Xenoblade Chronicles X contains a series of odd choices that deface what could have been a huge step forward in JRPGs.
The basic story set up of Monolith Soft’s latest is that a war between two alien races has caused all of humanity to evacuate Earth. Several ships are sent out with the survivors, including one with your avatar aboard. Two years later your ship crash-lands on Mira. Now the only goal is to find the lifehold were the survivors of humanity are all cryogenically frozen. It’s a great start that is actually really compelling.
Unfortunately, the plot itself doesn’t pick up until 20-ish hours in when it finally introduces the main bad guy and a few other cool characters that probably should have been shown or talked about earlier. Later, a potential plot twist is obviously slapped in your face by one of the main characters several times, negating any impact.
I will say the ending is interesting though. However, the whole story feels like the first act to something we won’t be getting the sequel to and it leaves most of this game completely empty. The plot feels stretched out to the point of being paper thin most of the time.
Firefly has a more satisfying ending and that show was cancelled. This game is almost 60 hours long at its core, and it wastes most of its opportunities to tell a compelling story. Mainly it is so disappointing because all the correct pieces are in place: the unique cast of characters, their individual motivations, the destruction of Earth, crashing on Mira, etc.
Then we move on to your avatar. The character creator is very good but the character you make never talks and isn’t interesting. Sure, you can pick dialogue choices but they don’t matter and the implementation feels very dated. And after completing the game, I can say that there is absolutely no reason to have a created character. Your avatar adds nothing to the plot or has any effect on anything.
Moving on to something more positive, Xenoblade Chronicles X is graphically a treat. There are tons of breathtaking vistas that rival, and even surpass, those seen in games like Fallout 4 or the Witcher 3. This is mainly because of the scale of everything. The game world is huge and actually feels realistically proportioned, which could have made traversal a chore, but the excellent fast travel system lets you quickly go to previously discovered locales. Exploring the world is definitely the main hook of the game for a long time as there are five unique continents to discover.
FrontierNav takes place exclusively on the gamepad and functions as a giant map with a healthy amount of helpful information. The main thing you will be doing on this screen is managing different probes. You can mine, collect area data, and more but it isn’t too overwhelming. In fact, you can really just let it sit there and you won’t be missing too much. There is some strategy in placing probes correctly and getting bonuses for adjacent probes, but first you have to go out into the world and find where the probes need to be set up. That is really your primary goal when exploring. Sure, you can fight creatures but there are so many it’s not practical to fight all the time.
Speaking of fighting, you’ll be doing a lot of it in Xenoblade Chronicles X. Battles take place in real time with your character auto-attacking with their weapons on a set timer. You have control of positioning and what arts – the standard fare of flashy moves and buffs – are used. Each art has a cooldown until it can be used again and this is where the MMO feeling starts to set in (more on that later).
You can also do combos with the other party members and complete quick time events to heal and grant additional damage but there’s not much else besides that. Also, there is no other way to heal during battle in this game so boss battles can go very differently depending on when these things happen and if you pass or fail the QTE.
The battle system is fun and unlocking new arts and skills (permanent buffs) is a satisfying grind to the top. However, that quickly ends when you reach class level 20. Sure, you can level up a different class but there’s not much reason to do so unless you want to pick and choose some skills from a different class to use with your main. Otherwise, that’s over and you’re just leveling up your overall level.
Strangely, the gamepad goes blank during battles. I would have expected to be able to select arts on this screen, which would have been faster than cycling through them, or at least be able to look at the map. Instead, there’s nothing there and it feels like a waste considering how much you get to use it when you aren’t in battle.
You are free to go anywhere you want in the world from the start; the only thing stopping you will be higher level monsters. Anything that is 10 levels higher than you will likely squash your party like ants. This type of gating feels very MMO-like, and actually most of the game feels that way as well. From the way enemies wander around the world to how quest completion screens look, Xenoblade Chronicles X wants desperately to be a single player MMO. And it totally is.
This creates an issue when every single quest is to either kill something or collect something though. I understand that every game follows that formula, but this one doesn’t even try to hide it one iota. It’s not a bad thing but it can become stale during gameplay stretches rather quickly.
Then there is how party members work. If you need to have a certain party member with you, you’ll have to go and get them wherever they happen to be in New LA, instead of just having them be in the party like every JRPG ever. This tedium is minor, sure, but it is completely manufactured and happens all the time. And because missions cannot assume all characters are with you, they almost exclusively revolve around two main characters. If you bring someone else along for the quest, they will show up in the cutscenes but won’t ever speak. It is bizarre and ridiculous, especially since these characters are actually interesting. There’s no reason to not have this be a traditional JRPG party with everyone together the whole time.
Back to New LA, this is the city portion of your ship that crashed and where you’ll be spending most of your downtime. You can take missions, shop, craft new equipment, augment equipment, and more from this large city. As for crafting and augmentation, it is largely unnecessary and was too convoluted for me to get into. I can safely say that I beat the game having never done either.
You can take on up to 20 normal or side missions at once but you can only have 1 affinity or story mission going at a time. And you can’t cancel them once they start. This might not sound like a big issue. Who would care about being locked into a main quest mission? Well, the story missions are not the problem, the affinity missions are.
Affinity missions fill in backstory for the many characters in the game and some are required to be completed before the game will let you progress with the story. Most seem to follow the familiar go here, fight that, format.
One in particular, named ‘The Repair Job,’ is intentionally obtuse and worth mentioning. After some initial gathering, it requires you to use FrontierNav to find 5 of a certain item. If you haven’t found any spots on the map where probes can mine this material, you simply won’t be able to find it until you accidentally unlock the right mining spot. So, if you don’t look things up, this could take hours of roaming to the various locations on the map and hoping for the best.
Even after you find a location that can mine for this item, you’ll still have to wait until this lucky probe finds enough of it. Which, if you only have one probe working on this task, could take an hour or two depending again on luck.
The second objective is to find two other items from ‘Puges in Primordia.’ Nowhere does it say that Puges are a type of enemy or where specifically to find them. I guess the game wants you to look through the in-game monster glossary but that is far from intuitive.
The final objective is to find four ‘cruise deflector AiRs in Oblivia.’ Oblivia is an entire continent and, had the internet not told me, I would have been wandering it aimlessly for quite some time.
During this entire process you cannot progress the story at all. So it is very possible to accidentally trigger this quest and get stuck in it for 4 or more hours. It took me almost 2 hours to complete this quest and that was even after I found a walkthrough online.
I have never seen something in a game be so flagrantly disrespectful to the player’s time. Ever.
That being said, that’s really the only mission in the game like that. I only did the affinity missions required to advance the story because I didn’t want to go through something like that a second time. Keep in mind that this quest can be accessed at the very beginning and is placed in an area where you could very well find it first. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, I’m not playing any more of you, Xenoblade. Thankfully, I wasn’t driven to madness by any of the other missions.
What did get on my nerves was the grinding. I’ll be the first to say that I like grinding. Hell, I maxed out the levels of all the characters in Final Fantasy 13 because I was bored in college one weekend. Give me a game with a decent battle system and stuff to fight and I will grind until the cows come home. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a bit different in that it requires you to grind but doesn’t really give you a good or fun way to do so.
For example, in a different game you might go to a self-contained dungeon to grind. There are almost no dungeon-like areas in this game, so you are left just wandering around the world. In the process you’ll find something too difficult and have to run away, or die, and it becomes tedious to do something that is already considered tedious at its core by a lot of people.
At about 20 hours in, I was getting somewhat bored by the battle system. Every battle felt relatively the same and the overworld wasn’t encouraging fighting all the time, so I simply avoided most enemies. Then I stumbled into this cave with level appropriate monsters and just went to town. It was a fantastic experience with battles that meant more because of enemy placement and a mission to get whatever treasure was at the end. Unfortunately, places like that are few and far between. Even that one was little more than 10 circular rooms connected by hallways. In fact, in my almost 60 hours with the game, there was only one place in the main story where I encountered something resembling a classic JRPG temple/fortress/whatever. That one too was five rooms with some hallways. For the most part you won’t have to worry about grinding until the latter half of the game, but it’s still a drag when it finally happens.
At roughly 30 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles X, you’ll unlock the ability to pilot a Skell, a giant robot with its own set of stats and arts. This changes pretty much everything about traversal and combat. You’re no longer a tiny being trying not to catch the eye of a giant monster. In a machine that is as tall as a three-story building, you are now the monster.
Then another 10-15 hours later you’ll be able to fly around the world in your Skell, and that’s where exploration loses its appeal. You’d think it would be the opposite and for a short while it is. Being able to fly obviously opens up whole new sections of the map, but there’s not too much left to see and plenty of even larger things will try to kill you. If you accidentally catch the attention of a level 80 giant dragon thing, your Skell will be destroyed in an instant and the flying fun time will be over.
Every Skell comes with insurance and, with a perfectly timed quick time event, you can avoid using a point of insurance to recover the Skell. Run out of insurance? No problem! You’ll just have to pay a large sum of money instead. It’s not a great system and even worse is that the game barely tells you anything about Skells.
With the Skells come a whole new layer of equipment and arts and, quite frankly, it overrides and ruins the previous character based one. Essentially, once you get a Skell, you will never want to go into battle without one because of their raw power. Additionally, except for a handful of fights in the main story, you won’t have to set foot on land again. I think the designers knew this because I only once or twice messed with my avatar’s inventory post-Skell, meaning that I was using almost the same equipment from hour 30 to hour 60. Additionally, everything in the store was either worse than what I had, or super expensive. I couldn’t buy something better if I had wanted to!
Don’t get me wrong, the Skells are great. It’s fun to fly around and the changes to combat breathe new life into it, but the feeling of exploring a dangerous alien world is lost. The whole Skell portion almost feels like an expansion pack to the main game. I had already maxed out my class level way before getting a Skell and all the arts/skills I used had been solidified hours beforehand. It was getting somewhat stale when the Skells came along to freshen things up.
I sound more negative about this game than it deserves and that’s mainly because I see so much potential in Xenoblade Chronicles X. The world is beautiful with few rivals in terms of scale, and then it becomes just another place. The story starts and ends incredibly well, but the rest of it isn’t fleshed out or compelling. The combat is a lot of fun, until you’re all but forced to grind for hours and hours to beat the later chapters. The Skells are genius and add a great new element to the game, but the insurance aspect and all-around cost required kills the joy.
That’s why I picked my tagline. Xenoblade Chronicles X does so many things right, and then it piles on so much other stuff that it ends up almost ruining what it already had. When the game clicks, it is some of the most fun I’ve had in gaming this year. When it doesn’t, it’s just alright. Not bad, not great. Alright.
Xenoblade Chronicles X really is a mediocre JRPG in a AAA wrapper. Its ideas and production values are far more ambitious than the final product. However, I spent 60 hours with the game and saw it through to the end, so there’s definitely enough charm for those willing to overlook its shortcomings.