I think the most useful way to explain combat in Xenoblade Chronicles X is by comparing it to Xenoblade. In Xenoblade each character was locked into either melee or ranged combat and the skills they had available to them were uniquely tailored to a defined role. Sharla would always sit in the back as a ranged healer, Reyn would always stay in front as a big melee bruiser, and Shulk would always flit around the periphery of a battle to maximize his many flanking attacks. Different skill builds allowed limited customization of each unit, but the game never allowed characters to deviate far from their starting roles.
Those limitations are gone in Xenoblade Chronicles X. The player can build an avatar of any class, can recruit party members of any class combination, and every class has access to melee attacks, ranged attacks, and healing. This has upsides and a downside. I’ll cover the downside first before I gush. Classes are far more homogenous in Xenoblade Chronicles X than they used to be. The Xenoblade character Melia was never able to be anything but a ranged elemental mage character, but she had very cool elemental orb mechanics fueling her skills that made playing as her significantly unlike playing as any other character. Those more unique role based mechanics are gone, and it’s kind of a bummer.
BUT. There’s so so much that Xenoblade Chronicles X has gained. The most important upgrade is that every class can switch between melee and projectile attacking. This gives battle a sort of ebb and flow of combatants I’ve not seen in another game. Do you want to avoid giant flailing alien limbs while you try to heal? Go to ranged combat. Did an ally inflict topple status on an enemy? Rush in for bonus damage melee attacks. Do you want to use skills that give bonuses when used from behind or from the side? Get in close to minimize the radial motion necessary to circle your foe. Want to cast an aura? Check where your allies are and make sure you’re nearby be they near or far.
On top of all these factors encouraging a constantly swirling battlefield, healing has been entirely revamped. There are few skills that straight up provide HP anymore and none that can keep a party sustained through a tough battle. Healing is now achieved through the Soul Voice system. Soul Voices can get pretty involved, but it can be reductively described as a system of following orders. Party members call out for specific types of back up and if you comply promptly the party is granted some health. What characters call out for and when is a whole customizable menu, so there’s a lot of freedom to create a party setup where the offensive combos become defensive synergies as well.
Oh yes, and ALSO there’s a two layered cooldown bar on skills now. Do you want to just wait for a skill to be ready and then use it again? Fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you can fight without it for long enough to get a doubled charge the eventual skill use can deal devastating secondary effects such as powering up all attacks of its type or instantly toppling the enemy.
All of these systems work together to create a dynamic battlefield where you’re always making a decision and you’re always on the move. Is it worth it to use your high level melee attack when the enemy is toppled for the bonus damage, or is it better to wait for the secondary effect later? Is it best to try and leave one of your long cooldown auras available so that you can have it ready should someone call for it, or is it better to keep as much uptime as possible on your party buffs? Should I make a party of different classes that can support each other, or should I make a party of four Full Metal Jaguars because that’s objectively the coolest class name ever? These are the sorts of decisions you make every fight and the complete freedom in party building means that you’re never stuck dealing with the same skills or combos a second longer than you want to.
And here’s the best part – I get that this reads as being a bit dense (and I haven’t even TOUCHED on Skells or Overdrive or Tension Points or targeting body parts or… you get the point) but the game doesn’t demand total optimization. This isn’t a game about kicking your butt. It is entirely up to the player how deeply they want to invest in the combat. It is profoundly satisfying to narrowly defeat a boss based on ten minutes of split second decision making, but if you want to just hit things with your skills that works most of the time too.
I would say it took me about 45 hours to really become proficient at fighting in Xenoblade Chronicles X and pick up the skills needed to play in multiplayer (more on that next time). Looking back at it now? Time well spent.