Xenoblade Chronicles X is, to put it simply, BIG. Really big. So big that making a timely review is a frankly impossible task. As a result, TechRaptor will be biding it's time with the full review in the form of an impressions article. In our first 15 hours of gameplay, I saw impressive sights, listened to a fantastic soundtrack, and struggled with the game's poorly described game mechanics.
Xenoblade Chronicles X released in a year of stiff competition. A year where every month seemed to bring one or two critically acclaimed games. A year where so many titles included a massive, dense world to explore, games like Fallout 4, Bloodbourne, The Witcher 3, and Batman Arkham Knight among others. Xenoblade's open world manages to set itself apart with breathtaking scenery, wonderfully designed wildlife, and a multi-continental landmass. The game's visuals consistently impressed me, and there was never a dull moment exploring the world. This is no small feat considering many games with smaller open worlds struggle with filling their map with interesting sights and locations.
The main story centers around New LA, a human survival colony stranded on the planet Mira after a war between two unknown alien races over Earth's atmosphere forced humanity into a hasty evacuation of their home planet. When the ship crash landed on Mira, a vessel carrying countless humans in suspended sleep separated and was scattered across the unknown alien world. It's the job of player character and their party to venture out and find it. Players take control of a silent avatar, complete with a ridiculous anime hair style of your choosing. When browsing from the list of voices for my character, it was a welcome image to see the name's of the voice actors proudly displayed next to them. A sign of an age where voice actors may see more recognition for their work.
That mood quickly subsided as the game started, and Xenoblade Chronicles X quickly shows how ham-fisted it can be in its many cutscenes. RPGs that allow full character customization have often struggled with making you care about your own character, as they are usually emotionless bricks so as to not interfere with your roleplaying. But here the game almost seems oblivious to it, often holding the camera on my character for extensive seconds of awkward silence only for them to slowly move their head in some alien nod, before going back to the fully voiced characters. Despite bringing in some fantastic voice actors like Yuri Lowenthal or Tara Platt, the game fails to really utilize them outside the Soul Voice system, one of Xenoblade Chronicles X's plethora of poorly described gameplay mechanics.
Players will find a dense number of separate gameplay systems within the game's classes, abilities, and more. Early on, players join up with BLADE, the effective government and army of what human population there is on Mira. Players can choose from a number of Divisions, one of eight groups with specific tasks to contribute to New LA such as gathering information, dealing with threats, etc.
The classes you can choose from affect your character's fighting style, which weapons they can use, as well as which"Arts" your character can use. Arts are abilities that range from powerful attacks, to healing yourself or others, to buffs and debuffs. Players can switch between these at any point outside of combat, and doing so will help you find your playstyle. As you play, you earn Battle Points to upgrade these abilities to really make your character a force to be reckoned with.
Outside of using Arts to heal, your character has a chance to heal if you nail a QTE. If the battle is going your way, or you can keep a calm head, these are by no means difficult, and their only real challenge comes from not knowing when they will come up. When crap hits the fan, they can be tricky to land. These bring a sense of stakes to the combat system even during down times when you've used all your Arts and must wait for them to refresh, especially when your health is low and you can't use your healing Art.
While this spices up the combat, it is never properly explained, and I spent the first several hours jumping to hit these QTE's without any clue what it was doing. In addition, the aforementioned Soul Voices are also never explained, despite it being a somewhat significant part of combat. During combat, characters will shout commands, and respective Arts at the bottom will subtly glow. Before this was pointed out to me, I never even noticed this. When those Arts glow, select them and both you and the character that shouted the command will gain HP.
Though the game seems to gleefully pit you against enemies that stomp you into oblivion, it brings a rewarding feeling hours in when it suddenly clicked in my brain I was mindlessly slaying those same monsters in packs. Xenoblade Chronicles X, for the selection of problems it has, consistently gives me these moments of feeling like I'm really growing in this world.
I usually advise when gaming to keep a laptop away from you, as the temptation to check up on things during a quick loading screen might pull you out of the experience. This game is a major exception. I practical advise keeping one next to you if you don't feel like wasting hours trying to figure out how certain things work. For instance, the game tells you that you can change your Division, but doesn't tell you how to do that. (You go to the social terminal in the back of the Blade Barracks, and you can only change it when online.)
Physical manuals have been on a steep decline in many years thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, and Xenoblade Chronicles X uses a digital one like many titles. I recommend you become accustomed to this and search through it any time you don't understand something, as the manual does a decent job explaining many parts of the game, if not all of them. An example of something left unexplained is the aforementioned Division changes, which are not specified in the manual.
Throughout the game you'll use Field Skills, which are basically levels for unlocking treasure found around the map. Mechanical, Biological, and Archaeological are the three skills, and I heavily advise to invest all your field skill upgrades into Mechanical first. This feels less like something you were supposed to learn, and more like poor variety on the game designers part, but in my 15 hours of play, I probably found about 30-45 instances were I could use my field skills. I found three or four instances of Biological, and maybe two of Archaeological, the rest were Mechanical. You will use Mechanical, in addition to treasures, for planting your Field Probes, which act as beacons for fast travel, as well as mining tools for gathering a resource called Miranium, which can be invested in shops for better weapons and armor. Mechanical is so important that not investing means you are aren't going to buy better gear for your character, so Mechanical really is what you should concentrate on, while Biological and Archaeological are more side skills to pursue, but the game does not present them as such.
This extends largely from just how many things the game needs to teach you. Xenoblade Chronicles X plethora of systems, side content and mechanics are delivered in the course of a couple hours. Even more so, they're given to the player in either incredibly simplified ways, or thrown up in a parade of post-cutscene highlight stills that bar you from playing until you either read every single one of them or get bored and skim them.
Striding across the sprawling map, the game gave me a sense of adventure I hadn't felt since my first time playing a Zelda game. The looming mountains and abstract rock formations staring back at me from across a vast map, enticed me to explore simply for the sake of pilgrimage. The wildlife look both fascinating and suitably dangerous, in both shape and size. High level enemies are all the more intimidating when you can easily see them fields away.
The game isn't shy about putting you up face to face with these enemies either. While most enemies that are level 30 and above tend to keep to themselves unless you attack them, the game doesn't even remotely try to help you keep distance. This realization hit me the hardest when only a few hours into the game a level 81 King Kong monstrosity spawned right next to me. Xenoblade Chronicles X uses the more classic approach to keeping you out of environments: put higher difficulty enemies there, and leave it up to you to realize that's not where you're supposed to go. I'm very much in favor of this approach, but when these same level enemies are casually strolling around basic open areas of the game, it can sometimes feel cheap to be attacked by one, especially when you never meant to attack them, but they moseyed into the crossfire so you accidentally aggro them anyway.
Story missions do a good job bringing you to different parts of Mira and guiding you through the world. The story itself is something that can be forgotten, at least it's first fifteen hours worth. Most story missions have some kind of requirement that must be fulfilled before they can be started. Having certain party members present/absent, completing certain side quests, or exploring a certain percentage of a continent, are all possible bars of entry to new story missions. Though there were times I just wanted to progress the plot a little more, I never felt annoyed by the number of tasks that needed to be completed, and asking the player to explore more of the world only made sense, both because that is partly your characters job, and because the developers probably want you to be acclimated to your surroundings. Not to mention forcing you to explore means you'll probably have a few more fast travel points around the map. Did I mention the Mechanical Field Skill is super important?
If at any point you really want to get the level grinding out of the way, you can use in-game currency to hire avatars who'll join you on your quest to kill some creatures, capture a bounty, or gather materials. I never found it vital to get one of these characters, and I actually only tried it twice. But having access to a big brother character who can help you deal with those super high-level creatures roaming around really takes the sting off getting squashed, knowing if I really want to, I can just come back with them and watch the tables turn.
Though Xenoblade Chronicles X can at first be somewhat intimidating, even frustrating, nearly all it's problems lie in its mechanics being ill-explained. Once I knew what I was doing, I was glued to the couch. It's gotten to the point where my roommates, who haven't played a second of the game, have started humming the music, such as the Primordia theme. Speaking of the music, good lord these tunes! Every song becomes your favorite as soon as you hear it again. Each track imbues the location and scenario with a flavor and sense of place. When the game wants to be soft and tranquil, hip and fresh, or exciting and grand, it has a track for just that occasion.
Once you fully understand the game, it's consistently challenging experiences, fantastic soundtrack, awe-inspiring sights, fluid character growth, and damn impressive scale made doubly so for its under-powered console, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a magnificent game. All this and I haven't even covered Skells, the game's take on Mechs, which are unlocked after a specific story mission and test. I've decided that this was the best cut off point, as the game practically changes once you step foot inside these massive bipedal vehicles. Now you aren't the smallest thing around, you're just as big and dangerous as those massive monsters that squashed you without a second thought. For the second impressions article, and the full review of the game, we'll dive into how Mechs function, how they impact game play, and how your experiences change after they are unlocked.
What are your thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles X? Are you picking up the game, or feeling weary of its many tutorials and under-explained concepts? Let us know in the comments below!