Reviewing Xenoblade Chronicles X
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game about turning your brain off and indulging in a 90-hour power fantasy. To try to claim much more about the game than that would probably be overreaching. It takes everything about the design of its predecessor and says, “Let’s do that again, but bigger,” in the most literal possible sense. The only thing that didn’t survive the embiggening process was the previous game’s story execution. The ultimate result is an absolutely massive game where you as the player are largely left to your own devices, for better and for worse.
Glimpses of a Plot
Xenogears and the Xenosaga trilogy had some of the most extremely sophisticated (and, of course, convoluted) stories ever seen in video games, with extraordinary detail put into building their worlds and their history. However, obscenely long cinematics became standards of those games as a result. Xenoblade Chronicles scaled back these endless cinematics while still maintaining a worthwhile story, and it effectively did the impossible when it created an open-world RPG that still maintained a constant focus on characters and plot. Unfortunately, rather than maintain this balance, Xenoblade Chronicles X continues its trajectory toward bigger world at the expense of story.
This is a shame, because this game has as excellent a premise as its predecessor: Earth has been annihilated as a result of a war between aliens that didn’t even involve humanity, and now the ship containing the last remnant of humanity has to restart civilization on a hostile alien world. You also need to make alliances with friendly races to protect yourself from a threat that followed you from Earth. Wow, what a cool idea! Unfortunately, the game is only 12 “chapters” long, and each one consists of just a handful of cinematics that always regard the same two party members (at the expense of everyone else you would prefer to have in your party). There are plenty of “Affinity Missions” in which you get to know the various available party members, but most of these missions feel superficial in nature, even if the characters themselves are often quite enjoyable. There is an alien party member named L, for instance, who constantly mixes up his idioms in conversation, and I laughed many times at his tentative grasp of English.
However, since the game only ever drip feeds story to the player, you never become very invested in it. In fact, the party member Elma is very clearly the true main character of the game. The character you create at the outset of the game is an amnesiac mute who actually only functions as a narrative framing device, so that it is not weird when people constantly want to share exposition with you. Your character is utterly superfluous outside of being Elma’s best foot soldier. The frustration comes to a boil at the end of the game, when the game ends on a cliffhanger. It really takes gall to end a game with so little plot in the first place in an unfinished state.
Exploration or the Eternal Fetch Quest?
We have established that story is not the draw in Xenoblade Chronicles X. What is the draw is the world itself, Mira. Mira is broken up into five enormous regions that are all accessible from the beginning of the game, each one with a distinct look, and almost all of them (Sylvalum is a dud, in my opinion.) are fun to explore. Each region has enemies that run the gamut of difficulty levels, so it is extremely common to see some level 13 bug next to a level 58 killer robot. Different collectible items also appear in each region, and different enemies drop different unique items and crafting materials too. Unique, extra powerful enemies called “Tyrants” roam the landscape in specified places as well. As a result of these factors, almost every non-story mission in the entire game is either a fetch quest or a monster hunt. You can fast travel with ease in the game, and you can even outright buy many of the crafting materials dropped by enemies, so completing these quests is often painless. But this means five-minute fetch quests and monster hunts are the whole game.
For the first 30 or so hours, I truthfully did not mind though. When you first start the game, it is thrilling to explore sweeping landscapes–tall mountains, thick jungles, desert canyons–strictly for its own sake. Only after you have been going through the motions for quite a while (incidentally, the point at which I reached Sylvalum, the fourth region, in my case) does the reality of being a one-trick pony really hit you. However, also around 30 hours into the game is when you finally unlock the use of giant robots called Skells for combat and exploration, and then everything changes.
Let me just tell you something: Skells are incredible. I sat dumbfounded like a little boy at the extreme amount of glee I derived from customizing my Skells’ color schemes and then giving them names. The fact that they can zoom across the landscape and eventually fly to reach any area in the game world is just a bonus. The Skells are ridiculously powerful too, and they can be used without penalty to experience gained, so there’s really no reason not to use at least one almost all the time. Frankly, they break the game to an extent. A team of level 30 Skells can sometimes kill a level 58 enemy, for instance. As a result, I completed the game truthfully without ever having a reason to understand how Soul Voices and Overdrive work in combat, which are ostensibly the two most strategic elements of the combat system. I just demolished my way to the end credits with giant robots. It is my understanding that even several of the post-game super bosses can be obliterated by just unlocking stronger robots. Skells serve as the ultimate example of how mindless the game is, that a marvelous time can be had using robots to annihilate enemies that stand no chance against you. If the Skells do not win you over, and the enormous abundance of item collection and monster hunting does not sway you, then this is not the game for you.
A Weird World
Since Mira is the star of the show in Xenoblade Chronicles X, you start to scrutinize it after a while. Namely, lots of intelligent alien races have found their way to this place, but aside from some enemy fortresses, there are no other cities in the game besides New Los Angeles, your ship from Earth. Everything else is mostly dangerous wilderness, which just struck me as odd. Monolith Soft should still be praised though for designing environments that scale well from walking on foot to parading around in giant robots. The soundtrack too is of high quality, if not extremely eclectic and sometimes strangely timed. But this is what the game is–a big conglomeration of strange decisions that just kind of work for some inexplicable reason.
The story has several good characters who are fun to hear even though they are given nothing worthwhile to do. The combat is a forgettable copy and paste of Xenoblade Chronicles, mobile turn-based but now with changeable weapon sets and giant robots. Those giant robots often ruin the semblance of difficulty, but they do so in such an unapologetic way that it becomes embarrassingly fun. Frankly, I think if a sequel proceeds any further down this current route, it will be an unbearable, offensive mess. That being said, Xenoblade Chronicles X is the kind of mindless that I can get behind just this once.
Disclaimer: I did not play online whatsoever, which is a very valid option in this game. If you enjoy playing online with others, whether a friend or a stranger, then you can safely add an extra “0.5” to the score.