My favorite Japanese RPG series over the past decade has been Xenoblade Chronicles. I absolutely fell in love with the original on the Wii. Its innovative combat system, amazing locales, engaging and highly original story, and beautiful soundtrack combined to make it an experience I’ll never forget. Its pseudo-sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U, was also a blast to play. The massive world with numerous continents really scratched that exploration itch of mine that I love in video games and it too featured beautiful locations, giant beasts, and an amazing soundtrack that gets a bad rap (pun intended). So, you can imagine my excitement when Nintendo announced Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Switch and I’m pleased to report that Monolith Soft has done it again.
If you haven’t played any of the previous games, there’s no need to worry. Just like the Final Fantasy series, the games don’t have any connecting plot or characters, save the Nopon, a race of small creatures that appear in every title. While the first game focused on narrative and the second one focused on exploration, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 falls somewhere in the middle – with plenty of places to explore, and a ton of plot to unravel.
You play as Rex, a scavenger who dives into the Cloud Sea in search of trinkets and doodads to sell off for a tidy profit. The world of Alrest is comprised of several floating continents called Titans. Humans have found a way to live on the backs of these giant beasts, each one representing a different ecosystem and environment to explore. This is a nice callback to the original game where people lived on one of two gigantic robot gods. The game’s story picks up steam pretty quickly with Rex taking on a job from the head of the Nopon guild where he discovers and awakens an ancient Blade named Pyra. These human-looking creatures bond with their Drivers (the person who holds their Core Crystal) and assist them in combat. In this case, Rex is mortally injured and Pyra brings him back to life by donating part of her life source to him in exchange for his help in taking her to Elysium, the World Tree.
Although the story does kick off rather quickly, I felt the beginning sections to be rather slow and boring. The game didn’t really grab my full attention until I was about three hours in and then everything started clicking – so don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t immediately grab you. Once it does, you’re in for a 100+ hour experience, assuming you become as engrossed in the game’s world and systems as I did. There’s a lot going on in this game, something you realize when the tutorials keep coming even 15 or 20 hours into the adventure. Even someone like me who has played the previous games, I found some of the underlying gameplay mechanics and systems in place can be a bit overwhelming, but just stick with it and it should all make sense after spending some time in the world.
Right off the bat I really liked the set of characters that eventually join Rex on his quest. Each has his or her own backstory to discover and the way the team builds out is fun and exciting. Each main character has a main Blade, who also interacts and chats in the story, adding even more depth to the plot. Just like the previous games you can search out Heart to Hearts, which will give some of the characters the opportunity to interact with one another and reveal more about them. The sense of hope and teamwork represented throughout the entire adventure is heartwarming and I really came to like each and every member of my team. There is a bit of randomness as well because you gain new Blades by opening a Core Crystal. You never know who you’re going to get until you open it, so one player may become attached to a certain character early in the game and someone else may not get that character until the end – or ever! The rare Blades usually have some backstory to unravel as well, so spending some time with each one you discover is beneficial for combat and character development.
Like most RPGs, you’ll be battling a vast array of creatures throughout your adventure. The first two games in the series had arts at the bottom of the screen to select with cool-down timers once you used the attack. The developers have changed it up this time around to allow for more skills at your fingertips. How it works is that each character in your party (up to three at a time) will eventually have access to three Blades at a time. You only control one character in battle, but with three Blades available to attack, each with three standard moves and one special. To utilize any of the Blades arts you’ll need to store up enough energy to activate them. This is done by getting close to an enemy and letting Rex (or whoever you’re controlling) initiate an auto-attack. Each successful strike will increase your Blade arts. Once available, you’ll want to use them as they deal more damage or offer up special buffs. Many times these will have area of effect damage to multiple enemies or will deal more damage if you are attacking from the side or behind the monster.
The more skills you use, the more your special attack will fill up, which will allow you to deal some massive damage. This can be leveled up from 1 through 4 and will deal an elemental attack depending on which Blade you currently have equipped. For example, if you deal a Level 1 special with Pyra, it will utilize her Fire element. Once the enemy has been dealt a Level 1 elemental attack, a special element tree is displayed in the upper right of the screen, showing two ways to progress for greater attacks. It might be that if you can deal a Level 2 Water elemental attack before the timer runs out, it will combine with the Fire and steam the enemy! If you’re successful here, then a new timer begins and you move onto another element choice that requires a Level 3 or 4 to finish off the chain. It sounds complicated, and at first it is! But once you figure it out, it’s a ton of fun and combat never becomes boring. The nice thing is that when your other two characters that you’re not controlling have an elemental attack ready that corresponds to what can be used for the chain, they’ll pop up on the screen and you just hit a button to activate their attack. You’re always moving your main character around, trying to get the best shots in, while using your Blade’s attacks to build up their specials and then trying to team up and chain up the attacks.
There are other wrinkles to combat, like being able to Break an enemy and then Topple them, and then Launch them and finally Smash them. These types of moves were available in the last two games and appear here as well. Needless to say, this is one of the most intense battle systems in any JRPG I’ve ever played, and while it can be daunting at first, the game does a fantastic job of slowly introducing each system to try and not overwhelm new players. Once this all clicks, it’s a blast!
Much has been discussed on message boards about the character designs in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. In fact, it seems like every single game in the series has its detractors for one reason or another. This time around some people didn’t like the scantily clad Blades, especially Pyra who is part of the story and often visible throughout. This could have been solved by allowing costume changes, but for whatever reason the developers didn’t allow for that this time around. I have to say the risqué clothing didn’t bother me, but I understand some might be. Beyond this design choice, I have to say I really dig the aesthetics throughout the game. The decision to give the game a more animé look really gives the characters the ability to show more ranges of emotion. On top of that, the various vistas are beautiful and the world feels alive with grass swaying in the wind and various weather effects. Attention to detail on many of the creatures in the game is noticeable with fur effects and enemies like reptiles and toads have a shiny sheen to them as well. The game features some truly beautiful locations, however I’d be lying if I didn’t think that Xenoblade Chronicles X looks better in some areas, especially with things like draw distance and just sheer imaginative environments. Also, there are some rather ugly textures that are noticeable throughout the game, but nothing that detracts too heavily from the art direction.
Even more impressive is the game’s music. Some of the original composers from the first game are back for this one and it really shows. There are some tracks in this game that I can’t help but hum long after I’ve turned the game off. Indeed, some are truly magnificent and quite moving. I really like how they’ve woven in the main theme into many of the various tracks as well, tying the pieces together. I haven’t come across a single piece of music in the game I haven’t liked, and there’s a lot here! Although there are several tracks from Xenoblade Chronicles X that have yet to be topped, that game was plagued with some really bad music as well, which brought the overall score down a bit in the sound department. Luckily that isn’t the case here and I should also give special mention to the voice acting. I really love that each character has a slightly different accent depending on which Titan they’re from. It adds to the multicultural aspect of the game and is really appreciated. If you don’t like the English dub, you can download the original Japanese vocal tracks for free as well.
Of course, all is not perfect here and I have a laundry list of things that continued to bug me throughout my time with the game. My biggest complaint centers on the horrendous map and the navigation system in general. The latest update for the game did make it easier to access the map, instead of having to go through multiple menus, but it still didn’t address the lack of functionality. There is no way to mark a waypoint on the map – only quests and missions show up. Even then, your little distance marker on the HUD is a piece of crap that often steers you in the wrong direction like a broken compass. As is par for the course with this series, once again many of the side quests are a mixed bag. Many devolve into fetch quests, and very often these require multiple items that aren’t always marked on your map. Good luck!
One cool thing about the game is that your Blades often learn various world skills that can be used while exploring. For example, you may come across a spot that allows you to jump higher if you have the right abilities unlocked on your Blades, which will then allow you to access an area that was blocked off before. I like this Metroid-like aspect of the game – coming back to locations to unlock new spots and treasures once you’ve obtained the special skills to do so. The problem is that you might have 60 different Blades in reserve, but unless they are engaged (equipped – of which you can only have three per main character at a time) their special skills will be of no use to you unless you go into a menu, search them out, and equip them. Then you do the field skill, grab the loot or whatever awaits and then back into the menus you go to swap them out for your “good” Blades once again. This is tedious and really the game shouldn’t require you to do this.
Speaking of Blades, whose idea was it to randomize them? OK, I actually don’t have a huge problem with the concept of having to open something up to get a randomized Blade, but if I’ve got 60 Core Crystals, how about letting me open like 5 or 10 of them at the same time? Why do I have to sit and watch the same animation over and over again? Luckily you are able to skip the Blade reveal, but the actual suspense of the crystal opening takes a good 10 seconds or so. This adds up to a lot of time wasted over the course of the game.
My final complaint is a very minor one, but I really enjoyed how the prior two games showed you how much experience you were receiving by discovering new areas and completing things like Heart to Hearts. This time around the game doesn’t explicitly tell you how much experience you’ve earned from these events. Instead you have to stay at an Inn to earn these bonus experience points, which honestly is just one more thing to remember to do that shouldn’t be needed.
Despite these small quibbles, I have to admit I absolutely love Xenoblade Chronicles 2. There is so much that I didn’t even touch on in the review that adds even more depth and strategy to what I’ve outlined already. The story beats and the many areas to discover and explore really did a great job of keeping me entertained. The combat system is fun and exciting, something that you don’t always find in a JRPG. While the game’s plot does sometimes lean a little too much into the Japanese animé angle for my tastes, the character development and sense of camaraderie is fantastic throughout. I should mention this is one of those games that might be best played on the TV, as the graphics look better with higher resolution and the framerate doesn’t chug quite as much – although it is completely playable in portable mode as well. With games like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim, the Switch doesn’t have any shortage of huge sprawling games, but don’t skip out on Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s one of my favorite games released in 2017 and shouldn’t be missed.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review
- Graphics - 9/109/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 9/109/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the full package. It has a compelling story, fun combat, likable characters, amazing music, nice visuals, and rewards exploration. One could easily spend over 100 hours in the world of Alrest, and we wouldn’t blame you if you never wanted to leave. An excellent choice for your Switch!
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was reviewed using a physical copy for Nintendo Switch purchased by Nintendo Times. A review copy was not provided.