One thing I’ve always loved about RPGs is the sense of adventure. Combing through every nook and cranny looking for secrets, meeting new people of every shape, colour, race and species, exploring new, strange and jaw-dropping cities and scenery. I’ve always enjoyed watching the world of a video game unfold before you. In recent years, Nintendo’s Xenoblade games have been some of the best games at scratching this itch. The original Xenoblade Chronicles remains one of my favourite games that console generation, and, even if the game wasn’t perfect, I look back on the hundred hours or so I spent with Shulk’s gang fondly. Sadly, the Wii U follow-up, Xenoblade Chronicles X, I was less enamoured with, but the hostile, alien world of Mira was still an absolute joy to explore.
It was with a tinge of apprehension I went into this new Switch sequel, still slightly reeling from the disappointment of X. I also had concerns over the new art direction and tone Monolith Soft had decided to go within the lead-up to Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Now, at the end of my 80-hour journey with Nintendo’s latest entry into the series, I can say that this game follows closely in the footsteps of the original. While certain issues still hold the game back from perfection, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 delivered everything I was looking for from a Xenoblade sequel in spades.
“Xenoblade Chronicles 2 delivered everything I was looking for from a Xenoblade sequel in spades.”
Unlike XCX, which shuffled its plot and characters to the sideline in favour of its gargantuan open world, XC2 again puts those at the forefront of the experience. But don’t worry if you never played the original game. While there are some nods to it, XC2 tells its own standalone tale with an all-new cast of characters, although there’s plenty of treats for long-time Xeno series fans.
While I will try to avoid spoilers, if you are adverse then feel free to skip over these next few paragraphs as I try my best to summarise the plot. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s plot revolves around the world of Alrest; a constantly-shifting world lying on top of the vast Cloud Sea, where entire nations are built literally on the backs of colossal, living creatures, the Titans. By the time the plot of XC2 starts, the Titans are dying, resources are dwindling, and the many people that inhabit the Cloud Sea grow skittish. Rex, our hero, longs to find the fabled land of Elysium; an idyllic place of endless green as far as the eye can see, said to lie atop the imposing World Tree located at the unreachable heart of Alrest. Rex soon meets Pyra, and, following a twist of fate, the two promise to reach Elysium together. XC2’s first few hours are a slow burn but have its fair share of exciting moments. The game has a bad habit of dumping numerous tutorials on you (that you can’t revisit), and sifting through this info can make the opening hours an absolute slog. Still, I’d much rather have this over XCX’s approach of leaving you with nought but the digital brick of a user manual for help to figure out what the hell is going on as it unceremoniously drops you neck-deep in its complicated world. Once the ranks of the party fill out, XC2’s plot soon starts to pick up steam.
At its core, the plot is nothing fans of the genre haven’t seen before. It starts out a simple tale of boy-meets-girl and gradually unfurls into a coming-of-age tale, but one that has its fair share of surprises, darker, more mature mysteries and cyberpunky themes balanced out with some light-hearted, funny moments. The cast has real, emotional depth to them. The cast all have a compelling reason for their actions, and the multiple conflicts and perspectives that make up the game’s narrative are beautifully presented. It does find itself leaning more on anime tropes than previous entries did, and a few, awkward moments can occur as a result, but the story manages to remain deeply engaging throughout.
XC2’s cast is one of the more fleshed-out ones we’ve seen in recent years, they’re all pretty likeable, entertaining and memorable. A lot of my favourite moments come from the small Heart-to-Heart moments. These are small cutscenes in which several characters often speak their minds on certain topics and act out little skits. Even the villains are established and characterised well. XC2 also does a fantastic job at world-building. With every new locale you visit, you gain a real insight into how the people that inhabit that Titan live their daily lives. You learn how each nation functions, how they adapt to their land, and how they all interact with each other. The side-quests on offer have also been improved from the MMO-style collectathons present in the previous games. Many have compelling plotlines to follow, with my favourites being the questlines dedicated to exploring and developing one of the many unlockable characters. Just like the original game, XC2’s world manages to feel like a living world which the player feels a part of, not one that feels explicitly built around them.
Monolith Soft games have traditionally pushed Nintendo’s hardware to its absolute limits. I was worried that, due to the Switch’s hybrid nature, they might’ve compromised their vision for this latest entry. For better and for worse, XC2 is ambitious, perhaps too so. The worlds Monolith Soft craft are vast, gargantuan worlds teeming with life; packed to the brim with secrets, interesting locales and stunning vistas. While lacking the sheer scale of XCX’s Mira, the nations of Alrest still feel sprawling and densely packed with interesting things to see and do. The attention to detail on display here is amazing, and exploration feels very natural; similar to Nintendo’s other big, open-world game that came out this year. Where exploration suffers in in the game’s map and compass system, with both having very limited options and often being plain unhelpful. As of writing, this has since been patched and greatly improved. Cutscenes are dynamic and beautifully framed, and the new art style allows characters to be much more expressive in their animations over the flat, muddy textures of the original game or the creepy, doll-like faces of XCX. While playing beautifully in docked mode, this all adds up to being simply too much for the Switch’s handheld mode. The game is often displayed in sub-native resolution, and the framerate takes a hit when there’s a lot of action on screen. While still playable, it’s not quite what I was hoping for and is without a doubt the worst-performing of Nintendo’s big releases in portable mode to date.
“The nations of Alrest still feel sprawling and densely packed with interesting things to see and do.”
There are other issues with the presentation as well. The localisation, while still impressive, pales in comparison other recent, big Japanese releases like Nier Automata and Atlus’ Persona games. What XC2’s localisation does have is uniqueness. The British VA of the original game makes a welcome return. There’s a wealth of accents here; from the wonderfully Welsh cat-people of Gormott to the Scottish inhabitants of the empire of Mor Ardain, and pretty much everything else in-between with some, more familiar American accents thrown in for certain characters. While the VA generally does a good job (with my personal standout being Skye Bennett’s fantastic performance as Pyra), there are some grievances. One is, sadly, the voice-work for main protagonist Rex. His delivery is often quite wooden, which is a shame for a voice you’ll be constantly hearing. There’s a big focus on in-battle banter in XC2; hearing your party members, and enemies, shout the same lines over and over can be very grating. I especially hated any time spent fighting the soldiers of Mor Ardain, who parrot the same three lines over and over ad-nauseam. Thankfully, there is free DLC available for Japanese VA, and the two can be swapped between almost on the fly.
As a JRPG, you’ll be doing a lot of fighting in XC2. The battle system in Xenoblade games has always been hit or miss. This game, despite being the best the series has seen to date, is still much of the same. You control one of three party members, who are Drivers in control of numerous Blades; living weapons who bestow their user with power. Each of the three characters can have up to three blades equipped. Characters attack automatically, but each Blade has its own style of weapon and set of special moves called Arts. When Arts are used, a meter fills. When this meter is full, the player can trigger a strong special move, which often involves quick-time events the player can complete to increase damage. These stronger special moves can be chained together across the party in sequence to form a “Blade combo” to deal massive damage to an enemy in flashy, satisfying blasts. The team can also initiate a chain attack, during which time freezes and numerous special moves and be executed one after the other, allowing the player to dish out ridiculous amounts of damage. While the game does do a much better job of explaining its near labyrinthine combat system than previous games, it still takes a long time for it to fully click, and those looking to get the most out of the game’s complicated system right from the start might find themselves frustrated. When it does click, it’s a very satisfying, often flashy, system that allows for some interesting tactical options.
It does come with a few grievances though. It can feel quite daunting at first, with many ways to micromanage your squad including which Blades are be equipped to which character (with each Blade having their own elemental type and role in battle; either as a frontline attacker, healer or damage-sponging tank), upgrading each Blade’s weapon, equipping Blades with “aux cores” to provide passive buffs, and outfitting the Driver with various pieces of equipment and skills. In addition to this, each Blade’s own skills can be upgraded via using them in battle or completing various tasks or sidequests. It adds up to a lot to remember. An exception to this rule is the artificial Blade Poppi, who can be upgraded and customised via playing the deeply not-fun Tiger Tiger minigame, and found herself barely used as a result. Battles play out in real-time, and the player only directly controls one party member. While the AI generally does a decent job, it does lead to annoying moments such as dying because the AI-controlled healer refused to use their healing spells at a crucial time. I also found that certain roles, and weapons, were just flat out not as fun to play as others. Being one-shot by purposefully overpowered monsters who jump into the fray can also be very frustrating, but mercifully there is no penalty for falling in battle.
Another issue stems from how the player acquires new Blades to use in battle. While some are acquired through the main plot or sidequests, around half of them are acquired through using core crystals. These work very similarly to the controversial loot boxes and gacha schemes seen in many recent high-profile and freemium games. While there are no microtransactions in this game (loot boxes are instead found in chests or as drops from enemies) and there are ways to adjust the odds to favour certain elemental types appearing, it absolutely kills the flow of the game. The system is mired with unskippable, lengthy cutscenes, and, due to how common (and relatively useless the common Blades are in the long-run) trying to find the game’s many rare Blades can take a significant time investment. Seeing as how the only way to transfer Blades between party members is using very rare items, it can also be deeply frustrating when your dedicated attacker pulls a healer that would be much better utilised on a different party member. A number of designs, especially the female ones, can come off as quite pandering, some being sexualised almost to the point of flat-out parody. However, the cast of unlockable characters is so diverse that you’re bound to find someone you like among the roster.
The final point I want to discuss is the soundtrack, and what a soundtrack it is. After the ridiculous, over-the-top affair of XCX, to have the original series composers back (whose work includes composing tracks for Chrono Trigger and other Xeno series games) is more than welcome. The score is full of sweeping orchestral ballads, intense battle themes with heavy distorted guitar, and quieter, more emotional pieces, all perfectly suited to the scenes they appear. I especially love how an area’s theme is remixed into slower, more relaxed affairs during night-time. Just like the original game, the soundtrack is one of XC2’s party pieces. It’s deeply memorable, and I very often found myself listening to several tracks outside of the game itself. In a year packed to the brim with fantastic video game soundtracks, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.
“In a year packed to the brim with fantastic video game soundtracks, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them.”
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an extraordinary game. After the disappointment that was X, this game feels like a true successor to the first. It’s a game that stays true to that old school JRPG experience, and one that presents it in a fresh, modern way. Monolith Soft’s meticulously crafted plot takes centre stage and manages to deliver the typical boy-meets-girl/coming of age story in a way that feels smart, compelling and immaculately presented. The amount of detail and depth that fills every corner of the world of Alrest is staggering and makes for a truly unique world to get lost in. It’s a perfect game for those looking to scratch that itch left after finishing Breath of the Wild, and is every bit as engaging. The cast is charming, the battle system very satisfying (if initially daunting and complicated) and the soundtrack is exceptional. Some technical issues, the annoying method of acquiring new Blades, an at times overreliance on anime tropes, and some off-putting character designs tarnish the experience somewhat, but this game is a must play for JRPG fans or those looking to try out the series. It marks the end of a fantastic first year for the Switch and an equally fantastic year for games in general. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 closes out the year with style.
This copy was purchased by the reviewer for £40. He spent 80 hours running across the backs of giant stone whales in search of Elysium.