When an individual has spent well over a hundred hours of their life playing Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, there's an initial instinct that jumping into the enormous world of Xenoblade Chronicles X will be like putting on a big woolly jumper. Sure, it's larger and less snug, but it's also warm, inviting and familiar.
Xenoblade Chronicles X isn't like a cozy jumper - it's more like a doctoral thesis. Let's put it another way - we're already planning a "getting started" guide for when this comes out as, frankly, we wish we'd had one.
Some of our confusion has been our own fault. We're too used to games holding our hand and guiding us step-by-step. Monolith Soft, however, opens things with Earth being obliterated, shows New LA - your base of operations - crashing down on Planet Mira, tells you to create a character and BAM - you're playing. The tutorial is fairly hands off, and as we were over-cocky from playing the previous entry we saw the familiar real-time Arts-based combat system and merrily jumped in. Who needs manuals anyway?
With this game we all do. When you buy this game, and our thought right now is that fans of the Wii title should be strongly contemplating it - read the manual.
Anyway, onto important stuff. After a brief linear section you emerge to view the wider world, starting off with the Primordia area in which New LA is based. It's stunning, and on a technical level Monolith Soft has achieved real wizardry here; not only are environments beautiful but they stretch onto a distant horizon with a notable draw distance. When the developers boast of seeing a distant land and being able to simply run there, they're not lying, and the scope on offer makes some modest character animations and the odd rough texture more than forgivable.
The sheer scale here is incredible, and importantly the world's design is accomplished - this shouldn't surprise fans of the Wii / New 3DS title. Primordia is full of grasslands and sheer cliffs, Noctilum is a vast forest with plenty of caves and intriguing areas, while Oblivia is a sprawling and harsh desert wasteland. That's as far as we've gotten in 18 hours and five completed Story Chapters of play so far, and we've not even seen the full extent of those areas - Sylvalum and Cauldros are still to come. Throw in New LA with five distinct districts and it's an extraordinary world that's been created.
Much of the enjoyment - and time - is spent exploring, and you can quite easily pile up your list of pending 'normal' missions that often require you to gather items or see off specific creatures, earning you experience points and money as you go. The Story Chapters, on the other hand, are the meat of the experience and can take a lot of time to clear, for various reasons. Early on progress is simple, but after the first few missions unlock criteria emerge.
This is where we hit a block that cost us about 4-5 hours - 'Affinity' missions are a tier below story chapters but, like those main quests, can't be cancelled nor be replaced with another affinity or story task once they've been accepted. When chapter 5 requested we finish a specific affinity quest before starting we assumed it was the one nearest the briefing area, accepted it by accident and thought "oh well, let's do it anyway". Bearing in mind these quests often have their own unlock requirements we assumed we were levelled up sufficiently for the challenge.
Simply put, it was an irritating few hours on one quest, and we were annoyed at ourselves for sloppiness but also at the designers of the mission. One requirement was to gather infuriatingly rare items from Oblivia, which despite earlier exploration we had none of. We ran around for about 90 minutes before getting the drops we needed. Next we needed to find an area with an obscure foe, then fight them and wait for more to regenerate as the drop from them was rarer than a unicorn's dropping. Then there was more tedious waiting while a mining probe we established - you set up probes of various types around the planet - mined a specific material in its own sweet time; we're not even convinced fiddling with the in-game time sped it up.
That's the worst balancing we've encountered in the game yet, though also came across a frustrating Story Mission in which a target was flanked by seriously beefed up bodyguards; it could only be approached very carefully with stealth, otherwise leading to death and restarting at a checkpoint that wasn't quite close enough. Only by recruiting a nearby player's avatar that was hanging around online (a lovely touch) to bring us up to a squad of four - and relying on a lot of luck - did we clear it. To show that this was down to iffy balancing the next segment of the mission was easy peasy, with us obliterating the 'bosses' courtesy of being a few levels higher than them. These balancing issues, when they occur, have been the only notable downside so far.
To be fair, outside of those frustrations we've thoroughly enjoyed embarking on a range of missions. The general gist is generally to scout more land, destroy certain creatures / foes or to deliver items, but the range of characters in the cast and the joy of traversing the planet are intoxicating. When in a natural flow hours simply melt away, and that sense of discovery will surely only amplify as we see more of Mira and embark on higher level missions. The story so far is thoroughly decent, too, giving a solid narrative of the challenges and dilemmas faced by humans unexpectedly marooned on a strange alien planet.
As for the aforementioned combat, while the real time Arts choices seen in Xenoblade Chronicles returns, there's a different process and set of strategies to consider. We're not even battling in Skells (mechs) yet, but it's immediately apparent that mastering Arts is just one half of the system. You also alternate between ranged attacks (using guns) and melee (with blades) with the X button. Your colleagues often shout cues and instructions while a flashing Art, when triggered, often prompts a quicktime button press to initiate addition buffs and change combos. In the heat of battle there's an excellent tempo and intensity - in addition to strategy - at play. It feels like a natural evolution in the Monolith Soft combat style.
Fans of complexity in their RPG mechanics, meanwhile, will feel like pigs slopping around in mud. The sub menus seem to have their own sub menus, including all of the equipment, Arts and Abilities trees and customisation that were loved in the previous entry. It all seems more complicated, though, simply due to the scale of content; there are even separate Class trees - with their own levelling up - reminiscent of traditional RPGs, in which you can shift course and develop skills to a different style. Do you want to be a sniper, support character or melee attacking force of nature? Those choices are there.
Early on you also choose from eight careers within BLADE, New LA's organisation for doing all of the things; you'd better believe there's a separate BLADE levelling system too, beyond the core and Class variations. It's not a particularly stressful choice as you can apparently change at any point - though heaven knows how, we'll check the manual - but each choice does seemingly tweak how the game treats you and the sorts of optional quests you undertake. Importantly it adjusts which activities reward you the most, so it's wise to pick a path suited to your gameplay style.
This BLADE mechanic is particularly neat courtesy of the online implementation, with each job type having separate team progression ratings; you can see which jobs are most popular, receive rewards and embark on online quests. We're yet to get far enough to truly do much more than grab our freebies and look at play stats for those with early access, but it's an impressive implementation on the surface, and one that could prove to be endlessly entertaining beyond the core play. Online questing could be a significant part of Xenoblade Chronicles X, even to the point that loading your save gives you the choice to focus on this network play if you so wish.
It's important that we cover the GamePad's usage too, which on the whole is excellent - we haven't had the courage to even think about switching to the Pro Controller yet. The screen offers various layers and variations of the world map in order to view different details, manage the probes you've established and even to fast travel, though we missed the latter for a while - again, we checked the manual. If we have a minor criticism it's with the general UI being a little confusing in nature, at least in the first few hours. In general, though, its a solid use of the unique controller.
We've already mentioned the general presentation, of course, praising the stunning locales while accepting there are some slightly rough textures and character designs - all reasonable in light of the size of the game. It's worth highlighting that, outside of fast travelling and cutscenes, load times are non-existent; you can seamless run across the entire world with no interruptions. The music is also top-notch - the modern style and infusion of rap, rock and modern sounds have seemingly had a mixed reception, but in the context of the gameplay and the futuristic sci-fi setting we think the soundtrack is shaping up well.
We could write all day - with way too much detail for a preview - on the hidden treats, the insane depth and all of the weapon types and gameplay styles this game supports; suffice to say until the review that there's immense depth here. This depth can either be embraced, loosely enjoyed or potentially ignored, though the latter option may fall over as the difficulty ramps up. It's a Monolith Soft game, so exploration, experimentation, customisation and some grinding are all par for the course.
We've had some short spells of irritation with Xenoblade Chronicles X, where balancing and aspects of design could be tighter, but overall we've thoroughly enjoyed the experience so far. At times it feels extraordinary to play, and we're aware that we've barely scratched the surface - we're looking forward to continuing the adventure.