The day of judgment is finally coming. After the great Xenoblade on Wii (to some the best JRPG of the PS3 era), many started to believe that the JRPG genre belonged to Nintendo. But with the withdrawal from the WiiU of all the main JRPG publishers, nothing remains but Monolith Software’s champion to defend the title.
Xenoblade Chronicles X starts pretty well because it immediately raise the stakes (mankind’s future is in your hand after Earth has been destroyed by unknown forces) and gives large freedom and possibilities of gameplay after a few hours. As pioneers, you’ll have to survive and take advantage of the planet on which your gigantic ship (which also happens to carry an entire city, New Los Angeles) has made an emergency landing, called Mira. You quickly come come to be familiar with the very diversified fauna : the monsters’ level go from 5 to 50, their size from 30cm to approximately one of NLA’s district. No doubt, the progression margin is immense and you’re here for a while.
Much to your delight, you have 13 classes that you’ll unlock progressively. Every class lets you equip a firearm and and CQC weapon. The enhancement system of weaponry and armory is quite rich as you can either improve their statistics directly or attach external modules giving extra skills or bonuses. All this goes through military engineering firms, which you unlock during the story or by completing side-quests. Each company develops its own design and models, and you’ll have to provide them resources if you want further innovations. The game will also have you choose between some “unions” (explorer, Doll pilot, hunter, etc.) but this particular aspect didn’t change the gameplay or my progression in any way. You’ll receive a salary regardless, in the form of several items to choose from, some being extremely helpful in tough fights.
Graphically speaking, Xenoblade Chronicles X is uneven. The city isn’t really appealing (noticeable clipping, aliasing, late textures and failed collisions are rife), nor it is very large. Its only point is to list the various quests you’ll have to complete on the field. NLA is divided in several districts (industrial, commercial, etc) rather empty, except for the “Blade” part (from the name of your military organization) which benefits from a much better design. The character modeling is at least 10 years late : the main characters reminds us of the early PS3 era, and NPCs are even worse. Facial animations are non-existant and gestures are stiff. This is not next-gen at all.
That said, you just have to peek outside to see it, because this is where Monolith’s title displays its true self. The nature is beautiful, the fauna is astonishingly lively and the lush flora clearly impress. But beyond that, it is the scale of planet Mira that gives the wow effect : five continents, each one immense and with its own theme and wildlife. Every change of environment is a magical moment. Every plain, every valley, every mountain path has its little surprise, good or bad, architectural or living, which are wonders for the player. The weather effect are no less amazing : should it be the thunderous storms of the Forgotten Continent, the meteor showers of the Continent of the Black Steel, or especially the snowstorms of the Continent of the White Tree, so thick that the player has to stop or return to base, everything is splendid. The general design of Xenoblade Chronicles X is also of fine quality. The weapons and the technology in general (particularly some very classy sniper rifles) gives a unique feel of a whole new and coherent universe, not to mention the sense of grandeur given to the landscape.
Let’s go into actual gameplay. Xenoblade Chronicles X has a rather shabby user interface with a flurry of menu screens in which character font is blatantly too tiny : maybe it will be OK in western alphabet, but believe me, reading difficult kanjis in font size 7 is quite a hassle.Skills description is not very clear and there is no tutorial to help you. You therefore have to build your character a bit empirically due to the lack of structure in the battle system. The gamepad is inconvenient in real-time gameplay, mainly because the buttons are too small and too far from each other. I had a hard time going through some battles, notably because of not so responsive targeting and an ill-designed item menu. On the other hand, navigating on the world map is perfectly thought as you always have all the information and all the destinations available with little browsing to do.
As good explorers, you’ll work to subdue the (hostile) environment around you, starting with its resources. Millanium is used for a bunch of things : deliver it to NPCs, make R&D progress or refuel your Dolls. For this, you’ll need to reach certain places a set a drill. This is the big pleasure of Xenoblade Chronicles X, as the hilly landscape provide a exhilarating exploration like it never had been before. There is often the need for crazy diversions or climbing to reach your goal. Xenoblade stays the absolute master of exploration, far surpassing Final Fantasy XV Duscae in terms of level design. Once your drills are set, you’ll need to manage them. There are various types of plugs you can use to change your output : extraction plugs to maximize production, search plugs to improve profitability and stock plugs to get a higher ceiling. Up to you to define your current priorities, but do not forget some drills provide high-value minerals. Aside of that, you can loot certain items on the field by using field skills. Those capacities you have to upgrade regularly allow to interact with some elements here and there : mechanical knowledge allows you to take scraps from abandoned vehicles, biology makes you able to harvest from unkown plants, etc. It does keep you busy, but it’s still very average looting.
The problem is that in the end, that’s more or less all you have to do in the large world of Xenoblade Chronicles X. True, there is a big hunting part due to the diversity of the fauna, but the open world of Monolith’s game is pretty far from delivering the same density of activities as WatchDogs for example. The experience in Xenoblade Chronicles X is hampered by one of WiiU’s issues : the lack of trophies. Once the story is cleared and all the drills under control, raoming dozens of hours killing local species just for personal satisfaction is not very motivating, especially if you’re accustomed to be rewarded by a social system like trophies.
The other snag in Xenoblade Chronicles X is combat. The battle system is directly inherited from Xenoblade, but losing the time travel lore at the same time. All that remains is casting skills on after another, which makes it incredibly passive and dull. Worse, in my progression in the class tree, I’ve never had a single healing spell! The only recovery means I’ve had throughout the entire game are the Soul Challenge and Soul Voice. Whazzat? The Challenge materializes in a B icon to tell you to press the corresponding button within a short time. The Voice is a party member asking you to use a certain type of skill (gun skill, physical etc.) immediately. Needless to say, such an unmethodical healing system is nightmarish and prevents you to establish any logical battle plan. If the enemy focuses on your main character, you’re good to restart from the last checkpoint because there’s little you can do to survive, and condition to revive one character are long and difficult to meet. I lost countless times and wasted a considerable amount of time because of that. Fleeing is extremely tricky too as monsters can hunt down for kilometers, and that of course doesn’t help. This game simply needs you to grind your way to the end, without any elaborated features. You can “rent” the avatar of another player via the internet, which makes fighting a bit less annoying, but it’s not like it’s making miracles either. All this nothing more than a sub-par battle system, neither dynamic like the recent Tales of games, nor strategic like Atelier.
Dolls are an excellent feature. Of remarkable design, those mechs aren’t mere war machines but real partners like in Evangelion. A lot of little animations makes you feel close to it : the one by which your main character enters/leaves the cockpit or whn the Doll transforms itself in a flash to switch to vehicle mode. The Doll can be be brought anywhere, even in the middle of the city! While fighting, the game sometimes switches to cockpit mode, which makes it even more immersive. The is quite a wide range of models and the best ones will ask you to save some crazy amount of cash. This effort is necessary, because upgrading is the only way to keep up with the bosses in the last chapters. You can manage the equipment of your mechs as you whish and there are plenty of weapons to choose from. I’d need hours hours to detail all the stuff surrounding Dolls but let me tell you one last anecdote : this feature is so detailed that the Dolls have different driving patterns! Only drawback of your steel companions : they’re surprisingly fragile. In fact, the Dolls doesn’t hold longer than your foot soldier against powerful enemies, which is kind of a letdown. The really annoying thing is that from a certain point, the game will ask you to foot the bill for repairs. Expensive Dolls need an insane amount of money to be fixed and you soon a to give all your savings. And given that you can be OHKO by just stepping on a lvl 50 monster hidden in the sand, it quickly becomes unbearable and you have no choice but to restart the game over and over.
In terms of characters, again Monolith’s work is unbalanced. 13 year-old (!) Lyn is quite good in her moe/kawaii role, her voice actress Mariya Ise (who also voice Riko from Aria the Scarlet Ammo) has the right tone to make her funny. But you won’t enjoy that because Nintendo isn’t bringing the original dubbing. Beyond that, no character stands out, even Elma is quite shallow until the very end. The others have almost no screentime, let alone a convincing showing, but the game had a surprise…
The character unlocking order is exceptionally silly. I got this wonderfully charming little lady, called Celica (yes, like the Toyota) after almost 80h! A good character like should be the first to join the party, not the last!!!!!! And if she weren’t under-leveled, it would have been cool too…
Let’s finish by the tricky topic of narration. You can forget all that you’ve experienced in Xenoblade Wii : the epic quest, the heart-braking moments, the separation etc. it’s not for this time. It’s a shame because the base scenario had the potential to make a great story had it been better told. The first thing is that here you create your own character. Although the character creation system isn’t as detailed as in Samurai Warriors 4 for example (kinda lacks some types of hair & faces), it takes a very good initiative in offering numerous voices sorted by voice actor/actress and personality (tsundere, ojôsama, etc. but here again you’ll only have unrefined English voices in the western version). This choice of the developer does impact the narration, as your character is mute in dialog phases, like in Tales of Xillia 2. But while Ludger was, despite his silence, an emotive and expressive character, the main character of Xenoblade Chronicles X has absolutely no facial expression! From Xenoblade to Xenoblade Chronicles X, you trade the valorous Shulk for an soulless avatar which makes your adventure a bit impersonal, which might disappoint many.
Last point, the main story is divided in chapters that you select as if they were sidequests, with often very strict unlocking conditions to have you grind for hours. The vast majority of those are weak events with little coherence and antagonists aren’t introduced or developed jackshit. On the other hand, some side-quests have interesting mini-stories that would have been welcomed in the main one. The player is actually in the middle of an erratic story with bits of scenario here and there which never takes the form of a proper narrative. There’s a lot too much artificial grinding doing quests in which dialogs feel far too long for what is said, and always revolve around hunting and finding items. We’re far, very far from the inventive quests of Lighting Returns for example. The humor is so lame that Xenoblade Chronicles X rehashes the same joke at every chapter. The excellent soundtrack do live up the mood with astonishing electro-country or other more classic but appealing melodies, but remains oddly used during the game : the game tends to overuse epic music even in bland dialog, which feels strange to say the least.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a large RPG but not so much a great one. Exhilarating and fascinating in its wild nature, it is much less so in others aspects. I wonder if Monolith Software, too busy to build the immense world, has forgotten the elements that make the historical RPG. The mediocre battles, the casino healing system and the upside down story weight much on the general experience. Basically, Xenoblade Chronicles X is the same as Final Fantasy XIII, but reversed : one is story-driven, without a world to explore, the other is world-driven, without anything interesting to tell. In both cases, a good RPG with definite qualities, but not one of the great. Because a safari, however beautiful it may be, cannot pretend to be a great JRPG.