Of all the open-world games to come out this year, Xenoblade Chronicles X may be the most formidable. It is a truly enormous game, both in scale and scope, with towering animals and rock formations stretching as far as the eye can see. Even after as many as 60 hours, X continues to provide taller mountains to climb, and stronger opponents to topple, with no end of new challenges in sight.
At the same time, X is a long RPG with a thin story and repetitive, lifeless characters. You hear the same jokes over and over again, and endure drawn-out cutscenes with little to no emotional payoff. Like so many Japanese-made RPGs, X's serious moments are often undermined by the presence of a cute and cuddly sidekick. When you aren't wincing at the sight of Tatsu--the game's stuffed animal of choice--you may instead be reeling from the soundtrack, which is dotted with low-rent tracks that make you reach for the mute button.
These are reasons enough to walk away from most games, but X isn't most games. By offering a steady stream of challenges that take you to fantastic places and put you into fights at the feet of giants, X has no problem enticing you back for more. It's a feat of large-scale game design that would be impressive on any console or computer, let alone on the modestly-powered Wii U, and getting the chance to explore and fight in a world as impressive as this one is worth enduring a few annoyances along the way.
Your journey begins when you wake up in a life pod on Planet Mira. A spaceship that escaped from Earth crash landed here after just avoiding complete destruction in an alien conflict, and the few humans who remain are left to fight for the survival of species. As a member of Blade--the military organization in charge of scouring Mira and defending humanity--your primary goal is to locate the invaluable pod known as the Lifehold. If Blade can secure it, the safety of your colony--New Los Angeles---will be ensured. If it falls into the wrong hands, your time is up.
Apart from the odd name given to your colony, X's story isn't memorable, save for a couple twists. However, the context provides an excellent framework for exploration and combat. You play the part of a soldier on the frontier who treks across Mira, an ancient land whose features suggest a storied and chaotic past and whose inhabitants regularly dwarf your squad of explorers. Massive, electric creatures hover over land and sea, and spiders the size of small houses march across plains. Dinosaurs and mammals with feet taller than your character cast huge shadows over the land, and while I felt intimidated the first time I saw one of these monsters, I dreamt of the day that I would be strong enough to take one on in a fight. With enough time and energy, that dream can become a reality.
While some animals are content to leave you be, others are aggressive and will attack on-sight. You defend yourself and your team of three AI controlled soldiers in real-time combat which, for the most part, is a smooth and exciting experience. Every character has a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and, depending on their class, a selection of offensive and defensive Arts (read: abilities) at their disposal. You earn new Arts when you level-up, and special class-based skills unlock every time you earn a new rank, so you have a steady stream of new abilities to experiment with as your adventure continues. Once you begin to identify skills that suit your play-style, you can invest a third measure of experience--battle points--to soup up your favorite moves and craft a unique fighting style.
After dozens of hours exploring on foot, the moment you jump into the pilot's seat of a Skell is an awakening.
Instead of casting healing spells or using consumable items to patch up wounded warriors, you rely on a QTE system, which is triggered by a complex series of events in battle. Something as basic as healing, in a game where combat is central to the experience, should be made clear from the start, but you're left to decipher a complex system, known as Soul Voices, where you assign automatic actions to very specific battle conditions. As much as you might want to, you can't totally control the tide of battle, so you pick and choose variables, praying that when the going gets tough, you've assigned a suitable automatic event to save the day. If this sounds confusing, it's because it is. While it's rare that you're left without an opportunity to recover some health, there are times when you wish that you could take matters into your own hands.
X does a poor job of explaining things in general, and you will spend a lot of time with the in-game manual, poring over pages in search of information. X allows you to dive deep into character progression and resource management but, without proper guidance, you will undoubtedly get lost. This may sideline more advanced pursuits in order to continue exploring and fighting--if only because those activities come so naturally.
Story missions set a good pace for exploration and skill development, and the conclusion of each chapter grants you access to a new series of rewarding side quests. It's unfortunate, however, that you can't organically weave your way from one chapter to the next. Each story mission comes with a set of prerequisites, such as surveying a percentage of Mira, or, collecting a certain number of items from the wild. Exploring Mira isn't big ask, because it's just another excuse to dive headlong into its captivating wilderness, but fetch quests aren't as simple as retrieving items from fixed locations; the items you have to collect appear at random, be it from enemies or in the wild. Sometimes you find exactly what you need in a matter of minutes, but on a bad day, it can take hours.
Though progression sometimes slows to a halt because you're required to complete a seemingly unimportant mission, grinding in any form can be made easier by recruiting other players' characters. By visiting a terminal at your base, you can spend in-game currency to hire avatars that people have shared online. While this isn't something you have to do often, hiring a high-level character can make it easy to grind for experience, or to venture into dangerous territory. Even though I couldn't chat with her and strategize, I still loved that I was able to recruit a level 60 character named Samus and watch her tear through a swarm of aliens when I needed it most.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a feat of large-scale game design that would be impressive on any console or computer, let alone on the modestly-powered Wii U.
Exploration and missions are an important part of being a Blade soldier, but you are also responsible for setting up a network of devices to mine Mira's resources and gather information. Miranium is a key resource that can be invested in weapons and armor manufacturers in order to unlock powerful exotic gear. From your humble beginnings in kneepads and wrist guards, you slowly blossom into a skilled warrior who's decked out in the finest ornate alien equipment, and it’s all because of your efforts as an explorer. X has no shortage of wondrous sights to behold, but it also incentivizes you in other, more beneficial ways.
Just when you start to think that you've exhausted your hunt for new gear, you unlock Skells, which are X's giant bipedal robots. After dozens of hours exploring on foot, the moment you jump into the pilot's seat of a Skell is an awakening. It can transform into a vehicle on-the-fly, allowing you to traverse large swaths of land in a flash. You are considerably more powerful in combat, too, and you finally have a fighting chance against monsters that previously seemed out of your league thanks to your newfound beam saber and missile launchers. You can also trample over smaller enemies without skipping a beat; small being relative, of course, as practically everything in X is bigger than you when on-foot.
Your first Skell is just the beginning--there are multiple models to buy, each with over a dozen parts to customize and upgrade. Between your party of four and any Skells that you acquire, X gives you a near endless supply of goals to pursue and countless beasts to test your might against. After 65 hours doggedly chasing the next best thing in X, I felt like I had only scratched the surface, with game's the biggest challenges still ahead of me.
Mira and its inhabitants are awe-inspiring, and experiencing everything X has to offer is a monumental and rewarding task. It makes the journey consistently interesting by giving you intricate control over your characters' abilities and gear, and by offering a wealth of new toys to play with as time goes on. You will roll your eyes at characters, and bemoan the unnecessary story padding, but these frustrations are quickly forgotten when you head into the wilderness in search of unexplored territory and unforeseen challenges. X is a grand adventure that satiates your appetite for exploration and combat in ways that few games ever do, but because getting started is half the battle, it’s an experience reserved for dedicated players who have the patience and energy to unearth its greatest treasures.