Who would have thought that the Xeno series, which began life as the beloved Xenogears on the PSX, would take so many forms throughout the years? Director Tetsuya Takahashi went on to create the developer Monolith Soft and the operatic Xenosaga trilogy for PS2, which he deemed a 'spiritual prequel' to Xenogears, before moving on to the highly acclaimed Wii JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles.
Now the latest game in this rich series has been released as a Wii U exclusive and the verdict is in. The developers promised one of the most beautiful overworlds of all time, a class-based evolution to Xenoblade Chronicles' real-time battle system, the ability to pilot giant mecha (Skells), and an original epic about the last remnants of humanity struggling to survive on an alien world. That's a lot to promise.
After 100+ gameplay hours, I've come to the conclusion that in terms of level design, this is one of the best games I've ever played. The developers deserve props for crafting a mesmerizing overworld that is easy to navigate, with megafauna monsters, hostile alien outposts, and hidden treasures all easily accessible via heaps of warp points.
The planet Mira proves to be a host of natural wonders that dwarf anything possible to navigate on Earth. The maps are silky and textured with attention to detail, and bear no repeating topographical elements. Though the game runs at 720p, the framerate is locked at 30fps and despite unobtrusive loading times, there is surprisingly never any draw-in from the background (however I did observe minimal draw-in from distant enemies while in a Skell). Reduced gravity on Mira lets human characters leap great heights, adding to the free-form feeling of the environments.
The MMO-like battle system allows for a range of different builds. Depending on your class you can build up damage with your regular rotation before unleashing a killing blow, or stun multiple enemies in a region and let your allies finish them off. Activating the critical Overdrive mode allows the player to chain attacks nonstop to rack up incredible amounts of damage and this is where customization really comes into play.
The class system is pretty straightforward. Three base classes expand to six advanced classes, and those in turn lead to six final classes. You can level up unique melee and support Arts all across your characters, but the class distinctions between your other party members are fixed. This is a bit of a wasted opportunity, because you're stuck with Elma and Lin for most of the story and Affinity Missions that are necessary for progress.
Mechanized combat with the transforming Skells is equally fun. Similarly to on-foot combat, weapons cover a wide range, including shoulder-mounted missile launchers, mini-guns, swords, katanas, spears, and even photon beams. They can also fly across the map. Skells are expensive, consume fuel, and can be destroyed in battle, so it's wise to exit the cockpit and continue the fight on foot if ever things get hairy.
You can also add to your party the avatars of your friends, who can be found waiting in the hub, and level them up to net small rewards for both parties. Along with Miiverse posts counting as a sort of limited group chat, the multiplayer elements may be half-baked, but they do add some spice to the game.
Despite its depth and wealth of content, Xenoblade Chronicles X is not a perfect game. It suffers from several core flaws, such as a pretty standard story told in weird chunks between lengthy side missions and an uneven soundtrack from Hiroyuki Sawano (composer of “Attack on Titan” and “Kill la Kill”).
While the story of the game could easily have been its focal point, for most of the campaign we're dealing with a simple tale of survival and adaptation. The final missions provide some significant twists and take the story from being below average to above average, but even after 70+ hours, it still feels like the game ends abruptly.
Perhaps the weaker story is inherent to the nature of the game the developers set out to make – a hybrid single-player JRPG with MMORPG elements such as short pick-up missions that net meager rewards, huge world bosses, and passive events that allow players to contribute in killing specific enemies to gain global rewards. Given all this material it's hard to fault the lack of personality for the avatar character, who is of course silent and afflicted with amnesia.
Another major issue for me was the game's over-reliance on seriously lengthy domestic sub-quests, some of which are less than compelling and pack little challenge, to move the story forward. In order to keep the Affinity Missions from losing their challenge, I recommend playing them as soon as they become available, rather than saving them for when you are too high-leveled and they become a chore.
As for Sawano's music, it's a total fusion of every influence you can name – rock, hip-hop, house, jazz, Hans Zimmer, etc, and some of it is awesome. Wir fliegen (Overdrive Theme) and Uncontrollable (Tyrant Theme) stand out as cool songs you won't ever get tired of. The main battle theme Black tar is a solid blend of genres as are the energetic overworld themes. But other tracks go for a '90s hip-hop/jazz vibe with distorted guitars and fall flat. The two tracks that play in the central hub are so bad that I literally mute my volume every time I go back to New LA and play something off my laptop instead. Just the thought that millions of players have been inflicting themselves with that music makes me want to cry.
In conclusion, if you're looking for a mission-based, hundred-plus hour game that immerses you in its universe with a beautiful overworld, addicting battle and class systems and fun mecha combat, you won't be disappointed in Xenoblade Chronicles X. When this game first came out, I was glued to it nearly every moment of my free time. The story's nothing to write home about, but the pace and themes do pick up towards the end of the campaign. Mr. Takahashi and his team have crafted an enrapturing and transporting experience into another world that really must be played to be believed.
Reviewed By: Joseph Choi
+ One of the most beautiful and epic overworlds in any game
+ Solid combat, class, and Skell (mecha) battle systems
+ Addicting exploration elements
+ Unobtrusive and welcome online elements
- Hit and miss soundtrack with a few great songs, some decent, some bad, and some terrible
- Not enough variety or suspense in the required Affinity Missions, some of which are glorified fetch quests
- The story is not the focal point, unlike most classic JRPG