One of the most striking early sights in Xenoblade Chronicles X – the equivalent, perhaps, to the time you first ventured out onto Gaur Plain in its predecessor - is a gargantuan alien dinosaur. As you approach it, you’ll hear it noisily supping the water at the edge of a shallow lake. It pays you absolutely no mind whatsoever. But why would it? You’re barely bigger than one of its toes, after all. It’s a moment designed to let you know how insignificant you are, but also to encourage you to work towards reaching a level where this beast might finally be forced to acknowledge your presence. In truth, I never really wanted to come back and attack it: this creature was too docile and harmless to seriously consider carving up. But even if I had, when I saw it again, more than 70 hours later, I still didn’t feel capable of taking it down.
I’m still not sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Certainly, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a colossal undertaking. If you plan to fully chart the five enormous regions of the world of Mira, you will need to set aside weeks, if not months, of your leisure time. Whether it justifies its size is a trickier question to answer, and depends a great deal on your preferences when it comes to Japanese role-playing games. If you’re the kind of player that’s happy to spend hours at a time not really getting anywhere, but just luxuriating in a vast and vivid world, then there is a lot of game for you here. Others might find the lack of narrative drive and abundance of fetch quests an impediment to enjoyment. As a general rule of thumb, if you tend to bounce off MMOs, I think you might struggle with XCX. If they’re very much your cup of tea, then you should probably start getting excited.
For every moment that Xenoblade Chronicles irritated me, for every moment I felt it was unnecessarily wasting my time, the world was enough to suck me back in. Mira is an astonishing creation, a world that looks at once habitable yet alien and imposing. You could argue that its five territories lean on established archetypes - there are forest, desert and lava biomes – but that would be reductive to the extreme. Even the sparse, bleak expanses of Oblivia (affectionately referred to as Sandy Bum Canyon by one character) are often breathtakingly beautiful. If taking screenshots on Wii U was as simple as it was on PS4, my external hard drive would probably be full right now. It’s fun and challenging to explore, too. Even setting aside encounters with hostile wildlife, following a waypoint is no guarantee you’ll get where you need to go. Occasionally, this means an arduous trek back the way you came until you find the right route to the top of a towering cliff, but sometimes you’ll find a faster route via narrow pathways and footholds, and it’s always satisfying to do so.
The seamlessness of it all is staggering, too - particularly in light of certain open world games I’ve played on supposedly more powerful hardware this year. Your mileage may vary with the disk version, but with all the data packs downloaded to my hard drive, I’ve never encountered a single load while out in the world. And for once the term ‘fast travel’ isn’t a misnomer: ten seconds, tops, and you’re there. The trade-off for this is a not insignificant amount of pop-in. The largest monsters will show up at all times, but smaller enemies and man-made structures will suddenly instantiate when you’re sprinting through the world. Beyond the obvious aesthetic impact, it’s rarely a problem, though you can blunder into trouble if you venture within the visible radius of a more powerful enemy.
But the longer the game wears on, the more you begin to wonder what that pop-in says about the game’s priorities. For me, it came to symbolise Monolith Soft’s focus: the world is the most important thing, and nothing else matters quite so much. That isn’t to say that everything else is an afterthought – the outstanding creature design alone proves otherwise – but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Mira has had significantly more attention. The combat, for example, borrows liberally from its immediate precursor, and yet it lacks the element of drama provided by Shulk’s premonitions. It feels slightly messier and less precise, too, with enemy movements being quicker, and a targeting cursor that can take a while to lock onto the appendage you’re hoping to target.
That alone wouldn’t be a problem, but tactical play seems to be less important than the level you’re at. And when you eventually earn the licence to pilot a Skell (the large mech suits the game teases right from the outset), it suddenly becomes alarmingly easy, allowing an armoured party of four to comfortably deal with enemies five to ten levels above them, with a bind ability allowing you to pin opponents so your team can attack without fear. You’ll still have to run away from larger foes, who have a disturbing habit of interrupting such encounters, which will occasionally prompt a fast-travel back to base, and a sizeable fee to replace your Skell when its insurance runs out.
When these minor irritations combine with quests that force you to find a certain number of a specific item – without telling you whereabouts in the world it might be – you’ve got a recipe for frustration. One such mission took me four hours of searching until I managed to decipher a Japanese FAQ to find that I’d been looking in the right part of the world for a certain doodad but hadn’t realised it was a rare drop within that zone. This isn’t uncommon, either: affinity quests that, as their name suggests, improve your relationship with certain party members, can’t be abandoned until they’re completed, potentially locking you out of story missions while you look for something that might take you several hours to find.
At least your party is good company. As recruitable members won’t level up individually, you’ll find yourself sticking with the same two or three characters, and the defaults who accompany you on most missions are a joy. The silver-haired Erma is a genuine badass: a no-nonsense warrior with intelligence who can spot danger a mile off. And then there’s Lin, a teen prodigy whose engineering skills and courageousness defy her youth. Sensibly covered-up for the western version, she’s a hardy combatant and enormously likeable with it, even if a running joke involving her and Nopon ally Tatsu (this game’s Riki) wears thin long before the scriptwriters tire of it.
The online elements are a little undernourished, though if you can find some like-minded (and like-levelled) players to take down larger beasts, you’ll probably fare better than relying on your AI allies. When going it alone, meanwhile, you’re automatically placed in a 32-player group, with kill and harvest goals updating on a regular basis, and affording you squad points should you collectively complete them all. It’s not something you’re likely to think about too often, but the rewards are sufficient to make you occasionally go out of your way to take down a few specific indigenous lifeforms. More importantly, it generates a sense of community that fits with the central narrative of working together to gradually make your presence felt within a world that’s otherwise ambivalent.
There’s so much stuff in Xenoblade Chronicles X that a review can barely scratch the surface. There’s placing probes to mine resources and cash, completing objectives for one of eight divisions within the city of New Los Angeles (though in truth, your selection makes little difference to how the game plays out) and investing in arms companies to improve your arsenal. There’s a Monster Hunter-esque crafting mechanic and a base-decorating aside. Until now, I’ve not even had time to touch upon the extraordinary soundtrack, which fuses spine-tingling orchestral bombast (1:12 to 1:42 of the main theme gives me goosebumps every time) with unintentionally hilarious rap verses (“Is anyone there? I need a bigger gun” is a regular distraction during combat).
It’s all too much – and therein lies XCX’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness. It’s lacking focus, yet its scale is unsurpassed. It’s a game that deserves to be played, but isn’t always deserving of your time. It’s unforgivably flabby, yet capable of moments that will make your eyes widen and your mouth involuntarily gape. By turns, it is daring and safe, majestic and frustrating, impeccable and hugely flawed. Be prepared to suffer the lows and you’ll experience some incredible highs. But I wouldn’t blame you one iota if you weren’t.