Xenoblade Chronicles X's Strange Misstep

Xenoblade Chronicles X's Strange Misstep

Monolith Soft's massive new RPG might be incredibly forward-thinking, but it forgets to modernize one important element.

By all accounts, Xenoblade Chronicles X is a game that shouldn't exist—and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

In fact, some of my favorite games sprung into existence despite all odds: Ignition Entertainment's gamble on Deadly Premonition made for one of the biggest surprises of 2010, and gave developer SWERY a new fanbase almost overnight. And an undertaking like Xenoblade Chronicles X would be risky even if it didn't launch during the final year of a dying console. I can't say I'm a fan of the entire Xeno-verse, but at the very least, I admire the pluck and determination of X steward Tetsuya Takahashi, who somehow prevented a mismanaged trilogy from tarnishing the Xeno brand forever.

The original Xenoblade did much to restore the reputation of Japanese RPG developers during the last gen, so I wasn't surprised to see X continue its forward-thinking traditions. After a short prologue, you're immediately dropped into a small chunk of its massive world, and allowed to play with systems that would be gated behind tutorials (hours down the line) in most other RPGs. Knowing I was in for an incredibly long ride, I basked in this early segment, and even dug into the digital instruction guide to make sense of everything on my own terms. So far, so good.

Something I've noticed about Japanese game design semi-recently is how compartmentalized their productions tend to be—not to make broad assumptions about an entire swath of people or anything like that. Based on my experience, Japanese games would much rather give you tightly-designed and neatly-packaged segments of play than to have everything contained in a potentially messy whole. And this goes for narrative as well. "Story" and "play" were once considered elements that could never co-exist. But as times change, these walls have been broken down: 2015's Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain contains the same long conversations as the past games, but allows you to digest them while you're doing other things.

That said, I definitely wasn't surprised to see somewhat lengthy cinema scenes in Xenoblade Chronicles X—this is an RPG, after all. But the often antiquated treatment of story often stands out in stark relief against the much smarter choices made throughout. And you don't have to play much of the game to watch this distruption in action. After being released into the world once after the prologue, I headed towards a massive enemy in the distance, cleaning up smaller foes along the way. When I finally reach the creature, the screen fades to black, then loads a cinema scene featuring my characters discussing the potential danger of said monster as the camera spins listlessly around them. And to make things worse, this scene didn't feature any real "acting" outside of the vocal variety: My three party members just stared blankly at each other, reiterating information that was fairly obvious. X's exhilarating open world suddently felt a whole lot more confining.

Ultimately, it's not a game-ruiner, but as this boring segment played out, I couldn't help but think, "We couldn't have had this conversation on the way to the monster?" By all accounts, Xenoblade stands as a thoroughly modern RPG, but issues like these really remind you of the developers roots—and certain traditions we've grown too impatient for. Again, I don't plan on chucking Xenoblade Chronicles X into the trash anytime soon, but I still can't help but think of how a different approach to storytelling could make this great game even better.

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