Xenoblade Chronicles X Review
Xenoblade Chronicles X isn’t the worst game I’ve played all year, but it is easily the most disappointing, and definitely the worst game bearing the Xeno prefix. If you enjoyed Xenogears or Xenosaga, it certainly won’t satisfy any need for some kind of turn-based JRPG nostalgia (not that it should), and unlike Xenoblade Chronicles, it also won’t really scratch the itch for the sort of incredibly weirdness the Xeno games are known for either, at least not in a way that adds up to anything affecting beyond the weirdness for its own sake. Purely from a gameplay perspective, if you were a fan of the original Xenoblade this is probably worth your time, but as someone who ended up detesting that game, I came to detest this just as much.
The game begins with the destruction of Earth as it becomes a battleground for two warring alien races, which results in the death of most of Earth’s population -- except for a few stray ships, one of which comes to land on the planet Mira, our setting for the game.
Following the prologue, you’re invited to create a character, which is far less common in JRPGs than in their western counterparts. They can be a man or woman (I unfortunately had little luck creating anyone who at the very least looked nonbinary) of various sizes both wide and tall. The palette of skin tones available is seriously worthy of praise, though -- as is far too often the case -- the selection of hairstyles is much more limited, with no options for crinkled or curled styles. You then deck your character out with any number of minor features, including, but not limited to, butterfly face paint, (not my style, but cute!) or nasty facial scarring, perfect for fans of scowling sadboiz (hi). Then our story resumes with our newly-created character waking up from their stasis pod, having survived the crash landing with no memories of their past, and no spoken dialogue.
That one of this year’s major JRPG releases plays into the one-two punch of awful JRPG cliches -- silent protagonists and amnesia (after the destruction of their “home town,” planet Earth, no less) -- would be forgivable if were not for two major factors. One: this game was written and directed by life-and-creative partners Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga, whose immense talent for avoiding JRPG cliche, or at least using it to interesting effect, was more than on display in Xenogears, the Xenosaga games, and Xenoblade Chronicles. Two: while the amnesiac main character can serve a purpose, it simply doesn’t serve that here.
As a fan of Takahashi and Saga’s earlier Xeno games, I’m used to following densely detailed fictions with various warring factions, supernatural concepts, high science-fiction, and so on. Perhaps I’m just used to making sense out of gigantic piles of lore. However, by comparison, the world of Chronicles X is fairly simple to digest. You don’t even need to have played the previous Xenoblade Chronicles to understand it. (Though for actually playing the game that may be a different story.) There is a hub city, New Los Angeles, which is the only human settlement on the planet. BLADE, the de facto government of “NLA” has taken on something of an autocratic structure while society rebuilds, and it’s your player character’s responsibility to protect that city from the threat of monster attacks, rescue other survivors still in stasis pods, and attempt to coexist with the sapient races already living on Mira. To the game’s credit, it’s not very hard to keep track of because the game does a much better job of introducing new narrative concepts at a good pace, especially in comparison to previous Xeno games. And that’s all fine, it just makes me a bit sad to see two writers who were at one point the most wildly experimental in their genre not only slip into cliche, but to misunderstand and misapply it as well.
The world of Mira itself is one of the largest and most freely traversable expanses ever presented in a JRPG, a stunning collection of cliffs, beaches, fields, and all manner of environs, filled with investigable debris and meticulous detail, and most importantly, lovingly rendered creatures upon which to inflict your needless wrath. (The less said of the slow shift in JRPGs from “monsters who attack you” to “docile creatures you hunt for material gain,” the better.) If you want a place to come to and just look at, Xenoblade Chronicles X may be worth the price of admission for Mira alone. And, to the game’s credit, it gives you plenty of reasons to explore that wonderful setting, with a wealth of sidequests that easily double the approximate 50-hour playtime of the game’s main story. At every opportunity in the early game, characters gladly remind you that there’s plenty to do for the citizens of NLA besides your BLADE-centered story quests, and you will be doing a lot of them, as the game effectively gates central plot quests behind these side missions and a lot of grinding. While I tried to focus on running through the game in a timely manner, it became increasingly clear Xenoblade Chronicles X had no intention of letting me do that whatsoever. Even unlocking the game’s signature mechs, known as Skells, involves the completion of eight incredibly tedious sidequests totaling about 30 hours of play, compared to Xenogears or Xenosaga where mech combat is introduced as an integral element of the game from the very beginning.
The combat is a different subject. Xenoblade Chronicles X is technically a JRPG, but it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a single-player MMO, much in the same vein of its predecessor, or Final Fantasy XII. The combat system in this game is likely familiar to anyone who does play MMOs: you have an auto-attack that continues to work while you cycle through a number of combat skills that all work on a cooldown timer, with bonuses conferring longer cooldowns in exchange for an extra burst of power or utility, as well as certain other situational bonuses. Having never been an MMO player, the appeal of single-player MMOs like these from a play perspective is confusing, to say the least. Why would anyone make a single-player game in a genre whose own fans describe it as incredibly boring to play alone? Why is this game even allowing me to move around my opponent when A) avoiding damage is both the reason why people want it in turn-based JRPGs, and also precisely why those games don’t have character movement, and B) no amount of moving around an enemy allows me to successfully avoid damage? This is aside from the questions raised by the game’s own unique design flaws not apparent in other MMOs. Why do my combat skills in the early game only do marginally more damage than my regular attacks? And why in god’s name do I need to mash the A button to open a treasure chest? (This is a thing that happens. Scout’s honor.)
This is to say nothing of the horrendous user interface which packs as much information on screen as humanly possible in as small fonts as possible. If you play this game on a reasonably-sized television, I’d recommend frequently darting your eyes over different sides of the screen so you can make sure to balance any of the 69,420 different things you need to be keeping track of: character health, skill cooldowns, your position in relation to the enemy, and your party’s morale, which, as far as I could tell, does absolutely nothing. The official manual even says it “affects how you and your party work as a team” without explaining what that could possibly mean. Things only get worse when you finally get the mechs later in the game. Perhaps this is an area where having actually finished the original Xenoblade may come in handy, but I’d hoped the sequel would streamline some of these opaque systems, rather than double down. I was hoping at the very least to be convinced of a reason all of these systems needed to exist, or to keep playing this instead of wishing I was playing Xenogears again.
I mentioned before how the game becomes seriously padded with sidequests. Here’s a preview of the kind of sidequest you might be subject to in Chronicles X: two BLADE members task you with finding their missing comrade and getting him back to New Los Angeles. You find him, and then he tells you to go find his comm device, which he has lost, and to bring it back to him. As soon as you do this, the sidequest is immediately over. The man, his teammates, and his cellphone, could not have been more than 3 miles apart from each other. In the words of my roommate, “they could’ve yelled and heard each other from this distance.” This is the sort of intelligence-insulting writing and design that you can expect from Xenoblade Chronicles X on a consistent basis.
It was around here that I started to realize something, after I finished that awful sidequest, with the guy who just said “oh sweet baby back ribs!” (actual quote) staring in the general direction of a beautifully rendered dinosaur. This game really doesn’t care about anything that isn’t the planet Mira. You can see it in the incredibly generic art style for the mechs, human characters, and NLA. You can see it in the lazy cliches the writing depends on. You can see it in the absolutely terrible character models, which in cutscenes have zero facial expression and hair that blatantly clips through their armor, something the camera doesn’t even try to hide. You can hear it in the voice acting, which probably didn’t have a very big budget and sounds completely canned. (Apparently the best they could do for good alien voices here was just pitch-shifting stuff until you feel like you’re in a parody of a videogame you might’ve seen on an old Simpsons episode.) By contrast, Mira is a place teeming with life, character, and hidden history, populated with stunning creation after stunning creation, each more massive and imposing than the last. Clearly the development of this game was centered on Mira to the exclusion of almost everything else.
That would work for me if I was playing a PC-exclusive indie darling that was about living in this world and cohabitating with the life on it. Xenoblade is not that game. Aside from the politically troublesome undertones associated with human conquest that make up much of this game’s main story, this is a game about exerting your will as a player onto this world, to conquer it for no other reason than because it is there to be conquered. Those beautiful dinosaurs are ultimately there because, this being this kind of videogame, those are there for you to kill.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it. After I got the ability to fly with the Skells, I just ignored everything and flew to as many distant corners of the planet as I could to see what the world had to offer. It was then when I finally got something out of this game, separating myself from its banal story and banal politics and finding peace in the game’s nature.
The music accompanying your journey to the far ends of Mira also deserves a nod: Hiroyuki Sawano’s soundtrack is one of the stronger outings of a solo composer in this genre in quite a long time. Sawano’s background is mostly in music for animation, and it shows in a few stylistic quirks: the background music in BLADE HQ sounds like music for a cafe, for example, while the main battle theme incorporates rap in something reminiscent of a shonen anime. That said, there are plenty of grand melodies and dense harmonies that are fitting of both the genre, and this game’s particular sense of scale, and I hope we get to hear more from this composer in the future.
I set out intending to like Xenoblade Chronicles X. Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga are interesting, creative people who were, at one point, easily among the most compelling creative voices in videogames. Despite my displeasure with the original Xenoblade Chronicles, it was that creativity and boldness of vision that made me want to see what they’d do next. However, even with the little bit of their unique vision that shines through, everything about this game feels cynical to me. From the focus on the game’s technical accomplishments, to the passive combat that feels like a matter of being the right level rather than making the right decisions, everything here feels like an appeal to commercial interests rather than expression of the people who made it. Ultimately, if you enjoyed the gameplay in Xenoblade Chronicles then this iterates on it in every way you might want it to, but if you have more particular desires for your videogames, you will probably end up hating this as I did.
Austin C. Howe is the host of Critical Switch, and they promise that they really do like JRPGs a lot more than this review would indicate. They have written for Memory Insufficient, ZEAL, The Ontological Geek, and Five out of Ten Magazine, and their blog, Haptic Feedback. You can find them on Twitter and support their independent work here.