Sunday, January 31, 2016

Review: Xenoblade Chronicles X (Chapter 3: Character growth)

When you start out in Xenoblade Chronicles your character is very vulnerable and you need to hide away from most of the wildlife. As your characters develop their abilities this will gradually change, of course. This is a RPG, after all. The following lines will investigate the oddities of levelling and solve the question whether you can rely on your AI partners.

Character from Xenoblade Chronicles X in full heavy armor.

3.1 A versatile but silent Main Character

In Xenoblade Chronicles your main protagonist was a charismatic young boy with a distinct signature weapon. In X you are a generic and silent nobody (you can customize your appearance, though). But you now have the potential to learn every skill and weapon type in the game! This is achieved through a class system with a total of 16 classes. Collect experience with one class and you will gradually unlock its skills and weapons. Even if you switch your class, you will be able to keep all learned skills and build some interesting cross-class combos. Active skills are linked to specific weapon types and you need to equip the corresponding weapon type to use them (but you can learn to wield any weapon type with any class). If you need even more variety, you can learn 2 unique skills from each companion when doing missions for them.

Class selection screen from Xenoblade Chronicles X
Class selection screen. I have mastered 10 classes at the time.

In spite of this vast ocean of skills, the selection for each individual weapon is a bit limited and left me wanting. There are too few skills that spark ideas for different builds so most people will end up with the same selection of skills. This is most obvious for the Longsword which is very popular due to its versatility and high offensive and defensive potential. This lack may be attributed to the fact that your characters always need to be equipped with one ranged and one melee weapon. You can swith during combat with a single button press. In theory the skills of both weapons should complement each other. In reality, you will drift towards either melee or ranged because stats and talents usually are melee or ranged only. This often results in the attempt to almost exclusively use melee or ranged Battle Arts and to banish the other one from your active skillset.

Main character from Xenoblade Chronicles X holding a gatling gun
Nice idea but it didn´t work out well.

Another concept that I do not understand is the level cap at 60. Most RPGs have realized how poisonous it is to player motivation if RPGs stop to hand out experience. Games like Diablo 3 then introduced other goals (see Paragon Levels) to reach with your excess experience. X doesn´t have anything like this although it would have been easy to offer reward tickets (kind of a wild card for monster drops) or other goodies for your experience over level 60. Fallout 4 even completely removed the level cap known from the previous games.

3.2 Party Problems

Your companions are another big disappointment. You get twice as many partners as in Xenoblade Chronicles but they can´t switch weapons and are stuck with a very limited selection of skills. Your first "tanky" shield companion doesn´t even have the passive skill for extended taunt duration. And she will be mandatory for all story missions. Compare it to the diverse and unique skill palettes of each character from the previous game and you will find X to be a big letdown in that regard. To add insult to injury, your companions don´t act very clever in combat and the AI is not very good at using the best Battle Arts for any situation. Positional requirements for attacks are one of the more obvious weaknesses.

Party members from Xenoblade Chronicles X
Sons, I am disappoint...

Changing your party composition was also made as obnoxious as possible. Every character stands in another area of the huge home city and you need to go to the correct companion every time you want to switch him in. Inactive characters will also not gain any experience. And being underlevelled is a death sentence in this game. On the other hand the game wants you to group with as many different people as possible to build your relationship and unlock their special missions and skills. But doing so will put you at a huge disadvantage as your partners will level much slower than you because you are always in the active party. Stick with the main characters and miss many interesting missions or switch around and get dragged down by dead weight, pick your poison!
There is also an online portion to the game with a few missions that can be done with human companions. You can also hire their avatars for your team. Online play offers good rewards, is fairly detached from the main game but can offer some fun, for more details you can watch the official video guide:

3.3 Shopping!!!

The equipment section fares better than the disappointing companion system. There is a huge array of stats and abilities that you need to consider to optimize your crew. From the basic attack and defense values to more advanced stuff like TP gain (ressource needed for powerful skills) and clip size of ranged weapons. Then there are equipment abilities like "Melee Strength up" or "Harder to detect by Enemies" that you will find on your equipment. These abilities can even be upgraded in exchange for enemy drops.

Shopping terminal from Xenoblade Chronicles X
For such a huge game, the shopping area is surprisingly... compact.

On top of that there can be sockets on the equipment and later you gain the option to add sockets for a (relatively) small price. The augments that fit into these sockets can have significant effects that may even change your entire combat strategy (increased taunt duration for your incompetent companion, for example). There is even the option to replace the look of one piece of equipment with another one if you can´t stand some of the designs. You can spend loads of time tinkering with the equipment of your crew.
And when you thing you are done you can continue with your skells. They use slightly different equipment but every mech represents 15 more equipment slots that are waiting for you to fill them. Skells can carry around a whopping 10 weapons at the same time, and they are all visible on your skell, which adds a lot to the fun.

Fully armed skell from Xenoblade Chronicles X.
A walking fortress.

3.4 It is all so cryptic

The game doesn´t waste much time trying to introduce you to the more complex mechanics. You have to consult the manual quite frequently. The worst part are the buffs and debuffs. You get nothing more than a few tiny icons. No explanations at all. This affects battle and character customization as it is quite difficult to guess which buff will benefit your strategy more.

Useful links:

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Table of Contents

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

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