One of the most common complaints I’ve read about Xenoblade Chronicles X recently is that “the story isn’t as good as Xenoblade Chronicles“. And, if you look at it in a somewhat superficial manner, that’s true to an extent; it suffers a little from the open-world RPG’s perennial problem that is putting Important Things on hold while you go and pick flowers or whatever.
You may feel this way until you get your head into the mindset of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It’s not a typical JRPG with a fast-paced, completely linear storyline that you can then break completely when the game opens up towards the end. With a few exceptions — most notably the giant mech “Skells” and, later, the ability to fly in them — much of the game is open to you from the very outset, and the whole game is designed around the concept of “what would happen if you (and the rest of humanity’s survivors) were stranded on an alien planet with no hope of getting away any time soon?”
In that sense, Xenoblade Chronicles X‘s narrative — and the way it is told — starts to make a whole lot more sense. The story isn’t just about the “story quests” and the cutscenes they incorporate; there’s only twelve chapters to the main story, after all. Instead, the complete Xenoblade Chronicles X narrative consists of a blend of all the game’s elements: your freeform career as a BLADE operative and the emergent narrative that comes from your adventures in the field; the simple, short stories that come from the Normal Missions and give context to many of the NPCs in the world — and, in many cases, have significant impacts on the world as a whole; the more in-depth, character-centric stories of the Affinity Missions — which also have cutscenes and are fully voiced, unlike the Normal Missions; the conversations you overhear from NPCs you meet in town and in the field; the implied, non-explicit narrative you can deduce from the scenery of the world; and, finally, the “main” story itself.
I mentioned at the beginning the open world RPG’s curse of the party putting saving the world (or equivalent activities) on hold while they went to pick flowers, but in fact Xenoblade Chronicles X has been designed with that very criticism in mind. It’s strongly implied that a fair amount of time passes between each of the story missions, since there are numerous references to time-consuming things happening “off-screen” throughout. Rather than simply asking you to accept that several days/weeks/months have passed, however, it’s more than likely that, unless you’re taking a “critical path” approach to racing through the storyline as fast as you can, a significant amount of time probably will have passed between each of the story missions. And it’s in those “in between” moments that Xenoblade Chronicles X has some of its most interesting moments.
The aforementioned Normal Missions, for example. While these may appear to have had less attention lavished on them than the cutscene-heavy Affinity and Story Missions, in actual fact they tend to have more noticeable impacts on the world as a whole. As a result of Normal Missions and your choices therein, characters move around and live or die; buildings are built or destroyed; relationships between characters change; and, in the most drastic example of things changing as a result of your actions, new alien races move into the human city of New Los Angeles, meaning that you can then see them wandering around the streets as random crowd NPCs, talking to named members of their species and even accepting missions from them. As you play through the game, your understanding of Mira — and the wider universe outside the planet — begins to grow, as you get a feel for who the Ma-non, Zaruboggan, Prone and numerous others are, and, more importantly, how they feel about both one another and humanity.
The complete picture you build up in your mind as you play is one of the most comprehensively detailed pieces of worldbuilding I’ve seen for a very long time. It brings to mind the whole idea of “extended universes” for things like Star Trek and Star Wars, only in this instance, the “extended” universe is right there in the game for you to discover if you see fit. There’s no obligation to do most of this stuff — though some story missions have prerequisite Affinity or other missions before you can proceed — but doing so makes the game several orders of magnitude more rewarding, as it starts to tell its story in all manner of different ways rather than simply through cutscenes.
As the year draws to a close, there’s no doubt in my mind that Xenoblade Chronicles X is absolutely my “game of the year”. It’s full of all the things that I love, and, while its way of doing things may not to be everyone’s taste — particularly the complexity of its systems and the subtleties in its storytelling — I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s a landmark game that deserves to be counted among the greats of not just the RPG style of game, nor just the sci-fi genre of narrative games, but of gaming as a whole.