I've been meaning to play Xenoblade Chronicles for, oh, ten years now. That whole Operation Rainfall thing was fascinating while it was happening. And it was my intention to play all those games. But I haven't. And yet, the Xenoblade series has continued to grow over those years. The original game has been re-released on 3DS and soon on Switch, while a full on numbered sequel was released on Switch along with a game-length stand-alone expansion.
But I still haven't played any of those games. Instead, I've just fired up Xenoblade Chronicles X, a spin-off title that was released (so far) exclusively on Wii U. And people love to hate that console. And I love to defend it. Here's a good example of why. Now in fairness, a lot of the once exclusive Wii U games have been ported to Switch. Tokyo Mirage Sessions was a recent surprise. But for now Xenoblade Chronicles X is still exclusive to Wii U. And even IF it gets re-released, it'll no doubt be a $60 game and I managed to grab it for less than $15 in pristine condition. So I'm happy.
I'll be honest - I had NO IDEA what to expect from this game. Screenshots and videos I've seen from the original look like the typical blue sky and green grass RPG, albeit with some futuristic designs a la later Final Fantasies. But as I delved into X, it became immediately clear that I was really in for a treat.
The influences here are staggering, and really check off a lot of boxes for me. The game opens with a huge cinematic intro that involves aliens and robot spacecrafts in fight in space. It's awesome. And as the game started up, it became clear that the futuristic designs are more inline with Phantasy Star Online than say Mass Effect. It's an awesome blend of bright colors typically found in JRPG's with a more sci-fi feel. Even better, once you get to "New Los Angeles," it's like you're in a JRPG version of Blade Runner. Heck, the team that you join is even called "BLADE." This game feels like my kind of game.
That said, I'm two and a half hours in and still struggling at times to figure out the basics. Combat feels awesome, but I'm still not fully understanding how it all works yet. It's sort of a blend of auto-attacks, and then cool-down skills you can manually do and then there's even some QTE stuff thrown in. I think this feels like a metaphor for the game as a whole. There's a LOT going on and it's going to take some time to make sense of it all.
But for now, I'm heavily intrigued. I think this game is going to really click with me - even more than it already has in the opening hours.
Okay, so there's a lot of stuff that Xenoblade Chronicles X does a poor job of explaining to the player. There's so many menus and mechanics to wrap your head around, and very few of them are properly outlined. And I think that to really enjoy this game you need to be alright with that. And I am. I kind of think of this game as just letting myself go and get taken up by the currents and let it bring me where it brings me and along the way, I hope I learn to swim.
And slowly I'm figuring things out. For instance - and this is embarrassing - early on I didn't even know how to use the cool-down abilities in battle. Turns out it's the d-pad. So now this has improved my experience a lot. The battles in this game are fast and chaotic and engaging. It's a joy to grind.
I spent a lot of time last night just trying to explore this enemy alien outpost base. It was slow and sometimes frustrating. At times we were under powered. Or at least under prepared. I died a lot, but dying in this game seems to be a learning experience. Like, you can see enemy levels above their heads. So maybe don't mess with a level 80 thing in the wild when you're level 9. Lesson learned.
My character is Newt (Xenoblade, Xenomorph, whatever) and is somewhat modeled after my wife, because I have a type. I'm still slowly figuring out the menus. Even stuff that should be easy - equipping armor, say - is a little convoluted because there's minimum levels required for EVERYTHING and it's not always clear. There's definitely no button to just equip the best stuff automatically like you might see in other RPG's. This is definitely an RPG for those that like to get into all the little systems.
Anyway, we finally got into the alien base, and did a sort of little boss battle and recruited an annoying little space-potato character who I'm guessing is a healer of sorts since he said he doesn't fight and needs to be protected. Joy.
It's weird, though. Anything I'm saying that might sound negative... it's really not. I may have sort of complaints, or at least things I would have done differently if I were directing the game. But ultimately, I'm finding this game truly fascinating and really really awesome.
Somehow SOMEHOW I managed not to save my game before the Chapter 3 story quest was officially turned in. Which meant I had to do that whole chapter again. UGH. So this time instead of slowly discovering where I need to go, and what I needed to do, all while slowly grinding organically, this time I just bolted straight to that boss chamber to do it over again - and thus, I'm level 9 now instead of level 10. Lame. At least I was able to skip the cut scenes I had already watched.
Lesson learned: save often. Apparently the auto-save in this game is not as generous as I had assumed.
Before I could start Chapter 4 there were some mandatory side-mission tutorial things to get out of the way. So I did those. Did you ever see the episode of Parks & Rec where Ben makes a board game and the rules are so convoluted that nobody can follow? Xenoblade Chronicles X feels a little bit like that at times. It's like the developers were daring you to try to keep up on all of the systems that are in place. Take for example leveling... you've got your own level, plus your abilities have levels, plus there's a rank, and a Blade rank, plus there's some other sort of percentage you need to hit for unlocking parts of the map. Oh, and there's affinity scores, too. It's a lot. Obviously some more important than others. But my goodness, did they make this game complicated.
And yet I'm sort of enjoying butting my head against it. I'm trying my best. And I'm having a good time.
Never has an RPG challenged me so much to even understand what's going on. The map itself is color coded, and apparently each represents the difficulty of the enemies found there. I had no idea. This isn't told to you in-game. And the color coding itself is kind of arbitrary. It's not a basic green/yellow/red kind of thing. There's five colors I think? Maybe more. Google is my friend.
I tend to only lose interest in RPG's if I feel like I'm not making progress. So that's what has kept me so interested in XCX. I'm always making progress, at least right now. And right now it's slow. All I know is that my current objective is to get 15% of the map surveyed. I assumed that meant just exploring/discovering. But no, you need to 'resolve' each piece of the map - whether that means placing a satellite thingy or killing a certain big enemy or just discovering a specific thing there.
I did manage to get that survey level raised from 7% to 11% so again, progress. But it's a little slow right now. There's so much to complain about how this game treats the player, but oddly, the game itself is so good that I'm able to overlook so much of that. It's just really fun to play.
Chapter 4 was a beat. Not really the chapter itself but all the stuff I had to do to be able to take the mission. So now I'm like ten hours into this game. And y'know what? It's still fantastic. It took me forever to figure out how to use the follow ball, and now I've completed Chapter 4. And it turns out that this world is HUGE. Like, I already knew it was, but I was only one ONE PART of it. There's way more. And I also figured out how to recruited other players' characters into my party temporarily which is really cool. In this way, it plays like an MMO, except you're using like ghost characters. It's weird. But awesome. This game is great.
On the macro, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a slow game. Progress comes in granules. Leveling can take an eternity. Yet, in the moment-to-moment the game always manages to feel exciting. The actual battles are frantic and awesome. And there is always SOMETHING to do be it your main quest or side quests or just exploring or spending time dicking around in menus upgrading gear or skills or tweaking abilities. It's never boring.
For the most part, I've played in a linear fashion - sticking to the main story quest. However, some of these require certain conditions be met. So I might have to do specific side quests first, or explore certain areas of the world map, or just be a certain level, mandating that I spend some time grinding.
Last night I completed Chapter 5, which I had started the night before. There was some intense battles in there, and the whole story culminated with me finding out (spoilers!) that my character was actually a robot. I felt genuinely shocked by this story beat. And I also felt in love with the game. Spending all this time with a character I created - one who was suffering amnesia, the most common JRPG trope EVER - only to find out her memories were wiped because she's a robot! It's all so very Blade Runner. And I love it. Hard.
I was curious how long I'd been playing. I estimated about a dozen hours, but when I checked my Wii U's activity log it turns out I had played seventeen hours. Wow. That's how sucked into this game I've been. The hours have just melted away. Over the past couple weeks, any gaming downtime has been poured into this one. Happily. I could easily list all the complaints I have about XCX, but none of them really matter. Because I love this game. It's one of the best modern RPG's I've played in a long time. And certainly one of the most unique. I mean, I've actually been keeping a text file on my Chromebook just to remind me of all the stuff I want to try to do. It's crazy. This game rules.
I am getting absolutely destroyed in this one side quest. It's one that's required before you can do Chapter 6. Anyway, there's a huge boss battle and this thing has crazy HP. And does crazy damage. I'm wondering if I can fast travel back to base and recruit a fourth party member and then warp back? I should try that. Because I CAN NOT get him to die with just three of us. I came sooooo close at one point. I had him down to just a sliver of health but couldn't hold out.
It turns out that yes, yes I can go back and recruit another party member. So I did that. I scouted another player's NPC, who was a bit higher level than me, and went back and crushed that boss. Okay, I didn't crush him. We were actually super low on health by the time we took him out. But still.
The ability to scout other player characters and use them as NPC's is a really neat touch in this game. And I wonder - because NOTHING is explained all that well - if someone scouts me, does my character gain XP in that time?
I was too tired to start Chapter 6 by this point as we have a baby going through a sleep regression right now. So I just spent a little time running around Oblivia to grind a bit as I was pretty close to level 20. And now I'm level 20.