Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 69, Xenoblade Chronicles X, and No. 68, Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Two games from the same series, built on similar foundations, that should be remembered and enjoyed for wildly different reasons.
I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
When Xenosaga Episode 1 first released for the Playstation 2, there were plenty of Xenogears fans upset about how it wasn’t very much like the original Playstation classic they loved. That game, developed by Square Soft, combined fantasy and sci-fi elements with a focus on philosophy and mechs, whereas its spiritual successor, Xenosaga, developed by former Square employees by then under the banner of Monolith Software, combined fantasy and sci-fi elements with a focus on philosophy and mechs. Virtually indistinguishable.
I’m being glib on purpose, but it’s just to point out what’s at the heart of the Xeno games, which are wildly unrelated and yet, thematically and settings-wise, share very obvious traits. Monolith loves some kind of post-Earth story, with fantastical creatures of impossible size serving as transportation, antagonist, friend, or even the place on top of which civilizations build their cities. Monolith’s artists have evolved how they draw their humans and humanoids over the years — at least one influential artist at Monolith discovered horny fan art of their previous works before Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s development and decided to run with it — but they settled in very early on the idea of what enormous mechs should look like, as well as difficult to describe cosmic entities and indigenous creatures. Those designs, both artistically and thematically, bled over into actually unrelated series, like the wildly underrated Baten Kaitos games. Both in terms of design and pure enjoyment, though, nothing compares to what Monolith has produced since Nintendo purchased the company from Namco in the aughts: that’s when Xenoblade Chronicles took over as the series working off of the legacy of Xenogears.
And that’s because the -blade games managed what the -saga games didn’t, which was to fuse together fully formed characters and a plot-forward focus with systems you did not tire of. The battle mechanics of the Xenoblade games are some of the best in modern RPGs, period, the end. The depth of character customization and growth requires you put in some work to both understand and utilize what’s being offered to you, but it’s work you’ll want to put in, especially once you see how much you’re repaid in battle for bothering with it all. The Xenosaga games, for all that’s good about them, spend far too much time annoying you, whether it’s with the turn-based battle system that sometimes feel like it’s caught between eras of gameplay, or the worlds you explore and the backtracking they require, which are both a little too Namco-flavored for me, and I say that as someone who has played and loved a number of Tales series titles.
The -saga titles are good games: the Chronicles games are great games. Which is how both Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X can be on this top 101, despite both being, to me, obviously inferior to the initial entry in the series, which is one of the great JRPGs of, well, ever.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a major departure from that initial game, too, as it’s an online multiplayer excursion, but not an MMO like World of Warcraft. Think more like Capcom’s Monster Hunter or Sega’s Phantasy Star Online, where you can play by yourself and follow through a story, but you can also team up with some friends or strangers online in order to make the task of felling incredibly large beasts and mechs a social activity. The size of the creatures and the game world certainly screams Monster Hunter more than PSO, but the comparative focus on story is more PSO. For Monolith, X is actually light on story, but for this genre of game, there’s quite a bit of it.
Overall, though, X was a chance to let the highly praised mechanics of Xenoblade’s gameplay shine through. It’s a testament to how much Monolith and those mechanics succeeded in that goal, as, for a game on a console that sold fewer than 14 million units and was replaced by the far more popular Switch, for a game where some of the functions have been shut off as happens with online experiences, there were still people playing X five years after its release when I revisited the game for the purposes of this very entry. And enough people that I very rarely recognized players’ handles, too.
The game starts out slow, which should be no surprise since you can spend 100 hours just getting yourself through the story and in shape to take on the final area and bosses. There is also so very much to process, to the point that Xenoblade Chronicles X comes with a digital instruction manual that the game tells you that you should read. And you’ll regret it if you don’t at least glance at it, or be ready to refer to it, or be prepared to search out answers to your questions with Google, because the mechanics are dense. You’ll have a bit of a head start if you’re familiar with the other Xenoblade games, but that knowledge will only get you so far, since the game has its own systems to learn.
Rather than massive team- or partner-based combos like in the other two Xenoblade titles, X lets you build up to what is basically a cool down-free assault. Cool down time for your skills increases exponentially, so you can hammer on an enemy again and again with the skills that hurt them most, for a limited time. You can also switch between ranged weapons (like an assault rifle) and close quarters weapons (like swords), which utilize different skills and work more or less effectively depending on the enemy type or body part you’re targeting. And targeting specific body parts is vital: it’s like wrestling, where limb work is necessary to stop an opponent from attacking or defending, except there are swords involved. Well, more often than in wrestling, anyway. It’s a delightful system that keeps you engaged from your first to your 1,000th battle, which is good, because you’ll be doing a lot of fighting.
The music, too, will help you enjoy your time fighting or just exploring. In battle, there is often a very anime-inspired sound going on, the kind where the music is pumping you up to overcome the hardship in front of you. In an anime, sure, it’s background to help set the mood of the scene, with no impact over what happens. In a game like X, though, that kind of sound is legitimately inspiring. It’s an NBA crowd cheering for the home team in the playoffs, it’s the swell of crowd support for the babyface overcoming the dastardly heel. It’s extremely good, is what it is, and I have songs I haven’t heard in months playing in my head right now as I write this paragraph, because they and their effectiveness stuck with me.
The short of the story is that Earth has been destroyed, but not before ships with the remnants of humanity launched from the planet, intent on seeding other worlds rather than letting humanity die alongside their home. Things do not go well for the seed ship your character is on, as it crash lands on a planet after another attack from the forces that blew Earth to little bits. When you come to, a city has been built up in and with the wreckage of the ship, and your character gets a chance to decide if they want to be part of the defense force that is looking for other survivors from the crash, as well as all of the collected knowledge of human civilization that broke off from the main ship.
You choose a class, but you’re not locked in to one. You can jump around often, or simply level up within a class until you earn promotions to a more advanced version of it that can equip better gear and knows more valuable skills. Everything you do in the game gains you points that level up your class, in addition to the standard leveling system that increases your hit points, skill points, stats, etc. And you’ll have plenty to do, as the game world is massive. I recall an interview from before X’s release where a developer said you could walk from one end of the world to the other in 30 minutes if you were never interrupted. You will be interrupted.
Thanks to fast travel, the dizzying scope of the world is never an issue. And it becomes even more of a non-issue around halfway through the main story, when you are authorized to pilot a mech. Mechs have their own upgrade systems and inventory, but they aren’t too complicated. All you really need to know is that you have insurance for your mech, so it will cost you nothing when you get it blown up doing something you shouldn’t be doing. You can eventually run out of insurance on a mech, but here’s what you do: simply give the mech to a party member when it still has one insurance ticket left, and then whenever it blows up, it’ll still be fixed for free. Meanwhile, treat yourself to a better mech that does more blowing up of things instead of blowing up of itself.
The mechs are literal game changers. Areas that seemed hard to reach before are now easily accessible, because the mech can jump higher than you could, because the mech is better suited to fighting some of the large enemies in your path, because eventually, the mech can outright fly. There’s a reason I said you get them halfway through the story: you do not get them halfway through the game, not if you plan on building up your party of mech-riding badasses into an unstoppable force. That takes time, it takes exploration, and it takes completing a whole lot of non-story missions. The mechs really make the game for me, and close the distance between X and the Nintendo Switch’s XC2 in spite of X’s comparatively lacking story and character work.
Which is kind of funny on its own, because story is not what makes 2 work. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a return to the fully single-player experience of the original, but it also managed to once again upend the battle system and game mechanics while still feeling very Xeno. And this change in the battle system has everything to do with the world you’re stepping into.
In XC2, the focus is on the relationship between Drivers — your human characters and fighters — and their Blades. The Blades are weapons, but not like you’re thinking of: these weapons are also people in their own right. Their existence, though, is tied to their Driver. They do not live in the world as people when they lack a Driver, and when their Driver dies, the Blade’s memories of themselves, of the world, of their Driver, are erased, and the cycle begins anew the next time they’re discovered and called forth.
If you think the concept of keeping a Pokémon in a ball until you need it for battle is quietly dark, the Blade system is the extremely unsubtle cousin to that. In fact, the entire narrative and the way the characters react to the world around them is centered around this idea that Blades are immortal, but at an incalculable cost. Sure, Blades like the one the protagonist uses, Pyra, never die, but on the other hand, dying is the thing they do the most after living. Each time their Driver dies, the specific version of the Blade that lives in the world dies, too. Some Blades have found a workaround that allows them to remember everything, and they do not take well to this burden of knowledge, not when they see their friends and loved ones die while they themselves fail to age and grow progressively lonelier and more jaded.
The story itself is… just fine. Like the protagonist, Rex, and his motivations (being good is good!), it’s not great on its own. The way the cast of characters react to the story happening around and to them, though, the way their plight and their feelings and emotions resonate with the player to the point that you feel for most of the antagonists and their desire for nonexistence over the existence they’ve been granted? That’s, professionally speaking, the good shit that makes this whole enterprise succeed. And the prequel DLC that has you playing as (and against) antagonists from the main game, in a way that helps explain how their world and mindsets got to be such an awful place to begin with, only adds to that.
As for how the Blades work in a practical sense, you find some of them through story progression, and others through the finding of the crystals they reside in when not assigned to a Driver. These crystals contain random Blades of varying strengths and powers, and you’ll find yourself in the unlock screen for them a whole lot. It’s all the tension of a loot box, except without the preying on your desire to gamble or your finances! There are generic Blades that work well as placeholders or for being sent out on background missions that reminded me a lot of the meta-game assassin mission framework from older Assassin’s Creed game, and there are also Blades you’ll actually want to collect and include in your party to use in battle.
There are over 40 of these Blades in total, which you assign to your Drivers, and then swap between in the battles themselves. By combining different types of Blades with different alignments and elements and all that together in combos, you can unlock extremely powerful attacks that will bring foes you thought would be a real problem down in comparatively little time. There are layers and layers to this whole system that are revealed as you play, but if you pay attention and do what the game wants, and properly utilize your Blades, you’ll feel little else save satisfaction from battles.
The Blade system is wonderful: finding all of the Blades is a satisfying system on its own, never mind the attention to detail you need in order to best align your party and utilize the Blades in battles, which are like a game unto themselves. The non-store-brand Blades all have their own personal side missions and storylines, too: yes, even the Blade that is literally the android KOS-MOS from Xenosaga, somehow transported into this other Xeno world without any knowledge of how or why.
This focus on humanizing the Blades with personal mission s and backstories further feeds into making you care about them and their plight, and improves a story that, in a vacuum, can be a little too generic at times. Stories don’t really exist in a vacuum, though: this is just a way of saying that the way the game’s characters react to the overarching story, and how the story’s themes resonate with both the characters and the player, is what ties a ribbon on the whole thing. It would have been easy for the entire thing to end up as a generic tale with a cool battle system, but, instead, it’s all inextricably linked in a way that makes you appreciate each part of the game for while also making Xenoblade Chronicles 2 more than the sum of its parts.
Now, playing Xenoblade Chronicles X can be tough if you don’t already own a Wii U, but if you need to borrow one in order to play the best Nintendo game that isn’t being ported to the Switch, then do so. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, at least, is a 2017 Switch release, so you can find it without too much hassle. And, of course, the original has been ported to Switch and updated with a new epilogue, too, but we’re talking about the other great Xenoblade games right now. Play those, too.
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