Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U)
It all starts when the world ends. Earth gets wiped out, a needless casualty in a war between two advanced alien factions. A tiny percentage of Earth’s population gets away, fleeing in massive space Arks. Stranded on an alien world, full of large monsters and dangerous plants, humanity is doing its best to eke out its existence. The priority at the moment is exploration. Without knowing much about this new planet, humanity has little chance once the reserves from the Ark are spent. Food, water, building materials and more need to be discovered, as well as dealing with the roaming monsters that could threaten New Los Angeles. Get your hiking boots on, it is time to become a cartographer. Luckily you have the FrontierNav.
Get ready for everything to get supersized
Xenoblade Chronicles X is probably one of the largest games you will ever play. The scale of the world and some of its monsters are so large that the word ‘epic’ qualifies. After 90 hours I have surveyed 50% of the world of Mira, with so many wrecks and vistas to find. There are still monsters well beyond my capabilities and I get the feeling there are still a couple secrets to be coaxed out of the characters in and around NLA.
Unlike Xenoblade Chronicles, which had you visiting many towns on your journey, NLA is your home right from the beginning of the game, and there is little else outside of NLA in the ways of civilisation. Spending so much time in one central point makes it feel like home. Eventually the need to check a map fades as you know how to get from the weapons store to go tell a character that you want them to join your party. Skells, massive exosuits, roam the city, a tantalising tease at what can be yours, if you play for long enough. The city is full of interesting characters, full of stories and character. Which is great, because your character is a blank slate.
A dumb hero
Thanks to the multiplayer component of the game, you get to make your own character when you start. This character is silent, often just nodding or scowling to add any interaction to the story. While it is nice to be able to have options as to how you face certain obstacles, the silent protagonist comes across as very awkward. For the most part, the story revolves around Elma, with you just being the skilled warrior / cartographer that follows her around. She spends the most time in the limelight and most characters talk to her instead of you, with her deferring to your judgement at times to allow you to suggest the way forward. In fact some characters act as if you aren’t there at all, like Tatsu, who I don’t think ever acknowledges your presence. While playing a game where you aren’t the central, most important character sounds like a really interesting idea, this has happened more as a side effect than by intent. It makes for some really odd conversations as characters somehow repeat things that you never actually said, which draws things out in a stuttering, faltering way.
This game’s size is really its biggest enemy. As impressive as the massive world is, it creates many situations where pacing suffers. There is so much to do, to see and collect that it is too much information to take in. Add that your Collectopedia doesn’t list where you found the item in question and many quests do not show where to go. Meaning if you forgot where a certain monster appears on a continent, or perhaps never saw where you got a collectible that you now need 10 of, you are in for a lot of travelling. It can be really frustrating, because it flies completely counter to the lore of the game, which tells you that the FrontierNav is all about mapping out and collecting as much information about the world as possible. Yet, it can’t track where you fought a specific creature hours ago that you need to kill a few more of now. I almost wish I had written down where I found most monsters and items, because I can see how people are going to end up spending hours looking for the same items that I spent hours wandering deserts and roaming plains to find.
Time to go monster hunting
This game has a lot in common with Monster Hunter. You will spend a lot of time preparing for a large monster fight, only to learn how to finally beat it, before using its parts to develop even better gear. Finding what monsters hold the key ingredients and then building better gear is a a lot of fun, but it might not be fun to everyone. Of course it is also in some ways nothing like Monster Hunter. Once you start combat your character will auto-attack and you have several abilities (called arts) that you can use, all with cooldowns. It becomes a multi-layered dance as you manage cooldowns to get synergies from the various arts or trigger bonuses from being say, behind the enemy or having the enemy toppled. Couple this with Soul Voices, a system which allows characters to react to certain conditions and shout out commands that buff your next appropriate art, and you will start to see some of the complexities of the combat system. Add in energy types and each ability having secondary and often tertiary cooldowns and get ready to take a while before you get maximum performance out of your characters during combat.
As beautiful as Xenoblade Chronicles X is, with its amazing panoramas and impossible landscapes, I think a lot of people will find the game too large, too daunting. This game needs to be tackled at a steady pace, like a marathon. Sprinters stand no chance as the game tends to throw some really mean boss fights in your way that either require a solid level or having the right gear to beat them. Fans of Xenoblade Chronicles will enjoy the similar combat mechanics and affinity systems, allowing them time to learn the new systems and get to grips with travelling around the world. Storywise it just never reaches the magical crescendo that the story of Shulk and the Monado attains, which is a bit disappointing after pouring 70 hours into something. Thankfully the gameplay and the exploration are really fun, and the feeling of making progress in this game is so satisfying. In the first few minutes of the game you will see hulking creatures wading to drinking holes that are level 50 or higher. Playing the whole game to reach the point where you can challenge these behemoths is enough to make you shout out in celebration as they plummet to the ground. Then you realise you got no good loot so you look for another behemoth to tackle and before you know it an hour has passed and you head off to do a different quest.
Feeling the burn
A lot of this game is about progression and working towards a goal. From the moment you see a Skell you want one and after 20 hours of playing the game, you will finally get the 8 quests to unlock your license to ride one of these powerful machines. Suddenly the 25 hours you have spent trodding around on foot, exploring areas and looking for ways to climb up to reach treasures or caves are rewarded and you can drive around at much higher speed with a much better jump to help you reach previously inaccessible points. The extra clout also means you can take on bigger monsters, or higher level enemies with a fighting chance.
You will need every advantage you can find, because Mira is as harsh as it is beautiful and unlike so many games, the monsters aren’t all conveniently your level. You will sometimes need to run through a dangerous location to make it to a place where you can do quests safely. The mapping system helps in this regard, using colour-coding to show how dangerous a segment of the world is to you. However, this doesn’t mean that a place with monsters your level isn’t patrolled by something that can kill you in one hit. Monsters graze or lie down to snooze. Sometimes they go drink water and some creatures are less aggressive at night. Knowing how the weather affects your abilities and the behaviour, or spotting of monsters is one of those things that the game just throws at you and expects you to work out through experimentation.
Then just when you think you have it all under control, you get the ability to make Skells fly. The world looks really different from up high, this land that you have travelled so often. Its beautiful to the point you will wonder how it is running on the Wii U at all, but the game wouldn’t fit on any other platform. The gamepad keeps FrontierNav on display the whole time, letting you plan your path or look if there is possibly a place for a new data probe somewhere nearby. It also acts as your fast travel system and you will need to use that a LOT. I’m tempted to go and fly across the length of a continent just to see how long it will take me, but I would probably get distracted with a new sight or flying monster. Because up in the clouds, a Telethia circles, as well as other nasty monsters. Also, I doubt anyone would believe just how massive the explorable areas are in this game. It is something that needs to be seen, how you seamlessly travel from one part of the world to another.