Developer: Monolith Soft
Platform: Wii U
Release Date: December 4th, 2015
This game’s been taking its sweet time to come out, hasn’t it? Originally announced almost three years ago and having been released this past spring in Japan, the time has finally come for Monolith Soft’s spiritual successor to Xenoblade Chronicles. Xenoblade Chronicles X looks to be taking a different spin on the Xenoblade system with its massive open world and Skell combat. Does it pull it off, or does this game prove to be too big for its own good? In short, Xenoblade Chronicles X does an excellent job of refining what we’ve seen before while adding something special.
Xenoblade Chronicles X starts off with the destruction of Earth by a war between two alien races. Several Ark ships attempt to escape, with only a few succeeding. One of these, the White Whale, drifts in space for two years before being attacked again and crash-landing onto a nearby planet. Two months later, a Lifepod unit containing the player character is opened. You are then escorted to New Los Angeles, the human race’s new home on planet Mira. As the new pioneers of humanity, you set out into the wilderness to explore your new home.
With a setup like that, you may anticipate that Xenoblade Chronicles X’s story would have difficulty maintaining that pace, and you’re right. The game has an emphasis on the journey over the destination, but the core story thread still lacks impact and seems ill-suited for an RPG of this size.
Picking up the slack, the character moments and smaller sub-stories really do a good job of making the world feel big and populated. Fortunately, story missions are not the only way to get the story of Xenoblade Chronicles X, and some of these sub-story missions are far more compelling.
Just like I would expect from Monolith Soft, Xenoblade Chronicles X has one of the most beautifully designed game worlds I’ve seen this generation, let alone on the Wii U. Each of the 5 continents feel unique and vibrant, which makes exploration a lot of fun. The design of these environments aren’t just slapdash. Each continent does a great job of starting off small and then ramping up its visual qualities and setpieces. The weakest designs, however, are the underground caverns you’ll find dotted along the landscape. Their aesthetic doesn’t really change beyond “cave” and “lava cave”.
It’s not just the world that’s well designed, it’s also the characters that populate it in both the wildlife and the other xenoform species. I honestly expected there to only be three or four races; humans, the two attacking alien races, and the Nopon natives. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are actually a lot more than meet the eye.
There is one problem in the visuals that keeps rearing its ugly head. That problem is the UI design, more specifically the text font. The basic layout is just fine, but trying to read any text besides regular dialogue is downright impossible. This makes completing tasks hard to do when you can’t tell what exactly your objective says. In some cases, I had to switch the display to Off-TV Mode just so I could hold the screen closer to my face.
The audio design of Xenoblade Chronicles X fares better in general. First off, the music is fantastic. After hearing some complaints that others had about the music, it really felt like they only listened to the NLA Night and normal battle themes. I will admit that the somewhat corny nature of the rapping in these songs can be off-putting, but all of the other music is on point.
Every continent has appropriate themes with both the day and night cycles, and ominous places like the Silent Mire and Dead Man’s Gulch have an appropriately ominous track. Battle themes are also suprisingly more varied than I expected. You have your regular battles, Tyrant battles, Skell battles, Skell-on-Skell battles, and the obligatory boss battles, all with unique music.
The other aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s audio design are more of a mixed bag. Music looping isn’t really done very well, with only a few tracks that really feel seemless. To be fair, Hiroyuki Sawano doesn’t have the video game music background that other notable Japanese composers like Shoji Meguro and Nobuo Uematsu have. That said, it doesn’t stop some track transitions from feeling jarring.
Speaking of jarring, the worst part of the audio design has to be the mixing. Normal gameplay and the like is just fine, but whoever decided the volume of the music in cutscenes must have hearing issues. The music overpowers every cutscene, with the effect even worse if the music has dialogue. There isn’t even an option to adjust audio levels, so you’re stuck with it. It’s something you can get used to, but it really put a damper on my initial experience.
Before I dive into the gameplay, I think making note of how Xenoblade Chronicles X runs will help you understand the sacrifices in performance that were needed, and I’ll make note of how these affect gameplay as we break it down. As for the good, the game runs surprisingly well.
The first 40 hours ran buttery smooth at 30 fps with no dips in quality. No matter how much was happening on screen, the framerate stayed very stable. However, once you get a Skell and can move faster through areas, you’ll notice some framerate drops as stuff gets loaded in. I found these to be the most severe in Primordia and Noctilum, but it doesn’t make the game unplayable. Combat remains rock-solid, even with 4 Skell pilots fighting a gigantic beast.
Load times were also very manageable with the downloadable Data Packs installed on my Wii U. The load times without these packs are not substantially larger, but you will notice as you unlock more areas and do a lot more fast travelling how those extra seconds add up.
Two other aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s technical limitations do show up every once in awhile, collision issues and pop-in. These can be found all over, but they’re most noticeable in New LA since you can just walk straight through most moving objects with creepy results. Pop-in also makes it so that people and creatures you don’t expect to load in at the last second, stopping your progress and/or forcing you to battle.
As I’ve said quite a few times so far, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a huge game. I usually like to break down the gameplay mechanics before giving my opinions on their quality, but there’s so much to do in this game that it would make my review two of three times longer than I’d like to be. On the plus side, you’ll have plenty of content here to dig into. Conversely, the game really enjoys throwing you in the deep end. With no outside help, you won’t have a good grip on things until around Chapter 3 or 4. If you don’t enjoy diving in or have the patience, it’s hard to recommend this game on gameplay alone.
If you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles, you’ll be right at home with the combat here. The speed of the combat is greatly increased, and the ability to switch between melee and ranged attacks on the fly really adds a lot. The system’s unique take on health recovery makes battles tense and forces you to keep your eyes open for Soul Voice and Soul Challenge prompts. Skell combat is equally as fun, with fuel management for your Art attacks adding another layer of depth. Classes as well as the sheer number and variety of party members also gives you options for making a party that fits your play style.
The system isn’t perfect, though. Xenoblade Chronicles X suffers a lot from the aforementioned collision. Unlike other action RPGs, enemies don’t have a clearly defined hitbox for their attacks. If you’re even remotely engageable, you will be. There’s been more than one occasion where I thought I was out of range, but was wiped by a power AOE attack. The worst ones are when I try to run into a cave to escape, but managed to get hit by enemy projectiles flying through the cave walls.
Combat isn’t all there is to Xenoblade Chronicles X. In fact, exploring Mira is where you’ll get the most enjoyment from the game. Movement on-foot feels fast and responsive, and you’re more than capable of exploring most of Mira from the get-go. Probes than require a higher mechanical level and limit your fast travel locations as well as some Skell-exclusive areas are your only limitations.
As you explore Mira, pretty much everything you do is productive. The previously mentioned data probes can also increase the revenue you earn. Chaining probes together can yield higher revenues and resources that’ll allow you to afford equipment like Skell Frames. Discovering locations and Scenic Views also unlock fast travel points and give you experience. Finding resources and treasure earns you experience, revenue, and probes to upgrade with FrontierNav.
The best part of the exploration is the game’s fast-travel system. Really, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in any game I’ve ever played. Once you unlock a fast travel point, there won’t be anywhere in Mira you can’t get to within a few touchscreen taps. Unlike the combat, there aren’t really any major gripes I have with the exploration, and it’s easily the best part of the game.
Lastly, what kind of RPG would Xenoblade Chronicles X be without missions? Unlike Xenoblade Chronicles’ side-quests, the missions you’ll take in this game will be worthwhile (with the exception of Basic Missions). The goals remain relatively average in Normal and Affinity Missions, but the scenarios surrounding them are a lot of fun thanks to their variety.
Normal Missions deal a lot with different aspects of humans living on Mira, including dealing with wildlife and other alien races both hostile and friendly. Affinity Missions are where you’ll get into the characterization of your party members. As you develop your affinity with party members by battling together, these unlock to give you a new perspective on their background and personalities.
However, to get to these Affinity Missions, you have to add the characters to your party in the first place, and that’s a huge pain. Instead of your party being switchable in an in-game menu or being on-call, they are spread out all over NLA. It would be fine if they were available 24/7, but they have their own schedules too. You don’t have to add them to your party, but some Affinity Missions also unlock tangential characters, arts, and missions, making them worthwhile. It all seems archaic when there’s no in-universe reason why they can’t be called up to join instead of hunted down.
Xenoblade Chronicles X also has some online features. The passive squad tasks are some of the most useful since they give you Reward Tickets that can buy mission and upgrade materials. There are also Nemesis battles where you can team up with other players online to fight bosses. Other than that, I didn’t really find any enjoyment in the other online missions. There’s already plenty to do offline that feels more productive.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a huge game and not just in world size. The amount of stuff you can do and the depth of Mira itself makes me want to keep exploring and playing. Combat is fun once you get used to its unique system, the music really gets you pumped, and Skells are totally worth the potential 20-30 hours you have to play to get access to them. The story itself isn’t very endearing and is mostly matter-of-fact, but the characters are developed and voiced beautifully. Besides the story, the party management system and audio mixing issues are my only real sticking points. That aside, Xenoblade Chronicles X is definitely worth your time (that is if you have the patience for it).