Wii U owners and role playing fans, we have your White Whale.
I don’t tend to play games for extended periods of time – between work and a generally jumpy attention span, I usually top out at a few hours at a stretch even if I’m really feeling it. I got Xenoblade Chronicles X on a Wednesday, and over the next eight days I played for at least four to five hours a night, with three different days of 13-14 hour play sessions. Part of it was the crunch for review, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is so engrossing I didn’t actually miss that I had skipped a meal or two playing.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a role-playing game with a heavy focus on exploration. You create a character (male or female) at the start of the game, and then are freed from a stasis pod on the large planet of Mira to explore it. The battles take place on the field and have your character auto-attacking either with melee or ranged weapons (you can switch which one with the X button) while using techniques called “arts” that have a cooldown after use. Although there aren’t many healing arts for your party, the “Soul Voice” system allows you to heal allies if you use particular arts at the right time (your party members will call it out, and the art icon will glow at the bottom of the screen). It’s a simple system on the surface and clicked quickly, though certain classes have to be careful with what arts are available to make sure you can always jump on the chance to get a heal in. The game is divided into multiple chapters, with story quests unlocking after certain quests are cleared or experience levels obtained. (Or both, if the quest requires a particular level.)
What threw me for a bit is that I don’t usually have full-party wipes in RPGs – but this is coming from someone who plays a lot of Pokémon and tends to play on the easiest difficulty. I took more deaths in one story mission in XCX than I did in every other RPG I reviewed this year combined. The biggest frustration I’ve encountered because of this is the game’s less-than-ideal checkpoint system where death sets you back at the last area you warped to. When you’re trying to reach the end of an area and die because an enemy twice your level decided to drop in and one-shot you from behind, you’ll invent a few new swear words.
The big draw for the game is the mecha combat in Skells, and the game will make you earn it – you get the chance after chapter 5, but the game immediately throws eight quests at you that cover pretty much all of the game’s types of quests. (Two of them immediately completed for me, for what it’s worth.) One of the quests requires you to get items that are best found in a lake in the upper right corner of the desert/canyon area Oblivia, so be ready for a hike. But once you get the Skell, you not only get to areas you couldn’t reach before (which becomes amplified with flying abilities later) but you become able to take on enemies you previously had to run like hell from. The insurance system for when the Skell runs out of HP was reported to bring it back three times before you pay the penalty for salvage, but I had a Skell take at least six deaths and blew the button press to trigger it 3 or 4 times before it came to paying the penalty. The mech controls well, though some of the heavier mechs have squirrely handling if you’re using it in vehicle mode (press the left circle stick in).
Exploration is the key to anything in Xenoblade Chronicles X. It’s necessary to complete quests, generate a steady source of income because the missions only carry you so far, and depending on what character class you play it’s the fastest way to overcome experience hurdles. You’ll spend a lot of time just trying to see if that prompt on the GamePad is actually accessible on the map or if you need the power of flight to get it. Although the game can be controlled with a Pro Controller, fast travel to the city or quests is done on the GamePad so you’ll at least want to have it close by on a stand or the cradle. A mini-map is on screen (but can be turned off like most of the HUD elements) if you need just a basic idea of where you’re going.
Xenoblade was one of the best looking games on the Wii, and the Wii U sequel looks like it’ll be the best looking game the Wii U will see unless Zelda goes absolutely crazy. The areas are large and each building in New Los Angeles has its own characters, then you leave the city and walk out into massive, open areas that actually had my jaw dropping. There’s realistic foliage in the Primordia area, while its next-door neighbor Noctilum is the closest I’ll get to visiting a rain forest. Monolith Soft even managed to pull off a stunning version of the Northern Lights in the game’s arctic region. The enemies, ranging from the smallest bird to the gigantic dinosaur-likes all look amazing, though there is a bit of palette-swapping going on to make different regional versions of the same beast stand out. The characters look great in cutscenes, with things like the armor carrying over, but the eyes have a bit of the uncanny valley effect if you’re looking at a close distance. It didn’t bug me all that much, though.
The music caught some flack around the Japanese launch because of one battle track, and because the all-star team of composers from Xenoblade was largely replaced by Hiroyuki Sawano, whose prior experience was in anime (Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill). The concerns were unfounded – the battle theme in question is just one of multiple tracks, and they do an amazing job of getting you into a fight (the boss battle themes especially). Although it’s not going to match the highs of the original Xenoblade’s soundtrack, that’s like asking for a mountain higher than Everest and the XCX soundtrack has a lot of songs that will get stuck in your head in a good way (“NO EX01” is an amazing battle theme that would be final boss music anywhere else).
The story is enough to push the game forward, with a couple of pretty heavy twists including one that nearly dislocated my jaw when it dropped. The real meat is in the affinity quests, which range from the somewhat absurd (saving a cat) to the deadly serious (saving entire alien species). 8-4’s localization was an absolutely massive effort given the size of the game, and they pulled it off with aplomb. Aside from some minor lip-sync issues, which can be forgiven over an 85 hour game, there’s nothing to complain about with the changes.
Given the battle system feels similar to the ones used in massively multiplayer RPGs, Monolith Soft has elected to build a lot of online services into the game as well. Even if you pick the single player mode, you have access to a gigantic achievement system (700+ different items), and there’s an optional feed of the achievements for a group of people you’re playing with. At the start of the game, you’re placed into a division with other players and can randomly earn cash, Skell fuel or even free Skell salvage depending on your team’s performance with meta-tasks. Usually these tasks are of the “kill x number of this monster” variety, and there’s five of them on screen that rotate every hour. There’s also formal multiplayer in the postgame, and the ability to tackle special time attack missions that feel like they’re straight out of Monster Hunter. Miiverse posting of “Battle Reports” was not live during the review for obvious reasons, but the interface for it tells you how to declare spoilers with the touch of a button even if uploading wasn’t available.
Open-world RPGs have had a checkered experience this year with bugs, but it appears the Mario Club testing that stunned the late Satoru Iwata appears to have paid off. The only glitch I encountered in my time so far with the game was a minor clipping issue – sadly, it happened in the middle of a very difficult boss fight with something about a mile long. The data packs – live in Europe as of this printing and previously available in North America – cut load times in about half if you have all four. There are still a few long loads, but not as many as would be just running off the disc.
My own run through Xenoblade Chronicles X was an unintentional low level run, but I suspect this may have been because of the timing of when I got the game and playing super-extended sessions. Once the game is out and Christmas comes, I’m actually tempted to replay the game at a slower pace to really get the full experience out of it and to see if I avoid the extended grinding sessions (the 8th and 11th chapters of 12 had pretty heavy grinding required for my 1st playthrough). The fact that I plowed that time into the game and want to go back with more information to replay it should say a lot, though; Xenoblade Chronicles X is required playing for anyone with the slightest inclination toward RPGs, and if you need to buy the system then do it. It’s an essential part of the Wii U library.