The Nintendo Switch has had an astounding year. Owners of the console-handheld hybrid – those who’ve managed to somehow get their hands on the system amidst the stock shortages – have been consistently treated to top-notch releases spanning across multiple genres, and this stupendous lineup is made even more impressive by the fact that it’s all come within just the first year of the system’s launch. It makes perfect sense, then, that the Switch’s year is being brought to a close with yet another excellent release. Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that manages to rise above some persistent and significant issues to deliver what is ultimately one of the most memorable JRPGs of this generation.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is characterised by the same grand sense of scope and scale and the same magnificent ambition that its two predecessors are so often associated with, and the perfect visual illustration of that is the game’s setting itself. Alrest is a world that is almost entirely drowning in swathing oceans of clouds, where humans and other life forms make a home for themselves on the backs of the colossal Titans that swim in these oceans. It’s a wonderfully imaginative setting, utterly fantastical in nature, and is lent even more personality by a light steampunk twist.
It is, as you can imagine, a setting that grabs attention from the second the game kicks off. As Xenoblade 2 progresses through its 80-90 hour journey, it reveals darker secrets and hidden truths about its world that give it even more context and weight, elevating the setting to the kind of greatness you don’t often get to see. And thankfully enough, just as engrossing is the tale that takes place within this world. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s tale starts out humbly, putting players in the shoes of Rex, an overly optimistic and naive character that should by all accounts be nothing but an annoying cliche, but turns out to be an endearing protagonist that you actually want to root for.
"Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that manages to rise above some persistent and significant issues to deliver what is ultimately one of the most memorable JRPGs of this generation."
Surrounding Rex is a cast of mostly well written characters, most of whom have well developed back stories and motivations that you can understand and sympathize with. This cast of characters, though, is not without its own blemishes. While some characters in the story are incredibly complex and backed by excellent voice work and writing, others are simply intolerable in those exact same areas. One particular character, for instance, is the personification of every kind of JRPG-related cringe-worthy caricaturization you can think of, and this character is more than capable of ruining very serious moments and scenes that should be pivotal to the story with annoying remarks or ridiculously exaggerated anime-like quirks.
The incongruity of these moments is as jarring as it is because as a whole, the game’s story is ridiculously ambitious. It’s large, and littered with unexpected twists and turns in typical Monolith Soft fashion. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, notably enough, manages to keep its story utterly engrossing for the entirety of its 80 hours. A lot of that is thanks to the fact that, like all games in the larger Xeno meta-series, Xenoblade 2 is not afraid to ask some potent and compelling questions about the world it portrays. Such questions often involve the nature of the symbiotic relationships between the Titans and the people who inhabit them, or the similar but much more intimate relationships between Blades and Drivers.
What are Blades and Drivers exactly? Blades are essentially super-powered weapons with unique abilities, with one unique twist- they’re sentient, living beings. Drivers are the people who are basically the masters of these Blades, and it is only through the actions of Drivers that Blades are given life and form. Xenoblade 2 takes these concepts and manages to use them in very interesting ways. Is a Blade defined only by its Driver? Is it nothing more than a weapon? Is a Blade by its very nature supposed to be subservient? Such are the questions Xenoblade Chronicles 2 often poses, and pleasantly enough, it does so quite expertly, without resorting to heavy-handed exposition dumps or on-the-nose writing.
The game also makes sure, though, that its philosophical questioning never gets overbearing. As much as the story is reliant on these weighty questions and dramatic twists and reveals, it makes sure to balance it all out with light-hearted moments of banter and heartfelt interactions between the characters. Predictably enough, a lot of these moments fall flat thanks to failed attempts at forced humour or spotty writing here and there, but for the most part such moments contribute significantly towards creating believable friendships and rivalries between the people that drive the story.
"Xenoblade Chronicles 2, notably enough, manages to keep its story utterly engrossing for the entirety of its 80 hours."
This fascinating relationship between Drivers and Blades is at the heart of not only Xenoblade 2’s narrative, but also much of its combat, which forms the core of the gameplay. The combat system here is quite similar to the MMO-style systems of Xenoblade and Xenoblade X, but the addition of Blades as a mechanic gives it a whole new twist. Much like the game’s story itself, the combat system starts out as deceptively basic, but the game constantly keeps introducing new mechanics throughout its opening dozen or so hours to reveal a system that is much more complex than what it initially seems like.
There’s a lot of systems in place here that all work in conjunction and come together to weave an intricate web of mechanics. It’s a system that promotes strategizing and experimenting, a system that, thanks to drip-fed tutorials that work hard to make sure they are never overwhelming in spite of their alarming volume, is easy to grasp, but equally hard to master. And by the time the game does need you to have mastered it, you’ll be familiar enough with it that doing so will no longer seem like the daunting and monumental task it may seem like in the opening hours of the game.
Beyond the combat, there’s a lot else to do in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and while most of it works magnificently, some of it doesn’t. The sheer act of exploration and discovery is, of course, as much a source of amazement and joy as you would expect in a Monolith Soft game, thanks to the game’s deeply imaginative world design. While a lot of JRPGs practically force players to go off the beaten path so that they can be made to grind, in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 you will only do so because you actually want to- to see the next beautiful vista, the next striking piece of imagery, the next awe-inspiring scenery with all its majestic grandeur and sense of scale.
The game’s mini-map and compass, sadly enough, don’t do these beautiful maps justice. This is thanks to their complete inability to properly indicate where exactly it is the player needs to head to, something which is compounded by the impressive sense of verticality of most of the locations you’ll be visiting. Fortunately enough, the extremely convenient and easy to use fast travel system of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 curbs such issues quite significantly. Similarly, collecting Blades is also a side activity that you can easily sink lots of hours into. Your party consists of three fighters at any given time (minus instances when the story restricts you to one or two), and each Driver can be equipped with three Blades. These Blades can be collected through various means, and given how each of them has its own unique traits, advantages, and disadvantages both in and out of battles, you’ll automatically be invested in doing so.
"While a lot of JRPGs practically force players to go off the beaten path so that they can be made to grind, in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 you will only do so because you actually want to- to see the next beautiful vista, the next striking piece of imagery, the next awe-inspiring scenery with all its majestic sense of scale."
Sadly enough, though, a lot of the other side activities in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 simply aren’t up to the mark. For instance, while the Blades you acquire in the game are all upgraded and levelled up through things you would probably be doing in the normal course of playing the game, one particular Blade can only be upgraded by playing a particular mini game. Such a restriction feels out of place in the game both in terms of context and in terms of how enjoyable it is (or isn’t, actually). Even if you do find the mini-game enjoyable, though, the fact that you have to sink hours into it to upgrade that particular Blade (and it’s a fairly important Blade, both in terms of story and party composition) makes it feel a little disconnected from the rest of the game. The fact that this mini-game can only be accessed from only one single location in the game’s world does this whole situation no favours either.
Side quests in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are also not up to the mark- in fact, they’re quite bad. They’re the kind of typically boring, inane, and mundane side quests that would have been at home in an RPG ten years ago, but just aren’t acceptable in games anymore. Sure, the game never makes these quests compulsory in any sort of way, which is most definitely a good thing, but that should not be a defence for having such poorly designed quests. In a generation where so many games have proven that side quests can be just as excellent and engrossing as main quests (if not more so), Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s inadequacies in this area are simply unacceptable.
There are other times when Xenoblade Chronicles 2 indulges in such tropes and genre traditions as well, for no other reason than the fact that it’s a JRPG. For instance, there are times when the story’s pacing and momentum are brought to a complete and sudden halt just so the game can give you a main quest whose only purpose is to extend the playtime. These are moments when it feels like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is suddenly reminded that it’s still a JRPG, and as such, has to be bogged down by the very same things that are so often criticized as being the bane of the genre. It should be noted that these moments are never enough to completely take you out of the story, and blessedly enough they don’t keep you away from any notable narrative progression for too long- but they are present in the game, and it’s really hard to pinpoint why that is the case.
The game’s storytelling is also often marred by such genre-specific idiosyncrasies. A lot of the cutscenes in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are fantastic, with slick direction and generally strong writing and voice acting to go along with it. And that’s a good thing, too, because these are usually the cutscenes that carry the most important story developments. But the cutscenes often shows inconsistencies as well. Some characters have some of the most ridiculous dialogue you will see in the entire game, some of them have voice acting that can best be described as grating and irksome, and some scenes simply fall flat in execution because of their inexplicable refusal to take themselves seriously, even during scenarios that should logically be more sombre.
"In a generation where so many games have proven that side quests can be just as excellent and engrossing as main quests (if not more so), Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s inadequacies in this area are simply unacceptable."
This sense of inconsistency can also be found in Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s visual quality. Much of the game is dominated by beautiful art style, delivering you to numerous locations that will stick out in your memory long after you’ve moved on to the next area, and that same strong art style also helps elevate the character design of many important characters in the game to new heights. But while the art style of Xenoblade 2 is unparalleled, from a technical viewpoint the game often falters. There’s a lot of typical JRPG jank here, from low resolution textures to some lip syncing and choppy animation issues in a few cutscenes. There are also instances when the on-screen action is simply too much for the game to take, causing noticeable frame-rate drops. The one area of the game that simply cannot be criticized, though, is the soundtrack, which spans across multiple genres, from rock to melancholy piano. There are a number of tunes that stand out above others, and moments when scenes of grand and magnificent vistas are accompanied by sweeping scores of music are simply unforgettable.
In several areas, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is let down by obtuse design choices, or a simple lack of polish, and there are times when it feels like these issues are holding it back from becoming the modern classic it could otherwise have been so easily. But such issues are also quite easy to overlook, because in the grand scheme of things, this is a deeply addictive and engrossing game. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that holds nothing back in everything it does. Its world is vast and beautiful, its story complex and layered, its combat intricate and addictive. It is a game that is wildly ambitious in more ways than one, and it is never afraid to work toward those lofty ambitious. Even though 2017 has been saturated by countless unforgettable milestone release, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 still manages to stand out as one of the best games of the year.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Complex and addictive combat system that is easy to grasp but hard to master; A beautiful setting that makes exploration an absolute joy; An engrossing narrative from start to finish that is never afraid to pose thoughtful questions; Vibrant and amazing art style that helps bring the world to life; Never gets overwhelming in spite of how ambitious it is in everything it does; Some of the characters have been voiced, written and developed excellently; Most of the cutscenes are slickly and stylishly directed; Provides around a hundred hours of gameplay; Excellent soundtrack.
Technical aspects fail to stand toe-to-toe with the excellent art style; Technical issues such as low-res textures and frame-rate drops; Some characters have poor writing and voice acting; Intolerably inane side quests.
A captivating setting, engrossing narrative, and a complex and deeply addictive combat system help define Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as one of the best JRPGs of this generation.