Xenoblade Chronicles X and I did not have a great start. We also had a bittersweet end. Try as I might, I failed to fall in love with a JRPG widely praised by critics when it launched in late 2015. The game is a beauty to look at and features one of the most scenic and biggest open worlds in a game ever (let alone for a Japanese game which tend to be more linear) but lovely vistas were about all I liked. Everything else about Monolith Soft’s monolithic masterpiece fell flat for me.
Before I start airing my grievances, let me start with a disclaimer: I sincerely tried to get into this XCX. Everyone I spoke to about it loved it and the vast majority of reviews for the game were glowing. I cannot say exactly how long I put into the game, but I would estimate having played well over five hours.
Now, let’s begin.
In a nutshell, Xenoblade Chronicles X follows the last surviving humans after they escaped the destruction of Earth which had been caught up in a war between two unknown alien races. Humanity fled in a massive ship called the White Whale, which crashed on Mira, an unknown alien planet. Now marooned on this new world, humanity must rebuild itself. They start by constructing a makeshift city called New Los Angeles. The plot revolves around locating the Lifehold, a part of the ship that broke apart during the crash which contains countless other human survivors in stasis.
Xenoblade Chronicles X would have been better as a walking simulator. The fact that Monolith Soft wasted this beautiful setting, especially for the Wii U console, on a jumbled stack of mechanics poorly copied from MMORPGs is beyond me. From the outset, the planet Mira is gorgeous and overflowing with indigenous animals unfortunately nicknamed “indigens”. I say unfortunate because I felt like a douchebag every time I read the word and I cringed every time I heard it. There was no need to invent special lingo for what are essentially just animals!
I would have read through the dialogue scenes and skipped the voice acting, but it was all or nothing. That’s a huge downside for me. I generally prefer knowing what is going on in my games, even JRPGs with throwaway stories and cutout characters like this one. I don’t need some underpaid voice actor reading riveting dialogue such as, “The hardest part was calculating the ideal probe locations. We need them spread out evenly to maximize data collection.”
Sometimes the dialogue was on point. I enjoyed a specific exchange when I saved a young soldier named Justin from being beaten up by a street gang (just like Earth’s Los Angeles, the new one also has youth violence). I sympathized with his predicament and he said, “Hey, that’s pretty thoughtful. Did anyone ever tell you that you’re perfect protagonist material?”
My thoughts exactly!
While I am nitpicking terms used in the game, let me point out another that I absolute hate: BLADE. In game, you quickly join an organization called BLADE which acts as the vanguard for the humans now residing on Mira. In the grand tradition of elaborate acronyms in Japanese video games, BLADE stands for Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth. I would love to see the meeting notes for that decision …
Xenoblade Chronicles X draws most of its influence from MMORPGs and has a similar feel to recent open world games like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. None of this is a compliment, and I say that as a MMORPG enthusiast.
Progression through XCX relies on a mix of doing the game’s many, many side quests, as well as exploring Mira and placing probes to survey the land. It all gets pretty complicated, especially when you need to micromanage the probes so they generate resources that can in turn be used to invest in the armorer and gunmakers back home so they will sell you more powerful equipment. Some side quests have you hunting named mobs and those mobs often only spawn under certain conditions – night, day, rain, etc.
The combat feels like MMORPG combat. There’s a hotbar along the bottom of the screen, each ability has a cooldown, and abilities have bonus effects depending on factors such as position (side of target, behind target) or if the target has been stun/staggered/etc. I almost liked the combat, but healing is tied primarily to activating abilities when a party member calls for it and with the lengthy cooldowns in addition to that function, combat was a lot of standing around for me.
Like many JRPGs these days, you control only one character too, so I didn’t even have a micromanaging option. Plus, I had trouble for the longest time understanding when my character was being damaged. There’s a MMO-esque aggro system in play, complete with characters who can taunt, but it’s not as apparent as it could be.
I started to come around to the combat more and I imagine the mech-based combat offers its own unique features, but it was annoying enough that I don’t mind giving up early on it.
For the majority of my time in XCX, I wandered around aimlessly, slaughtering what I could and planting probes whenever I found a spot to do so. The map is broken down into hexagons and there are a ton of boxes to check to reach a sense of completion. There’s also a ton of things to gather for crafting, which in ingenious fashion just involved running over these indescript shards while out of combat. The gameplay feels more like a Dragon Age: Inquisition where I am just running from one section to the next trying to clear it out for some sense of achievement. When it comes to open world games, this is the easiest and laziest way to fill out a map with things to do for many hours of “gameplay”.
It is a shame too. The world of Mira is gorgeous and the sense of scale has no rival outside of games like Shadow of the Colossus. The enemy design is top notch too. With the breathtaking views behind them, I rarely minded bumping into an enemy that could one-shot (which was all the time).
I had high hopes for this game. Even with the initial turn-off, I thought I would come around to it. I wish I could persevere for the mech combat, but I found the game to be too mixed. There’s a ton of things to do, but none of those things had any weight. Like my character who can leap from any height and not die, I felt like I was floating along.
The only thing pushing me forward was seeing the world. The combat, the fate of the human race, the constant drive to check off shopping lists, etc. did nothing for me. Like so many Japanese games, Xenoblade Chronicles X needed an editor to come in and streamline the experience ever so much. I do not think ‘delivering a sense of achievement’ is a good enough excuse for delaying the mech portions of the game until 20+ hours in, especially if the game is going out of its way to waste my time for the twenty hours until then. Furthermore, all the story missions were heavily gated with various prerequisites, such as unrelated side quests, required to fulfilled first. I would not have minded if those prerequisites were enjoyable. They weren’t.
A medium-wide obsession with achievement, no matter how insignificant, must have fueled the critical success of Xenoblade Chronicles X. That, or the reputation of its predecessors. For me, this game is an irredeemable mess that parrots the most mundane aspects of MMORPGs without any of the always online, always connected elements that so often uplift the threadbare into something exquisitely tailored. Here’s a list of things to do. Done them all? Good, here’s your daily ration so you can repeat the same thing again with slightly taller enemies.
I place Xenoblade Chronicles X right beside Lost Odyssey. It is a well-regarded JRPG that completely missed the mark for me. I regret having spent any money on it. I am in no way better off having played it. A series of screenshots of its setting would more than suffice. Your mileage may vary with this game, but I only got a few feet before I turned back toward home and did something else entirely.