On stranger tides
Xenoblade Chronicles is one of my favorite messes of a game to try to explain to people. You see, developer Monolithsoft decided to make a beautiful and ambitious 80-hour JRPG with innovative systems and mechanics. They then put it on the Wii with what would turn out to be a fairly limited international release, forever hindering its accessibility twofold. The original game was one of Operation Rainfall’s original targets, one of three games they helped push to getting localized in North America at all. I absolutely love the original, and so have been a big fan of Nintendo’s newfound interest in the license. Xenoblade Chronicles X got pushed to the west with a lot more fanfare, even if turned out to be a bit of a soulless experience with some serious HUD issues. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a proper sequel in number only, is a great time. It gets back to the spirited roots of that first Wii adventure. However, some creative inconsistencies and other issues make the game not a failure, but something more akin to the beautiful mess of the original Xenoblade.
All this, and yet it is probably one of the best games on the Switch. Despite not technically being a totally well-built game.
Another world on the backs of giants
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shows that the series is mirroring Final Fantasy, the Tales games and the like. It shares many themes and ideas with Xenoblade 1 and X, along with core gameplay mechanics and certain world elements, sure. But it tells its own story. Whereas Xenoblade Chronicles took place in a world built on the enormous corpses of two dead giants who killed each other in battle, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place in an endless sea of clouds, all surrounding an Yggdrasil-type world tree. A bevy of animal-based titans swim through this sea, with the races of the world living atop their backs. The game’s protagonist, a young salvager named Rex, lives in the back of a wise old dragon. There’s a trading hub that hangs suspended from a huge, balloon fish-like titan, and a grand city and surrounded by vast plains on the back of a huge, bony stone giraffe. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has an immediately impressive amount of creativity soaked into its world. Exploring that world always feels like an adventure. A voyage, even.
Rex winds up taking a job with a group of warriors seeking to salvage some particularly juicy treasure. He quickly identifies them as Blades and Drivers, terms players will quickly come to know as the game goes along. After finding an apparently-legendary blade called the Aegis locked away in a salvaged ship, events unfold and Rex quickly finds himself on a quest to reach the World Tree, that which the races of the world were forced to leave ages ago for reasons well enshrouded. The story takes off with some wonderful sky-pirate-mischief vibes, complimented by some of the game’s better artistic qualities. The soundtrack is absolutely breathtaking, as well. I’ve already found myself walking around with tracks from the game’s larger areas stuck in my head.
Ultimately, though, Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s writing isn’t exactly consistent. The main character’s exact motivations feel pretty loose and lazy, and the game is prone to delve deep into anime tropes that feel extremely poorly-fitting with everything else. There’s some strong character writing, but also a lot of really sloppy and bland dialogue along the way. The game’s cheesy British and Scottish voicing delighted me as someone used to it because of the original Xenoblade, but can definetley be a turnoff to some. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is fun for the sake of adventure, but the details of why the adventure is being had are shaky at the best of times.
I’m really feeling it
Here’s the part where I have to explain Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s combat. This is very hard to do. The game plays as its predecessors do, feeling something like a mix between Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV. Three Driver characters take the field in real-time in a fight, wielding weapons given to them by their Blade character counterparts. There’s an auto-attack system that charges up more specific attacks, with abilities like added affects if delivered in the right direction, or health potions spawned. These attacks then feed into the elemental abilities of whatever Blade a given Driver wields. Charge up more power, and you can unleash a fancy elemental attack, which than then be chained into another party member’s still fancier one. There’s a progression of status effects that can dealt onto enemies, too.
This sounds like a lot. But whereas Xenoblade Chronicles X took everything that already existed and just added more, the new elements of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – namely the elemental chain attacks, ironically – come in as some other things are simplified down a bit. Each blade gives their respective Driver three attacks. This is a bit more basic than the big menu of 8 that Xenoblade started out with.
Differences aside, the question of “is fighting fun” comes down to no more or less of a conditional “yes” than ever before. If you’re okay with waiting a few seconds here and there for an auto-attack chain to give you enough juice to get the actual fun going, then you’re going to have a great time. But that combat style isn’t for everyone. Some players might get antsy, or feel frustrated that it’s not quite all in their hands. That said, the beauty of Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s combat is that the combo and attack chaining systems quicken up the pace thrillingly once a battle is in full swing. Most of my favorite combat moments in my time with the game have come from fighting a couple enemies in an open location, only for more from around me to continuously join in. When they’re hardy enough to take a beating, you’re likely to wind up whipping around a nigh-constant stream of different combo chains. The flow is exemplary.
The Blade is in the details
The other cool part is that each character can carry more than one Blade. Cores collected in battle can be used to connect to a different character and spawn a new Blade. These can be different elemental types and have different weapons. The first one I got through this process was a wind-type Blade who gave me a pair of gauntlets. This was an excellent pairing with Pyra, Rex’s main Blade, who deals with fire and hits slower. This process is a really great way to add variety to your party. One unfortunate exception is a character who cannot carry additional Blades. Instead, his Blade can be upgraded and changed using a unique tech tree only she can use. Unfortunately, making these changes requires players to play a completely arbitrary minigame that feels like a giant roadblock in the rest of progression. It sucks.
It’s also worth noting that, while really beautiful, Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s world is marred with the same kinds of inconsistencies discussed with its story above. In here, you’ve got some characters designed in a way similar to the first game. Baggy clothes and a unique take on the steampunk look. Then you have other characters who look like they belong in the background of a Fullmetal Alchemist episode, with its fusion of European fashion and Japanese art. Others still are already infamous as huge-chested eye candy, to a degree that, again, feels out of place. In fact, across all of these intersecting styles, the entire cast of main characters seem on a basic face level to be molded in a different art style from background characters and the many beasts of the world. It can be really distracting how much they stand out.
Life is hard up in the clouds
There’s also the matter of some general quality of life issues that hold Xenoblade Chronicles 2 back. Somehow, the game has spawned one of the worst waypoint systems I’ve seen in a while. There will be points where a quest marker will appear to lead you in a fairly clear direction, only to turn with you to an alarming degree whenever you rotate the camera or turn your character. There are points where trying to find an NPC to finish a quest in a busy city or any other complicated area becomes absolutely nightmarish.
On top of that, there are some sidequests in the game that do a really poor job of explaining themselves. Climbing even further on top of that, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game of many small tutorials. There are a ton of systems to learn as you play. There are also no ways at all to go and reread a tutorial. You’d better hope you memorized every detail of whatever thing the game is trying to teach you the first time around, because otherwise, it’s off to the Google search with you.
2 Fast, 2 Chroniculious
So, at the end of the fight, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does come away with a victory. It chained from fire to water to stone to ice. It delivered some flashy combos. Some levels went up. But it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. Xenoblade Chronicles‘s story was exceedingly simple at the outset, but was driven along by endearing and human characters. Xenobalde Chronicles 2, less so. Its world is captivating, but the reasons to explore it are shoddy. It’s gameplay is a ton of fun, but with some accessibility issues. It feels like parts of this thing had too many hands in the pot. As a result, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels a bit too scattered for its own good, but is still a damn enjoyable and enormous adventure to be had by anyone who owns a Switch.
Final verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Monolithsoft; Players: 1; Released: December 1st, 2017; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 purchased by Hey Poor Player.