Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be a shining gem of invariably sober tone and immaculate design, but its grandeur and ambitions are quite a wonder
In order to understand how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 differs from its two predecessors, one has to look into the series’ own history. The original Xenoblade Chronicles, one of the best games that found its home on the Nintendo Wii and a title that is generally highlighted as the best RPG of its generation, was a JRPG that dodged all of the subgenre’s usual traps by integrating a large open world and the abundant missions and freedom found in online role-playing games into the story-heavy fabric of that game design style. The Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, conversely, opted to shift that balance: where its predecessor was a JRPG with tinges of MMOs, in X the story and deep layers of strategy took a backseat to the exploration of the world and to the endless quests and tasks that could be found within the gigantic landscape; as such, it was an MMO whose body had been slightly altered by the addition of JRPG elements.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, meanwhile, was born out of the frustration aired by the franchise’s large fanbase, which – to some degree – reacted warmly to X’s alteration of the formula. Mapped out, from the start, as a project that would dial down the emphasis on open-world quirks while turning the spotlight back towards a firmly structured plot that would always serve as the game’s guiding conduit, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is so bent on delivering what its followers were craving for that it blasts right past the fine equilibrium reached by Xenoblade Chronicles. In other words, it is a sequel in which the JRPG characteristics are more blatant than they have ever been, and where the inescapable allure of vast scenarios is restrained. As such, a gamer’s level of enjoyment when going through the grand quest the title offers is far more related to their love for (or tolerance to) the mannerisms of JRPGs and anime, than to their admiration for the original Xenoblade Chronicles.
Despite drastic differences in tone and flow, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shares a whole lot of traits with its prequel, starting with an utterly magnificent setting. Where in Xenoblade Chronicles humans lived on the bodies of two giants frozen in time, here they inhabit living and breathing titans that roam around a seemingly endless sea of clouds which has, at its center, an unlikely tall tree, dubbed the World Tree. Alrest, the game’s world, seems to have been – consequently – born out of a gorgeous surrealistic painting: an industrial city springs up from the back of a rocky humanoid colossus; a lush green valley rests on the back of a giraffe-like creature; a whale hides a poisonous lake by its blowhole and a huge capital inside its stomach; an enormous turtle that spends most of its time submerged in the clouds houses a snowfield and an ancient isolated civilization; and smaller titans are made into organic ships by many of the countries and people of Alrest.
In this eye-popping universe, Rex works for a guild of salvagers, specialists in diving to the far depths of the sea to recover treasure. The wheels of fate start turning when he is enlisted by a shady organization for a mission whose goal is to make a long-forgotten ship emerge to the surface so that its loot can be acquired. Unbeknownst to him, what hides within is a legendary human-like blade called Pyra. And when Rex accidentally forms a bond with her, thus becoming her driver, he thwarts the plans of those who hired him, who wish to use her powers for the nefarious purpose of reaching the top of the tree (which supposedly hides a paradise from which all kinds of life emanated), and purging humanity.
The adventure of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, thereby, is a race to Elysium, the highly guarded location at the peak of the World Tree where the Architect – the creator of the universe – awaits. Rex and Pyra, like their rivals, seek answers regarding the nature of existence, and the relationship between humans and their blades, which are weaponized life forms. Unlike their foes, though, they look to meet the Architect with the hope of saving a world where titans are slowly dying, hence creating a lack of fertile lands that will most likely throw the countries of Alrest into a devastating war.
The amplification of the JRPG vein of Xenoblade Chronicles happens for many reasons. Firstly, while the game does have its share of large environments that stretch as far as they eye can see, they are not omnipresent: not only are they punctuated by plenty of linear caves, a handful of dungeons, and smaller stretched out scenarios, but they are also not considerably plentiful; in fact, the number of open fields that exist within Alrest can be counted on one hand. Additionally, given the very nature of the title’s universe, the intricately and seamlessly connected world design of its two siblings is nowhere to be found. The path towards Elysium entails the traveling through various titans, and consequently kingdoms, that float independently amidst a sea of clouds; consequently, while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is certainly almost as big as its predecessors in terms of land mass, it often does not feel like it, because the pieces that make it up are far removed from one another.
That does not mean, though, that Monolith Soft has come short in what they seem to do best: world building. They have just achieved the same goal in a pleasantly different way. The titans and the world they carry either on their backs or inside their entrails are mesmerizing, and the integration of the beasts’ anatomy with the world is quite well done. From the green fields on the back of Gormott, for example, players can easily spy how the creature’s spine and tail are vital parts of the region’s geography; similarly, by glancing through the glass ceiling of the royal palace on the shoulders of Mor Ardain, the rocky cliff that is the ailing giant’s head can be seen in all its glory, moving and looking at the sea of clouds around it while it walks.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is filled with those moments of awe and, alongside its story, the wish to see what architectural and design feats Monolith Soft will pull off next is most likely the greatest motivation players will have to advance through a huge quest that easily extends past the 70-hour mark. Although the graphics are spotty and not incredibly smooth at certain places (a reality that becomes even more blatant when the Switch is undocked), the game overcomes these issues and delivers a visual marvel both via the sheer talent of its art department and the charm of its cartoonish character models, which are far more expressive, remarkable, and likable than the standard 3-D mannequins found in its predecessors.
The second trait that heavily anchors Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in JRPG territory is how strongly it tips in the direction of its plot. Throughout the entire adventure, a pink marker located at the top of the screen will show the way, and indicate the distance, to the next point of interest of the main quest. Invariably, when reaching those spots, players will be greeted by voiced-over cutscenes rendered with in-game graphics. Such a design choice has good and bad outcomes.
On one positive hand, the unceasing plot development rarely lets the game stall and constantly rewards players by – for every step of the way and challenge that is cleared – handing them new morsels of insight into the world of Alrest and its inner workings. On a negative hand, however, the frequency with which cutscenes occur, and their sometimes overly exaggerated length, can make the whole process feel rather overbearing, as if the game is taking away the controls from the players and guiding the adventure itself. Sure, the Xenoblade saga has always found a way to alleviate that JRPG trap by delivering gamers large free-roaming scenarios and, by exploration, giving them freedom to adjust the balance of gameplay and story development they want, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does achieve that to some degree. Yet, the fact that this installment in particular has a lot of smaller enclosed locations and downright linear segments occasionally leaves gamers with no choice but to proceed with the story.
The quality of the plot itself also contributes to that negative effect. It would be unfair to expect Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to match the heights touched on by the script of the original, and indeed it does not do that; nevertheless, the tale of Rex and Pyra is great and, through twists and mostly very good sidecharacters, it will keep players interested all the way through. The problem is that its development is a bit clumsy. A few portions of the game, especially a whole chapter midway through the quest, feel like filler. Moreover, some revelations are only shocking because some characters deliberately hold out information from their peers, sometimes for no good reason; even the game itself has that habit, as it stops flashbacks short or – in a couple of occasions – mutes what characters are whispering to one another or cuts to a secondary scene when something big is about to be stated.
For the most part, however, the story and the cutscenes are solid. The voice acting is generally well-done, only seriously stumbling when the writing itself falters and lets lackluster lines slip by. One particular attribute of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is bound to turn some people off, though, which is its anime tropes. From silly cringe-worthy slapstick humor that borders on parody, sexual undertones that are handled as awkwardly and immaturely as humanly possible, to fetishes that are explored with no delicacy whatsoever, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has got it all, and Western audiences that are not keen on the tone those characteristics bring to the table will often find that an engaging moment in the plot or an instance of remarkable character development will be disturbed by the sudden appearance of those staples. Even the heart-to-hearts, special conversations that happen between the characters in certain areas and that work as an interesting source of character development, are punctually affected.
In relation to its combat system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 maintains – and slightly tweaks – the real-time structure that made the original so interesting and unique. Out on the fields of Alrest, various monsters – either aggressive or pacific – roam, and when combat is triggered players will have a huge assortment of moves at their disposal. All members of the party, out of which three can be sent into battle, are able to carry up to three blades with them, each having their own element (water, fire, light, dark, wind, ice, earth, and lightning), role (attacker, healer, and tank), and one of fourteen weapon types; the combination of those three characteristics will determine the four arts (special attacks) the blade will possess, with players being forced to choose three of them to take into battle.
The number of possibilities is, therefore, endless, especially when one considers the nearly infinite amount of blades the game features. Blades are acquired by bonding a driver with core crystals, which are dropped by foes or found inside chests, and they can be either common (with randomized traits and a standard, bland, type of character model) or rare (in which case their stats and characteristics, as well as their usually excellent design and defined personality are set in stone). Given how appealing – in visual and gameplay terms – rare blades are and due to how their emergence from a core crystal is random, the chase for them is an activity that is both alluring and frustrating, as – undoubtedly – many players will spend a good amount of time hatching core crystals hoping a rare blade of their liking will be born.
With the blades properly equipped, combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an intricate pyramid of moves. When engaged in battle and not moving around, characters will deliver an auto-attack in the form of a three-move combo, which can be interrupted by enemy shields and other defensive mechanisms, or attack effects such as topple. These auto-attacks will slowly fill the individual gauges of the three arts that belong to the blade that is currently in use. In turn, when these arts are used and their gauge goes back to zero, hence giving them a cooldown time, they feed another gauge, the one responsible for delivering a special elemental attack which can be powered up to level four before it is delivered.
Numerous are the quirks that make battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 so gripping, forcing players to always pay attention to the numerous indications and gauges that fill up the screen. Arts that are delivered timely – that is, when an auto-attack has just landed – fill up the special gauge more efficiently; many of the arts, moreover, have increased effects when activated from certain positions (such as from behind an enemy) or in certain situations (such as when an enemy is stunned); finally, special attacks feature a series of quick-time events that, if properly handled, increase their power and fill up the party gauge (which is used to revive teammates or activate a ultimate attack combo when completely filled) more efficiently.
The peak of the pyramid of increasingly strong moves comes in the form of a three-stage elemental combo. When a special attack of any level is activated, the upper right of the screen will show all possible combinations of elements that will produce a massive attack. Therefore, by delivering a level-two attack of a specific element and following it with a level-three attack of another showcased element, a special animation will be triggered and a lot of damage will be delivered. This sequence of moves, naturally, must be performed within a certain window of time that is clearly displayed on the screen and that creates a lot of thrill and tension as its expiration means the breaking of a combo. If the sequence succeeds, enemies will be afflicted with an elemental orb that will circle around them; these orbs can be broken during party attacks (where all members of the party take turns bashing a defenseless foe), extending the combo for another round, and dealing stunning amounts of damage to the target.
It is a lot to absorb, but Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes its sweet time explaining to players all details of its combat system. And learning them is quite necessary, for the level of challenge found in the game often rises to high levels and defeating some bosses heavily depends on producing powerful combos. The game introduces all of its concepts one by one, and helps players practice them, slowly building upon previously acquired knowledge and only unlocking all its combat features by its midway point. The only downside related to the game’s tutorials (which are far more didactic than the confusing explanations found in Xenoblade Chronicles X) comes in how they cannot be re-watched. It is a glaring omission, and one that will cause many players who want to better understand certain moves and peculiarities to be completely clueless as new elements are added to the battles, and force them to resort to online means for further clarification.
One clear improvement that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has in relation to its prequel is that the ally AI, upon which many of the quirks of combat depend, is incredibly reliable this time around. Healers do their job efficiently; characters go for potions that fall onto the battlefield when necessary; allies revive players relatively quickly; and, most importantly, if they have one, members of the party equip blades that possess an element that will keep a combo going, allowing players to activate their specials with the press of a shoulder button when the cue appears on the screen.
Battles, whether they are against regular enemies, bosses, or unique powerful foes that walk around the fields, are not the only mean through which players can level up their party. Fully aware of the allure of its world, and following on the footsteps of the other games of the saga, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 gives away experience points to those that explore Alrest and uncover locations, landmarks, and secret sites. Additionally, sidequests and mercenary missions are plentiful, with the latter being accessed through a menu in which groups of blades can be sent out into the world to solve problems across the titans.
It is particularly noteworthy how many of the sidequests diverge from the usual standards of killing a certain number of monsters or collecting a specific amount of goods. Surely, those goals do exist, but a good portion of the extra missions Rex and his comrades can tackle focus, instead, on storyline threads that greatly enrich the universe of the game and are cleared via a solid mix of exploration, interaction with other characters, investigation, and – of course – resource-gathering and battling. The experience gained from those activities can be redeemed by sleeping at inns, hence brilliantly allowing players that want to do everything the game has to offer but do not want to overlevel their party to administer their levels as they see fit.
For all the applause it deserves for giving players a chance to avoid minor enemy encounters and overcome the challenges of the adventure through other ways, punctual issues somewhat dampen the enjoyment that can be gotten from the gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Firstly, the title’s map system is unnecessarily puzzling, as regions have their maps broken up into numerous smaller pieces that make the process of navigating an area, figuring out where to go, and simply accessing the maps via multi-leveled menus a chore. In addition, the markers that are used to guide players to their next goal – whether it is from the main adventure or from a sidequest – are not only inconsistent in how sometimes they appear and on other occasions they do not, but they can be rather confusing and unhelpful when many of them show up at the same time. Furthermore, even though they feature an arrow signaling if the goal is above or below the height in which players are, they never indicate how one actually gets there, occasionally serving more to disorient than to orient, especially when multiple floors are involved.
Individually, sidequests also suffer a little bit due to one of the new features of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the field skills, which are special abilities, held by blades, that have an effect on the environment outside battles. Those, for example, can help Rex use wind currents to leap high into the air or excavate treasure. Some sidequests feature goals that require certain field skills to be leveled up to a threshold (which is done by fulfilling certain requirements). The problem is that players will not know those skills are necessary until they reach those roadblocks, causing a few quests to be pursued for long periods of time until gamers discover they do not have the field skill (which is sometimes exclusive to a few blades) to proceed or that they do have it but not at the necessary level. A disclaimer at the beginning of the sidequests listing their requirements would have sufficed to solve that problem.
Finally, and inherited straight from its two brothers, is the fact high-leveled creatures are often standing close to lower-leveled foes and that enemies are free to jump into battles at any time. As a consequence, players will – with a noticeable frequency – be targeted by enemies that are capable of taking them down with one blow. Besides, it is not uncommon to be engaged in a skirmish against a perfectly beatable adversary only to die a frustrating death when an overpowered giant decides it wants to join the fray or when the battlefield is suddenly swarmed by nearby creatures that would otherwise have been perfectly manageable on their own.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is, therefore, obviously flawed, to a far greater degree than its prequel. Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny the impressive marvel that are its scope, its details, and its depth. It is not powered just by an intriguing story with deep philosophical and existential undercurrents, or by a world where battles are presented in a thrilling way and where life, stories, activities, and nicely designed monsters are plentiful. It is also sustained by customization options that are almost endless, with affinity charts mapping out how the various skills of the dozens of blades and handful of drivers can be developed; auxiliary cores, which can be forged, handing blades extra abilities; pieces of equipment serving to power up the human heroes; and pouch items, with time-constrained effects, giving the party varying extra boosts during combat.
It is glorious, it is huge, it is sometimes overwhelming, and it is bound to make many players spend more than one hundred hours in Alrest uncovering all the world’s secrets. Whether one has played the original game or not, anyone willing to ignore a few flaws and to devote their brains and energy to figure out and slowly grasp the sheer magnificence of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be rewarded. They will be greeted with visuals that could be shown at a surrealistic exhibition; they will be accompanied by a masterful soundtrack that could enchant a packed and traditional concert hall if played by an orchestra; and they will be sucked into a universe whose angst and driving forces mirror our own in more ways than one would expect. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be a shining gem of invariably sober tone and immaculate design, but its grandeur, ambitions, and a great part of its execution are quite a wonder.