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Monolith Makes Worlds Part 2: Xenoblade Chronicles X

The announcement of Xenoblade Chronicles X was a surprise and delight. Having become one of my favorite titles on the Wii and one of my favorite RPGs, period, I was fully prepared to get lost in a new world. My anticipation spiked within roughly a minute of my awareness of its existence, however, with the reveal of one crucial element: the mech gameplay that would augment exploration and combat. As a huge fan of Japanese mecha, this entry felt primed to become one of my favorite games ever. The wait for Xenoblade Chronicles X (henceforth referenced as XCX)- revealed in February 2013 but released in December 2015- felt unbearable, not only because of the anticipation, but also because of the sorry state of its platform, the doomed Wii U. As the game neared release, more information about its systems and scenario were revealed, and I began to realize that this game would act as a spiritual successor to XC in only a few ways. This was not designed to be an accessible JRPG, nor was it a game with a structured narrative. Rather, it was a game about exploration- of the unknown, the unfathomable, and the nature of existence and humanity.

In reflecting upon XCX as the game neared release, Takahashi stated that he felt he had finally created what he had wanted to since founding Monolith Soft. I find it surprising that I discovered this statement during my revisit to the game, because through my own experience, I came to feel that XCX was a masterpiece of the genre. While my initial reception to the game were lukewarm because of its structural differences from its predecessor, I quickly grew obsessed with its design, systems, atmosphere, and content. With an initial save file far outclassing my original playtime for XC, clocking in just shy of 200 hours and with plenty more content to complete, I stepped away from XCX beyond impressed. Since then, I have returned to the game in preparation for this analysis, and I have come to realize how much I truly appreciate its design. It is not a perfect game, as there are still some quality of life changes that I feel could be made to its systems in order to make for a more fluid experience, but I personally believe that, of the three -blade titles, it stands out as a title that honors its roots and introduces new elements to create an unforgettable experience.

But what is it about XCX that is so fantastic? As we move into the meat of this analysis, I caution those who have not played the game that I will be spoiling major plot points, and if not for the limited amount of Wii U's out in the wild, I would recommend that any fan of the genre go out and pick this title up. Without further adieu, let us discover the wonders of Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Man's Search for Meaning 
Part 007: A Lot More Than We Can Manage (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 008: Not Even a Distant Land, We're Stuck On a Whole Different Planet (Setting and World Design)
Part 009: We've Been Tasked to Protect and Take On Ghosts (Characters and Combat)
Part 010: Standing as Long as We Can Until We Get All Dolls Up (Skells and Equipment)
Part 011: The Key We've Lost (Story)
Part 012: Just Try to Live Your Life (Final Impressions) 

As with the first installment, this analysis will delve heavily into the systems and storyline of the game. While it is extensive and does not require a playthrough in order to understand, there are spoilers that will dampen the ending and the events that lead to it. I understand that not many readers will likely lack a Wii U or a copy of the game, but if you wish to appreciate the story and the learning process of the game, it is best to do so before taking a look at this article.

Xenoblade Chronicles X: Man's Search for Meaning
Part 007: A Lot More Than We Can Manage (Core Mechanic Variations)

From the opening moments of XCX, a markedly different tone is established. Its raging, dark soundtrack- composed by Hiroyuki Sawano- coupled with a bleak introduction detailing the destruction of Earth sets players off on the right foot, and offers some initial clues into the nature of the narrative. The USS White Whale, for example, is more than just a reference to a hunted beast. A few months after crash landing on the potentially hospitable planet Mira, the crew of the White Whale begin to put the pieces of their life together, searching for the Lifehold and other parts of their ship, as well as separated crew members.

As mentioned before, XCX is focused on exploration rather than following a set narrative. This is enforced by how each new chapter unlocks- via quest completion and discovery rate per region. The player can explore the world as they see fit from the very start of the game, although it is recommended that they enter New Los Angeles (NLA) in order to begin choosing quests. However, although there is no particular pressure to complete the main narrative (despite the big ticking percentage on the face of the BLADE headquarters), I would personally recommend completing some of the opening story segments in order to get a feel for how the world functions and certain systems that will be important.

Speaking of these systems, we will be approaching this analysis in a slightly different order. Despite its less-linear design, XCX still implements many of the systems of its predecessor, modifying them in certain ways to fit this title's design. Because it seems fitting to tie the two titles together through addressing these modifications, we will be front-loading the analysis of systems rather than splitting it into different segments. Landmark and Secret Area (now called Scenic Viewpoints and Unexplored Territory) discovery is still important, although the player is now tasked with “planting” their own fast-travel waypoints in the form of Research Probes, linking them to the FrontierNav, a crucial system that ties into map and region development.

FrontierNav is the primary use for the Wii U Gamepad, a touch-sensitive map of the player's current region that displays the terrain of Mira in hexes. More often than not, these spaces are occupied by quest markers or Data Probe sites. Installing a Data Probe unlocks the information for the hexes that surround it, which sometimes offer a hint at what sort of quest will need to be completed. Data Probes act as passive gathering spots, collecting money, materials, and the precious resource Miranium for the player to use. There is also a set “chain” of Data Probes that are linked together, and using similar types of Data Probes in a row increases their ability to gather. Utilizing this gathering system is paramount in developing NLA, as many shops and quests will require their fruits in order to complete or rank up. Special Data Probes are unlocked via completing quests, so maximizing FrontierNav is dependent on questing, and vice-versa.

Questing also factors into the development of each district of NLA, and it is important to be mindful that the BLADE terminal, a lovely screen where players can access a slew of side quests, is not the only place where quests can be acquired. Exploring the city itself and hearing what citizens of NLA have to say can unlock more content, so it is important to skim over the entire area as you progress. Similar to the revisits of XC, but a bit more centralized- but only just. Stalls for developing armor, weapons, augments (XCX's equivalent of gems), and more are present in the BLADE district, so most shopping and questing can be achieved from the most-frequently visited area, but they will require development, much like the towns of XC. Augment crafting is not accompanied by a mini-game, which is a notable detail about XCX, in general- there's just about one thing you should be doing, and that's questing. The game does not expect you to have time to do much else. The Affinity Chart returns, in all its convoluted glory, however it is much better at keeping track of NPC locations and is largely used to catalog NPCs and their relations, not keep track of development levels.

A few other, minor elements that are changed from the previous title are the way time is altered and some exploration elements. There are specific BLADE caravans scattered around the five accessible continents where players can change the time of day, as well as a terminal in the BLADE Barracks, where story-related quests can be accessed. While this may seem like a strange choice, it is likely due to the demands that the open-world places upon the game engine. In terms of exploration, quest markers still exist, but an added Follow Ball allows players to find the most direct route to their current goal- although “most direct” is sometimes questionable. Likewise, they can send off the Aerial Cam to scope out their surrounding area- a feature that ultimately becomes superfluous after a period of time. One of the more enjoyable modifications is that players can sprint, vault, and no longer take fall damage- the last trait possessing interesting ties to the story.

With a number of systems that continuously offer positive feedback loops to the player, and an expanse variety of exploration tools at their disposal, we can finally take a look at the world of Mira itself.

And oh, what a world it is.

Part 008: Not Even a Distant Land, We're Stuck On a Whole Different Planet (Setting and World Design)

Mira is one of the best open worlds I have ever experienced. That being said, I have admittedly limited experience with open worlds in general, so your mileage may vary with that statement. However, I have played a game called Breath of the Wild, and although its Hyrule is expanse and enthralling, Mira outshines it in more than a few ways, one of them having direct ties to the legacy of JRPGs.

If you haven't read any of my previous analysis of JRPGs or the genre itself, I would direct you to a particular article I penned in attempting to create a lexicon of terminology for JRPG analysis. Within it, I detail the idea of the Travel Cycle, a reoccurring element that dictates how content can be divided and introduced to players in the design of the overworld. Seeing as the -blade titles are essentially ALL overworld, they often rely on enemy level and aggression as a means of establishing critical paths and unsafe areas. While Mira is an incredibly hostile world, one of the more threatening I've experienced in my time playing JRPGs, the player's expanded movement options mean that running is always an option. Well, sprinting is, really. In order to combat this, Monolith decided to implement Travel Cycle mechanics into Mira's design in order to emphasize vertical design, tier content, and generally make traveling the world a much more amusing experience.

There are a number of areas that are purposefully positioned above the maximum vault height, as well as terrain that is simply too hazardous to navigate, which can be overcome by the first movement enhancement. Likewise, there are a number of enemy encounters and locations inaccessible to the first movement enhancement, which are finally circumvented by the second movement enhancement. This is not to say that players must stick to critical paths- there were a number of occasions where I found myself vaulting along the rocky sides of canyons in order to avoid the enemy encounters below. But it does mean that the player feels a marked sense of progression as they access more and more areas of Mira during their journey, one that leads to a positive feedback loop of empowerment and discovery. That XCX possesses this facet of environmental design while lacking any sort of climbing mechanic is one of the primary reasons I would rate Mira as Monolith's best world. It doesn't need a slew of interactive elements to be accessible and enjoyable to explore- it just is, and that is quite a triumph.

In terms of Mira as a setting itself, the open world is full of mystery and wonder. The more fictitious aspects of its topography- blue fields of grass, ancient metal rings buried in the sand, rocky canopies over canyons, and massive spores- awe in ways that outshine some of the best the XC's biomes had to offer, even with Mira's more muted color scheme. The unexplained surrounds the player, and the only familiar place to be found is NLA itself, walled off from the rest of the environment for the people's safety. Mira is a haven in more than one way, rescuing the White Whale from an endless search for hospitable terrain among the stars, but also providing a home for a host of alien life forms, some familiar, others nothing of the sort. A rather impressive aspect of XCX is that its wildlife design is completely different from that of XC- while many developers reuse enemy assets, Mira benefits from having an entirely new cast of dangerous creatures to avoid. Its more fantastic and disturbing aspects are best saved for the story segment, so we'll move on.

Each of Mira's continents- which roughly equate to its biomes- are extremely unique in ways that complement one another and exhibit Monolith's prowess even further. Mira was estimated to be five times the size of the combined land mass of the original XC, and the variety within singular continents alone stands as a testament to this. As I mentioned during my review of XC, I would use “exploration” as a keyword for XCX, which may seem obvious at this point. However, when thinking of the way each of Mira's continents contrasts one another, it is best to consider them each as separate characters themselves, as I think a great deal of XCX's identity comes from its locations. In brief summation:

Primordia is largest in surface area, but extremely diverse, featuring small portions of elements found in other continents.
Noctilium is a continent with great aesthetic diversity. It is more vertically tiered, but also more strictly segmented in terms of its features.
Oblivia has the most flat, open space, as well as the highest density of Ganglion outposts. It also features persistent weather damage.
Sylvalum has open space, and is much more hostile thanks to its enemy types and lack of viable escape routes. It also has vast subterranean space, and benefits from a livelier nighttime appearance.
Cauldros has the unique feature of a massive artificial section, and a large amount of hazardous terrain. It also features the most aerial combat and persistent weather damage.

Primordia is as close as you can get to a familiar grassland biome, but its appearance defies this in many ways. The previously mentioned stone canopies loom overhead, hiding higher-level encounters in their shadows. A series of waterfalls slopes into one of the title's larger lakes to the Northwest of NLA, while another large body of water, a decent to the shoreline, and several plateaus are bordered by higher mountain ranges to the Northeast. If Monolith made the most of reusing topographical elements in XC, they do an even better job in XCX, with Primordia being the first area that maximizes diversity with a few simple features. The region features three zone exits- to Noctilium, Oblivia, and Primordia's Waters- as well as several subtle critical paths which lead to nestled Ganglion Bases, caves, and the aforementioned exits. Each of these paths takes the player down diverse topography that will be mixed to produce different effects in other regions, thanks largely in part to the varying degrees of elevation the game features. If there is one slightly disappointing aspect of the exits to Noctilium and Oblivia, it is that they are claustrophobic and abrupt. The exit to Primordia's Waters and therefore Sylvalum benefits from a healthy coastline on the Northern ridge of the main continent, as well as several land masses on the way to a similarly small entrance to Sylvalum. While this may seem like a major flaw to some, it is subverted in a rather excellent way, which we will discuss as we continue our analysis of each region.

Primordia is so massive, the player may neglect to return to the area in which the narrative begins- a small tutorial area tucked away West of NLA. Likewise, they may not discover some of its caves, landmarks, and details for a long time. Its mixture of early, mid, and endgame monsters ensures that it remains continuously threatening, and the tops of its stone canopies, as well as a few other hidden areas, are only accessible after the Travel Cycle is completed. It is an excellent starting area, surpassing Guar Plain in almost every aspect.

Noctilium, on the other hand, utilizes its geography in a completely different manner in order to produce a number of different effects. Should the player enter this area for the first time at its chronological story mission (Chapter 4), they will be treated to one of the best dungeon-like experiences one can find in the -blade series. This journey comprises roughly one-third of Noctilium's landmass, specifically, its opening area. The continent itself is narrow and long, opening up more in its Northernmost portion, but from its entry point, players are treated to a lush and dangerous rainforest aesthetic, featuring high cliffs and dense trees with a watery floor. Winding through this area leads out to a more open forest, but a BLADE caravan warns of a fork in the road and the relative safety of both routes. The player will eventually end up in a boss battle before closing out the chapter, only having witnessed a fraction of the region. Should they explore the continent before that point, they will still have to progress through this area, which holds a number of natural and satisfying encounters, but Monolith's usage of complex world design in order to facilitate a narrative is clearly evident in this area. We will see more examples of this sort of design in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but it is clear that it found its start here, in Noctilium.

Regarding the rest of the region, there is even more lovely topography to be found. I don't wish to come across as some sort of map fetishist, but man, Noctilium is fantastic. Its swampy start opens up into a larger forest (with explorable canopy!), followed by blue grass fields, a large lake bordered by steep canyons, and a long, shallow river. A Ganglion outpost makes up another thickly wooded area, which leads off to remote domain of the Tainted. At the end of this continent's Travel Cycle, the player will find the Divine Roost, boasting high-level enemies and the endgame Tyrant. Noctilium has plenty of ground to cover between its Southern dense flora and wide, exposed Northern region. It is particularly enjoyable to return to once the player has established a Data Probe in the middle of its land mass, but its most distinguishing feature is its excellent critical path within its opening.

Opposing Noctilium geographically and conceptually is Oblivia, a desert wasteland with its own unique features. While Noctilium's opening critical path is aesthetically pleasing and unpredictable, Oblivia's is barren and bland. From its entrance, the player can take a Southern route to some cliff-side danger and high-level Ganglion outposts, or the safer Northern route, which is capped by mountains. Oblivia's first cave is well-telegraphed and perhaps the first chronological indicator that the player should be paying closer attention to their surroundings, and the Northern path leads into a trench area with some higher cliffs and canopy before opening up into its vast wastes. High-level mobs announce their presence from afar in this region, and the lack of cover or ledges to catch pursuing enemies can spell doom for the player. While its opening is somewhat boring, the rest of this region is anything but, a pounding soundtrack emphasizing the sand- and electromagnetic storms, which can manifest in persistent weather damage. The Northern route leads to a beach and a route into a large Ganglion base, while the Southern route follows a river that veers off to the East and hints at several dangerous areas, while further South yields one of Oblivia's distinct Rings. The Southeast yields a large grotto and a chain of islands, the last of which can only be accessed through the first movement expansion. In the Northeast, there are a series of floating islands that require completion of the Travel Cycle in order to gain access.

One of Oblivia's more curious details is “The Hole,” the only bottomless pit in any of the regions. While it causes the entrance route to veer off in two different directions, it is a unique feature that can be subverted with the complete Travel Cycle. Another enjoyable aspect of Oblivia are the nature of its smaller Ganglion outposts, which are situated in smaller, sandy structures and burrows. One note I would like to make about Mira's continents is that they all possess their own unique ecosystems, with certain enemies being present only in specific regions. While there are also regional variants, this aspect helps drive home the distance and diversity between each continent, Outside of these aspects, however, There is little else that stands out about Oblivia, although it is still a fascinating continent with its fair share of unique encounters and topography.

More than halfway done, next is the sandy, silent Sylvalum. This region succeeds in having a similar aesthetic to Satorl Marsh and Mount Valak from XC, in that it becomes more engaging and alive at night. Early on in my exploration of Sylvalum, I found the region to be rather bland. However, much like the final region Cauldros, a tenacious spirit will seek out the best aspects of Sylvalum and be rewarded for doing so. It is a mostly flat continent, however there are several examples of extreme elevation that allow access to its true treasures. Sylvalum features one of the most extensive subterranean areas in the game underneath its Western mountain range, which is topped with high-level mobs. The massive Noctilucent Sphere is host to its own denizens, and the Cavernous Abyss opposes it at the peak of the Western mountain chain. Although its ground level is open, several species of wildlife will constantly pester the player, as well as some massive machines. Sylvalum is also host to one of the more powerful endgame Tyrants, as well as one of the game's most titanic boss encounters. What Sylvalum lacks in color, it makes up for in diversity of its terrain, which is surprising, considering a majority of it is sandsea, but the constant threat of higher-level enemies makes exploring this continent a very different experience. Like Oblivia, there is little space to hide, but enemy density is higher and their maneuverability is superior.

Finally, Cauldros is the most hostile-looking continent, and has several unique features that set it apart. Its lava fields are one of the few hazardous terrain types in the game, as is its psychedelic spring in its Western region. However, the critical path to its artificial structures- the largest in the entire game- is relatively straightforward and safe, and the player will have likely unlocked the proper movement enhancements to overcome any of the terrain hazards. This is not to say that the enemies here are not suitably dangerous- there are numerous Ganglion bases, and the artificial structures are teeming with higher-level mecha and infantry. The vertical nature of Cauldros is one of its more distinct features, as it has a few tight paths up its Northernmost mountain range and several narrow artificial paths interlinking its large structures. Likewise, it features arguably the highest density in aerial enemy types, in addition to one of the more massive enemy types. Finally, it features persistent weather damage in the form of brimstone rain and electrical storms.

This, of course, neglects to mention the several small islands that lay off the coast of each continent, often featuring a unique encounter or rare material. While none of these are large enough to, say, appear on the map, they exist for the brave explorer to uncover. When considering this aspect, it is surprising that Monolith chose not to include an archipelago style area- the closest we get to this is the area in between Primordia and Sylvalum- but this would counter the idea of each continent being a substantial land mass. Likewise, the positioning of these continents is odd- there is a significant amount of open space between Noctilium, Sylvalum, and Oblivia, for example. This was likely a result of allowing proper loading while traveling at maximum speed between them, however, and given the frequency and convenience that exists in fast-travel, it is hardly an issue.

Some of the more intimate content in XCX's world design is often its best. When players have the freedom to sprint off upon drawing aggro, there is often little cause for alarm, unless an enemy has particularly great range or speed. But XCX's Ganglion Bases and caves are all unique in design, even though they reuse a number of the same assets. In comparison with a game like Breath of the Wild, which strips down enemy encampments to series of small platforms and an occasional skull structure, Ganglion bases have interlocking catwalks, structures with multiple levels, areas with livestock, and even more dangerous, inaccessible points. Caves, on the other hand, will often have gimmicks, such as tight bridges, vine-like structures, and water or lava hazards that the player must avoid in order to reach their deepest point, sometimes delicately. It is somewhat shocking that XCX has as much diversity as it does in these areas, which can be approached with stealth or platforming in mind, but they shine the most when integrated with quests, where a narrative beat occurs within their pits.

With such a vast and varied world to explore, one would assume that, given XC's impressive character development and combat, the main cast would be just as fascinating, correct?

Well. Here's the thing.

Part 009: We've Been Tasked to Protect and Take On Ghosts (Characters and Combat)

The goal of XCX was to create a more exploration-focused gameplay experience with a diminished emphasis on narrative. With this in mind, the way the characters in the game as designed and function is not surprising, however this should be a clear indicator that the level of complexity among them rarely reaches the levels of its predecessor.

This is one of the more difficult aspects to reconcile about XCX, as the previous title told an intimate story with overlapping layers in a much more cinematic way. Each of its characters had a distinct visual appearance and a central combat motif that made their gameplay compelling. The small cast size meant that each member of the party was given time to grow. In almost every way, XCX's design opposes this, with a larger cast of recruitable characters whose roles within the central narrative are relatively small. Likewise, combat has been altered in significant ways that result in characters having distinguishable, yet superficial traits that separate them from the core cast.

In fact, the phrase “distinguishable, yet superficial” can be used to describe most of the characters in XCX. A quick overview of the playable cast:

Elma is the game's protagonist. She takes care of business, is really smart, and trusts few people. Probably because she's secretly ugly.
Lin is her sidekick. She is really, REALLY smart, but in engineering. Her parents are dead.
Tatsu is a lone Nopon in a crazy world. He is a useless piece of ****.
Lao is the leader of another BLADE group. He's really sad, but he's also really skilled.
Doug is a pilot and a good guy. He's also a bit of a meathead.
Irina is a no-nonsense, hard-hitting gal who can- and will- beat you up. She idolizes Elma.
Gwin is some punk-ass kid who wants to be as cool as you. He also has the hots for Irina.
L is a stupid alien who misinterprets almost every idiom known to humanity. He's tall.
Frye is a loud-mouthed, boisterous Killer Ostrich.
Phog is his absent-minded brother.
Hope is hopeful.
The Murderess is a sultry, status-obsessed backstabber with a heart of gold(?).
Nagi is your boss. No, your OTHER boss. He's a badass with a cool demeanor.
Celica is a dainty alien who doesn't like to fight, but will certainly do so if the situation demands it.
Mia is missing in action!
Cross is you. You are Cross.

This is over-simplifying, of course, and does not factor in the additional four DLC characters, included with the base package in the game's Western release. These characters have deeper motivations and harrowing backstories, and often struggle with the nature of their circumstance in the only way they can- by teaming up with Cross to go kill indigenous wildlife. However, even without those additional party members, creating unique personalities and interactions between the fourteen base party members is a daunting task in itself. Understandable, then, that only a portion of these characters directly contribute to the main narrative, although it does raise the question of why there is such a high amount of them in the first place. In my opinion, the game could have easily gone without Doug, Hope, L, and Gwin- although this stems mostly from my own preference, as I feel these characters contribute nothing to the main narrative, and that their side quest related content is barely worth mentioning.

Also, screw Gwin.

But the lack of character- or rather, the odd way characters choose to express themselves- means that most of the player's focus will remain on questing. While there are Heart-to-hearts, the more important factor in boosting party member affinity is that, upon completing their related quest chains, you gain access to their unique combat Arts. In a way, knowing that you have gained access to a quest involving one of the party is more exciting than actually getting to know the party member themselves, with a few exceptions. Even with a majority of duds, there are a few shining examples: Lao's character arc is the best in the game, as he explores survivor's guilt, humanity, and the futility of existence in fascinating ways. Irina has her own troubled past and a gruff demeanor that is ultimately more charming than anything. Nagi is pretty hardcore, especially once you realize he's more than just a higher-up barking orders at his subordinates, and the Murderess has a number of great moments that are bolstered by her interactions with Irina. Celica is one of the more unique party members and her quests have a nice and honest tone to them, something that XCX seems to lack.

If XC's characters were brimming with enthusiasm and trust, Monolith seemed determined to steer themselves in the opposite direction with XCX. Almost every member of NLA is a piece of **** in some way. I don't say that simply for laughs, this portrayal of humanity is particularly biting in its honesty because of how utterly indecent it can be. Even as the last members of a near-extinct race, they never cease trying to class up the place with racist bigotry, assassination attempts, general laziness, and a lust for profit. When the question of why every one of NLA's citizenship isn't a BLADE member came to mind, I realized how unfit a large majority of the characters were for a relatively decent line of work. Even then, there are still a number of BLADE members who exhibit some scummy behavior.

One of the only redeemable characters in the game is- no, not Elma- the player avatar, Cross. Since, you know, he takes on an absurd amount of busy work and mingles with the underbelly of the community of NLA, taking on the greatest threats on Mira with grace and aplomb. In all seriousness, though, this is just an excuse to talk about Cross' design, or more particularly, the avatar creation system. There's an immense amount of options for the player to explore, in ways that don't make logical sense within the context of the game, but damn if it isn't fun as hell. While in-game avatar customization is locked behind- you guessed it- a side quest, the process of creating a single design can be exhaustive, and rediscovering the option in the mid-game is a sort of breath of fresh air. If, you know, you're into that sort of thing. The art style of character designer Kunihiko Takana is well-represented in all of its weirdly inhuman qualities. While it doesn't mesh perfectly with the world design, it has a great deal of character, and the big foreheads help you think about the vastness of space.

Jokes aside, the avatar creation is really fun.

But an analysis of character would be incomplete without a look at where XCX truly shines, which is in its alien species. The “Xeno-” in this series is in full effect here, with ten unique races eventually taking residence in NLA, humans included. Each of these races has their own unique physiology, culture, and lore, which are fully explored in- yep, you guessed it- quests. With only a handful of these races being directly mentioned in the main narrative, the player also has the potential to miss them for an extended period of time due to their introductions being hidden by seemingly innocuous quest titles. However, I can say with certainty that players will likely meet the majority, if not all of these races in a single playthrough of XCX, and that they introduce fantastic and bizarre content that is truly the heart and soul of the game. Discovering the reproductive cycle of the Orpheans and the strange effects that Mira has on them, finding a suitable source of food for the Zaruboggans, freeing the Definians from servitude, and many more mundane and bizarre side stories play out during the course of life on Mira. Becoming locked into a specific species' narrative out of simple and enjoyable curiosity were some of my most fond memories. The way the xenoform element eventually integrates into NLA provides one of the more alien locales and themes, serving as a hub for some of the most absurd side quests of the game. While not every aspect of these alien species is likable, they aren't necessarily supposed to be, which is one of the more honest and strangely immersive elements of the storytelling in XCX.

If there is one regret I have regarding these races, however, it is that only a fraction of them are playable. Those who are fit under the same class archetypes as the human characters, and hey, that's as good a reason as any to take a look at combat.

While XC's active-selection battle system and Arts palette return, some core modifications have been made to character progression and roles within combat, to the extent that, although the game has fundamental similarities, its faster pace and moment to moment gameplay feels entirely unlike its predecessor. In order to fully appreciate how different XCX is, there are several key elements that must be addressed first, as they inform other aspects of combat down the line. While the color system from XC returns (a previously unmentioned aspect of XC's combat system, in which specific colors of Arts inflict certain kinds of status/debuff effects), there is an additional layer of complexity based upon player weaponry.

You always have access to two weapons- one ranged, one melee- and each possesses its own slew of offensive and defensive Arts. However, players will find using only one weapon type to be unwise, as both have their benefits. The clearest balancing act is that melee auto-attack damage accrues higher Tension Points, the game's equivalent of mana/MP, at the cost of defense due to their proximity to the enemy. Tension Points can activate specific Arts that deal even higher amounts of damage. While Arts cooldown ensures that spamming abilities is not possible, there is another, opposing aspect to Arts selection, one unique to XCX's combat- secondary cooldowns that offer stronger effects or immediate reuse of an Art. Tertiary cooldowns can be accessed via Overdrive, which is something we should probably get into.

Overdrive is XCX's combination of both Talent Arts and Chain Attacks from XC. By building up TP to 3000, players can initiate this mode, which enhances Arts power, can give a number of bonuses, and give Arts access to tertiary cooldown, which can boost their power or consecutive reuses further. Overdrive has a number of strange color combination aspects (used by chaining Arts of specific and respective colors together) that can push the mode to even higher levels, and cause even a mid- to late-game player to extreme heights. While its features are not explicitly described to players- and its tutorial in Chapter 5 barely scratches the surface of its potential- Overdrive may not be a mechanic that a player can take advantage of in the mid-game, but dedicating a build to maximize Overdrive potential can have absurd benefits that can help overcome extremely difficult enemies.

Any party member can activate Overdrive, but its mid-game introduction means that earlier combat relies heavily on class builds. The player avatar Cross is the only character able to switch between classes, while other party members remain locked into their initial build, but each party member has their own unique Arts that Cross can access once he has finished their Affinity Quests. Starting with the primary, introductory Drifter class, options branch out into three intermediate classes, with two additional branches possessing their own two tiers. Each class has its own weapon set, with high-class weaponry being exclusive and possessing some of the best Arts in the game. But, each class also specializes in specific elemental damage, so applying the class skills- unlocked by gaining experience though ranking up- serves to increase the effectiveness of a specific branch even further. However, the goal of maxing out classes is being able to utilize different skills and weapons within different classes. Or perhaps, finding the perfect, most devastating combo possible. Starting a new intermediate tree sets you back to square one in terms of weapon-specific Arts, so you're either stuck with using limited options while exploring a new class, or using the same weapons in a new class. It doesn't feel like the most elegant solution, and class experimentation is encouraged in the late- or post-game, when a number of exclusive combat simulations allow you to boost their level far faster.

What is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of XCX, however, is its lack of a dedicated medic class. This choice was made, apparently, because Takahashi and Monolith felt that players did not enjoy playing as this type of build. I personally find this surprising, as Melia and Sharla, two healer-centric characters in XC, were some of my favorite to play as, but with the way XCX's combat operates in its current state- even without Soul Voice, the medic mechanic replacement- I think that a buff and healing class would likely be slower and more passive, in general. In the place of healing is Soul Voice, which simultaneously functions as an Affinity building and attack buff system. When certain events occur within battle, such as an enemy receiving a debuff or a party member falling under a certain HP value, they will initiate a dialogue box that requests a certain type of Art. If the player responds with the correct Art type, a bonus will be applied. While certain builds can apply passive healing benefits and specific Arts do have healing effects, the frequency of Soul Voice and Cross' particular custom options involving the mechanic allow for steady healing intermingled with offensive options. It is almost surprising how well XCX's combat operates without healing, although it is very rare that a battle escalates to a higher level, which we will encounter later in the series. Aggro is still in effect here, but because of Mira's more expanse world design, players can have intimate skirmishes without drawing the attention of larger threats.

Monolith makes little attempt to vary weapon classes within XCX's combat system. While sniper rifles have greater range than others, for example, I feel that classes could have leaned more heavily on certain weapon types to diversify them more. On the other hand, the unlocking of high-tier weapon classes is an example of this philosophy, somewhat. With its faster pacing, multiple interwoven systems, and the ability to travel and fight with four characters in contrast to XC's three, one may think that this combat system is already extremely in-depth, requiring a great amount of investment in order to master and maximize.

Except, you would be neglecting the giant robots.

Part 010: Standing as Long as We Can Until We Get All Dolls Up (Skells and Equipment)

We're rather deep into our retrospective journey across Mira, so it makes sense that we should gain access to Skells at this point. Although they feature front and center on XCX's box cover art and can be seen on numerous occasions in the early and mid-game, access to a Skell is not granted until after Chapter 6 of 12, and even then, they are not the god-mode that one might assume them to be. While they do add some layer of complexity to combat, there is also a sense of stripping away that occurs. If there is anything that Skells truly contribute towards, it is exploration of Mira.

Skells feature their own combat Arts, equipment, Tension Points (renamed Gear Points), and Overdrive, and though each of these is roughly a 20 level buff atop their license level, they are more simplistic in nature than the mechanics of their pilots. Arts are determined by the weapons equipped to the Skell, with specific equipment mounts for certain types of weaponry. Each Art costs fuel, which is in limited reserve determined by Skell frame type. Some Arts generate GP, with auto-attacks being a more consistent and reliable option, but the most-frequently beneficial state to utilize is Binding, which can occur when a Skell staggers an enemy. Binding gives players the chance to freeze an enemy in place and regain fuel and GP through button prompts, which is really quite nice. Their Overdrive negates fuel use and grants some passive benefits, but there is no Overdrive counter like their pilots possess. There is a neat little thing called Cockpit Time that can happen, but its highly randomized because of its obvious benefits (resetting all Arts cooldowns).

Their somewhat structured and straightforward approach to combat befits their construction and role within the story, which is minimal and lacking personality. While different frames have their own appearances and specific benefits, they function very similarly within combat, even closer than normal characters of differing classes. They can grant buffs to party members fighting without a Skell, but that specific character is likely going to be the first to fall, no matter what. With their mechanical nature, they do not grow in level like normal characters, rather there are three tiers of each design, at level 30, 50, and 60. See, even when the player receives their first Skell, they are still very susceptible to getting wiped out during exploration, simply because they are piloting a device that augments their character's combat potential roughly to level 50, nothing more. When gifted your first Skell, you only get one, and buying more, as well as the equipment to maximize their construction, is extremely cost-intensive. Like, I can't even begin to explain it. Chances are, you'll probably end up wrecking your Skell, and then you'll have to either use a ticket to save it from the scrap heap, pay for repairs yourself, or scrap it.

I hope you don't scrap it.

This is where a great deal of the currency grinding from FrontierNav comes in handy, in fact, this is probably the reason currency can be gathered from FrontierNav probes. Skells, their equipment, and party equipment cost is extremely high in XCX, to the point where almost every choice feels like an intense commitment. While there is a great deal of materials and equipment that can be found in the field and much of it can be sold for a fair price, the way equipment options grow from within NLA based on alien species acquisition and your own investments is a much more appealing- and cost-intensive. Skells, in particular, will cost you a pretty penny, and if you aren't good an ejecting from them properly, repairing them can cost you even more.

But as I said before, Skells are also hugely beneficial to the exploration of Mira, as they comprise the second and third tier of XCX's Travel Cycle. Skell jumps overcome a number of the intentional height limitations found in the world design and their ability to hover over water gives them the ability to reach many places a normal party member could not, and their flight modules allow the player to push their traversal to its vertical extremes. While there are a few areas that are extremely high in Mira, the flight module is mostly used for uncovering areas where there are no walking paths, such as hidden caves on the sides of mountains, or areas that would be just out of reach for other means of access. Fulfilling the traditional roles of mounted travel with their vehicular forms (which can satisfyingly launch smaller enemies into the air) and airship travel with their flight module, Skells give this open-world title a much more familiar feel to a traditional RPG than expected.

While Skells feel like something of a downgrade to normal combat, the feeling of empowerment that comes with them adds another layer of exhilaration to exploring the landscape and taking down even larger foes, some of which are extremely hard to tackle even with higher level party members. They can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a boon, especially when traveling in particularly dangerous areas where they are at risk of being destroyed. But, like normal party members, Skells have their own forms of sprinting from danger, which can often be utilized to circumvent unwanted engagements.

As a final, cursory note, basic equipment is very nice in this game. From utilitarian humanoid loadouts, to more alien aesthetics, and even “sexy-type battle suits” (Takahashi's words, not mine), each style of armor encompasses three different weight classes that benefit specific play styles, while also offering their own unique benefits. Quests unlock a number of gear types that, although gimmicky in nature, often work best with cosmetic application. The option to layer over specific types of gear for aesthetic quality in a cosmetic function exists in XCX, so players can experiment with making their characters look fancy while also focusing on specific builds. As mentioned previously, each new alien race that joins NLA offers up their own brands of weaponry and equipment, which further adds to the game's character. Augments also exist and can be applied to equipment, and for a significant investment, you can even add slots to equipment in order to push their potential further. It all adds to the depth that can be found in the game's systems, and is missing somewhat from its main narrative.

Part 011: The Key We've Lost (Story)

As we've mentioned time and time again, XCX was developed with questing in mind, and that is largely where its more engaging narratives and characters come out. However, while its central narrative doesn't immediately grip the player like in XC, it is very evocative of the game as a whole, touching on its themes lightly at times and directly during others. In short, XCX's storyline is about the perfect and flawless Elma taking an even more perfect and flawless Cross under her wing as they search for the Lifehold, a device that contains all of NLA's humanity, in a number of ways. A ticking clock atop BLADE Tower tells the residents how much time they have left before the Lifehold loses power, which would effectively leave NLA out of luck. See, all of the human characters in XCX are actually Mimeosomes, devices created to allow humans to experience their surroundings while their body was held elsewhere. So the Lifehold carries the source of the human consciousness, something that the Ganglion- the antagonistic force in the narrative- desperately wants to destroy.

That's the general gist, but there is also the curious nature of Mira itself, which allows numerous alien species the ability to converse with each other despite obvious language differences. There's a fabled mech buried somewhere, a giant guardian of the planet named Telethia, and some other curious aspects that shouldn't sit right with the player throughout their journey, and even up until the very ending moments, the game throws plot twist after plot twist at the player. While each new revelation is treated as fact, the overall narrative paints a picture of ambiguity. Not only do the characters often have trouble trusting one another, but its never really the way that they interact with the player avatar that sparks curiosity, rather, it is Elma who tends to make these sorts of executive decisions. As Cross is the only direct link players have to the game, his role as a secondary protagonist causes something of a disconnect. While this focus on avatar customization developed from the game's meager multiplayer functionality, it doesn't really feel justified, as it causes the main narrative to suffer.

However, if the player is meant to feel like a cog that turns the wheels of NLA, then their role is much more justified. The only problem is, that you are the one who is completing a majority of the quests while Elma takes credit for them. True, you are taken under her wing and she does outrank you, you are the catalyst for all of the success her team eventually has. In a grand gesture, she completely overshadows any sort of importance you might have held in the game's final moments, which, to be honest, caused a bit of animosity to develop within me regarding her. Her actions are justifiable within the plot on a number of levels, but it doesn't make up for the fact that, when it all comes down to it, Elma is the only character who is able to come out alive in the end.

Characters like Lao and Lin receive the better part of dialogue regarding the will to survive and its cost on one's humanity, and this is truly where the game shines. When it isn't concerned with being very “HOO HAH HUMANITY,” the game can be very sentimental in the way that it values human life- to an extent. While much of the game tricks the player into believing that the human race very much has a second chance at existence, the way the narrative reveals the best and worst of their choices and nature. It is a thoughtful and sad look at how a struggle for survival would occur, and very telling at the same time.

On the other hand, when the game is indulging in its “HOO HAH HUMANITY,” it is very enjoyable. The sequence in which the player must defend NLA, as well as what is arguably the grand dest boss battle across all three games, at least in scale, are absolutely fabulous, and the cutscene leading up to the final chapter is enough to get anyone determined to save humanity. It's equal parts a celebration of human brute force and aggression, as well as their delicate emotions. This is especially evident in Affinity Quests, which reveal the softer side of many of the military personnel you encounter during your journey.

XCX's main narrative only sets the foundation for what will be explored further in its quests, which deal much more with the implications of faith, decency, and allegiance. This is why I personally feel that an analysis of its main narrative simply doesn't allow a player to appreciate all that it has to offer in terms of story content. After characters are introduced within the central storyline, they are embellished much further in quest material, which allows the player to better appreciate their appearance. Likewise, many of the best characters and races make no appearance whatsoever within the main narrative, which may be a strike against the way that story is told. However, a game is a complete package, main and side content, combat and exploration, and where one of these aspects may fail, another may vastly overcome expectations. But as it stands, most of XCX's narrative content dwells on the darker side, offering little hope for the survival of our species outside of extraterrestrial intervention. The way this title concludes is one of the more grand carpet-sweeps I've seen in a JRPG, period, and while it begs for a sequel, I believe that XCX on its own serves as a satisfying enough look at what Takahashi believes of humanity.

Part 012: Just Try to Live Your Life (Final Impressions)

As gargantuan a game as XCX is, there are some aspects where it relies a bit too heavily on its nature as a JRPG in order to pad out content. Although the game has more precise functions for finding quest-related locations and NPCs, the nature of its party recruit system is somewhat baffling and aggravating. Whiel just as organic a world as the first game, party characters will only be present for recruitment in certain places at certain times, and their Heart-to-heart locations are sometimes extremely precise. Much like the first game, XCX's material drop points have a percentage rate, which can be meddled with much in the same method as the first game. Enemies also have multiple target points, and breaking particular parts of their body increases the potential for certain drops, so material grinding can be more of a process. Many of its side quests still equate to tedious gathering or mob slaying grinds, while others are highly specific requests, like wearing a certain type of equipment and using it in battle. Despite its large amount of complex and narrative-driven quests, there's still a whole lot of stuff that makes playing the game feel more like a job than anything.

But, once again, I believe this was the intended effect. During one of the very first chapters, the player is tasked with choosing a guild within the BLADE organization, which specializes in certain types of quests, and offers increased BLADE rank experience for the player upon completion. While some of these are straightforward and much easier to accomplish (for example, there is a mob-slaying guild and a mineral-collection guild) others have more nuanced functions like helping NLA citizens or acting as bodyguards. In the end, XCX is a game about exploration and living life in a world that is extremely hazardous, fitting themes that pair well with its narrative. It's about making, spending, and investing money. It's about discovering new people and their traditions and seeing them integrate into society. It's about contributing to a mission larger than the individual, which is likely the reason for its diminished focus on character. In that way, a game that feels like a job, and a world that feels like it grows and changes thanks to completed quests and increased familiarity is something of a success. While I don't believe that concept will sit well with everyone, it is something that makes a great deal of sense when looking at the product as a whole, and I believe that it is a prime example of a game using its genre to accentuate its message and motif.

My first impressions of XCX were very lukewarm, finding the faster pacing and increased complexity somewhat inaccessible. However, as is the case with many JRPGs, learning the systems is part of the experience, and with that learning process in XCX also comes familiarity with its world. I will admit that I stuck to a number of the more basic quests at the start of my first playthrough of XCX, but upon discovering the more extended narratives found within, a quickly learned to appreciate the game a great deal more. When I think of XCX, I am reminded of its strangeness- some Ma-non who are obsessed with pizza and others who want to start a lingerie business, the creepy Cantor who end up taking over the Biahno Water Purification Plant, helping the Orphean gain a new gender, and the absurd antics of rival Prone clans. There is very little that I loved about XC present in XCX, except perhaps its sense of scale, but I think my love for this Wii U title has encompassed its successor. There is a ton of truly unique content to be found in between its more tedious quests, and with a dedicated goal and informed perspective of the game and its systems, players can feel a continual sense of growth as they seek to overcome Mira. In gaining the endgame Skells, players can begin their hunt to take on the worst that Mira has to offer, but those attempts will take a lot of living- and a lot of dying- in order to complete this gargantuan game.

In returning to XCX, I was intimidated by the amount of content I would have to cover. In conceiving this series of analysis, I wanted to focus solely on the world design in the -blade games, with this game in particular being my most anticipated subject. While there is still so much more I could say about the design of Mira and its many rewards, I eventually decided that only covering XCX's world would be a disservice to the experience that it provides, which lead me to expand my analysis to the other areas of these games. Although XCX does not offer something as concise or satisfying as the narrative arc of its predecessor, or a combat system as approachable and enjoyable as its successor, it is a extremely well-crafted title, one that stands out against its contemporaries and even the games that flank it.

One final note to make, and something that has long been a point of contention regarding this title, is the source of all the segment titles for the coverage of XCX. Hiroyuki Sawano's Original Soundtrack for this game has always been something of a mixed bag, with its odd lyrical choices and grungy, rustic atmosphere. While I am certain it will not resonate with everyone, I believe that this soundtrack pairs with the game extremely well, with moments of subtlety and quietness intermingled with its pulsating, epic battle themes. The day and night themes for each of the five continents are extremely diverse and fitting, and even its tracks with vocals have surprisingly contextual lyrics. More than anything, however, Sawano's soundtrack suits the more serious tone of the game, with a comedic track that still subdued in nature. While I love the unique boss theme from XC, I cannot deny that I adore XCX's, as well.

With what was the largest Wii U game under their belt, featuring depth that rivaled the other open-world title on the system, Breath of the Wild, Monolith began work on their next project immediately, hoping to go for something with a unique visual flair in comparison with their previous efforts. It would be a title with a relatively smooth development process, benefiting from multiple character artists and a more focused vision. Would the next -blade entry build upon the complexities found in this open-world title and learn from some of the more glaring concerns regarding quests and ease of accessibility, or would it take a different direction entirely?

We wouldn't have to wait long to find out, and the result would be something that would combine some of the series' staples in different ways, streamlining its design in ways that would create a wholly unique experience.

I encourage you to share your own experiences with Xenoblade Chronicles X, as well as your impressions of this analysis. If there are any aspects you feel have been missed, or concepts that have been ill-defined, I am open for discussion and debate. I hope you look forward to the next installment, covering Xenoblade Chronicles 2.


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