Xenoblade Chronicles X review

Game Info
Platform Wii U
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Monolith Software
Release Date Dec 4, 2015

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that prizes scale above all else.

This isn't shocking coming from a follow-up to 2012's Xenoblade Chronicles, a giant Wii role-playing game (re-released for the 3DS earlier this year) that featured huge areas to explore and massive monsters roaming around them. X takes things considerably further, though, purging the game of anything that could get in the way of you exploring that wide-open world.

This shift manifests itself in dozens of ways throughout Xenoblade Chronicles X, both good and bad. It's refreshing seeing an established RPG developer like Monolith Soft take huge chances on weird ideas. But at the same time, I spent a lot of my time with the game struggling to see if or how these ideas would actually pay off, and wondering why the coolest stuff was constantly being withheld from me.

Xenoblade Chronicles X purges itself of anything that could get in the way of exploring its world

Xenoblade Chronicles X tells a stand-alone sci-fi saga that begins in a dark place: Earth has been destroyed by two warring alien empires. A small fragment of humanity manages to escape the devastation, launching themselves through space until they crash-land on a planet called Mira. There, the remains of the human race seek to rebuild and explore their new home.

While there are a few twists and turns, and a handful of aggressively lengthy cutscenes, plot is decidedly not the focus of Xenoblade Chronicles X. Rather than forcing you through a set of linear plot beats, the game lets you decide when to take on any given story progression mission for the chapter you're on. In between accepting these objectives, you have the freedom to explore the world, fight monsters and take on side quests at your own pace.

Much of your exploration will be punctuated by combat. Fights take place in real time, with your character auto-attacking while you choose special abilities from a row on the bottom of the screen. Abilities can knock enemies down, set them on fire, push them back or gain benefits based on those various status effects, leading to a bit of strategizing required to take down more powerful foes.

It's a solid system, though it hasn't changed considerably from the 2012 iteration. My only problem with combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X is that the challenge can sometimes spike in very frustrating ways, especially later in the game. It includes an option to lower the difficulty of a boss encounter after you've died three times in a row, but I would have preferred more consistent balancing across the board.

Beyond combat, you also have the option to unlock and further develop new party members by running "affinity missions." Since you control a mute, player-created character, these affinity missions carry most of the weight of character development in the game via your party members. Though there's a nice variety of characters to choose from — over a dozen — most of the cast sticks to paint-by-numbers JRPG stereotypes. This is disappointing given the unique setting and the opportunity for more interesting characters it provides, but I was pulled through affinity missions more as an excuse to continue exploring new areas of the world rather than by a desire to deepen the story.

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I would see level 3 raccoon creatures right next to level 55 giant dinosaurs

That world is special enough to more than make up for the lack of interesting characters, however. Mira is a gorgeous setting, split into five continents, each with its own distinct flavor. But they all share a few important details: Each zone is gigantic, full of nooks and crannies to explore and designed in a way that feels natural, oblivious to the cliches of the average video game setting.

From the moment I set foot on the first continent of Primordia, I ran into a mix of enemies representing the full ecosystem I'd expect from a real-world setting. In role-playing game terms, that means I would see level 3 raccoon-like creatures right next to level 55 giant dinosaurs. Xenoblade Chronicles X regularly sent me through areas that required carefully navigating around high-level enemies, regardless of my own level.

Initially, I got frustrated when an objective for my level 15 quest was blocked by some level 40 ape who would attack me on sight. But over time I came to recognize this as a key part of the game. My goal was to learn everything I could about Mira, and that included learning my place in it and discovering safe routes of passage around the more dangerous inhabitants of the planet.

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On GamePad support

Among its various technical accolades as one of the Wii U's best-looking titles, Xenoblade Chronicles X boasts the ability to be played in full on the Wii U GamePad. But just because it's an option doesn't mean it's a good idea.

The main issue with GamePad play in Xenoblade is that, as you can see in the screenshot further down in this review, the game's UI is monstrous. There's a lot of information that is conveyed at all times, and a lot of it is handled via very small text.

I sometimes struggled to read Xenoblade Chronicles X's menu text while sitting a few feet away from my HDTV. On the GamePad it was simply unreadable. On top of that, during regular play the GamePad features a map that's essential for quick traveling around the world as quests send you bouncing back and forth between locales.

For as enticing as off-screen play might sound for late-night RPG grinding sessions, it's just more of a headache than it's worth here.

More legitimately annoying is that Xenoblade Chronicles X holds off on providing all of the tools needed to explore Mira for far too long. If you've seen any trailers for the game, you've probably seen giant mechs flying around a colorful world. Here's the truth: I didn't unlock skells — the game's terminology for mechs — until 30 or so hours into Xenoblade Chronicles X, past the halfway point of the main story.

Even that initial unlock greatly limits which mechs you can use and forces you to keep them grounded. Gaining the ability to fly took me another dozen or so hours. I'm not against delayed gratification in games, but I don't understand what Xenoblade gains by holding off on giving players such an essential part of the game for so long.

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Xenoblade Chronicles X is less a game with pacing problems and more one where pacing, as a concept, doesn't really exist. New quest, reward and combat systems are revealed at a glacial speed, one by one, with no real logic to the order in which they're earned. Twenty hours into the game I unlocked Overdrive, a special combat option that greatly speeds up the cooldown for other abilities; tooltips and tutorial messages in the game had been discussing Overdrive for hours prior already, and I thought I had just missed something.

To Xenoblade Chronicles X's credit, its various systems are incredibly complex. They intertwine and interact with each other in unexpected and often confusing ways. A generous reading would be that the game introduces each new element slowly in order to give players proper time to adapt and learn. The only problem is that there's so little in place to actually help players learn.

Xenoblade's inability to clearly display information is apparent by looking at a shot of the game's UI

Ways in which I figured out what I was doing in Xenoblade Chronicles X in order of helpfulness: exchanging questions with another reviewer via email, reading the game's virtual manual, emailing a Nintendo representative with questions and finally, in a very distant last place, the game itself. Even seemingly simple things are beyond the game's grasp, such as telling you where to find party members who aren't currently in your group or explaining why the game sometimes switches to an unusable first-person view while in your mech (it's a random power-up).

Xenoblade's inability to properly and clearly display information is apparent just by looking at a shot of the game's UI in action. Here's a screencap from my playthrough:

Xenoblade review thing

That red outline, which I added, shows the portion of the screen that's actually devoted to ... you know, seeing that beautiful world and the things happening in the environment around you. It's often, as in this case, taken up by whatever enemy you're currently fighting and trying to keep track of. Everything else on the screen is devoted to a flood of information and the third-person view of your mech, which inexplicably takes up a third of the screen. (You take up less space when running around as a human, thankfully.) You can turn off bits and pieces of this cluttered HUD in the options menu, but I never managed to find a combo that elegantly provided the information I needed in battle without also making things look messy.

Wrap Up:

Xenoblade Chronicles X is an awesome game buried under a mountain of annoyances

Xenoblade Chronicles X finds itself in a constant struggle between scale and bloat. When I crested over the game's first mountaintop and saw a dinosaur drinking from a lake in the valley below, it was amazing — one of those rare video game moments that can be described as "epic" without hyperbole. But the UI is just one example of how X gets in its own way, hiding its beautiful world beneath overly complicated and under-explained systems that just don't add enough. Monolith Soft has once more created something special under the Xenoblade name; it just happens to have buried that something special under a mountain of annoyances.

Xenoblade Chronicles X was reviewed using a retail Wii U disc provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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