Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review
Attacking on Titans
After the eventual huge success of Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, developer Monolith Soft went in a different direction for what can now clearly be considered a side game in Xenoblade Chronicles X that didn’t sit well with some, and perhaps gave a bit of pause for thought on how the series’ first entry on the Nintendo Switch would do. Those concerns have been answered with gusto for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which falls much more in line with the first title. However, Monolith Soft has certainly not rested on its laurels and brought in plenty of new touches and improvements to the gameplay, creating a whole new stunning world in the process. Another title filled to the brim with content, spectacular designs, and a fascinating story, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is almost impossible to put down and a perfect showcase for Nintendo’s latest hardware.
Featuring a standalone story, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place on Alrest, a world covered by the Cloud Sea. Alrest’s various races have made their homes and created nations on the biggest Titans, massive beings that wander the Cloud Sea in circles around the world tree, which extends into the heavens. On the world tree is said to lie Elysium, home of the creative deity known as the Architect, though no one in recent memory has been able to get there to find out. In addition to the regular lifeforms, Alrest also hosts special artificial life known as Blades. Blades are attached to persons called Drivers in a symbiotic relationship that augments abilities to create powerful fighters. Blades return to a Core Crystal when their Driver dies and have no memory of their previous life when they are revived by a new Driver, creating an interesting dynamic between them and humanity.
The game primarily follows a young salvager named Rex, who earns his keep by diving into the Cloud Sea. He is recruited for a special salvaging mission, and during it he comes across a special Blade called Pyra. After saving his life, the process of which causes Rex to become her Driver, Pyra asks Rex to take her to Elysium. Thus begins a fascinating adventure that takes the pair and various other allies they pick up along the way across the world, filled with exciting moments, great emotion, and plenty of secrets from across the history of Alrest. The story always flows along at an enjoyable pace, offering plenty of foreshadowing combined with reveals that build upon the setting and keep players eager to learn more and find out what happens next. It’s very difficult to talk about any specifics without immediately revealing spoilers, as noteworthy events occur right from the outset, sucking players into the narrative good and early, never letting go until the conclusion, which itself concludes the story beautifully. Various elements of the world are nicely examined by the plot, such as the reliance on using living beings to make a home, as well as the relationships between people and Blades.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s story takes a lighter tone more often than in the previous Xenoblade titles, but that’s not to say drama and haunting emotion aren’t present in abundance when the situation calls for it. The tonal balance works well and helps a strong cast have plenty of great interactions, and when things get serious it provides plenty of memorable moments too. Rex himself is a pleasantly optimistic and thoroughly likable protagonist who is incredibly easy to root for and grows throughout the game, and all of his allies show distinct multi-faceted shades that make each of them notable. The antagonists get plenty of characterisation as well; the recurring ones get plenty of screen time to cement their threat and goals, with others helping provide obstacles that can be plausibly overcome in the shorter-term, which only helps build upon the story of Alrest. The cast combines excellently with the interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy elements as well as a stellar overall plot and fascinating conclusion to make a constantly engaging and memorable tale.
The combat system retains the feel of prior Xenoblade titles, and is the best iteration so far. Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s real-time system neatly makes combat look action-packed but is highly tactical in its nature. Players control one Driver, with two others controlled by the AI. Each Driver can have up to three Blades equipped, one of which is active at any one time, acting as support while granting the Driver his or her weapon and abilities. Drivers auto-attack while standing still, and this fills up the gauges for skills called Arts. Using these Arts fills up the gauges for specials and other powerful abilities and combos that stem from them. It’s a system that has lots of depth — things like timing, positioning, elements, and healing all come into play — but is very intuitive to get to grips with. Combat requires a good level of attention from players and provides all the tools they need with a great UI and control scheme that are a lot less overwhelming than a quick glance a screenshot would have one believe and only necessitates a single button press for all but a few of the available actions. Though the AI can’t be controlled, it behaves smartly, attempting to provide combo options and other support to help turn the tide of battle. Any issues with it not performing a specific task or role can be rectified by adjusting the Drivers’ Blade loadouts.
Blades are a key part in customising characters and preparing for combat. In addition to the story-centered Blades, more of them can be created by using Core Crystals dropped by enemies or found in side quests. There are Cores for specific Blades but the majority of those picked up grant a certain chance to provide one of the endless generic options or a special and distinct one instead. The game encourages players to use these crystals as they get them and there’s a highly rewarding feeling when a rare Blade does appear, further enhanced later when coming across side quests, events, or challenges devoted specifically to that Blade. Even though most of the generic Blades are limited in potential compared to their rare counterparts, and can often be released without a second thought, they do find good uses for the Merc Group missions and in brief cameos to overcome environmental obstacles.
Blades have various weapon types and come in three flavours filling the three standard party roles: Tank, Attacker, or Healer. The role defines their Arts, while their element defines any special combo abilities, and they also have environmental skills used when exploring, collecting, and talking to certain NPCs. One thing that can be a bit frustrating is when players are trying to create Blades with the goal of overcoming specific roadblocks that use those skills in the side content; there are unfortunately no options that seem to help influence which skills generic allies have. Blades and Drivers both have Affinity Trees, which unlock bonuses for combat and exploration abilities. For Blades this is done by growing trust via battle, meeting achievements such as defeating certain enemies, or sending them out in Merc Groups, while for Drivers this is done by spending points earned in combat. Gone is the standard armour system reflected on character models, but there are accessory slots, weapon upgrades, and other bonuses available with both Blades and Drivers. Everything related to the Blade systems more than adequately replaces the armour system, in some ways providing more interesting options, and the lack of outfit changing is much more of an improvement than a loss.
One thing that the past two games were guilty of is throwing out vast numbers of seemingly inconsequential side quests, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 looks to improve upon that aspect. Instead of giving players a giant shopping list of items and monsters to hunt, the vast majority of what would be simple collection quests and the like are moved into the Merc Group system, where players’ likely unoccupied Blades can be sent out in squads. There are still lots of side quests for players to sink their teeth into, however, and many of the more substantial ones tie-in quite nicely with Merc Group missions. Side quests aren’t required to be able to get through the main story, but will certainly help in providing extra experience, but there certainly is no requirement to do all of it; and a number are only really possible to complete with very high level characters.
Some of the side quests are readily provided during exploration, while others are less obvious and may require other prerequisites or plot advancement to uncover. Some are still straightforward requests, but others consist of many parts and fully voiced cutscenes. Players will have to go back to quest givers quite often, but the always open fast-travel option makes this a trivial matter. On top of these, there are lots of other less obvious things to do and unlock that will give completionists a veritable feast. The optional content will almost always require certain Blade skills, and it can be difficult to achieve them at the time of gaining access to the content, often necessitating they be placed on the backburner, but the other side of that is it provides notable extra feelings of progress when the roadblock is able to be lifted later. Between the very lengthy main story, sidequests, and hidden challenges there is a massive amount of content for players to sink their teeth into and always something interesting that they can go and do. Even after putting well over eighty hours into the game, which will likely take most between seventy to a hundred hours to complete, I was never bored of any of it.
Although there is no difficulty option, the game is generally nicely balanced throughout, though those who do all possible side content the moment it becomes available can get overleveled. Where players do lose to enemies that aren’t twenty-plus levels above them, they always feel beatable either with new tactics, Blade loadouts, or an upgrade in equipment or level. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 provides a neat extra option to the standard automatic experience-based leveling-up to help with this. In addition to the standard experience points, players will earn bonus experience from quests and so forth, and these bonus points can be used to gain extra levels when resting at an inn. It is entirely optional if players wish to apply these extra levels, and can even choose how many levels they wish to go up if they have enough points to advance multiple levels. This lets some players keep enemies providing a slightly tougher challenge, while those who might want a quick boost to help get past a certain section can readily do so.
Fantastic views and locations of all types are a hallmark of Xenoblade, one that is proudly carried on in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Views are spectacular across the world, which is brought to life with bustling towns and fields filled with fauna and flora, a lot of which players won’t be required to kill. There are some locations that can be frustrating to reach, however, either blocked off behind skill requirements or with no apparent way to reach them unless players manage to stumble across it, but outside of these the world of Alrest is an absolute pleasure to wander around, aided by the friendly teleport system and the game simply dumping players back at the previous landmark when losing or falling too far a distance.
Cutscene direction throughout is strong, with events spanning the gamut from action-packed to emotionally subdued, and all are handled deftly. The game runs fantastically in general — there was very rare, brief slowdown in the few cases where lots of flashy moves were being used at once in battle and there is some texture pop-in when teleporting to a new area — while the subtitle and UI text sizes are helpfully large, and there’s no drop in speed when switching to handheld mode. There is a noticeable drop in resolution in handheld mode compared to docked, however, the outstanding design means that this can easily be looked past and the views are still stunning to behold.
Yasunori Mitsuda’s musical direction is excellent, ably supported by a small selection of other composers devoted to the field and combat tracks. A wonderful selection of battle themes complement the action nicely, while others bring further emotion and atmosphere to key cutscenes, and sweeping, hauntingly beautiful, and distinct themes for the various settlements and fields further add to their character. The score is full of hugely pleasurable tracks to listen to across the board. The English voice acting predominantly features British accents, and while a few of the more minor characters and rare Blades are a little bit too caricatured, outside of that the performances are of very high quality and really bring both the cast and great localisation to life. All of the main cast feature great performances throughout that help define the characters, Nia’s being a personal favourite. The one mark against the audio comes in combat with talkative enemies, when there is often such an array of chatter that it can be hard to hear distinct statements, with subtitles not used for combat and exploration. In most cases, however, the chatter serves to help enhance the visual action, and players can adjust the sound balance to help things.
The overall depth of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and how well it all ties together is astounding. Though higher expectations mean it is less of a stunning revelation than the first game, Monolith Soft has risen up tall to meet those expectations and delivered spectacularly in every area. 2017 has been one of the greatest years in RPG history; Xenoblade Chronicles 2 caps that off in mesmerising fashion by being one of the finest titles of the year.
Stunning visual design, great audio
Fantastic combat and explorative gameplay
Thoroughly engaging cast and story
Loads of things to do
One save slot per user
Annoying skill roadblocks for optional content