Game review: Xenoblade Chronicles X is the definition of a time suck

It’s impossible to imagine what it would mean to complete this game, and the process of playing it alternates between frustrating and bewildering

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

Xenoblade Chronicles X

Monolith Soft

Many video games prey on time. They can devour days and weeks, transfixing a player with mathematical experimentation – deducing which weapon, armour or character delivers optimal performance.

On these terms, Xenoblade Chronicles X (available only for the Nintendo Wii U) is an apex predator, a game that turns the simplest problems into a parade of time-consuming complications. Giving one’s self over to its endless permutations can make it seem as if time has both stopped dead and begun to accelerate beyond control. If you’re looking to lose yourself here is a game that, for better and for worse, will show you the way.

Xenoblade Chronicles X was developed by design legend Tetsuya Takahashi, who began his career working on the Final Fantasy series before forming his own company in the late 1990s. Xenoblade follows a group of humans attempting to colonise an alien planet after Earth is destroyed in the crossfire between two warring alien races. Technically, the characters are all android replicas of their human counterparts who are lying in cryostasis in the “lifecore” of a crashed ship. Nevertheless, it falls to these humanoids to both tame the alien planet, called Mira, and recover the “lifecore” before its reserve energy runs out.

Instead of using this narrative to play with the ambiguities of consciousness, the game is a humanist parable about setting aside differences for a common cause. In gameplay terms, this common cause is killing an encyclopaedic variety of non-human life spread across Mira’s five continents, everything from giant fluorescent manta rays to something that looks like a brontosaurus on stilts.

Though Xenoblade is built on the same principles of the Final Fantasy games that Takahashi cut his teeth on, it shatters the 2D frame and turns things into a 3D hurricane of flashing icons, floating numbers and exaggerated character animations that deal damage without actually making contact with the enemy. Controlling the hero in a party of three or four can feel like trying to play improv jazz with a band of graphing calculators that keep trying to solo over one another.

The effectiveness of each attack is represented by a series of multicoloured numbers hovering over the enemy, and with four people attacking simultaneously it’s often difficult to tell which numbers resulted from which attack. The leaden momentum of the game’s camera adds to the confusion – the action always seems to happen offscreen while the camera is trapped against a rock or stubbornly focused on the knee joint of a giant space crab.

This visual incoherence demands players internalise the maths behind character class, abilities, armour, weapons and augments, requiring an almost overwhelming faith in the logic of one’s tactical choices that can only be partially verified by what’s happening on screen.

The game’s open landscape is filled with such painstaking detail that it’s impossible to fully absorb. Even after 65 hours of play, the grasslands and rocky hillocks from the game’s opening areas reveal surprising new nooks and vistas, a loving and meticulous translation of geological principles into frontier poetics. In contrast, the hundreds of glowing icons spread across the landscape – from the ugliness of numbers hovering above enemies’ heads to indicate their level and power to glowing blue orbs denoting a collectible item – feel like bizarre intrusions from another dimension. It’s like finding a billboard for teeth whitening in the Sahara.

At its worst, Xenoblade turns its sense of overwhelming scale against players with a flood of often incomprehensible mission objectives and no guidance about what should be done or where it should occur, exactly. I spent several hours trying to figure out one early mission that asked me to collect three “zizi rabbits” without clarifying whether they were an environmental item, an enemy type or a special creature that I would have to figure out how to trap.

In moments like these, a simple afternoon diversion can turn into a 14-hour ultra-marathon, where the only progress you make is gaining a few levels and discovering the tiny brook in the far northwest of one of the game’s continents where zizi rabbits can be found.

It’s a game in which completion is almost unimaginable without having access to an outside community where answers to basic questions can be discussed. It’s tempting to say it’s a game meant to be played in a year’s worth of hour-long diversions instead of two weeks, obsessively. Yet, its systems and economies are filled with so much hierarchical complexity, it’s hard to imagine how one could keep it all straight without a wholesale immersion, giving every last waking hour over to studious experimentation for the hard-fought knowledge about where copper cinicula spawns or where you’re supposed to go to collect 14 kiweggs.

In hindsight, many of the game’s gruelling lessons feel remarkably anticlimactic. Getting to the end feels like a definite achievement, though the relative uselessness of its rewards make it hard to feel anything but stunned remorse for having gone to such lengths to achieve something of so little consequence.

This kind of egocentric delusion is essential to the spirit of video games, works that are often as terrifyingly wasteful as they are wondrous. Xenoblade Chronicles X manages both in equal measure.

The Washington Post