While Nintendo platforms were very much the spiritual home of JRPGs in the 8- and 16-bit eras, in more recent times most of those games have jumped ship to Sony platforms.
This isn’t to say there’s a complete lack of JRPG goodness on Nintendo platforms, however; the 3DS has some solid titles, the original Wii had its three famous “Operation Rainfall” titles Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower — and the Wii U has Xenoblade Chronicles X.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is, it’s fair to say, a fairly different beast from its predecessor, and consequently it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. However, even if you didn’t enjoy it, it’s hard to deny that it’s a truly remarkable game, and a highly noteworthy entry in the Wii U’s library.
Despite the name, Xenoblade Chronicles X isn’t really a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles — that’s supposedly coming later in 2017 on Nintendo’s new console the Switch. [Edit: It certainly did!] Rather, it’s best thought of as a sort of spin-off title that makes use of many of the same gameplay formulae as its “predecessor”, but adopts a markedly different focus to its entire experience. The result is a game that is as distinctive as it is divisive — and, for my money, one of the best exploration-centric open-world games of all time.
The basic concept of Xenoblade Chronicles X is that you and a significant chunk of humanity, fleeing a besieged Earth, have ended up on an alien planet that was not where you intended to end up. However, rather than trying to get back on track — a demanding, expensive and perhaps even completely impossible process — the colony decides to make the best of a potentially bad situation by setting up shop where it landed, converting its huge spaceship into a city and laying down some roots.
Your job, as a member of BLADE (the Builders of the Legacy After the Destruction of Earth) is to explore humanity’s new home, attempt to recover the bits of the spaceship that fell off during the crash landing and get to the bottom of a few mysteries that start to present themselves during your explorations.
Xenoblade Chronicles X has a “main plot”, but unlike its predecessor, where it was a focal point of the experience that drove you on to new areas (much like the main scenario quests in modern MMOs such as Final Fantasy XIV) it is just one part of a whole — and a relatively minor part of that whole, at that. It’s short, it’s focused on one main conflict rather than the big picture of everything that is happening on the planet, and once it’s over there’s still one hell of a lot of game to get stuck into.
It’s best to regard Xenoblade Chronicles X not as a conventional JRPG — which tends to have a linear main plot and side activities along the way at each narrative milestone — but rather as a virtual world with RPG mechanics. And this isn’t a game that takes the Ubisoft-style “theme park” approach, either; no activities conveniently scattered across the map at regular intervals for you to pursue at your leisure here. No; in order to fully appreciate Xenoblade Chronicles X you need to effectively “role-play” your character. You need to put yourself in their shoes, consider how they might go about methodically (or, indeed, chaotically) mapping a whole planet and how they might respond to various situations as they arise.
There are quests to complete that provide directed activities, sure, but again, this is just part of the experience. There are powerful monsters to defeat, alien structures to explore, artifacts to recover and scenic viewpoints to enjoy. There are resources to recover, mining networks to set up and items to craft. There are even companies to invest in, individuals to develop relationships with and civil disturbances to mediate.
To look at things from another angle: in many ways, Xenoblade Chronicles X is almost more of a sci-fi strategy game (albeit one in which you’re a participant rather than an omniscient overseer) than a traditional JRPG. It reminds me very much of elderly Sierra game Alien Legacy, which had a similar setup of a colony ship ending up somewhere it shouldn’t have, the inhabitants having to make the best of their situation and plenty of exploration to be done.
The “strategy game” theory is lent further credence by the game’s use of the Wii U GamePad. While the main action of the game unfolds on the TV, the GamePad is used as an overview map of the planet, enabling you to make decisions about which directions to prioritise your exploration and a rough estimate of what you can expect to find there. The map is split into hexes, with each hex able to be “conquered” by completing a particular task there. These tasks range from completing a quest to slaying a powerful monster, but the details don’t reveal themselves until you’ve explored the surrounding areas adequately or received intelligence about them from other characters in the world.
Once areas have been captured, you’re able to set up production networks that provide you with money and resources that you need to craft and buy items as well as maintain your “Skells” — giant bipedal robots that you acquire partway through the main story, and which subsequently make both exploration and combat much easier than going on foot, especially once you’re able to make them fly. Production networks need to be set up carefully; “chaining” certain nodes together increases their yield dramatically, but you also need to ensure you have enough storage facilities to cope with this increased income. Then to further complicate matters, the option also exists to forego production in an area altogether and instead use a node to provide you with battle buffs that could potentially assist you in dealing with a powerful foe.
In terms of battle, Xenoblade Chronicles X takes a similar approach to its predecessor, with you controlling one character in your party, the others controlled by AI. Your character has a customisable hotbar of abilities according to the weapons they have equipped, the classes they have levelled and what skills you’ve invested points into, and battles are made to feel like a “team effort” through callouts from your comrades that encourage you to use particular types of moves, timed button presses and positional attacks. It initially seems chaotic and hard to understand, but there’s a ton of depth to it — not to mention a massive amount of customisation on offer for both your character and your party members.
There are a lot of decisions to make over the course of Xenoblade Chronicles X, and more than any other open-world game I’ve played to date, they feel meaningful to the experience as a whole. No other game has captured the feeling of landing on a mysterious other world and setting out to explore its mysteries. No other game has captured the feeling of being part of something much bigger than yourself rather than the most important character in the entire world.
In short, there’s no other game quite like Xenoblade Chronicles X, and while its gameplay, structure and method of presenting its narrative most certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste — particularly those expecting a true sequel to the Wii original — the sheer scale of ambition on display here makes it one of the Wii U’s most remarkable titles, and an absolutely unique experience in the entire medium of video games.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
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