Both the best, and the worst, aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles X can be summed up in the game’s most triumphant moment. After roughly 40 hours, your character finally unlocks the ability to fly. Zooming through the sky in a giant robot, blazing across territory that was once a perilous (if beautiful) slog to traverse, there’s a giddy sensation of freedom that has its roots in all the hoops the game has made you jump through to finally get to this point. It’s the apotheosis of the “airship moment” from the old Final Fantasy games, the moment when the world truly opens up, taken to extremes by the beauty of the setting in question and the intense frustrations that were surpassed to see it in its fullness.
But all the pleasures of that moment can’t erase that whole “40 hours into the game” thing that preceded it, or the underlying flaws that persist even after you take to the skies. Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that presents the player with real pleasures, sights, and experiences they’re unlikely to have encountered before, and that’s something to be celebrated. But it doesn’t change the fact that the game is also a poorly paced, frustrating, sometimes embarrassingly written mess.
A spiritual sequel to the Wii-based Xenoblade Chronicles—recently re-released on handhelds as the first title requiring Nintendo’s New 3DS XL to play—the game shares its predecessor’s greatest strength: a staggering sense of scale. As explorers on the alien world of Mira—where the last remnants of humanity have crash landed and are desperately struggling to survive—your squad of playable characters serves as a quartet of very small fish in a very big pond.
Teeming with remnants of lost civilizations, forbidding jungles, silent beaches, and hundreds of lifeforms, both docile and aggressive, Mira is a massive, beautiful place. Its inhabitants stretch to fill the space, too; while some of them are roughly human sized—or scaled to your Skells, the aforementioned giant robots—some of them, decidedly, are not. There’s nothing quite like coming around a mountain and being confronted with a giant dinosaur, 50 times bigger than even your robot-clad form, passively feeding on the local plant life and ignoring you (unless you’re foolish enough to attack it) like the titan that it is. The sheer size and beauty of Mira is awe-inspiring, and exploring the planet produces consistent moments of jaw-dropping wonder.
Which is good, because you’ll be doing a lot of exploring as you make your way through the game’s engaging but overwritten science-fiction story. Xenoblade Chronicles X never met a moment of interest or fun that it couldn’t “improve” by locking it behind a fetch quest or a mandatory quota of explored territory, often tying it to a randomly dropped item or two, just to make things interesting. No reward—useful upgrades, new characters, progression through the plot—is free. Every fun quest, of which there are a few, is hidden behind two or three boring ones, as though the designers were mimicking the screaming teacher from “Another Brick In The Wall,” the one who’s terrified that players will try to eat their pudding before they’ve finished their meat.
The worst instance of this, in a disappointing but not wholly surprising turn, is tied to the Skells, one of the most alluring carrots in Xenoblade’s arsenal of ways to coax the player into taking up yet another asinine quest to kill a dozen rampaging monsters or scour the world for more randomly generated collectibles. The Skells have been a big selling point in the game’s promotional campaign, and for good reason: They’re legitimately cool, combining increased combat options with new ways to navigate the environment (via increased speed and jumping ability at first, and later on with flight). So it feels almost intentionally antagonistic to be told that, after finally unlocking the damn things—after 20 hours of watching various NPCs dart around in their own beautiful transforming mecha—you’re now expected to complete eight more subquests to acquire your license to pilot one. It puts a monstrous hydra of tedium between you and the empowering moment when you finally step into the cockpit, and it’s the ugliest symptom of an underlying disease, an apparent belief that fun must somehow be “earned” to be really appreciated. It’s a philosophy that drags the game down at every turn.
It’s also not the only baffling design decision on display. Combat shares massively multiplayer online game roots with Xenoblade’s open-world exploration, relying on a bar full of attacks that have to cool down after use, status ailments, and buffs. Healing your team, though, has an oddly random component to it, based on activating certain non-healing skills when your teammates call out for them during a fight. When this works, it’s interesting, presenting a reasonably convincing illusion of the player and their AI-controlled compatriots working as a team. When it doesn’t—usually in one of the game’s punishing boss fights, where the real-time fighting moves too quickly for much in the way of meaningful decisions—it’s infuriating and forces you to watch your party members die off helplessly, one by one. And heaven forbid they’re in a Skell at the time. You’ll be forced back to your home base to have the thing repaired.
Other problems run deeper. The game’s script is incapable of saying anything in one line when it could say it in three or five, drowning a strong story in needless layers of padding and endlessly repeated jokes. These, meanwhile, are delivered by a squad of voice actors whose work ranges from passable to maddening—someone apparently dared the game’s vocal director to find alien voices that manage to increase in irritation as the game goes on, culminating in an entire species of people who talk—seriously— like Alvin And The Chipmunks. A similar dare appears to have been issued to the game’s costume designer, which might explain all the skintight, anatomically improbable armor you can apply to your female party members or the sequence of no less than three female enemy combatants who favor space-age fetish gear as their fighting uniforms.
But even with its irritatingly slow cutscenes, its immature objectification of women, and its determination to keep players away from its best moments for as long as it can, it’s hard to dismiss Xenoblade Chronicles X completely. There’s just too much of it, for one thing. The simplest play-through will take at least 60 hours, and is likely to scratch only the barest portions of the game’s stories and content, some of which, owning to the law of averages, will turn out to be both charming and fun. And there really is nothing quite like taking to the air for the first time, looking down at terrain that you’ve become intimately familiar with through hours upon hours of exploration of its lush, mesmerizingly beautiful world. It’s just a shame that the game chooses to spend so much of its energy preempitively punishing you, before it lets you get to the business of actually enjoying it.