In this article Gonçalo "Shiryu" Lopes shares his personal reflections on Xenoblade Chronicles X, the enthralling Wii U title.
Exactly one year ago Wii U owners were given a unique opportunity to escape reality by embarking on the extremely difficult assignment: to beat extinction against all odds on Planet Mira. But Xenoblade Chronicles X faced even more difficult odds to capture its targeted audience; the Wii U was not a runaway success like its predecessor, and as such despite stellar reviews and a good marketing effort in showing off the game's uniqueness, less people played this game to completion. Meanwhile the previous Xenoblade Chronicles epic adventure even got itself an exclusive New 3DS portable version.
Those who somehow did get the game were challenged by its unprecedented micromanagement; it was harder than ever to take proper care of everyone in your team, let alone a complete four Skell squad. But those who persisted and began to venture further and further away from the relative safety of New Los Angeles were treated to a whole new world to explore, filled with both dangers and rewards, secrets, unique vistas and extensive underground caverns to get oneself lost into. There was even a main plot to follow that within its twelve chapters gently (even if every so often mischievously) guided your path along the entire planet's main attractions. The following are a few reflections from my experience with the game (a period of 680+ hours from December 3rd, 2015 to March 16th 2016). Spoilers will be marked accordingly.
I – You Are Not Special
It is all right to believe you are special. In the eyes of your parents, you truly are. But as you keep growing up sources like television, books and yes, even video games, will lead you to believe you are destined for greatness. A very few people are indeed special in that sense of the word, yet most will just live out their lives peacefully and unremarked by history.
Some will even be conscripted to serve their country in any number of roles (military, public service and others). The very notion of a "conscript" defines the individual lack of choice in the matter. Monolith - halfway into the game's production - decided to revoke the playable character from being an established character (much like Shulk was in "Xenoblade Chronicles") within the human population of New Los Angeles, making them an 'avatar' instead. Much like a conscript, the game introduces you to a new reality: you are a survivor from a crashed Generation ship (the USS White Whale) in an unknown alien planet, rescued by Elma (more on her later) and brought back to New Los Angeles. As far as anyone knows this group represents the very last remains of mankind because Earth is no more, the aliens that destroyed you also destroyed the White Whale and are on this planet to finish what they started on Sol.
Of course, this is just a video game, as such the conscription bit is optional here: you don't have to join B.L.A.D.E. and become another cog in Mankind's last military organization, but for the sake of argument let us say that you can't turn off the game and play something else: You have no choice but to become a part of the established order, in one of the B.L.A.D.E. branches. It is a gentle process as the game's lengthy tutorials start to indoctrinate skills that help you survive outside the walls of New Los Angeles, and before you know it and despite the whole impending gloom and doom always hanging above everyone's head (brilliantly and constantly reminded by the decreasing number on the B.L.A.D.E. Tower) you start to accept your current predicament and to question everything the games throws at you. You start to naturally feel the need to go out and explore to find answers and solutions for both immediate and long term problems that nearly overwhelm you most of the time.
But you won't save everything and everyone as the "Legendary Hero of Prophecy, Saviour of Mankind and Destroyer of all Aliens". Your success is always measured in small crumbs and never for being heroic. You're just a soldier fulfilling orders, wherever they may take you. Even when you manage to pull off amazing feats, the game quickly humbles you by reminding just how small you truly are in the big picture, something it keeps doing the entire length of your adventure. I found this approach rather interesting and refreshing, but I assume most people will give up long before they see the main story ending because of the abuse constantly being pushed on both the player and the inhabitants of New Los Angeles. That is the price you must endure for not being the main character of "Xenoblade Chronicles X"; you're just swept along with all the events before and after your rescue. So don't feel too bad if you're not special in this game, you are still the one that slowly moves things along. And speaking of main characters…
II – Mira is the Main Character
*CAUTION: Elma & Ending Spoilers Ahead*
Having established that you are not the saviour of legend, you might be led to believe that perhaps one of your companions might be, namely Elma who ends up not being exactly who you were first lead to believe. Yet, after a reasonable explanation for a ton of weird stuff going on in the game's twelve story chapters, the final bit of the ending reveals that even Elma was victim of a very sneaky trickster named Mira. That is correct, you read that correctly. It was there from the very beginning, gently (or not so much in the case of certain events) nudging you along. Mira, the planet where everything takes place, is the main character.
To put it bluntly, the place is huge! I mean really, really big, and I found myself using the clever in-game location and tracking system often because when you're a tiny human walking along any of the game's five different continents, it is very easy to get distracted with one of the hundreds of interesting local fauna and flora, networks of underground caverns, hidden treasures that more often than not are not easily claimed without a fight. Besides the extreme weather phenomenon here and there, Mira gets even livelier at night, with its somewhat strange five moons always above and a starry sky that - unlike our own - does not move. We are left to speculate if this was simply a programing choice or deliberate feature, but for all purposes Mira does not rotate in its own axis like regular planets. The plot thickens further because the sun rises in the West… and sets in the West! Go ahead and check, we'll wait!
Upon reaching the highest point at noon, the suns simply turns back and sets in the same place it rose. This was certainly a deliberate decision by the producers and adds further suspicion about Mira. The gravity also seems to be all over the place, with entire landmasses impossibly (but lovingly) suspended high in the air, and despite not knowing the exact weight of a mimeosome body (clear Chapter 5 if you don't know what that means) they certainly seem to be able to easily jump distances and fall from heights no regular human could possibly perform or walk away from back on Earth.
The many gigantic lifeforms you will face would also not be able to stand or walk due to their own weight, let alone levitate like some of them do! So there is a big chance that even before you reach and watch the game's ending, you will probably begin to question if what you see is real or some sort of twisted artificial reality. Was Goetia correct when she said Mira was the equivalent of purgatory, where you must live in constant battle? It would not have been the first time in the Xeno series of video games that our "reality" was nothing more than a simulation. But in this game you never find out for sure, despite a ton of almost teasing clues and insinuations that not all is as it seems.
III – The Circle of Life
Quoting Thomas from our review of Xenoblade Chronicles X: "Early on it's necessary to be pretty careful, as stumbling across a powerful villain can see you knocked out and back to the most recent landmark within a moment. After dozens of hours you can afford to be bold but, in the early stages, much time is spent taking long routes around deadly enemies." After a few hundred or so hours playing the game, it struck me that this was not itself something bad, and how the entire story arch perfectly compares to the birth and growth of a human being.
When Elma finds you and takes you "home" to NEW LA you are but a newly born infant, unable to be out on your own with pretty much everything outside the walls of NLA being potentially lethal. But the game slowly teaches you how to work your way further away from your "nest", constantly teasing you with further landmasses to walk to in the near future, preventing you from doing so with stronger enemies or geographical blocks. When you're done with "high school" you finally get your license to drive a car / pilot a Skell, enabling you to taker further (literal) giant steps away from home, allowing you to travel farther from NLA and fight stronger enemies. It is the first real great game changer and a big step towards stopping you from being so dependent on "home"…. much like when you finish college and go get your first job. By the time the game rewards you with the much beloved flight module for your Skells you become truly free to go everywhere on Mira. No place you can see is unreachable; yet despite this great feeling of freedom, some enemies will still give you plenty of troubles no matter how insanely powerful you believe your Skell to be. It's kind of like being an adult, I reckon, you have your whole life figured out but you still know you can't take on everything at the same time, you need to find your own balance on how to deal with the real world around you.
I will assume the game's story ending will generate much confusion and is open to interpretation. Life too is often mysterious, with events that come at us out of nowhere and make us question what the purpose of it all was. Video games tend to embark us on their plots and twists, offering suitable closure or a "happy ending" after our investment of time in them. So I found it rather bold of Xenoblade Chronicles X to deny us this closure, making us still wonder one year later what it all meant. Even further questions are added if you complete all of Yelv's missions, adding a recurring theme found in science fiction classics like Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", Masamune Shirow's "Ghost In The Shell" or more recently in the rebooted "Westworld" TV series. But life, much like Mira, is just one big mystery and often it does not present us with every answer or even happy endings.
IV – Skell You Later
Much more than just straight anime mecha fan service, it will take the player dozens of hours walking around Mira before they acquire their own (even if rather basic) Skell. It certainly feels like a great accomplishment considering the game has been teasing us with its giant robots right from the beginning prologue, and further tempting our progression by having several of them walking around in New Los Angeles. Truly the equivalent of buying your own first car: you own a shiny piece of machinery that will allow you to travel long distances if properly maintained. It is here the game will open up to people who like me love to spend time customizing their rides to the smallest details, seeking individuality from the norm, building something that feels truly unique and yours.
The game will then continue to push you outside of New Los Angeles, seeking out the best blueprints, the best parts and the best weapons to load up on your ride. It truly becomes a game in itself, long after you have tackled Chapter 12 of the main story missions the game provides many more hours of entertainment by essentially becoming a "Monster Hunter" for mechs. I have seen very few people pointing this out in reviews and I believe it offers excellent value for your investment. The more you play, the more you will gather and be able to build new parts, new weapons and even all new Skells. You will eventually have you dream four Skell squad customized to your liking, but the effort for that end result is truly an experience in itself.
These reflections on Xenoblade Chronicles X, its references and its lessons, continue on the next page.