Xenoblade Chron­i­cles X

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Xenoblade Chron­i­cles X is, pre­dictably enough, over­whelm­ing. It rep­re­sents the point at which the western pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with size meets the JRPG ten­dency for ex­ces­sive du­ra­tion. It presents a seam­less open world of colos­sal scope, then tasks you with chart­ing, and even­tu­ally con­quer­ing, it. This is not a quest for the faint­hearted or the time-poor; those in a hurry might just see the end within 80 hours. Built upon the foun­da­tional the­ory that big­ger is bet­ter, it will fre­quently make you be­lieve that maxim to be true. Al­most as of­ten, it seems to prove the re­verse.

Still, it be­gins with a bang. Two alien fac­tions have cho­sen Earth as the back­drop for an in­ter­ga­lac­tic skir­mish that sees our planet oblit­er­ated, though not be­fore sev­eral trans­port craft have set off for the stars. Just one makes it through the front­lines, crash­land­ing on the world of Mira. Two years on, the city of New LA is steadily grow­ing, as scout­ing groups re­trieve life pods con­tain­ing the re­main­ing sur­vivors. Your cus­tomis­able avatar awakes as one of the lat­ter, soon to be one of the for­mer. Not quite soon enough, mind: pe­ri­ods of con­trol early on are brief, your fo­cus of­ten wrested away by cutscenes, lend­ing the open­ing hours a stac­cato rhythm that will frus­trate im­pa­tient ex­plor­ers.

Fi­nally, you’re set free and your jaw slack­ens. Mira is sim­ply breath­tak­ing in scale and aes­thetic splen­dour, an as­ton­ish­ing artis­tic and tech­ni­cal achieve­ment on hard­ware that is sup­posed to be un­der­pow­ered. For long spells, it is more ca­pa­ble than al­most any other game of in­spir­ing a sense of awe. In the starter area, Pri­mor­dia, you’ll run be­neath the belly of a huge ex­trater­res­trial apatosaurus that’s lap­ping gen­tly at a lake. You’ll gaze up at the bright, over­grown flora of Noc­tilum be­fore leap­ing up gi­gan­tic leaves and pe­tals to cross a twist­ing tree trunk bridge the width of Re­gent Street. Reach the arid Oblivia and you’ll stum­ble through a dusty squall to­wards the edge of a deep canyon in which a float­ing ser­pen­tine crea­ture bucks and twists. And shift­ing auro­rae and float­ing light motes make Syl­valum as beau­ti­ful as it is un­for­giv­ing. All of this comes at a cost – smaller crea­tures and build­ings pop into ex­is­tence as you ap­proach – but the over­all ef­fect is hardly re­duced. It’s a mea­gre price to pay for an un­in­ter­rupted jour­ney through a world of this mag­ni­tude.

Ex­plo­ration presents chal­lenges be­yond the hos­tile fauna, though. For once, the way­point marker isn’t al­ways help­ful: you’ll fol­low the ar­row to a des­ti­na­tion, only to re­alise you’re about to sprint into a cliff face. The so­lu­tion is to step back and spin the cam­era to re­veal a more cir­cuitous path to the top, though you may in­stead find a few footholds within reach of your su­per­hu­man leap. Usu­ally, this climb cul­mi­nates in your ac­ti­vat­ing a probe to mine for the rev­enue and re­sources you’ll need for up­grades. Equally, you might blun­der into a high-level enemy and have to beat a hasty re­treat.

Mira, then, is not quite as open as it seems. While no area is gated off, you’re un­likely to sur­vive ven­tur­ing down a nar­row path lined with arach­nids 20 lev­els be­yond your party. On oc­ca­sion, you can tip­toe by or give them a wide berth, but once spot­ted, you might be just a swipe of a ser­rated limb away from be­ing re­turned to the last land­mark you passed. If the in­tent is to gen­er­ate a healthy re­spect for na­ture, and a fear of the preda­tors you’ll later re­turn to slaugh­ter, then it works for a while. But since for­tune rarely favours the brave, this tac­tic proves more ir­ri­tat­ing than in­vig­o­rat­ing. Com­bat, too, com­pares un­favourably to its pre­de­ces­sor. Though it adopts the same com­bi­na­tion of MMOG-style auto-at­tacks and player-prompted Arts,

lacks the nar­ra­tive drive the Mon­ado pro­vided. No longer can you en­vi­sion and po­ten­tially pre­vent fu­ture strikes, nor can you heal when­ever you choose; rather, you must rely upon top-ups awarded when fol­low­ing a team­mate’s in­struc­tions with the right Art at the right time. When an or­gan­ised team de­buffs, stag­gers and topples a pow­er­ful beast, the en­su­ing pile-on and the in­creas­ing dam­age fig­ures are sat­is­fy­ing to wit­ness, but even this can feel oddly messy. That’s par­tic­u­larly true once you’re equipped with Skells, weaponised mech suits that sud­denly make com­bat against sim­i­lar-level op­po­nents al­most triv­ial, but the col­lec­tive de­fen­sive boost for a fully ar­moured party is nec­es­sary to take down Mira’s most Brob­d­ing­na­gian mon­strosi­ties.

You’ll grow to tol­er­ate the glacial lev­el­ling, and the fact that, which­ever of the eight roles you choose, your quests fall into two camps: fight or fetch. But other ir­ri­ta­tions be­gin to pile up. No-non­sense leader Elma and teen prodigy Lin make for ex­cel­lent part­ners, but un­less you reg­u­larly ro­tate your fi­nal party mem­ber, you’ll fre­quently end up paired with some­one who dies within sec­onds be­cause they haven’t lev­elled with you. There’s no quest log to keep track of com­pleted mis­sions, and you’ll be forced to trawl the GamePad map grid to lo­cate the manda­tory sid­e­quest that’s pre­vent­ing you from mov­ing on with the story. Once you’ve started an affin­ity quest, you can’t quit, which is a prob­lem when one of its ob­jec­tives re­quires you to lo­cate three of a cer­tain item that just so hap­pens to be a rare drop in an un­spec­i­fied lo­ca­tion in an area that equates to a fifth of 2015’s most ca­pa­cious open world.

For all th­ese an­noy­ances, is a tri­umph of art over de­sign, the sheer won­der of the world enough to make the pe­ri­ods of drudgery worth­while. There is, too, an em­pow­er­ing thrill in steadily making it yours, even in the face of the mildly rev­e­la­tory idea that you’re never quite top of the food chain. Mira cer­tainly de­mands your ad­mi­ra­tion, and within it you’ll find a sur­feit of ac­tiv­i­ties with which to busy your­self – if, per­haps, a short­fall of things to love.

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