Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo Wii (and, later, New Nintendo 3DS), is a sprawling game with ambition well beyond what anyone thought the console could handle. At the same time, despite the game’s openness, its love of sending players on fetch quests, and the near endless incentive to keep backtracking to places already visited, it also crafted a thematically interesting and focused narrative, never letting players go too long without being pushed that little bit further through the story.
Xenoblade Chronicles X, the spiritual successor to that game, is a sprawling game with ambition well beyond what anyone thought the Wii U could handle. It also loves sending players of fetch quests, and offers a near endless range of other MMO-style quests that are busywork for the sake of busywork. But where the original Xenoblade Chronicles was a triumph because it held to a linear narrative throughout the sprawl, Chronicles X starts off with a bang, but then quickly loses focus, taking a lot of its steam with it.
The earth has been destroyed by warring alien species that just happened to choose humanity’s homeland as the battleground. Just before the human species is wiped out, the last of them jump on giant space ships and blast off into space, escaping the conflict and looking for a new home. One of those ships crash lands on a new planet after it is itself attacked (talk about unfortunate luck), and this is where Xenoblade Chronicles X picks up its story; with humanity just taking its first steps into its new world, and coming to terms with the alien, and quite inhospitable, landscape.
It’s an intriguing setting. It’s not uncommon for science fiction, but it is intriguing. There’s some easy moral theory conversations that can the game’s scenario are begging to raise, with all the narrative potential in the world to look at the parallel between humanity witnessing its own world being destroyed through the invasion of aliens, and then itself being the invader and imposing itself on the landscape.
In a world that has made humanity’s impact on the planets it exist on the dominant political discussion at all levels, it should have been incredibly poignant when just about every character finds the time to poke fun at the Nopon – a species native to the planet – for resembling a garden vegetable. Jokes about turning them into fried potato meals are oh-so-funny until you realise that humanity really is – however inadvertently – behaving like a pest to the native flora and fauna on this planet. We’re meant to sympathise with these people because, after all, crashing on the planet was not deliberate and for all they knew they were the last humans left alive, and jokes aside they do seem to want to co-inhabit the planet peacefully, but the meta-conversations that this game could have been at the centre of could have had real value, if it was better developed and explored in a greater depth than it winds up being.
There’s a hostile alien species on the planet too, which is determined to wipe out the humans. Early on, the unwillingness to engage with humans, and the insistence from these aliens that humanity is a plague on the universe almost carries with it a whiff of the Reapers from the Mass Effect universe, and that’s an appealing thought in itself, as the Reapers are one of the more complex and interesting enemies that we’ve seen in science fiction history, across all media. Puzzling out what these aliens are up to, and why they are so hostile, was almost in itself enough to keep my interest through the narrative, though the end reveals are somewhat less satisfying than the philosophically dense reality of the Reapers.
It’s a pity, then, that Xenoblade Chronicles X kept insisting that I take a break from the narrative, and the potential of its core themes, to go and complete mundane side quest missions that waste my time for the sake of it. I was effectively forced to explore new areas, take down big monsters, and run around the massive open world looking for icons on a minimap on a frequent basis in order to fulfil conditions that would allow me to experience the next bit of the narrative. I was frequently bogged down fighting monsters that I didn’t really want to simply to grind my experience levels to the point where I could make progress into an area filled with obscenely powerful enemies; and for a game that boasts about its open world nature, using enemies well beyond the player’s ability to keep them out of areas until they need to go there is transparently and painfully artificial, and breaks down the immersion of having environments of that scale to explore in the first place.
None of this extra stuff I found to be particularly engaging. It’s busywork, and it’s all too much like those MMOs that, Final Fantasy XIV aside, I have never been able to enjoy, because they almost universally abstract games built purely around feedback loops that have no purpose beyond keeping people playing. Like an MMO, Xenoblade Chronicles X also makes heavy use of social features – even when you don’t want to use them. If you’re looking for a single player experience you’re still going to bump into characters from other people’s games that you can recruit into your party. Until you go into the options menu and mess around with it, the user interface is going to be utterly overloaded in social data, online quest information, and additional systems – many of which are poorly unexplained and of tangential importance to the actual single player game (if at all). I only realised how irritating I really found all these features after my Internet suffered an outage for a couple of days and the game was unable to connect with the servers. From that point on I have actively taken my Wii U offline in order to play this game and spare myself the social bloat.
Even offline, there is plenty of information displayed around the screen through the user interface, and the consequence of filling the screen with so much data and information that a player will never be able to wade through it all is that Xenoblade Chronicles X loses focus over its very finest feature; the world itself. “Huge” really doesn’t begin to describe the fast open landscapes that you can explore in this game. From dense, tropical-style forests, to soaring mountain landscapes and endless plains of grass, I can’t think of a game that has a greater sense of raw scale to it. Just about everything you can see – no matter how far off in the distance – can be explored, too, and the way the space is populated with hulking beasts, flying giants, and smaller animals at play creates a convincing sense of ecosystems at work. What you see at night is different to what you see during the day, and there are storms and other weather effects that drop in and out at random to further emphasise the natural systems that underpin the world’s ecology. It’s a hostile world, with plenty of animals looking to devour the relatively small and weak-looking humans, but it’s one with enough non-hostile species to believably convey a sense of nature, and that is a nice juxtaposition to the overly metallic and artificial city the humans have built out of the wreckage of their space craft.
There are some smokes-and-mirrors going on at a technical level that ever-so-slightly let the initial impression down; for example the planet’s moons don’t actually move through the sky at night and just fade in and out, and the pop-up of finer details like plants and grass is extreme – sometimes not appearing on the screen until your characters are actually walking past them – but on a fundamental level, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles X is beautiful, breathtaking, and epic.
Given that the MMO-like systems effectively mandate an awful lot of combat and grinding, it’s just as well that Xenoblade Chronicles X’s other finest feature is the combat, which is fast, fluid, but still strategic enough to be as interesting 80 hours in as it is at the start. People who played the previous Xenoblade Chronicles game will be right at home, but for those that haven’t: once combat has been joined, at the bottom of the screen a row of icons represent the skills that the player you’re in control of has access too (the other allies are all controlled by the AI). Each of these abilities works on a countdown timer – so once you’ve executed an ability you’ll need to wait a period of time before you can use it again. As the character levels up, he or she will get access to a wider range of abilities, and you’ll be limited in how many you can take into combat, so building out a good mix of skills to overcome a wide range of different enemy types is key.
There’s also a neat spatial element to the combat, which was underdeveloped in the predecessor, but absolutely crucial to Xenoblade Chronicles X. Each character has a melee and ranged weapon, and each ability relies on one or the other. Some abilities also work better when attacking the enemy from the side or behind. To take full advantage of your character you’ll need to move into and out of enemy threat ranges, and that gives each combat encounter a nice fluidity through movement that means you’ll need to be on your toes from start until finish.
And this is just the on-foot combat. After a very (very) lengthy introduction, you’ll also unlock the ability to use Gundams – sorry, Skells – and these giant robots open up an entirely new dimension to Xenoblade’s action. Suddenly flight makes exploration even more interesting, and where on-foot characters would be flattened by the massive, hulking creatures that wander the landscape, in a Skell, such battles suddenly become a conflict between titans, and feels suitably epic in kind.
The Skells themselves open up another opportunity for thematic depth that was certainly central to Xenoblade Chronicles X’s predecessor – the relationship between humanity and machine, and defining where life, free will and human creation can mix, but as with much of the rest of the game, this theme is largely left undersold, as the narrative instead decides to descend into a pulpy mix between the heroes engaging in a race against time (with the stakes literally being the human race), set against the dark, grim war against genocide. It’s the digital equivalent of a page turner, is pitched squarely at the same teenager/ young adult audience that finds fantasies such as Warhammer 40K compelling, and is perfectly entertaining in what it offers, but nonetheless, it is also a story of missed opportunities and underdeveloped thematic depth to instead tap into the accessible and blockbuster cinematic.
As a final note; I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the self-censorship that Nintendo did to the western release of the game. For anyone not following along, there’s a character in the game – Lin – who is aged at 13 (though aside from being a little shorter than the other characters, I don’t see how that’s possible – she certainly doesn’t talk like a young teenager). In the Japanese version of the game it’s possible to give all characters swimwear ‘armour’ that doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. The self-censorship that Nintendo and Monolith engaged in was to take Lin’s swimsuit, and add material to it. For reference, the screenshot below shows Lin in her (western) swimsuit. Imagine the black and white underneath the silver part of that costume removed, and you’ve got the original Japanese costume.
When I reviewed Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, I felt a similar removal of swimsuit costumes actually hurt the theming of the game, as a central visual and thematic motif of it was the interaction of human body and water, and the swimsuits did a better job of working with that theme than any other costume. For Xenoblade Chronicles X, I don’t believe the self censorship has had any thematic impact on the game itself, so, while I know it will irritate some, and in theory I still believe Nintendo should have respected the original intent of the creative team at Monolith, it’s not something that I believe has hurt the overall quality of the game, now that I’ve had the opportunity to play it.
I enjoyed my time with Xenoblade Chronicles X a great deal. I found the combat highly engaging and every new ridge I would climb up provided me with such breathtakingly beautiful vistas that I would sit there simply slow panning around to take it all in. But at the same time, undercooked narrative has hurt the really long-term value of the game, and it was just a little too in love with the more arbitrary and irritating quirks of MMO design for its own good.
– Matt S.