Having long been in development for Wii U under its understated codename, X, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a technical showcase that defied its host machine’s relatively humble processing power. Monolith Soft have created the vast alien world of Mira, populated it with all manner of creatures, and crafted an enjoyable story that frames the whole experience. You’ll have to work at it to get the most out of it though, and while it retains some elements of its predecessor, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a completely different creature.
Unlike Xenoblade Chronicles, you don’t play a crafted character like Shulk, but rather create your own player avatar using the relatively robust character creation tools. Despite the immense differences, there are nods to the last game throughout, with one of the more impressive being that amongst your character’s voice selection are ones provided by Shulk and Fiora actors Adam Howden and Carina Reeves. It’s a lovely piece of fan service and indicative of the amount of thought and effort that has gone into Xenoblade Chronicles X.
The game opens with the human race evacuating the planet Earth, as it becomes consumed by a war raging between two alien races. While few of the escape vessels made it through the warring factions, one did, the White Whale, though its success was short-lived as the ship soon crash lands on the alien world of Mira. While some portions of the ship survived intact, other parts of the vessel broke off, spread across Mira, including the Lifehold which housed humanity’s last survivors.
You find yourself being rescued from a jettisoned lifepod by the white-haired soldier Elma, and she returns you to New LA, the central hub of humanity’s new residence. There you join a group known as the BLADES, whose initial priority is to collect the pieces of the Lifehold, exploring and expanding the known world by planting data probes in the process.
There is virtually no hand-holding as you first set out, and while you can quickly jump into the digital manual, it can be utterly overwhelming. If you aren’t that knowledgeable about RPGs, I’d expect Xenoblade Chronicles X to chew you up and spit you out, having lost track of levelling your character, skills, abilities, BLADE level, Division, equipment, and equipment abilities. That’s before you’ve even touched on mapping the huge expanse of Mira, filling your Collectopedia, utilising Soul Voices and, oh yes, following the story.
Sometimes the amount of information thrown at you is just as excessive as the game’s systems. After successfully completing each story mission, the number of tutorial screens that appear is often ridiculous, especially when you’re probably already reeling from trying to juggle the concepts you do understand. It all starts to come together though, perhaps ten to fifteen hours in, and the constant tinkering with skills, abilities, classes and divisions becomes utterly enthralling.
One of the key elements that makes it through from the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles is the combat system. It’s set up in such a way that MMO players will be immediately at home, with your action palette laid out at the bottom of the screen, and your character will auto-attack while you select from the range of arts. Just as in an MMO, the key to success is utilising the correct buffs, debuffs and the effects of your team’s attacks, so that you can then capitalise on them. I found it a pleasure to use, which is a positive given how much combat you’ll be engaged in.
Tatsu, a Nopon – an indigenous potato creature– quickly becomes your comedy sidekick. His constant dancing and Yoda-esque pigeon English doesn’t initially seem to fit with the hard sci-fi world that Monolith have created. However, he soon settles into the background, especially as you begin to encounter more alien races, leaving you to concentrate on adventuring. It’s a lighter touch that might distract some during the cutscenses, but lets the spirit of the game come through.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fantastic looking game. The scale and detail of the world, the design of the various species, all form a believable and enticing setting that you can’t help but be drawn in by. The alien creatures you’ll come across are often so huge that they fill the screen, though they’re not all aggressive – unless provoked – meaning that you can experience plenty of moments of pure awe, which often made me feel like Dr. Grant in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park.
The only slight oddity I found was the design of the female characters, whose features are in the style of anime characters, while a number of the men have a more realistic look. It’s something that I stopped noticing after a while, but I’m unsure quite what the reason behind the imbalance was. Overall the character and armour designs evoke memories of Phantasy Star Online, as does the game’s opening plot and online aspects, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is far deeper than PSO ever was.
Despite the beauty of the world there is a perpetual sense of danger. Everything is primed to kill you from the off, with high level creatures that will take you out in a single swipe appearing the moment you leave the safety of your base. The game owes a lot to James Cameron’s Avatar, both in its design and in giving you the sense that you’re never safe. Thankfully running away is not only essential, it’s also a lot of fun. Bounding across the low-gravity planet of Mira feels like a sci-fi rendition of Crackdown and while making your way to the top of a mountain isn’t always the most technical excursion, you’re always rewarded by an incredible view.
It’s this hard-fought approach to traversal that saw Monolith Soft hold back one of the game’s defining aspects. They wanted players to understand the scale of the world, and how difficult parts of it are to reach, before handing you the keys to your very own transforming mech, known here as a Skell. It’s safe to say that it utterly changes the game, empowering you and opening up areas that you couldn’t have dreamed of reaching before. It’s true that the game’s fast travel system is useful and incredibly robust, but when you have a Skell you’ll be using it far less than you’d expect, choosing instead to speed, and later fly, across Mira at every given opportunity.
Xenoblade Chronicles X would be a technical marvel on any platform, but the fact that it is running on the Wii U is frankly jaw-dropping. The Western physical release recommends the install of 10gb of data packs, which reduce load times, while improving textures and draw distance, but if you’re playing digitally it’s all included already. There is still a certain degree of pop-in of far off creatures and NPCs, but it’s handled in such a manner that it never causes you a problem, and the game runs incredibly smoothly throughout.
That includes when playing online with others, which fleshes the game out even further. When you launch the game you choose a squad to participate in, which breaks down into singleplayer, online, or friends. Whichever you choose you’re placed with up to 31 other players, who you can then tackle squad tasks with, without working directly alongside each other. Very often, the most you’ll know of other players is the achievements notification pinging away in the corner as you can see their progress, though you can turn this off if you prefer.
Along with squad tasks you can also enact squad missions, calling upon other players to play alongside you, although you can fill up the slots with AI characters from your team if you can’t find enough people. These missions are more focussed than the broader game, locking you into an area and funnelling you through them. While utterly different in execution, much like Monster Hunter it’s absolutely key to work together as a team, particularly via using Soul Voices.
These are a range of commands that your character automatically says under a set of particular circumstances, and grant buffs or heal your team when activated. Perhaps not unsurprisingly they are an advanced mechanic that you have to uncover for yourself. Overall, the online aspects are fantastically implemented, and while not essential to the experience expand it considerably.
It would be nice to have multiple save slots available to you, if only so you could try different approaches to parts of the game. You’re never really penalised for dying though, and with the fast travel option you can generally find your way back to where you were without too much hassle. High up on my wish-list would also be a Japanese language option, which has presumably been omitted due to memory constraints, but it would have been nice to see it as an downloadable option along with the other data packs.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a genuinely enthralling game. It doesn’t take it easy on you though, and the perseverance and attention required may override the spectacle and beauty found here. Fans of the last game may also struggle with the tonal and technical shift, but if you want to experience one of the most involving, creative and expansive open worlds ever created, Xenoblade Chronicles X is essential.