Xenoblade Chronicles X

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Complete Review & Description

The biggest and best Wii U titles are few and far between, but when one is announced the fever for the eventual release is strong. Xenoblade Chronicles X (XCX) had a lot to live up to from the success of its predecessor. People have been anticipating this as much as any other first party Nintendo title, and non-Wii U owners have been waiting for reviews to see if it’s the title that’ll force them to open their wallets.

XCX starts in a similar way to Xenoblade Chronicles (XC): a giant war is underway and it could mean the end of the human race. Instead of the human-like Homs seen in the first, XCX starts on Earth with humans. The war itself is something happening between two alien races, and Earth and its inhabitants just happen to be caught in the crossfire. Emergency plans are put into place and mankind is placed into large spaceships and launched from Earth. Most of them are destroyed by the ensuing war, but one makes it through.

The game starts shortly after this surviving vessel sheds life pods as it crash lands on the planet of Mira. Elma, the main female character, finds your pod, helps you out, and takes you to what’s left of the main craft: a thriving city by the name of New LA.

Not interested in throwing you into action, or even a main story, the pace of XCX is an interesting one. Your first few hours will be spent meeting characters, helping them collect items, solving relationship issues, and eventually doing some base level missions to qualify to join the local BLADE squadron. BLADE members are tasked with everything from finding parts of their crashed craft to fighting the native wildlife, and helping chart the planet by planting probes around the enormous map.

The story kicks in once you’ve joined BLADE, but again, the pace is slow. There’s no hurry in letting you know that there’s another alien species on the planet that’s not happy humans are here, and when it does, there’s no urgency in resolving that conflict. There’s something about the “go anywhere, do anything” nature of XCX that simply makes the story not very important. There’s even a barrier to most Story missions in the form of needing to be a certain level, having done certain affinity quests, and having certain members in your current group.

The weird thing here is that I thought I’d want a system like this. Something that entwines the story with the relationships happening around you. It makes sense that you can’t start a story mission that relies on two characters enjoying each other’s company when they currently don’t. But when the thing stopping you from progressing is that you haven’t placed enough probes around the first chunk of the map, it can really grind your enthusiasm to a halt.

Not content to stand in the shadows of some of the massively open worlds that have arrived in their competitors’ platforms, Nintendo has come out swinging with a game touting one of the biggest maps for 2015. While it looks amazing, and the scale of the environment and the animals that reside in it are a sight to behold, it doesn’t make for a lot of fun when you’re simply trying to plant as many probes as possible so you can get onto Chapter 2.

There’s something about the “go anywhere, do anything” nature of XCX that simply makes the story not very important.

In fact, Nintendo knew you’d be doing a lot of running in this game that they added a button combination that meant your character could run without the need of your help. Get your character into a sprint, hold R and tap B, and then put the controller down until you’re needed. Thankfully, there are a lot of fast travel points you can select, but the placement of a lot of them means you can often be close to where you want to go, but to get there requires a 10 minute sprint around a giant mountain.

XCX had a lot to live up to when it came to the cast. Shulk, Reyn, Sharla, Dunban, Fiora, and the rest all had so much character; the relationships were well defined, and they all played off each other. It was like travelling with a group of friends. XCX is quite different. While your character is obviously new to the established group of people in New LA, the rest don’t feel overly familiar to each other. It could be a case of the game trying to explain to your new character who everyone is, but it feels stilted.

What doesn’t help is that your character is a completely blank slate. They have no memory of what happened before the life-pod opens at the start of the game and, despite choosing a voice during customisation, your character has nothing to say outside of battle. You do get to make dialog choices throughout the numerous hours you’ll be spending, and people react as if you’ve said something, but your character has little more than a nod or a shake of the head to add to the conversation.

This is a massive step backwards from the likes of Shulk, and it’s really felt. Maybe the fact you can choose one of multiple male or female voices meant there simply wasn’t enough room to store full voice acting for each variation, but I’d have taken one male and female option with full voice acting over what Nintendo has delivered.

While that does sound a bit gloomy there are a few places that XCX truly does shine, one being the battle system. For the most part, it feels quite similar to what you’d find in an MMO: Once a fight has been initiated, your character auto-attacks, and you can switch between melee and ranged weapons, but each has a small cool-down period after an attack. On top of that there’s an Arts system.

As you level up the fighting class you’ve selected (more unlock as you progress, and you can switch at any point in the game) you unlock special moves called Arts. These are shown lower center screen and can be selected at any point of the battle. These too have a cool-down period that depends on what level they are. This is no different to the battle system found in XC, but it’s the newly added Soul Voice system that really changes things up.

When certain conditions are met the members in your group call out to the rest of the team. Maybe Elma asks to be healed, or Lin shouts that now would be a good time to go melee. It’s up to you to follow that up with an Art that matches. Thankfully it’s not a game of memory and the Arts are all colour co-ordinated, and the Soul Voices coming from your team members match. Each time you match a Soul Voice with a corresponding Art, you and your teammate both get an HP boost and your Art gets additional boosts too. Triggering and successfully pulling off these Soul Voice moves is highly satisfying and rewarding, and some fights would be impossible without them.

Did I mention everything can be levelled up? As you uncover parts of the map, progress through the story, research mechanical, archaeological, and biological finds, fight tyrants, and perform other specific tasks, you earn Battle Points. These can be spent on upgrading some things, and for what doesn’t need BP to upgrade, you’ll be spending money or another resource.

Arts and Skills (different classes have different assignable skills) can be upgraded. Weapons and armour can have augments crafted/purchased for them. Your research skills can improve. Heck, even the companies that create the armour and weaponry in the game can be invested in to create new gear. You won’t just be upgrading your character, but everyone that joins, or can join, your group. It’d be easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of menu juggling you’ll find yourself doing.

You see, there’s no set party in XCX. You’ll meet a bunch of characters during your time on Mira and a lot of them can be added to your party for missions. You’ll likely have your favourites, or you’ll stick with the ones required for the story missions, but either way the customisation is nice. I’m not even sure it’d be possible to play the game without finding all of the playable characters due to the fact that, as mentioned earlier, XCX really does its best to take your focus away from the main story.

I get it. The world is enormous and you want me to see all of it, but there’s a distinct lack of progression missing here that XC did perfectly. The traversing of the Bionis meant that Shulk’s adventure felt like it was going somewhere. In XCX you’ll be fast-travelling from one section of the map, to New LA, and then to another end of a different section of the map within minutes of itself.

There was a point in the game where my characters were amazed at the landscape around them, but it felt insincere as the only way I could start that specific mission was to venture into that same area earlier and plant a probe. I’m all for letting me go anywhere, but that could’ve been a great moment for both the characters and myself and it was taken from me.

So you’ve got an enormous game whose map is literally broken into segments, each with something to find, kill, or survey; you’ve got a 12 Chapter game which could possibly be powered through in 30 or so hours, and you’ve got an enormous list of Classes, Skills, Arts, armour, and weapons to upgrade or improve. It’d be easy to sink 80+ hours into this as it was for XC, but Nintendo have gone one further.

The entire XCX experience has this quasi-online mode. Once you become a BLADE, you select a specific division and you other gamers around the world complete quests to make your division stand out from the others. You’re always in an online squad and you can see their achievements as they progress, treasure they’ve found that they’re offering up to others, and you can even find their registered character and get them to join your group. It’s a rather passive online experience that helps make you feel a part of something bigger.

You’ve got an enormous game whose map is literally broken into segments, each with something to find, kill, or survey.

But the true fun comes in the form of a rather Monster Hunter-esque online mode. Head into the Barracks and approach a certain terminal to get matched up with up to 3 others for specific missions (most of which require you to beat either a bunch of smaller monsters or one giant monster). There’s plenty to do both on and offline, and with a battle system so finessed it’s hard to not have fun.

It’s clearly a good game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its faults. As mentioned the story is lacking, the main character is bland, and the way you’re forced to do certain things before getting on with the game is simply frustrating. Where XCX fails the most, though, is with its ridiculous UI and sound. There’s so little room for the action at points that your character has been shifted off-centre not because of how cool it might look, but because if he was in the centre of the screen he’d likely be hidden by some element of the interface.

There’s time, weather, location, and a mini-map on the top-right. Beneath that a context-sensitive hint system to lets you know what buttons do what. Beneath that details of your current mission. On the left-hand side we have message windows that let you know what other people in your online squad are up to, reminders to post to Miiverse that you just collected a new item or found a new area, and an achievements pop-up. During battles, the creatures’ names go across the top, the Arts selector at the bottom and character health and level on the left.

It’s insane how much goes on at any one time, and even more insane to know that the screen on the GamePad has plenty to show as well (although it could’ve been better organised). All of these HUD elements can be turned off or adjusted, but a “move to GamePad” option would have been nice.

But even that wouldn’t stop the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles X was simply built for a console that can’t always handle what’s going on. There’s no slowdown, but there is a bunch of pop-in both in terms of textures and characters. You might sprint to where you need to deliver the items you found only to stop and wait for the character to actually fade in. They’re issues from last-gen, and it’s a shame to see them in such abundance. Thankfully it doesn’t stop the game from looking great.

And lastly, the music. You’ll go to bed and it’ll be there. You’ll be hearing it over and over while you’re at work or school. Not because it’s great but because there doesn’t seem to be any direction whatsoever for how the tracks are played. Instead of hitting certain notes to ensure you’re feeling a certain way at a certain point you just have the tracks (and they are great tracks) looping over and over again, and at a volume that drowns out most dialog.

At some point Nintendo figured that with all the customisation, with all the options in regards to UI and social settings, that the game simply didn’t need a single audio setting. There’s no turning down the music, there’s only turning on the subtitles. If you decided to switch the audio off completely, I’d understand, and that’s not good.

In the end XCX fails to deliver the same experience that the original laid out for it. Story progression is weak, characters are weaker, and the game spends too much time getting you to focus on seeing the world instead of experiencing it. There were times where I’d put this down so I could go and play Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on the 3DS. Despite that, I keep going back to it, and I keep enjoying what’s there.

XCX simply doesn’t deserve to be as fun as it is, but the satisfying battle system and the amazing creatures that roam the landscape both pull me back in against my will, and I love it.

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