Get your Skell on!
Developer: Monolith Soft, Nintendo SPD
Released: December 5, 2015
I’m really not a fan of games that require hours of grinding levels just so you can have a chance of finishing them. I’ve always considered the sign of a well-paced game to be when you can follow the story, dust off a few side quests at your leisure, and still finish the game with relative ease after some very minimal level farming. That’s usually why I tend to bounce off so many JRPGs, despite the high praise and accolades they often receive. Which is why I find Xenoblade Chronicles X to be so interesting. It already had its hooks in me by the time it revealed its grindy side, but by then it had shown me that the high points it could offer would easily outweigh any tedium. It also didn’t hurt that you could ride around in fancy mechs, something that’s always guaranteed to perk my interest.
For such a brightly coloured game, the story of Xenoblade Chronicles X has a fairly grim setup. Earth has been completely obliterated, a casualty in a galactic conflict well beyond the comprehension of those on the planet’s surface. Humanity barely manages to escape the dying planet, sending a precious few starships loaded with humanity’s best and brightest stored safely on board in a desperate bid to protect our races’ future.
One of the ships lucky enough to escape the conflict was the USS White Whale which, unfortunately, suffers critical damage during its exodus. As it falls to the surface of a mysterious world, the doomed ship jettisons the vital habitat facilities to try and save what could be the last living humans in the universe. Taking the role of a crash survivor, you’re awoken from your cryo-pod slumber by another human survivor several months later and take your first steps out into the beautiful and deadly planet, Mira.
The game primarily uses informative pop-ups to guide you through your initial few hours in this game. Your first companion, the ever-helpful Elma, also provides you with occasional handy tips while fighting by your side. As you travel with Elma, you’re presented some truly wondrous views, showing off the diverse flora and fauna of Mira. You’ll also be treated to a lovely sunrise, introducing you to the game’s day and night mechanics. This moment also serves to warn you of the dangers of travelling at certain times, advising you to stick to safer areas as you make your way to the last bastion of humanity: the imaginatively named New Los Angeles, or NLA.
Being the remains of the habitat facility from the White Whale, NLA has been converted into a fortified city, complete with suburbs and café district. On your first visit, you’re greeted by the bubbly underage engineer Lin, as well as a few more characters that you’ll become more familiar with over the course of the story. Almost every story mission requires you to have Lin and Elma in your party, so they’ll be your primary teammates for a majority of the game. Thankfully, the voice acting on offer is of surprisingly high quality, with only a few choice characters grating on my nerves as time wore on.
Following a guided tour around NLA, as well as a few tutorial missions to teach you basic mechanics, the world is left completely open to explore on a whim. Your travels around the world of Mira take you to five distinct areas, not including the safe haven of NLA. They fit some standard terrain archetypes but a significant amount of effort has been put into each area to make them look as gorgeous as the Wii U can handle. Despite falling into predictable categories like a grassy beginner zone, to the ever-present ice and fire themed locations, the sheer amount of content crammed into each location keeps them from becoming monotonous. The twisting rainforests of Noctilum remind me quite forcibly of the world of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar, while the views of NLA from the cliffs of picturesque Primordia always impress.
When you aren’t aimlessly wandering about and charting this unexplored world, your primary objective is to find the Lifehold: a mysterious section of the crashed ship that contains the vast majority of the last living humans. This goal is obviously vital for the survival of humanity, but that of course won’t stop you from wandering aimlessly for hours on end, looting everything you can. This game is packed full of collectibles, many of which are simply lying around for the taking, while others require a slightly more forceful approach, often putting you at odds with the native creatures of Mira.
These indigenous lifeforms, shortened to “Indigens” by most characters, come in a huge variety of shape, sizes, and temperaments. To top off the danger most Indigens pose, you’ll also occasionally come across special “Tyrant” enemies who are always more powerful and often have unique special abilities to make their fights just that little bit more unpredictable. Thankfully, even the most vexing foes can be beaten, and figuring out the best way to tip the scales in your favour is always satisfying thanks to the game’s complex, yet rewarding combat system.
The combat mechanics are very similar to the MMO-esque battle system used in the original Xenoblade Chronicles. Battles are carried out primarily in real-time as you use each character’s various combat “Arts” to inflict extra damage and status effects, automatically attacking in the meantime while you wait for individual Arts to cooldown. You’re also able to swap between melee and ranged weapons, with ranged attacks naturally keeping you at a safe distance, while melee attacks tend to deal more damage and increase your “Tension Points”. Tension Points, or TP, are used to activate more powerful skills, as well as trigger an “Overdrive state” which drastically increases your potential damage output. Adding to the complexity of the combat is a morale system, which is used in combination with mid-combat quick time events to cast extra buffs and other positive effects on the party. Admittedly, while it took a considerably long period of time for me to come to terms with the various aspects of the combat system, I found it to be extremely rewarding once all of the pieces fell together. Soon after, I was pulling back to trigger buffs and let my teammates draw attention away from me, before running in to deal huge chunks of damage to unprotected flanks.
For a majority of my play time I found levelling up to be pleasantly frequent, only really needing to prioritize grinding near the end-game. But by that stage, I appreciated not only the effort I would need to put into any reasonably rewarding fight, but also the amount of required focus which kept the grind from becoming too mind-numbing. Combined with the sheer variety of character Classes to choose from, I always felt like I was learning something new during every combat encounter.
Once you reach level 10, you are allowed to pick between three basic combat classes; Striker, Commando and Enforcer, each specialising in a particular fighting style. Further levelling each particular class unlocks even more specialized roles, often with far more powerful Arts. The weapons available range from assault rifles and dual-swords to energy cannons and photon sabers. But my absolute favourite thing about combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X is how it constantly escalates, pitting you against larger foes, giving you more bombastic skills, and finally, allowing you to fight your foes in towering combat mechs.
A little over half-way into the main story you’ll gain access to Skells: highly customizable transforming mechs, each of which are equipped with ridiculously oversized weaponry. Wielding energy blades that are at least as tall as your Skell, to triple-barrelled sniper cannons, there’s an immense variety of ways to build your personal fighting machine. These serve to make exploring the world significantly safer, using a vehicle mode which makes traversing vast distances far more palatable. Simultaneously, the powerful weapons they can equip makes going up against higher level enemies much easier, turning the initial chore of levelling up into a cakewalk. The heaviest of weapons are restricted to the hulking Heavy Skells, loaded with bulky armour, but reduced to minimal speed to compensate. Medium Skells are a little more balanced, retaining decent mobility without sacrificing versatile weapon loadouts. If, however, you’re all about zipping around like a giant chrome gnat, then Light Skells are for you, boasting great evasion capabilities, but a fairly limited carry capacity.
Most exciting of all, however, is that you can eventually unlock the ability to let your Skells fly, giving you access to previously unreachable areas filled with greater rewards and some jaw-dropping views. Heavy Skells aren’t exactly the most suitable to flying, and will guzzle fuel if you decide to take them into the skies instead of nimbler Light Skells.
Unlike a lot of RPGs, there aren’t many story missions to be found in Xenoblade Chronicles X, rather the vast majority of the content is contained within NPC-specific “Affinity missions”. These missions serve to expand on the relationships and motivations of named NPC’s, and are often necessary to progress the story further. Although I really enjoy this style of side mission, the genre-standard generic and repeatable side quests are still available for extra cash and experience for the times when you aren’t feeling so adventurous.
I still don’t think I could go into a JRPG that was any more heavily reliant on mindless grinding than this one. While it definitely treads dangerously close, the game is overflowing with so many redeeming factors that I still found myself constantly enjoying whatever trivial task I was performing. When a game so masterfully combines a beautiful world with steadily evolving gameplay, all tied together with appropriately over-the-top combat and a surprisingly well written story, it’s hard not to recommend anyone who enjoys a good RPG to give Xenoblade Chronicles X a go. It’s a shame that only Wii U owners will have access to this gem, but I can’t deny that it’s helped me obtain a newfound respect for the JRPG genre. Especially when they treat me to fights involving squads of mechs wielding insane weapons against dozens of oversized monsters, all set against a wonderfully exotic alien landscape.
Final Score: 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: This game still includes a few less than great JRPG trappings, but every other aspect is brimming with enthusiasm. Embrace the grind and save humanity!