"Much of what we have seen so far looks like a refinement and deeper exploration of the concepts first unveiled in Xenoblade Chronicles, often broader in scope and scale."
By all rights, the Xeno series should be among the most venerated JRPG franchises, on par with Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest or any other series dating back to the time when Squaresoft and Enix were separate and competing companies. It certainly has both the history and the pedigree; Xenogears is still a beloved PlayStation 1 classic, and Monolith Soft was formed with former talent from Square's heyday. However, the Xenosaga series never quite fulfilled the promise of its predecessor. In fact, series director Tetsuya Takahashi recently reminisced about how Xenoblade Chronicles' development was in many ways a reaction to the perceived failure of Xenosaga. As a result of those efforts, the franchise now seems to have regained its stride and is capitalizing on that success with a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles, dubbed Xenoblade Chronicles X.
Enough with the history lesson — what is this upcoming game all about? Takahashi has stated publicly that Xenoblade Chronicles X is the sci-fi epic RPG that he has always wanted to make. Much of what we have seen so far looks like a refinement and deeper exploration of the concepts first unveiled in Xenoblade Chronicles, often broader in scope and scale. The game comes out this month in Japan and some unspecified time later this year in the West, and here is what we can expect.
We do not know much about the story at this point, and what we do know is rather general. Starting in the year 2054, two advanced alien races cause serious collateral damage to planet Earth as they battle each other in our planet's proximity. Their quarrel forces humanity to evacuate the planet on massive interstellar ark ships. One of them, the White Whale, crash lands on the planet Mira after sustaining damage by one of the aforementioned alien races. The story follows these remnants of humanity as they attempt to create a new home on the planet while fending off the hostile aliens.
The player assumes the role of a character, customized to their liking, who is rescued from cryogenic stasis in one of the pods that survived the crash landing. Soon after, the character joins the private military organization called BLADE and is tasked with finding the rest of the human popsicles scattered throughout the planet. I will be curious to see if and how the game handles the inherent tension between private military and civilian government, as Monolith Soft made a specific announcement that a bureaucrat and politician named Maurice will play a role in the story.
The rest of the cast are mostly BLADE members, although other people (including at least one blue alien called Ru) can fight with your party. The stoic, white-haired military officer Elma and the child prodigy Lynlee seem to be more central to the story than some of the other BLADE members however. The Nopon race also makes a comeback, and at least one of the roly-poly Nopon named Tatsu will join your party. Other aliens include the peacefully and technologically advanced MaNon and the hostile Vaias. While the finer details of the story remain a mystery, it is clear that the game will have a diverse and expansive cast of characters; hopefully its plot will be just as epic.
As in the first Xenoblade Chronicles, a major feature of the game is the world itself and the numerous quests and objectives to complete in the course of exploring it. The planet Mira has five continents, each with a distinct environment and climate. They range from stark deserts to lush jungles to alien landscapes with no earthly analog. Each area is massive and will surely challenge even the most thorough explorer to discover every nook and cranny.
Fortunately, the developers have created several mechanisms to aid in this endeavor. Players can dash and jump to move around more nimbly, and eventually they will have access to giant mechs (called Dolls) that are capable of flight. A luminescent Navigation Ball will help the directionally challenged find their objectives, and the Camera Hopper will launch into the sky for a bird's eye view of the surroundings. The Planet Mira is also said to be scaled to a size appropriate for exploration by both human-sized figures and the more imposing Dolls.
Players will surely need all of these tools, as exploring and mapping the world plays a major role in gameplay. The world map is divided into hexagonal segments, each with its own objectives that include killing monsters, gathering resources, or finding treasure. Some segments contain Frontier Net Spots that players can tap into with a Data Probe. Once probed, the spots will provide information on surrounding hexes. They can also be modified to grant bonuses like extra strength in combat or additional resources used for weapon upgrades. Further, exploring the world will have ripple effects in your home base, as unlocking new areas will dynamically alter the conversations of the city's inhabitants.
Humanity has made its home on this alien planet out of the hull of the crashed space ship and dubbed it New Los Angeles, or NLA for short. NLA caters to civilian functions like residential housing and shopping as well as industrial production and the military BLADE headquarters. The city will grow as you rescue more people from the cryo-pods, and citizens will have interconnected and dynamic relationships with one another that evolve as you complete quests related to their lives. The relationship chart makes a comeback to help track this aspect of questing. In addition, the BLADE headquarters are customizable with logos from various in-game company brands (more on that later). So far NLA is the only city we have seen, but given that the presence of other sentient aliens on the planet, the likelihood of other cities is high.
The world is so large that the developers originally doubted they could fit it all onto a single disk and were even more skeptical that they could run the game on the Wii U's Off-TV play function. However, they accomplished both thanks to some technical wizardry from Nintendo.
Like the world, Xenoblade Chronicles X’s combat builds off the work of its predecessor. Battles still play out in real time on the map whenever the characters draw enemy aggro. The flow of combat revolves around balancing the various mechanics. Each player has access to melee fighting attacks and long-range shooting attacks and can switch on the fly. Using regular auto-attacks allows characters to bide their time while their more powerful abilities, called Arts attacks, are on cooldown. Arts also fall into one of four categories: fighting, shooting, recovery, and weakening.
Fighting and shooting Arts can be comboed together to increase their overall damage output. Like in the first game, some Arts will be more effective from the rear or side and can send enemies into a vulnerable tumbled state under the right conditions. Attacking from higher or lower terrain will also alter accuracy and crit rates. Casting an Art will cause it to have a cooldown period, and if you wait long enough before casting the Art again, you can use a Double Recast, which is more powerful version of the Art.
Auto-attacks are also important because they build Tension Points, and with enough TP characters, can revive fallen allies or use specialized Tension Arts. Party members also communicate in battle with the Soul Voice system, which is basically a quick-time event similar to those seen in the previous game. Successfully pulling off a Soul Voice will queue up a special effect on a particular Art that will trigger when that Art is cast. It will also heal the party. Different Soul Voice effects can be set outside of battle to maximize their effectiveness.
Players can also trigger Soul Challenges by meeting certain conditions such as starting a fight with a melee weapon or letting your character's HP drop below 30%. Nailing the resulting quick-time event will grant bonuses that players can customize outside of battle to suit their play style. Further, the Soul Stage will track the number of successful Soul Challenges and grant even more bonuses as the counter rises.
Although the Monado's ability to predict the future is absent, players will eventually gain access to a device called an Overclock Gear. Accumulating 3000 TP allows you to trigger Overclock Gear Mode, which eliminates the cool-down for casting Arts, unlocks the Triple Recast function, and grants several other buffs. Although the mode comes with a time limit, if you rack up 3000 TP while in Overclock Gear Mode, you can extend the time for even more damage. If other party members enter Overclock Gear Mode simultaneously, there are additional positive effects.
Combat in the Dolls features a similar balance between auto-attacks and powerful Arts; they even have access to the Overclock Gear Mode. However, Doll Arts consume fuel in addition to requiring a cooldown, and the more powerful the Art, the greater the fuel consumption. Dolls will also enter Cockpit mode at random times, resulting in greatly reduced cooldowns. The main goal of combat in a Doll is to put the enemy in the "Catch" state, which is basically the same as tumbled state in ground-level combat, and then pile on to the incapacitated enemy.
The system is clearly complex, whether in or out of a Doll. In fact, it appears to have an almost overwhelming amount of information and widgets to manage. To make things even more complicated, dynamic day-night and weather cycles will also affect combat. However, if Xenoblade Chronicles is any indication, it should all work much more smoothly in practice than it looks on paper.
The Dolls have been designed by Takayuki Yanase, the artist who worked on Metal Gear Rising, Armored Core, the Gundam 00 series, and a line of toy models, among others. Unlike previous Xeno games, Dolls in Xenoblade Chronicles X are less like supernatural implements of mass destruction and more like very useful and powerful tools for combat and exploration. Once the player acquires a pilot's license, they can purchase as many Dolls as they like from the shop in NLA, although each Doll is very expensive. Any character can also use any Doll.
Dolls come in three types: Light, with low HP and high evasion; Middle, balanced and easy to control; and Heavy, with high HP and defense but unwieldy. They can also transform into a wheeled vehicle. The type of vehicle is naturally determined by the type of Doll, but transformations include motorcycles, four-wheel automobiles, and even a tank. Dolls can fly with the addition of a flight pack, but doing so consumes fuel that the Doll also needs to use Arts. Fuel will regenerate slowly when out of the cockpit, or you can refuel at NLA by spending large sums of your mineral reserves.
Most Doll equipment is available from the shops at BLADE, but players must craft the strongest gear. Dolls can carry equipment in their hands, arms, legs, back, and shoulders. Hand weapons either perform auto attacks or cast Arts. Dolls acquire their Arts through their equipment, which can reside in either a right or left side slot. Arm weapons tend to cast support Arts and include beam shields and mini-guns. The legs store spare weapons and tend to have short recast times. Back weapons tend to be more powerful; offensive Arts usually go on the right slot and support Arts on the left, although some extra powerful weapons take up both slots. Finally, shoulder weapons are the strongest, with the right side reserved for offense and the left for support.
The Dolls may be strong, but they are not invincible. They can take localized damage in the same way large enemies can, disabling the corresponding equipment and Arts. If the Doll is destroyed, an insurance policy will replace it for free, but only the first three times. After that, the player must pay a large replacement cost, although it is still cheaper than buying a new Doll.
Connecting to the internet adds several new features to play with. First, you can find and recruit other BLADE members based on other player's avatars and recruit them as AI party members. You can also join a squad of up to 32 people that acts as like a guild; it even allows you to share information and equipment.
Squad members can cooperate to complete Squad Missions, Squad Quests, and fight World Enemies. Squad Missions involve collectively hunting monsters or resources on Mira. The squad is given a quota of monsters to kill or resources to capture, and as each individual member bags one, they move the squad closer to its goal. If you complete one of the five objectives in a Squad Mission, you unlock a Squad Quest, which raises the amount of control humanity has over the planet Mira. Raising the level high enough unlocks World Enemies (extra bosses). The whole system is meant to feel like players are taming this alien planet as part of a far-flung yet cooperative team. However, there are some competitive functions as well.
The game will rank players collectively based on their Union (see below) and individually based on game stats. Union ranks are meant to show which Union is making the most progress on its assigned tasks and contributing the most to humanity's flourishing on the planet, while individual ranks are pure bragging rights.
The game will have several other systems and gameplay mechanics worth noting. As before, character growth will be split between the character's inherent level, called the Inner Level, and their Class Level. The Inner Level determines base stats and which equipment the character can use. Class Level will determine the Arts available to the character as well as job progression. Job class progression seems more robust this time, or at least there are more tiers and branching options. For example, the beginner drifter class can build into the Assault, Command, or Forcer classes; from there the Assault class builds into either the "Samurai Gun" or "Shield Batterer," and the Samurai Gun will eventually unlock the "General Sword."
Equipment is the other important component of preparing your characters for combat. Conforming to the theme of variety and scale, there seems a near endless diversity of weapons and armor to choose from, and each will affect character models accordingly. Melee weapons include knives, swords, shields, and spears, while ranged weapons could be rifles, guns, or even rocket launchers. Characters will have armor slots for the head, torso, left arm, right arm, and legs. Equipment can be further customized by placing devices in special slots in the equipment.
You will generally acquire equipment from shops in New Los Angeles, although certain enemies will drop rare and powerful equipment, so it pays to pick fights with the right monsters. Further, there are several brands of equipment to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Using a brand in combat repeatedly will help it earn more money, which the brand will funnel into R&D to develop better equipment. You can also help companies directly by giving them minerals to use in research. New brands will also crop up as the game progresses.
One brand new feature is the Union system for organizing quests. There are eight different unions within BLADE that the player can switch between at will. Affiliation with a union will change some of the mission details of available quests. The eight unions and their functions are: Arms, who support development of weapons and Dolls; Avalanche, who defeat particularly dangerous monsters; Colepedian, who explore new locations on Mira and search for resources; Companion, who mediate problems between citizens of NLA; Interceptor, who fight monsters and rescue distressed citizens of NLA; Land Bank, who collect minerals and resources; Path Finder, who are in charge of setting up Data Probes; and Testament, who search for scraps of the crash-landed space ship scattered around the planet.
Monolith Soft has promised a high quality audio experience for players with discerning ears, having secured the famed Studio Sound Racer for sound effects and several high profile Japanese voice actors. The soundtrack, composed by Hiroyuki Sawano, features brash electronic sounds appropriate for a sci-fi epic. Those looking to explore the OST further can sample it at Sawano's website
Xenoblade Chronicles X seems to be all about the immense scale of its world and gameplay. While this is certainly an exciting prospect as we prepare to explore this sci-fi adventure, a small part of me worries that in its rush to vastness, the developers may have missed the little details. Often, it is the minutiae and small touches that tie the disparate aspects of a game together and bring the world to life. In some ways, Xenoblade Chronicles X may have swung too far from Xenosaga, which reveled in the fine-grained details of its universe. Whether these worries are warranted or not, two things are clear: Xenoblade Chronicles X will be a big, bold step for a storied development studio, and it will have plenty to occupy players who immerse themselves in everything the game has to offer.