|System: Wii U|
|Dev: Monolith Soft|
|Release: December 4, 2015|
|Players: 1+ Multiplayer|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080i||Animated Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence|
by Becky Cunningham
When it comes to alien invasion stories, humanity is usually at the center of the conflict. Sometimes, though, Earth just happens to be in the way. What happens when two impressively advanced species decide to have a war right in our backyard? Humanity has to load up onto refugee ships and bail out before the planet is vaporized. Xenoblade Chronicles X is the story of one of these refugee ships when it crashes onto the utterly alien and extremely hostile planet of Mira.
The first Xenoblade Chronicles was one of my all-time favorites, but even before I loaded up Xenoblade Chronicles X I knew that the best way to enjoy it was to throw my Shulkified expectations out the window. The last Xenoblade was a highly character-driven drama starring a lovable cast that happens to explore a fascinating planet along the way. This one puts that planetary exploration front and center, with plot depth and character development sacrificed somewhat in the name of freedom.
The planet Mira itself is the grand achievement of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It is a gigantic, sprawling set of landscapes populated by some of the most imaginative creatures I've seen in a video game. It is fully open for exploration – the only limit is how far you can get without being eaten by the locals and how high you can currently jump or fly.
This lack of limits can be a bit overwhelming at first, as the game info-dumps multiple systems onto players at the outset, yet fails to properly explain certain key things such as, oh, I don't know... how to actually fight. When you first venture out onto Mira, you face a dizzying array of possible foes, some of which are impossibly powerful, armed only with a gun you're not sure how to use and a map interface full of confusing hexes. Take a few minutes to read through the manual, watch some tutorial videos (Nintendo has actually posted some excellent ones on its Youtube channel), and experiment with the game. It's worth it to understand how to make everything work, because once things click, the greatest joy of playing involves simply striking out and challenging yourself against the hostile wilderness. Before long, you'll be cresting a ridge or rounding a corner, seeing a breathtaking vista or crazy gigantic beast, and saying, "Whoa!" Or sometimes, "Aaaaargh!" as a house-sized spider falls on your head or a beautiful flower bursts out of the ground and chews your face off.
As for the structured part of the game, there are still a multitude of possible ways to play. You can take on a variety of simple missions that help to develop the last human outpost of New Los Angeles. You can get to know your party members and the locals with mini-story quests. You can advance the main quest, though doing so too quickly will land you up against monsters that are way over your head. You can even simply run around your home base of New L.A. seeking tips about treasures to loot and boss monsters (called Tyrants) to slay in the name of preserving humanity. As you're told when you first start out, everything you do helps the human cause, and you'll even see New Los Angeles grow and prosper as you complete tasks and explore the world.
Along the way, you'll get a real feeling that you're slowly growing in power as you strike further out and eventually earn the right to pilot a Skell, a giant mecha suit that puts you on even footing with Mira's more gigantic creatures. Step into your Skell for the first time and the entire game changes. Your party members (who can eventually be given their own Skells as well) look like mice at your feet. Smaller aggressive creatures no longer want to tangle with you, while some of the largest ones will suddenly notice you and want to tangle. You can jump up mountains that were once too difficult to scale. It's exciting, but comes with extra responsibility. Death on foot is no big deal – you're simply teleported to the closest landmark. Wreck your Skell more than a few times and you're going to have to foot the bill – but by the time you get your Skell, you'll have a pretty good idea how to be properly cautious and stay alive.
All of Xenoblade Chronicles' openness comes at a certain cost in terms of plot and character development. There are a ton of possible characters to recruit for your party, but only a few of them are actually crucial to the central plot and receive more than cursory character development. The plot itself has some interesting twists, but is told in short bursts between extensive gameplay sessions devoted to exploration and side-quests. Said side-quests are more interesting than they were in the first Xenoblade Chronicles, but are still nothing special in the grand scheme of RPG quests. They help flesh out the world and its characters, and occasionally you even get to make a life-or-death choice, but they aren't exactly high drama – and many of their attempts at comedy fall flat.