Review: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Nintendo Switch)

Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Monolith Soft
Genre: RPG
Release Date: 12/01/2017

It took me over a month to do, but I finally rolled the credits on Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This is a game that quickly because my most anticipated for the latter half of 2017, even ahead of the stellar Super Mario Odyssey and well polished Fire Emblem Warriors. The first game was easily my favorite Wii title and perhaps one of my favorite JRPG’s of all time, so to see it get a proper story driven sequel rather than an aimless open-world spinoff that was the Wii U game, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, the resulting hours that I invested into it weren’t as blissful as the ones I had over five years ago, much of which had more to do with some baffling design decisions more so than the creative vision.

When the first trailer hit during a Nintendo Direct that showcased Nintendo’s lineup for 2017, I suspect many XC fans had the same thought I did; something seems off. And further reveals drove this point even further. The art style had taken a turn for the anime. Of course, I’m no stranger to this sort of aesthetic, I’ve played my fair share of Tales releases after all. But it was a far cry from the design of the original. But more than that, the appearance of the protagonist screamed more Kingdom Hearts than it did Xenoblade Chronicles, and the rest of the cast was rounded out by a young catgirl, a mascot character (the Nopon), and a top heavy female representation of the sword referenced in the game’s title. I was seriously beginning to worry that this was design-by-focus group; a game homogenized to mimic every trope found in JRPG’s that came before it. The end result was not that, but damn if it didn’t come very close.

While I’m on the topic of the visual aesthetic, I’ve come to accept and further enjoy the style for what it is rather than what it isn’t. Sure, Rex still looks like a doofus, and I was disappointed that your outfit does not change based on equipped gear, but the character designs come to grow on you. More than that though, the locales never fail to impress, with expansive lands that take place on the backs of giant creatures known as Titans, and tons of nooks and crannies to explore. I was impressed with what they were able to do with the Switch horsepower, even in its undocked state. It does take a hit in performance while on the go, but damn if it doesn’t blow anything else out of the water, Switch, Vita, or otherwise.

And the music. The original Xenoblade Chronicles is host to one of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time and XC2 rivals even that. Everything from the combat audio to the field music has me humming along with it instantly (and I’m immediately recalling all of it as I type this). Seriously, get these guys to score every video game ever. The voice acting requires a little more of an adjustment to get comfortable with. I was expecting something along the lines of the original game or something like Dragon Quest VIII, but I was a little taken aback by accents that I’m not used to hearing in a JRPG (sounded Scottish to me I want to say?) The performance itself was good, just not at all what I imagined I would hear from each character. The battle quotes got to be a bit too much for me though and I ended up turning them off very early on. A Japanese language track is available free to download though if you find that more to your taste.

As alluded to earlier, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is nothing but a sea of clouds with large landmasses in the form of Titans that wander them. As you might imagine, as these Titans die off, the body of land that normal folks live on goes with them. This creates a lot of conflict amongst nations as you might imagine, since the space that can be occupied by any one people shrinks as time goes on. But there is a legend about land called Elysium that exists above a giant world tree that is said to be a limitless expanse. It had always been just that: a legend. That is, until a salvager named Rex is sent on a seemingly routine mission with a group of random strangers and crosses paths with a being known as the Aegis who pleads with him to take her to Elysium. What follows is a rat race of sorts to be the first one to climb the tree and discover what it is that awaits above.

It’s not a terrible premise, even if the concept of a legendary tree (Yggdrasil or otherwise) has been done to death before. In fact, barring some predictable events and filler sequences, what’s presented is actually quite good. Some of the cutscenes contain well choreographed combat between major characters that never fail to impress and still others showcase highly emotional moments. What’s frustrating though is the plot’s insistence on needing to cut the tension using tired anime tropes. Sometimes it works (the bit about the one-eyed monster in particular I still find amusing), while others wind up feeling forced and get in the say of some of the more serious writing.

The cast runs into some of the same issues. Many of them wind up being very endearing the longer the adventure goes on, but lean on way too many clichés. Rex in particular is the biggest offender, being your typical upbeat, goody two shoes, shonen anime hero. And Mythra might as well carry a sign that says tsundere everywhere she goes. The Nopon character that gets introduced very early on may get under the skin of some folks with his verbal tics. But honestly, as a unit, each member of your party complements each other well and most of them get pulled away from their more one dimensional traits very quickly.

I suppose what I’m getting at is the writing is not nearly as impressive as the original game’s, though it’s leaps and bounds above XCX and most other JRPG’s, so there’s that.

The combat too is a bit of a downgrade from its predecessors and suffers from being needlessly complicated and poorly explained. The first thing you need to understand about how battles work is that all of your playable party members are known as Drivers and are aided in battle by beings referred to as Blades. You can have three Drivers on the field at once, and each one has at least one Blade equipped, though the role of the Blades is far more passive. They provide an elemental affinity as well as determine which skills are accessible in combat. You are able to swap them out after a cooldown period has passed, which becomes a sort of necessity later on depending on the elemental needs of the fight you’re in.

Rather than having a whole lineup of skills as before, party members are limited to three base arts. Early on, the arts cannot be used until you’ve successfully landed a certain number of auto-attacks and since characters do not attack while moving, you’re expected to just sort of sit there while characters hack away. Eventually, you can unlock the ability to have certain arts ready at the start of a fight, but the early fights are very dry.

Now, performing enough arts will then lead to enabling specials, which often require an active time response on the part of the player. Other party members can then perform their own attacks, which is referred to as a Blade Combo. Depending on the order and element of the attacks, a colored orb will surround the enemy and if your party gauge is full, a chain attack can be initiated, which is the bread and butter of your damage. These chain attacks cycle through your Blades and by destroying those floating orbs, you can string together a series of blows that have the potential of dealing hundreds of thousands of damage to your opponent. In fact, the game expects you to understand this system in order to succeed, though it does a poor job of explaining it and the tutorial messages you see that go over it seemingly cannot be accessed again (but you can buy tips with in-game money, woohoo!) That said, when it does finally click and you are able to crush foes with damage totals in the six figures, it’s incredibly satisfying.

And that is just the start of the more frustrating aspects of the game. Enemies have a ton of HP as a result of the combat system that seemingly expects you to build up to a chain attack for every fight (which by the way is not a quick process). High level enemies populate lower level areas on a much more frequent basis and while there is no penalty for death save for getting sent back to prior landmark, the frequency of these high level foes borderline on the unreasonable. Navigation is a chore too (though improved after a patch), as the compass that points you towards your next goal is practically useless and the minimap could stand to see some improvement. At least there’s a fast travel function.

The way XC2 handles Blades is really what drags it down from a classic game to simply a great one. New Blades are obtained from opening cores found from fallen enemies, treasure chests, you name it. But the Blade you acquire is entirely random, utilizing a gacha/loot box type setup based solely on your luck with RNG to determine your reward. Sure, there are Rare and Legendary cores that increase your odds in getting a rare Blade, but neither of these guarantee success. And if there’s a specific one you’re gunning for (say KOS-MOS from the Xenosaga games, for example), there is not a whole lot you can do to up your odds. Which is a shame, since some Blades have their own quest chains and cutscenes that shed more light on their background and personality. Sure, there are sidequests that will allow you to earn specific rare blades too, but it’s baffling that the bulk of them have to be earned via lottery with no other recourse. And if that isn’t bad enough, you’re subject to unskippable animation every single time you open one.

That’s not the only time Blades sour the experience. Many obstacles on your quest have to be overcome using field skills. They can consist of anything from lockpicking to fire mastery, but you will run into roadblocks that require some form of passive skill to overcome. It’s wholly unnecessary and seems to serve no purpose other than to force the player to roll the dice on obtaining a Blade that may or may not have what’s needed to move on. And if you do have what’s needed, you also have to make sure that particular Blade is equipped to a Driver (because being in your inventory is not good enough) and then you have to watch an animation for each of the passive skills that get activated.

Really, if you’re looking for an RPG that respects your time as a player, this is not it. And it’s not just the unskippable core opening animations and field skill activations either. When you progress far enough to send Blades our on mercenary missions, you have to listen to dialogue each time they return and when they get sent out. Unlock some sort of passive Blade skill? It’s not actually unlocked until you view their tree and listen to some more unskippable dialogue (which it sounds like may be getting patched out, but still). Honestly, this 70+ hour adventure could’ve been cut down significantly if it wasn’t for all of the bloat and forced animations.

If it were just one or two things, they could be easily overlooked. But the little nuisances pile up, and many of them are things that didn’t exist in the prior games, begging the question “why?” Why, for instance, is the player only allowed to have one save game per account? Or why does a character that you are forced to use for a bulk of the early game have their strength tied to a simplistic minigame? Here’s another: why when defeating an enemy do I have to worry about money or items falling off of a cliff rather than have it just given to me? Why do healing skills just launch health potions all over the battlefield and force me to go retrieve them? Why do so many side quests only reward you with another sidequest with no tangible benefit of their own? Why, why, why?

I can already tell you’re wondering “your review sounds mostly negative, is it really that great of a game?” Despite all of the annoying crap that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 throws at you, yes, it is absolutely worth playing. My criticisms come from a viewpoint of frustration, as I know the experience could’ve been so much better than it was. The characters and the plot border on the cliché at times, but are very well done, and the combat gets really enjoyable once more options open up to you and it finally clicks how everything works. And let’s not forget about one of the strongest soundtracks in a video game this year if not all time. It does not surpass the original game, which was a tall order to begin with, but I at least got more out of it than I did the Wii U spinoff. Monolith Soft seems to be listening to feedback, as evidenced by the map changes, so my hope is that they’ll continue to make improvements. If they can succeed in trimming the fat and change the way rare Blades are obtained to a more reliable method, it would elevate the game from something great to something every JRPG fan should check out.

Short Attention Span Summary
Nintendo and Monolith Soft deliver on their promise for a new Xenoblade Chronicles game in the first year of the Switch, and while it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original, it’s certainly more faithful than the Wii U spinoff. Taking place in an expansive world filled with Titans that have entire ecosystems on their backs, players try to guide protagonist Rex and his newfound Blade, Pyra, to the top of the world tree to see what awaits them. The writing is fairly strong, though it does dip its toes into trope territory a little too frequently. The combat is also pretty solid, even if it takes a long time to get acclimated and have its most enjoyable features unlocked. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the game plays host to one of the best video game soundtracks in recent history. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t without its issues, namely the baffling decision to utilize a loot box system with its core Blade mechanic and the fact that it’s far too eager to waste the player’s time with unskippable sequences and dialogue. Had some of this been addressed, I’ve no doubt it’d go down in history as a far more memorable experience than it currently is.

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