Saturday, January 30, 2016

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X (Chapter 2: Combat)

There is a lot of depth to the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X. In fact, it is so deep it will be certainly overwhelming at first and stay like that for quite a long time. But that is okay, you have ample time to get familiar with the mechanics due to the sheer size of the game. If combat was designed less complex, it would lose its appeal and may not be able to support the length of the game. So let us take a look at all the different layers you have to consider for your optimal strategy.

Combat scene from Xenoblade Chronicles X

2.1 Basic Combat

The basic combat system reminds me of World of Warcraft. You lock onto a target and your character will hit the enemy at defined time intervals. Collision detection is pretty generous here, a direct contact between weapon and enemy is not required to land a hit. This leads to a few hilarious situations like hitting an enemy on a rooftop with your knife while standing on the street. This inaccuracy is sorely needed though, since the game likes to throw ridiculously huge enemies at you and too often you will be fighting against the twitching toenail of some moving mountain-thing.

Huge enemy in Xenoblade Chronicles X
Well, you COULD attack it.

Your character can also carry up to eight active skills ("Battle Arts") into battle. These skills deal considerable damage and usually have conditions that you try to fulfill to make the hit stronger. Examples are positional requirements (additional damage from behind) or the execution within a chain of melee or ranged skills. This will keep you permanently thinking during combat about what skill should be used next to squeeze out the most from your Battle Arts.
When a skill is used, it goes on cooldown. But when it is NOT used, a second charge can be accumulated. Unleashing a double-charged skill has considerable benefits. To sum it up, the use of Battle Arts promotes strategic thinking and creates a whole lot of tactical depth in combat.

Your available battle arts. The green circle around the icons represents the progress of the second charge. The huge icon in the middle activates overdrive, see next chapter.

2.2 Tension and Overdrive

There is no mana in Xenoblade Chronicles X and Battle Arts usually don´t cost resources with a few exceptions. Characters earn Tension Points (TP) mostly for auto-attacking and can spend them on a few powerful skills. Alternatively, you gather a lot of them and activate overdrive. For a short period of time your skills will recharge faster and can even generate a third charge for even more power. Using Battle Arts will also grant additional bonuses based on the color of the Art icon. This can get really powerful later on and serves as a basis for many gamebreaking builds. Personally, I don´t like this overdrive mechanic very much. The color matching is very unintuitive, you would need a guide to go for specific bonuses, and I prefer the solution from the previous Xenoblade game where every character had a unique special skill instead that added a lot to the desire to play different characters.

2.3 Soul Voice and Soul Challenge

Besides a new layer of strategy, the next feature is chance-based and helps to keep combat fresh even if you engage in battles that would otherwise play out identical. Actions in combat have a certain chance to trigger a battle cry. If your partners do it, it is called a Soul Voice and will grant a strong boost to a few of your Battle Arts. The associated Battle Arts will flash and you have to be quick to seize the advantage. If you perform the battle cry, it is called a Soul Challenge and you will need to hit the b button at the right time to get the full effect.

Soul Challenge button press in Xenoblade Chronicles X
The button prompt and target circles of a Soul Challenge.

These battle cries are also one of the few ways to heal your characters up during combat. You can even customize the configuration of your main character´s battle cries. But you will also do just fine with the preset configuration, as the customization options can look a bit intimidating.

Soul Voice configuration menu in Xenoblade Chronicles X
Soul Voice configuration menu, have fun!

2.4 The thing about healing

If you win a battle your heroes are healed to full almost instantly. This is a very dangerous thing from a designer perspective. To make normal enemies even slightly challenging, these mundane critters must possess the ability to take a hero from 100% to 0% health within a battle. This leads to many frustrating encounters and sudden difficulty spikes. But otherwise the entire fight would be pointless since the heroes are immediately restored to full. In games with limited health and mana it is more like an endurance test over many battles and wasting a bit too much health in the first can make the second one a high risk. Xenoblade Chronicles X solved the issue well, life bars go down slowly but steadily. Healing skills, like the Soul Challenges, are sparse and only grant a small percentage of health back. If you receive a strong hit you have to slowly crawl back to good condition. Health bars move back and forth and represent the tide of the battle. Frustrating one-hits do happen but they are usually reserved for super bosses or when you draw the attention of a monster that is way out of your league.

2.5 Skells

The skells are giant robots you can mount and fight with. They have been advertised pretty heavily and the game teases you for a long time before it finally grants you permission to use them.

Skells from Xenoblade Chronicles X
Autobots, roll out!

Their combat system is slightly different in comparison to your ground units. Skells have only 1 charge for their skills so you can fire at will and their version of overdrive is way more subtle. They also have a "cockpit mode" that is triggered randomly when using a skill and that grants you invulnerability and cooldown reduction. In theory this should also give you a dramatic close-up perspective of the action but it doesn´t center the enemy so it just looks confusing most of the time.

Cockpit mode from Skell combat from Xenoblade Chronicles X
I have no idea what I´m seeing.

Skells are an incredible jump in power in comparison to your ground units. But to tell you the truth, I really disliked skell combat and the feeling of empowerment vanished after a few hours and was replaced with utter confusion. I invested countless hours into building my ground units and learning the deeper strategies and suddenly it is all for nothing and replaced by killer robots? They are vastly superior and easier to use as their combat mechanics are much simpler. They are forbidden only in a few places and battles and there may be a few endgame builds that will not need them, but I really had to abandon them sometimes to spend some "quality time" with my ground units before I would forget what they looked like.

Table of Contents

1. General
2. Combat (you are here)
3. Character growth
4. Exploration
5. Verdict

Useful links:

Do you want screenshots without the blog logo? Subscribe to the blog and browse the archiveOfficial Combat Trailer
Official Survival Guide with Combat Basics
"Uncontrollable" Tyrant Battle Theme
Combat demonstration on YouTube by PlayerEssence

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