In recent years, Monolith Soft has won my heart with their games. There was Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, which eschewed a lot of recent JRPG trends in favor of keeping things simple and basic, yet vast and creative. It was a great swan song for the Wii, and it made me excited for what they would do next. Now here we are with their foll0w-up, Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U, which plans to be more ambitious.

While it doesn’t exactly live up to its predecessor, Monolith’s creative energy keeps this sci-fi RPG engaging and exciting, even when it stumbles and occasionally gets annoying.

The plot to this in-name-only sequel goes like this. In the year 2054, Earth is caught in the crossfire of a major galactic conflict between two alien forces. The planet is destroyed and of the many spaceships meant to harbor the last of humanity and Earth’s culture, only one survives the carnage. After spending a large amount of time floating in space, the aliens known as the Ganglion, attack the ship, causing it to crash on the planet Mira. Your character is awoken from stasis two months after this crash, with convenient memory loss, and are eventually conscripted into a cobbled together military force called BLADE, tasked with protecting the temporary human colony of New Los Angeles, explore Mira, research its inhabitants and various continents, and inevitably prepare to make a stand against the alien menace hell bent on genocide.

The one thing that struck me immediately about Xenoblade Chronicles X is its sense of scale and its environment design. Mira is so huge and looks so amazing I had to remind myself this was on the Wii U. Dinosaur sized behemoths casually eating foilage or drinking from large rivers while smaller creatures scurry about. Large mountains, vast oceans, deep caverns, tower-sized flowers, volatile lava-spewing craters, all juxtaposed with the small and familiar houses, cars and shopping districts of New Los Angeles all come together to express the alien yet beautiful planet. All with no invisible walls or immersion breaking limitations; if you see it, with some work you can get there.xenoblade-chronicles-X322322

And Monolith Soft has no problem in letting you get lost in it. After character creation and about an hour of combat and movement tutorials, the game takes you off the leash and encourages you to explore and travel. Much like the original Xenoblade Chronicles, the combat is very similar to standard MMO fare – attacks that operate on a cooldown timer, battles are prolonged affairs with synergy between DPS, Tank, and Healer being paramount, etc. – and the various creatures having their own “zones” with their varying degrees of power. It’s one of the rare instances where looking around in an otherwise tame area full of creatures level 11 or so and stumbling upon a hive full of level 40s ready to eat my party alive didn’t feel like a cheap annoyance, rather a natural extension of Mira’s ecosystem that I’m slowly understanding. It’s very difficult to pull something like that off, and Xenoblade Chronicles X does it brilliantly.

But that freedom to explore does come at a cost. As mentioned before, the game takes about an hour or so to find its footing, and there’s a good reason for it: the gameplay is very complex. On top of the MMO-esque combat gameplay and the usual RPG fair of armor and weapon micromanagement, there are field skills you need to level up in order to actually record your findings – for the record take ranks in Mechanical as early as you can, a BLADE faction you have to join in order to get certain bonuses, an Affinity chart to keep track of which party members like you, labyrinthine skill trees for your class complete with weapon and armor restrictions, a corporate metagame where you get better armor and weapons based on you wearing stuff created by certain arms manufacturers, a research probe system where you drop probes in the field that double as fast-travel checkpoints, always a simple gamepad tap away, and resource harvesters with bonuses granted on what type of probes are used in close proximity of eachother, and finally maintaining and upgrading your Skell, a giant bipedal mech for when a threat is too big to deal with on foot. All of this, along with many other bits of content that would take too long to list, is dripfed to you throughout the game’s first thirty hours or so, and to its credit it helps keep the gameplay from becoming tedious, but when you have that much on your plate that’s all basically in service to making sure your stats, money, weapons and armor are the best it pulls focus from the sweeping vistas and imaginative creatures you’re learning to co-exist with when it could have easily been simpler.

As for the story and characters, they’re fairly solid. The main cast are standard archetypes, the child genius, the stoic badass with a tragic past and the goofy comic relief sidekick. They’re all acting decently, though none of the performances really stand out. On the other hand, the alien villains are very enjoyably hammy, hitting the perfect balance between a Saturday morning cartoon villain and an all-too-serious force of nature. The plot actually unfolds in a really interesting way, revealing more layers of the alien conflict and how Mira works, there are several twists that are handled well, and what little dialogue options you can make in the game do a great job of making you act out as your own character without a lot of expensive voice-acting or branching narrative paths.

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That’s a lot of smart decisions, so it’s disappointing that the minor problems are the ones that bring it down. First and foremost, the story missions are locked off until various requirements are met such as certain side missions or a percentage of a certain area is surveyed, and it brings any pacing the game has to a screeching halt. Compounding this problem is how most of the missions fall to the standard fetch quests like gathering ingredients in the field or collecting the body part of a certain creature. It’s a decent RPG workhorse model but the map, while great as a fast-travel system, doesn’t let you mark it or otherwise make personal notes. If certain quest items are only dropped by a specific type of creature in a specific type of place it would be a godsend to be able to cross off places you’ve looked or even keep notes on where certain items pop up. But they do, and you can’t, and it’s annoying.

There was an actual moment I had where I spent the better half of an entire day trying to track down one particular type of floating tentacled manta ray monster, and the only way I ultimately found it was taking a wild guess as to where they’d be based on where I saw the creatures before, and then mentally crossing off the wrong locations. That’s a lot of information to retain for a game world as large as this, and for something that is literally all about charting out unknown alien territory using the Wii U Gamepad as notepad should have been a no-brainer. This is kind of addressed with a Report system that is utilized via Miiverse, but it’s far too broad to be really helpful. As it stands, these moments of obvious padding are mildy tedious at best and excruciatingly dull at worst.

Also, as if the game didn’t feel enough like an MMO, there are some online features. There are special online missions where you have to get a party together in a lobby and work together towards a unique goal, and there are even major end-game level battles where upwards of thirty players can participate, all with special rewards promised. But, with this online comes the usual supply of Nintendo centric network quirks. If one person drops out of a party, the whole party is booted, there’s an arbitrary time limit on how long you have to collect your party, and a pretty intrusive menu that pops up every single time you continue your game asking if you wish to deal with these features or not. They’re not the best-implemented, and in some ways it feels like an afterthought, but taken in small doses these features are a decent addition.

Finally, the soundtrack choices are gloriously cheesy and can be seen as incongruous. The orchestral swells and vocals are used to great effect when exploring the continents, but when in New Los Angeles or during the game’s more comedic cutscenes, there’s a lot of over-the-top J-Rock and synths used. There are a lot of arguments that can be made that this breaks the tone of the game, you’d think the last of the human race would have a sobering musical tone after all, but I actually found it oddly charming. It keeps the tone somewhere in the optimistic range, keeping things upbeat and very cheery whenever you’re running around the city so when something powerful or impactful happens in the story, it feels appropriately operatic. The only instance that the music gets in the way is when the tracks used have lyrics and play over dialogue heavy cutscenes, which could have been a lot worse sound level wise, but it did get in the way of what was an otherwise engaging scene.

These minor annoyances and gameplay frustations aside, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a very enjoyable experience. Solid gameplay and a well-told narrative play host to one of the most creative and well-realized worlds this year. If you have a Wii U and enjoy gun battles and mech battles and can tolerate some tedium, this is a must own.