Fans of role-playing games had an embarrassment of riches in 2015, and thanks to Monolith Soft’s “Xenoblade Chronicles X,” the rich get richer.
“Chronicles X” is the follow-up to the Nintendo Wii exclusive “Xenoblade Chronicles.” Without delving into too much of the earlier game’s history, the “Xenoblade” series has generated the type of fanaticism that has caused international companies to rethink how Japanese games are brought to the U.S.
Few series outside of “Demon’s Souls” and its offshoots can claim fans as loyal as the “Xenoblade” mafia. That’s not for nothing. The series’ blend of traditional Japanese role-playing game tropes and Western game design sensibilities offered up a blast of refreshing air in a genre that had long become stagnant.
Gone were the lengthy, unskippable cutscenes filled with ridiculous melodrama. In their stead was a smart, engaging story centered on a likable cast. The linear quality that had come to define the JRPG genre had been done away with and replaced by an enormous world unlike any other.
There was a lot to love about the original “Xenoblade,” but for better or worse, the story, characters and world define its successor.
“X” begins on a great note, setting up the core conceit of the game without having players spend an eternity watching a cutscene. Earth has been destroyed by warring alien factions and only by the grace of some foresight is the human race spared from extinction.
Enormous city-ships were launched, carrying the remnants of humanity throughout the galaxy. The vessel the game focuses on is pursued and attacked by one of the alien forces and is forced to land on an alien planet called Mira.
Unlike most JRPGs, players are not given a defined character to play as. Rather, the main character is an amnesiac passenger that players create from scratch, a la “Fallout” or “Skyrim.” This setup works wonders in one regard and fails entirely on another.
Having players take the role of a character that has no idea about the world around them helps to sell the “stranger in a strange land” the game works hard to convey. Mira is full of fantastical creatures and a stunning landscape. Stepping into the shoes of a character that is supposed to be as impressed as the player is with all Mira has to offer helps build an emotional connection between the game’s world and player.
On the other hand, the character you play as has zero personality or agency of their own. The avatar you create is simply a paper doll for players to outfit with pretty clothes. There are some instances where your character will be asked a question and you’ll be able to choose from a couple of answers. Generally, though, those choices don’t mean anything and only change some minor detail. For instance, you can choose to nod confidently or shake your head sadly.
Outside of those nominal player choices, the avatar you create is a mute witness — a sidekick, if you will — to the main cast. “X” has a large cast, with 18 different playable characters able to be recruited. Most of them are decently fleshed out through character-specific affinity missions that delve into their backstories and motivations, but a few core characters are deemed more important than others.
“Xenoblade X’s” story starts off strong and peters out the further it goes. Part of that is due to the reliance on yet another amnesiac protagonist, but some of it is due to repetitive jokes, overreliance on tropes (oh, look, another alien species that wants to wipe out humanity) and too much time baked in between being allowed to tackle story missions.
It’s not bad, mind you, but “Xenoblade X” is about exploration and smaller character stories. If you’re coming to be wowed by the main plot, you’ll leave disappointed.
As you play through the story, your character will become a member of BLADE, an organization that serves as one part exploration group and one part military battalion. As such, you’ll pick up missions, from story missions that progress the main story to affinity missions to generic fetch quests.
On most of the side missions, you’ll be allowed to bring any of the available cast along with you, but the story missions will usually require you to bring a handful of certain characters.
Characters gain experience only if they’re actively in your party. What this leads to is many situations where you’ll be forced to take a certain character that might be several levels below the rest of your squad, meaning everything just became that much harder. Sure, you can mitigate this by spending time running around engaging in battles, but it’s an unnecessary blockade to player freedom.
At least the constant battles are enjoyable. The mix of action and turn-based combat from “Xenoblade” returns, with some added depth thanks to a more customizable skill tree.
Players start off as the base class, but can eventually branch out into 15 different areas of expertise. Some are the heavy hitters, some are the team medics and some are the glass cannons.
Eventually, masters, weapons and their inherited skills can be swapped out, leading to combinations that best suit a player’s style. What’s great is there doesn’t seem to be any one class that can do everything, so experimentation is encouraged and is even necessary by the end of the game.
Also configurable are the “soul voices,” which are quick time events that can be triggered during battles to provide buffs and healing to party members. Seemingly a small component to the battle system, the need to focus on every battle, lest you miss a prompt, helps keep the combat fresh long into the game.
The game goes through another massive gameplay shift at around the 30-hour mark when you unlock the ability to pilot the giant mechs known as Skells. I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone, but, suffice it to say, if you ever wanted to pilot a giant robot tank around a world for dozens of hours, this is the game for you.
And the game is long. Very long. At hour 30, players will not even have opened up the final two areas of the game. By hour 60, most players still won’t be strong enough to tackle the strongest enemies in the game.
Some of that is undeniable, due to padding. The most egregious examples of padding are missions that require you to find X amount of objects, some of which can only be found on certain monsters that only appear in some areas of the enormous maps and only at night.
Most of the time spent on Mira, though, is time well spent. There is just so much content packed into this one game that it’s practically impossible to discover it all without the help of a manual.
Some of the game’s mechanics are not well explained in-game, but diligent players should eventually figure things out on their own. This is definitely a game where you’ll discover some key mechanic that would have been nice to know hours prior.
Thankfully, for those of us with jobs and families, a helpful manual is included and can be accessed from the gamepad at any point.
As with its predecessor, “Xenoblade Chronicles X” is bound to create a cult following. Personally, I think that fanaticism is well founded. The game is an absolute gem of open-world game design, filled with some of the most unique visuals seen in the medium. It’s certainly the most unique-looking title of 2015.
It’s also largely bug-free, which is almost unheard of with open world role-playing games. In all my time with the game, I never ran into a single one that I can remember.
There are some missteps in “Xenoblade Chronicles X,” but fewer than most games of this size. There is just so much to see and do that even those rough spots can be overlooked.
If you’re a fan of Japanese role-playing games, chances are you’ve already bought this. If you were — like many of us — brought into the fold by “Final Fantasy,” but have left the genre behind, I urge you to give this one a chance.
It might not be perfect, but “Xenoblade Chronicles X” is easily among the best RPGs of last year and is in the discussion for best title of 2015 overall.
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
ESRB Rating: T for Teen
Nintendo provided a review copy of this game.