With its deep story and gigantic sprawling world filled with beasts to explore, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 caps off a pretty fantastic launch year for the Nintendo Switch, showing that the big JRPG franchise is more than capable of captivating fans in this generation. While there is some annoying voice acting and a pretty steep learning curve with the many combat mechanics, these only detract slightly from what is an enjoyable journey from start to finish.
If you haven’t played a Xenoblade game before, don’t worry; while there will be familiarities that stand out for fans of the series, this is a new adventure that doesn’t rely on any prior knowledge for you to understand. A world where humans and beasts live on enormous creatures known as Titans in a sea of clouds, it’s quite a gorgeous setting that has real effects, as the tide that rolls in impacts which areas are accessible, as does the persistent day/night cycle.
Rex fits into a lot of classic JRPG tropes as your plucky hero, a talented Salvager that falls into the wrong crowd before stumbling across a powerful weapon known as a Blade. Blades aren’t just an object in this world though, rather a mystical being that comes with unique abilities and attacks to assist you in your quest. It’s a smart system which opens up a lot of combat possibilities, along with the added bonus of being able to bond with the characters themselves.
Your main Blade, Pyra, has her own backstory, and part of the enjoyment of progressing is that you’ll pick up other Blades during your play through that all come with their own buffs and elemental advantages, meaning that you’ll end up quickly having a large roster to choose from. Deciding on which Blades you want to take into battle with you becomes more and more important as the fights get more difficult and could be the difference between success and failure if you’re not paying attention.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels almost too simple at first, as your party auto-attacks the target, leaving you to use three Arts (special attacks) that recharge on a frequent cool-down timer with varying effects, along with a special attack with QTEs. A lot of tutorials are thrown at you early on and aren’t easily accessible afterwards, to the point where there were a few times early on that I was just hitting the buttons that appeared on screen in random succession without really knowing what the impacts were.
Eventually though it began to come together; attacks lead to your Arts, Arts can lead to combos with your other party members at certain times when they become available and you can chain them together for massive damage on particularly difficult foes, all while managing the health of your party and switching Blades on the fly. It sounds like a lot, because it is, but once you’re comfortable there is a rhythm to fighting that becomes incredibly satisfying, with damage text and special effects flooding the screen in unison.
“…when you first step out and look over the horizon, it’s breathtaking, with opportunities for exploration as far as the eye can see.”
The actual game gets going a lot quicker than its predecessor as well, which I appreciated, although some of the dialogue does take time to wade through and some of the voice acting is… let’s just say unenjoyable. It’s not so bad that I wanted to turn it off, but it came close at times, particularly with the weird annoying Nopon creatures that not only don’t have a great grasp of the English language, but also have a high pitched tone akin to a petulant child. Worse still, the characters in your party do repeat their voice lines over and over again, making long battles painful on another level if the little weirdos are fighting alongside you.
With such a large world to explore there comes with it a range of fun side-quests and distractions to keep you quite busy, and this is where the game really shows its scale. When the open world nature of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 becomes apparent when you first step out and look over the horizon, it’s breathtaking, with opportunities for exploration and secrets as far as the eye can see. Some enemies are aggressive while others are just happy living their best beast life and will ignore you until they are attacked, making the atmosphere more genuine and interesting.
Towns are jam-packed with merchants that also wouldn’t hurt from a bit more explanation, but you can invest in stores to assist with their growth, yielding more benefits for your party long-term which is a nice touch. Some of the items you can purchase and apply are tricky to keep track of in what is a pretty convoluted menu system as well. I love that there is so much customisation to make everything truly feel like it’s been personally crafted, but experimentation comes into play here more than it should when trying to come to grips with the many different upgrade trees and varying types of upgrades available.
Collecting Blade’s in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 becomes a quest in and of itself; a matter of finding Core Crystals throughout the world or from enemy drops, and they randomly bond you with a new Blade, which makes it a fun process to see what you get… in theory, at least. It’s a lottery as you hope to acquire one of the elusive rare Blades that have different designs, special abilities and even their own side quests, but mostly you’ll end up with a whole bunch of them looking essentially the same.
Their attacks and buffs might be different, but it would have been a much more interesting and enjoyable experience if so many didn’t have the same generic visual style. There’s some great content I won’t ever get to play or experience here because of a randomized event, and while it’s surely designed to make these rare finds feel more special, it more often than not is underwhelming and a bit of a bummer.
One of the Blades that sticks with you throughout, Poppi, is a robot that is upgradable in a different way as you collect extra parts for upgrades, which is a concept that I love the idea of, until I realized that the only way to get said parts is by playing an old school retro style mini game called Tiger Tiger. Not only is it irritating that the mini game is only available to play in one specific location, but it’s also actually not that much fun to begin with, making this process a chore rather than something truly engaging.
Despite these concerns, I couldn’t help finding myself wanting to go back for more again and again. The story picks up at the halfway point with some enjoyable twists and turns, and you really do pick up more tips and tricks the more that you play, to the point where I was craving more of the combat rather than being confused by it like I was initially. Being able to play it on the go makes this even easier to appreciate; I never thought I’d be able to carry a large and beautiful universe such as this one in my backpack, but here we are.
The Bottom Line
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does some amazing things with its impressive world, varied quests and incredibly detailed upgrade system, but it is marred by some odd decisions that would benefit from some more explanation or refinement. The amount of depth could be daunting across the board for newcomers, but persistence definitely pays. Even with its flaws, if you’re willing to learn and pay attention, this stands out as one of the most enjoyable and interesting RPG’s of the year.