Xenoblade Chronicles X
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.