When the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of dying Titans, there’s little hope left for Rex and his companions in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. But with a beautifully weaved storyline and a masterfully rich combat system, the open world action RPG rounds off the year as a strong contender in a line-up of superb first-party Switch titles.
It’s been more than five years since the first Xenoblade Chronicles arrived on the Wii from Monolith Soft. Since then, the Japanese studio has released a New Nintendo 3DS port of the original game and a spiritual successor named Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U in 2015. Now, from the studio’s co-founder and executive director Tetsuya Takahashi, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Nintendo Switch treads the same, visually stunning, open world path. And though it’s touted as a direct sequel to the original critically-acclaimed game, the action RPG features a different cast of characters set in a new world, with a new anime character art style to boot.
The world of Alrest is bleak. The Titans – massive creatures that live in harmony with humans – are dying. And the provinces that make up Alrest are at war with one another, with refugees from smaller villages claiming sanctuary within the Praetorium at Indol. But not all hope for humanity is lost. The World Tree, which stands in the middle of Alrest, offers a safe haven for human life. Known as Elysium, the ultimate paradise, it’s forbidden to all but the chosen and will destroy any human, blade, nopon, animal or titan that comes within its border. Yet one salvager, Rex, believes there is a way to turn the cloud sea tides in their favour. Plunged into a war fuelled by years of bitterness between the Torna and Imperial Army, Rex wields the Aegis – a legendary blade named Pyra, which houses enough power to destroy the foundations of Alrest – and teams up with the sharp-tongued Nia, her blade Dromarch, and the peppy nopon Tora and his artificial blade Poppi to journey to Elysium.
After an intense opening sequence and dramatic prologue, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 unfolds into a gorgeous fantasy world above the sea clouds. Entire cities, towns and villages are built upon or within a Titan, while the game’s artistic design draws on inspiration from both the real and fantasy worlds, blending them together into a vibrant and colourful tapestry that breathes life into every pixel. It’s easy to sit back and watch in awe as the pastel pinks, purples and blues of Uraya form a miniature Coral Reef, while the spires of Indoline’s Praetorium glisten as the sunlight hits the courtyard, or as the Leftherin Archipelago fits together like a puzzle in the sea clouds.
Even the inhabitants of each province speak in native tongues, with Mor Ardain favouring Scottish while Gormott’s dialect is Welsh in the PAL version. This attention to detail when building such an adaptable, epic fantasy world is what sets Monolith Soft apart from others in the industry. Though a bold statement, it’s what makes them the world-building equivalent to today’s fantasy literary geniuses such as Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin and Terry Pratchett – all of whom build deeply rich worlds with political affairs, fantastical creatures and gruesome deaths.
Perhaps it’s why Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s main storyline is so engrossing. Between the sepia flashbacks and the current state of affairs, the cutscenes are intrinsically woven for both dramatic and emotional effect. At around 20 hours in, there’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene between Rex and his companions, while after 50 hours of playtime your stomach starts twisting in knots from the story’s revelations. What Xenoblade Chronicles X lacked in story development, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 makes up for in droves. With lengthy cutscenes before, after and sometimes during major boss fights, it may disturb the battle flow for some players. Yet, in most cases, it often adds fuel to the fire, particularly when the sinister and cunning Malos and Akhos are in play with their blood-thirsty facial expressions taking centre stage. Take it from a Nopon, it’s less blushy-crushy and more smashy-bashy with pure, intense action. And should you need some heart-to-hearts with your characters, you’ll find mini story nuggets scattered across Alrest too.
With the storyline and world building set aside, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 satiates players with a deep combat system that’s unlike the style of previous games. Each playable character such as Rex, Nia or Tora are known as Drivers that wield either human, animal or humanoid Blades to battle foes. Each Blade is tethered by an energy (ether) thread to its Driver and can channel their power to initiate Arts, which are tied to their elemental typing and the weapon they wield. When the ether thread breaks between Driver and Blade, their auto attacks become weaker and are more likely to miss, but should they position themselves together their auto attacks are stronger, dealing greater damage.
As Drivers can attach up to three different blades at any one time, the possibilities of unleashing combo attacks among a three-strong party are huge. By toppling, breaking and launching enemies, combined with a perfect three-pronged Blade attack, players can deal a great amount of damage. But be wary, should you consistently use the same combo attack on the same foe, it will adapt. What once worked to great effect will then barely even make a mark on their HP gauge.
Should your party land enough hits on a foe, players will be able to activate the team’s special attack to deal critical damage. However, such a large attack will need to be used strategically by players, as it causes the party to lose the power to resurrect a fallen member. In an ever-changing environment coupled with enemy weaknesses, battles can be strategically won with the right skill set and equipped Blades, making for an intensely fun ride. Yet there are a few drawbacks during battles, with nails-on-a-chalkboard character voice narration from the Imperial Army guards and hack-and-slash style battle combat that can be difficult to gauge where your character is standing. If I ever have to hear the three simple words, “Don’t forget me” in a Scottish accent again, I think I may walk myself to Hell. Like an arrow to the knee, let’s not make this an internet meme.
As we touched upon in our preview, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s RPG elements provide a meaty core for series’ fans. Between equipping Chips and Aux Cores to your Blade weapons, purchasing accessories for character statistic buffs and raising your Blades trust to build affinity and unlock field and battle skills, there’s plenty to get to grips with. After you’ve played through the first couple of chapters, you’ll be able to bond new blades to any human driver in your party. By collecting core crystals, players can bond a new blade and attach boosters to buff their Blades statistics. And while it acts as a loot box system, that – thankfully – you won’t have to pay for with real money, there’s a good chance of unlocking rare human blades along the way.
Of course, all those unused Blades have to occupy their time with something – and that’s where Mercenary Missions will come into play. Choose to develop Alrest’s provinces by sending your Blades on fetch quest missions to help the Titan’s inhabitants and, after the allotted mission time has passed, they will return with gold and bonus experience for your characters, all whilst levelling up their abilities and building their trust with the Driver. Since Merc Missions are carried out automatically and don’t disturb your own gameplay experience, it’s a neat additional way to gain extra experience for your characters.
With such a rich gameplay experience on offer, it’s rather unfortunate that most of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s flaws are strictly technical. While taking on side quests or the main story missions, players will have the ability to fast travel to any previous landmark visited. Although it’s a great way to zip from location to location, the Switch often loads in greyscale flat environments before bringing through the visuals immediately after you’ve initiated a fast travel sequence. Within those first few minutes, players will also experience slight framerate drops too, due to the time it takes the Switch to catch up to game. As we’re playing the digital version, it could be due to the limitations of the SD card’s speed limit, so we can’t quite judge this accordingly.
Other issues appear with the game’s quest marker tracking system. Even with my in-built though hugely out-of-date Sat Nav (let’s be honest, I was never good at Geography), discovering the location of a main story mission and side quests can test any player’s limit. While the game does let you deactivate and activate missions at any time, it tends to congregate all quest markers together. So, should you take on a quest to slay three Spike Urchons you may have up to three or more quest markers indicated within the game’s top directional bar. As you get closer to the location, the numbers will decrease, as well as indicate how high or low the ground level should be. Unfortunately, due to the game’s paltry mini map and larger (optional) translucent map, inexperienced players will most likely spend hours wandering around the open world with frustratingly high-levelled enemies on their tail. A secondary map screen is sorely missed in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
While the visuals are simply gorgeous when the Switch is in docked mode, their crystal clear appearance diminishes in handheld mode. Backgrounds seem washed out, while the anime character design sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s unfair to cast the handheld mode completely aside though, as the gameplay experience remains intensely fun for series’ veterans and newcomers.
Even with a few technical niggles, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 remains a strong contender to this year’s line up of Switch games. Its beautifully constructed storyline, artistic style and rich gameplay experience with nail-biting boss fights is sure to bring any series’ fan hours of enjoyment. After all, the Aegis’ life is at stake.