Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Switch)

It's once again time for me to file a review on a Xenoblade game way later than everyone else because I want to actually experience the game as it should be and then discuss it rather than trying to shove 150 hours of gameplay into a couple weeks or finishing the review halfway and missing vital elements (The ending to the first Xenoblade Chronicles puts in one of the laziest twists in writing and makes it so bizarrely out of place that it's actually kind of awesome. That it isn't infamous is likely an indication most people never finished it). The Discourse has stated that the character designs are seriously problematic even though the one with the horrendous character design people complained about is not a lead and is one of the more difficult characters to find (At least for me. Then again, after about 150 hours of play, I still can't get special guest star KOS-MOS from Xenosaga to trigger even though I've been following the unlocking procedure to the T, so who knows....). How is it all in a full playthrough? Let's find out!

Did you miss the full anime style of the original Xenoblade Chronicles? Did you long for having a tight-nit party instead of a wide swath of team players whose character depths only went as far as the work you were willing to put into them? How about a bit of both? Were you tired of a rapper singing about black tar getting you wherever you went and longed for the rousing themes and acoustics of Yasunori Mitsuda and ACE? Good news! Despite X ending on a cliffhanger, we'll have to put a pause on what not KOS-MOS found in the basement for now with a non-sequel sequel to the other side of the franchise instead. Walking on continents made out of massive beings, characters with United Kingdom accents shouting the same special attacks over and over again, and actually dying when you fall 1,000 feet have all returned!

For the record, I love and kid both predecessors at the same time. Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X are two of my favorite games for different reasons. The original revealed the team at Monolith Soft had cracked the code on adding the addicting features of Western RPGs to the heart and flavor of JRPGs. I've already written plenty on Chronicles X, but it was a new experience that borrowed the series' framework to create an entirely alien planet that was a wonder to explore with an extensive amount of world building put into it, even if the main plot was a bit lacking at times. And yes, I adore the cheesy-as-hell music. We can't go back where we came from. WE CAN'T GO BACK WHERE WE CAME FROM!

Anyway, the initial barrage of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 media was a curious combination of elements. There was the introduction of younger protagonist Rex that seemed to indicate perhaps a simplification of the franchise, but the Nintendo Treehouse sessions showcasing the remixed battle system had other ideas. I can admit my eyes sort of glazed over the more they explained, but at least I didn't have to keep in mind what a weapon with the beam property and other sci-fi "elements" were strong or weak against like in X. The plot appeared to be a throwback to Tetsuya Takahashi's old work tossed in with the new ("The Architect," huh? I think I know where you're going with this...). I'm mostly positive towards the game, though it does have the most drawbacks of the Xenoblade empire.

The land created by The Architect is slowly being swallowed up by an ocean of clouds so thick, one can actually swim through them. To show mercy on the people, The Architect granted Titans the size of continents for the people to live on with some smaller ones to help out with daily life. We begin the story as the Titans are starting to die out, and when they die, humanity does too. Our hero Rex is a salvager who uses one of the smaller Titans as his boat as he searches for lost artifacts under the clouds to make a living. He gets a too-good-to-resist offer on a salvage job in an uncharted part of the ocean with a batch of tight-lipped mercenaries called the Torna, which is always a recipe for trouble. While searching the vessel, Rex becomes connected to Pyra, a powerful being known as The Aegis, which needs its own paragraph.

In this fantasy, people called Drivers team up with powerful beings known as Blades who use ether, the energy of the world around them. The Aegis is a special kind of Blade who is powerful enough to level entire Titans, and Pyra suddenly becomes irreversibly linked to Rex. Rather than use the power to destroy, he would rather use her knowledge to find the entrance to Elysium, a supposed paradise with endless land for the people to live. However, Pyra's awakening is suddenly known to the world's rulers, and everyone is quickly after her to either destroy the abomination or harness her powers.

Eventually, you get the rag-tag party of underdogs who stand against the world to save it, including former mercenary Nia, Nopon Tora (Nopon are tiny sentient creatures in Xenoblade 'verse that can't seem to English righty-right), and elder Driver Vandham. While the previous games weren't without certain anime conventions, this entry makes a full leap into the Tales series with how it mixes wacky anime antics with weighty dramatics. There's nothing here as tiresome as the irkome running joke of Lin threatening to cook Tatsu at the start of every story mission in X, but there is a spoilerrific character who has a devastating past and is revealed to be a sleepwalker who usually finds their way into the wrong bed. Not making a value judgment as it manages to balance the dramatic and the comedic well enough, but those who hate the sweat-beaded broad slapstick will find a few moments they will have to tolerate such as certain Nopons' obsession with fetish robots that becomes so much, I almost think a good part of the plot is a parody of Xenosaga. And those who want every game to be Xenogears, THAT GAME WAS GOOFY AS HELL, TOO! You're remembering all the mood and just forgetting the team of girl henchmen ripped right out of Sailor Moon, the crab helicopter, and the government building that is revealed to be able to transform into a giant Gear because of course it does. Chuchu is not an isolated incident.

No worries about the story being a minor piece of fluff. It's a bit of a slow build-up, but it eventually chips into the darker realms of Tetsuya Takahashi work. Blades becoming something else entirely by consuming human flesh, the nature of dying vs. the nature of being forgotten, and of course, the true form of The Architect being more than it appears on the surface.  The delivery of the material is simply anime melodrama to the max with nary a dramatic moment without superhuman battles, gigantic creatures and machines, and screaming determination to the sky.

It works just fine if you're used to the style, though what keeps it from taking off into Xenosaga Episode 3 levels of awesome is the disjointed storytelling. It has chapters which mostly focus on a particular part of the story, but since most of the juicy twists and turns occur in the distant past, the game has a large reliance on flashbacks. The flashbacks structure serves to dole out the required info when necessary, but it muddles character motivation a bit. There are revelations that show up like who found Rex as a child, but it doesn't come with any substance about why this is important. It doesn't give insight as to how Rex found himself in his current situation and it doesn't pay off in any meaningful way other than showing some characters aren't as morally black and white as they appear, which we already knew. If he was found and saved by literally anybody else, the result would still be the same.

What makes the characters ultimately likable is the voice acting. The original Xenoblade Chronicles was famous for being initially skipped over in America and the English version released was dubbed with various British accents instead. While X takes place in New Los Angeles and was obviously aiming for a more American audience, Chronicles 2 brings back the original's approach with a majority of the dwellers sporting a Scottish accent. Unlike Reyn in the first one, the accents never feel overemphasized (And for Reyn, I just took him out of the party and 99% of my problems with him went away). The Blades also have more American accents since they've lived for centuries and have a separate origin from the people. The casting choices for the English dub are spot-on and generally terrific. Skye Bennett provides a delicate matter-of-factness to Pyra that makes a character you've seen many times before feel like something fresher. Tons of JRPGs have the character who've been sealed for hundreds of years or have been severely isolated come out and be mined for fish-out-of-water humor, but Pyra seems to take a more actively thoughtful role in processing a world that's passed her by for 500 years.

If you don't like the English version, the Japanese audio is available as a download for free and it has plenty of spots for recognizable talent in expected roles and surprises. Many of the Blades you can recruit have special guest illustrators and voice talent. While the character designs have drawn ire for weird body proportions and the idea that they're creating their own personal love dolls and I can't argue for many of them, there are some fun inclusions, like Haruhi Suzumiya's actress Aya Hirano as a weird Pokémon-style creature whose body is 70% mouth. Also, they generally have way more personality than the author of that article gives them credit for. To get the most out of their abilities, you have to go through personal quests that flesh them out as characters, something I did not see with a majority of the companions of Skyrim. They're still two-dimensional for the most part, but there was work done to make them more than their occasionally odd designs (There is a bibliophile with a book chained to her back who is missing half her torso and punches people with books that have laser daggers sticking out of them). Just be warned there aren't translations for the battle cries and random banter, so you might be flipping back and forth between English and Japanese to understand what they're saying.

Deep breath. Time to describe the act of playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2. There is a ton of stuff to get through. Even though they're all a part of the same series and have the same general structure, the three games of the franchise play exceptionally differently, making it hard to give direct comparisons. You have a party of people who go out in a world of monsters that roam the land, some territorial, some that attack when threatened, and some that are completely docile unless you blindside them. There is a main story to work through, and as you do, you open up new areas that allow for new sidequests which give you the opportunity to develop the area on top of the regular bonuses in order to get access to new items and quests. That's pretty basic action RPG inspired by MMORPGs at least, right?

I suppose the starting point would be the difference in how combat is handled. The new combat system's initial setup is to close the loopholes from the previous games one could find dinking around with monsters you probably shouldn't. If you were underleveled and in a place you shouldn't be, you could lure out a single creature and club it with your combined talents and then continue to do the same with the other monsters in the area like they were characters in a bad horror movie. Monsters now have the ability to summon their friends, so if you think you have an even-footing with one or two creatures, you may find yourself overwhelmed with even a couple harmless little bunnies. The importance of combat is also scaled back a bit. It's an RPG, so of course you have to fight at times, but clearing an entire field is many times unnecessary and even discouraged by having wandering enforcer creatures that are 50 levels higher or more to one-shot you if you dilly-dally in its domain for too long. You can run efficiently if you get ambushed and feel like you're not up for a fight, but drawing a weapon slows your character down immensely. Quick tip: If you hold down R and press down, you can sheave your weapon and take off. It's not as obvious an option as it used to be. Since your characters aren't the ones from X who can survive thousand-foot drops with no damage, you can't just dive off a cliff to escape unless you're over water. There is an extra frustration that comes with this where your character can't jump in battle mode and occasionally, the enemy will retreat to a level you can't access, meaning you can't attack without a long-distance weapon while they're on an incline you should very easily be able to step over. Thankfully, like the rest of the series, your penalty for losing is being sent back to the last warp point you walked by and you can even keep items picked up in the midst of battles.

The battle system isn't so much anything new as there are almost a dozen layers to it. The Marvel vs. Capcom of action RPGs, if you will. There is a ton going on that can get out of control if you don't maintain team chemistry and flow. You can have three Drivers in your party and they in turn can have three Blades apiece, each with drastically different weapons, roles (Attacker, Tank, and Healer), and elemental abilities to switch between if you so choose (Tora's artificial Blade Poppi is less versatile, but she can be programmed outside of battle). There are the automatic hits that do base damage building up to special moves which can topple the enemy, heal yourself, or something in-between. Using those builds up to an ultra attack, which can be unleashed right away for a quick hit, built up with teammates to perform combos, or collected to max level with the Driver/Blade chemistry to unlock quick-time event prompts that can be devastating if pulled off correctly. To keep from mashing on those ultra attacks with the opponent's element weakness, the enemy will have a time meter that weakens the elemental just used and can even seal the damage or even switch weaknesses. We're not even getting into the meter at the top that can be used to revive Drivers if they run out of hit points or can be built to unleash the ultimate combo attack. Understandably, this a ton to process, but they do have a somewhat protracted tutorial period to address each individual section and the layout for everything is easy to read.

There is plenty of flexibility to be had with the system, but perhaps too much. Each character has their own main Blade, but they can bond with others that can be found by beating enemies or uncovering treasure. The problem is these core crystal Blades are random depending on the luck of the character attempting to use them, four different aspect to their character, and the quality of the crystal found. You can waste some rare crystals getting trash generic Blades in the process and it automatically saves with only one slot per user, so don't even think about re-loading a save, mister! Thankfully, there are side quests where you can find other specialty Blades if you happen to stumble upon them.

Then there're expendable items that enhance various aspects of your battle stats. Food, games, books, musical instruments, paintings... all can be used to give a timed spike in critical attacks, team chemistry, healing, or many many other boosts. One may question how just having a painting on your person will help you and why it's only helpful for a limited time, but using these items effectively are key to gaining an edge in combat, especially boss battles. You also need to notice what items your Drivers and Blades like so they can increase the boost and even activate certain special powers on their skill trees, which is its own confusing mess of random triggers you have to pay conscious attention to. You even have to VISUALLY CHECK THE SKILL TREES after you've done enough to activate an ability or it won't register that you've unlocked it most of the time even when there's an indicator in the corner that tells you when a Blade has reached a milestone. Not only do you have to be mindful of all of this for not only your party, but your Blades you use on mercenary quests unlocked later in the game, which can get into the dozens. And then there's weapon attack upgrading, weapon chip upgrading, programming Poppi with Ether crystals and parts won by playing an old-school arcade game... and I'm winded.

Okay... what you need to know is how does it play? Slowly, at first. It's necessary to get most of the battle system down and there are tutorials for each individual aspect. If it seems a little too much hand holding, it's really a cascade of information dammed down to prevent players from being flooded. Less forgivable is the battles stay slow for a good amount of the game. Oh, sure, if you're 20 levels above a creature, it's over in a flash, but even at 10 levels above, it can be a protracted hassle if they constantly call for help, have a ton of hit points, or the scrum draws the attention of the enforcer creature that promptly ends the fight in one or two shots. An essential tip is learning how to chain elemental attacks to use devastating super moves. These get sealed up by the opponent, but after using a couple different elemental super moves, unleash the ultra combo attacks dictated the meter at the top, and you will get EXTRA turns depending on how many seals the monster has up. It's a much easier way of stir frying the big guys than hammering away endlessly. Knowing what foods and items make your special move meters fill up lightning fast and using them before bosses can easily make an impossible fight on the difficulty spikes this game has manageable.

What doesn't have so much of an easy fix is the design of game intentionally putting creatures that you're not supposed to mess with that are aggressive, in your way, and on PLOT ESSENTIAL COURSES. One especially egregious part has two giant spiders with higher levels blocking an exit to a factory you need to use to get to another factory to advance the story. If you think you can grind out a victory against them, there's a cobra/rattlesnake hybrid with a ridiculously high level that will kill you and put you back at the last landmark. Your literal only option when you arrive at some new continents is to run away from everything until you can get to the next city and upgrade your weapon chip and accessories, or else you'll get jumped and beaten to a pulp. It really doesn't feel like the game should be played like this, but here we are.

Especially hurtful is the first open area is frustrating for players wanting to explore and get the hang of the game, or even those who want to get on with the story. It's all based around a massive tree with many passages around and through it leading to secret and not-so-secret crevices. It's pretty neat in concept, but issues arise when seeing that this is designed like an 80's NES RPG where there are explicit places you can and can't go and will be punished severely for crossing the wrong bridge. But you see, almost every path is the wrong bridge. There's an alternate exit in the main town that leads to creatures 30 levels higher. If you go too far to the left in what seems like an open area, you're suddenly surrounded by instant death. Same if you go too far to the right. The main tree is such a maze of inconsistent paths that could lead anywhere and the quest compass you're given is essentially useless for this section (I miss the Wii U touch pad. Fine gamers, shun a feature that literally shaves hours of time off your game by keeping easy-to-read maps and inventory in the palm of your hand at all times). I literally found all of the "secret" locations before stumbling onto the road to a story-essential path. They've since done an update that fixes the map feature a little by making it able to completely overlay onto the gameplay. Little being the key word here.

Do not panic. Eventually, the game finds its groove in wondrous civilizations built on the backs of monsters. Glorious ruins covered in orange leaves, a massive religious structure with a mural on the major turning point of the world (Some who were at the event mock it for "missing a few things"), and so much more await you. The learning curve is simply a smidge punishing. The first three chapters want you to stay on track with the story and not venture out too much, while at the same time, often not giving a straight path to where you need to go. Once you're free, you're free. You're at a high enough level to go exploring, you have a team of mercenaries that go out and gets you money and experience while unlocking special talents of the involved Blades, and sidequests start becoming more apparent.

The odd continents you visit are usually a highlight of a Xenoblade game, and this entry no different. The graphical focus is on design and using the occasional high-res textures to make an image pop. There are occasional low-res textures and some trees look like they come from the Dreamcast era, but the unique beauty of it all pulls everything together. It's almost a spoiler to tell you what you will see in the course of the game. This is one of the few adventure series that feels like you're visiting new, wondrous place and makes secret passages that exist solely to give you the best view. Dynamic weather that differs betweens continents provides even more sights with everything from fog to crystal storms. There's a bit of recycled monster art, but there are new, massive creatures that will haunt your nightmares, like when you accidentally salvage a giant squid.

The absolute highlight of the game is the music. I say with no hyperbole that this is the best soundtrack to be associated with Yasunori Mitsuda since Chrono Cross. That's not to say it's all Mitsuda's baby as he does work on a few choice tracks and leaves much of the heavy lifting to ACE, the band from the original Xenoblade Chronicles with their member Kenji Hiramatsu doing some composing along with Manami Kiyota (Who did the lion's share of work on the first one, too). All of it is astounding. Combine the wild burst of energy from the field music in Xenoblade Chronicles, the occasional verve of X, the choirs of Xenosaga Episode 1, and put it together with surprising musical choices like the trumpet being a heavily featured instrument on top of loads of polish. For the cherry on top, the cutscene music is the best it has ever sounded for this franchise. I mean no disrespect to the people who adore the soundtrack to Nier Automata–you're awesome and it's a great soundtrack–but this is by and large my favorite game music of 2017.

Finally, there are a few quirks that don't really fit anywhere else in the review. For one, the interface is fast and works with you to go anywhere you'd like more quickly than the other games in the series. However, it might be a little too user friendly for the people who meta-game. There are moments where you're not supposed to be able to go somewhere because the army there is chasing after you, or you shouldn't be able to go anywhere because you don't have transportation. Nope. You can go anywhere you've been to, no problem. This is especially amusing in the endgame, where instructions urge you to hurry and yet, there are no punishments for spending ten hours attending to less pressing issues. Making a welcome return in the Xeno series is the option to watch the cutscenes whenever you'd like after you've seen them from the main menu. There's a ton of them and if you have a more relaxed attitude towards the main story like I do in these things, it's beneficial to see it told straight up.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is probably the weakest in the franchise, but after two incredible games, that's a misleading description. The stumbles in design and beginner's frustration eventually recover to a satisfying adventure that delivers the series' sweet sports of action, beauty, and frolicking through the bizarre insides of giant creatures. Despite some bullshit they pull with Pyra twice to handwave her away from horrific circumstances (You'll know them when you see them), the story is worth the price of admission. It may scare off the people who immediately dock points for any overtly anime content in a JRPG, but it's a hefty title with plenty of fun content lasting hundreds of hours that's hard to deny.


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