My first ever experience with the Xenoblade series was Chronicles X on the Wii U, which I had tried after hearing the hype of the earlier games. While this game felt like a soulless grind to me, I was told that this was not the standard for the series. Fortunately, it was immediately evident from the original trailer of Monolith Soft’s latest release, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, that they had returned to the story-centric adventure that fans had me ready for. Warily, but with an open mind, I decided to give the series another chance to impress me.
And, my word, did it deliver on the story front, pulling me into a unique world and long history with gusto. The world of Alrest is primarily made up of the Cloud Sea, a large swirling mass of white cloud, through which giant beings called Titans slowly roam. The term ‘titan’ is right – they are so large that they are used as the very land on which the people of Alrest live. With no other type of landmass in the whole Cloud Sea, these people rely on the Titans for their very survival.
The people of this world also have a very unique occupation available to them: Driver. A Driver bonds with a Core Crystal, bringing to life a being known as a Blade, who fights alongside them. These blades come in all shapes and sizes, including some rare ones with a distinct style and personality. Together, they make up the fighting force of the world: soldiers, mercenaries, explorers, whatever suits the individual best.
In truth, I could write much more on the rules of this world, but it would be a disservice to your experience to do so. Guiding the main character, a salvager called Rex, through this world and learning how everything works is a necessary part of the joy available here. The writers have taken apparent effort to establish the physical rules that this world operates under but then go that crucial step further to experiment with these laws in many interesting ways. With every new variation or oddity I came across in my journey, my understanding deepened naturally. This type of world-building is too rare these days, and all the more potent for it.
This exploration doesn’t just stop at physical laws but stretches into character and world development as well. Through the game’s main story, side-quests, short skits known as ‘Heart-to-Hearts,’ and even just town NPC dialogue, you’ll learn so much more about how your party and the inhabitants of each Titan view the world around them. Where many JRPGs will settle for dull side-quests or meaningless NPC dialogue, it’s a delight to see a modern game take the time to put effort into these smaller details.
I was particularly impressed with how this even applies to the rare Blades you’ll bond with over the course of your adventure. Each one isn’t just a unique skin, but a fully fleshed-out character in themselves. They’ve got skits that show different elements of their personality, unique abilities to assist your exploration Alrest and even a lengthy quest-line for each one of them. What this meant is that getting a new rare Blade wasn’t just ticking another one off for collection. Instead, as my new Blade introduced themselves to me, I was wondering “Who are you?,” “What do you do?,” and “What will your impact in this world be?”
But why stop there? Monolith Soft decided that deep characters and intricate story wouldn’t be enough and ensured that each and every inch of the world would be engaging. Your exploration of each Titan will be dotted with discovery: hidden treasures and significant locations cover each zone. For me, the simple act of crossing a field became a thorough sweep of the ups and downs of the landscape, as I lost many hours to even the most simple of journeys and loved every second of it.
As you’d hope from any game running on modern technology, the world is gorgeous. The kind of gorgeous you’ve got to see in action, in that it’s not just about ‘how many polygons’ or nonsense like that, it’s in the design. Each Titan is a unique landscape, not just in their differences from each other, but in the views you can only really achieve when you’re wandering on the back of various massive creatures. This scale allows for some beautiful landscapes and some absolutely epic scenes.
Now, to tackle what I thought my biggest concern was going to be: combat. As a bit of backstory, my experience with the previous Xenoblade game fell apart on the blandness of combat. Attack sequences were predictable and every move felt the same. To me, it had all the depth of the most barebones MMORPG (known for limited combat variation due to the very nature of MMOs), and I had feared the same would come through in this release. Luckily, I was incredibly wrong.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 nails the combat so hard that I heard the sound of my old Chronicles X disc crack in half at the impact of it. I would describe the nature of the combat system as ‘active planning,’ in that while the action is ever moving at a steady pace, you’re required to be thinking about the several different elements you’re trying to juggle. You’ll be trying to time your Arts with your auto-attacks, to progress your Blade Combo, while trying to continuously pull off Driver Combos, all to pull off a devastating Chain Attack. While doing this, you’ll need to be considering your placement, your ‘aggro,’ and the most efficient method to string your Arts and auto-attacks together. While initially overwhelming, by mid-game you’ll find yourself masterfully combining your many Arts to produce massive damage.
That said, this comes with a notable inverse: as the battle system has so many moving parts as this, the ‘tutorial’ stage of the game is significantly extended to allow you sufficient time to experiment and get comfortable with each tool. You’ll be several chapters into the story before you’ve got full access to all the various elements that you require to effectively string battles together, causing the first chapter or two to be fairly simplistic in their approach to combat. All in all, it’s worth pushing through this to make it to the real meat of the game, but many gamers are dissuaded by lengthy tutorials alone and may find this difficult to endure.
Naturally, there were some other elements that held this back from being absolutely perfect. While the performance of the English voice actors are, for the most part, well-executed and full of emotion, it proves wasted on the minimal effort that’s been taken to have it match the animation. Too frequently are character’s mouth movements nowhere close to the voice actor, even during critical scenes. This causes a strange disconnect between game and audio: it felt like the voice I was hearing was unrelated to the character I saw on screen. I would heavily recommend this experience with the intended Japanese performance, which has been made available for download for free.
Another unfortunate victim of poor execution is the game’s menu system, which is something you never want to hear of a massive JRPG. Viewing the full map for the area you are in requires three steps of navigation even using shortcuts. The most used screen in the whole game, the primary one for Blade development, requires five steps, made particularly painful by the fact that developing a wide range of unique Blades is a central feature of the the overall experience.
The worst example of this comes from simple management for the vast amount of non-unique Blades you’ll amass. While the developers were smart enough to provide you with an incentive to gather many of these simple Blades (which you’ll discover for yourself when you play), they fail to provide a simple means to manage them. For example, lets say you only wanted to keep Blades who have at capacity for maximum level “Fire Mastery.” This would require you to individually open each Fire Blade to their skill tree, exhausting in itself, but then leave this tree before you can delete them. Deletion even takes a few additional seconds as your Blade bids you a sad farewell – frankly, my attachment to these blank-faced Blades was so low that this was only ever annoying.
While we’re discussing Blades, let’s quickly cover how you unlock them. You’ll discover Core Crystals as you explore the world, which you can have a character open to find the Blade within. In a style that is notably ‘loot box’-like, it will either be a randomised non-unique Blade or one of the desired rare Blades. The hit rate on getting rare Blades can only really be described by a series of painful groans. This is amplified by the game having different rarity Crystals, which have better success rates. Call it bad luck, but not a single one of my very-rare highest-success-rate Crystals got me a unique Blade. Maybe I’m an outlier, so I’d be curious to hear if anyone else had a better run of it than me.
Lastly, there are some smaller points that are worth bringing up. Performance struggled from time-to-time, particularly on complex vistas, but never so much that it ruined my experience or caused me any real difficulty. The vibration is annoyingly high and can’t be configured at all, but is luckily only used for particular elements. And honestly, why disable the ability to pause during combat? There’s really no good reason for this, and while you can always put your console into Sleep Mode to force a pause, this shouldn’t be necessary.
As is mandatory for any Switch review, I’d observe that the game runs great both docked and undocked, though I preferred to play docked to get the full impact of the visuals of the world. Whether or not the game suits portability is up for debate: it’s certainly fun, and you can pause anywhere (except combat!?), but most things you’ll wish to achieve can take up 30 minutes or more. I personally think Xenoblade Chronicles 2 best suits the home experience, but it would also probably make for a great travel companion if you have a long commute to school or work.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 can easily be considered the best available “reason to buy a Switch.” While there are already a lot of great titles available for the system, much of the current library is also shared with the Wii U and other platforms. Xenoblade, on the other hand, is an unforgettable journey you’ll only get to experience on Nintendo’s newest console, and is currently, in my opinion, the best exclusive available for it. A magnificent world, well-written characters, interesting plot and refined combat, all mixed together make for an experience that you’d be hard-pressed to pass on.