Xenoblade Chronicles X Review
Role-Playing Games have always been big in Japan, and they’ve been around for what feels like forever, too. The Japanese-RPG is a genre in itself, however in latter years the might of the Western world’s gaming creatives has meant that in the RPG as with so many other genres, Japan seemed to be getting left behind. One series of JRPGs is the Xeno series which first came to life in 1988 and over time has been leveraged by all kinds of developers from Square to Nintendo. During the Wii’s lifetime Xenoblade Chronicles was released to great acclaim and now we have its successor - and possible goodbye from the WiiU - in the form of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It’s a Japanese RPG in every sense but it’s something else, too. It’s a magical open world with joy and wonder around nearly every corner. It’s a technological masterpiece for the WiiU platform given its limitations. It’s an entirely engrossing and involving experience which is broad and deep and pretty much whatever you want it to be.
We’re in near-future territory here, 2054 to be precise, and Earth is in trouble. Brilliantly there’s a fight raging between two alien races and Earth is caught in the middle of it all. It won’t survive. So humankind builds a variant on Noah’s Ark and what folk did in Battlestar galactica - basically big-arse spaceships designed to shuttle men, women and children to the next habitable and safe world. It doesn’t work out overly well. Not all ships make it out, and after two years travelling through deep space the ship we are following is attacked by one of the aforementioned alien civilisations. It goes down, landing on a fortuitously survivable planet we call Mira. With this hand that's dealt us, New Los Angeles (NLA) is built and life is kickstarted. That’s where we come in, individually rather than the greater we (i.e. humans).
The game proper starts when Colonel Elma, member of BLADE (Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth) finds us in a stasis pod in the wilderness of Mira. We get to fully customise our character with every option you would hope for. This itself can take a good while, something you absolutely want to do given the time you’ll be spending in the world, and with your avatar, if you commit fully to Monolith Software’s stunning vision (up to two-hundred and fifty hours depending on your need to 100% things). Once created, you get to hang out with the Colonel and some other NPCs whilst you learn about the world and the very basics of some of the key mechanics. You’ll hear about NLA and how it came to be and what BLADE is; you’ll learn how to fight and you’ll see the Skells - giant exosuits which you’ll absolutely want to get involved with. Not right now though.
After getting your bearings on NLA you will recognise how insignificant it is in the overall world. After all, the map is bigger than that of Skyrim, Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 combined. There are five continents in Mira, and your map is handily split up by hexagons. This is important as arguably the most important aspect of the game is exploration, with the hexagonal mapping enabling some sense of position and relativity. It’s fantastic being able to move around the incredibly detailed and varied world. It’s not just the same, but different, all the way through it. In one area you’ll have land, water, mountains and valleys. There will be all manner of wildlife and new plants to look at. You can travel vertically or laterally to get to where you want to go. As you expand your geography you’ll inveigle yourself into brand new locales which feel fresh and keep you going in your ever-expanding exploration. Whilst doing all this for fun is great, there are numerous side quests which tend to focus on gathering, as well as the many main quests. In short the exploration itself is reason to play this game, but if you need some other kind of pull, the game makes sure you do it along the way from A to B.
One thing about the world which is both exciting and downright scary is that animals and aliens you’ll come across could be any level. It’s great to not have that Nanny state approach thrust upon us but you do worry you’ll accidentally get caught up in something way beyond your skillset, or that after a lot of travelling you’ll engage something despite your best efforts. It works well ultimately and as you get more familiar with the world and its life, things will become easier to navigate. There’s no hand-holding here though. Everything is left to you to learn. Sure, there are tutorials early on but in-amongst the vast swathes of mechanisms and exposition you’ll struggle to take it all - if any - in. There’s a full-on electronic manual too, but this will make you long for the ‘90s when you got that full three-hundred page manual in the box.
Combat is of course an integral part of the game and one which after hours you’ll still be learning about. In simplistic terms once you engage an opponent the attacks you make will be automatic, and you can choose which weapon you’ll use - be it your long range or close range widow-maker of choice. In addition to the auto-attacking you can use one of your character’s Arts, in effect a special ability (built over time) which buffs you and your team, or debuffs your opponent. These have differing effects so the Art you choose is important, and of course they have cooldown periods to stop you spamming them. Arts can be incredibly complex. They effect things differently dependent on the whole battle and environment, for instance your position might be a stronger one if behind an enemy when your Art is a backslash type weapon. At various points you’ll get a Quicktime Event, called a Soul voice, which gets you a bonus of some kind if you time it right. Each battle has you and your party members engaged and you might need to look after them, or revive them even as things get hairy. If you like you can delay any Art - despite the limitations this presents - to enable overcharging later on. Quite simply the battles are tremendously engaging encounters which at first seems like pure luck but over time you realise is just brilliantly deep. It’s a cross-between turn-based and real-time. Maybe not in the strictest terms but given the automatic attack part and the extra layers, it feels that way. Oh, and one more thing - keep moving.
It doesn’t happen quickly but eventually the game makes good on its promise from your first few hours. You get to fly one of the Skells, or exoskeletons, or Dolls. Whatever your chosen nomenclature this is where things get fun. You become faster, stronger, better. You can travel over land at higher speeds (fast travel is available to return to places but this method is more fun, of course) and challenge harder foes. You have to pay for your unit, and insure it (in typical JRPG fashion the game does focus on some mundane but important areas!) and fuel it, but my word does it open up the world just when you’re wanting it to. There are multiple Skells you can get hold of during the game, ranging from light to heavy armour and all the things which come with that - you want agility or do you want to be a real tank? You can customise your Skell too, obviously.
This game utilises the WiiU hardware as well as anything which has gone before, and probably anything after - unless we do get that open world Zelda on the WiiU and not NX. The size of the download file from the eShop is gigantic and will need a USB stick or external HDD if you have much else on your internal storage. If you buy the disc-based version you have the option to download data packs from the web, giving you a bit more flex in how to run the game - storage versus speed. The overall art and technical work is immense, with such varied characters and environments - over such mammoth scales - and all wrapped up in one world that so much of which is loaded at any given time.
Monolith Soft has delivered a true epic, and in some ways classic, to the JRPG genre. It stands head to toe with anything the West has to offer and will beguile certain fans as much as any game to come before. It is however incredibly Japanese which to some may translate into boring and obtuse. For others it brings charm and an understanding of what they’re getting into. It’s quite possibly the biggest game ever - topping The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt amazingly, if you thought that was big. It's incredibly layered and in the end that’s what will impact your joy, or otherwise. If you can patiently permeate the battle systems, the resources and so on then you’ll get everything you ever wanted from this. For others, they may be put off by the lack of help, the size of it all or perhaps the way it’s all presented. Give it the chance it needs though and your gaming year will be made.