It’s nice when a game lays its cards on the table quickly, just so you know where you stand and what level of commitment you’re going to have to invest in order to get the most out of this experience. Within your first hour or so of Xenoblade Chronicles X, after being presented with a world that is simply massive even by modern standards, one filled with enemies that can only be brought down after hours of patient leveling up, more quests then you know what to do with and the promise that, ultimately, you’ll get the chance to pilot a giant flying robot across this vast expanse…you realize that you’ll be getting your money’s worth here.
This is a colossal game, in pretty much every sense of the word. The sheer size of the overworld itself is enough to make your jaw drop. After a brief prologue you are treated to a stunning view of a rich, fertile alien landscape filled with wide lakes, frothing waterfalls, rugged spires, plains of colorful flowers and natural rocky domes and outcrops casting vast shadows across the land, every inch home to creatures both small and huge, friendly and deadly.
As you marvel at all this in a manner which only a select few open world games have ever managed, you are swiftly bowled over when you realize that this is just one of five continents, all of a similar size. And they all look absolutely scrumptious. The imagination of the designers to create such expansive, vibrant and yet uniquely alien worlds cannot be commended enough. The graphics are gorgeous and there is barely a whiff of slowdown or loading times, whether you’re exploring the wilderness or taking on screen filling enemies. This on a console that runs on last generation technology. There’s a bit of pop-up granted, but Monolift Soft have created a graphical masterpiece.
But this isn’t a virtual world exploring simulator, there’s heaps of fighting to be done. As you traverse the landscapes of Mira you can pick fights on enemies of a similar level to yourself, or get picked on by bigger, badder animals that are a much higher rank. Rarely in video games do you experience the fear of venturing into the unknown, worrying that an enemy beyond your capabilities may be waiting around a bend.
When the fighting does begin, you’re launched into a combat system that will be instantly familiar to those of you (and there aren’t many) who played Xenoblade Chronicles, the precursor to this installment. While the plot and setting couldn’t be more different, the combat is incredibly similar. It’s a mix of real time action and turn based RPG gameplay. You have complete control of your character as they attack the enemy automatically when they get in range, but you have a variety of special attacks which you can use whenever you want, but which will need to recharge after each use. Battles become a matter of timing these attacks to form effective combos, either with yourself or in conjunction with your motley crew of planetary explorers.
There isn’t a combat system quite like it anywhere else, and it makes a refreshing change from all the other open world adventure games which all have little variation ultimately in how they play. There’s also a huge amount of scope for customization. You have complete control over the weapons and armour your team use, as well as which moves and abilities they can perform. With some training and tinkering you can create a team that perfectly suits your playstyle, or alternatively one that is specifically designed to take on a certain specialized mission.
In fact you’ll soon be swimming in missions, and they all bring their own unique rewards. From events that continue the main story arc and tasks that improve and expand the relationships between the characters, to smaller missions such as planting probes out in the wilderness or defeating a particularly beastly monster. It’s a shame that many of these missions don’t amount to much more than travelling to a certain location and finding a specified number of items, or of travelling to a location and destroying the local wildlife. The game has a tendency to become samey on the odd occasion.
But you’ll want to do as many missions, and collect as many items and currency as possible, because that way you can contribute to the game’s unique economy. You can use collectibles from your travels to improve existing weapons or craft new ones. You can invest in local friendly arms suppliers so they grow in size, which will reward you with better equipment. You can set up mining probes out in the wilderness to provide you with a steady stream of income. It’s worth your while managing this complex economy well because you’ll be rewarded by ultimately being able to afford your very own Skell.
The moment you gain the authorization to use Skells (basically giant flying robots that serve as transportation and super weapons) is when the game kicks into an even higher gear. Because now there are no limits whatsoever to where you can travel. You can fly across the entire game world for as long as you have fuel in your tank, and take on gigantic monsters that would otherwise be beyond you. The game beforehand drops your jaw from how tiny it makes you feel. When you’re flying in the upper atmosphere in your Skell, the game drops your jaw from how huge it makes you feel.
It is a shame though that it takes so long for you to actually get one. In fact, this game is pretty slow paced throughout, in almost every regard. Dialogue is a little long winded and reiterates plot points you already knew full well about, though the voice acting and localisation is excellent. It’s also nearly impossible to zip from one story mission to another due to the pre-requisites needed to activate them, depending not just on your level but by how much map you’ve explored. For those who don’t mind a lengthy adventure won’t find this a problem, but gamers used to something a little faster paced may find their attention wavering.
The plot itself doesn’t do much to capture the imagination either. It’s far from bad, and there are some decent twists, but it does depend a lot on the ‘last bastion of humanity fighting desperately against the alien menace’ trope. When compared to this game’s predecessor, which probably had one of the most unique settings in gaming history with a vibrant cast of characters, this story feels a bit flat by comparison.
The decision to allow gamers to create your own protagonist this time around actually seems to stifle the narrative, and it feels that on this occasion the plot might have been better served if you were controlling a set protagonist, a la Shulk in the previous game. It falls on supporting characters such as Elma and Lin to characterize the plot, and while their development is not handled badly, you feel like your own avatar isn’t really involved. They’re just standing on the sidelines during cutscenes before lending some extra firepower in battle.
Niggles about story and pacing aside, this is a truly accomplished game that makes incredible use of its supremely beautiful overworld, even in a year chock full of open world games. Gamers have become accustomed to expansive lands they can frolic through, but rarely have they been this well-crafted. The unique combat, superbly deep upgrading system and the chance to take on a huge variety of monsters in a giant flying robot, all combine to make this a hugely entertaining game experience.
Don’t get lost in a TV boxset this Christmas. Instead book an expedition to the planet Mira for something as equally addictive and engaging.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is out now on Wii U. RRP £45.00