Xenoblade Chronicles X – Wii U
Platform: Wii U
Release Date (NA): December 4th, 2015
Developer: Monolith Soft, Nintendo
Genre: Action RPG
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
It’s been a long time since I’ve played a multi-hundred hour game…even longer since I’ve reviewed one (have I ever?) but Xenoblade Chronicles X has been an awesome ride for the last 300 hours or so and I’m sure I’ll make it to at least 400 before all is said and done. It’s a long and complicated ride with a lot to talk about, so I’ll do my best to keep to the general rather than delve into the multitude of specifics.
There’s probably plenty of other games like Xenoblade Chronicles X out there, but they aren’t the sort that you’ll usually find me playing. “Action RPG” is an apt description – there’s a ton of fighting, and when you’re not fighting, you’re typically exploring or gathering. Xenoblade takes place in the not-so-distant future. Earth has been caught in the middle of an intergalactic war, and in the process is systematically rendered uninhabitable. Humanity bands together to send out several “arks,” generational starships meant to seek out a new home and ensure the continued survival of mankind. In order to facilitate the long journey, the actual human bodies are placed in stasis, while their consciousness is uploaded into humanoid robots known as “mimeosomes.” They look and act like regular people, though they aren’t subject to biological processes like aging and have an increased tolerance to damage; in fact, they can be repaired through mechanical means just like any machine.
We follow one particular ark – the White Whale – who encounters more of the troublesome aliens. Apparently, the hostile race responsible for Earth’s destruction has followed the White Whale, and in the ensuing attack, the ark crash lands on a planet known as “Mira.” Luckily, Mira isn’t too different from Earth. The main part of the spaceship doubles as a city after the landing, dubbed “New L.A.” (NLA) by its provisional government. Those responsible for maintenance on the ship now take on new roles, including those of BLADEs, who tackle everything from taming the local wildlife to building water purification plants to acting as the police for NLA’s residents. Their most important task, however, is finding the “Lifehold,” a part of the White Whale that contains everyone’s real bodies. They know that it must still exist and remain relatively undamaged, else their mimeosomes would be unable to function. The main objective is to find the Lifehold’s core before its power supply runs out and thus is unable to support the bodies inside.
The main story follows our lead character and his/her team on their quest for the Lifehold, but it also takes several twists and turns from small domestic matters to large scale secondary plots including the integration of other natives of Mira into NLA. Mira, as it exists in Xenoblade, is divided into several sections. There’s NLA, a sort of city, which itself is divided into residential, commercial, industrial, and administrative districts. Then there’s the outside world, divided into 5 distinct “continents,” each with a unique look and feel as well as a good deal of water (and sky) surrounding these land masses. Technically speaking, the entire world is accessible from the get-go, though you’ll find yourself ill-equipped to make it very far
Xenoblade Chronicles X is made up of dozens of “missions.” The vast majority of missions are optional. Some have requirements, such as attaining a certain level, using certain party members, or completing certain other missions. It’s a somewhat involved process, but it’s basically there to ensure that there are missions that match up with the player’s experience, i.e. some are intentionally easy and meant to tackle when you’re new, while others are meant for more seasoned adventurers. At its core are 12 main chapters that move the story along.
It’s absolutely staggering how much there is to do in the game, even from the very beginning. The insane list of missions available (and more become available as others are completed) can be a little daunting, but it’s actually a good thing. The structure never feels rigid and confined, yet it also never gets to a point where it feels aimless and lost either. There’s always something to do, and if you get tired of doing it or just aren’t strong enough yet, there’s always something else to do! That’s one of the main things that makes Xenoblade so damn hard to put down – there’s always something to do and enough of it that it’s difficult to feel “stuck” or frustrated for very long.
There are a few broad types of missions that one will go on, yet most of them consist of journeying to an area, fighting indigens/aliens and/or gathering materials, and possibly repeating 2 to 4 more times. The game is chock full of combat, which boils down to character stats, attributes, weapons, tactical decisions, and all that good RPG-ish stuff rather than quick thinking an adept reflexes. As the protagonist, you begin the game as a nameless, amnesic survivor of the crash. You’ll get to customize your gender, your looks, and all that good stuff, after which you become a BLADE operative who can do…well, pretty much whatever. At any point during gameplay except during certain missions, you have the option of changing/creating your “party.” It can consist of just yourself or up to 3 other people. As you move through the game, more and more potential party members are unlocked and you can switch these members out as you see fit. These characters will level up and become stronger as well, though you have complete control over their equipment, weapons, etc.
The “party system” seems a little complicated at first – why not just stick with the same members so that they can become as strong as possible? That’s one way to look at it, but another way to see it is that the game provides for infinite variation by adding in so many possibilities. Although you can never remove yourself from your party, you can put some of the other members in the “leader” slot and actually play as them! This will allow you to experience different styles or exploit different weapons/armor/equipment without changing them on “your” character all the time, or just as a way to mix it up a bit by taking the role of another. While I enjoyed the system overall, you must physically locate each character within NLA to recruit them; this can be kind of a pain remember where everyone is since you have to actually travel to their spot on the grid and ask them to join.
The other aspect that this system fosters is called “affinity” which basically breaks down to how much one “character” likes another. The best way to win affinity is to simply have someone on your team when you complete missions, though several tasks require a certain level of affinity with a character before they can be completed. This whole subsystem is probably one of the few things I don’t like about Xenoblade. It simply takes too long to build (especially considering the number of characters) and there are just too many other things going on to actively worry about “affinity” without damn near going crazy. If you’re like me, you’ll probably keep 2 members in your party pretty consistent, leaving only one open slot. And even that one open slot will make a difference – when 3 members of your team are maxed out at level 60 and you still can’t take out that one tyrant, the difference between that 4th slot being held by a character at level 40 versus level 50 can make all the difference. Of course you learn much of this as you play, but I fear that some of these lessons can come a little late and cause some unnecessary grinding/farming-induced headaches.
The entire combat system, or more precisely the equipment system, is robust…to put it politely. Another way to put it? Absolutely byzantine, bewildering, even downright cryptic. Each character has 5 pieces of armor and 2 weapons. Keeping up with 7 different items is rough enough, but moreover, the weapons one can use are dependent on what class one has chose and what level one has risen to within that class. Furthermore, all equipment is restricted by what level the piece itself is at versus the character’s level. You can also pick up weapons and armor from defeated enemies; you can see all of this by going into your “Ground Gear” menu and switching out anything you own with anything else. To get more advanced weapons, you’ll need to invest one of the types of in-game currency into arm’s manufacturers (AMs), done from a standalone terminal. Not too bad yet, right? Well…
Each piece of equipment – weapon or armor – has a certain built in potential for specific upgrades. These can be upgraded over at the AM terminal. Later in the game, you can purchase “augment slots” from a different terminal. These slots provide space to hold “augments” which you can fashion over at the AM terminal…if you have the right combination of odd ingredients and miranium. Now if you want to purchase equipment, you’ll need to go over to a neighboring terminal. Getting confusing? Well it is. It gets even more confusing when you throw “Skells” into the mix (they’re your big bad “mechs” for handling the big bad bads); you’ll be jumping through so many menus just to upgrade your melee attack that you’ll wonder if you’ve even done what you wanted to do: buy the equipment at one place, buy the slot at another, engineer the augment at another, then go into your personal “Ground Gear” menu and access the sub-menu to set the augment, and then back out of all that to equip the damn thing. Multiply this by 4 (you’ll definitely want to invest in your team’s equipment and weaponry; if you want to win you will need to take the time to ensure that they’re as well armed as you are) and the process of upgrading or changing one’s equipment can be a terribly arduous task.
As if ground gear vs. skell gear wasn’t enough, you’ve got augments and upgrades that affect different types of damage (thermal, physical, ether, electrical, gravity, etc.) plus different types of enemies (humanoid, mechanical, insectoid, etc.). In some ways I applaud the intricacy of the system. Got a tough enemy? Hone in on its weaknesses. Prefer a particular fighting style? Use all of these options to accentuate your strengths and cover your shortcomings. If you’re really smart, you’ll pay close attention to all of these things and ensure that you have a well-rounded team. One thing that I find really interesting about Xenoblade is despite the fact that you’ll see enemies as high as level 99, your characters are capped at level 60. What does this mean? Well, it means that at some point, if you want to be all-powerful, you have to pay attention to things like whether an enemy is resistant to either thermal attacks or beam attacks – you have to get clever and purposeful with your equipment. In short, you can’t just grind away until you “out level” your enemy and floor him with a single figurative punch, an exploit that’s readily available in similar games. Yes, this limitation is mildly frustrating at times, but fortunately it doesn’t fully come into play until some of the post-story missions. You can get through the story and most other ancillary missions with a less-than perfect understanding of system.
About halfway through the game, you’ll gain access to your very own skell, a mech not unlike what we’re used to seeing these days where a pilot operates a humanoid sort of robot. Skells come with their own set of troubles – weapons (many of the best of which can only be found as dropped items), armor (even harder to come by), and new problems like fuel and salvage fees. Having such a drastic change mid-game really keeps the pace up, and what’s more, eventually the skells can fly, giving the player access to all sorts of previously unreachable areas (like floating islands).
Playing the game itself is a lot more fun than agonizing over upgrades, augments, and what armor your 3rd party member is wearing on his or her left arm. There’s a lot of this procedural crap to mire through eventually, but there’s also a good bit of just plain fun to be had before it all becomes a major concern. Xenoblade’s setting, Mira, is a fairly large area that is 100% explorable. Spot some mountain peak in the distance? You can actually get there given enough time! In fact, the world may seem a little too big at first, but after a point the player can “fast travel” between certain areas, cutting down greatly on travel time. Still, time spent traveling is not to be underestimated. It provides you with opportunities to engage the native wildlife in combat, an important factor in leveling your characters up, especially in the early parts of the game. You may not be able to gain all of the EXP you need through missions alone, though despite some of the complaints I’ve read online, I’ve found that Xenoblade requires far less grinding than similar games. Farming, however, is a bit of a different animal and one of the main aspects that keeps Xenoblade Chronicles X from earning a full-fledged 10.
Many, many missions (probably too many) require the player to track down X number of rare items, or Y number of super-rare items. Items are generally found in the form of little blue diamonds dotting the landscape, so you don’t know what you’ve picked up until after you’ve actually picked it up. In addition to these “items” there are also “materials” which must be gleaned from certain enemies; often you have to target the enemy in specific places to ensure such drops. This fetching and gathering can become monstrously tedious even from the beginning. Many items are only found in certain areas of the continent, as in they aren’t widely dispersed. So when a mission asks you to find 5 dark lanterns over in Cauldros, you better have some idea of where those dark lanterns are.
Thankfully we have the internet. If we didn’t, these fetch missions would be so needlessly ridiculous that I doubt anyone would bother completing any that were non-essential. Even knowing where to look it’s a pain; items basically have different spawn rates, beginning at 1 (most common) and going to 5 (rarest). Within the game itself, items are deemed either “common,” “unique,” “rare,” or “prime.” The “prime” availability is tricky though, because it includes both 4’s and 5’s. And get this: for a given item, those spawn rates change from sector to sector on the map. And don’t even get me started on all that can be got from the enemies…there’s the matter of finding the enemy, targeting it correctly, and then just going at it enough times to get what you want (or several of what you want). Besides the basic fetch quests, these items and materials also play a huge role in crafting augments and facilitating upgrades.
My advice? Hold on to everything as you play. Don’t worry about selling anything, except perhaps your weakest armors and weapons. Just let your inventory pile up and pile up so that when the time comes, you’ve hopefully already gotten some of the work out of the way.
I applaud the thought and care that went into this complex system, but ultimately I think it is 100% unnecessary, especially with everything else that’s going on. Even when you know where to look for an item the process of collecting and then waiting for the items to respawn can be mind-melting. Seriously, these sorts of fetch quests are really, really aggravating and while I could understand propping up the game’s supplemental missions with a few of these tasks, I see no reason for it to include one after another, typically to drive a slightly comical story forward that includes the residents of NLA.
On the other hand, wandering around Mira’s array of landscapes can be a rewarding process in and of itself. It’s a beautiful world with excellent graphics, also featuring the passage of time and as such different lighting levels. Weather also comes into play, including rain, electromagnetic storms, snow storms, and meteor showers. There are the gently rolling green hills and beaches of Primordia, the colorful and lush jungles that comprise Noctilum, the rocky and sandy plians of Oblivia, the icy, austere beauty of Sylvalum, and the lava-soaked Cauldros, full of strange ruins and stranger creatures. For the most part each continent has its own set of wildlife and it’s all quite a sight to behold.
Honestly I can’t even begin to fathom the sort of work that went into creating these landscapes. They aren’t just simple hills and valleys either; there are ledges, cliffs, caves, bridges, islands, rivers, waterfalls….it is truly a believable world with a few fantastical elements thrown in (such as impossible rock formations or islands that float in the sky). The realism and attention to detail is truly amazing, though it can be a minor pain at times. There’s a little minimap in the upper right of the screen, and most of the time the player will see an indicator on the map of where to go. The problem is that what looks like a straight line often isn’t, and the minimap isn’t quite detailed enough to point out exactly how to get there. You’ll get a little more used to this as the game goes on, but it can still be frustrating when you’re standing right next to the “dot” but still aren’t where you’re supposed to be….or when it’s right in front of you and so is a giant rock wall!
As impressive as the environments are, Mira’s wildlife is even more mind blowing. Whoever conceptualized these creatures really pushed creativity to the edge…and then over! Most of the “animals” have a familiar shape, typically borrowed from large animals like giraffes, hippos, lions/tigers, rhinos, pigs, and even some from reptiles, birds, fish, and insects, but the artists have also drawn inspiration from dinosaurs to create massive but mostly benign behemoths. I could try to describe some of them, but it’d just be a jumble of words. You’ve really just got to see a Lepyx or an Aprica or Cervus with your own eyes.
I’ve been going on and on about the gorgeous visuals in Xenoblade Chronicles X, but I haven’t talked much about the graphics. It may go without saying, but the graphics are positively amazing. The level and depth of detail is flawless, giving every surface from grass to sand to snow to the characters’ armor a distinct texture. It’s a great looking game, period.
As for the music though, well, it’s one of the few points of contention I have with Xenoblade. Each area has a couple of thematic tracks, and probably 60% – 70% of them are orchestral/synth-y in nature and are either pleasant or blend seamlessly into the background like a film score. In fact, one of the tunes in Sylvalum is quite amazing and perfectly fitting…it’s got this majestic, fantasy vibe to it. However, there are a few spots where the music gets dicey. One of them is in New LA, which you’ll be spending a lot of time in. There’s one particularly hideous “song;” instead of a gentle instrumental, it’s this grating hip-hop / lounge hybrid with the most annoying vocal track this side of hell. There’s also a sappy little number that plays whenever you take flight.
For all of Xenoblade’s complexities, the controls are surprisingly easy and intuitive. With so many different things to control at any given time and the game’s multitude of menus and sub-menus and everything else, I was surprised that the controls presented almost no problem whatsoever. Using the left D-pad during menus and left analog stick in-game threw me off a little at first, but ultimately it’s a sound decision that eliminates ambiguity, especially since the game is never really paused. The Wii U’s Gamepad also plays into the game’s control scheme, particularly when it comes to the world map, planting probes, mining materials, earning revenue, and of course the “fast travel” feature which keeps you from having to manually trek from one end of the map to the other.
Ok, so this ended up being one hell of a long review, and I still feel like there are areas I haven’t covered. There’s the online component, which is used extensively even if one isn’t engaging in any multiplayer modes. There’s a whole “next level” show once one levels up all the way and finishes the story….obviously there is a finite amount of material here but it almost always feels boundless. For anyone wanting an immersive experience, there’s no going wrong. Once you see how many little “things” are going on in the game and just how well they work together, it’s difficult not to appreciate the level of thought that went into Xenoblade Chronicles X. Aside from a couple of terrible songs and what may be 1 or 2 superfluous systems, we’re pretty close to a perfect game!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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