No Man’s Wild?
Xenoblade Chronicles X was always going to be a niche thing. It’s a moderately complex anime-ish JRPG that plays like an MMO and it’s exclusive to the Wii U. It’s not unpopular, but it’s something that was inevitably going to be overlooked by some. I want to argue its case because it offers a few elements that the public have expressed a real hunger for lately. I’m getting this impression from the recent hype surrounding two games: the already released universal exploration game No Man’s Sky, and the next 3D entry in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. If you are or were excited about either of those games then I think that XCX could have something you want, but maybe not exactly how you want it.
This game lays down the sci-fi JRPG clichés thick and fast. Two years ago the Earth was destroyed in the crossfire of two warring alien factions. In an almost entirely-abortive attempt to save the human race, colossal space-lifeboats full of survivors were launched amidst the chaos to search for another habitable planet, and at least one of those ships made it safely out of the warzone. Basically, Phantasy Star Online with more immediate stakes. You create your guy, then immediately you’re cast as an amnesiac survivor of one of those ships after it crash lands on an alien world. The first character you meet is Elma, a Blade, XCX’s official title for the organisation of pioneer soldiers that typically become rather necessary in these sorts of circumstances. Elma liberates you from a stasis pod and then shows you the basics of combat while guiding you back to New Los Angeles, the makeshift city erected in the crash site of that one surviving ship, now the last (known) civilisation of humankind. You meet some more characters, sign up to join the Blades, and the world is your playground. Run fast, jump far, climb high, form parties, do story missions, do sidequests, gather items, trade and craft weapons and armour, hunt monsters, level up, grind. You know. Videogame stuff.
Impressive open worlds in games are nothing new, but just believe me when I say that XCX is incredibly vast. It feels it, too, as you’ll spend the first tens of hours on foot with your party. Here’s where we get into the hype thing I mentioned before: XCX originally caught my eye with trailers that showed off this incredible-looking, massive alien world. These all dropped at Nintendo events where people were, understandably, most excited about the new open-world Zelda game. I couldn’t help but feel like XCX didn’t get the attention it deserved because it appeared to offer a really visually striking version of what people seemed to be excited about in Zelda, plus it actually had a release date (this was before Breath of the Wild showed off its RPG elements, combat, climbing system and motherfucking shield surfing, of course). The actual gameplay differences between these two games are obviously worlds apart, but still. As far as exploring a gigantic, interesting world is concerned, the Wii U owners salivating exclusively over Zelda might not know that Xenoblade can scratch that itch.
It especially feels like a good time to talk about this game in the wake of No Man’s Sky. I haven’t played it myself, but I gather that many players were disappointed after expecting its universe to be as varied and interesting as the universe. I wasn’t excited about No Man’s Sky for very long after it was announced. Coming up with a fictional periodic table and feeding it through an algorithm to make a computer create a literal fucking universe out of maths is a mindblowing concept and all, but it doesn’t automatically translate into fun. For me, painstaking authorship has always trumped procedural generation. No Man’s Sky was created from a simulation of nature, and that’s amazing, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is made of nothing but ideas. The wildlife is suitably out there, and the topography on this thing is insane. Floating islets and obtuse, jagged mountains forming Primordia’s skyline; colossal, intricate ruins of gigantic rings littering the harsh, desert terrain of Oblivia. Probably one of the most memorable videogame moments from my year so far was when I found my way up to a mountain range in the dense forest area of Noctilum and led my party across the vast web of tree branches that spanned the sky over the swamps and rivers. There wasn’t any reward, items didn’t even spawn up there. It was just fucking cool. You don’t need eighteen-quintillion planets; one good world is plenty.
All praise aside, Xenoblade isn’t without its problems. Aside from a handful of surprising moments, the story and characters aren’t particularly compelling, but I can enjoy a trite anime tale as much as anybody. What I didn’t expect was for piloting a giant robot to feel kind of empty.
Almost immediately after entering New LA for the first time, you’re introduced to Skells, large combat mecha that only the most decorated Blades get the opportunity to use. Earning your Skell licence is presented as a great incentive to persevere. Sixty hours, six story chapters, and eight tricky sidequests later, I finally had a Skell to call my own. And I was excited. I gave it a sweet paintjob, decked it out with some weapons and proceeded to hit the plains. Delight struck when I clicked the left stick to sprint and it transformed into a damn motorbike.
However, while it’s very fun and convenient, using a Skell does hollow out some of the game’s key elements. The improved abilities for traversal cause the world to open up to you, but it also effectively shrinks. You’re physically bigger on screen. The camera zooms out, even items appear larger on the ground. Getting around is so much easier, and so is combat. Immediately you can challenge enemies that were ten or fifteen levels higher than anything you would have approached before. The initial power trip is great, until you realise that you’ve spent the last sixty hours maxing out combat classes on skill trees, mixing and matching arts and abilities to make your character suit your specific playstyle… but now you’ve got a mechsuit with absurd defence and the ability to deal four digits of damage instead of three, so why bother? Most damning is that out of the game’s five main areas I’ve only properly explored three, and only really dipped my toe in the fourth. If my experience in the hellish final region of Cauldros is exclusively in my Skell it’s just not going to feel like I earned it, or that I got a proper taste of that area. But whatever, I’m not finished yet. Various NPCs have stated that some enemies are better dispatched hand to hand than with Skells. Sure. I’m just going to keep bringing a giant robot to a fang fight until that tactic stops working for me, thanks very much.
I’m very taken with Xenoblade Chronicles X. If you’re curious to play it, you should get on that right away. It hasn’t been out that long so you might still find it in real life game shops. It’s one of those very Japanese games that I imagine won’t get reissued after its initial run. You’re unlikely to find it pre-owned and it’s on a Nintendo console so it’s not like it’ll ever go down in price anyway. Give it a shot.