When Xenoblade Chronicles appeared on the Wii, I was blown away by a massive, intricate JRPG involving massive titans and people with swords and shields fighting against a machine threat armed with missiles and energy shields. It was a tale revolving around a magical blade, the Monado and how it chose a young boy named Shulk. After that, we had Xenoblade Chronicles X, a Wii U game that moved away from sweeping narratives and replaced it with an MMOish grind fest that ultimately led nowhere. Thankfully Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is here to continue things like the former.
The adventure of Rex has a pretty slow start, taking about 90 minutes before the most basic elements of combat, exploration and levelling are made available to you. Put on your marathon gaming outfit, because this game is going to take a while to get going. To be fair though, taking an hour and a bit to get a 70+ hour game going isn’t too bad.
What makes up for the slow story pacing is having a definite enemy revealed pretty early on. Similar to how Sephiroth stymies players back in Final Fantasy VII, the enemies and their machinations are out in the open for the player to see, with the characters working out the extent of their plot and their weird powers.
Rex moves on from a life as a salvager to becoming a Driver, someone who has that something special in them that allows the use of Blades. Blades can look just like humans, but they are actually some other form of life that resides in core crystals. These Blades form a weapon for their Driver and channel their power to them, allowing the use of magical arts and shielding them from damage. Despite you collecting multiple core crystals in your quests and exploration, these are not just weapons that you discard when you find an upgrade. In fact, Blades feel a lot more like your party members, especially the primary blade of each character that joins you on your quest to save the world, often giving advice or background to the events that occur.
A combat primer
Xenoblade’s combat system looks deceptively simple at first, but there are several facets that you need to get to grips with before you start shining in combat. The first system to get to grips with is the Driver combo system. Some attacks can add an extra status to an enemy unless they resist it and while these effects don’t last for very long, they are very powerful when chained together. The first one is break, which drops defence and allows the enemy to be toppled. A toppled enemy can’t attack or block and lies on the floor, at this point you can do an attack with the launch property to send an enemy into the air for a few moments. At this point you can finish off this combo with an attack that can smash. This slams the enemy into the ground for big damage and makes the enemy drop loot and healing potions.
The second facet of combat that you need to grasp is that each blade you use has an element. Build up enough charge and you can unleash a big attack, with the blade taking their weapon back for a big flourish. These attacks apply a damage over time effect on the enemy that lasts several seconds. Once you use an attack, the top right of the screen will show you various elements you can use to reach a level 3 Blade combo. The easiest option is to use charge level 2 of the same element, and then level 3, but there are multiple ways to navigate this system. The level 3 attack has almost no debuff, but the damage is significant and it applies a seal effect on the enemy, depending on which element was used. These seals can prevent the enemy from calling in reinforcements, or back attacks or using self-destruct abilities and they look pretty flashy to boot.
Still with me? Now you can combine Driver combos with Blade combos to squeeze more damage out with Fusion combos. Applying an elemental attack and a topple at the same time not only increases the duration of the elemental attack, but it increases the damage significantly. Managing to get the third hit of an elemental combo onto a launched enemy is devastating, or a smash on a level 2 or 3 elemental debuff will increase your attack power. Getting this system right will let you kill enemies a lot faster and is imperative to learn if you want to deal with the bosses. Even normal enemies in the game are massive healthy sponges, so you will have time to grasp using the two combos in tandem.
This is a game based around the joy of discovery, and it feels rewarding to work things out.
The combat system has several other facets that are taught to players over time, but this is starting to look more like a combat primer article than a review (if you ever need a hand, just ask in our Discord channel about it). Suffice it to say that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is full of intricate systems that might take a while to click. If you feel enemies are taking too long to kill, besides upgrading the core chips of your blades, you might want to make sure you have a handle on the various combos in play.
Xenoblade Chronicles taught us about a crazy world where people live on massive titans, their world being on or inside these massive beings. XC2 is no different, but the titans are nowhere near as massive as Mechonis and Bionis. Instead the game makes use of several titans that you will explore, each with their own challenges, culture and population. In the world of Alrest each titan is basically its own country, with a nation that has grown to make use of the strengths of their titan. Mor Ardain, for example, is a hot titan, so very few plants and farms can grow there, but the Ardanians have learnt to harness geothermal energy to become industrialised, while Gormott is a fertile land with massive trees, making it rather enticing to the Ardanians. While the maps have gotten a lot smaller, there is a lot less dead space in them too. Instead of running for minutes at a time in a city to find an NPC or collectable you are greeted with tightly packed houses with multiple floors. The world follows a similar pattern, having much more complex geometry and verticality. Finding your way is often half of the challenge, with the other half being any field skills you need to traverse there (from burning something blocking your way to making a bridge out of ice) and steering clear of higher level enemies.
Xenoblade Chronicles introduced players to the idea that not everything in a zone is built for the level they initially enter it at. One of the first titans you get to really explore has a level 91 T-rex patrolling an area with level 36 giant wolves. As tempting as that shortcut looks, be warned because the game has changed the way that enemies initiate combat. The bigger the level difference between you and your enemy, with the enemy having the advantage, the more likely it is to attack you. Conversely, you can run right into an enemy that is lower level than you and it will leave you alone, with a few exceptions. This makes treading old ground to get collectables and find places you couldn’t reach before a lot more bearable. Even the way you collect items in the world feels more meaningful, with nodes that will give you a handful of items, rather than travelling over hundreds of orbs scattered through the world to collect items one at a time. You can use Blades with certain field skills to get bonus drops from these collection points, quickly racking up materials that you need.
In the world of Alrest each titan is basically its own country, with a nation that has grown to make use of the strengths of their titan.
To help with a large world and roaming big bad enemies, the game uses a fast travel system that allows you to travel to any landmark you have discovered and any death will send you back to the last landmark you were at, with no loss of experience or loot. This makes exploring much more forgiving, letting you push your luck and limits against bigger foes or when trying to explore the world. The same applies to boss fights, meaning you no longer have to worry about losing a bunch of progress and seeing a story section again. If you feel completely out levelled and don’t have the right tools to take on a certain foe, being able to travel away from that fight for a while and coming back to it later is a godsend.
Small or long bursts
Before the size of the game scares you off, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is perfect for on the go handheld bursts. At lunchtime, I would explore a titan a bit more to find quest items or collectables, or I would do the various tasks that my current Blades required to improve upon their skills. Most side quests and main quest have a useful marker on your map or on the compass at the top of the screen, meaning you can choose a quest before you put the Switch down, turn it on a while later and there is a marker for you to travel to with a hint of your objective in the bottom right corner, reminding you of what you were doing earlier. The game also works in long stretches, where I went on big quests that spanned multiple titans or hunting down unique monsters from areas I had visited earlier with no chance of beating them.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a vast, intricate game that has a lot to love.
Xenoblade suffers from slowdown in several regions, especially in the large cities and during inclement weather. This seemed to me to be more pronounced in docked mode, and it looks like handheld mode gets around this by dropping resolution when things get too hectic on screen. It isn’t game-breaking slowdown and seems mostly to happen when you are out of combat, exploring the world or shopping in town.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a vast, intricate game that has a lot to love. Its music, sweeping vistas and story stand out, but it is held back by a clumsy UI, poor voice acting, enemies having a bit too much health and the AI sometimes failing. For me, the positives far outweighed the negatives of the game and after finishing the game (which took around 75 hours to do), I am still wandering around the world looking for new challenges, treasure and areas that were blocked off to me previously.
The game’s fanservice outfits and character models with balloon breasts and camera angles placed to show close-ups of tits and ass whenever possible are a problem though, and I know my wife found it difficult to take the game seriously. She walked in several times and said, “oh I see you got *another* character that forgot how clothes work”. Some might argue that this is par for the course in a game from the east where you collect Blades/waifus, but it just doesn’t sit well, especially when the game attempts to address the issue of not taking advantage of Blades and treating them with respect. Straight after this, the camera changes to show a close-up of massive breasts during a scene about anger or heartbreak. It is also incongruent in how the characters behave. I am all for a character that is sexy and confident, but when a character that is shown to be shy and reserved is wearing skintight, barely there pants with bare midriff and balloon breasts, it is hard to swallow.
Despite the failings of the voice direction and the breasts proudly boobiling everywhere, I felt connected to the characters by the end of the game and with a bit more attention, this could have been a game of the year contender. I feel the game explores some very interesting themes and while I would love to discuss them, even mentioning some of the themes that the game has running through it could prepare players to look for anything related to those themes and thinking of it as important rather than just watching the story develop naturally. This is a game based around the joy of discovery, and it feels rewarding to work things out. As it stands, it is a great JRPG that will keep players busy for a long, long time, but the slow start and busywork might send some running for the hills.