Active Time Battle is a chronicle of one man’s spirit journey to play damn near every Japanese Role Playing Game ever made. It is a life’s work. It is, literally, an ongoing battle against time. I sincerely doubt I can finish what I’ve started without succumbing to madness. Viewer discretion is advised.
When I wrote my piece on Tetsuya Takahashi’s beautiful 1998 disasterpiece, Xenogears, I wrote one of my most enduring thoughts about that game: “People just don’t make games like this anymore. I’m not sure that they ever did to begin with.” Takahashi’s latest game, Xenoblade Chronicles X, is certainly not very much like Xenogears, at least in the sense I was describing in that piece. People still do not make games like Xenogears, and I’m not sure they ever did, or ever will again. What Xenoblade Chronicles X has in common with its PS1 forebear, however, is that I’m not sure anybody’s ever made a game quite like this one, either. If you take anything away from my thoughts on this title, let it be this: Xenoblade Chronicles X is, for better and for worse, a true original, and the sort of experience you really won’t find anywhere else. Additionally, for every gripe and issue I’m about to raise about some of the game’s more bizarre design decisions, bear in mind that I still spent an absurd amount of time (like, over 150 hours) with this game, and enjoyed an overwhelming majority of it, simply out of respect for the game’s commitment to being exactly the game it wants to be—player expectations be damned.
As development of the game wound down, Takahashi took to twitter to express the following: “15 years have passed since Monolith was founded, and I believe that with this game I have finally met the challenge I had within me, of creating an RPG in which humans and robots can co-exist.” Without context, this quote maybe seems a little bit ridiculous. Of all the personal motivations one can have within their own career, this guy’s muse is human/robot cohabitation? But think back to Xenogears, Takahashi’s pre-Monolith breakout. Think back to Xenosaga, Monolith’s first major project. This is a man who spent nearly 20 years of his life making bizarre maximalist Role Playing Games in which players are navigating dungeons and fighting enemies both on-foot and in-cockpit, weighed down by the nightmarish mapping scenarios, scale issues and mechanical concerns that follow. The planning stages for these titles had to have been characterized by bright-eyed optimism for what the team could do to bring this vision to life, painstakingly-assembled mecha models atop programmer’s desks gazing proudly upon overworked hands as they began to lay the groundwork for this ambitious vision. The actual development periods were clearly and infamously characterized by excessive compromise and realized limitations.
One need only take a look at this game’s direct predecessor, Xenoblade Chronicles, to begin to see the cracks in Takahashi’s ambitions. Players control a party of characters who never assume the cockpit of giant robots: running, living and existing along the surface of a pair of mecha-like titans that once moved and fought but now lay dormant, too large and too tired to continue the struggle. The game tells a tale in which humans and robots have been at strife for as long as recorded history can recount, and nobody knows how the struggle began. They are diametrically opposed and cannot co-exist. I can’t help but feel there’s a personal element to Xenoblade Chronicles’ narrative setup, an encapsulation of a sort of low point in Takahashi’s “challenge” within himself. The robots in that game are either too large or too sentient to be controlled and harnessed. It’s a challenge rendered impossible either logistically or existentially. This was, in 2010, the state of Takahashi’s career.
How does Xenoblade Chronicles X solve this problem, then? How does it fulfill this creator’s lifelong dream, nay, obsession? Well, it goes open-world. You might be scrolling up right now to read that bit I said about this game being a true original. Hear me out, okay?
Xenoblade Chronicles X takes place in a completely seamless open world, with not a loading screen in sight (except a single one, to get into an interior “Barracks” area where players can customize their mechs and set out on a new story mission.) All exploration, navigation, traversal and combat take place in the exact same space whether the player is on foot or within the cockpit of their giant robot (called “Skells” in the western release of the game and “Dolls” in the Japanese release.) The logistical issues of scale that have previously hindered Takahashi’s games are solved with a simple mantra: “Go big, or go home.” Create a single world big enough for giant robots to do their giant robot things, but make it detailed enough to work from an on-the-ground perspective, and leave it at that. It’s the sort of game that would only have been technologically feasible in the late-2000s had Monolith not been owned by Nintendo, and since they are, it only became technologically feasible with the release of the Wii U. It must be vindicating to realize that your dream game had been attainable all along, the world just needed to catch up to you.
Xenoblade Chronicles X tells the story of the crew of a spacecraft known as the White Whale, a massive escape vessel prepared in the unlikely event that the Earth was destroyed or rendered otherwise inhospitable. This happens as soon as the game begins. The White Whale sets out to find a habitable planet, that it might let loose its cryogenically-stored crew upon this new world in the hopes of colonizing and habituating it. This happens, too, but not as cleanly as one would hope. The ship gets shot down by hostile aliens as it enters the atmosphere of a planet that will come to be known as Mira, and the ship’s wreckage is strewn across the surface. A beached section of the ship meant to serve as a weird sort of pop-up city becomes humanity’s capital on this strange new world, New Los Angeles. A skeleton crew gets to work searching for and opening up the scattered life pods containing skilled individuals who can contribute to the colonization effort. This is where the Player Character comes into play, as your life pod is found and opened by a woman named Elma, who brings you back to New L.A. and gets you situated.
This almost too-brief introductory sequence throws people into the world of Xenoblade Chronicles X feeling a little bit lost and confused. Between the game’s intensely open-ended nature and the layers upon layers of systems and subsystems, to be thrown into all of it with nothing more than a pat on the shoulder and a “Good Luck” is a disorienting feeling. This was a point of contention for a lot of people who tried this game out. They didn’t like it. That’s totally fair, but I’m here to tell you why I think it’s beautiful.
Everything about Xenoblade Chronicles X’s progression is meant to emulate or give the vibe of interstellar colonization, particularly under duress. We aren’t casually getting Mars ready for human expansion here, this is either humanity’s new home or its final resting place. Like the rest of humanity, we’re thrown into the thick of things without any real explanation or preparation. This was the last resort. You, the player, are the last resort. We’re bewildered, confused, disoriented, trying desperately to eke out a living in a hostile environment. We don’t understand anything, but our familiarity grows with time. We acclimate to our new environment, and acclimate to the game’s systems in turn. As a player prepares to begin exploring a new, distant continent on Mira, they’re perhaps also preparing a major retooling of their supply chain to more efficiently exploit the resources of the currently-explored regions of Mira, something that seemed incomprehensibly complex a couple of days ago. Obviously, the timeline is accelerated, because video games, but the player’s understanding of their environment and also the ways in which they inhabit, explore, tame and exploit it develop in concert with one another, as is the case for the entire human race. As they begin to master their understanding of the game’s mechanics and systems, they gain access to their mechs—now traversing the planet is a trivial task, and they can fight the sorts of giant monsters they’d never dreamed of even standing a chance against on foot.
Unlike most other Japanese RPGs, the true singular focus of Xenoblade Chronicles X is exploration. There is a linear sequence of plot events like any other JRPG, but they really play second fiddle to simply existing upon and exploring the surface of Mira. In fact, several story missions have a set checklist of things the player needs to do before they can even accept them, and most of them are locked behind checks such as “Explore x% of Mira,” or “Explore x% of this particular continent.” The developers are trying to pace your experience and make sure your priorities are in the right spot. Don’t worry about getting to the next cutscene, you should be getting out there and seeing some new sights. It’s a design philosophy that runs contrary to virtually any other JRPG on the market, which commonly railroad themselves to keep the story flowing to engage the player and ensure progression is steady. Xenoblade Chronicles X wishes to engage the player on its own terms. It’s admirable, and a big part of why the whole “planetary exploration/colonization” aspect of the game works so well. At release, a lot of players attempted to mainline the game’s relatively-thin main storyline and ended up feeling burned. They missed the point. The core gameplay loop isn’t “Accept mission, complete mission, repeat.” In fact, the game doesn’t even really have a loop. At any point there are five or six completely different things you can do, and you can do them at any pace you want. Explore a new region of the planet, experiment with character builds, complete sidequests, tinker with your supply chain, customize your robot, craft some new gear, hunt down Tyrants, complete the Collectopedia, and maybe after you’ve done a bunch of that stuff, start thinking about doing one of the twelve story missions. There’s a natural pace at which all of these things unfold, and you can exert some control over doing the things you like instead of the things you don’t like, but to impose your will upon the game and only do a single part of it is to deny yourself the holistic aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s design that set it apart.
Holistic design aside, planetary exploration is really the star of the show, and this is because Xenoblade Chronicles X is a master class in open world design. As someone who considers himself completely burnt-out on open world game design, and was skeptical of X’s decision to go in that direction, the game really rekindled the fire in me and made me a believer. The experience of checking a map because I can’t distinguish these nearly-identical city streets or wide open fields aren’t much an issue here, because each of Mira’s completely distinct continents is designed around huge and fantastical terrain features that aren’t present or even directly comparable to even the most recognizable of Earth’s landmarks. Each location flows naturally into the next in a way that enables your mind to map out what’s ahead of you and what’s behind you. You enter Oblivia and see the massive bottomless canyon that stretches across about half the zone. Along the southern edge of this canyon lie a series of dangerous high-level alien fortresses that you try to avoid. You wander the northern edges of this canyon, finding alien outposts and a series of strange giant rings rising out of the natural rock and desert, each ring oriented such that they’re distinct and recognizable from each other and can serve as recognizable landmarks, seen from miles away. On the way you pass a small lake, fed by a staggeringly tall waterfall. As you near the end of the bottomless canyon furthest from your entry point, you travel through the trench of an additional land canyon, climbing uphill, and come out near a large lake. A river runs from this lake, eventually reaching a cliff to form the waterfall you stood beneath earlier. This is the entire zone. It would take well over an hour to trace this route on foot, but I was able to recount the entire thing nearly five months after my last time playing the game, because it’s all so memorable and well-designed. I was able to quickly find my bearings with every corner of Mira like this, because the entire planet is designed this way. We’ve reached a saturation point in open world video games where sheer scale just isn’t enough anymore. It’s meaningless if most of the terrain was (at least, seemingly) generated by an algorithm, or simply based on real-world topography—which generally doesn’t lend itself to memorability—with a spattering of hand-designed content placed atop it.
Travel back to the mid-2000s, when two open world RPGs ruled the roost: World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Warcraft’s Azeroth was heavily segmented, to make each area memorable and keep the player informed of their current location. The world was broken up into distinct continents, and the continents into visually-distinct zones, each with key landmarks always within eyeshot of each other. Oblivion’s Cyrodiil was, for the most part, an enormous stretch of forested greenery with occasional settlements. Getting from Point A to Point B was not accomplished naturally with landmarks or distinct environments, but by knowing that Point B was west and that if you followed your compass and the roads through the seemingly endless forest you’d eventually reach it. One of these experiences endears players to the world and makes them excited to explore it, and the other is a blur of busywork and randomly-happened-upon distractions. Try to guess which is which. The issue is that the real world isn’t built with recognizable landmarks always in eyeshot of each other, or totally distinct climates and ecosystems within walking distance of each other. A game can either go for believable realism, or embrace its inherent video-game-ness. I’ll always err on the side of video games, but Xenoblade Chronicles X has its cake and eats it too by creating an inherently unbelievable alien world, one which isn’t meant to reflect Earth, either literally or by way of Earth-y fantasy, at all.
The other thing I adore about Xenoblade Chronicles X’s world design is the way it handles enemy levels and placement. Although there’s a rough ordering of the continents in terms of the average level of enemies and hostile indigenous species (Primordia -> Noctilum -> Oblivia -> Sylvalum -> Cauldros), attempts are still made to make each of these locations feel natural and real with regard to enemy strength. When you start the game and are running across the plains of Primordia, although you’ll encounter tons of enemies around your level, you’re still very liable to stumble into monsters that are far too powerful for your pitifully weak party to handle. There’s no video-game-y disconnects here, no crossing a river to the area that’s packed with tough animals to fight. A giant level 50 reptilian monstrosity might be hanging out a few feet away from the level 10 ostrich things you might be fighting right now. This is an alien ecosystem, so who’s to say what the relationship between these species is? We don’t know, we just got here. They seem to get along—problem is, if the level 50 monster decides it doesn’t get along with you, you’re as good as dead. The early hours of Xenoblade Chronicles X have been characterized as a stealth game, for how much time you spend gently and carefully skirting the edges of vision of huge, scary monsters that stand between you and your objectives. This element is lessened with time, but doesn’t truly go away until you’ve got Skells and a hefty number of levels under your belt. It contributes even more to the natural way the planet unfolds before you, and the way your taming, colonization and eventually mastery of the planet is mirrored in the game experience. Leveling up isn’t just a requirement to explore some distant corner of the map, it’s a requirement to travel damn near anywhere without the constant fear of getting devoured by some random monster that’s decided to ruin your day. I could see how people might not get a kick out of creatively jumping up a set of rocks to get around a nest of dangerous enemies that stands between you and the next FrontierNav node, but I appreciated the sense of danger that colored the early game and the feeling of accomplishment that came with conquering it.
FrontierNav is the name of a system in the game and in its fiction, a series of equally-spaced mining nodes placed around the planet that can be activated by anyone enterprising and crazy enough to track them down and activate them. Activating a node will scan the surrounding six hex tiles, giving you a clue to some small hidden task in each—a side quest, some good treasure, perhaps, or a powerful tyrant to kill. Completing tasks in each hex will increase your planetary exploration percentage, enabling you to progress in the story or take on new sidequests. In addition, each FrontierNav node you activate will be added to your supply chain, allowing you to install a variety of probes to each node to generate resources, money, or provide buffs in a particular area. The nodes are all linked, assuming you’ve activated the nodes which connect to one another, and you get bonuses for chaining together probes of the same type and quality. This lends some structure to your exploration, as you’re encouraged to seek out probes that will connect to your currently-existing network, sometimes sneaking very deep into very dangerous territory in the hopes of getting another node and increasing your monetary income. The probe network exists as more of a web than a chain, meaning that even with this basic structure supplied, you’ve still got a lot of freedom in what area you’re going to check out next, and there will always be some nodes that you’d love to get to connect a pair of big chains that can’t be reached until you’ve got a flying Skell, a cruel but effective carrot on a stick, something to work towards. Unlocking the node that connected Western and Eastern Primordia with a flying Skell was almost a bigger sense of accomplishment than getting flight at all. Some FN sites are an adventure unto themselves to reach, or even find, but there’s something strangely addicting about tracking them down and activating them. I’d often go on a huge scouting expedition to a new continent, running up and down the whole landmass, running away from hundreds of presently-unkillable enemies, just to get a sense of this landmass and how it was laid out by going from FN Site to FN Site and flipping the switches.
The mining system has just enough depth to it that you’ll always spend some time tinkering around with different setups to maximize efficiency, and the increased revenue and resources you get from completing FrontierNav lends an excellent sense of progression to the whole affair. You fight stuff to get to a FN Site, get more money from your trade network, buy new gear, fight more stuff to get to a new FN site, level up, are strong enough to fight stuff to get to another new FN site… It’s the classic “grinding” gameplay loop of every experience-point-based RPG ever, but this time they haven’t even needed to string you along a story to keep you invested. The progression is just non-stop, and the environments are so fun to explore, that it isn’t even really a grind. You just kind of… keep going.
The game features some minor online functionality that, while neat, I think often a direct or indirect cause of nearly all of my problems with the game. There are a few layers to it. The most visible of the bunch is that other player’s avatars will appear throughout the world, and can be added to your party at any time to fight as AI allies. This is a major part of why your own Player Character is a created avatar as opposed to a typical “main character.” You select an appearance and voice, and progress down a class/skill tree as you level up that will have you specializing in different combat styles, to ensure characters are less likely to be using the same skills and weapons. Additionally, while playing “online,” everybody will be placed into a 32-member “squad” with 31 other players. These players do not appear in your world, unless they also happen to be one of the randomly-appearing AI versions of their characters. Instead, each squad will be given a set of timed tasks. These can vary from collecting random materials in the world, killing tough or unique enemies, or gathering the monster parts used in crafting. Each individual member is contributing to the same collective counter for the tasks, so if you collect one of the required objects for a task, the counter goes down by 1 for everybody. Completing a task will give everyone in the squad Reward Tickets, which can be turned in at the barracks for any crafting material in the game. Additionally, completing all of the squad tasks will enable members of that squad to join “squad missions” from the barracks, strange little instanced battle encounters that can be played solo (with your offline party members) or with other players in a synchronous multiplayer mode. Completing these will reward an even larger number of Reward Tickets.
The neat aspect of this system is that Squads are comprised of players from all stages of game progression. Players who are focused on endgame or post-game tasks are more likely to want large quantities of Reward Tickets, to cut down on the grinding necessary to farm a bunch of materials to craft some powerful ultimate weapon, and are thus more likely to go out of their way to complete squad tasks. This, in turn, will shower Reward Tickets down on lower level players, who might use those tickets to buy materials required for a weaker crafted item, or materials required to complete a sidequest. It fosters a strange sense of community, of higher-ranking members serving indirectly as benefactors for lower-ranking ones and helping them climb the ladder, as it were. However, the squad tasks are also varied enough that often times low-level players might end up completing one inadvertently, because they had to kill those monsters for a quest anyways, or were running around a low-level zone picking up the collectible required by the squad task by accident. Everyone is indirectly helping out everybody, almost inadvertently, and it creates the strange sense that this whole “colonize a hostile planet” thing is larger than just you.
This is all cool stuff on the surface, but beneath it is where the cracks begin to show. Let’s start with temporality. This is a niche title released on Nintendo’s worst-performing home console since the Virtual Boy. A decent number of people were playing it at launch, but how many people are playing it today? Is it even enough to fill out a squad at any given time? How many people will be playing it in two years? What do we do when the servers are taken down? It was very convenient to be able to bypass certain obnoxious quest objectives by just buying the required items with Reward Tickets. When that isn’t an option, and I think about farming those drops from enemies, that whole process seems a lot less appealing. It wasn’t a factor in my own experience with the game, but that was half a year ago. For all I know, it’s become a factor now, and if it hasn’t, it will invariably become one.
The use of avatars as player characters takes a toll on the narrative as well. Because there are 16 possible voice options for the PC, the PC is simply unvoiced during story cutscenes, because recording extensive cutscene dialogue with 16 different actors would be prohibitively expensive. Takahashi has mentioned as much in interviews, saying that X originally had a traditional main character until they decided to implement the online component. I can only assume this traditional main character was Elma, because she’s simply the most important character in the game’s narrative as it stands, but the game turned out such that instead we have a lot of awkward, stilted scenes of our player character standing around awkwardly, staring into space while Elma and Lin (another major party member) give exposition.
Considering the game’s narrative can be a little thin anyways, this would be pretty forgivable, but the way the game handles characters manifests in some really bizarre decisions about party building, as well. Since Elma and Lin are essentially the game’s main characters, you are required to carry them in your four-person party for any quest in the game that has voiced dialogue, because otherwise nobody would say anything. This means that the remaining sixteen characters are fighting for the final slot in your mostly-fixed party. This, too, wouldn’t be an enormous problem if Xenoblade Chronicles X followed the lead of its predecessor and had every playable character gain equal experience, even if benched. This is not the case. The remaining sixteen characters are fighting for the final slot in your mostly-fixed party and they all level up individually. And any quest in the game that has a speaking part for any of these sixteen remaining characters, including major “Affinity Missions” which add backstory and unlock new abilities for a specific party member (after you’ve used them a bunch as your fourth party member to increase their affinity rank, no less,) will require you to additionally bring that character along. So, if Doug hasn’t been a constant fixture of your party, any quest that requires Doug will have you dragging along this severely under-leveled guy as dead weight, dying in every engagement and getting up and dying again so he can say two or three things in a cutscene, maybe about how much ass he kicked (no, Doug, sorry, you didn’t, as much as I wish you did.) And this scenario is built upon a false presupposition anyways, because it’s impossible for anyone to be a constant fixture in your party, because any time you need to bring along anyone else, someone’s getting benched, and anytime the story requires a character to stay behind in NLA for some reason, you can’t bring them along. And because these sixteen other characters are always fighting for that final slot, and any screen time at all, you barely get any opportunities to get to know them, or even like them. Party members are a big draw of most JRPGs for me, but everything about how the game handles its parties is an unmitigated disaster, and I can only assume that it has everything to do with one of the party members being a constant, silent, and useless presence in cutscenes, so that they could be a unique avatar for an online mode that’s doomed to obsolescence. The gameplay suffers, the story suffers, and all we’ve got to show for it is a little bit of nifty character customization and an online mode that only registers as “neat,” and is hardly worth the trade-offs.
So, the story might suffer, but how is the story anyways? We’re talking about a Tetsuya Takahashi game here, right? I’m sad to report that Xenoblade Chronicles X is not a Judeo-Christian Robot Anime Space Opera as filtered through the staff picks shelf at your nearest big box bookstore’s Philosophy section. I mean, the part about Robot Anime Space Opera, sure, but even then, plot takes a serious back seat here compared to some of Takahashi’s earlier works (Xenosaga remains the only series of games that anybody I’ve ever seen will ever mention in the same breath as Metal Gear Solid in terms of sheer volume and density of cutscenes.) The game’s basic set-up, which I described way back up near the start of this piece (Earth blown up by aliens, big Ark ship that gets a bunch of folks out to Mira, colonization efforts, and so forth) in many ways just serves as a framing device for a lot of smaller stories which play out over the course of the game’s many quests (which, for those keeping track, are broken up into four tiers based roughly on how much effort has gone into their design and the stories they are depicting). Many of the sidequests are fully voiced and have cutscenes, blurring the lines between sidequest and main quest, and the installments of the main quest play out in an episodic format as well, with their own little beginnings and middles and endings that leave you off to spend a bunch more time doing stuff on the side before you start the next one… and midway through playing the game, experiencing this loop, I realized I was just playing a perfect video game version of a weekly mecha TV anime. Each episode (quest) has its own little conflict for our heroes and their giant robots to solve. Eventually, even the absurd party member situation started to make sense—these people are the supporting cast. The people who don’t get top billing in the opening credits, instead appearing under “Also Starring.” This week, fan favorite L (no, not the Death Note one) joins up with the squad to gather rare materials for his shop! Hilarity ensues! That’s our L! Tune in next week, when the mysterious Murderess appears before our heroes! Will she prove a valuable ally, or a contemptible villain?
This revelation dramatically helped my impressions of the game’s mission-based structure, as it lends a really unique vibe to things. I mean, the party stuff is still stupid if only because you need to use characters a lot to unlock their specific Affinity Missions, and to be encouraged to use those characters a lot, they need to be a high enough level to hold their own when you’re exploring or doing main quests, and they never will be because there is no Experience sharing in the game, so they’re never going to be a high enough level for you to use them a lot to unlock their missions and learn more about them and– my god, this is all still a mess. Let’s just move on.
Right, framing narrative. A lot of the game’s main quests still don’t do much to advance an overarching plot, mostly fitting right in with the “conflict of the week” episodic structure, sprinkling in some big revelation or game-changing development at the end if you’re lucky. One mission might introduce a new alien race who will come and inhabit New L.A., while another might have some big high-concept plot twist which radically alters your understanding of the world and its inhabitants, but invariably you end up dropped back into the world and left to go back to doing what you always do, meditating on what’s changed, poking your nose into the new sidequests which have opened up as a result, waiting for the next main quest and its new villain to handily take down so you can see what subtly shifts the world state or your understanding of it this time.
This backseat, hands-off approach to narrative got a mixed reception from what I could tell, and it took me a while to truly appreciate it as well, but I came around eventually in a big way. People have wrongly compared some of Takahashi’s work to Neon Genesis Evangelion, but, in terms of structure alone, this is the closest one of his games has come to really evoking the mecha anime vibe (but none of the main characters ever contemplate or attempt suicide, and there are no lingering shots of characters stewing in their own self-hatred, so this still isn’t quite Evangelion.) Instead, what bothers me about Xenoblade Chronicles X’s narrative are the handful of times it loses its restraint, and hints at or plays up certain aspects of itself without ever delivering. Completing this game 100%, which is a herculean task that very few people will ever do, will still leave players with a ton of unanswered questions and nowhere to turn to find answers. They’ll have seen a million little stories play out on the surface of Mira, but several of them will have trailed off in a way that feels like there should be more, when there isn’t. Like, what’s the deal with this dang water plant? Why do Bad Things keep happening there? The game’s ending is the biggest offender, laying on huge twist after huge twist, raising very alarming possibilities about the true nature of Mira and the humans who’ve found themselves on it, before… ending. Credits roll. What the heck, guys?
I’m a big proponent for leaving things open to interpretation and not needing everything explained to me plainly, but none of these questions develop in any sort of meaningful or satisfying way outside of simply being raised and then dropped. It doesn’t give people anything to go on when forming interpretations, either by way of leaving clues to be deciphered or simply giving motivation to do the deed. It feels either cheap, or the result of cuts during development (a Takahashi staple, to be sure). I mean, one of the playable characters’ names is an anagram for Lucifer and he’s got concept art of a crazy demonic form he maybe would have assumed at some point if somebody had their way. Instead, he just exists, with his Lucifer-alluding name, and no real indication as to who he really is or where he really came from. We’re left to wonder what his deal is, and all we get from the game itself is that he’s got an entrepreneurial spirit. Lazy comparison of capitalist enterprise to the devil, or cut content? These are the real questions the game is raising, as is.
The links between Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X are few and far between, but the most prominent one is the game’s battle system, at least outwardly. A ton of tweaks have been made, such that I still found myself bewildered and confused early on, like I was with everything else in the game at that point, even though I’d played the “first” title. I won’t get into the grits, but the general character of the tweaks is such that the game is better-balanced than the original (the post-game of which basically devolved into building your team out so they could chain-stun enemies to death, because the topple mechanic was so easily abused) but somewhat less dynamic, as the “Holy Trinity” of MMORPG combat design (tank, healer, damage) has been largely replaced with classes that all fulfil the same general role in combat—dealing damage—just in different ways. There are no healers, and there’s no threat system in place to keep enemies glued to your tanks—just Taunt abilities which don’t last long enough for anyone to be a tank in the truest sense of the word. Each class has a very different feel and flow to their combat, which was really nice and reinforces the importance of character builds for the Player Character, but there are so few opportunities to synergize with your teammates in a meaningful way that not much thought gets put into assembling a party (especially since two of them are always going to be Elma and Lin anyways.) The addition of an “Overdrive” mechanic, sort-of-replacing Chain Attacks in Xenoblade Chronicles, is pretty cool, giving players a super-fast-paced, super-aggressive sort of combo system to try and keep running. It prompted some of my most frantic hand movements I’ve ever had playing an RPG, and if you’d just looked at a camera feed of my hands, holding a controller, you might even think I was playing an action game. Overdrive is also one of the worst-explained mechanics in the game and it took a lot of internet reading and experimentation to even figure out how to use it. Really, I’m not sure I could have played the game with even a fraction of the competency I did without copious amounts of internet guides explaining how stuff like Overdrive worked, or what the “Potential” stat does, or which moves have coefficients for which stats. Considering I reached a point where most story bosses were taking about two seconds to defeat, I’m not sure the game ever requires more than basic competency to beat, but I feel an extreme urge to understand everything that’s going on under the hood in an RPG battle system, and fulfilling that urge, while ultimately fun and fulfilling in terms of totally breaking the game wide open, was even more obscure a process than usual. Laying out the exact functions of every single game mechanic can make a game too easy to solve, but to get back to Overdrive, I spent a good 15 hours not even knowing what it did, much less how to use it optimally or even effectively.
Still, the battles on-foot are fun, which is good, and not just because there’s a whole lot of killing going on. Remember Xenogears? That game had a peculiar issue. You see, the game divides itself between time spent inside your mech and outside your mech, just like this game. In that game, I found that the combat inside the mechs ended up being a pretty fun and well-balanced system, where combat outside the mechs ended up feeling kind of flat, as you’d always just punch in your best-possible attacks at all times and really not do much else. Xenoblade Chronicles X sort of has the opposite problem. Fighting stuff outside your mech is a fun, well-balanced experience that has an unfolding depth and serious considerations for multiple types of playstyle. Fighting stuff in your mech, while super empowering, kinda boils down to hitting your strongest attack as often as you can, maybe occasionally in a simple dial-a-combo “Use X after Y” sort of order. In fairness, the attacks you can use inside a mech are dictated by the various parts you’ve equipped to the mech, so there’s a fulfilling gear loop to it that keeps it from ever getting too stale, but it generally felt a lot more brainless than my frantic, mile-a-minute overdrive combos or laboriously-crafted nuke builds whenever I was outside my robot. Several enormous enemies are designed to be more-or-less unkillable when you aren’t inside a mech, so it’s not like I was just parking the thing somewhere to hop out and fight stuff, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least try (and die in the process) to do just that more than a few times. The huge gains you’ll make in traversability alone still make getting a Skell an extremely fulfilling event, and killing huge monsters that have been ruining your day for the past fifty hours is a validating feeling, but I wish they’d found a way to make both combat scenarios equally enjoyable.
Issues aside, of my >150 hours with Xenoblade Chronicles X I can honestly say I want none of them back. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a game that you really need to invest in to get a serious return on. I get the impression that people who burned through it quickly left it feeling cold, while those who let themselves get immersed in it for a very, very long time came out feeling much better. It’s a big ask, to be sure, and not an investment that’s for everyone. You need to really enjoy the game to be able to put in the time you need to enjoy it even more, and if you don’t meet that initial threshold, you (rightfully) won’t allow its true nature to unfold for you. I met that threshold, thankfully, and am all the richer for it. Even when the game was annoying me, it was interesting me in ways that virtually no other game had ever before. For a game to be simultaneously so maximalist, yet also so singular in vision, is almost incomprehensible. It’s the sort of game you’d need to devote twenty-some-odd years of a career—across multiple companies, teams, and development environments—towards, trying to hone and perfect through constant attempts and subsequent, similarly-interesting failures. How many other creators have gotten the chance to do that? In any medium?
You finally did it, Takahashi. It took over twenty years, but humans and robots can co-exist. I’ve only been following your work for a short time, and even I’m so, so, so proud of you. I can’t imagine how your long-time die-hards feel. I hope that they, like me, really want to see what’s next.