Xenoblade Chronicles X is unbelievably big. Like its predecessor, 2010’s Xenoblade Chronicles, your ragtag band of heroes is plunked down into a lush world rich with jewel-toned foliage and glittering structures of rock and metal. But this time around, that lush world is just a little bit lusher and more massive; so massive, in fact, that it takes a significant amount of time to run between checkpoints.
During a recent hands-on session with X–which launches in Japan this month but won’t be out in North America until later this year–a PR representative for Nintendo told me that I could walk literally anywhere within the game’s five continents. You can run to and through all of them, she said, and can climb up and over pretty much any structure you see. My demo began in a series of valleys nestled among large craggy hills, with sides made up of steep rock faces at an unforgivingly sharp angle. I didn’t think I could make it up most of these organic structures of stone and earth, but I was going to try.
To my delight, you absolutely can climb up anything you see. You can’t scale a sheer rock face, but if you find a craggier area or a grassy slope to climb, you can get to the top. It’s more like jumping upwards repeatedly than climbing, but it is what it is. Giant islands being held in the sky by sloping pillars of rock can be surmounting by carefully running up the center of one pillar. And on top of these islands you can stare out into the distance, picking out more shadowed valleys and enticing crags, with titanic buildings shrouded in mist sitting tantalizingly on the horizon.
Xenoblade Chronicles X’s open world is a welcome experience for those tired of the rigid hallway formulas favored by many role-playing games in the past decade. You can move freely around the map, selecting side quests and battling roaming monsters at your leisure as you pursue the main plot in bits and pieces. There’s never a dull moment, either; in the five or so minutes it will take you to run from one area to another, you’ll have to tiptoe by resting monsters and go head-to-head with others that seek you out directly. Scattered among the grass and shrubs are items to collect, treasures to discover, and tiny new details that add to the masterful visual world-building on the part of developer Monolith Soft.
In Xenoblade Chronicles, navigation depended largely on your ability to follow a simple map with a directional arrow in the corner of the screen. X’s navigation system is something else entirely. The Wii U GamePad displays a world map of sorts, with a few strange tweaks. Rather than your typical geographical layout, the map is laid out as a honeycomb of diamonds, with an icon in each diamond displaying important landmarks. Most of these icons indicate the presence of checkpoints, which are unlocked by “discovering” new areas and setting down a beacon. If you are killed in battle anytime after unlocking this checkpoint and before unlocking a new one, you’ll be sent back to it.
The GamePad map displays a tiny arrow that shows where you are in the world and which direction you’re facing, which is helpful. But the most useful tool in your explorer’s arsenal is the Navigation Ball. Essentially it’s a camera that you shoot straight into the air for a bird’s eye view of a large swath of your surroundings. And by “large swath” I mean your characters are left as tiny specks in the center, barely visible. The range over which you can look is incredible. You can rotate and tilt the camera in any direction, which is extremely useful when trying to maneuver your party out of a maze of canyons. But the Navigation Ball is more than an important tool; it’s an excellent way to see for yourself just how large the world of Xenoblade Chronicles X is. The Ball lets you see everything from huge monsters lurking around the next bend in the road to the shadows of cities in the distance. The prospect of exploring this beautiful, broken world left behind from Xenoblade Chronicles is both a sad and exciting one.
Back on the ground, combat in X is the same as it was in Xenoblade Chronicles. Arts–special physical and magical attacks that can be used to knock enemies to the ground and cast protective shields around party members–make a return. Characters have two weapons: a manual weapon like a sword or daggers, and a gun. Both weapon types have their own special Arts abilities, and being able to switch between spraying enemies with bullets at a distance and hacking and slashing up close is a nice touch. It makes you feel powerful, and maybe gives you a little more confidence in having the tools to take down larger enemies.
One thing about roaming enemies, however: their levels don’t scale to your characters’ levels. That one area under the overhang will always harbor a level 50 monstrosity, no matter if you’re level 10 or level 60. Because of this, you have to be careful which monsters you engage as you explore areas. You can typically take down enemies two or three levels stronger than you, but any higher than that is a risk. Enemies’ levels are displayed over their heads, and some of them have a tiny eye-shaped icon that indicates they will attack if you’re in their line of site. Most enemies don’t have this stipulation, and you can freely pass by them without incident; they won’t attack you unless you attack first.
I spent most my time with X exploring the large area of the map left open for me, attacking monsters as I saw fit (and dying when I was overbold). I also pursued a side quest that led me to an alien stronghold–yes, aliens–and the story gave me the choice to leave them alone and scope for intel or run in guns blazing. I chose the latter, and ultimately paid for it with my life and a checkpoint setback.
On the surface level, Xenoblade Chronicles X is just more Xenoblade Chronicles: it has the same style of combat, the same quest structure, and the same central idea of humanity struggling to rebuild and survive. But X builds wonderfully on these ideas, granting access to a larger, more complex space in which to carry out its role-playing goodness. There’s much more to the game than just exploring and fighting–we’ve yet to get hands-on time with dolls, the weaponized mechs used by humans–but from what I’ve already seen, Xenoblade Chronicles X will be a welcome addition to RPG fans’ repertoires and the Wii U library itself.