Xenoblade Chronicles was huge. I spent over a hundred hours traversing Bionis with Shulk and co. and I still didn’t feel that I had plumbed its depths completely. Monolith Soft have claimed that the map of Xenoblade Chronicles X will be  five times that of Xenoblade Chronicles. Not only that but any landscape you see in the distance can be explored, and it will contain hundreds of hours of gameplay.

Usually it pays to take claims such as these with a glacier of salt. However, astonishingly, every last one of these claims check out.  Xenoblade Chronicles X, much like its predecessor, is one of the finest RPGs I’ve ever played, and a title that should be a part of every Wii U library.

It’s also worth mentioning that despite having the same title with an added X, Xenoblade Chronicles X has very little in common with its predecessor. Like other notable series in the genre, there are some recurring species of monsters and similar mechanics, but this isn’t a shiny HD iteration of the wonderful Wii game, but rather an entirely new JRPG for both newcomers and fans of the other Xeno titles to sink hundreds of hours into.

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Unlike previous entries in the series, which all had fully voiced leads created by the developers, the protagonist in Xenoblade Chronicles X is a player-created mute. Before beginning the adventure – but after the suitably epic opening movie featuring the mother of all space battles in which humanity escapes Earth in a vessel which will eventually become humanity’s new home of New LA – you are tasked with creating your character. Though the tools to do this are pretty basic if compared to something like Fallout 4, using only preset parts to create your character rather than allowing for full customization, there’s still a decent amount of options available (unless you like your character to sport a full beard).  Still, for a system to create your own JRPG pretty boy (or girl), it’s perfectly adequate. You can even give them green skin and long wavy blue hair if you want. Curiously though, the ability to adjust a character’s size is only available to male characters.

Though your character is essentially mute during the course of the game’s story and cut scenes, you can still pick the voice they use to grunt and forcefully inform the world what their current attack is called during battle. In a nice touch, your character can by voiced by British voice actor Adam Howden, who played Shulk in Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s a nice nod for fans and provides a little variety in tone from the now mostly American cast.

Once you’ve made your monster – sorry, character – the game begins with your creation being recovered from an escape pod by Elma, a member of BLADE – New LA’s peace keeping force – and potentially a permanent member of your in game party. Awakening on the Planet Mira in a corner of the map called Primordia (the area shown in most trailers for the game prior to launch), you’re handed a rifle, taught the fundamentals of combat, then brought back to New LA, the settlement that’s sprung from the wreckage of a human ship that crash landed on the planet two months prior to your awakening. From the moment you step out of your pod, the scale of the world Monolith Soft have created becomes immediately apparent. There’s snow-capped mountains in the distance, while colossal dinosaur like beasts roam the beaches below you. You truly feel tiny, an almost insignificant part of a much greater whole. Monolith Soft promised that players would have an entire planet to explore and right from the start, it’s clear that they meant it.

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Once you finally reach New LA, The narrative kicks in proper, unfolding at a slow but steady pace, cleverly woven into the fabric of the other activities you’ll carry out on Mira. The main crux of the narrative chronicles humanity’s struggle for survival on the hostile planet as they battle against mysterious alien foes plotting their demise. But like other massive open world RPGs of late, the main campaign and the cut scenes that bookend its missions are only a tiny part of the overall picture. The bulk of the narrative is told via the environment itself and your own jaunts into the wilds of Mira. This makes the moment-to-moment gameplay feel just as vital to the narrative as pre-scripted cut scenes and conversations with other characters.

The way Xenoblade Chronicles X rewards exploration, freedom of choice, and even small amounts of grinding is admirable and somewhat inspired. Each of its eight mission types feed into each other in meaningful ways that make sure you always have a goal to aim for, your character is constantly leveling in some manner, and you always have plenty to do, though some mission types are arguably more fun than others.

First up, there’s 12 story missions (chapters) that drive the overall plot forward and require certain conditions to be met before the next can be unlocked. Then there’s affinity quests, which involve you aiding a member of your party in return for all kinds of extra help in combat from that particular character. Like story missions, affinity quests require certain perquisites to be completed before they unlock like reaching a certain chapter in the story missions or having the characters involved reaching a certain level. You’ll also need to have an affinity with the character you’re completing the mission for. This is basically a stat that says you get along well. Affinity goes up and down in relation to how you respond to questions you’re asked by them at various points in other missions and how well you respond to their requests during combat (more on that in a minute).  Basically, you just need to be positive when you speak to them and keep them in your party and the stat usually sorts itself out. It is worth noting that like story missions once they’ve been activated, affinity quests can’t be cancelled once you’ve started one. You can also only have one active at a time. This can lead to occasional mild frustration when you’re tasked with finding or harvesting rare items for a certain character and you’re stuck trying to complete the mission when you’d much rather be doing something else.

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Next on the mission hierarchy are normal and basic missions. These make up the bulk of the objectives you’ll be tasked with completing and thankfully can be stacked, allowing you to take part in up to twenty at any one time. Normal missions generally involve you either having to kill a specific enemy or gather certain resources and are your bread and butter, helping you to do some much needed grinding. Completion of certain normal missions is also a  perquisite for unlocking both affinity and story missions. What’s more, they often contain some rather fun sub plots of their own that help to flesh out the micro elements of the larger narrative, further enriching it as a result.

Finally there’s basic missions. These are handed out by mission control and come in three flavors; social, bounty and gathering. Social missions are as simple as finding and talking to a certain NPC. Bounty missions task you with killing a certain amount of a particular enemy type. Finally, gathering missions are basic fetch quests that have you collect certain materials from various regions. Though basic missions don’t sound that interesting, they make basic acts like exploration, leveling, and resource collection feel far more rewarding, encouraging you to step off the beaten path add to Xenoblade Chronicles X’s steady sense of momentum.

All together, the mission structure delivers an experience that is incredibly open ended yet is still surprisingly laser focused. Though gathering missions can slow the pace to a crawl in the way that fetch quests often do, Mira is nevertheless an incredibly engaging and rewarding place. Uncovering new regions of the enormous map is both an addictive and thrilling experience. Each new area is more breathtaking than the last and there’s always another place far in the distance to trek towards with new characters to talk to, new beasts to slay, and new stories to uncover.

Every element of Xenoblade Chronicles X weaves seamlessly into each other, pushing the narrative, and your character’s development, forward; exploration and grinding via normal and basic missions help your character and party to level up, expanding the map while telling smaller stories as you meet the requirements to unlock the next story mission and with it, the next major chunk of the main narrative. Doing this allows you to meet new potential party members and get to better know your current companions, which helps to unlock affinity missions, which can then also lead to unlocking the next story chapter, and the whole cycle goes round again.

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Put simply: you grow and the world grows with you. For example, you may find an alien beacon while completing a normal quest and with it, a new race that becomes humanity’s ally and returns with you to New LA. This can then set off another narrative thread in which bigoted humans want the city to be for humans only, despite the aliens not posing any kind of threat.

Despite the alien dinosaurs and giant mechs, Xenoblade Chronicles X deals with some with some pretty complex issues from nationalism to religion, bigotry, and genocide. Though not all of the game’s smaller narrative arches hit the mark, the writing is generally solid.

In the beginning at least, you’ll be exploring mostly on-foot with early missions focusing on defending New LA from the local wildlife and prospecting and surveying territories close to the fledgling settlement in order to gather resources and get a better lay of the land. This is achieved by setting up data probes. These subterranean markers provide you with fast travel options, unlock information on the surrounding area, and generate useful resources for you to utilize at regular intervals.

Initially, probes will generate money and miraniam, a vital natural resource that is used to power your Skell (bad ass transforming mechs, think Robotech and you won’t be far off) among other things. Later on, you’ll unlock different types of probes that change the ratio of money to miraniam or reward you with other resources. However, it’s not just a simple case of burying your probe and reaping the rewards. Different probe sites will yield different levels of resources, so it is vital to put the right probe in the right place. You can also chain two  probes together to increase the amount of  resources mined.

This is managed on the GamePad’s touch screen, which also acts as Xenoblade Chronicles X‘s main map. Though there is a small mini-map on the TV display as well, the controller takes center stage, helping players figure out where to prospect next or giving you additional information on your current location. It’s an elegant and effective way to utilize the extra screen. The downside is that off-TV play is pointless since it robs you of essential tools and information. Meanwhile, using the Wii U Pro Controller, though technically possible, is problematic as you still need to keep the GamePad to hand anyway. On the plus side, it does mitigate the Gamepad’s battery problems as you can keep it snug in its charging cradle while using the more responsive pad, with its much greater battery life, to control the action on screen. But personally, I found it best just using the WiiU GamePad while keeping it plugged in to get the best of both worlds.

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Once again Combat is a major part of the game, with leveling up an integral part of the experience. When you’re not prospecting you’ll enter new areas with the mentality of a new prisoner at a jail, finding the biggest bastard you think you can handle and attacking them for your own personal safety (and a nice boost to your XP to boot if you manage to topple one that’s a higher level than your party).  Though admittedly early on it’s prudent to be careful, as bumbling into  across a powerful beastie never ends well, and you can be wiped out and warped back to the most recent landmark within seconds. A good rule of thumb is that if the thing your heading towards could swallow you whole, it probably will and is best avoided.( Least untill you can get your hands on some heavy ordinance or a Skell)

Combat itself is very similar to the  real-time arts system seen in the original Xenoblade Chronicles, albeit without the secondary monado moves.  Arts are also now more closely tied to your class on foot and what weapons you have equipped when you finally clamber into a skell. On the whole though, progression in Xenoblade Chronicles X feels a lot more fluid than its predecessor with each character no longer tied in to a particular way of fighting and each can be adjusted to approach battle in pretty much anyway you want. Initially, you’ll start off as “drifter,” which is your basic all-around master of none class to help you get to grips with the basics of combat. Then after 10 levels, you’ll be slowly funneled down a set path to a certain extent as the class tree branches out and you choose a specialization. Then after every ten levels, the tree splits again until you finally find yourself playing as anything from a close quarters fighter leading the charge, a sniper offering support from afar, and everything in between.

Finding a style that suits you and mastering your acculturated arts is the key to success in battle. The fundamentals of actual combat are very similar to Xenoblade Chronicles and once again involve using the D-Pad to select arts as the battle rages in real time around you. Where this entry shakes up the combat is that every member of your squad now has the ability to use both ranged and melee attacks, allowing you to shift your tactics on the fly depending on the situation while placing yourself in the best position to do the most damage.

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Every character is also now capable of healing their comrades, though there are few skills that just dole out HP and none of them will save you in any of the game’s more drawn out battles. Instead you mostly regain HP via the new soul voice system. There’s a lot of nuance to the whole thing, but basically it revolves around listening to your team mates and responding to their requests for specific types of aid or attacks. In short, using the right arts at the right time will improve their effectiveness as well as provide you with a handy boost to your team’s health. The better coordinated your team remains, the more successful you’ll be in combat and can also help unlock affinity missions later in the game.

This adds to the sense of achievement as you play, especially when you’ve finally bested one of the game’s larger enemies after a tense, evenly-matched battle that can easily last half an hour or more as you frantically juggle your responsibilities. The myriad of systems all play their part in creating incredibly engaging, deep, and, above all, epic battles. Like every other part of the experience, combat is merely an important cog in a much larger machine.

The game feels huge when you’re on foot but reaches truly gargantuan proportions once you finally get to pilot a skell. But don’t think they just give these things to any old amnesiac with an assault rifle. The road to piloting one of these beautiful transforming mechs is a long one. You’ll be a good twenty or so hours in before you’re even given the opportunity to use one and then you still need to complete a fairly arduous set of quests before you’re handed the keys. Owning a Skell is very much a privilege, not a right. Even once you have one, it’s not yours forever because should it be destroyed in battle, you’ll be forced to use one of three ‘insurance policies’ to have it repaired. Once your insurance no longer covers it, like health care in the US, the cost for a replacement is astronomical.

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It’s also not a good idea to behave as if you’re piloting the invincible Megazord, (though admittedly it looks more like an Eva or one of the mechs from Robotech) as your skell proficiency has its own leveling system and larger enemies will still pry your Skell open like a tin of spam and feast on the delicious human meats inside.

How your skell performs in combat is also very different to your character with available arts, dependant on what weapons you choose to strap onto it. You can play out all manner of mech fantasies, equipping your customizable Gundam-like mech with all manner of rocket launchers, beam swords, and many more extravagant and ridiculous weapons of mass destruction.

Sadly, you can’t fly skells to begin with (you have to wait till around the 40 hour mark for that joy). It can, however, transform from a ground-based vehicle into a kick ass robot from the start, which still allows you to to reach previously unassailable areas and explore (and most importantly mine) new areas of Mira.

Flying skells are reserved for the end game and tackling its deadliest beasties. They’re not available until your team is powerful enough to have slightly more than an ice cube’s chance in hell at victory, much like the final chapters of the game, which are restricted in a similar manner. Flying is certainly a reward for all your hard work up until that point and once you finally can, you wonder how you ever got around without it. When you first pull up into the sky and you can see large parts of the map laid bare below you. it is simply awe inspiring.

If Xenoblade Chronicles X’s diverse challenges, vast cast of likable characters, and unique approach to story progression are the main ingredients of a very fine cake, then the online features are like the vanilla essence. They’re mostly light, but you would surely miss them if they were gone. Though most are little more than fun asides or extra background fluff, they nevertheless enhance the experience in interesting and meaningful ways. For example, your choice of BLADE Division early in the campaign places you within that group on a global level with rewards gifted to all members of the division for their collective territory discovered, battles won, missions completed, items collected, and other activities.

You can also form squads with your friends online to tackle timed squad quests that allow you to earn squad tickets and medals, which in turn enables you to head to a special console back in New LA to participate in unique arena challenges. These come in two flavors: time attacks and squad missions. Time attacks involve you trying to set the quickest global time for completing certain missions with your usual AI team. These can be completed as many times as you like and are a great way to grind for additional experience and loot. Meanwhile, squad missions, playable with both AI or other players online, are unlocked by proceeding so far within a given BLADE Division, rewarding players with powerful new items, however they can only be cleared once.

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Occasionally you’ll also stumble across “nemesis” battles. These involve fighting enormous creatures that appear for a limited-time. The only way to have any chance of defeating these gigantic monsters is in skells and even then, your chances of success are minimal unless your team is at a very high level.

Taking a page out of the Souls series you can often find SCOUT Reports, notes dotted around Mira providing useful information from other gamers. In a similar manner to Destiny or Dark Souls, while online you’ll also happen across the avatars of other players as they travel around the world. Other players can also be recruited into your team for 30 minutes at a time if you so desire.

If the length of this review and the breadth of systems covered thus far hadn’t clued you in, Xenoblade Chronicles X is an incredibly deep and extremely complex experience. There’s a wealth of systems and styles of play to master, and if I’m honest it’s been impossible to cover then all in this review. I’d certainly recommend giving the game’s on-disc manual a read before you get sucked into the game as there’s a staggering amount of ground to cover and X doesn’t always introduce new mechanics as clearly as it could. Though it’s nice that the game doesn’t constantly hold your hand, at times I felt it would have been beneficial to at least be pointed in the right direction. Like all epic journeys, it may seen a little overwhelming at first, but trust me eventually it all falls into place.

Though I have enjoyed most of my time with Xenoblade Chronicles X, admittedly it does have a few minor issues. It has more than its fair share of fetch quests, which annoyingly includes some that are compulsory if you want to progress. This occasionally leads the pacing off a cliff when you’re forced to hunt for rare items that take plenty of grinding to even appear.

It also suffers from occasional difficulty spikes in some of its larger battles, though this is mostly mitigated in story missions as the difficulty of a boss is reduced after three failed attempts. You also keep all of your experience when you are defeated so theoretically at least, you could power through eventually. Occasionally, overpowered surrounding minions will also decide to join in while you’re trying to fight bosses, landing cheap shots at the worst possible moment and leading to more than a little frustration and lots of fights taking a lot longer than they necessarily should. However, these events were pretty rare and for the most part, the pacing is tight and the world and its various ecosystems are tuned almost to perfection, allowing for steady, methodical progress through this beautiful and hazardous world.

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Not only is Mira huge, but it’s also a beautiful and varied setting that feels alive. From sparkling beaches and mountains to colossal forests, arid deserts, magma spewing volcanoes, and desolate alien regions that look like they’re constructed of bone.  Every region has its own diverse ecosystem made up of all kinds of weird and wonderful beasts that run the gamut from strange cousins of real animals to being wholly alien. Though admittedly character animations can occasionally be a little wonky, Mira is a marvelous visual accomplishment.

Sadly the game’s sound design doesn’t fare so well. For the most part, gone are the sweeping orchestral wonders of Xenoblade Chronicles, replaced with a confusing and baffling mix of bad power metal and rap with odd nonsensical lyrics that made me wish I could simply turn it off.

The voice acting is also very hit and miss. It might be because I’m from the UK, but (Shulk’s cries aside) I missed the regional tones from my homeland that made Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii feel so fresh. Though admittedly, most of the acting is serviceable with the main cast in particular putting in decent performances (even if the lip syncing is a little off most of the time). That is aside from Nopon, whose overacting and cringe worthy attempts at camp humor never failed to make me groan.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a true epic; it’s sprawling, complex and enchanting, using the Wii U Gamepad in simple but meaningful ways that enhance the experience. Monolith Soft’s greatest feat is how they have managed to take all the disparate elements that make up your typical JRPG, making the grinding fetch quests and simple exploration all blend together with such finesse that each just feels like a natural part of a greater whole. Missions are structured in such a way and written in a manner that even normal missions and character-specific affinity quests enhance the narrative and have a proper sense of place within the overall narrative structure of the game.

Infrequent difficulty spikes and the occasional fetch quest are easy to forgive given that the broader experience is so a meticulously balanced and enthralling.  Xenoblade Chronicles X is an incredible accomplishment for Monolith Soft, an essential part of every Wii U library, and easily one of the finest JRPGs of all time.

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