I received my very first role-playing game (RPG) way back in 1989 from my grandma for Christmas. Dragon Warrior for the NES was a revelation because it was unlike anything I had ever played before. It didn’t have the prettiest graphics or complex controls, but it was the beginning of my love affair with Japanese RPG video games. The Super NES and PlayStation eras were the golden years for these games. The genre had become a bit sparse on GameCube, and although the Wii rectified this shortcoming to some degree – with many of the RPGs being serviceable – not many were great or memorable. This all changed with the release of Xenoblade Chronicles, a game that not only had an intriguing tale to tell, but did so with beautiful landscapes, a captivating soundtrack, and a fresh battle system. That’s why I was so happy when Xenoblade Chronicles X was announced back in 2013, and why it remained my most anticipated game of 2015. As it approached release I began to wonder if I had overhyped the game in my mind and whether it could live up to my expectations. Well, after playing for 125 hours, I’m happy to report that it has, and in fact it’s become my favorite game of 2015.
X is massive and epic, both in the sheer size of the game and its story. The opening cinematic tells the tale of two mysterious alien races showing up on earth’s doorstep and initiating a massive fight between one another. Humanity is stuck in the crossfire and takes massive collateral damage. In the chaos, multiple space ships launch from earth to escape the carnage. One successfully escapes into space with thousands of people on board. Flash-forward to now and the majority of the ship’s inhabitants have been placed in stasis. Unfortunately one of the alien races has managed to locate the ship and manages to shoot it down, causing it to break up in the atmosphere of an unexplored planet called Mira. Parts of the ship are scattered across the world, but the main city that was built aboard the vessel survives and crashes down onto the continent of Primordia. The game begins with your character being awoken out of stasis somewhere in the remote countryside. It turns out there are more Lifeholds like the one you were placed in, and that’s one of the primary objectives of the game: locate as many pieces of the ship to recover anyone and anything you can.
The opening tutorial will have you create your character, who is suffering from amnesia (of course!), and journey back to the humans’ base of operations, a gigantic cylindrical city called New Los Angeles. Here you will be educated on all of the relevant story beats, introduced to some of the main characters, and attempt to begin to understand all of the game mechanics and systems in place. It can be a daunting experience as so much information is thrown at you at once that it can’t all possibly stick. Don’t sweat the details though, and just go with the flow. Once the game walks you through some essentials, it will send you on your first adventure. Instead, I spent a good hour or two exploring New LA and talking to the hundreds of inhabitants scattered across the vast city. This is normal for me, though. Ever since Dragon Warrior I love to talk with every character and learn as much about the story as possible. That’s one of the best things about RPGs: choice. You can jump right into the action if you like, or you can submerse yourself in the details.
If you’ve played the original game on Wii, you’ll be right at home with the battle system. It’s not turn-based like some RPGs. When you begin combat with an enemy, all of the characters in your party will automatically begin attacking. Your character is the only one you have direct control over, and if you just stand by the enemy, you will attack using a melee or ranged attack. You can switch between the two on the fly. Along the bottom of the screen is the art bar. These are special attacks or buffs that must be used to efficiently take down enemies. They all have cool down timers to prevent spamming the same powers over and over again. Once you use one, you’ll have to wait for the meter to fill back up before you can use the same one again. Each art has its own set time needed to refill. Some arts can only be used when you have enough tension points (TP) saved up. These are mostly earned by allowing your character to auto-attack without using arts.
Throughout the battles your teammates will yell out advice or request help. When this happens, specific arts will begin flashing. You’ll have a few seconds to select the required art to assist your teammate. This will not only give you both a boost in attack, but is also one of the few ways to regain hit points during battle. As your team gels and you work off one another’s tactics, you’ll be able to take down the enemies faster, and you’ll earn affinity points. These will eventually unlock new missions and give more insight into the background of your party members. Many of the enemies will have appendages that can be targeted. If you take out an enemy’s leg it will often topple to the ground, allowing for certain attacks (usually melee) to deliver critical damage. Constantly moving around the enemy in real-time will allow for you to deliver attacks from the side or behind, which give some of your arts bonus damage. Overall the battle system is one of the best ones I’ve encountered in Japanese RPGs. It can be a bit confusing at the very beginning, but after you’ve got a few encounters under your belt it becomes a thrilling experience. Even after spending a ton of hours with the game, I still have fun taking out all of the baddies.
Everything about this game is huge, including the world itself. You’ll be able to explore a total of five continents, each as big as some other entire games. At the beginning of the game you must traverse by foot. As you explore you are not only rewarded with experience points when you discover new locations, but many times you’ll unlock a fast travel segment on your map, which is located on the touch screen of the Game Pad. This becomes very handy when you need to get from point A to point B quickly. Later in the game you will acquire a Skell that can transform from a robot into a vehicle. This will really allow for some fast acquisition of the items that are scattered about in little blue crystals across the world. A little later into the game your Skell will be upgraded with a flight module. When this happens it’s a whole new ballgame. Areas that you’ve seen from the beginning of the game are suddenly accessible. Secrets that have eluded you for so many hours are there for the taking. I must have flown around for two solid hours after getting my upgrade, just admiring the landscape, discovering hidden treasures, and battling some stronger enemies I didn’t have access to prior.
X is probably the best looking game on the Wii U. The draw distance goes on for miles and you can even make out some landmarks on other continents from across the ocean. Each continent is brimming with life and character. Primordia is very similar to Gaur Plains from the first game, with wide open spaces and huge chunks of rocky terrain jutting out from the ground and reaching high up into the skies above. The grass moves back and forth in the wind, the clouds slowly skirt on by in the sky, and little touches like thunderstorms and the aurora borealis in the night sky help make Mira feel like a real planet.
Noctilum is the second continent I explored and it has spots of dense rainforest where there are all sorts of huge plants, trees, and wildlife. Huge spiders and gorillas will descend down from the canopy above at a moment’s notice, scaring the heck out of you. Sometimes they’re much higher level so there’s no choice but to attempt to run for your lives. The graphics in this area are especially pretty during the nighttime, with bioluminescent plants and lightning bugs floating around. The continent has some surprises to uncover, such as the huge spiraling tree that you can climb up inside of to reach the canopy high above. From plains made of blue grass to a vast assortment of waterfalls, there’s always new stuff to discover here.
Oblivia, for the most part, is a desert continent. At first this may sound boring, but you quickly realize there’s more here than meets the eye. There are ancient structures and huge (and I mean gigantic) rings jutting out of the ground and high into the air. The place reminded me of the original Metroid Prime with its alien technology in ruins. Between electrical storms and sandstorms, you’ll do battle with a wide variety of beasts and mechanoids. It’s surprising how much fun this area ended up being, given its stark contrast in looks when compared to the previous two continents. I’m not going to give away the other two continents, although they are on your map at the very beginning of the game. Still, there’s something about discovering them yourself and seeing them for the first time.
So, the graphics are amazing, but how is the music? I loved the score for the first Xenoblade, so when I heard the original composer was not coming back for the sequel I was disappointed. After playing X for a lengthy time, I must admit I really dig this soundtrack. I absolutely love and adore about 80% of the music in the game. 10% is average and the other 10% I hate. First, the good: each continent has a day and night theme, all of which are amazing. I enjoy each composition, but I must say that Noctilum and Sylvalum are two of my absolute favorites. The battle music is also engaging, and does change depending on what you’re fighting. There are lyrics in some of the battle songs, but even this is fine and really adds to the tension of the fights.
Where the music goes completely off the rails is New LA. At first, it’s not so bad and it has a nice beat to it. But, the problem is you spend a lot of time here. Oftentimes you’ll be in menus for ten or twenty minutes buying weapons, comparing stats, upgrading gear, and the entire time is this music that’s just not good. It eventually will bore into your brain (“I can’t hear you. I can’t see you.”), and you’ll be hearing it when you’re not playing the game, kind of like an irritating jingle from a commercial you hate. I also have a minor complaint with the music that plays when flying the Skell. At first I loved it, and to be fair it’s not a bad track. My issue is that there’s no option to turn it off, so every single time you take flight the awesome overworld music that was playing is replaced by this track, and then as soon as you land, the music stops and starts the other song over from the beginning. These annoyances could be remedied with a radio station in your Skell or a jukebox in town to change up the music. Still, I must reiterate, most of the music in this game is amazing and I’m happy with it overall.
As much as I adore X, there are some nitpicks I have with it. Some of these are things that most games these days don’t have issues with. So, it’s strange that this one still harbors some issues. None of these are deal breakers, but if by chance someone from Nintendo or Monolith Soft reads this, please fix these for the next game:
- Assembling your team members is a pain. You have to explore New LA and learn where each person normally hangs out so that when you want to recruit him or her you know where to look. Why can’t I just select them from a menu?
- Some quests are far too obscure; making collecting the items needed a daunting task. Many times blue dots will appear on the map to guide you to an area, but other times they don’t. At the very least, narrow down the vicinity where I should be looking for these items. This game is way too big to go on wild goose chases. Some items can be bought with reward tickets at the terminal in your barracks, but not all. More than once I resorted to using Google to find where I should be looking for an item.
- The game is connected to Nintendo’s server to allow for passive multiplayer. In other words, while you won’t see the other people playing, you’re assigned to a team of 31 other players and you are all tasked with killing or collecting a certain number of things, and as you succeed within the time limit you’ll earn reward tickets. This is a great system, except I often get kicked from the server. When this happens, the game freezes and tells me I’m disconnected. Then, in the upper left of the screen, Nintendo tries to burn in “Offline” into my TV, with no apparent way for me to get rid of the text. It’s very annoying and to get back online I must save the game, exit to the main menu and reload. There should be a menu option where I can have it try to reconnect. Or, don’t have servers that suck.
- The segments on the map on the Game Pad will each eventually show off one important thing in that section. The problem is the game often has multiple things in one segment. Some of the most important things are affinity quests. Some will show up on the map, but others won’t. There’s no way to customize this and it’s irritating to try and locate an affinity quest when it doesn’t show up on the map itself.
- Why can’t I have multiple save slots? This normally isn’t a huge deal, but at the very end of the game before the final battle you are asked if you’re ready. You’re asked again if you’re sure. You’d better not save after that prompt because if you do, you’re stuck in there forever with no chance of coming back out to grind and level up. If you can’t beat the enemies inside, you’ll never complete the game and have to start over from the very beginning. I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me I’d probably break the disc in half.
So, Xenoblade Chronicles X isn’t a perfect game. However, it’s an amazing ride from beginning to end. The vistas are breathtaking, the battle system is sublime, and the story, for all its quirks, is endearing. I had a blast exploring every inch of Mira and learning all of the intricacies of the game’s mechanics and systems. Don’t let the game intimidate you, there’s plenty of fun to be had here even if you only casually play. It’s the best RPG since – well – since Xenoblade Chronicles, and the best the Wii U has to offer.