I will just get this out of the way now: Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii is my favorite game of all time. No other game comes close to the pedestal I would place Monolith Soft’s 2010 JRPG on, so needless to say a sequel — spiritual or otherwise — has a lot to live up to. In some ways, a sequel gets a free pass; ever since it was announced, Xenoblade Chronicles X (originally operating under the name X) has unquestioningly been my most anticipated title. Even if it did not look as awesome as it does, it probably would have received that spot, anyways. So chances are this opening paragraph, combined with the article’s title, have likely not convinced you that this will be a particularly bias-free article, but bear with me here because, at the same time, there is a tendency to overanalyze and critique the follow-up to a particularly special experience.
Information on the game has been scarce since its announcement in January 2013, offering nothing more than teaser trailers and an extremely brief snippet of battle gameplay — until E3 2014, that is. The story trailer and the game’s official name were first revealed and were followed up by Nintendo’s livestream, where they demoed a massive amount of the game’s opening — twice. This means that we finally have some actual details about how the game will play, as well as a general idea of where the story will go. Some of XCX sounds an awful lot like Chronicles, and some of it does not, but whatever the case, there is no shortage of things to discuss.
If you don’t want to read a summary of the story as we now know it, skip ahead to “The Visuals.”
At the opening of the game, there is a massive battle between two warring alien races, which is destroying the planet and humanity itself. The human race escapes in Arc Ships to search for a new home, but few make it. An Arc Ship is caught up in a battle and crashes on an unexplored planet. A city-sphere drops from the ship and escape pods are launched on the Arc Ship’s descent. A scout named Elma, who goes out searching for people in the aforementioned escape pods, wakes you up a few months later. Neo-Los Angeles, the first destination, is nearby.
This is obviously paraphrasing, but it’s enough to get the general idea of the story. The full synopsis makes it sound very interesting, even though the trailer alone did not actually impress me much. The story may not be as out there as its predecessor — living on the corpses of two giant gods is about as “out there” as it gets, and being caught in the cross-hairs of an alien war isn’t quite as unique or enticing from a creative or setting standpoint — but considering where Chronicles started and where it ended, as well as Monolith Soft’s penchant for storytelling, we may just be in a tale for the history books.
There were a couple things that turned me off, though. The connections to the real world, such as the United States on the side of the Arc Ship, just felt a bit wrong and broke some of the immersion, so I would prefer them to keep real-world connections to a minimum. Another thing to mention is that you get to personalize the main character this time around: gender, face, name, etc. It is a very western RPG thing to do and I fear it could interfere with the storytelling if the main character is unable to speak or have their name spoken aloud. Neither are big problems at all and the team has undoubtedly thought about how such things would affect the game, but it is still worth mentioning.
Although this has been basically confirmed, I sincerely hope the story is not connected to the first Xenoblade. The same world is fine — Nopon are returning! Yes! — and touching on similar philosophical themes are well and good, but I would rather not see the actual stories connected at all. In other words, no Shulk, or at least, don’t make him anything more than an Easter egg. This game should be fully enjoyable and understandable for those who did not play the last one.
Chronicles was on comparatively unimpressive hardware. The Wii wasn’t quite equipped to handle the massive areas and amount of objects required, so naturally, Monolith Soft went and did it, anyways. Not only is the game a technical marvel for the system it was built on, but it just looks so beautiful. There are some hiccups here and there, sure, but the areas are breathtaking and stunning. Seeing Gaur Plain for the first time, watching shooting stars fall on Eryth Sea, and seeing ether fill the air in Satorl and Valak — these are details that did not need hardware to make beautiful. They simply had an insanely great art team.
We are now getting a sequel on a considerably more powerful console, so imagining what the art team will be able to do is unbelievably exciting. The possibilities for Monolith Soft are more endless than they ever were before and thus far, what we’ve seen hasn’t disappointed. The first area’s design is unmistakably similar to that of Chronicles, but not in a bad way. It looks massive and quite beautiful, with its gigantic waterfalls and towering plateaus. Also, like its predecessor, it is even more impressive at night. The moons in the sky were especially notable.
Neo-Los Angeles is really something as well; all the in-game technology makes for some impressive sights that contrast brilliantly against the outside area. Everything is painstakingly detailed to an incredible degree: monsters are intimidating and gigantic, and XCX‘s character models are definitely an improvement. The cutscenes are even better, being incredibly detailed and impressively choreographed.
Alas, not everything is perfect. The character models could still use some attention, but they at least have noses now. More importantly than that, there is just not enough color, with dark greens, greys, and browns being very much the focus. It is just as impressive as ever, but I am not getting the sense of imaginative wonder as I had hoped when viewing this world. With any luck, later parts of the game will possess brighter and less muted areas to explore, although if the tone of the story and setting forbids this, it is understandable — just disappointing.
Xenoblade Chronicles X has a new face coming in to do the job: Hiroyuki Sawano. Though new to the games industry, he lacks no experience when it comes to crafting epic and memorable soundtracks. Known for his work on several anime series, most notably Attack on Titan, I found myself excited to see what he would bring to the table after listening to some of his work. Sadly, I have so far not been particularly impressed with what I have heard. The music in the announcement trailer was insanely epic and completely awesome and the E3 2013 music was, despite me not liking JPop, really good. Unfortunately, everything I have heard since then has not excited me much.
Admittedly, the setting for hearing this music is less than perfect. It is a livestream, where the volume of the music is turned down low and the people talking is turned up. But the score is just not quite doing it for me, though. The day exploration track doesn’t feel appropriate, although the night theme is a considerable improvement, and I could see myself eventually coming around to the battle music. The soundtrack we have heard so far is fine; it is really good. But it’s not blowing me away.
The music was a massive part of what made Xenoblade (Wii) so special. Fighting giant robots was made infinitely more epic with one of the most intense boss themes ever playing in the background. Doing sidequests at Eryth Sea and the Fallen Arm would have been nowhere near as fun were it not for the exceptionally stunning, calming, beautiful music to go along with it. The sheer impressiveness of Bionis Leg and the Central Factory would not have had the same impact if they hadn’t had the sweeping scores to go along with them. Certain cutscenes would not have been so ridiculously cool if it were not for Engage The Enemy and Tragic Decision.
So much of what put Xenoblade beyond “amazing” for me was that its soundtrack was there at every turn, topping what came before. It is what gave the game so much of its magic. So far, what I have heard from XCX has ranged from “quite good” to “great,” and while there’s nothing wrong with that at all, if this game wants to match up to or surpass its predecessor, it needs something more than great. Hopefully later parts of the game will have more exceptional music — or maybe I just need to hear the songs without people talking over them.
Name is not the only thing that XCX is taking from Chronicles — the structure is almost identical as well. It has made some very player-friendly design choices that I’m glad to see continuing. You will basically be let loose into a new area and will be able to explore to your heart’s content. Sure, there is an arrow on the mini-map directing where to go, but you can usually first go off and climb a mountain in the distance or discover a hidden cave. You will fight monsters, with ones way too high a level peppered around the map to help give some perspective and scope. You will interact with NPCs, uncover new areas, and discover landmarks, which will allow you to teleport back to that spot at any time. With collectibles and items to find as well, it looks like the exact same type of pacing and gameplay as in Chronicles with some additions and changes. And I love it.
Being able to explore freely, the option to uncover every secret and then immediately get back to where you need to go, is part of what made Xenoblade just so fun. Constant backtracking across the world could easily have been boring, but instead it’s a blast, because it feels like you’re always uncovering something new while having the ability to zip right back to anywhere you’ve been before. It lends itself perfectly to the massive feeling the games go for without being annoying, and it makes for one of the most exciting, fun gameplay experiences I have ever had, and I for one cannot wait to jump back in with a whole new game – one with bigger lands and the option to dash.
Combat follows much of the same path as before. There are automatic attacks that inflict light damage, more powerful arts that refill over time and inflict extra damage if used in the right location, and even the talent gauge seemingly makes a return. The team gauge seems to be used in a similar function, albeit with a different name, and buffs and debuffs are sticking around. Enemies still use one standard attack interspersed with special ones; some are docile while others attack the moment they see or hear you. There are regular, unique, and boss enemies to fight.
But as much as the combat is staying the same, it is changing even moreso. A few of the more noticeable changes are that you will be able to switch between ranged and melee weapons, the former inflicting less damage on enemies while the latter puts you further in harm’s way. Position is more important than ever for using arts, allowing you to target separate parts of an enemy, and what level of ground you are on now affects the battle. Arts have a second recharge, which will grant additional effects if you wait for it to finish. There are more elaborate team commands, four party members fighting as opposed to three — and did I mention the giant mechs?
I am definitely excited to see how the mid- and late game combat looks. The original Xenoblade had a fairly divisive battle system, but I loved it. It was complex and deep enough to make for some truly intense battles, where your only hope is skill and the amount of preparedness going in. And yet, it remained simple enough to understand quickly and get involved in without knowing the little quirks and details. It even managed to keep average battles against weaker enemies full and interesting, when the player is not in any real danger.
To see that get expanded is pretty exciting. Xenoblade‘s combat did get boring at times late in the game, so hopefully it will stay interesting through more elements to play around with in XCX, and will rely more than ever on the player’s skills. Even so, the battle system still seems remarkably simple to understand from the get-go and new players should be able to jump into it with no trouble.
The RPG elements are something to mention as well — yet again, plenty returns while plenty changes, but there is far too much to go into detail here, especially since it will be nearly impossible to see how many of these elements will play out until later in the game. They are adding on classes and more customization than ever. One thing I am mixed on is that some weapons and armor are locked until you are at a high enough level to use them. It feels like an artificial mechanic to keep player progression controlled, and it may frustrate the player because they can’t use their own equipment. That has always been a game design choice I am not huge on, but it’s a minuscule complaint at most.
My opinion of the game is almost entirely positive. It looks incredible: the story intense, the combat and RPG elements easy to understand as ever, all while appearing to have even more depth than before. It is visually stunning and the composer is promising. Best of all, it uses the same style of basic gameplay and exploration as its predecessor. I have a few nitpicks: the music, though solid, hasn’t done much for me yet, and it could use more color — but at this point, no matter what happens, the game will almost surely be – at worst – really good.
But my final takeaway touches on something that I could not really discuss when breaking down the separate parts of the game. Chronicles became what it was not just through the story, the overworld, the combat, the music, or the visuals. These things were great, but like the best of gaming, it was how they came together that made the experience magical. The exquisitely realized world, the intense battles, the sensational score, the thought-provoking and engaging tale — they all combined to make something that set the imagination aflutter and the immersion unparalleled. Monolith Soft took me on a journey through a magnificent story and world that I never could have imagined, were it not for them.
I have not yet felt that magic with XCX. It may just be the lack of bright color, the less-exciting setting, and the somewhat disappointing soundtrack, but it has not yet proven to me that it will be greater than the sum of its parts. There is every possibility that once I actually sit down and play the game myself, I will feel that spark again. After all, we have only seen the first forty minutes of the game. If Monolith Soft can craft another adventure that delves further than what lies on the surface, Xenoblade Chronicles X may well go beyond greatness to become something truly unforgettable.
Bring on 2015.