Xenoblade Chronicles X wastes no time getting started. After a brief intro and an opportunity to create your own character, you're unceremoniously awoken from a stasis pod that crash landed on the alien planet Mira. With no memory and only the barest hint of an objective, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. I fumbled my way through the small grassy enclosure, maneuvering around the few creatures grazing around me (ok, maybe I fought a few to get used to the battle controls). Eventually, I strolled through a series of narrow crevices that funneled me out onto a bluff overlooking the cliff. Then, I was greeted by this:
Holy crap. I've played a lot of open world games this year. Too many. But none have given me such an overwhelming urge to explore, to conquer a harsh, untamed land, to study its ecosystem and witness how the different species interact with one another. And Xenoblade is more than willing to oblige my wanderlust, turning me into an amateur photographer in the process.
Unlike the worlds found in sprawling games like The Witcher 3 or Fallout 4, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles X is largely unsettled. Earth has been caught in the crossfire of a war between two alien species, and humanity's been forced to vacate the planet we've called home for thousands of years, Battlestar Galactica-style. A ship carrying a decent chunk of Earth's population has crash landed on Mira, and for the past two months has been making excursions into the wild, planting data probes, gathering information, and salvaging whatever they can to restock their dwindling resources.
You won't find too many people looking for help outside of the human city of New Los Angeles. You load up on quests in town and voyage out, returning every so often to upgrade your gear, talk to your crew, or take on new quests. There isn't a constant pull on your attention when you're out in the field, so it's easy to get lost in the simple act of getting lost.
Mira is filled with winding trails that lead to mountaintops, oversized vines that connect two distant cliffs, and paths that will take you to the highest heights and the lowest depths. There's an impressive sense of verticality and variety in landscapes that rivals the relatively flat spaces of San Andreas, Velen, or Gotham City. And you can really book, too, zipping across these expanses and leaping tens of feet into the air, or later, by piloting a transforming mech called a Skell. Mira is huge, bigger than Fallout 4 or The Witcher 3, apparently, but getting around is a breeze, which makes admiring the scenery that much easier to do.
I found myself consistently gobsmacked by the geography of this planet, so I started taking pictures. A lot of pictures. I started to notice that every time I turned a corner, there was a breathtaking vista, a gorgeous stretch of hills, a mountain with floating rocks totally defying any currently-understood law of physics, a massive dinosaur-looking creature sipping water peacefully from a lake. And I had to get a snapshot of all of it.
Xenoblade Chronicles X may be a Wii U game, but it has an identity, a look to it, that is unlike even the most beautiful high-resolution next-gen games. You'll wander across an impossibly large steel ring half-buried in the desert continent of Oblivia and wonder who built it, how it got there, where it came from. You'll climb to the tallest mountain and take a running leap into the lake below just because you can. You'll gaze into the night sky and marvel at the half-dozen or so moons hovering above. You'll wonder about the history of this planet - who was here before we arrived? Who created these structures, and for what purpose? I haven't found the answers to those questions after 30 hours of play, and I doubt I will after 30 more. Xenoblade's story is more immediately focused on humanity's perilous search for survival than it is in drowning you in lore, and I imagine the mystery is far more enticing than whatever answer might actually exist.
There are also the sillier moments - like hitting the 'equip strongest armor' option on your protagonist, only to find his helmet replaced by a bunny mask. Then walking into the residential district filled with houses that wouldn't look out of place in a Southern California suburb, and taking a picture in front of one with a Skell parked out front like it's the family station wagon. And watching dramatic events unfold around your characters in cutscenes, while your protagonist still has that ridiculous bunny mask on his face. It's enough to make you wish the Wii U had a 'Share' button of its own.
Xenoblade Chronicles X is a strange game set in a strange land, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around its gameplay even after a few dozen hours of play. But if there's one thing that's enough to keep bringing me back, it's the thrill of discovering uncharted territory.