Traveling the alien landscape of Xenoblade Chronicles X (Chronicles X) is sublime. You really feel like you’ve crashed onto a whole new world, where even gravity is different and you leap through the awe-inspiring environments of Mira.
There’s whole ecosystems where creatures interact with each other and go about their business, too preoccupied to concern themselves with your passing. Most games have you feel like you’re the center of the universe. Chronicles X revels in making you feel gloriously irrelevant. Day transitions organically into night, and the different continents have varying wind patterns. Massive creatures like the Wood Lepyx and Everlasting Millesaur tower over you, ignoring your puny presence. Your party will come across a herd of grex or a powerful tyrant that is as aggressive as it is deadly, wiping out your crew in a stream of quick blows. Paying attention to the levels of enemies is crucial before you engage. Fortunately, the battle system is incredibly addictive.
Chronicles X makes fighting into literal art with the Arts Palette of skills you use to fight foes. With every new art you learn, your canvas of destruction expands. You can upgrade classes, distribute points to the arts, and buy all new weapons. I love exploring the continent and uncovering new areas by installing data probes at Frontier Nav Spots. The latter act opens up the foggy areas of your hex-like grid on your Wii-U GamePad which feels very gratifying. I like being at the forefront of humanity, trying to “boldly go” to new terrain.
But, and this is a big “but,” I’m torn by how generic the story for Xenoblade Chronicles X is. The scenario does a good job in framing the entire game. In 2054, an alien race fights over Earth and humanity has to evacuate the planet. The escaping humans eventually crash into the distant planet of Mira where they have to start life again and rebuild society in New Los Angeles. It’s interesting that in the development of the game, the director, Tetsuya Takahashi made the setting of an open world the first pillar on which the game was built. I just wish the story was as strong as the superb environments.
There are some genuinely good twists in the narrative, particularly with Elma’s true identity. My biggest issue is with the villains, the Ganglion. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just use their massively superior and overwhelming firepower to destroy New Los Angeles in a single blow the way they did Earth. Even when they do eventually attack, I felt it unrealistic that they didn’t just annihilate New Los Angeles, but are instead, defeated (and it’s not like the humans had years to prepare). I also found their reasoning for wanting to wipe out humanity’s existence disappointing. Goetia, one of the Ganglion executives, states, “Humanity is a blight, a great cancer festering on the cosmos.” Considering that the observed universe is 1.9 X 10^22 (that’s 22 zeroes) times larger than entire planet of Earth, I highly doubt that.
Secondly, I very much dislike the potato character, Tatsu, and every dumb joke tossed his way. I do find his theme song catchy with its peppy beats. But his dialogue is cringe-worthy: “Tatsu knew friends must be hungry, so Tatsu ride spinny-plane here to deliver hot meal! Tatsu heropon, after all.” The humor makes no sense, especially because Lin, a brilliant engineer and otherwise awesome party member, constantly make jokes about eating him. This becomes problematic since humans are the aliens on Mira. The least they can do is show a little respect to the native life forms. The jokes would take on a very different context if the relationship were reversed and aliens joked about eating humans at every turn. Ha ha.
Finally, I found many wasted opportunities in character interactions that often felt like tutorials rather than genuine moments of relationship building. Even the affinity missions which are meant to strengthen the bonds are not that illuminating. At the end of chapter 3, you’re thrown several new characters you met briefly as NPCs before as party members without even a proper introduction. This is one of those cases where “telling” me a little, even in the form of exposition, would go a long way. I understand JRPG characters are all about tropes, but part of what makes games like Persona and the older Final Fantasys so good is that they either subverted those tropes or made the characters so likable, it didn’t matter.
I could list some of my other story gripes as these combined factors are usually deal-breakers when it comes to deciding which game I’m going to give my life to for however many hours it’ll necessitate (and again, it’s not all bad and there are some really good story elements). But, and this is my second big “but,” I can’t stop playing Chronicles X. The exploration, the combat, and the gameplay feels like perfection as they seamlessly blend into each other. I want to level up my characters, upgrade my mechas (which are called skells), and see new continents. I almost wish they could do away with the lame Ganglion (or at least have them blow up Tatsu) and have the narrative focus on the challenges of establishing a colony in this strange world, with the aliens potentially arriving towards the end to ruin paradise.
I’m really surprised at my reaction to Chronicles X. In the past, no matter how good the gameplay was, I’ve always put down RPGs which have stories I don’t enjoy. What was different this time? When you look back to some of the earlier console RPGs, many of them didn’t have an extensive tale and their focus was on the “role-playing” aspect. That worked okay for the older consoles and computer games like the original Dragon Quest, Ultima and Might and Magic. But it’s when RPGs started to mature and the narratives evolved to the point where they even superseded gameplay that everything went to the next level. Final Fantasy 7, Dragon Quest V, EarthBound, Phantasy Star II, and Suikoden II were all about story with solid game mechanics there to support the journey, not supplant it. Those story-focused RPGs were also how my lifelong love for RPGs began.
Chronicles X made me realize that the way I approach JRPGs, heck, games in general, has changed. It began last gen with titles like Metal Gear Solid IV, the Bioware RPGs like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, along with Heavy Rain and God of War III. During their cutscenes, almost all of them gave you some control in them so you could affect the way they played out, even if it was just changing the camera angle. The immersion, and control, didn’t stop when a cinematic started.
I know it’s nearly impossible to generalize with RPGs because they’re all so different, but in Chronicles X, my favorite cinematic moments were the ones I created myself, running through the plains, watching the light scintillate on the lakes. I was yearning for experiences where I was able to tell my own story, incredulous (and ecstatic) at the battles I’d just won.
Chronicles X is the game that made me realize that my relationship with games had evolved and when the gameplay is this good, that’s enough to overcome any other obstacles. I honestly didn’t even know that the Wii-U was capable of such gorgeous graphics (one of the biggest reasons I’m so excited about the new Zelda, Breath of the Wild, is because the same developers of Chronicles X, Monolith Soft, are working on it).
And so I find myself reversing course, diving back to what the ideal of a RPG is. Full “role-playing,” where I feel like I am a character living and breathing in that world. Even the different areas are seamlessly integrated so that going from separate continents like Primordia to Noctilum doesn’t require a loading screen. Driving the mechas AKA Skells is incredible, especially because it takes so long to get them. The world becomes your sandbox and you’re basically able to go anywhere anytime. Since you know the cost and the power it enables, the stakes are higher and you feel how precious the mecha it is (in contrast to games that give you mechas from the beginning and don’t feel earned).
At the same time, I acknowledge that you need some kind of frame to give a basic structure for your experience. If a story I don’t love is the price I have to pay to wander the geographic mysteries of Mira and chronicle my own adventures in Xenoblade Chronicles X, I wholeheartedly accept.