So bad news. Earth has been destroyed by aliens, the spaceship that made it out of harm’s way has crash-landed on a distant planet and it’s your job to sort out this mess. What a bummer, right?
Such is the story of Xenoblade Chronicles X, a JRPG that is quite literally the biggest Wii U game to be released this side of Christmas. Yep, in the absence of both Nintendo’s delayed Star Fox Zero and The Legend Of Zelda titles, this enormous open-world affair has been left to hold down the home console fort this holiday season. Despite being tough as nails and borderline impenetrable, that’s no bad thing.
An epic time-waster
A lot of people are going to end up playing Xenoblade Chronicles X, because they finished Super Mario Maker months ago, quickly tired of Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash and desperately want something new to enjoy on their Wii U.
These folk are more accustomed to stomping on Goombas than they are slaying ginormous monsters with swords and machine guns. So you might think XCX would go easy on them at first. You know, like properly explain its immensely detailed combat system, have a plot that it can relay in less than 30 minutes or just not open by pushing you out of a glorified escape pod and saying: ‘Well, go on then.’
Alas, from the moment you start playing XCX you are going to spend a lot of time wondering what the hell is going on. And dying. You’ll do a lot of that too.
Bigger than Fallout 4
You see, XCX is a monumentally brutal affair. Its map is five times bigger than the original Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii and reportedly offers even more to explore than Fallout 4, The Witcher 3 and Skyrim.
Is that actually true? I’ve no idea, but its 22.7GB file size took up so much of my Wii U’s 32GB of internal storage that I had to get myself an external hard drive just to play the damned thing.
There are five continents to explore across the vast expanse of planet Mira, and you really can explore as much of this foreign realm as you fancy. From gravity-defying slabs of mountainous granite to endlessly lush plains that are filled with lakes, ravines and shrubbery, the scale of XCX is astounding. As is the amount of graphical finesse offer.
There’s a lot to look at in XCX and pretty much all of it is rendered in impeccable detail. Even when you get up close with the most distant of vistas. Perhaps I’m just used to seeing cartoon shades on the Wii U, but this is easily one of the most handsome games I’ve played on Nintendo’s console and with good reason too. There’s not much incentive to play the tourist if you’re constantly surrounded by varying shades of beige, a la Mad Max.
While it will take you a punishing amount of time to see everything that developer Monolith Soft has created, let alone interact with it all, planet Mira is enticingly laid out on the Wii U’s GamePad. Here, nothing ever seems too far away and all your objectives are clearly set out according to the sector of the map they’re located in. You can even use the GamePad to vacate the TV and play XCX in the palm of your hands, which is a neat touch.
So far I’m about 20 hours into XCX and I barely feel like I’ve scratched its resplendent surface. That means I haven’t yet got to grips with the badass mechanised robots called Skells, which you can pilot around Mira, or teamed up with other players for four-person online co-op larks. Granted, part of this issue is due to my wondering whether I really could really climb over that ridiculously tall crevasse (turns out the answer was yes) time and time again. The other more embarrassing side of this equation was my being slain by a smorgasbord of indomitable beasties.
Here’s a pro tip for anyone starting out with XCX: don’t go gung ho on this game.
You see that gargantuan spider over there. The one with a putrid, puss-filled swelling hanging off its belly. Looks revolting, doesn’t it? And it’s only two levels stronger than your entire party of four. Bet you’re tempted to show it what for. Aren’t you? I mean the maths is basically on your side.
Well, turns out it actually isn’t. That kind of scenario is only going to end in a Starship Troopers-style massacre.
Although XCX is designed to entice you with all manner of exploratory wonder, it is totally unforgiving when you step outside the bounds of your own combat capabilities. The amount of times that I’ve chanced a glorious victory over an alien foe, only to swiftly regret my decision, has been astounding. Clearly, my ego just won’t know when it’s defeated.
Navigating across Mira’s hellscape
Admittedly, my ability to fell much of Mira’s population increased exponentially once I half-figured out exactly how its combat system worked. XCX tends to indulge in two types of tutorial: threadbare once-overs and ultra-tedious snorefests. Neither of which are particularly helpful in explaining how you can tame Mira’s bountiful perils. At times, the planet is a hellscape of unparalleled fury.
Once you do get to grips with the nuances between ranged and melee attacks, and figure out how best to upgrade your weaponry and armour, then you’ll begin to survive and thrive. Mainly by avoiding anything that looks like it could have you for supper. Still, this is a lesson you’ll only learn through unforgiving repetition. One journey I had to take back home from hostile enforcements to the game’s New L.A. hub took about an hour’s worth of respawning before I decided to stick to the straight and narrow.
Even then, XCX will occasionally drag you into fights you haven’t instigated. This is particularly galling when you can virtually walk through vicious creatures and emerge unscathed, so long as you haven’t targeted them and elected to shove a giant spear in their face.
A faithful translation
Combined with an ‘in at the deep end’ difficulty curve, this combat niggle is one of XCX’s most galling flaws. Especially since you’ll spend a lot of time with the game grindin’ harder to level up than Pharrell Williams and the members of Clipse. The only way you’re going to lay waste to its biggest beasties is by dispatching many of their more humble brethren.
This is something you feel Monolith Soft could have had a decent stab at tweaking, given very little of XCX has changed since its original release in Japan this April. Several hours of dialogue have now been dubbed into English, the 13-year-old character Lin can no longer be dressed in a disturbingly skimpy bikini, and that’s essentially it. To my eyes at least.
The game’s plodding sci-fi plot also remains in place, as you’d expect, but that’s not too upsetting. You don’t expect Shakespearean storytelling from most JRPGs, and you can always skip through the game’s cut scenes if you’re particularly bored with them. Besides, most of your time with XCX will be spent enjoying its epic grandeur.
Xenoblade Chronicles X Verdict
This game certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but any despair you feel at its unforgiving combat is frequently balanced out by moments of genuine elation. As well as being one of the best-looking games available for Wii U, Xenoblade Chronicles X is also one of the most rewarding. The more hours you sink into the colossal planet Mira, the more you’ll learn to love it - merciless flaws and all.
While XCX certainly isn’t on the same par as open world titans such as Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3, it’s got a certain narrow-minded majesty that you won’t find in either of those games. Adore it on its own terms, or not at all. It’s your choice.