After all these years, the single defining trait of Tetsuya's Takahashi's Xeno series is their desire to dream bigger than any other RPG. Or indeed, any other game.
Xenoblade Chronicles X, the latest in Takahashi's series of loosely affiliated RPGs, continues that trend. Building on the massive landscapes found in Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X focuses on pure exploration across an absolutely gigantic world. While some of the early reviews have questioned Xenoblade's execution, pretty much everyone has been united in their praise for its scale.
Perhaps that's why the Xeno games remain such enduring fixtures in the RPG canon. In one way or another they've all tried to push the boundaries of the genre, whether via their story, their mechanics, or their scale, with even Xenoblade Chronicles pushing the Wii's modest tech to its limits, to say nothing of the Nintendo 3DS. Their obstinate ambition has endeared them to a legion of JRPG fans who remember when their chosen sub-genre sat at the forefront of game design and long to see their favorite games once again accorded the respect they feel they deserve.
It's an approach that in many ways runs counter to current triple-A trends. While it's true that open-world games aren't exactly rare, it's not often that you see a studio take so many risks with a big-budget release. In the hands of another developer, Xenoblade Chronicles X might have been a direct sequel with a similar formula and better graphics. It's doubtful anyone would have complained given the praise heaped on the original.
As usual, though, Takahashi and Monolith Soft want to do more than lean on previous success. Their approach to Xenoblade Chronicles X is reminiscent of Xenosaga - the flawed but ambitious successor to Xenogears that was at one time conceived as a six-part series that would extend through the launch of the PlayStation. Though it wound up sharing many similarities in tone and design with Xenogears, Xenosaga was strictly speaking a spiritual successor. Similarly, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Xenoblade Chronicles are conceived as being set on totally different worlds. While they still have plenty in common, including functionally identical battle systems, they are ultimately very different games.
In an industry where Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty have become annual fixtures because they are guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies, Takahashi's approach is unusual to say the least. But it's also an undeniable part of its appeal.
Takahashi's "go big" approach to design has been on display pretty much from the beginning. Even in the heyday of JRPGs in the late '90s, Takahashi was pushing the boundaries of the genre with Xenogears, which had a story that was darker and more complicated than anything that had become before it.
It came in a period of significant maturation for the medium, when the enhanced storage space afforded by disc-based formats seemed to offer limitless storytelling possibilities. As they did during the 16-bit era, Japanese RPGs took the lead in crafting big, ambitious narratives, one of the most memorable (and divisive) being Final Fantasy VII. Xenogears aimed to outdo them all with massive cutscenes, a huge cast, and a story spanning thousands of years.
For the first time, game developers felt they could compete on equal terms with mature mediums like television and film, and they raced to catch up. With Xenogears, it's apparent that Takahashi was triving to match Neon Genesis Evangelion, which had revolutionized anime just a couple years before. It was very much in the mold of the dark, psychological anime of the day - a significant departure from the lighter adventures like Dragon Quest that had preceded it. You could say that Xenogears wanted to be more than a video game. Of course, you could also say that Takahashi bit off more than he could chew. The second disc of Xenogears is famously roughly, dispensing with the massive open world of the first disc in favor of boss battles framed by static scenes and basic narration. Big as it was, you got the sense playing Xenogears that Takahashi meant for it to be even bigger.
Still, flawed as it ended up being in some ways, Xenogears is still fondly remembered for its masterful soundtrack and ambitious storytelling, even if its execution wasn't always up to snuff. For its part, Xenoblade Chronicles X emphasizes a large open world over storytelling, but it shares a certain "go big or go home" ethos with Xenogears
Now, nearly 18 years after the release of Xenogears in Japan, its apparent that Takahashi is happy to go right on building the biggest, most ambitious RPG that he can, regardless of whether it would be a better idea to just make a pure sequel or conform to more established trends. He's an increasingly rare breed of developer in an industry dominated by ultra-conservative business models designed to minimize risk at any cost. And in that, he's also a breath of fresh air.
We'll have our own thoughts on whether Xenoblade Chronicles X ultimately holds up when we finish reviewing it (our apologies: it's a really big game). It's bound to be divisive with its focus on pure exploration and comparatively thin story, not to mention its decision to make mechs difficult to obtain and easy to lose. But it's rare to see a big-budget game with Xenoblade's confidence and vision - one that doesn't feel like it was designed by a committee. For once, it's nice to play a game that isn't afraid to fail.