With the release of the Nintendo Switch now a hopefully fixed point in our future, I felt it would be wise to find any remaining hidden joys with the soon-to-be-defunct Wii U. While not the story-centric tale of Shulk experienced in the Wii/3DS Xenoblade game, Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U caught my interest as an interesting open-world sci-fi RPG, with cool mechs. Having never touched any game in the Xeno series before, I delved in blind to see what it could do.
My experience with almost every element of Xenoblade Chronicles X was a series of ups and downs, starting as soon as you gain control of your character. Combat in the early game is dull and repetitive: a basic loop of ‘target enemy,’ ‘start attacking’ and occasionally choosing a special attack when it’s off cooldown. Exploration is limited thanks to many impossibly strong enemies leading you down the path you should be following. Almost all missions follow the standard RPG quest structure: kill five bats, collect ten tails, go over there, and so on.
This quickly turned around when I realised that the in-game manual is a must, and thoroughly re-reading it as I progressed through the game was vital to both my understanding and enjoyment of most of the game’s systems. I personally commend the game for utilising a very well written manual in lieu of extending the beginning with any ‘tutorial’ moments, even if this lack of clarity may alienate less inquisitive players. If you want your games to teach you how to play them, you’re looking in the wrong place.
Further to this, there is some reward for persistence and patience with this game. As soon as you feel confident enough to move around the map without fear of being destroyed by a passing monster, the movement of the main character is consistently fun. It’s fast and responsive, which is useful for such a large map. Best of all, you are not restricted to your current understanding of physics and are able to jump and scale any wall that has even the slightest of edges sticking out. This gives you many options to how you opt to navigate around the patrolling terrors of this world. Last minute ‘jump up that cliff desperately’ moments when a massive six-armed monkey is barreling your way is as terrifying as it is engaging.
Once you’ve committed enough time to level up your character and advance out of the starter class, combat complexity rises. While the early game expects you to use every skill you’ve got as soon as you can, the mid-game’s central design revolves around the well-timed execution of a pre-planned rotation. Your position relative to the enemy and general situational awareness also becomes more important. This doesn’t overly complicate the actual battles but does provide a satisfactory pay-off to cleverly choosing your skills.
After many hours of gameplay, without any sign of using the mechs that all the characters continually hype, impressions start to lean back towards the negative. The skill system may begin with some interesting choices, but it quickly becomes evident it is not complex. Long-time RPG fans, like myself, will quickly begin to realise how limited the system is, not truly leaving me feeling like I had a uniquely designed character, but rather ticked all the right boxes that I was expected to tick.
This was also when I came to realise perhaps the ultimate downfall of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s gameplay: there is no challenge behind this game. As execution of my battle rotation was fairly straightforward, and limb destruction (a minor and uninteresting feature of combat) was easy to set and forget, whether or not I won a particular fight came down to my current level and gear at the time. If I lost, my best move was to grind or buy better gear, as direct reattempts would turn out identical to the first try. What this boils down to is each boss fight not being a new challenge for me to overcome, but a level-check. A slow one, at that.
A final point on the gameplay: Skells, the game’s giant and dangerous mechs. After a total of 25 hours, I was finally given permission to pilot my own Skell, and I will give the game complete credit for everything about this. Earning the right to pilot a Skell is satisfying to the extreme, and the wait has its own value. After so many hours of the pedestrian lifestyle, the feeling of piloting a Skell was excellent. Between better survivability, great movement speed and the ability to jump much higher, I have decided I need a Skell of my own. The first time I transformed into a car and sped right across the continent that had taken so long to navigate really made my day.
The story, unfortunately, goes fairly similar to the gameplay in its fluctuations. My initial impression was that the plot would be a dull and plot-hole infested mess, but the early chapters actually piqued my interest with some questions I wanted answered. As I progressed into later chapters, this all slowed right back down and my interest fell off once more. Whilst I did not complete the entire story of the game, 30 hours in and supposedly just over halfway through, I feel no great incentive to strive for completion.
I feel this is likely symptomatic of the way the story has been worked into the game. Almost all open-world designs will feature a ‘main story’ arc that can be powered through, barely glancing sideways at the optional content. Contrary to this, the main story missions of Xenoblade Chronicles X require players to dip their feet into the optional content until the next story segment is unlocked. This is often in the form of certain quests that need to be completed or the completion of a certain amount of objectives in a zone, such as surveying a zone, killing a strong monster (known as a ‘tyrant’) or finding a particular treasure.
No one who purchased a Wii U ever expects flawless graphics from any game on the system. While not an exception, Xenoblade Chronicles X’s landscapes have an authentically alien beauty to them. The small details of both the terrain and flora are evident no matter which continent you explore. Combined with no loading times (except, of course, quick travel and cut-scenes) and a fantastic draw distance of landscape, it manages to produce some truly magnificent sights.
Character models aren’t particularly impressive, but not outright bad. They certainly look like the standard anime-people, but there are some uncomfortable moments when zoomed too closely to characters’ faces. Far more impressive are the enemy models, which are diverse and very well detailed. Limb destruction is also made to feel worthwhile, if only to watch the poor monster be slowly taken apart, piece-by-piece.
As has been the case with the Wii U since its release, GamePad utilisation is an easy oversight that many developers don’t really fret too much about. Allow for the GamePad to be used as the main screen, and throw a map on it when it’s not: this very lazy approach has been used by far too many Wii U games over the console’s lifespan. Xenoblade carries on this tradition.
I must, however, acknowledge the near flawless execution of this tired GamePad approach. The map is both useful and detailed, and completely functional even while the game itself is loading. Playing on the GamePad screen is clear and easy, to the point that I spent a significant amount of my playtime on the GamePad alone, switching back to the TV for story missions and sight-seeing. The ability to browse your current missions on the GamePad screen feels like a glaring oversight that would have been great from an ease-of-life standpoint, but we can’t have everything.
For a game with a surplus of content, the depth of gameplay was too shallow to justify the time commitment Xenoblade Chronicles X asks of its players. Hardcore RPG fans will find the skill development system basic and uninteresting. Players new to the genre will be intimidated by the opening and bored by the middle. However, if you are a patient gamer who has an interest in RPGs and are looking for a simple game to take up your time and justify your Wii U purchase, you may be able to find some enjoyment from this game.