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Xenoblade Chronicles X marks the spot of my return to RPGs




I’m mentally steeling, making plans, buying up canned food and bottled water, ready for the long winter that lies ahead. Xenoblade Chronicles X is looming on the horizon, a hulking behemoth casting a large shadow over December and I’m sure many more of the months ahead. What started out on my radar as a pretty but unapproachable RPG (for a guy who’s been out of that game for a while now) has slowly, over the course of many trailers and gaming expos, turned into my most anticipated title of the year. I can’t wait for X. It’s totally in my league, I know it, and I’m going to go for it. I can’t wait to wander the seemingly endless open world of Mira, where I’m sure to get lost, eke out higher levels by repeatedly killing the same inferior beasts, and go blind staring at all the incomplete quests I’ve accepted from the helpless citizens of New Los Angeles but will never fulfill. It’s been a long dry spell since I was last excited by this kind of gameplay, but X has managed to achieve that with its beauty, promise of depth, and great timing.

I’ve had a long history with RPG games, J and otherwise, but most of that history is stuck well in the past. A free giveaway of Dragon Warrior for the NES with a subscription to Nintendo Power started me off, obsessed with gaining experience and excited by every new town approached. Somewhere during the transition from the charming pixelated warriors of classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger to the clunky polygonal 3D heroes of epics like Final Fantasy VII though, the genre lost me. After a nostalgic trip through the 16-bit masterpiece that is Earthbound, a game I had previously missed out on, I was prepared to say goodbye, to never form a party or grind for experience points ever again. It’s nothing dramatic. We simply grew apart, for whatever reasons. This happens. For years now I have sat idly by on the sidelines, envious of the beautiful worlds others got to experience, but for the most part unmotivated to enter them myself.

Xenoblade Chronicles X
Image: Nintendo

However, like with everyone else who plays video games, seeing can turn into wanting, if it’s the sort of thing that catches your eye. Some people may gravitate toward No Man’s Sky, others to Final Fantasy XV, but there’s something to the arching, grassy rock formations of Xenoblade Chronicles X that speaks to me. The green blades of Primordia, the first continent, swaying in the breeze, blanketed by a bright, blue sky reflected in shimmering pools of water, the white trees and colossal leviathans of Sylvalum, and the ancient alien ruins of Oblivia all trigger some childhood sense of exploration that is indefinable. I don’t really care that much about the story of the fugitive human race crash-landing and setting up shop on a distant planet, still hunted by the warring parties that shot them down. Maybe it’ll be good, maybe by the end I still won’t care. It’s the sheer amount of vistas on display over the course of the many trailers have chipped away at my resistance, convinced me that a long vacation in Xeno-world is exactly what I need.

The only hitch in this giddy-up comes from the fact that when Xenoblade Chronicles released for the Wii, the aesthetics of its similarly fantastic world also captured my imagination. On a console that lacked brute strength, Monolith Software managed to finesse elegant design. Based solely on what I was seeing, I was again prepared to give this genre another go. That’s the power visuals have over us all; like any animal we’re still attracted to shiny things. The problem is, once I had this particular bauble it still didn’t satisfy. Again. As someone who had over the years grown accustomed to merely pressing A to jump in the latest Mario platformer, the gameplay of a modern RPG was overwhelmingly complicated to me. Keeping track of the various skills and meters and cool downs and collectibles scattered every which way I turned made me dizzy with information overload. The enormity of the world, something I would’ve once been enthralled by, now just reminded me of how long this was going to take, and the sidequests, my god, the sidequests. Completing one seemed to just open up three more, like a chore list turned Hydra. I had other stuff to play, having just purchased both a brand new Wii U and 3DS, so after about 8 hours or so, an early boss whose battle was meant to teach me a new technique proved frustrating enough that I ended it by giving up, dooming one of those precious physical copies of that beloved game to simply collect dust on my shelf, waiting for a completion that will most likely never come.

Xenoblade Chronicles X
Image: Nintendo

So what has changed? As they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Xenoblade Chronicles X is supposed to be even more massive, with similar combat and an even larger list of things to do, but the difference, I believe, is that this time I’m better prepared. Having recently enjoyed Earthbound (after listening to the NXpress crew tout it) I knew I could RPG on a small scale, but it was the 60-plus hours of tough bosses and cartography in Etrian Odyssey Untold 2: The Fafnir Knight that really honed my patience. Not only did I end up enjoying the late nights walking back and forth to build my stats through random encounters, but being forced to familiarize myself with the concept of buffs, debuffs, Grimoire Stones, elemental strengths and weaknesses, seemingly thousands of pieces of statistically different armor, weapons, and items to choose from, and the intricacies of running a restaurant, from collecting ingredients and creating dishes, to figuring out the right budget for advertising to maximize profits, convinced this old-schooler that there’s an immense amount of fun to be had from this kind of deep immersion and micro-management, and with the right mindset even I can have it.

Experience with the franchise is also a major factor; I won’t have to learn as much, having already experienced the flowing, MMORPG-style combat. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to scare anyone off who may be new to the franchise, but if you haven’t played a game like this in years, just know that things have changed a bit from the attack/spell options of old. I know how positioning around enemies matters, with the new addition of bonus damage or healing sometimes given out for well-timed blows, as well as planning special attacks around cool downs and keeping an eye on hurting teammates who might rush in like idiots regardless of how awkward their death will make my life. Xenoblade Chronicles X supposedly has better AI to help out with that, and for those intimidated by getting up close and personal with the sometimes gargantuan foes, ranged attacks are now possible via lasers rifles. So when I team up with B.L.A.D.E. (Builders of a Legacy After the Destruction of Earth), I won’t be quite as much of a rookie as my custom-designed character will, though the enhancements seen to make it even more user-friendly will nevertheless be very welcome. Choosing a class may produce some initial fretting, but with only three available (enforcer, striker, and guerilla), deciding a path that works for my simple and cautious style shouldn’t take too long.

The above features hope to make this new Xenoblade the best version yet, and with the Wii U gamepad organizing the infinite quests I’ll probably be obsessed with early on until I start blowing them all off, and fast travel accessed by placing probes around newly discovered areas and/or acquiring a Skell (flying mechs), things are looking far more efficient and manageable. In a world where I have other things to do in life, this is a good thing. Use of those mechs won’t be opened up until later in the game, unfortunately, through earning a license and paying for insurance (way to make flying a giant, weaponized flying robot oddly pedestrian), but plenty of post-game content will at least make getting one worthwhile, for those interested. I’m not sure if that’ll be me, but you never know. Despite my enthusiasm and eager anticipation, I know my gaming habits. Putting 300 hours into something just isn’t going to happen. I’d still like to experience a good chunk though, as smoothly as possible, and these features, while not exactly turning X into a pick-up-and-play “Nintendo” game, go a long way toward luring in not only someone like myself, but hopefully others who have never tried the series as well.

Lastly, the arrival of Xenoblade Chronicles X could not come at a better time. The holiday season is looking a little more sparse for Nintendo these days, at least in terms of AAA releases, and while yes, I know that Star Fox Zero wasn’t likely to consume my every waking hour for long, its delay makes me feel better about being able to really sink my teeth into an epic journey without looking over my shoulder at what other game I’m supposed to be playing. So we have a time-consuming game releasing during winter, when the percentage of hours spent indoors skyrockets, and nothing else competing with it for play. There hasn’t been a coinciding of these crucial factors on a Nintendo console for quite some time, mostly because these days they don’t get a lot of RPGs, period. Psychologically speaking, this is a big deal for me, and knowing that I’ll essentially be playing just one game for at least a month or two eases any fears about having to plow through. RPGs aren’t made to be rushed out. They’re not a snack; they’re the next six months’ rations, and you’ve got to pace yourself to truly savor the full experience. Otherwise you’ll just feel empty after, looking again for that next meal, and who knows when that will come? Instead of being disappointed in Nintendo’s announcement, I was actually a bit relieved. I’ll be able to tackle X, and probably still have a few minutes to spare for human contact to boot. Win-win.

And that’s how simple it is, how a guy who hasn’t really bothered with role-playing games for many console generations is suddenly ready to rekindle a lost love. Well, at least for a fling. Regardless, I’ll be back in the game, proving that this guy’s still got it, so don’t be surprised to see a necktie on my door come December 4th.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.