Move over Reyn, it’s Rex time.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a very accurately titled game. While that number hanging off the end may seem confusing to some as this is in fact the third entry in the Xenoblade series, this is absolutely a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles and not Xenoblade Chronicles X. This works to the game’s credit in many areas and unfortunately to its detriment in a few others, but overall it speaks to one very important quality: story. As in the first entry, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s primary concern is telling an incredibly rich and detailed narrative in a world that is unlike anything else. A sense of familiarity rises up as you return to the backs of giant titans after exploring the gritty world of Mira for so long. Something about the story rings with a magic that X never quite captured. At the same time, the mantra of exploration first that X brandished so proudly has been pulled back in this entry, leading to some moments feeling like an odd step sideways. Yet beyond the conflict of story versus exploration that has loomed over the development of the series, battle steps out as a new highlight in Xenoblade’s wheelhouse of excellence.
For those who couldn’t find a copy of the original Xenoblade back on the Wii, didn’t want to buy a New 3DS XL to play it in 3D, and didn’t bother with a Wii U to play X, it may be helpful to start with the basics. Xenoblade, as a franchise, is a series of open-world, or at least mostly open-world, action JRPGs. The player journeys over vast distances and engages in real-time, menu-based combat. It is an oversimplification but the Xenoblade games could be compared to an MMORPG like World of Warcraft or Guild Wars, minus the other players. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes these ingredients and puts a fresher spin on them than one might expect for a numbered sequel.
It takes place on the backs of giant creatures called titans. These giant life forms roam the cloud sea circling the monolithic world tree. The explorable areas of these titans are often monstrous. One snow-covered titan expanded so far into the distance that I still haven’t made it all the way to the other side. Another offered a series of tunnels and cliffs so deep that the average player likely won’t be qualified to fully explore their depths until long after completing the primary quest line. On top of being expansive horizontally, Monolith Soft has as usual, developed worlds that are equally interesting vertically. Nearly every titan sports giant foliage, land bridges, or some other structures high above the base plain. This means that even the smaller titans can offer plenty of hidden areas and secrets.
The only downside to having multiple titans to explore is that the world never feels quite as unified as previous titles. Each titan exists in a wash of clouds and sky with only the distant world tree serving as reference for your current position. Fast travel is used to move from one titan to another, which feels like a bit of a letdown after exploring the entirety of Mira of Xenoblade Chronicles X without a single loading screen. That being said, the loading in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is incredibly fast. In fact at times it may be a little too fast. When fast traveling from a large city on one titan to a city on another, the screen will generally fade up to reveal an untextured, low poly version of your destination. While I appreciate being able to zip back and forth between locations, some may find this breaks the immersion somewhat. However, once all the details do pop in, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an absolutely beautiful game. The world offers up a level of scale that more than holds its own against Nintendo’s other giant open-world game from this year, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The one hitch in exploration comes from the new field skills sytems. Each member of your party is equipped with one or more blades. These blades exist not merely as weapons, but as living breathing life forms. Each blade added to your party comes with an assortment of field skills that can be leveled up by completing intentionally vague side objectives. These abilities come into play in certain areas of the world where you’ll be required to interact with the environment in a way the requires a specific skill. For example, you may have to knock down a massive ice pillar to create a bridge. To do this, you’ll need level three fire mastery and level two strength. Best case scenario, you have a fire-based blade that happens to have met the requirements for leveling up both these skills. More often than not, you’ll find yourself re-equipping every member of your party with three level one fire users and two level one strength users. Worst case scenario, you’ll find yourself frantically bonding new blades hoping to get one with the obscure field skill you need to flip a light switch, or trying to figure out what one of your blade’s favorite food is so you can level up their skill. Having to stop all my progress through the story because one of my blades couldn’t level up her ancient wisdom skill until she had heard her favorite musical instrument three times was not a fun experience. All that being said, for the purpose of this review I was sticking almost entirely to the primary quest line. Someone simply playing this game for fun and taking the time to get caught up in various side activities could very well never encounter this problem. I’ll be interested to return to the various side areas I blew past because I didn’t want to take the time to level up various field skills once I can wander the game with no time constraints.
Combat is perhaps where the greatest changes to the Xenoblade formula have taken place. Much like the previous entries, enemies are engaged in real time while you have direct control over a party member and the others fight autonomously. Your character auto-attacks and each successive auto-attack gets stronger in sets of three before the attack sequence resets. As you auto-attack, your arts, which attack and grant buffs and debuffs, slowly charge up. The arts only work when specific conditions are met, the most prevalent of these being your position relative to your target. A certain art may break an enemy causing them to stop attacking for a short time, but only if you use the art while behind the enemy. However unlike previous titles, your auto-attacks will only persist so long as you are standing still. This means being intentional with your movements is vital to battle. Moving not only means holding off on auto-attacks, but also resetting the attack sequence you're currently engaged in. Even more so than in other Xenoblade titles, I found myself fully engaged in every combat encounter. During boss fights, I’d carefully monitor the positions of my allies, ensure that enemy aggro was being drawn by my tank, protecting my healer, and ensuring that I was setting myself up in the best position for upcoming arts. Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 features a huge range of deep and complex systems that will intimidating at first, but are an absolute joy to master. Early in the game, most battles can be finished with an understanding of the most basic concepts. New systems are introduced slowly and explained well, with plenty of room for trial and error.
Speaking of things that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does right, let’s talk music. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a serious contender for my favorite soundtrack of all time. In his review of Xenoblade Chronicles X, our own Donald Theriault stated that outdoing the musical score of the original Xenoblade Chronicles would be “like asking for a mountain higher than Everest.” Well ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to welcome you to that mountain. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s score outdoes the original in every way. It sports what are not just better compositions, but a stronger unifying style and higher production values. The music largely combines beautiful orchestral arrangements with traditional celtic-influenced pieces. At multiple points in my playthrough, I would simply stop moving, go into the options, turn off the sound effects, and just listen to the music. It is absolutely stunning. Other elements of the sound design unfortunately don’t hold up quite as well.
Some of the first Xenoblade’s most memorable moments came from its mid-battle dialogue. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 would presumably be the same if you could make out any of that dialogue. Like previous entries, you’re limited to three active combatants in your party at any given time. However, unlike in the past each of those party members is accompanied by a blade that serves as a living, breathing, and talking personification of their weapon. That means you will generally have six party members running around the battlefield at the same time, and they all have a lot to say. But wait, there’s more. You’ll also find yourself fighting other human characters on a regular basis who, despite having only two lines of dialogue, really want you to hear what they have to say. This far too often results in your party of six mouthy characters fighting a party of another six mouthy imperial guards, all of whom are yelling “Don’t forget me!” but not quite in sync. Meanwhile your party is busy making quips and screaming out every move they perform. This cacophony of battling nonsense leads to you not being able to hear your own character call out that he is very low on health. And then you die. The combat dialogue can be turned down in the options menu, but I don’t think it should be the player's responsibility to mix the sound for the developers.
The story that unfolds as you make your way through the clouds is one of Monolith Soft’s finest to date. While I won’t go into detail as spoiling any part of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s complex narrative would be a horrible crime against the reader, rest assured that the twists and turns you’ve come to expect are all here, twistier and turnier than ever. The world around the characters comes to life with optional side stories highlighting everything including debates around the regulation of weapons, global warming, and a mutual respect for both faith and science. The game approaches these issues with a high degree of tact and excellently weaves these real world issues into its complex lore. The plot itself feels like something that would have been taken from some real world civilization’s ancient creation myths. A certain magic in Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s storytelling style elevates it above any other currently active JRPG franchise.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is one of the finest JRPGs of the generation and perhaps of all time. The two or three complaints I have are nitpicks, the most significant of which likely won’t occur for players taking their time and enjoying the incredible world that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 creates. Washing over any minor issues is one of the most engaging stories I’ve ever played, a vastly improved and fun combat system, and an out-of-this-world soundtrack. It sets a precedent for JRPGs on the Switch that I doubt will be topped, unless of course Monolith Soft somehow manages to pump out a Xenoblade Chronicles X 2 before the end of the generation.