Whenever Xenoblade Chronicles comes up in coversation, the refrain is usually the same: "It's so big. The scale is incredible!" Jeremy and I discussed it at some length in our review of the 3DS port, mostly in terms of whether or not it worked on the small screen. Suffice it to say that it didn't.
Xenoblade Chronicles X, however, is both on a television and in high-definition. And in its natural habitat on console, the scale definitely holds up. If you thought Xenoblade Chronicles was big, then get ready, because Xenoblade Chronicles X is exponentially larger.
I spent about an hour playing Xenoblade Chronicles X earlier this week — a session that primarily entailed wandering around on one part of one continent. It felt vast on the ground, but when I glanced down to the Wii U Gamepad, it looked like a postage stamp. As Nintendo's representative continually reminded me, I was exploring only one of five continents. There was a lot more where that came from.
The terrain on what I assume is the initial continent is reminiscent of the opening areas of Xenoblade Chronicles, with similarly large natural features. Tall mountains and giant rock outcroppings are everywhere, with monsters that look like the apatosauruses from Jurassic Park. In addition to all that, Xenoblade Chronicles X includes the ability to zoom the camera out, making you feel like even more of an insignificant speck against the massive landscape.
I was encouraged to wander around and explore a bit, with the promise that I would be able to climb literally any feature on the map, including the tallest peaks. My ambitions were relatively modest, though. As I tend to do in RPGs, I opted to follow the main quest path, which wound through mountain passes and up hills. When I needed to get my bearings, I sent up a hovercam — a new 360 degree camera that makes it possible to see over the cliffs and rocks to get the lay of the land.
One thing I'll say about Xenoblade Chronicles X — it's even more grounded in sci-fi than Xenoblade Chronicles. Where the original was somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy in the way that it paired futuristic swords against guns and giant mechs, the characters in Xenoblade Chronicles X wield submachine guns and other more modern weapons while wearing sleek power armor. There will reportedly be swords and knives in the final version, but they weren't featured in the demo. The protagonist reminds me less of Shulk and more of Shepherd, down to the fact that they are a player-created character.
At the same time, though, the art style's anime stylings are much more apparent. The protagonist's two companions would be out of place in, say, Yamato 2199, with one of the characters looking very much like Akira Yamamoto — the show's Starbuck-like fighter pilot. It plays much the same way as Xenoblade Chronicles, but the atmosphere is very different. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not you like it. For my part, I miss the almost steampunk aesthetic of Xenoblade Chronicles, but it's interesting to see the art go in such a different direction.
The same can be said for the battle system, which is similar on the face of it, but with a handful of additions. As in the original Xenoblade Chronicles, you can choose to engage a monster with what amounts to an MMORPG hotbar, at which point you can begin using skills, which combo together for various effects. As I was playing the Japanese version, it wasn't that easy to tell what my abilities did, but the topple combo appears to still be in full effect.
One thing that jumped out at me was the increased engagment of the party. For instance, when they're ready to use a combo skill, a hotbar ability will begin flashing, which is your cue to kicking things off. It's not exactly Final Fantasy XII's Gambit system, but it's still a slight improvement over Xenoblade Chronicles, where most of the party interactions are limited to how you manipulate the combo gauge.
Digging deeper, Xenoblade Chronicles X's customization is relatively similar, with skills being upgraded with ability points and slotted into a limited hotbar. But there's also a branching class system now, with choices affecting stats, abilities, and equipment loadouts. In general, there seems to be a much greater emphasis on player choice than in Xenoblade Chronicles, which ought to alleviate some of the complaints of the Xenoblade Chronicles battle system being too shallow.
This is the Power of the uh... Submachine Gun
The original Xenoblade Chronicles was one of the more ambitious RPGs of the last generation, often dazzling with the sheer scale of its world. Xenoblade Chronicles X figures to be much the same, but with a different cast and a very different world.
I'll say this much — being in high-definition makes a huge difference. It's much easier to appreciate Xenoblade's expansive world when it isn't marred by pixels the size of your fist. The original looked just fine for what it was, but it's nice to see it put my big TV to good use.
With the retail version still a few days out from being released in Japan, Nintendo is being intentionally vague on the details regarding the story. One thing that seems clear, though, is that it will be much more open-ended than Xenoblade Chronicles, which had massive environments but otherwise featured a relatively straightforward main quest. The fact that it features a full-blown character creation system is evidence enough of that. And while they weren't shown in the demo, Xenoblade Chronicles X will also featured multiple unions, each of which will have their own tasks to complete.
My only concern is that, like the original Xenoblade Chronicles, most of those tasks and side missions will be fetch quests. Aside from killing monsters, the only other thing to do besides hunt for landmarks and scale mountains was to take on sidequests, which in the demo meant finding a couple items and bringing them back to the questgiver. Is that ends up comprising the bulk of the "exploration" in Xenoblade Chronicles X, it's apt to receive the same criticism as Dragon Age: Inquisition, which was praised for its gorgeous landscapes but knocked for its excessive number of filler quests.
In going back to the well, though, there's no doubt that MonolithSoft is looking to build upon what they started on the Wii to create a truly impressive RPG. They've certainly got the scale down pat, and it looks like they're starting to add the depth as well. We'll soon know whether the rest of the game follows suit. Nintendo didn't offer a release date, but expect to see it in 2015.