So, remember earlier this year when I began my Xenoblade Chronicles review talking about how I no longer had the time for lengthy RPGs? Well… apparently I do. Three months and 125 hours later, I’m finally done playing that game’s sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X. Originally published in Japan by Nintendo on April 29, 2015, Monolith Soft’s Wii U follow-up arrived in the west half a year later, on December 4, 2015. Featuring no narrative continuity with its predecessor, this entry recounted humanity’s survival on an alien planet following the destruction of Earth. In nearly every way, the developer’s improved upon and expanded the systems they introduced in the previous game, making for an incredibly deep, and fulfilling experience.
An undefined amount of time in the future, for reasons that are revealed late in the game, Earth is destroyed by an advanced alien species known as the Ganglion. A fraction of humanity manages to escape on a few massive space-faring vessels, referred to as arks. The White Whale, one such ark, is pursued by the Ganglion before ultimately crash landing on Mira, a habitable, uncharted planet. The survivors establish New Los Angeles within the confines of the crashed ship’s hull, a protected city safe from the Ganglion and the wild creatures that call Mira home. Yet, there is a sense of urgency for the residents of NLA. When the White Whale entered Mira’s atmosphere, it broke apart. The Lifehold Core, where the majority of the survivors remain in stasis, has not been found and its power reserves are depleting. To make matters worse, the Ganglion are also hunting it down, hoping to exterminate the last of humanity.
Assuming the role of a silent protagonist, named Cross by default, I joined ranks with BLADE, the military organization in charge of finding the Lifehold Core. BLADE, by the way, is one of the most absurd, lovable acronyms I’ve heard: Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth, or in the Japanese version, Beyond the Logos Artificial Destiny Emancipator. Like… wow. There were many divisions available to me within BLADE, each with their own focus, such as exploring Mira or mediating conflicts between residents. My choice of division didn’t really matter though. Joining a division that aligned with what I was working on at the moment simply provided an increased amount of Division Points, a type of experience that also contributed to daily global rankings of each division. However inconsequential, this early choice foreshadowed the voluminous variety of missions and gameplay systems I’d interface with throughout my extended stay on Mira.
The race to find the Lifehold Core and humanity’s struggle to fend off the Ganglion played out over the course of a dozen story missions, available to me after certain criteria had been met. These missions focused on key events and characters, propelling the narrative through voice-acted cutscenes, important objectives, and a myriad of battles. Cross was joined by a pair of BLADE members for these missions, and due to his silent nature, they were largely the ones in the limelight. The mononymous Elma was a dutiful team leader within BLADE, driven to save humanity. As was Lin Lee Koo, the mech-obsessed wunderkind, who with the Nopon Tatsu, supplied ample comic relief moments. Rounding out the four-man party was any one of the other dozen-plus party members. Heck, I discovered a new party member, albeit a minor one, 125 hours into the game, and I still had one more to recruit at that point! While their larger mission to locate the Lifehold Core was necessary, I found the affinity and normal missions much more satisfying.
Like the story missions, affinity missions were multi-objective quests told through voice-acted cutscenes. They served to flesh out the past of or highlight relationships between specific party members. Accordingly, they could only be undertaken when that ally’s affinity had reached a certain threshold with Cross. Affinity increased primarily based on my responses to dialogue prompts (a benefit of the silent protagonist) and via completion of missions. One-off heart-to-heart conversations were also available when affinity thresholds had been met, allowing for further character development. In addition to the affinity between my avatar and the party members, each individual within NLA had an affinity link with at least one other NPC. These were illustrated, with notes, on an expansive affinity chart. The links, or relationships, were revealed and developed through the completion of nearly two hundred normal missions.
Often featuring simpler “fetch-quest” objectives compared to the story and affinity missions, and without voice-acting to boot, normal missions were nonetheless fulfilling. These missions focused on individual efforts towards the larger cause of locating the Lifehold Core, and more often than not, people just trying to lead a normal life. As the story progressed, NLA became home to a half-dozen or so alien species and somewhat expectedly, confrontations arose. While the missions were generally linear, I was given a little leeway in determining outcomes, and these moments made me appreciate the silent protagonist more than I did during story missions. Some of my favorite storylines played out like multi-part TV episodes, following the same NPCs throughout sequential normal missions, even giving them more time to develop than some of the less important party members. In addition to the trio of mission types I’ve described, there were also endlessly repeatable basic missions to undertake. These featured no story and simple objectives, so they were really only good for the money, experience, or equipment awarded when completed – spoils useful in the game’s real-time combat system.
At first glance, combat was largely unchanged from its predecessor. As such I was able to dive right into battles and hold my own. Without mandatory tutorials, I plumbed the depths of the combat system at my own rate, and epiphanies continued dozens of hours into the game. Like in the first Xenoblade Chronicles, real-time combat initiated when I drew my weapon or a stronger opponent saw my party, and proceeded immediately, without segueing to a fight scene like in a turn-based RPG. I could freely move about while the fight ensued, angling for positional damage bonuses or merely to draw aggro away from weaker allies. My avatar auto-attacked every few seconds and I also had an array of special attacks, or Arts, to trigger if their cooldown meter had charged. Furthermore, each character could alternate between two weapons on the fly: one melee and one ranged, with their types and Arts, based on the chosen class.
The class system, new in this entry, allowed me to customize my avatar in a way I couldn’t with Shulk, who was strictly limited to using variations of the Monado sword. Each class was designed around a weapon pairing and focus, such as the Shield Trooper, which specialized in Shields and Gatling Guns, and Arts and Skills that emphasized increased HP and melee attacks. Initially the classes didn’t seem too different from each other, but as I continued to raise my class level and gain access to more variations, battles began playing out drastically different from one another. As my class levels increased, so too did the assortment of Arts and Skills I had access to. I experimented with dozens of Arts, developing favorite combo pairings in the process. Skills were equally important, especially when paired with like Arts, although they mostly provided passive benefits, a 30% increase to ranged attacks, for instance. Like the classes themselves, Arts and Skills could be leveled, boosting their potency and in the case of the former, reducing their cooldown time.
Also new, and unique to this entry, were Skells, the Gundam-like mecha humanity relied upon. They were primarily eye candy for the first 40 hours until I got my own. Their increased firepower allowed me to take down larger and stronger foes with ease. And, like with my avatar and allies, they could be outfitted with ever stronger weapons and equipment. However awesome it was to ride around in my Skell and wallop enemies, it paled in comparison to the sheer euphoria of unlocking the Flight Module and taking it to the skies. The first time I left the ground and flew around Mira, just listening to the synth-pop soundtrack and exploring, I couldn’t stop from joyously laughing. And that blissful feeling was present every time I took off in a Skell. Besides adding another layer of depth to combat, and simply being fun to pilot, the Skells really opened up Mira for exploration.
Consisting of five radically different continents, Mira was an absolutely massive game world to explore, rich with beautiful vistas and dangerous creatures. Monolith Soft’s artistic and technical prowess was on display with this game, which I’d consider the best looking Wii U game from either standpoint, and maybe one of the best looking games period. The planet’s diversity was rewarding in itself but there were seemingly endless nooks and crannies filled with treasures that made exploration worthwhile. And it wasn’t gated by the narrative, as the Bionis was in the previous game, so I could go anywhere immediately, as long as I could survive the threats. Once I’d been someplace important, or established a data probe however, I could then use fast travel, which eventually became my relied upon form of long-distance travel.
Data probe installation led to a sort of metagame mining natural resources and earning money. Miranium, the most important of these resources, was mostly used to improve weapons and armor or altogether craft new equipment. The data probe network, or FrontierNav, was an interconnected series of probes overlaid onto the maps of Mira on the Wii U GamePad. Because I was continuously using fast travel and installing new probes, I played with the GamePad beside me at all times. Its integration was fantastic, in the way the dual screens of the Nintendo DS allowed for menu navigation without cluttering the gameplay screen in most games. Despite the fact that I could play entirely with the GamePad, I opted to play with the more ergonomic and comfortable Pro Controller, which had an unbelievable battery life – I only charged it twice during my playthrough!
Speaking of networks, the game’s online community is still relatively vibrant in spite of some features no longer being accessible. Although mostly a single player game, there were a few global challenges that could be undertaken with other players. These were tough boss fights against large-scale enemies that I always seemed underequipped for, especially in relation to the people I was playing with. Additionally, other player’s avatars could be recruited as computer-controlled party members, similar to Dragon’s Dogma. When the avatar’s owner logged back in, they reaped the experience and loot their avatar collected. Moreover, other player’s achievements were pushed out as notices to those online at the time, so the game truly never felt like a solitary experience. As I usually do, I’ll wrap this review up with some thoughts on the game’s genre-defying soundtrack, which is quite different from the more genre-typical soundtrack of its predecessor.
Composed by Hiroyuki Sawano, alongside a handful of lyricists and singers, this soundtrack represents his first, and to date sole, work in video games, discounting adaptations of the anime he’s composed for. Unsurprisingly, his synth-pop, hip hop, and electronic rock tracks, many with English-sung lyrics and familiar song structures, are unique among the games I’ve played. These songs are eminently listenable to outside of the game, such as the backdrop for Skell flight “Don’t worry” or any of the intense battle themes. Among players, it seems the soundtrack was incredibly divisive, although many of the offending songs grew on me, like some form of Stockholm syndrome. The day and night themes of NLA for instance, truncated into the track “N市L街A” became a guilty pleasure that I couldn’t help but sing along to. His track naming by the way, is absolutely bonkers. Seriously, go look at these track names.
Although I enjoyed the ridiculous amount of time I spent playing Xenoblade Chronicles X, I’m satisfied with what I accomplished in-game and am more than ready to move onto something else; preferably, something that won’t eat up multiple months of my free time! The sci-fi storyline was right up my alley, although the more personal, smaller-scale missions wound up being my favorite narrative sequences. Chalk that up to the more practical implementation of a silent protagonist. Powering up my avatar and allies across the myriad of systems and watching them improve in action-packed combat was an endlessly satisfying loop. This gameplay cycle was further complemented by rewarding exploration of the immensely large, densely packed, and beautiful, planet of Mira. In nearly every way, the developer’s improved and expanded upon their previous work, and while I’m not chomping at the bit to start it, I look forward to eventually playing their follow-up entry: Xenoblade Chronicles 2.