“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 colonize an alien planet after Earth was 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 assigns its characters to play out a humanist parable about setting aside differences for a common cause. In gameplay terms, this common cause is killing an encyclopedic variety of non-human life spread across Mira’s five behemoth continents, everything from giant day-glow 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 ordered 2D frame and turns things into a three dimensional 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 multicolored 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, ensuring most of the action happens 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 internalize the crypto-math behind character class, abilities, armor, weapons, and augments, requiring an almost cult-like faith in the logic of one’s tactical choices that can only be partially verified by what’s happening onscreen.
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, 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 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, the game’s 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 grueling lessons feel remarkably anti-climactic. 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 ego-centric delusion is essential to the spirit of video games, works that are often as terrifyingly wasteful as they are wondrous and energizing. “Xenoblade Chronicles X” manages both in equal measure.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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