Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U
When Nintendo pushed both Star Fox Zero and The Legend of Zelda for Wii U back to next year, leaving their big holiday release spot wide open with only Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash to fill it, I immediately wondered why they did not move the release of Xenoblade Chronicles X up to help fill that gap. After all, it looks like it has all the hallmarks of a major, triple-A release — surely a greater marketing push, maybe something to sell it as something akin to a major blockbuster the likes of which Hollywood might turn out (e.g. “the Final Fantasy VII approach“) would help give it the push it needs to reach a more mainstream audience, right?
After playing it at long last, I finally understood why that is not what Nintendo did, and why that was entirely the right move.
This is no slight on Xenoblade Chronicles X, mind you, but the fact remains: this game was always, is always going to only appeal to a certain niche of gamers. It’s not for the kind of crowd who might bite on a Mario Tennis or a Star Fox — Zelda, maybe — but rather, it is the kind of game that requires a lot of patience, understanding, and dedication.
So, here’s the thing: I’m not exactly a role playing game buff (unless Mario or Mega Man are involved), and despite watching my wife play Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, I was not fully prepared for what awaited me here. The huge draw to me was the promise of exploring an enormous alien world, and this game delivers that in spades. Once you get set up — heck, before that, even — the world is practically your oyster, and you’re able to go pretty much wherever you please. You’re bound to run into something or someone that can utterly annihilate you if you do that, right down to freak storms that will zap your energy away bit by bit, but the option is there.
There are eight different divisions you can join up with after creating your character (after seeing someone do it with Fallout 4, I decided to make my character resemble someone in real life, and his name is John Cena) and returning to New Los Angeles, each with its own goals out in the world which lend themselves to your level progression and perks (health recovery, bonus to types of attacks, etc.). I chose “Pathfinder,” which involves exploring and setting up beacon locations to get a better view of the planet. You can switch divisions at any time, but that doesn’t affect what you can do so much as what in particular you’re rewarded for doing.
All these different factors, and so much more that I can’t even get into here, come together and interact with each other in such a way that I have a hard time calling it anything else but “lifelike.” It’s a fascinating degree of realism in that while you can cut off certain aspects of the game, be it the story or the exploration or the fetch quests, you’ll more than likely end up hampering your efforts in other fields, much the same way as someone needs to balance school and work and a social life and time just to themselves.
Even the enormous Skells that make up so much of the marketing have an almost unnerving realism to them — not in their form or their literal function, necessarily, but more in how they are sort of like getting your first car: you have to wait 16 years to get one (well, not literally, but quite a while into the game’s story mode), they’re expensive, and they even have insurance to pay on them! Wreck one without ejecting in time, and you’re covered only a handful of times before you have to pay large sums of money in order to do repairs. All this, and we’re not even into the part where flying is a thing — that comes still later. They’re treated very seriously in-game.
In truth, the game can be absolutely daunting at times. It’s very oldschool in how complex and obtuse things can be; little is often explained to you up-front, if at all, and even the manual can feel a bit too brief at times. A working knowledge of the previous Xenoblade Chronicles can help a bit, but there’s enough new going on here so even that will only take you so far. Nintendo’s own Xenoblade Chronicles X Survival Guide videos on YouTube are a good place to start, but don’t expect those to tell you everything, either.
Basically, this is the kind of game where you’ll either need a guide or a lot of patience to work your way through, experiment, and figure out how each moving part works as a part of the greater whole that is Xenoblade Chronicles X. Fortunately, though the game can be harsh and complicated almost to the point of overwhelming, it also manages to be forgiving as well. There is no auto-save, but you can still save at any time outside of story sequences or battle scenes, and the game will even knock the difficulty of bosses down a little if you’re having trouble.
Trying to understand everything at once is pretty much guaranteed to give you information overload unless your brain is built like a spreadsheet, but there’s plenty of room for trial and error as well.
As I said before, RPGs aren’t normally my thing, and how RPG-like this game is took me by surprise — the combat, specifically. You watch someone playing, and it looks like they’re being pretty active in the process of fighting — and in fairness, they are — but at the same time, it’s arguably less skill-oriented than real-time combat, or at least a different set of skills. Case in point: you’re taking on an enemy, and whether you hit them or not basically amounts to a dice roll. You might hit, you might miss, your role is mostly to just point your character at your foe, for whatever that is worth.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite way of handling it. What’s more, encountering an enemy of overwhelming power all but guarantees instant death without much of a say on your part. You can try to outrun them, certainly, but you may end up struck down by some invisible force. And whether you’re near the enemy or not matters little — it’s what the game says that goes, leading to odd situations such as being attacked through an entire mountain by an enemy that opted to engage you.
The combat isn’t passive, though, as you still have to manage various meters, decide when to use Soul Voices to rally your group, judge which skills to use for best effect and their cooldown times, and more.
There’s a certain strangeness to it all, in that the sheer density and complexity of everything actually reminds me of RPGs — that is, table top RPGs, like Dungeons & Dragons and the like. I was never terribly good at following along in those, either, without a Dungeon Master to help me along. The way everything works together, all the rules… anyone familiar with D&D‘s grappling rules? To me, this game feels like that times ten, if not more (and I still can’t remember what a “THAC0” is without looking it up).
Along those lines, the game really likes to put as many of its cards on the table as it can at once — whether you can play with them or not. From enemies you can’t beat to environments you can’t survive in if the weather changes to weapons and armor you can’t equip to even just planting a blasted beacon in a spot you worked your butt off to reach, you never feel as though the world is acclimated to you — you have to acclimate yourself to it. Even the story and all sorts of other missions are cut off to you once the world opens up unless you’ve taken the time to build those levels up beforehand, making you feel just a bit cut off from the game you’re playing at times.
And yet, despite how overwhelming the entirety of the game feels? I’m enjoying it. I’m a long ways from seeing absolutely everything the game has to offer — and with the sheer amount of terrain, divisions, and classes to work from, I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to see it all, but I’m still loving just about everything that I am seeing. Even the story, following a group of survivors who escaped into space from warring factions of aliens who destroyed Earth and crash-landed on a new world, Mira, has me far more engrossed as it progresses than I ever thought I’d be. When I first looked at the game, I just wanted to explore, but now? I don’t just want to explore, but to take part and “survive.” (But exploration is still my first love.)
Graphically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is amazing. It promises that if you can see a destination, you can go there, and it definitely lives up to that. There are occasionally issues with the odd texture — perhaps from traveling beyond the intended boundaries, which itself is fun in a “game breaking” sort of way — as well as pop-up and clipping (in fact, cars will pass right through you like a ghost in the city), but it all feels forgivable in light of the bigger picture. A picture so big, in fact, that Nintendo World Report pegs it as being bigger than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and the recently-released Fallout 4 combined.
For all that expansiveness, though, the city of New Los Angeles itself can feel a bit limiting, as you can’t drive any of the cool Back to the Future Part II-styled cars (including the neat Warthog/sports car-like hybrids) or go in very many places. Speaking of the city, it has its own sort of love-it-or-hate-it soundtrack that runs throughout your time there, but outside of the city limits, the music is fantastic. In fact, it’s been running through my head since the last time I played the game before writing this review, making me want to go right back to it.
Other details are hit and miss, such as the weird way the anime aesthetic of some characters meshes with more realistic details, and sometimes faces. One of the biggest strikes for me, though, is the need to wear my glasses when playing the game. I don’t know what it is with developers since going high definition, but a lot of the display text is freaking small, enough that it’s practically (if not completely) illegible on the Wii U’s GamePad. In fact, between that and the need to use it for Fast Travel and other map functions, Off-TV Play with this game is not recommended despite its availability (you can use the Pro Controller and GamePad in tandem, though, if you require such a setup).
Put simply, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fantastic game, but it’s not going to be for everyone, so I can’t wholeheartedly make it a blanket recommendation. At some 2,000 words in this review, I haven’t even been able to begin touching on everything there is to talk about here — there is just that much going on and it’s not really a pick-up-and-play kind of game unless you’re really into it already (at which point you can grab it and play for minutes or hours). Heck, I didn’t even get to talk about the day and night cycles and the changes in weather — I love that kind of stuff.
It really strikes me as the sort of game one should definitely look into if they’re not planning on getting another game for a good long time, like “here’s your Christmas gift, and you can have another one for your birthday in May” sort of deal. Granted, some people have plunged right in and are tearing right through the story, but there are various ways to play and if you just relax and don’t rush it, there’s a lot here to keep you busy for quite some time. In a way, it reminds me of how Dragon Warrior was regarded when it was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System — or even The Legend of Zelda.
For me, personally? I’m hooked, and hours of exploration go by like no time at all. You might even say “I’m really feeling it.”
A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.