You knew I was in the moment this game was announced. I watched the trailers and every little bit of video I could with eager anticipation as soon as they were available, and in fact this game is the single reason I wanted a WiiU. And while I got the machine well before release, that was more to make sure I didn't lose backwards compatibility like later versions of the original Wii. So when the game finally came out in the beginning of December, I had the special edition pre-ordered and ready to go. Unfortunately, as I finish this title, I kinda wish I hadn't done that. Come on in and let's talk about this one.
Story: It is the year 2054 and Earth is dead. I do not mean this figuratively. I mean complete and total destruction as two alien forces fight for dominance and whatever else they deem worth fighting for in orbit above.
But mankind was not caught unaware. With warning in advance, humanity made a desperate plan for survival, building giant ships meant to take as many of the people of earth away from coming battle and to the stars as possible. Without much time, the desperate plan was put into motion, and even when the launch took place, few of these escape vessels managed to clear the battlefield. You were one of the lucky few aboard the White Whale, one of those ships cast out into the deep darkness of space... at least you and those with you believed so as you floated through the void. Two years later, one of the alien races who's war killed your planet caught up with and began an attack on the ship.
In the brutal battle for survival that followed, the White Wale was lost, and the pod for civilians jettisoned to the unknown planet below in a desperate plea for survival, along with several survival pods, including the one you were in.
This is pretty much where the game leaves you to begin. Once you've made your character, you will watch from their eyes as Elma, one of the key characters you will interact with through your adventure, opens your pod to rescue you and return you to the city made from that civilian section of the ship now known as New LA. Before long you will be shown the ropes and invited to join the military/government organization that runs the city known as Blade. And from that point on, your story really begins.
The over-arching tale it entails is a species-wide search for something known as the LifeHold core. While you yourself may have been flung out in an escape pod, that is because you were one of the people actively trying to defend the White Whale when it was attacked. The rest of the population was in stasis and remain asleep in this core part of the ship. The Blade core mission is to find both the pods and the LifeHold core so that everyone can be gathered and mankind can begin colonizing what may be the last hope of the species surviving. This directive will gain detail over time as you play and even new meaning to make it even more urgent, but the goal remains the same from beginning to end.
As you play you will meet many friendly and hostile alien life forms which will take you on side quests as well as main ones. And while any twists and turns are not all that common, they then to be rather epic in nature, painting sides of the story you never even considered were going on. Unfortunately these moments do lose some luster as you think about what happened however, and that is one of the two major issues this game has in plot.
Spoiler warning: To deal with one of the BIGGEST plot holes I have seen in a long while I have to spoil one of the secrets of the game. If you wish to see it, read on, if not, please slip to the end of the indented section below:
And while this is one of the biggest issues I have with the story of this game, I also have to take issue with the ending. The last fight in the game is going to pretty much drop everything on you including a new species you will not actually see via cut-scenes between each stage of it. You have no time to absorb it beyond accepting it as a weak explanation for why this alien race that has been hunting you down wanted humanity wiped out followed by a situation that should be completely impossible considering the events spoiled above. This game basically ruined what could have been an amazing story to tell through the game. But at least the story is finished properly... until after the credit roll. Then you get a cliffhanger setup for a sequel we may or may not get to end everything with a perfect dose of bullshit.
Chapter 5 (there are 12 making the story) basically ends with several revelations, the first of which is that you are not physically human, but a robotic construct. Your mind is controlling it via remote from the LifeHold Core, as is everyone else in NLA. This was done so that those who were active on the ship could use the extra strength and resilience of these robotic bodies while in space. But now that the core is lost, you are all on a time-limit. If Blade can not find the LifeHold Core before it's power runs out, everyone will die in their stasis pods and mankind will likely be no more.
Now, as epic as this sounds, there is a fundamental flaw in this design. ESPECIALLY as Elma herself talks later about how it can't be too far or the lag between the core and these bodies would be noticeable, we can confirm this is basically a signal based control of some kind.... so rather then hunt for MONTHS, why couldn't they just follow the signal via strength back to it's source? Seriously, this flaw actually destroys the ENTIRE GAME'S STORY if you don't ignore it. What took months of ingame time should have taken at best days for travel's sake. After all, if there are that many individual control signals all going between basically two points, how does the receiver NOT find the source?
Graphics: I could probably have just written the word "Stunning" and left this section of the review at that. When you start playing, you will be greeted by a lush and vibrant world filled with diverse and unique alien life, both as plants and as animals. This world looks and feels full, and despite the lack of power on the console, the system manages to push the draw distance dramatically, letting you feel the full scope of the world you have crash landed and need to survive in. And to pull this off with almost no sacrifices and STILL not drop frames (well, besides if you are in combat and next to some guy who just got hit with a massive explosion, anyway), the team behind this game should absolutely be proud of what they have accomplished.
Nor is the wilderness you start in all you will see. You will see the same loving attention to detail here as you will on all four continents, New LA, and a few other places you will discover/be brought to you along the way, each with their own unique themes ranging from jungle to dessert to high-tech to even today's modern world on Earth. Add to this the fact that all outside locations can be reached by crossing boarders without a loading screen, and you really do have a complete world with enough variety to satisfy the explorer in every gamer.
As I stated at the beginning, "Stunning" could have been a simple one-word way to describe what you are about to see... but I also said almost no sacrifices, not that none exist. Basically, the game has three in total. While the world is seemless, fast travel does invoke the first of these sacrifices, a loading time, and that time can be fairly long, even with the free downloads Nintendo offers, letting you load about 10 GBs of what's on the disc from your hard drive/internal memory instead. In addition, the game doesn't load everything right away, as objects you can interact with as well as some monsters have a much shorter draw distance then the world itself, making them sometimes pop in noticeably.
And sadly, pop-in is the final issue. Anyone who spent anytime with major AAA games over the last several years knows this one well, as the Unreal 3 Engine became infamous for needing a few additional seconds (game/system specs depending) after loading to place the full detail bitmaps on the models, the maps, and pretty much everything. While Xenoblade Chronicles X isn't that bad, there will be times when you will notice it on models and characters if you choose to quick travel or (later in the game) go full speed/fly between locations in mechs (called Skells).
Sound: Xenoblade Chronicles X is a feast for the ears just as much as it's a feast for the eyes. The sound effects are about what you would expect for a SciFi adventure with aliens, laser guns, swords, missiles, and on both scales of in your hands and in the hands of giant machines/biological abominations. The variety here is simply staggering and yet restraint keeps everything sounding just right.
But the voice acting, on the other hand shines dramatically to many games out there. Every character (and there are a lot of them) come across exactly as they should from the little puffy alien who remains tagging along as the mascot of your team to the young lady who rescues you to the leaders of New LA. But I have to say my favorite is an alien you meet relatively early in the game named L. L basically talks to you as an alien who learned your language because his intense desire for knowledge on anything he can get his hands on lead him to read the entire Library of Congress when if fell from the wreckage of the White Whale... but he still doesn't get phrases as he goes, leading to a dramatic but intelligent sounding guy who will still drop lines like "It's survival of the fattest." trying to understand how such sayings work.
And finally we have the music, and this for the most part is also amazing, While running around this new alien world, you will be treated to some amazing orchestrated pieces that will stay with you, each continent and even areas within them getting their own over-arching pieces. But then combat begins and you start seeing a divisive set of music. If the enemy isn't strong enough, you get another classical piece that you will forget as soon as it's over. But some of the challenging battles come with metal rifts that strike out against the mold set by the rest of the game in a very good way, marking the moment and the music, even including lyrics that actually sounds good. Outside of games like the Persona series or Blue Dragon, this is fairly unheard of.
The only real downside here is oddly, the music choices in New LA. This city has two main themes, one for day and one for night. Daytime is ok, if forgettable, but night time basically sounds like someone wants to start rapping, but never gets past making "yeah yeah" and "boun" sounds to get into the beat of the music they will rap to. It's kinda... bad.
Gameplay: Xenoblade Chronicles X is an action RPG with the core game focusing on exploration, combat, and character interaction, and it doesn't hesitate to drop you into the middle of it. The opening scene will introduce you to Elma as she rescues you from your escape pod and welcomes you to mankind's new homeworld. From here you will find your first encounters with the world as you begin to explore from a 3rd person perspective, and your first battle. And while through these events the game will show you "hint cards" to explain what you are about to do and the game keeps a small part of the screen showing what the buttons on your controller does, this opening is the first real hint that something has gone wrong with just how confusing this game can be, even for fans of the original game to take up the name Xenoblade Chronicles.
It has a serious issue in how little it explains to you at all. Like all WiiU titles it contains a manual on the disc. In this case, it even lets you access it from the main menu of the game rather then needing to use the Home menu, and with good reason. This is also one of the few games that taking time before you start to play to sit down on your couch and read this information is basically required. Not doing so will likely leave you lost very quickly. And this is indeed a shame. Even though Nintendo's manual system allows it to use links to get around quickly, it doesn't replace the reference ability of a booklet in the box.
But if you have the patients to deal with this the game will reward you well as you explore 4 massive continents at your own pace. You are not artificially restricted from reaching anywhere in the game as your limits are only in how clever you are about maneuvering your surroundings and potentially your ability to survive at your current level and equipment. This game is the very definition of an open world for you to explore.
And when you do get into combat, the details fit together well. You will control one of up to four members of your party using a stick to control where you move and distance between you and the enemy, meanwhile selecting techniques called arts that you will attempt to do to the target enemy, your team, or you, depending on what it is. The other members of your party will be doing the same as best the AI allows, but in those few times letting them do what they want doesn't work, the start/+
button will open a menu of commands, letting you use the left and right triggers to choose if you want to give the command to the whole group or a specific member. Thankfully you will not need to do this often, keeping the action fast and furious.
Those attacks and defensive moves you get access to will be decided by one of two things. If you are on foot, these moves are arts you will gain access to via the class you are currently using (which while it's static for everyone else, your character can change at anytime NOT in combat). Leveling up different classes will grant you access to new arts, but be aware that most of them need specific weapon types you have equipped (which will be available also based on the classes you have used). You will have two equipped at any given time: one long range and one melee, and you can switch between them for your auto-attack in combat at anytime, either by using an attack based on one, or with the press of a single button. Mechs are less complex. Unlike your own ground setup, your mech will not change your auto-attack weapons, and your attacks are decided by the full load of weapons you have equipped to them.
When not in combat or exploring you can choose to do one of the many missions the game will offer you. These divide into missions you can take from the mission board, missions you will find from random citizens of New LA, affinity missions, and the core story missions. The first two mission types are available whenever you find them with no strings attached, but they will at best give you a side-story with little or nothing to do with the main plot at best. But they will reward you with experience and cash.
Affinity missions are not directly connected to the main story, but they will focus on one of the other members of Blade you can bring to your party, adding more details to who they are and deepening their connection to your character. Of course many of these will have requirements you need to complete before you can play them, but they are fully voiced and worthy companions to the main story missions. And those main story missions are not too much different from this either, but they are the core 12 missions that tell the over-arching story of the entire game.
And in all cases, what these missions will ask of you are varied as ever. From things as mundane as finding specific items, to things as intricate as helping someone collect aliens to teach them better about humanity and ultimate stop the lesson when it turns out to be mass-murder will come across your plat, and even in many cases, follow a string of missions for a small side-plot you can enjoy. If nothing else, the pure variety will keep you occupied for your entire time playing easily.
But just like the game choosing not to explain things and requiring you to read the manual, this is also a game finding an online guide is almost mandatory for as well. The reason is when you find yourself required to find specific items. The game will tell what you need, if you need to get it from a kind of enemy, and what continent is on. But the continents are very big, leaving you pretty directionless without something to tell you where more specifically you might find what you are looking for. In addition you need to be careful when you want to do these missions as once you select one, you can not drop the mission until it's finished, and you can only have one story or affinity mission going at one time. If you pick one that you don't like or is too hard, you are shit our of luck.
Nor are these only issues this game has. The store you will use to equip yourself and your mechs is the only store in the entire game, and while it can be useful to have one place to buy everything as you can be sure you have everything, it also means you have to sift through everything available to buy since you started the game, meaning late in the game you will simply NOT want to do this anymore then you have to.
And finally, I have to make note of a major problem at the end of the game. Whenever you get killed in this game you will be returned to your last noted location with whatever mechs in your party survived. This works out normally because you can then go back to the hanger and regain your mechs back, but not during the last boss. This is past the only point of no return the game has so you can't get your mechs if you lose them and you can not win without your mechs. But despite that, the game will let you try again without any hope of winning. This is the one place this game should have had an actual game-over screen, as it basically forces you to quit and load your save game.
Now we could also talk about the multiplayer as the idea of playing with friends was touted as a major feature for the game approaching launch, but it really isn't. The online functionality basically boils down to separate missions designed for a squad of human players and the ability to recruite other player's characters for your team, both at a terminal and just running into them wherever the player last left off. It's really not much to add.
Bugs: There are really only two bugs that happened while playing this game, but the nature of what's actually here lends neither of them any real importance:
- Disconnects: Xenoblade Chronicles X may not really rely on the online aspects, but it tries to always be online and integrate what it does seamlessly... and when it can, this works flawlessly. However, the connection to the servers can be very flakey. Considering at least my WiiU's wireless signal is so weak having PS3 on the shelf above it and turned off was still enough interruption to not be able to get the WiiU online at all, that may be the cause, but in my current configuration, I have only seen this software have issues, so I'm not convinced. But for whatever reason, disconnecting from the server and being forced into offline mode was just about a nightly occurrence for me while playing this game. And while the game doesn't use it as much as Nintendo would like us to believe, that is a HUGE issue for an "always online" game.
- How the hell did you get up there? A much more amusing and rare issue is enemy placement. Usually this worked perfectly, but on occasion, the game would mess up where an enemy was supposed to be and place them in gravity defying positions like running around halfway up a wall too steep for anything to actually be there. This always happened with small enemies only and never boss encounters.
Overall: I'm not going to tell you this is the best game I ever played. It's not. In fact it is heavily out-shined by the original. But the core of what made the original great is still here. Unfortunately it's buried in a lot of issues generally caused by the developers wanting to make something much more open-world and a lot less linear, but clearly not really understanding how to make the additional mechanics work very well or even explain them to the player. As a result you have moments that truly and completely shine as bright as anything you will ever play, but they are mixed in with a lot of parts that just should have been better. I'm going to be blunt and tell you right now if you do not have the patients to wade into this game, you are going to regret buying it. But if you do, you will enjoy yourself enough to warrant your time. But even then, you might want to wait for this one to drop in price.