There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.
In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?
Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.
The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam.
The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though.
Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.
Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.
Final Verdict: 9.8/10
Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.
Here’s my background on the Xenoblade Chronicles series. I remember back when they had the article on Xenoblade Chronicles for Nintendo Wii in an issue of Nintendo Power. It looked like the raddest game ever, but I was too intimidated by JRPGs (which, you know, would end soon enough; it IS my favorite genre) to give it a shot. Fast forward to when I watched Chuggaaconroy’s YouTube series on the game, and I realized what I had missed out on. I completely agree with his stance on it being the greatest videogame of all time. Beautiful setpieces, amazing combat, godlike music, and REYN TIME… what’s not to love? So, when I got the opportunity to play Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Nintendo Wii U… I had mixed feelings. But despite the trauma I initially had with the game, I had a hankering to play through it again. So, since it turns five this year, let’s rethink whether or not it was as big of a blemish on the franchise as it seemed at the time. This review is oozing spoilers!
But in all honesty… what spoilers? The plot for Xenoblade Chronicles X is practically nonexistent. Some aliens blow up the earth, and so what’s left of humanity flies off and settles on a planet called Mira. That’s all you get for premise, and most of what you get for narrative. I’ll explain why later, but let’s just discuss what IS there. The narrative of Xenoblade X explores a lot of sci-fi and cyberpunk themes, such as the question of the self. A big turning point in the story is when you realize that everyone is a robot, being remote controlled by their real bodies, which are stuck in the big MacGuffin of the game: the Lifehold Core. You gotta find it before a ragtag team of aliens called the Ganglion do.
Xenoblade X just ends up being one of those generic “humans are bad” things that motivate the Ganglion, who I believe to be the weakest antagonists in the series. A lot of very arbitrary twists pop up at the end, such as the Ganglion’s motives being entirely because humanity’s ancestors blew up their people, and the fact that Elma is an alien who helped humanity for some reason. It all feels forced, and it’s boring to watch.
In addition to that, Xenoblade X’s narrative leaves a lot of loose ends. For years, I thought I had actually gotten a bad ending, until in this playthrough, when I confirmed on the wiki that it wasn’t the case. There’s so many holes, I could spend an entire separate post ranting about them; the crap with Lao, or the fact that the Lifehold Core had already been ransacked since the beginning despite everyone being alive. All these loose ends make me think that Xenoblade X is meant to be a spin-off series to tide us over for each subsequent core installment, with a potential X2 coming out next instead of a Xenoblade 3. Lin does imply that the Earth is still out there, and that they’ll return to it someday. That sounds like perfect groundwork for a sequel to me!
So, why is there so little story in Xenoblade Chronicles X? Well, that’s because they tried something really “ballsy”: make the game an MMO and a JRPG all at once. For some reason, they tried to pander to the crowd of gamers that enjoys playing with strangers over the Internet and likes photorealistic graphics, all with a console that wasn’t even remotely powerful enough to handle it. In fact, they had to release DLC that came with assets preloaded that significantly reduced load times from their Sonic 06-like lengths (fortunately, it was free). Since the Miiverse feature is down, there’s a good chance that the servers themselves will follow suit. Going into this, I was actually glad for that, because it gets rid of Squad Missions, my least favorite mechanic in the game. I was actually able to do some Squad stuff at a limited capacity. In case the servers are still up while you’re reading this, I’ll clue you in on the absurd levels of grinding that the game expects from you in order to complete it.
Squad Missions were regularly occurring missions where multiple players on the server had to accomplish shared goals for Reward Tickets, which is what you redeem for most of the nye-impossible-to-obtain materials that you need to craft the best equipment. It was tedious to do, and you needed to do it for hundreds of hours in order to be able to 100% the game. This mechanic is what ultimately led me to feel burnt out in the later parts of the game, but of course, I still tried to do it because I actually wanted to try out the Superbosses.
In order to accomplish Squad Missions, you had to defeat the specified amount of enemies or collect the specified resources, as shown in the HUD (use L and R to check for what exactly they are). The problem is that you only get an hour of real time to accomplish them, making them impossible to complete early game. You will need a full team of Skells in order to optimize the process. The worst versions of these missions are the ones that require you to defeat Uniques over and over again, which are a pain because you need to skip travel repeatedly to make them respawn. The worst set is one that’s all unique monsters, and one of the bosses in it is only accessible in a no-Skell cave that’s guarded by a bunch of enemies that are impossible to avoid (and you need to fight it six times, at night).
But no, completing these isn’t enough. Finishing one of the scavenger hunt missions unlocks new ones that you access from the console in the Barracks, and you must complete all of THESE in order to truly complete the whole set. The missions range from easy to annoying, and you will need at least one other person active in the server to possibly be able to finish all of it. The best part is that they give you a bunch of enemy materials to save you from some of the grinding. Just be wary that they send you to places all over Mira, which is guaranteed to spoil later locations. Completing all the missions, in both the field and barracks, gives you a butt-load of tickets.
BUT NO, this isn’t enough either. A lot of the stuff you need will require tons of materials from story bosses as well. That’s why they have Time Attack Mode at the barracks for you to refight infinitely. Good thing that they aren’t guaranteed to drop the crap you need! Yippee! Oh, and add to the fact that the story bosses aren’t exactly the easiest enemies to take down. Good thing all this crap is optional…
At least they took offline playing into account. After beating the game, you unlock support missions, which you can play to grind specific types of rewards. They are pretty useful, but they don’t give reward tickets. Also, the best one for gaining experience and BP is stupidly tedious because you have to fight ten enemies, but only three spawn at a time, and you have to wait a FULL MINUTE for them to respawn and you need to this one the MOST to max out your avatar’s arts and skills and- *huff huff*
With this much grinding, Xenoblade X really does feel like an MMO, and as a result of the MMO-ness, the story is made even worse than it already was. Since they needed to make it into a monster-of-the-week formula in order to structure around the MMO-ness, the plot progression is about as disjointed as Octopath Traveler’s. Normally, I don’t mind the story being bad. In fact, the story being like this makes the game incredibly explorative. If you’re really skilled and stealthy, you can probably explore the whole planet once you get to the third chapter. Back to the negatives, though. I know that the following is a nitpick, but while I don’t need a good story, I want it to be a certain structure. I like a good, arduous journey in a JRPG. I tended to explore before doing a story mission, and as a result, I did most in places I’ve been to before, which kind of took out the enjoyment out of it. However, for a reason I’ll mention later, I recommend that you primarily explore in between chapters.
Although designed around an MMO premise, the story and what the game expects of you clash at times. There’s one cutscene toward the beginning of the game (I don’t remember which one it is; I think I skipped it) where Elma says that humanity needs to live with the land on Mira, and only kill when necessary, such as when something directly tries to attack the town. However, the heavy grinding involved in the squad missions, and in general if you want to actually level up, contradicts this a lot. Maybe it’s done on purpose for thematic purposes, but what’s not done well is the nonexistent tension in the narrative. A giant tower in the town shows a big fat percentage representing how much energy the Lifehold has left, and it only goes down in every chapter. An MMO- scratch that, any RPG in general- encourages you to take your time and do as much side stuff as possible before going on with the story, and the sheer amount of side stuff, plus the aforementioned grinding, make it all feel very inconsequential. Furthermore, due to the fact that side missions never expire (thank God), appropriate things need to be given plot armor and red shirts. You can easily tell that Lao will die or turn on you (the latter of which he does) late in the game because they require you to do certain quests with him before making story progress, as well as the fact that his Heart-to-Hearts suspiciously don’t contribute to 100% map completion.
The exploration is a blessing and a curse. I didn’t give Mira enough credit back in the day. When I crawled out of that stupid rainy swamp area at the beginning, walked out into Primordia, and was welcomed by its natural splendor, I felt that Xenoblade whimsy all over again. Sure, it’s not shaped like an animal or humanoid, but it’s still an incredible world. There are so many nooks and crannies, gorgeous viewpoints, and an immersive atmosphere to boot. There aren’t enough purely sci-fi-themed JRPGs (that I know of), and Xenoblade X is one of the best in that specific category.
However, they let you know that Mira is a dangerous place. Like in the first Xenoblade, there are enemies of all different levels living together everywhere. In fact the Level 81 gorilla that gives newbs their first game overs is on Mira, in the first area, like in the previous game (and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shows that he’ll likely remain a staple). But unlike the two core installments, where stronger enemies are designed to discourage too much exploration, Xenoblade Chronicles X demands you explore that high-level territory anyway. In fact, one REQUIRED Affinity Mission makes you infiltrate a Ganglion base FULL of Level 50+ enemies when you are NOT EVEN CLOSE to that level. I’ll admit that I don’t mind it that much in most cases, as the cruel enemy placement really sells the theme of survival on a truly alien world. It also encourages thinking outside of the box, requiring you to utilize the environment and know just how much attack range you have, in order to get out of some crazy battles. In my first playthrough, I remember one mission where they make you fight a really hard enemy in a cave that Skells couldn’t get into, and I beat it by telling my friends to enter their Skells, which they teleported into, and it caused the enemy to aggro to them. But since they were still outside the cave, it just got stuck in a wall, and I waited twenty minutes while my auto-attacks whittled it down to nothing. It was annoying, but it was also fun to think of such a solution in the first place.
But sometimes it’s too much. A lot of stealth missions placed Target items DIRECTLY WITHIN ENEMY LINES OF SIGHT, and since you can’t pick up stuff while you’re engaged in battle, I was screwed. Also, there are really cheap ambush enemies that don’t show up on your minimap, some of which are Unique Monsters. There’s even a specific cave where a Unique is programmed to spawn in DIRECTLY BEHIND YOU after you walk in and get your bearings. What’s worse is that these enemies don’t ignore you when you’re higher leveled, so getting through places like Sylvalum that’re full of ambush enemies is not fun.
Let’s discuss the different regions. Primordia is the starting area, and it’s a nice, green biome that’s basic but still fun to explore, with most enemies docile to ease you in. Noctilum is my favorite area in the game, and has tons of variety in its biomes. Oblivia is a desert that has tons of mountains to scale (and that big wheel thing). Sylvalum is super pretty, but it’s my least favorite region in the game, for it’s split into an overly large frozen lake with nothing on it, and an overly large plain with nothing on it. Cauldros is loaded with tough enemies and tough platforming (rightfully so), and since it’s the most compact, it doesn’t have much in terms of scenic vistas. My only complaint with the region as a whole is that some of the enemy designs aren’t very inspired. While I certainly remembered them very well, they are mainly your typical, “let’s take earth animals and tweak them a bit, maybe add some extra limbs” designs that pepper the sci-fi world.
Nestled on the southern shores of Primordia is New Los Angeles, the hub. Normally, I don’t like it when JRPGs have only one town, for going into new towns is one of my favorite parts of those games. But NLA makes up for it in growing and developing more than most other JRPGs’ entire assortment of towns. It is a super-bustling area, and as you do more sidequests, it grows into a cultural melting pot, full of bizarre friendly aliens. I still loved running around this place, even with the memories of that stupid lobster bomb sidequest still burnt onto my brain.
Fortunately, the map makes full use of the Wii U Gamepad. While the maps themselves only show a shoddy satellite photo of areas in Mira, everything is divided into honeycombs. Once you unlock honeycombs, one tap will clue you in on stuff within that honeycomb, including Unique Monsters, future sidequests, and treasures. Fast Travel is also incredibly easy as well, thanks to this feature. They also tell you if you’ve completed a honeycomb, but I wish that they kept the specific icons instead of changing it to a gold medal, so it’s easier to know where everything is.
You also use the map to plant Probes. These unlock Skip Travel points and provide you with various perks. Mining Probes give you valuable Miranium and Ores at regular intervals, and Research Probes give you money. Storage Probes let you hold more Miranium, Combat Probes give helpful effects, Booster Probes enhance the others, and Duplicator Probes copy the effects of its neighbors. Each specific site has varying levels of what Probe does better, so read the info box before you plant them in. There are also Combat Probes, that can grant effects throughout the entire region they’re planted in (good luck rearranging all of FrontierNav each time you fight a tough enemy in a different region). I didn’t use any until the postgame just to test them out. Even with the highest effect I could get, it didn’t seem to help whatsoever, but maybe I’m just bad. They’re probably instrumental to fighting the superbosses.
Starting up Xenoblade Chronicles X made me remember one of its worst features: that the text was ludicrously small. “You need basic reading ability to fully enjoy this game,” my foot! You need 20/20 vision, man! This didn’t make the hour I spent in character creation any easier. You could spend a long time deciding who you want to be (the right answer is, of course, a thicc, sexy lady, since the shortest height is too tall for a loli). Fortunately, you can unlock a mechanic to redesign yourself, just in case.
But man… playing this again, I realized just how hard Xenoblade X is to get into on your first playthrough. I elected to skip a lot of cutscenes, especially tutorial stuff, which I think is one of the worst in all of videogames. To compare it to other installments of the series, Xenoblades 1 and 2 let you fully explore the first hub areas, and even had mini-dungeons, all while naturally easing you into the mechanics. Xenoblade X locks you into a specific route, and really infodumps the crap out of you. It’s overwhelming. One of the biggest offenders is when they show you a whole bunch of different terminals at a point where you can’t use them yet, which I believe is really dumb. Xenoblade X is definitely a “teach yourself” game with its mechanics, which there are a LOT of. To add insult to injury, there are tutorial pop-ups that appear well after you’re expected to know how those mechanics work, such as with Overdrive.
They also have the Division mechanic, which is where you select a job class, and earn rewards from performing that Division’s tasks. This mechanic is awful for multiple reasons. They do acknowledge that it’s a dumb mechanic in the story, but it does little to justify it. The reason why these Divisions are dumb is because some Divisions only have a finite amount of tasks, making them objectively bad picks. Furthermore, picking one doesn’t affect what you’ll do in the story. You could be a Mediator, who focuses on helping people in town, and yet be the hero who saves the Lifehold Core in the end. Furthermore, the Skell exam is to do tasks of all eight Divisions at once anyway (and apparently, you don’t need to build actual driving skills or anything. That would be unrealistic), which further shows how dumb the system really is.
Let’s discuss characters next. As is expected with the MMO-ness, your avatar is by far the weakest main protagonist is the entire Xenoblade Chronicles series. You don’t speak in cutscenes, and you rarely show emotion. What’s worse is that supporting you is a harem called Elma and Lin. Xenoblade Chronicles X has, like, twelve playable characters, and these two are among my least favorite. Elma is sometimes a badass, or a cold-hearted b****, and I don’t really enjoy her in either states. Lin is kind of just a moe-blob mechanic who likes to cook Nopons. “Well, if you don’t like them, don’t play as them,” you suggest. Um, let me tell you one of the dumbest aspects of the game: The main story FORCES you to have those two on every story mission, leaving only one spare slot for someone else (thank goodness this game has four slots). And here’s the clincher, all other party members are OPTIONAL. While the girls are among the best party members in the game (Elma’s Ghost Factory is a lifesaver), I suggest exploring Mira using these other characters, so that when you do the story mission, you can just go straight there with the girls, and not gain excess Affinity, because the game also expects you to juggle all of the party members around in order to jack up their Affinity (and level ups. Get used to hearing people’s death cries a LOT when you decide to play as that one person you didn’t use for fifty hours). I like juggling a lot of characters, but when they make you use two of them so often, it gets tough to build Affinity with everyone without doing a lot of grinding.
And grinding Affinity in this game SUCKS. There are three ways to do it: battle, sidequests, and heart-to-hearts. Battle is self-explanatory, but it takes the longest. In sidequests, it’s not so simple. Every party member you’re with gets an Affinity up when you complete it, sure, but they also get Affinity ups depending on how you respond in certain cutscenes. The problem is that EVERY character has a DIFFERENT reaction to each and EVERY possible response in the game. I imagine that if you know these characters really, REALLY well, you could intuitively guess what they’ll like, but it would require note-taking and multiple playthroughs to know them THAT well (and if you did, you’d have a helluva lot of party shuffling to do). They also feel inconsistent. One example is Yelv’s first Affinity Mission; the guy’s a Reclaimer who’s looking for his friend’s missing pod, but when prompted to decide on a mission type, picking the Reclaimer mission makes him happy, but DOESN’T increase his Affinity. Do you need to know SOCIAL SKILLS too or something?!
On top of that, Heart-to-hearts are the worst in the series in Xenoblade X. Basically, you have to NOT have the person in your party, then go to the appointed area AT THE APPOINTED TIME, with only random NPCs giving you clues on where and when. Oftentimes, you will just simply try to recruit them to your party, find that they went to their heart-to-heart, and not know where they are. You also need to reach certain Affinity levels to even view most of them, so you’d still have to grind anyway. You will probably have to look them all up online to save yourself a headache. And to top it all off… there’s no gifting items in Xenoblade X! It’s almost as if they WANT you to grind in an MMO-like setting…
Of the other party members, the best of the best is L (not from Death Note). This guy is a weird alien who is not fluent in human language, and therefore minces his words a lot. His soul voices, such as “We’ll put a sock on them!” make him my favorite party member in the game. Other interesting characters are Boze, H.B., and Murderess (eff her quests, though). A lot of the best post-battle flavor text involves having parties consisting of these optional side characters.
Unfortunately, a lot of their character arcs leave much to be desired. Like with the main story, these guys don’t really get much closure when you do all that you can with them. Sure, Frye and Phog, as well as Hope, are exceptions. But a lot of it ends off on unfulfilled promises that further tease the possibility of a sequel, like H.B.’s journey to become BLADE commander, Murderess’ journey to restore her family name, or whatever in SAM HILL happened to Yelv at the end of HIS arc. Some people don’t even get a real arc, such as with Irina, whose arc ends with a mission that has nothing to do with her, or Doug; you do one mission with, he tells you about his dead dad, and never hear from him for the rest of the game.
Additionally, there aren’t as many likeable NPCs. Tatsu is the Nopon protagonist of Xenoblade X, but he is the weakest Nopon protagonist, for he doesn’t join your party and ultimately doesn’t even do much. One of the military commanders is Old Man Vandham, and he’s great. Oh, and he’s identical to the Vandham in Xenoblade 2. Hopefully, this indicates that there will be an instance of him in every future Xenoblade, kind of like FinalFantasy with Sid.
But as I mentioned before with the Ganglion, they’re the least likeable antagonists in the series so far. The leader, Luxaar, has a lot of holes in his motives, such as how some random mech sitting in a pit on Mira is connected to some being he worships. His minions are just typical JRPG villain-minion tropes reworked as aliens: the thicc Goetia, the brawn-over-brain Dagahn, the bi***y Riiz, and the hyper-honorable Ga Jiarg (who, of course, becomes a good guy later).
Enough with characters already! So, sidequests are a thing. There are three types of sidequests: Basic Missions, Normal Missions, and Affinity Missions. Basic ones are accepted at a certain terminal, and respawn daily. Normal ones are your typical JRPG sidequests. Affinity Missions are more complex sidequests dedicated to character development, with a full arsenal of cutscenes to boot. You need to have specific Affinity levels and story progress to unlock them. Fun fact: most of the actual plot of Xenoblade X is in the sidequests. Additionally, most of the aliens you meet in the game are entirely optional, such as the sexy, shapeshifting Definians, or those tall things that give birth by splitting in half. There’s a whole B-plot involving racism that you’ll miss entirely if you don’t do the sidequests! Also, Affinity Missions don’t just explore most of the most interesting characters, but also some of the more interesting themes in the game, and really make it feel like you’re living in something more than a town of NPCs.
Just be careful which one you pick. Although they don’t let you do one unless it’s legitimately doable, doing one too early can be really bad, and since you can’t do any other Affinity Missions or the Story until the current one is finished, you can force yourself into some heavy grinding situations. One early struggle I had was Lin’s first Affinity Mission, The Repair Job. I didn’t recall struggling with this one in my first playthrough, but it took me over five hours to do it this time because it required resources you get from the Mining Probes. And for some reason, it just took forever for them to pop up, even though the ore is common, and I had Probes in three sites that had it. Alexa’s first Affinity Mission is rough too, because there is an optional harder enemy you can fight, but it’s very powerful, and uses Spikes, which you can’t defend against at the point in which you’re able to do the mission. If you decide to fight this thing, then save, you’re not continuing the story until you kill that thing with the limited early game equipment you have.
That one’s not close to the truly ASS Missions that are in Xenoblade X. My least favorite sidequest is the Red Lobster Bomber thing, where you have to find 99 (technically 98) bombs in NLA, which only spawn in batches, and at specific times of day. I ultimately chose not to do it this time (I somehow did it without a guide in my original playthrough) because the reward is crap, and if I couldn’t 100% the game then, when I only had to go to high school, then I definitely can’t 100% it while I have a full-time job AND a blog to do. In fact, I left a number of quests unfinished, which is a bad sign for me, as someone who loves to do side stuff. I basically got sick of the game, just like I did five years ago.
Xenoblade X has one of the rarest things in all of JRPGs: postgame set chronologically after the final boss. This only unlocks some new quests and Skells, but it’s still neat that there’s a postgame at all. If you played it while the servers were still up, you probably spent the postgame grinding. Unfortunately, the story had to be written around this design choice. In my first playthrough, I had predicted the “soul-crushing” reveal in chapter 12: that you were never remotely controlling the robot bodies from your real ones in the Lifehold Core. The human race WAS completely wiped out, and the robot bodies just contain each person’s memories. It’s a common cyberpunk trope, but it’s super arbitrary when it only serves to have the idea of a postgame make sense. “Well, you could just have the same missions but in your real bodies,” you argue. But like I said, sidequests never expire, so they need to be contextualized so that they can be done at any time without contradicting story elements. They also have to keep all Ganglion bases and enemies in operation, justifying it as “Ganglion stragglers” for the same reason.
Holy crap, how did I go so long without talking about the aspect of videogames that I find most important, which is gameplay?! Well, let’s do it now. Xenoblade X has a run button, which I was sad to have seen removed in Xenoblade 2. It helps a lot, especially since the world has a lot of ground to cover. Combat is also very different from core games. Oh boy, I should start a new paragraph for this.
The basics of Xenoblade are pretty much the same. You have auto-attacks, which go off automatically, and Arts, which are what you will come to rely on. One thing I noticed in XenobladeX is that you can auto-attack while you move, which is REALLY nice, and something I would’ve liked in Xenoblade 2. But the big difference is Soul Voices. If you use a specific type of art when prompted, you will have amazing bonus effects, from big damage, to big heals, to even brief invincibility. This starkly contrasts from core games, where you kept staring at your Arts as you waited for what seemed like an eternity for them to cooldown, but now expects you to save them for soul voices. It’s not always necessary to be compulsive with Soul Voices, however. Sometimes you’ll want to use an Art like normal. Look at the prompt at the bottom to see what the effect will be before you use it!
There are some problems with soul voices, though. One is that the A.I. spams Arts and wastes TP, and the commands you can give them with + are very limited. It definitely feels like a mechanic that works better in multiplayer, since you’d (supposedly) form groups with human players who don’t suck (too bad that’s pretty much impossible now). But nope, your allies are about as unreliable as ever.
The other issue is the game’s own issue of its voice acting. I think Xenoblade X has the worst voice acting in the series, or at least in the case of the dub (too bad you can’t set the Japanese voice acting in this installment… ). While there are exceptions (like L), the cast overall sounds really corny and annoying. The Xenoblade Chronicles series always had a bad issue of voice clips repeating themselves ad nauseum in battle, such as “You’ll pay for your insolence!” but it’s ramped up to fifty in this game. It feels like they tried to make every voice clip into a meme of its own, but with how incessantly you’ll be hearing all these clips, it’s more so something that sticks with you like that annoying pop song you can’t get out of your head, and not like something genuinely enjoyable.
Also new to the game are appendages. These are cool, because they’re parts of the enemy’s body that you can target by pressing in the right analog stick, and destroy after dealing enough damage. These lead to some of the best soul voices, such as a free opportunity to inflict Topple. Speaking of Topple… man, it’s hard to go back to an old installment from Xenoblade 2, which showed the duration of the Break statuses and stuff on the HUD, and added the Launch and Smash combos to the deal. Anyways, while destroying appendages is fun, it can also make the enemy super pissed, and even unlock some seriously powerful attacks from them.
As great as the combat is, there are some issues, with the TP stat being one of them. TP is MP. It fills up on auto-attacks and by using certain Arts and soul voices, and it fills up too slowly. You need at least 1000 to do anything with it, and characters can only hold 3000, without equipment to increase the amount. Certain Arts need TP, and these Arts are really important to your strategy. When you die, you lose all TP, which means that you gotta waste time fighting random mooks to grind it back up. The stuff just doesn’t come fast enough. In my first playthrough, the only way I could consistently gain TP was to alternate between True Stream Edge- an AOE attack that gives TP per hit if you have morale (which you can get easily by successfully hitting B prompts to make your own Soul Voice)- and Last Stand- which at its max level, expends 1000 of your TP to give 2000 to your allies- constantly in battle. It took no skill, and I felt like I wasn’t properly understanding the game. What’s worse is that it takes 3000 to revive a party member, which is the equivalent of the ENTIRE PARTY GAUGE in core games. This doesn’t make using Overdrive any easier.
Overdrive is the replacement of Chain Attacks. Basically, you expend 3000 TP to make your selected character go into Overdrive (fortunately, your allies will follow suit if you have the proper soul voices). In Overdrive, you use Arts to score hits and gain bonus effects that get stronger as you combo stuff. Using Melee and Range arts in succession will boost the count, while other types will act as wild cards and enable you to follow up with the opposite type. The method is to gain back all that TP and click on the Overdrive button again to extend its duration as long as possible. In this playthrough, I was pretty good at using TP conservatively, but I could never get a longer Overdrive without those broken strats. I believe that maintaining maximum Overdrive (I knew I should’ve gotten the turbo…) makes the party in Xenoblade X the most powerful in the series.
Another issue that I had to remember was the horrid lack of an Aggro system. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is definitely an Aggro system, but the problem is that they got rid of the symbol to indicate who is being targeted. It really sucks because a lot of strategy is built around knowing who’s being targeted at any given time. For example, Yelv has this ballsy Art called Essence Exchange, which swaps his HP and TP stats. This can be really useful, but also put him on death’s doorstep in .05 seconds. It’s risky to use, but deciding could be made a lot easier if you knew at a glance if he was being targeted.
Spikes return to Xenoblade Chronicles X. This unwritten and notoriously BS mechanic involves enemies who inflict counterattack or proximity damage whenever they darn well feel like it. The only way to avoid it is to have the right augments, and the augments for it in Xenoblade X suck. The best anti-Spike gear in any other game will basically grant one party member full immunity or reduce the damage to 1. But here, the best augment is merely a 50% evasion of Spikes. So, to give your whole party Spike immunity, you need at least EIGHT of the best anti-Spike augments, and that’s not even including the entirely separate ones for Skells. There’s also the new reflect damage BS. In this case, an enemy will take zero damage from a given element, and you’ll take the full hit yourself (and since some of your attacks do thousands of damage, you will die in less than a second). Fortunately, the augments to make yourself immune to this effect are pretty easy to make, you just gotta make them for EACH and EVERY element, and at least FOUR apiece.
Whenever the game decides to put up a legitimately fair fight, it does feel like a true Xenoblade Chronicles game. But like with any JRPG, you need to be outfitted properly to come out on top. Unfortunately, the equipment in Xenoblade X is too damn convoluted! Xenoblade X characters equip two weapons- one melee and one ranged- a headpiece, a top, two sleeves, and pants, each of which can have any out of, like, a BILLION augments added to them. There are also a TON of stats: HP, TP, Melee Attack, Melee Accuracy, Ranged Attack, Ranged Accuracy, Evasion, Potential, and Resistances for Physical, Thermal, Ether, Lightning, Beam, and Gravity attacks. The stats on equipment vary wildly, especially with clothes making you more resistant to one element, and more vulnerable to another, with no definitive combination for all situations (and don’t get me started on the many enemies that have powerful attacks two elements to where a given piece of equipment is strong against one but weak to the other, such as with Ether resistant clothes being weak to Physical). On top of that, you gotta outfit all ten+ party members, and EACH OF THEIR SKELLS. Oh, and the fact that there are entire sets of equipment made specifically for better fighting in Skells, but suck otherwise. Furthermore, there are limited ways to sort through the various equipment you’ll pick up, which makes it extra painful to find the specific ones you want. The miniscule text is icing on the cake here. But the good news is that there is still a cosmetic slot for your kit, enabling you to put your girls in skimpy clothes without giving them bad stats. Seriously though, this game NEEDED an ability to save preset equipment sets, since everything is so situational to the point where you need to reoutfit everybody from the ground up to take on specific tough enemies, like Superbosses. Scratch that, you need to reoutfit everybody to take on ANY enemy. Sometimes you won’t even be capable of getting the resources necessary to optimize your outfit because the materials are ludicrous levels of stingy. The Arms Manufacturer mechanic makes it worse. While it’s cool that you unlock companies that specialize in different things (which also makes the world feel more alive), as a consequence you end up unable to buy equipment for certain types of enemies. The worst offender is Six Stars, which defend against Thermal, that you can’t unlock until after Chapter TEN at the earliest. Money also tends to be scarce, as you’ll find yourself buying new equipment to update your team until you get the “Ultra” equipment as drops from enemies that are level 60 and over. Even though I made a good point to pick up any high level equipment I happened upon, I still ended up not having good equipment or enough of a specific elemental resistance, and my money got sucked dry every time I had to buy stuff.
Classes make things even more complicated. These dictate what weapons you can use. Each weapon has its own set of Arts, and mastering the class lets you freely equip the weapons even without being in that class. This leads to some very interesting combinations once you can master some stuff. To make things simpler, only your avatar can change classes, and I kind of find it to be a blessing. I ended up stubbornly focusing on one path at a time, but it might be better to spread out. There were so many times when I was like “If only I had that one Art…” and it was because I stuck to one Class path at a time.
Now let’s discuss the part that every mecha anime would love: Skells. These mechs, once unlocked, can be freely customized with their own equipment kit, color scheme, and name. They make getting around and fighting easier, and even allowing you to damage small enemies by walking on them. I love them and dislike them. While they are fun, they kind of ruin the thrill of discovery on Mira. Later on, you get the ability to fly with Skells, which I don’t really like. I loved looking at high places and thinking, “How will I get up there?” only to realize that you just fly up there with the Skell, instead of being able to hoof it on foot. I’m definitely nitpicking here, though, as someone who sometimes likes the journey over the reward.
Skells in combat also spice things up. Skells have even more equipment than humans. They get the usual armor, as well as the usual melee and ranged weapons. But they also get eight OTHER weapons. Don’t worry, though; these weapons dictate the Skell’s Arts. Each Skell Art consumes fuel (which isn’t really that much of an issue, since they regenerate from being stationary), and they have a lot of cool animations and effects. It’s fun to slide into a group of enemies and press a single button to unleash hell on them. Among these Skell Arts are superweapons that you get lategame, take up four Art slots, and hit like meteorites. However, due to the MMO nature of the game, getting some of these is no longer possible… Crap.
When fighting in Skells, everything is mostly the same. However, instead of Topple, you Bind enemies. One Skell (probably yours) will press the ZL and ZR buttons on a staggered enemy to lock it into place, which also regenerates a bunch of fuel. You have to complete button prompts to keep them trapped for as long as possible, but sadly, they’re pretty much guaranteed to break out after a set amount of time. There is also a random chance of the camera zooming in on a P.O.V. shot inside your cockpit, which is disorienting at first but instantly recharges all of your arts. Overdrive is much simpler on Skells; it gives you temporary infinite fuel and increases the chance of the P.O.V. effect occurring. However, the mechanic seems luck based, as it seems to decide to give you more time whenever it feels like it, and I don’t know what dictates it. Each Skell’s Overdrive is also different, and it only shows you the effects in the tiny text that appears on the HUD for one second before it goes away forever.
I never enjoyed fighting in Skells during my first playthrough and I still don’t enjoy it now. A lot of the Skell Arts are very uninteresting and boring, and it never feels like there’s any strategy with them except to use brute force. Whenever I fought with Skells, instead of feeling empowered, I felt like I was giving up. There are a lot of tough battles that are trivialized by Skells. I felt like I didn’t have to be any good at the game when in Skells. Sure, there are still some enemies that can wipe an entire party of Skells, and some that you can’t even reach without them, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the whole thing.
But man, they do make navigating a dream. Remember that Affinity Mission that forces you to go to high-level territory underleveled? Well, I have no clue what convoluted path they wanted you to take to stealth through there, but with my Skell I literally did a Hail Mary flying leap directly to the goal, and used the cutscene to avoid fighting any enemies who saw me! Skells are great if you want to expedite tasks, but they sure aren’t fun.
Speaking of not fun, enjoy the choir that plays every time you fight in a Skell. You thought repetitive voice clips in Xenoblade were bad? Well, fighting in Skells is the worst it’s ever been. They didn’t even bother recording voice clips for them saying the name of each Skell Art; they only did one voice clip per character per type of Skell Art. So whenever you fight in a Skell, get ready for tons of “MUST POWER UP!” and “I’M POWERING UP!” and “ONE BLOW TO END IT ALL!” and “SHIELDS DEPLOYED! TIME TO SIT BACK AND DRRRRINK!” and “PLEASE! WHY WOULD YOU FLEE?” and more! These memes put Kingdom Hearts III to shame.
If there are any Skells that break the game, it’s the ones that you can craft after beating the main story. These Skells are at level cap, and all have positive resistances, even to Gravity. But the most broken of all of them are the Ares Skells. Modeled off of the Prog Ares that you fight in Chapter 11, these things will rip the planet a new one (the edgy black one is the more powerful of the two, of course). They take a ton of crap to craft, including some drops from a specific Superboss, but it’s worth it. Since I still had the Squad Missions system up, I was able to create it in this playthrough. Design-wise, you were probably meant to use the regular postgame Skells to fight them, and the Ares is the reward for going through that struggle, because this thing is practically a GameShark code incarnate. It comes with four unique Arts, including the Something-or-other-Cannon (I forgot the name). I don’t remember that attack being so stinking powerful. It’s pretty much guaranteed to one-hit most enemies in the game, including some Superbosses. As result, it helps grinding for the other Skells immensely, as you need to fight tons of Xe-Doms, which are these giant robots that will murder you in any other circumstances, and obtain many rare drops from them.
Also, I HATE that max level is 60. This makes it so that about one-fifth of all the enemies are Superbosses. I don’t feel incentivized to defeat them since they wouldn’t even be Superbosses in any other Xenoblade game. Furthermore, the fact that Uniques respawn naturally makes it feel like you never accomplished anything.
So, for the first time in my life, I tried to beat as many of Xenoblade X’s Superbosses as possible before I inevitably got sick of it. I was not able to fight that many of them; only two, and they weren’t even above level 90. However, I seemed to discover a way to defeat them that’s even more broken than the True Stream Edge/Last Stand combo I discussed earlier. Having Elma or your avatar with Ghost Factory, you build up a bunch of TP (preferably with a lot of Max TP up augments equipped) beforehand, begin the boss battle, and use Overdrive immediately (preferably with Phantom Counter to give you a free 12 combo). Use Ghost Factory next. That grants Decoy, which makes a set number of attacks miss, to the whole party. At this point, spam Sliding Slinger or any move that builds TP for free (debuff arts give free TP per hit, maxing out at 1000 per hit) to build Overdrive up to max while regularly refreshing Ghost Factory. As long as you always have Ghost Factory, you’ll essentially be invincible. And once you get max, Ghost Factory will be fully cooled down in like a second. With this strat, all you need to do is build your usual Night Vision augments and stuff. Of course, this strategy isn’t perfect against people like Dadaan the Strongest Prone, who summons eighty guys when he’s at half health, but it definitely helped me complete Elma’s final Affinity Mission with almost no preparation. Seriously… the preparation you need in order to fight all of them… Yeesh.
Let’s talk about the most divisive part of the game next: its soundtrack. While I do think it’s the weakest soundtrack in the series so far, I still love some of it. The area themes, in particular, are great. Each area theme sells the sci-fi theme, while keeping true to the Xenoblade music feeling. The daytime theme of Noctilum is my favorite theme in the game; it’s epic, grandiose, and adventurous, and sells the alien splendor of Mira the best. Unfortunately, the battle themes are kind of infamous. When I first heard the regular battle theme, I was like, “Well, this is a sci-fi setting, can’t expect an orchestra,” but then… the hip-hop came in. Although it can be interpreted as funny and memeable, Xenoblade Chronicles is the one game I do not want cheesy songs in its soundtrack. And it doesn’t stop there. The classic You Will Know Our Names, the theme when battling against Unique Monsters, is now a cheesy, High School Musical-esque track. It was so polarizing to me, that I felt the closest thing to PTSD in my life when it played during the Elma fight in Xenoblade 2. The Skell themes are even worse. The battle theme, which should make you feel strong and powerful, is a crappy techno-pop song, and the flight theme, which should feel adventurous, feels like it’s right out of Sonic R, which is not fitting at all (also, due to how fast the jetpack is, you’ll have the first 30 seconds of it loop in your head for eternity because that’s all you’ll ever hear of it). Speaking of looping forever, get ready to here the other crappy techno-pop song for ten hours when you use Overdrive and try to maintain its duration!
Lastly, the visuals. There’s nothing much to say, other than the game has its ambitions written on its sleeves. Although I prefer the artsy, anime style of most modern JRPGs, Mira is still gorgeous in its own right. If I wasn’t trying to get through this before the release of Remastered, I would’ve spent fifty hours in scenic viewpoints instead of accomplishing anything. Unfortunately, even with the preloaded assets DLC, a lot of enemies and NPCs will take awhile to spawn in. In the case of the former, you can get cheaply ambushed just by people “materializing” into existence.
After All These Years: 9/10
I’ve been hard on Xenoblade Chronicles X. It has many, many, many issues, but at the same time, I still love it. I would 100% want to play a hypothetical Xenoblade X2 if one ever gets made. I recommend you give this game a whirl if the Wii U e-shop is still open, allowing you to download the pre-rendered assets (oh, and if you already have a Wii U as well). Also, if the online crap is down, you don’t have to worry about the hellish journey to 100% the game, because it’s no longer possible. Play it if you’ve got a hundred-odd hours to spare. But if you had to pick and choose, I’d still recommend Xenoblade 2, and hopefully Xenoblade Definitive, over this.
I’ve been reading Eighty-Six since its English release courtesy of Yen Press. Due to the fact that volumes 2 and 3 all happen during the epilogue of volume 1, I decided to cover all three of them in one blog post because it’s technically still a review of volume 1(?).
Eighty-Six is set in the Republic of Mongolia, in a world at war with the Legion: surviving robot weapons of an empire long gone (supposedly). The pale-skinned people of Mongolia live in paradise within the 85-sector city, leaving the dark-skinned people in the 86th sector to fight the Legion. It’s justified because the Eighty-Six (the derogatory term for this people) are considered pigs, and nobody cries when pigs are killed. …Yeeeeeeah, this is a light novel about racism.
Racism is such a universal issue that it can also be used, in writing, as an easy emotional hook to make something that sucks seem good. However, the portrayal of racism in Eighty-Six is executed really well. The writing is so evil and devious, it’s as if each passage is like firing a railgun bullet straight into your throbbing aortic pump.
The biggest strength of Eighty-Six lies in the main protagonists.. Like in classic forbidden romance fashion, the lead female is a white girl in the military- Lena- who is assigned as an operator who corresponds via some kind of brain-Skype to a squadron of Eighty-Six soldiers, captained by the male lead Shin. The experiences that they have with and away from each other are very engaging, and makes their relationship one of the better romances, despite how they don’t communicate in person (at least not yet).
Unfortunately, they are marred by a lackluster supporting cast. It seems you need to be SERIOUSLY emotional and not analytical, because the rest of the characters are either blatantly wearing red shirts, or are of almost no consequence. These people tend to be really one-note and forgettable. The only character I liked besides Shin and Lena was Frederica, a military loli introduced in volume 2, but that’s only because she actually has plot relevance. You’d think that the characters who are higher-ups in command, such as *takes out notes* Lena’s supervisor, Karlstahl, or Ernst Zimmerman from the city introduced in volume 2, would be very important. However, these people just end up twiddling their thumbs, stalling out the story discussing different strategies when we KNOW that Shin’s squad is going to just tackle any given conflict head-on because Shin is a lead protagonist. If that’s meant to be a commentary on the actual military’s competence, then I applaud the author on that one.
Due to this miserably sad cast (both in the emotional sense and the writing sense), a lot of Eighty-Six really drones on. The basic formula seems to mainly be slice-of-life and drama, followed by actual battles. However, since I didn’t grow emotionally attached to these characters, I got bored fast, especially in volume 2, which didn’t even have a fight. There isn’t much character development outside of Shin either; most of his squad complains about how miserable they are, while other people complain about how unjust it is for kids to be in the military (yet Shin ends up getting sent out anyway). In a manga very similar thematically, Attack on Titan, I could at least grow attached to the characters because there were more defining traits, and instead of Shin being the only one who matters, everyone in Attack on Titan (well, mostly everyone), has some important role to play in the story. Shin could literally be a one-man squad and nothing would change in terms of what actually goes down on the battlefield.
The art is middle-of-the-road for me. The characters look okay, but the real juicy stuff is in the schematics of various Legion and other machines as well as maps of the areas where strategies are being planned. The color art’s also great.
Eighty-Six is torture porn, but damn good torture porn. Despite the low quantity of good characters, the series has great worldbuilding, and great tryhard writing to boot. Now that volume 3 has contextualized volume 1’s epilogue, maybe we’ll FINALLY GET TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN VOLUME 4!!
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