I'll catch you guys a couple months from now; until then, I'll be on Mira.
Monolith Soft founder and Xenoblade Chronicles X Executive Director Tetsuya Takahashi's history of game development is so synonymous with the prefix "Xeno-", that when he developed a title for the Wii called Monado: Beginning of the World, the name was eventually changed to Xenoblade Chronicles, even though it had very little in common with his prior games. A single-player love letter to quest-heavy exploratory-MMORPGs, Xenobade Chronicles was different from his prior Xenogears and Xenosaga titles, which were story-driven and had complex psychological and spiritual elements thematically and narratively linked to a sprawling cosmology. In a way, Xenoblade Chronicles X is an odd synthesis of the two, combining a MMO-inspired style and the Western RPG gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles with a somewhat watered-down version of the sci-fi worldbuilding background elements of Xenogears/saga.
The plot is serviceable enough, though its customizable JRPG silent protagonist feels like a bit of an antiquated throwback. As a survivor of a crash-landed colony ship on the planet Mira, you are awoken from cryogenic sleep and help in the reconstruction effort to build a new life for humanity. Through BLADE, the administrative organization piloting humanity's survival, you pick a division with specific goals (and its own leveling system) to help refit the crashed habitat into the growing metropolis of New Los Angeles (you are notably American settlers). Along the way you encounter different alien races, providing insight into the conflict that destroyed Earth, leading to the exodus in the first place. Missions are handed out from BLADE, but also can be given from characters around New Los Angeles or other BLADEs in the field on Mira's five continents.
Character development is handled through "affinity" side missions. Affinity is earned when characters agree with certain dialogue choices and when you complete mission objectives, similar to Fallout 4, except that Affinity is not taken away for choices they don't agree with. When the Affinity rating is high enough (which can be viewed at any time through the menu), missions become available that reveal character histories and backgrounds. Take care, though; while Affinity missions are active, the team roster can't be changed, and story missions cannot be undertaken. When Affinity is high enough, "Heart to Heart" scenes, where characters share more, are available, a holdover from the first Xenoblade Chronicles.
The story takes a backseat in Xenoblade Chronicles X. What impresses the most about it, much like its Wii predecessor, is the scale and visual beauty of it. While characters may seem a little basic and character motions are a little stiff with canned facial animations, this is clearly not the visual focus. Mira, the planet, and its flora and fauna are breathtakingly beautiful. It's a tribute to Monolift Soft's skill as a developer that they seem to have gotten everything they possibly could out of the Wii U hardware. The hardware limitations result in occasional foliage or character drop-in as you enter or exit an environment, but it's much less noticeable when you're actually exploring the cliff-laden environments with their giant monsters.
It's a game that lends itself terribly to the standard review process. Even with a massive amount of time Nintendo provided to have with the game, Xenoblade Chronicles X (like its predecessor) is not really a goal-driven experience. It feels even more exploratory than Fallout 4; with a scale so epic at times I just had to stop and look at the world. The first time I leapt up a hillside and saw the giant cliff beyond, broken up with a half dozen waterfalls dwarfing the dinosaur-like herbivores below, my jaw dropped open in amazement. Later, from high on a ridge I looked back at the haze-obscured towers of New Los Angeles and realized it wasn't just some painted background element, but that I had come from there, and it would progressively get clearer the closer I got to it. It may be the only game I've played that is actually that epically realized; beating out The Witcher 3 in terms of scale.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is, unfortunately, not particularly good about telling you how to play it. I took my Wii U home with me over a holiday weekend to visit my parents, and on the plane played Xenoblade Chronicles 3D (the re-release of the prior game for the New 3DS), which is very good at introducing the game's concepts and ideas progressively with little tutorial screens as each new feature comes up. Since the games use a very similar control scheme, I ended up using the handheld game to teach me how to play the console one. In Chronicles X, the tutorials are often mistimed, strangely missing, or have been passed off to different NPCs in the administrative section of New Los Angeles, meaning that if you don't understand a particular feature, you may need to run around and talk to every person in the area until one gives you the information you need. This can be particularly frustrating since Chronicles X has more meta-games and customized systems than the original Chronicles, but they never feel fully explained or are explained long before you begin using them.
Xenoblade Chronicles X's exploration means traversing a world constantly filled with enemy types that are beyond your level to reach certain objectives. It's built into the game at its baseline that you have to negotiate not just the quests themselves, but the world and its dangers, and you may have to sneak past enemies that can see, hear, or sense you in order to get to a quest objective. This can make things tricky if your quest involves killing a lower-level enemy that tends to hang out near an aggressive higher level one. It's part of the game and makes Mira feel more like it has living ecosystems than a lot of other RPG titles. Other players online can be recruited temporarily to join your party to earn rewards, and missions for your online "squad" (the game's clan or faction system) such as killing specific monster types can be fulfilled while playing single-player missions. Online missions with other players were available for play, but with the lower player count, I was not able to experience these in time for review.
Combat in Chronicles X is fundamentally the same as its predecessor but with greater options. Your character will automatically attack using ranged or melee attacks (which you can switch between at any time), which have a specific cooldown between uses based on ability and weapon level. Passive buffs are handled using "Soul Voices" where you can select the phrases your characters shout at each other in battle for encouragement that bestow enhanced combat effects. Special attacks and active buffs are handled like an MMO, with a bar across the bottom of the screen navigated with the D-pad, and are tied to a longer cooldowns.
These are unlocked via your character class' branching skill tree, where the branch can be changed at any time but will mean starting at a lower skill rank with new abilities. This can make combat a somewhat hectic affair, especially early in the game, where it's not always clear why, or even when, a killing blow from your characters or an enemy was launched. As per the discussion of missing/poor player training, I didn't realize you could revive fallen comrades in the heat of battle until I learned how to do it while playing the prior game on the 3DS and consulting the manual (though several characters in the administrative section of the city tell you it's possible).
This is, again, where Xenoblade Chronicles X's gameplay constitutes an investment in exploring everything. As a reviewer, there's almost an expectation of being spoonfed this information, but Chronicles X emphasizes the in-game interactions, asking the player to slow down and take in everything. For some this may be frustrating, but for others it will likely heighten the game immersion. I loved it and, on settling into the gameplay, had to remind myself to slow down and stop trying to rush into it. When I simply walked around New Los Angeles and discovered elements like FrontierNav (resource mining) and the investment system—where you can invest planetary resources into arms companies, which result in better weapons development—the curiosity of trying things out became the method of learning and developing play. In that sense, having to invest the time makes the game's pacing very natural, but frustrating for anyone who simply wants to get to it as fast as possible.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is epic and a really great game, but one that requires the player to approach it in a specific way. It's an oddity on the Wii U, a full-fledged massive RPG experience from a first-party Nintendo developer. Parts of it are so Japanese—character design, animations, anime/manga-esque plot—that it feels like it should be an Atlus or Nippon-Ichi title; but if it were that niche it would never have been able to develop the expansive environment. There's certainly nothing like it on the Wii U, or anywhere else. It's definitely worth picking up if you have the platform.