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The Art of Storytelling: Xenoblade Chronicles vs. Xenoblade Chronicles 2

by Matthew Zawodniak - July 27, 2022, 8:00 am EDT
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I went to film school and you're all going to have to deal with that.

Xenoblade Chronicles is probably the Nintendo franchise most concerned with its cinematic storytelling. Sure, Zelda may have a deep and complex lore and mythology, and yes, Fire Emblem is known for a cast of beloved characters with rich personalities, but Xenoblade is unique in that its narrative elements are not pushed off to the side as something to complement gameplay. As a traditional JRPG—albeit one that reinvents the wheel with its unique combat—Xenoblade is a game whose gameplay is dictated by its story as you travel across the world to fulfill narrative beats while occasionally dealing with obstacles that are more interesting as challenges for the characters than for the players. And that story is often an impressive one: an emotional tale in a massive world, all told with full voice acting and cinematic cutscenes.

I loved Xenoblade Chronicles, which might make it odd that it took so long for me to play the sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. When it first released in 2017 I was fresh out of college and didn’t have a lot of cash to spare. Eventually I decided to avoid playing entirely in order to save it for Smashterpieces: a podcast I do with a friend where we are playing one game for every fighter in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

Xenoblade 2 was the obvious choice for Pyra and Mythra, so I decided that in order to keep my experience for the show fresh I wouldn’t be playing the game unless Nintendo happened to announce Xenoblade 3. And of course, that is exactly what happened. So I started playing immediately, marathoning my way through the experience and eventually finishing it almost exactly one month later. It was a game that I was driven to keep playing; one that consumed my time and attention like no other.

And I kinda hated it.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that I have not been able to stop thinking about, even now, several months after finishing it. I had plenty of issues with the gameplay, from awful gacha mechanics to poorly signposted quests, all the way down to how unbelievably tedious filling out the skill trees is. But these were all things that I expected from hearing common criticisms of Xenoblade 2. What I have heard far less about is the game’s story, plot, and characters, which I found to be a significant step down from the original Xenoblade Chronicles.

The fact that I found so little critical discussion of the story bothered me in a way that I just couldn’t escape. I’m not so arrogant as to say that it’s wrong for people to like something that I disliked, but it was alienating to look around and see just how unique my feelings on the game seemed to be. That feeling of isolation is why I couldn’t stop thinking about Xenoblade 2—or more accurately I couldn’t stop wanting to talk about it. In a way I felt like I needed to validate my opinion, but I also wanted to critically examine it in order to be certain that I didn’t just feel a shallow sense of rejection for some of the more superficial things I don’t like.

To that end, let me clarify what I will not be talking about. Most criticisms I see of Xenoblade 2 are low-hanging fruit, like the character designs that are more generically “anime”, the horrific field skill system, or the infamously poor voice acting.

These problems have been discussed to death and I don’t see a lot of value in retreading that ground. I’m going to put the gameplay and aesthetics aside and focus entirely on what I believe to be the failings of Xenoblade 2’s plot, as well as how the original Xenoblade Chronicles manages to succeed in those same areas. So, let's get started.

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