Nintendo's Wii U hasn't had the easiest of rides in 2015. Great games have emerged—Super Mario Maker and Splatoon from Nintendo itself, plus indie productions like the definitive version of Year Walk and Affordable Space Adventures—but there have been notable absences. The desperately wanted new Zelda game has been pushed to next year with barely a meaningful update since E3 2014, and Star Fox Zero, while a little shaky in previews, has also slipped to 2016. Which puts extra pressure on Xenoblade Chronicles X, the spiritual sequel to 2010's highly acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, to be the big-budget game for Wii U owners to gather around this holiday season, and to shift a few more consoles at the same time.
Monolith Soft's newest massive-scale RPG kicks off with the not-so-distant-future destruction of Earth. That's inside the first few seconds: this world of ours, vaporized. And it's not even our fault. Bummer. Some humans escape into the stars, though, and we ultimately crash land on the planet of Mira and set about making it home. The ship that's carried all that's left of the human race to this wild and wonderful world, the White Whale, becomes the city of New Los Angeles (yes, really), which serves as your base for the entire game. How this surprisingly well-established urban sprawl is portrayed sets the tone for everything that's to come, with a strange approximation of American culture skewed through a very Japanese sci-fi lens.
Your personalized player character is rescued from an escape pod by a military captain called Elma, who very quickly imposes herself as the main protagonist of the story (which is, basically: Establish humanity in its new home while also protecting it from an alien menace that I'm pretty sure could be sorted with a healthy smack by a hardback book). It's through her orders and directions that you first see Mira in its imposing size and at times breath-taking beauty – this is exemplary world building, environments dazzling in their variety and inventiveness. Everything is completely bizarre while retaining an unlikely coherency—you believe that these locations do all fit together within an ecosystem, and that the native creatures, the "indigens," have evolved to suit their surroundings over too many years to count.
As realistically otherworldly as Mira is, though, the manner in which characters interact is rather less true to life as we know it, but fascinating all the same. In one post-combat scene I saw, two of the game's selectable squad members decide that they "should go shopping later"—this is the first thing that comes to mind once they're covered in giant insect gunk, looking like they've been through the Battle of Klendathu. Then again, those slacks might not be salvageable, even on a hot wash. In New LA, there's a shop that's called Army Pizza, seemingly dedicated to all those Americans who love carbohydrates and shooting guns. But like games before it, such as Binary Domain and Deadly Premonition, these odd, stilted NPC interactions and what they mean for the overall tone are actually rather endearing.
Your character is largely powerless to what plays out around him or her, remaining mostly silent. Elma makes the decisions, and this gives XCX a fly-on-the-wall perspective, as you're experiencing the plot through your team's actions. There's a core plot to see through, naturally, but Mira is so amazingly large that side-quests and the simple pleasure to be had in exploring can easily derail the main narrative. This isn't a problem—the game is open to play at any pace, and distractions can be investigated entirely guilt-free, with the story waiting for you whenever you're ready; that next almighty boss fight isn't going anywhere. Many open-world games claim to offer freedom, but XCX really does convey the impression that the player can do whatever they want.
As you venture across the five continents of Mira, the almost overwhelming scale of this game becomes apparent. Collectibles pepper the map, which is significantly bigger than The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 combined, and gargantuan monsters wander around, owning the land they inhabit. These are the masters of this universe; you are a visitor at best, and a nuisance to be squashed if you don't step carefully. Cross the path of a larger beast, and you'd be wise to steer clear of a scuffle. Gigantic indigens are everywhere, and it can be frustrating to accidentally engage one only to see your party (of three or more) killed in a single hit, but that's what Monolith was going for. This world is one that you have to respect in order to overcome it, and those who don't will be crushed underfoot.
'Xenoblade Chronicles X', Battle Trailer
It's not alone in being slightly tarnished by them, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is plagued by fetch quests. They're the crux of both certain main missions and optional extras. At one point, I was tasked with finding three squashes in the middle of a desert continent—and this was somehow going to help me get a license piloting a Skell, one of the gigantic mechs you may have seen on the game's artwork (and that you see crash inside the first hour of the story). I spent four hours looking for those fucking things. There are also affinity missions, focusing on character relations, and these are dominated by fetch quests. It's backwards design, really, which a company like Monolith should be stepping away from after so many years in the business.
But when you do get yourself a Skell, it's a huge turning point for XCX. Not only does your means of traversing the world suddenly become a lot faster, but Mira becomes even bigger. Once the Skell is flight-ready, vertical exploration is possible, and you can visit places you could never reach while on foot. The Skells also change up combat—you're free to customize what skills you take into battle by buying them, making any previous character progression almost completely moot. By the end of the game what skills you're using on your Skell matter much more than what class you are.
Article continues after the video below
Before then, combat is served in the same vein as an MMO, using cooldown-based action combined with a party-encompassing combo system, and it all works pretty well once you're used to not needing to actively trigger every single attack. Instead, you simply move to a new technique, and the game takes over. The classes you can choose from to build your party are all pretty standard—some focus on buffs, others are tanks, and certain allies are really just there to provide support. Your individual character progression looks a little bit different. You're able to level up each skill you use in battle and move up to a more advanced class, upgrading abilities and gear as you go along. Generally, there's enough going on in combat situations to keep you on your toes.
XCX is built upon a multitude of connected mechanics, from registering to a faction to maintaining arms manufacturers who you can fund by giving them your stock of the game's mineable currency, Miranium. These are almost completely unexplained in the game, though. I had to read the manual more than a few times just to get my head around everything—and when was the last time any of us had to read the manual?
New on Motherboard: A 'Minecraft' Player Is Recreating Studio Ghibli's Beautiful Worlds
While these obtuse systems are interlinked, the game's reliance upon them—and their somewhat muddled presentation, especially if you're coming cold to this series—leaves XCX at risk of crumbling under its own weight. Character progression doesn't work as it does in other (J)RPGs, and it can take a while for a really satisfying gameplay loop to emerge, one of risk set against reward, exploration against discovery. That will click, if you're willing to exercise a little patience, but I won't be surprised to read stories of players giving up on this game after a handful of confused hours. Personally, the simple fact that XCX is unlike anything else out there, regardless of genre, makes it a worthwhile time sink—the visuals are consistently impressive, and Hiroyuki Sawano's eclectic (to say the least) soundtrack is practically a character of its own. Persist with XCX and uniquely camp and pulpy vibes settle in, something I don't think exists in any other game released this year. Or last, or the one before that, and so on.
Console JRPGs have been stagnating for a while, so a firm shakeup like the one XCX delivers is more than welcome. It commands a huge time investment from the player, but unravelling the complexity of its world and ecology is almost endlessly entertaining. Its shortcomings can't be ignored, but the sheer scope of XCX, paired with its singular personality, qualifies this as a release that Wii U owners should take a chance on. After all, what other enormous open worlds does the console have on its side right now? And even if Zelda was out, you're never going to see Link zip around in one of these.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is released on December 4 in the UK and North America, a day later in Australia, and is exclusive to the Wii U. Japanese readers will already be familiar with the game—it came out there back in April.
Follow Sayem Twitter.