I'm a little tired of hearing how great Xenoblade Chronicles X is. A plethora of articles have made this highly anticipated sequel out to be a JRPG darling. The headlines have been hard to swallow, with gems like "the reason to buy a Wii U" or "the best RPG of 2015." It's clear that Xenoblade Chronicles X has been absolutely awash in positive press. I've begun to wonder if I'm playing games on the same planet as everyone else.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is to its predecessor what the Star Wars prequels were to theirs: a hodge-podge of aesthetic improvements that have wowed while more critical issues bogged the experience down. It's clear to me while playing that X's creators were oblivious to what made its predecessor special.
Mira is a big, beautiful world. It's full of a plethora of things to see, exotic locals to visit, weird side quests to complete, and downright wondrous inhabitants. This world is by no means empty, but being so big means that the small, more heartfelt moments its predecessor was known for are noticeably absent. In fact, there isn't much emotion to be felt at all.
It amazes me that Tetsuya Takahashi has a writing credit on this game. His whole career has been built upon producing RPGs that either subverted expectations or knowingly played off genre tropes. Disregarding how lifeless and uninvolved Xenoblade Chronicles X's central narrative is, it leans quite a bit on cliché. You can predict the events of this game as they unfold. You can predict the trajectory of the characters' development. You can predict everything. Because this story is lazy. It is propelled by contrivances and its character development is locked behind gates.
**Skip the next paragraph to avoid spoilers.**
The way Xenoblade Chronicles X handles its characters is in sharp contrast to its predecessor. Do you remember the humanity and realness of Fiora's death? How the moments leading up to that event subtly demonstrated how much Shulk cared about her? That is what we call effective storytelling. The sequel doesn't have that. It has a Mary Sue protagonist who is equal parts awkward and silent during cutscenes.
Having a protagonist who is good at everything, a veritable paragon of heroism, yet simultaneously lacks depth, emotion, and personality is trite and lazy. I understand that this self-insert stuff is par for the course in most MMOs, but it doesn't make for an engaging JRPG experience. It's also pretty outdated. Mass Effect came out over seven years ago and in that game you could make choices and have slightly more personality than a rock.
The consensus among this sequel's fans seems to be that we aren't here for the plot. We're here for the gameplay. It's truly enjoyable, even if the electronic instruction manual is required reading. The combat and more explorative elements are what keep me coming back for more. That doesn't mean it gets a free pass from criticism though.
If you will recall, Xenoblade Chronicles didn't present the player with every in-game mechanic and gameplay system within the first hour. Those elements were introduced as they were needed. Its sequel doesn't take the time to show you how to play. At times figuring out how Xenoblade Chronicles X ticks can feel like assembling Ikea furniture.
It can be a bit harder to figure it out too, as menu navigation is a mess of branching options with small enough text to make anyone with less than 20/20 vision get eye cramps. The player menu is busy, the SKELLs are equal parts micro-management and administration, and NLA's stores are far more cumbersome than convenient. I get that these user experience issues seem like small potatoes, but they add up.
Xenobalde Chronicles X also lacks tonal consistency. The primary campaign and side quests are a confusing mix of hokey dialogue, playful events, and mature themes. Likewise, I found the soundtrack to be about as erratic as a drug fiend on a Friday night. Musical scores regularly bounce between calm, reflective pieces and stampeding dance beats with nonsensical lyrics. These aren't huge complaints, but it's just a few more pieces that don't seem to fit quite right.
That's ultimately the story of Xenoblade Chronicles X as far as I'm concerned. For as enjoyable as the experience might be at times, it is mired by weird, ill-fitting choices. I don't hate the game. I didn't play it begrudgingly. There is no axe to grind. I just think it's about time that we start looking at this game with a better sense of awareness. This isn't the sequel we deserved.