If you’ve never played Xenoblade, consider starting here.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna ~ The Golden Country represents a fascinating new venture for Nintendo. It is simultaneously a sizeable DLC add-on for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, while also existing both digitally and physically as its own independent release, making it in a way the fourth full Xenoblade title. Judging it therefore requires the reconciling of two very different perspectives. While this will be different for every person, I myself have decided to view Torna as its own game. Nintendo sent it to me as a separate game, and it will stand on store shelves as a seperate game. Clearly, Nintendo sees it as deserving of recognition independent of its parent.
Torna takes place 500 years before the events of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. As such, one could conceivably play it with no foreknowledge of the prior entry. While certain elements of the lore are not as deeply explained, the core story is entirely self contained. After a brief intro explaining the always complex geopolitical climate of Alrest, we are (re)introduced to Jin and Lora who are on the run from a pack of angry monsters. As you progress you’re introduced to the much-alluded-to warrior prince Addam, and the Aegis herself, Mythra. There is no random core bonding, so each Blade and Driver team is set in stone. This has the distinct advantage of giving every character plenty of time to develop as the story progresses. Characters like Aegaeon, who had minimal development in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, ultimately stood out as one of my personal favorites. Both Addam and Mythra are also excellently depicted, with Addam’s traits even alluding to a character from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 who emulated his legend as closely as possible. As with any Xenoblade game, you are free to adopt any member of your party as your primary character and I immediately swapped to Addam.
In my review of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 last year, I mentioned that the refinements made to the combat system made it the best combat has ever been in the series. Torna effortlessly sweeps that opinion under the rug. As with prior entries in the series, Torna operates on a somewhat passive, real-time battle system. Everything hinges on the timing and positioning of individual skills. The key difference in Torna is that you can now freely switch between your Driver of choice (of which there are three in your party) and either of their two Blades. For those unfamiliar with the lore, Blades are life forms that are bound to a Driver and allow them to channel powerful abilities. Previously the Blade you had equipped to your Driver defined the Driver’s moveset as they would literally pass the same weapon back and forth between Driver and Blade. In Torna, each individual Driver and Blade has two movesets. One for when they’re directly controlled by the player as your vanguard, and another for when they provide support as your rear-guard. When playing in vanguard position, each Driver and Blade also has a special conditional skill, as well as a swap skill that takes effect whenever you switch them from rear-guard to vanguard. This results in a total of eight per character, meaning 24 per team, totalling out to 72 for the entire party. It took some getting used to, but now I wish Torna’s combat style could be patched into Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
There are two large titans to explore, the titular Torna as well as Gormott. Torna is obviously entirely new. It's a very large titan with lots of diversity included wooded areas, grasslands, a desert, and a large capitol city. Gormott, though familiar to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 fans, still feels fresh. It has no towns and feels much more like wild country. In fact the entire experience feels a bit more rugged. Rather than staying in inns, your party will camp. From here you can level up with bonus XP (earned through exploration and side quest completion), cook food, craft items, or chat with your party.
The quest system plays out similarly to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but with the addition of a new community system. This is somewhat similar to the tangled affinity charts of previous entries, but much easier to understand. Essentially as you help people via side quests they’ll be added to your community. By default every time you talk to someone for the first time, the menu pops up so that you can see that they’ve been added as a potential member of your community. It reminded me a bit of picking up collectables in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and having to watch them be placed in your inventory. Luckily this particular feature can be turned off from the options menu, and I highly recommend you do. The only downside of this community system is how you are forced to use it. At two points you’ll be prevented from continuing the main quest line until you’ve reached a certain community level. Xenoblade Chronicles X employed a similar gating system. In that case, however, it was requiring you to explore and fulfill character specific missions that were ultimately relevant to that primary quest line. In Torna you’re just required to grind through random side quests. I’d estimate that by the end of the game you’ll have completed more than half of the side quests as a requirement of the primary story. These side quest are mostly well constructed and interesting, but as one of these gates occurs before you can access the final story quest, they do hinder the pacing somewhat.
All in all I clocked my adventure in at about 22 hours playing on normal difficulty. An easy mode is also available in which you could likely complete the game much faster, as well as a new game plus. With this in mind I couldn’t help but feel like Torna would make a surprisingly good entry point for unsure players. With other Xenoblade titles ranging from 80 to 150 hours, Torna feels much more approachable. That being said, while the characters were all excellently developed, the story didn’t really have time to reach the emotional highs of other entries. Because the story is centered around Lora and Jin, you’re only introduced to Addam and Mythra after they’ve been together for a year, meaning you miss out on what could have been a more fleshed out relationship. I found myself wishing Addam was the main character. That being said Lora and Jin’s story is gut wrenching, especially for those who have already played through Xenoblade Chronicles 2. As should be expected, the whole story is presented with a degree of excellence that no other Nintendo franchise can seem to touch. In a way this felt like the Majora’s Mask of the Xenoblade series. It is being measured against an impossible standard but manages to make a mark for itself in new and interesting ways.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna ~ The Golden Country, despite technically being DLC, is a remarkably accessible adventure to new players. For those viewing this simply as a DLC, I expect you’ll be floored by just how new it all feels. As a separate experience it has some very real pacing issues, and if you found the map, compass, or field skills frustrating in the original you’ll likely be revisiting that frustration here. Regardless however it the best combat the franchise has ever had. The story and gameplay all hold their own well against the Xenoblade series reputation for excellence, and will likely leave you wanting more.