Xenoblade Chronicles X might yet have 2015's most impressive open world
Two dozen hours with Monolith Soft's epic Wii U RPG.
There's always been a strand of defiance in Tetsuya Takahashi's Xeno series, projects that have never let circumstance get in the way of their ambition. Xenogears and Xenosaga were deep, complex cinematic epics that were famously compromised, while Xenoblade Chronicles was obstinate proof that Japanese role-playing games still had the ability to surprise and delight, and that Nintendo's notoriously underpowered Wii could still deliver such a grandiose vision.
Xenoblade Chronicles X, the Wii U-exclusive spiritual successor to that 2010 game, is at it again. In a year in which we've hardly been short of sensational open worlds, Takahashi's Monolith Soft has quietly come along and trumped them all in terms of scale, ambition and sheer spectacle on that most unfancied of consoles. For all the stealth excellence to be found in The Phantom Pain's Afghanistan and Africa, for all the intrigue held within The Witcher 3's Northern Kingdoms, there's really nothing that's a match for the sheer beauty to be found in Xenoblade Chronicle X's .
It's almost guaranteed nothing can match it in terms of size. There's no established metric for how we measure open worlds - whether it's the time it takes to walk from one border to the other, or how many times over we could fit a Skyrim or a Los Santos into one of these virtual landmasses - so I prefer to quantify the vastness of Xenoblade Chronicles X's Mira by how many times it's caught my breath across the two dozen hours I've spent with it so far.
Seeing the sun set over the deserts of Oblivia; getting lost in the haze of a purple rain-storm deep within the exotic neon canopies of Noctilum; catching sight of a meteor shower sprinkling through the night sky above sprawl of Silent Marsh; scaling the impossible geology that frames Primordia to catch a sunrise over its pastoral fields, the tall grass patrolled by towering, apatosaurus-like Lepyx. All that, and there's so much more besides.
25 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles X's final English version, I've barely started exploring the third of five continents that make up Mira, and the Mech - known as a Skell in these parts - that'll allow me to traverse these expanses that little bit faster is a good half dozen hours away from being available. Even if you've travelled across the breadth of the original Xenoblade Chronicles, you're barely prepared for the sheer amount of what awaits you here.
This is a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles in name - and in its ambitious open world premise - only. The set-up's a tangle of cliché that soon makes way for a neat match-up of story and systems; awakening with the pre-requisite amnesia of many an JRPG hero, you discover you're part of a small band of survivors, refugees of an earth swallowed up by intergalactic war who find themselves deserted on the strange new planet of Mira.
Story's not so important here, though. Across the 60 or so hours it'll take to see it through to its end there are only 12 central missions, and unlike the original Xenoblade Chronicles there's no longer a named, voiced protagonist. Instead you're gifted an avatar you can sculpt in a limited manner (you're also granted some slim, mute interaction in cut-scenes via text dialogue options). It's another move away from the vocal, cinematic Xenogears series' which now feel an even more distant cousin of Xenoblade.
It's another move in the right direction, too. There's some neat world building going on in Xenoblade Chronicles X, delivered with an anime patina that's thickened since last time out as all the wide-eyed soldiers that fight by your side suggest, but it's always on the periphery of the discovery all of that scenery enables. Discovery is used as a mechanic, beyond the Battle Points that roll in upon stumbling upon each new locale; as a pioneer of these strange lands, you're charting the territory beyond the hub city of New Los Angeles, laying down markers and pods as you slowly colour in the vast map. There's an element of Ubisoft's open worlds in how you slowly make an imprint on the map, but don't let that scare you off.
Like Xenoblade Chronicles before it, there's real a spirit of generosity in X; all that space means nothing without meaningful ways to fill it, and the systems that power this RPG are as rich and varied as the flora and fauna of Mira. Two dozen hours in and I still feel totally lost amongst them, so broad and deep do they run - there's Affinity to worry about as you temporarily recruit new members to your party, supplying the weapons companies with resources so they can keep the shops on New Los Angeles' Armoury Street stocked up or piecing together the parts of a particular piece of armour. It's bewildering, but it's threaded together with the same sense of discovery that runs throughout Xenoblade Chronicles X.
Combat is, once again, MMO-esque, a blend of real-time action and strategy as you manage various timers, juggling countdowns to keep you and your team buffed and primed to topple enemies. There's a clockwork element to it all that is, depending on which side the coin drops for you, monotonous or gently rhythmic. Personally I find getting lost in the clicks, whirls and purple dervishes of a well-honed party to be the perfect accompaniment to the laid-back exploration, and there's satisfaction to be had in tinkering with each party member, their skills and their arts, to engineer the most efficient team.
Xenoblade Chronicles X's laid-back pace won't be to the taste of many, and the way it gates its story missions behind unrelated, often abstract requirements could justifiably prove a source of frustration. I've sunk into its spell, though, and I've barely started: there are two more continents to fully discover, as well as an online side yet to fully flourish that's cast in the image of Monster Hunter as squads of four tackle unique quests. And I've only just begun decorating my own personal barracks, as you're able to do Animal Crossing-style, by painting its steel walls a shocking pink.
There's all that to come, though, among other surprises shimmering on the horizon. Right now, with its combination of exploration, sparky sci-fi fantasy and deep pool of systems, I feel like I'm caught somewhere in the beautiful crossroads between Final Fantasy 12 and Phantasy Star Online, and I really couldn't be any happier.