Xenoblade Chronicles X is not a particularly story focused game. There are barely a dozen main quest missions to progress the threadbare plot and all the rest of the hundreds of hours of content are optional quests. Go here, kill this, collect those things, talk to that one guy, and rescue my cat (yes that happens multiple times). The online multiplayer content is all, by necessity, completely divorced from the narrative. It’s easy to get the impression that Xenoblade Chronicles X is the best RPG world ever waiting for someone to build an RPG in it.
But as I progressed I discovered that the story I was looking for was there after all, just not where I thought it would be. Quests in Xenoblade Chronicles X are divided into three types. First there are quests off the quest board – these are the most straightforward collection and hunting quests and they’re justified by one or two brief sentences at best. Second there are quests from NPCs in the world – these are multi step affairs that don’t have voiced cutscenes but feature unique dialogue between characters explaining what’s going on and occasionally have impact on the world or open up follow-up missions.
The third level of quest though, affinity quests, are where the meat of the game is at. Scattered through New LA there are opportunities to embark on affinity quests. These have very specific requirements before they can be accessed. No more than three party members, must not have certain characters, must have completed certain story missions, must have reached a certain level, must have explored x percent of a certain continent… there’s a ton of ways these are gated. There can also only be a single affinity mission active at a time and once accepted they cannot be abandoned until completed. These missions are worth the hassle of all the prerequisites though, affinity missions reward you with full cutscenes, new party characters, new weapons companies, new skills, and new quest opportunities.
Every affinity mission is focused on a particular character, and each of these unique characters has their own miniature story that you follow through the game by playing their affinity missions in sequence (completing one unlocks the next). As you progress through their arc they grant the player unique class skills that no other character in the game has. This is cool because it makes each relationship a two way street – even as the player helps each character with his or her troubles they in turn teach the player invaluable unique combat abilities that frankly outclass the normal abilities you get from leveling up.
The game lets you choose which stories you care about and only play through those levels. Phog is a loser and he got abandoned in New LA as soon as I discovered him. I’m sure if you stick with him he’ll learn to believe in himself or whatever, but my character has better things to do with her life than nurse a wuss like him to competence. Bozé on the other hand is a bald doofus with a sniper rifle who teaches you the move “Slayonet”. He went on the A team.
Technically it’s possible to level up every character in the game and do every affinity mission and learn every unique skill on your avatar, but characters don’t level up when they aren’t in the party so it’s much more reasonable to choose your favorites and roll with your crew. And once I had decided on my own team, I found that I cared about their stories more than I ever would have in a linear RPG. I wasn’t playing content just because that’s what was up next; I was experiencing stories because I chose to experience those stories. That’s the key. Xenoblade Chronicles X doesn’t feature hour long cutscenes like Xenosaga or an epic 80 hour arc like Xenoblade, but the story that you spend most of your time experiencing belongs to you in a way that it never has in a Xeno game before.
For the record, my A team is Bozé because he’s overenthusiastic in that mega earnest way where you’re never quite sure if he’s in on the joke or not, Hope because one of her affinity missions made me shocked that the game went there, and Yelv because… well, because he fights with a laser sword. I’m a shallow man, sue me.