the main appeal of the game anyway. Xenoblade Chronicles X is at its best when you are exploring the massive world of Mira. You start in an earth-like continent called Primorida, which is beautiful and fun to explore by itself, but as you progress, the terrain will become more and more alien and more hostile and exciting to explore. Monolith has done a stupendous job making the game’s ecosystem feel truly alive, with a variety of wildlife from all levels hanging around. It is possible to rile a level 60 enemy in the starting area, and a lot of the game might be spent trying to navigate around apex predators in the wild. There are herbivores, carnivores, animals that are active during the day and night, and dynamic weather. The game world has also no loading screens save for cut-scenes and going into interiors, though this does result in pop-in sometimes it still feels great to have the world as a cohesive whole rather than having loading screens between areas. None of these things are really new by themselves, but they are well put together in Chronicles X. They make the world feel wild and alive to the extent that I wish more series such as Monster Hunter will try to do something similar. Monolith understands that exploring the gorgeous world they created and they reward this exploration with hidden treasure, and proves which you can plant to reveal part of the map and generate fast travel points. The in-game justification for this is that the proves connect the area to Frontier Nav, which is basically the game’s Internet. As you progress in the game you will unlock Skells, and the modules that will you help you reach points that were previously impossible to reach, making exploration truly engrossing.
Which begs the question of why you have to wait until you are about halfway through the game and have to take an exam to even get inside a Skell. They are on the cover of the game and were one of the major selling points on all of the preview and promotional materials shown pre-release. It took me almost 40 hours to get into a robot, and by all measures, I did it about 10 hours and 5 levels faster than what I’ve seen online. If you were looking to get the game because of the promise of the giant robots, know that it will take a long time before you are finally in one. When you finally do get in the robot, it feels great. They are really an extra set of equipment you can jump in and out of during combat, and can add a great variety to you options. However, they are also surprisingly fragile and if you don’t have insurance for them, you also have to pay for their repairs. This takes a bit of their fun away as you will be very selective of when you use them. It encourages to not use them in tough battles where you might need them the most for fear that they will be destroyed. The other option is to save before a fight and make sure you restart the game before it auto-saves to reload and try again. The game has only one save file, so in general you have to live with your mistakes, but you still have a really generous window to reset and replay if needed.
This is good because I have had to use this to reset affinity missions that would block my progress in the game. Let me explain. Xenoblade Chronicles X has four types of single player missions: basic missions, which are given in what is essentially an MMO quest board and that usually have you gathering resources, killing a strong enemy or a basic number of enemies. There are Normal missions, which are given to you by NPC and can be as simple as gathering something specific or as complex as investigating the murders of a group of scientists in a water plant. There are story missions, which move the story forward, and affinity missions, which are usually about fleshing out your companions, and this game features about 17 companions, so there are a lot of them. Many of the missions have you gathering rare materials or killing rare monsters, which can take a long time to even spawn. To make matters worse, a lot of these missions also have very vague directions. Find X item in X continent. Keep in mind the game is massive, and many items only have specific areas where they spawn. For example, some spawn only in specific caves, or at certain altitudes, or maybe near water. There are no quest markers or any more specific directions. This is normally fine. You are supposed to find a lot of these things as you explore, and as you progress through the game, but the problem with affinity quests is that they lock you out of story missions, so if you don’t know where to find an item, or its something rare that just won’t spawn, or a rare drop, you cannot continue the game until you’ve completed the quest.
For example, at one point I accepted an affinity mission that required me to travel to an area I needed a Skell to reach, except I had no access to a Skell that point. I had to restart and reload an old save or I would not have been able to finish the game. It’s gotten to the point where I save before taking any of these missions just in case. This is usually used as a game lengthening mechanism, or to keep you playing in a multiplayer game, but I just have to wonder why you would do this in a game that is single player, and also absolutely massive. There seems to be no point in stopping your progress, and it really detracts from the game. I cannot blame anyone who decides to drop this game after being locked out of progressing by these missions . Even if you somehow managed to exhaust the single player missions of the game, there is an online component that has time trial missions with the game’s bosses, as well as bounty and gathering missions in the game to find specific things or kill specific enemies, and once in a while, an extremely powerful global nemesis you can choose to tackle. There is a lot to do, and this makes Monlith’s decision to cause affinity missions to lock you out of progress simply baffling.
Another baffling choice is the music. A strange mixture of j-pop, j-rock, and j-hip pop that has a criminally short amount of songs. The songs it does have are nowhere near good enough to be listened to for 80 or more hours. It is by no means a deal breaker, but make I’d make sure to have some choice tracks on your phone prepped when playing this.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is very close to being one of my favorites JRPG’s ever released, a flawed masterpiece that is so good when it is at its best that it makes its flaws even more glaring when they do come up. I can imagine many players dropping this game only a few hours in due to the initial complexity, or its slow start, or even after being stuck on an affinity quest, which locks them out of the rest of the game. This is probably the best JRPG the Wii U is likely to see, so it is a must own for any fans of the genre. It will provide you with countless hours of entertainment. However I won’t disagree if you decide to skip it because you can’t stand the extremly slow start the game has, or don’t want to save before every affinity mission. For everyone else, if you feel like exploring a gorgeous, massive world with a ton of customization options and want a game that will give you the play time for its money, go ahead and pick it up.