Xenoblade Chronicles X released at the tail end of a year full of critically acclaimed titles, but manages to stand out with it's mesmerizing visuals and engrossing combat. The JRPG has a number of problems, such as its endlessly cluttered menus and a plethora of game mechanics that are poorly explained. The story is boring and the narrative's attempts at humor and drama fall utterly flat. Despite these shortcomings, the game's stellar soundtrack, addicting open world gameplay, and sprawling landscapes will leave the player with a sense of discovery as you explore its exotic alien world.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a well designed, if poorly explained experience. Endless cluttered menus, ill-described mechanics, and a bland story damper what could have stood alongside some of the most highly respected open world games. As it stands now, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fantastic game despite its problems, and one of the most addicting, entertaining, and visually mesmerizing titles I've played this year.
The massive world never feels sparse or boring as you explore it. Around every mountain there is a new area full of unique wildlife and alien fauna. Above every waterfall is a beautiful vista to take in. Your character has a breakneck running speed that makes crossing Xenoblade Chronicle X's substantial continents anything but a chore. As I explored, I felt a sense of discovery and wonder that I hadn't felt since I first played a Zelda game. This sense of adventure is enhanced by the game's decision to never physically gate you from a new area. The only thing keeping you from the highest level area at the end of the game is your will, patience, and the high-level monsters in your way.
The game introduces Skells just as the novelty of seeing the game's many sights wears off. Skells are Xenoblade Chronicles X's mechs, and the world opens up in a whole new way once you get one. Distances that took minutes suddenly take seconds, and cliffs that previously needed to be circumnavigated can now simply be hopped, or even flown over. It will take the player well over twelve hours to obtain a mech, but finally driving one across the map is such a rewarding feeling that you quickly forget how long it took to achieve it. Monsters that were daunting before now stare at you eye to eye, and your up-scaled Skell weapons make you a force to be reckoned with. The game never really gives you a reason not to use a Skell, which is a bit disappointing considering how many hours of combat and customization I had sunk into my character, even changing his "fashion" gear so he looked the part.
While Skells give the player a sense of freedom, they also reveal a rather massive problem the game has with texture pop-in. The speed boost you get from using a Skell, useful as it is, means you'll be outpacing the game's ability to load textures. It's an all too common sight to drive to an area and be greeted by a hellish walking Play-Doh monster and waiting for the game to load in the creature's details. This isn't exclusive to driving mechs, as it does happen occasionally on foot, but it is still inadmissible for how often you'll see pop-in. Even menus (each with it's own loading screen) will still show you unrendered models for a second or two. Browsing the store to buy Skells is a needlessly lengthy task because each time I look at another Skell I have to wait for the Wii U to load it in.
My character remained silent throughout most of the game, only speaking up to shout "Soul Voice" commands, which is one of many poorly explained mechanics in the game. Given the kind of talent on hand, it seems a waste not to use them more, however the relatively small amount of speaking may be precisely why Monolith Soft could afford so many notable voice actors. The main character is almost frustratingly quiet at times, not making so much as a vague expression or looking anywhere in particular. If the developers wanted a silent protagonist who acts as a vessel for the player to explore the world, fair enough, but don't hold the camera on them for lengthy sections of the cutscenes if they aren't going to emote or show any interest in what is happening.
I can't entirely blame my character for disinterest, as the story is nothing special. The set up is interesting: a small amount of Earth's population crash lands on an alien world after fleeing a destroyed Earth at the hands of two mysterious warring alien races. The game fails to go anywhere interesting with this aside from some compelling advances in the plot sprinkled throughout. It's a dime-a-dozen story of evil aliens who hate humans because they suck and good aliens who like humans and are cute. At least the story does a good job of giving you a tour of Mira and pushing you to explore, plant data probes, and and collect items.
Ironically the game's manual has more complexity than the story. Many games these days forgo a manual in favor of weaving in the tutorials as the game progresses. Xenoblade Chronicles X explains some things, but reading its manual is practically a necessity. I strongly recommend if it's your first time playing to go through the entire manual once before playing, it makes the game remarkably more clear. Field Skills, Combat, and symbols above monsters heads all become much easier to understand. Unfortunately, many of the games systems and mechanics are still poorly described or left out of the manual altogether, leaving the player to either search for answers themselves or look online for answers.
Combat can be especially intimidating because of this lack of knowledge. Bars, numbers, QTE's, and noises you don't understand hit you all at once. After you get the hang of combat, it becomes a blast. It speaks to the combat's engaging nature that I, a person who normally hates auto-attack combat systems, found it a joy and never hated taking part in a fight. The combination of auto-attack with a focus on objective numbers means throughout the first quarter to half of the game, you know as soon as you see the level on a foe if you can beat them or not, and all the fighting, move selection, and healing won't mean much, because you know how this is going to end before it begins. You'll use "Arts" to fight off the various monsters and threats in this game. Arts are abilities you'll have in combat, and range from healing, to attack, to stat buffing and debuffing. They do a good job adding visual flair to your combat experience, and upgrading them is vital to your progression in the game. Another aspect of combat called "Soul Voice" commands brings a deeper level of complexity to the system. A Soul Voice is a special condition that when met, prompts your characters to perform an action. This action can be anything form healing you, to buffing the party, and more. During my time with Xenoblade Chronicles X, I never once felt playing with the various Soul Voices were necessary, however if you really want to get meticulous with your character, they offer many interesting benefits depending on your playstyle.
Though Xenoblade Chronicles X is merciful in how perceptive high level, attack-on-sight enemies are, the game is never shy about you rubbing shoulders with giants, and more than once (read well over dozens) of times, I was flattened in an instant by a high level enemy the game forced me to be near because of a story mission. The game's choice to make the only barrier of entry to a location my ability to fight the enemies there really makes the world feel open and unrestricted. However, I would be sent back to a starting location too many times because the game put a story checkpoint on the other side of a Godzilla beast I won't be able to beat for more than 20 levels from that point.
I never felt I had to grind to get my character where they needed to be, the game does a great job balancing to what level your character would be when taking the next story mission. With only a single exception, I never once felt I walked into a boss I was painfully unequipped to deal with. In combination with the aforementioned combat, leveling up and exploring is all the more enticing because of the game's catchy soundtrack. The music of Xenoblade Chronicles X is simply infectious, and will be stuck in your head for days, if not weeks, with it's J-Rock inspired tunes. I ended up downloading several songs to my phone to listen to while working out or driving, they're that good.
Once the mechanics are understood, and the game really gets rolling, Xenoblade Chronicles X became on of my favorite games of 2015. The imaginative creatures, sprawling landscapes, and memorable soundtrack, breath life into the world. The combat, customization, and constant drive to see what's over that next ridge kept me coming back every single day for weeks. If you are a Wii U owner, this is absolutely a game you should own.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a poorly explained, but surprisingly addicting adventure with engaging combat, stunning visuals, and a fantastic soundtrack.