Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) – Review
If I had to describe Xenoblade Chronicles X in one word, it would be satisfying.
As someone who absolutely loved Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on New 3DS, X had a lot to live up to in my mind: a great story, great characters, great gameplay, great music, and so on. Undoubtedly, Xenoblade Chronicles X, while being much less story-driven than its predecessor, not only lives up to those expectations in nearly every way, but in some ways even exceeds it.
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles X takes place after two warring alien races fighting above earth manage to destroy the planet. But knowing this was coming, the people of earth build large ark-like ships to take everyone off-planet to escape Earth’s destruction and make a new home on another planet. In fleeing, most of the ships are destroyed, except for the White Whale, which houses the New Los Angeles Colony. Unfortunately, after two years of drifting in space, one of the alien races who was responsible for the destruction of Earth caught up with the White Whale and damaged the ship to the point where it crash-landed on the planet that comes to be known as Mira.
Your soldier is found in a stasis pod by Elma (one of the main protagonists) two months after the New Los Angeles Colony landed on Mira. This soldier is of your own creation, with not only a choice of gender, but various aspects of appearance (though it’s not a Fallout 4 level of customization), and a number of different voice actor options, including the voice actors for both Shulk and Fiora from Xenoblade Chronicles (Adam Howden and Carina Reeves, respectively) as options for the male or female character respectively. While your character really only speaks audibly in battle (outside of battle, you only are able to pick different responses to questions), the game does a good job making you feel like you’re a real a part of the story. Your choices actually have a real impact on how things play out in many cases. Even seemingly small choices in side quests can either cause or prevent future deaths. The way your avatar is used in this game is very reminiscent of how your character was used in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games.
The ultimate purpose of the game (at least initially) is to survive on this new planet; to keep the human race going. The story gets more complex as you go, and there is undoubtedly more to the story, but that’s one thing that’s best to experience yourself. Without spoiling anything, it gets more and more interesting the longer you play.
That being said, the story is not as front-and-center as it was in Xenoblade Chronicles. This is a downside because the story was so very good in the previous game, but at the same time, it’s also easier to enjoy more of what the rest of the game has to offer because as much as I want to know what else happens, there’s so much else that’s amazing about X that I want to get as much as I can out of the game before I finish the story. In the previous game, I wanted to see what happened next so badly that I’d get impatient and try to move forward even when I was under-leveled, which would almost always prove at least difficult if not downright disastrous. In X, I find that the game is a bit more helpful in that it won’t even let you take on the next story mission until you’ve met certain requirements, usually having a certain portion of a continent discovered and an affinity mission completed (the latter of which has a level requirement attached to it, giving you a good idea of how strong the enemies will be in the next story chapter). Considering that the affinity missions and exploration are some of the best parts about X (and actually make the story missions better because of things you learn), this ultimately ends up being a very good thing.
The Affinity Missions are your way to learn more about who the individual characters are, much more so than you learn from simply going through the story. What’s especially nice about these is that unlike the Heart-to-Heart scenes in the previous game, Affinity Missions have you actually actively doing things ranging from fighting monsters to finding items and even simply exploring the environment. Every one of these gives you a deeper understanding of who the characters are and what the motivations are behind their actions so that they don’t just end up as a-typical anime tropes.
Even without the Affinity Missions, though, I’ve found that the different characters are interesting and the North American localization is actually quite excellent, despite my initial fears. I will say that I haven’t found myself connecting with characters quite as much as I did in the previous game, but that isn’t to say the characters aren’t likable; they are. With only a few exceptions, nearly every playable character I’ve encountered I’ve liked a lot. Likely I haven’t connected with the characters as much in this game as its predecessor because I haven’t done a lot of Affinity Missions yet. Thankfully, the main way to build affinity with characters (which gives bonuses, gives access to missions, etc.) is in battle.
The battle system is easily one of my favorite parts of Xenoblade Chronicles X. If you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii (or the New 3DS port), you’ll feel pretty much right at home with X’s battle system, as it is basically the same, albeit without the Monado-related elements and changes that make it both faster and more interesting. For those unfamiliar, Xenoblade Chronicles X, like its predecessor, has auto-attacks while you focus on the position of your character and selection of Arts, which are color-coded based on what type of attacks are being used. Many attacks function differently based on when you use them and what position your character is in relation to the enemy. Some attacks have effects that only work when attacking from the enemy’s side or back. Others do very little damage unless your character stands in front of the enemy. Some attacks can only be used at close-range while others are best at long range. Unlike in the previous game, your character can not only switch between ranged attacks (i.e. guns) and melee (e.g. swords, knives, spears, etc.) on the fly, but has a variety of 16 different character classes to experiment with, each of which has different weapon configurations and Arts associated with its weapon types. Furthermore, since most characters do not function as healers, there is the Soul Voice system, which has both your character and party members calling out to use a specific type of Art (their requests are color-coded the same as the Arts themselves) to both heal party members and build affinity between you and that party member.
Once you obtain a Skell, battles change depending on how many Skells are being used in that members not in Skells receive different boosts to defense. There is more than that, of course, but despite how it may seem, Skells are not a win button. Even small enemies, if a higher level, can destroy your Skell, so there is always a risk-reward factor to consider when bringing them into battle. Some battles are all but impossible without a Skell because of the sheer damage output. Others actually don’t even let you use a Skell. Considering the cost to repair Skells upon destruction is very high (they come with an insurance policy to replace it 3 times for free, but after that you have to pay), there are times when it’s better to abandon your Skell at the start of or even mid-battle (the latter of which is especially important if a high level enemy sees you and they are big enough to chase you).
With over 50 hours of game time so far, the only thing I’ve done more than battling is exploring the world. Whether on foot or in a Skell; walking, running, jumping, driving, or flying, there is so much to see and so much to find. Even when you’ve filled every single hexagon on a continent’s map (which is displayed on the Gamepad screen for convenience and easy fast-traveling), you’ll still find that you’ve barely begun to see everything there is to see. And unlike in Xenoblade Chronicles, you have the ability to sprint (endlessly) and fall from any height without taking damage. Furthermore, you can jump much higher (especially when sprinting), which opens up a lot more possibilities for accessing areas that in the previous game would have been inaccessible. Once you obtain a Skell (the mechs advertised in-game, obtained at around 30 hours in), and even more so when you obtain a flight module for your Skell(s), the world opens up considerably and no portion of the map is impossible to reach. Want to fly to the top of the BLADE tower? Do it. Want to reach the top of the highest structure in Primordia (which is impossible to access without a flying Skell)? Do it. In fact, the first place I went when I got the flight module was that very structure in Primordia. It was SO SATISFYING.
And since visually, Xenoblade Chronicles X is outstandingly gorgeous in nearly every aspect, that exploration is even more exciting. The enemies you face all boast incredible detail and range in size from reaching to your character’s ankles to being 100 feet tall and/or long. The Skells likewise are incredibly detailed and fantastic looking no matter which model you are using. The environments are also detailed, full of life, and MASSIVE. The scale alone is one of the most impressive things about the game, as the size of the world map is 154 square miles–that’s larger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (14.8 square miles), Grand Theft Auto V (49 square miles), and Fallout 4 (30 square miles) combined. Granted, both Skyrim and Fallout 4 are considerably more dense for their size, but that’s still a massive world consisting of five continents, each with considerably different environments. And if we consider the verticality of the maps (some portions going hundreds, even thousands of feet into the air), the ability to access any portion of said maps, and the hidden caverns and underground areas, the world feels even larger.
One thing that makes the world feel even bigger than the environments alone is the soundtrack, especially the musical themes for each continent (which have both daytime and nighttime versions). The themes for the first four continents (I have not yet been to the fifth continent) all feel especially epic, and at least to me, the Primordia theme is up there with the theme for Gaur Plains from Xenoblade Chronicles. The fact that some of the songs (especially the main battle theme, “Black Tar”) have vocals has been rather divisive, but I can say without question that songs that initially were cheesy or tiresome to me on first listen have not only grown on me, but I have grown to love them. Also, there are vocal themes like “Uncontrollable” (which plays anytime you face a unique monster, or Tyrant) which are not only great, but excellent. I can’t honestly say I’m a huge fan of the Skell flying theme just yet, but I haven’t had the flight module for my Skell very long, so I’m sure it will grow on me in due time.
As much as the music and visuals make Xenoblade Chronicles X a delight to explore and experience in every way, there’s one real area where the visuals are lacking, and that’s in the character’s faces. In the attempt to go with an anime style, the initial appearance of many characters can be downright off-putting. That being said, it is possible to customize your character in such a way that they don’t look terrible and for me, at least, I’ve gotten used to the ones that originally made me cringe. If you just can’t get over the way a face looks, you can always slap on a helmet.
That brings up another thing that I really appreciate about Xenoblade Chronicles X over its predecessor: though you will always want to have the best armor for your characters, there is the option of changing the “fashion gear” to make it look like they are wearing whatever gear you happen to like the look of best. In other words, if, for example, you want Elma to always be wearing the gear she has when you first meet her (but still want to give her gear that will boost her stats), you can keep her original gear as “fashion gear” while equipping the more powerful stuff. I can’t tell you how many times that would have been nice to have in the previous game.
The subject of visuals brings up a technical issue that can be a bit jarring initially (though after having played over 50 hours, it doesn’t bother me anymore): there are a lot of texture pop-ins. Sometimes you’ll walk up to an area and while the environment itself has incredible draw distance, you’ll have mechanical gear from the human population or people themselves suddenly pop in. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of an issue with enemies; usually the game keeps them showing up far enough ahead of your characters to avoid any unexpected encounters (unless an enemy is camouflaged). However, this issue is to me a small price to pay for an otherwise seamless experience going from one end of the map to the other, as there are no loading screens unless you are either fast-traveling (which, even with loading screens, takes 5-10 seconds to load in at the most) or entering a building like the BLADE Barracks. Of course, if you have the disc version of the game you will need to download free data packs from the Nintendo eShop to improve loading times. It’s not terribly slow without them (and if you have the digital version, they are already included), but the faster load times are well worth getting if you want to get the most out of your game.
There are also some occasional issues with collision detection, especially in New Los Angeles. It’s completely possible to walk through a moving car, whether on foot or in a Skell. Similarly, long hair on a character usually goes through armor pieces. I can’t think of any times where it’s happened apart from that and considering that even a big-budget game like Destiny has that happen occasionally, it’s an issue that doesn’t really affect gameplay enough to be a problem.
The menu text is also fairly small and its size cannot be adjusted. I have pretty good eyesight, but at times it puts a strain on my eyes even on a fairly large (55″) TV screen. Funnily enough, sometimes I will switch the main display to the Gamepad screen just to get a closer look at the text (and that does help).
Finally, if there’s one fairly big weakness of the game, it’s that things are not explained very well in-game. Tutorials are few and far between, and the ones that do pop up seem to be inaccessible if you forget anything. And there are times when you are sent on fetch quests where the only indication of where to find what you need is what continent it’s on, which considering how big the continents are, doesn’t really help. I spent more time looking online than I really feel like I should have had to.
As a final point, Xenoblade Chronicles X does support off-TV play and overall, it’s a feature well worth using if someone else wants to use the TV or you are in a place without a TV. For example, I’ve been able to play in the car on a trip home and on a slow day at work by simply plugging in my console and using off-TV play. The only real downsides are that for one, you do lose the scale a bit by playing on a small screen rather than a big TV, and that in order to access the map, you have to switch it back to TV mode (which could easily be done with the press of a button, but for some reason requires touching the screen to bring up the mode switch icon and then pressing it) and back when you want to resume playing.
Despite the minor complaints I have about the game, overall Xenoblade Chronicles X is an absolutely stellar game and a must-own for anyone who has a Wii U and enjoys RPGs. With a massive world to explore, a fun and strategic battle system, a fantastic and fitting soundtrack, an interesting sci-fi story, and plenty of opportunities to learn more about the characters, it is a truly satisfying and worthy successor to Xenoblade Chronicles.