[I love to talk about world building in games. I love it so much, that last year I started a blogging series all about my favorite video game worlds. It eventually came to a head in this blog about Xenoblade Chronicles X, which has more love and care poured into its world than I've ever seen. For that reason, I'm bumping this blog for the current Bloggers Wanted]
At this point in time, it's no secret that I've fallen head over heels for Xenoblade Chronicles X. I've already put over 70 hours into the game, but I still keep coming back for more. It's a sure bet for my Game of the Year, with Undertale being its only competition of note. However, there's something about this game that I believe hasn't received enough praise as of yet. Namely, I think XCX's biggest strength is that it knows what its strengths are. That's what I'm going to talk about for this blog. It may sound a little cryptic, but I can name all too many games that don't seem to know what make them fun. Remember when I wrote a bit about Shadow of Mordor, when I said that the gameplay mechanics are excellent but the game doesn't really do anything with them? That was a game which didn't understand its own strengths.
Now then, by far the best thing about XCX is its world. No surprises there. I honestly believe that Mira is one of the best virtual worlds ever created. It is absolutely gorgeous and absolutely gigantic.
I also find it quite amazing how 'real' the game feels, almost like it could potentially exist. It's not like standard JRPGs where enemies get progressively stronger as you move further away from your home town. Right out the gate you'll find enemies who could take you out in a second if you provoked them. However, it's entirely possible that you're not even a blip on their radar so they won't mind you at all. There's other little bits and pieces of semi-realism too. Wolf-like Grexes always hunt in packs, whereas big herbivores who have nothing to fear are often alone. Some animals are nocturnal, others have terrible night vision so they won't even spot you at night. Some animals overwhelm, others lay traps. Weather patterns change over time, from simple rains and thunderstorms to fantastical "energy mists" and red auroras. It's the little things like these that go a long way towards ensuring that Mira feels like a real world rather than a video game level.
Perhaps even more importantly, the five continents that make up the world of Mira are all vastly different from eachother, yet I've found each to be interesting in its own way.
Primordia is very obviously the starting area; it's the Green Hill Zone, the Bob-omb Battlefield. Grassy plains stretch out everywhere and there are a lot of hills, mountains and lakes. The most interesting thing here is that there are several gigantic natural structures, like the giant overhanging arch and a rocky dome. This is great for gently bringing you into the world of XCX while also immediately giving you an amazing sense of awe. Perhaps more than any other area, Primordia invites exploration. The first thing you want to do upon entering Primordia is run up to the big-ass dinosaurs to see how you compare. Then you want to see how high you can claim that mountain off in the distance. Fortunately, the game lets you. Your character runs fast and jumps high right from the get-go, and a lot of high-level enemies who could flatten your sorry ass in seconds aren't hostile to you at all.
Primordia is Monolith Soft telling you "here you go, have fun".
- "But what about that shadowy place?" That's Cauldros, we'll get to that later.
After a while, either because the story pushes you or just because you're curious, you'll wander into Noctilum. Noctilum is a rain forest with waterfalls, bioluminescence everywhere, wide varieties of plant life, and more secret areas than you can shake a stick at. If Primordia was about Monolith Soft easing you into the new world, then Noctilum is about assaulting your eyes with beautiful vistas left and right. It's about making sure that if the player wasn't impressed by the first area, they're definitely going to be impressed now.
Oblivia is the desert area of the game. While that obviously means less visual splendor, the devs did a great job in making even this area interesting. There are clearly man-made structures everywhere in Oblivia, giving the impression that maybe some alien city stood here once, or perhaps a giant satellite crashed here. It's an area that hints at Mira's backstory, before the humans ever came to visit. In doing so, it continues with the sense that Mira is a living world.
All the way across the sea, you'll find Sylvalum. This place gives Noctilum a run for its money in the awe-inspiring department. Great expanses of white sand, a very surreal mirrorglass lake, weird giant orb trees, and curved spires arising all around the mountain ranges. It's a place unlike anything you've ever seen before, on Earth or in the game. Sylvalum reminds you that Mira may be 'realistic' to a certain degree, it's still a thoroughly alien planet with a geology and biology that us lowly humans just don't understand.
Finally, there's Cauldros. Easily the least friendly of all the areas you'll visit, Cauldros is filled to the brim with lava, brimstone and enemies who'll take your ass out. With Cauldros, Monolith Soft seems to want to remind the player that an alien planet might be beautiful, but that doesn't mean it has to be nice.
So you see, each area in Xenoblade Chronicles X has a different theme: not just aesthetically but also in what it tries to convey to the player. There's a lot of variety between the areas, there's stuff to see everywhere, and you can quite literally go everywhere. "Everywhere you can see, you can go" was a phrase I heard a lot during the marketing phase of this game, and so far that has proven completely accurate. Sure there are a few places you can only reach with flying Skells, but you can absolutely reach them.
- ♫ We've gotta get high enough to try, over the world we've gotta fly ♫
But like I said, the key here is that XCX knows how great its world is. Every step of the way, it makes sure that the world remains the focus. Sure the combat is fun, the story and characters serviceable, but the world is where it's at. There are several points where the game stops you to make sure that you've been exploring enough, almost every single Quest takes you far away from your home base of New LA, you can use Quicktravel to get anywhere in an instant, and the story only progresses when you specifically tell it to. Everything in this game takes a back seat to the world of Mira. You even get tons of EXP just for exploring.
I think that's a very bold move on Monolith Soft's part. They had a massive RPG on their hands that they knew players would be spending dozens of hours with. And yet they had so much faith in their version of Mira that they decided that players would be fine with just exploring the place at their leisure for all that time. They even decided that players wouldn't care about the story as much as simply going around Mira, seeing everything there is to see. The original Xenoblade Chronicles also had a fantastic world, but it paired it with a story that kept pushing you along at a pretty quick pace. Almost as if the developers were worried that players shouldn't spend too much time on the Bionis' Leg, because then they'd get bored. With XCX, however, they decided that no, there's no such thing as "Too long on Primordia". If anything, they wanted to make sure that player got to spend enough time on Primordia. That takes faith your work, and some balls to go along with it.
Once you claim that "everywhere you can see, you can go", players are going to be looking for the seams in your supposedly perfect world. "We created five continents, because we had just enough time to create that much space and make all of it interesting"? We'll see about that, bucko. And "There are no loading times between areas"? You bet your ass that's going to be challenged. They even had to make sure the world music wouldn't get annoying, which isn't an easy thing to do when you toss vocals in the mix. But they did it. They lived up to their claims.
And then they added Skells.
Skells completely change the dynamic of the game. All of a sudden the world is at your fingertips. Even the slowest Skell you can buy moves at least twice as fast as your character can run. Skells jump a lot higher too, so mountains are instantly far less of a hurdle than before. Areas filled with strong enemies are traversable now, sometimes because enemies aren't hostile to Skell even though they are to humans, and other times simply because your Skell is able to take far more punishment than you are. Once you get a Skell, it's almost like you can go explore the entire world again.
Xenoblade X certainly makes you work for your Skell. You won't get one until a good 20 hours into the game and even then you have to complete a long Quest first. Therein lies the genius though. By the 20-hour mark you've probably already explored a large part of Mira by foot. You've already got your sense of scale set; you know what this place is like. By giving you a Skell then, at that particular point, you truly get to appreciate what a difference it makes. Mira by foot is not the same as Mira by Skell, and you'll feel it. You still feel the scale, but you also feel awesome because of how large your Skell feels and how fast you move now. As grand as it is, with a Skell you feel like you can take on the world.
And then your Skell gets to fly.
Exploring Mira twice just wasn't enough for Monolith Soft. They wanted the player to be able to go anywhere and everywhere. To do that, we needed flight. This option doesn't unlock until a lot later in the game. Once again you've become accostumed to Mira by Skell, and only then do you get Mira by air. And once again, Mira by air is vastly different.
At this point, the world is truly your oister. There are literally no places you can't go now. In fact, the very first Quest they make you do with a flying Skell is surveying a part of Primordia which was previously inaccesible. It's all the way on top of a mountain you had no way to scale before, but with a flight pack it's a sinch. Once you take to the skies, you see all of Primordia unfold around you. You can see all these places off in the distance where you remember walking all those hours ago. Mountains which used to block your path are now nothing more than good spots for sightseeing. Imposing enemies are a thing of the past. If you're anything like me, the first thing you'll do with your flight pack is check out all the high places you can find, just to see whether you can really go there now. Turns out, you can. That big orb tree in Sylvalum? You can totally get up there now. The giant ring in Oblivia? Not only can you stand on top of it, the game actually rewards you with EXP for doing so. The devs knew exactly how our minds work and played with it beautifully. They knew what flying meant for their game and they made sure that Mira would be amazing to explore from up high.
This is definitely something you don't see every day. A game that lets you exploring a single cohesive world three times from three different angles, and puts everything to work to ensure that it's never a chore. Nothing ever interferes; not the combat, not the micromanagement, and not even the plot itself. Everything in the game revolves around Mira in one way or another.
With Xenoblade Chronicles X, Monolith Soft and Nintendo took a gamble. They gambled that the good people at Monolith could craft a world that would blow everyone away. They gambled that combat and story didn't have to be the focus of this game, but that exploration alone could do it. They gambled that players wouldn't get bored of Mira even after spending dozens of hours there. They gambled that graphical shortcomings would be forgiven once players got that amazing sense of sheer scale. They gambled that a huge world didn't have to be scary or overwhelming. They gambled that letting players fly later in the game wouldn't destroy the magic, but enhance it. And they gambled that the promise "everywhere you can see, you can go" would be kept.
And you know what? They were right.
That's the most amazing thing to me about this game. So many games out there focus on combat and conflict. And yeah, XCX has a combat system that you'll be using a lot. But that's not what this game is about. This game is about Mira, and it knows it.