Completing the Switch Trifecta
The Nintendo Switch has had quite the launch year, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey leading an impressive array of games. Nintendo and developer Monolith Soft aim to finish the year strong with their massive RPG adventure, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Though branded as a sequel, its story stands alone from the previous Xenoblade titles. While it shares similarities with its predecessors, its modified combat system and anime-inspired artstyle set it apart.
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The story takes place in a world where civilizations live on Titans, humongous creatures that float atop a sea of clouds. The tale follows the young, energetic boy Rex. While hunting for treasure, he meets a girl named Pyra, who seeks the fabled paradise of Elysium to save the world from its fated demise. What awaits is a narrative with a grand sense of adventure and meaningful messages about the value of one’s life. There are more lighthearted moments than in the first game, which fit the cutesy anime artstyle. But there is also a balance of serious drama and action throughout the cutscenes. I was entranced by the excellently choreographed fight sequences and felt like a kid excitedly watching Dragon Ball Z. And I was just as moved by every emotional beat, thanks to the character-driven story.
The core cast is full of personality, and their relationships are shaped by their roles as Drivers – the frontline fighters, and Blades – life forms that grant them power and weaponry. For instance, the Blade Pyra strengthens her Driver Rex. I grew attached to every partnership as they developed throughout the story and Heart-to-Heart events. The characters kept me invested in the journey to Elysium.
The party travels through numerous Titans, each its own large landmass. Since the Titans are separate continents, the world feels less connected than in the first Xenoblade. As such, I didn’t get the same experience of “if you can see it, you can reach it.” But I still had that “wow” moment once I hit my first vast plain. The series’ sense of scale remains remarkable, and seeing the Titans move as you traverse their bodies is a sight to behold. I liked going off the beaten path to seek out hidden treasure, collectible loot, and Landmarks, which also function as convenient fast travel locations. Since the only penalty for dying was respawning at the last Landmark, I felt empowered to explore. A handy objective marker prevents you from getting lost. Each area is teeming with wildlife, from docile to dangerous creatures that will one-shot you if you breathe near them. Once an enemy becomes aggressive, a battle begins.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat is fairly complex – so much so that I can’t meaningfully explain every component. Here are the basics: you control one Driver teamed up with a Blade partner. You’re free to move around, but you power up faster when close to your Blade. When near an enemy, you automatically attack. From there are successive layers of battle progression. As you auto-attack, you build up a meter that lets you use Arts, techniques that may grant bonuses like extra damage for back-attacks. Using Arts opens up powerful elemental Specials, which can then be combined with your party members’ Specials to perform hard-hitting combos. It’s an interactive battle flow that forces you to think about positioning and timing. Unfortunately, you have no control over whether your two A.I. teammates will complete your combos.
There’s never a shortage of actions during combat. I always felt engaged in battle, and it was gratifying to build up successive attacks. However, it’s hard to keep track of everything at once. The issue is that after each initial tutorial, there is no in-game way to refresh yourself on battle mechanics. If you didn’t understand the first time or forgot them, you may be lost in subsequent battles. Although the user interface and large text are easy to read, there are nuances that can get lost in the shuffle. For example, the affinity between Driver and Blade, is designated by a line that connects them, which you may not notice amidst the action. That said, the wealth of options and the complexity of the combat system give way to excellent strategy, and it’s a genuine blast – if you can get the hang of it.
Unlike the original Xenoblade with its array of Arts, you are now limited to three Arts per character. They’re each mapped to different face buttons, making it easier to activate them. To compensate for less Arts, you can switch midbattle to a different Blade, each with its own fighting style and loadout. Unfortunately, unlocking Blades is a hassle, since each collectible Core Crystal wields a random one. There’s a Pokémon-like joy in getting a rare Blade, but more often, disappointment in receiving a generic one. At least you can send them out on missions and utilize their unique skills on the field, like burning a tree blocking the path – creative ways that make them useful.
Both Blades and Drivers grow stronger by activating power-up nodes on their Affinity Charts, essentially skill trees. To unlock a Blade’s nodes, you must fulfill conditions, such as performing a special attack a certain number of times. It’s a neat mini-achievement system. For Drivers, you simply spend points on the skills you want, though I found most boosts underwhelming. Still, there’s a good sense of progression and customization despite the lack of a standard armor system. I could enhance my Arts, strengthen Blades, and equip stat-boosting accessories.
The game is well-paced, with a few exceptions, particularly when I needed specific items or skills to progress. Also, some bosses gave me a difficult time, requiring me to grind. For that matter, some regular battles also felt like slogs due to many enemies having high HP. I didn’t mind during my first visit to an area, but it became annoying when grinding. This game took me a whopping 80 hours to beat, doing purely story content. I could have easily passed the 100 hour mark if I tried to complete all numerous lengthy sidequests, discover every Landmark, and fight the strongest monsters.
To be fair, a good chunk of that length is attributed to the cutscenes, but they look so nice. Not everyone may like the anime artstyle, but I adored how expressive each character was, lending itself to truly emotional cutscenes. Plus, it’s hard to deny how gorgeous the world looks. I found myself pausing often to soak in every breathtaking view. It’s unfortunate that the resolution takes a hit while undocked, but at least the frame rate remains solid. Also, I noticed some pop-in, usually after I fast traveled and the environment was still loading. Despite reduced visuals, I enjoyed playing in handheld mode, and it was easy to immerse myself in the world, even in short bursts.
Thanks to returning composers, there are many spectacular tunes that hit similar beats to the first game, like the epic plains theme, atmospheric melodies for subdued areas, and multiple spirited battle tracks. It gives the first Xenoblade Chronicles’ beautiful soundtrack a run for its money. The voice acting, on the other hand, took some time to grow on me. Early on, performances seemed forced; but they sounded more natural as I got to know the characters. Although their repetitive stock dialogue during battles remained annoying, I could turn it off in the settings.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a worthy sequel that expands upon the series’ open world exploration and compelling stories with a lovable cast of characters and a strong Driver and Blade mechanic. Though I would have appreciated an in-game help guide to keep the inner workings of battles in check, I genuinely enjoyed its complex intricacies once I got the hang of it. Sporting a healthy mix of meaty exploration, intriguing mechanics, and exciting plot, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a superb modern RPG. And I’m happy to say that it completes a Triforce of excellent first-party launch year Nintendo Switch games following Zelda and Mario.
A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally written on DarkStation.