The Nintendo Switch has had an incredible first year. Launching with the epic Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is one of the largest games to ever grace a Nintendo system, and then hitting the holiday season with powerhouses like Super Mario Odyssey and Fire Emblem Warriors, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 rounds off the year, and it proves that the Switch is a system to be reckoned with, both now and in the future.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not only the last big game of 2017 — it’s a huge game, rivaling Breath of the Wild in size and scope. The game world of Alrest is made up of various lands on the backs of massive beasts, called Titans, that live within the Cloud Sea which circles the massive World Tree. Developer Monolith Soft has created a variety of unique locations with which to tell their epic story. There’s something utterly beautiful about traversing the land, interacting with alien flora and fauna, and (in the distant background) seeing a head or tail of the great Titan that is hosting the map you’re playing on sway back and forth. This variety of landmasses gives Monolith so many tools to play with, and creates some incredible situations for the player to encounter as they move the story along.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 focuses on a young Salvager named Rex, who is partnered with an old Titan, affectionately named Gramps, who shuttles Rex from salvaging job to salvaging job as the young man works to send money back to his village. One day, Rex is presented with a job opportunity that is too good to pass up — with a level of pay that is the largest he’s ever seen, so he is whisked away on an adventure of a lifetime. When the job turns sideways, Rex is betrayed by his employers and left for dead. He is ultimately saved by the mysterious Pyra, a Blade who commands the Aegis Sword. Pyra gives half her life force to save Rex, and he, in turn, becomes her new Driver. Together, Rex and Pyra seek to climb to the top of the World Tree and find the legendary land of Elysium, so Pyra can finally go home. But even that comes with many roadblocks, and makes up the bulk of the epic story in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tweaks the familiar format from the first Xenoblade Chronicles, and even takes some of the best parts of Xenoblade Chronicles X, to create a new, if not somewhat complicated battle mechanic. Luckily, Monolith rolls out the new system gradually, as the player learns new techniques as the game progresses. Drivers are the fighters in this game world, and they are powered/armed by their respective Blades. Blades come in all shapes and sizes with different classes (tank, attack, healer) and elemental properties (flame, wind, electricity, etc.), with the player able to queue up to three Blades to switch between during battles. The Blades unlock the player’s Arts, which are unique attacks based on the Blade’s class. Gauges fill to unleash various special attacks, which are unique and utilize contextual button presses for maximum effect, and there are chains of attacks that the player can manage for truly devastating damage.
As in previous Xenoblade games, battling is automated once the weapon is drawn, with the player managing the fight by spamming the arts and special attacks at the right time. The rest of the battle, along with the character’s companions, are handled by the AI. The player moves the character freely, as rear and side attacks do more damage, normally. You can also switch between the characters during battles, but know that the AI is actually competent and will work with the player instead of independently, so linking chains and winning battles is easier than most games of this nature. What’s not easy is when Monolith puts a massive, high-level creature on the map in the midst of swarms of other level-capable enemies, and then that massive beast decides to attack.
In the land of Gormott, an early level, the wide open fields are full of low-level Bunnits that can be killed for XP and gold as the player makes their way to the first big city in the game. And then there is a Level 81 great ape-like creature just sitting there, forcing the player to use extreme caution as they travel. This kind of level disparity is present on every Titan, and it’s frustrating to be blindsided and killed with one hit while out grinding level-appropriate enemies. Luckily, Monolith throws the player a bone by letting them keep all the gold and XP they earn before they die, even if they have to restart a level far away from where they were slaughtered.
The combat gradually becomes second nature, and pulling off huge linked combos using the wide variety of tools helps keep the action in the hands of the player, even if everything feels automated. Think of it like an MMORPG. And even after 20 hours into the game, the tutorial was still unveiling new ways to cause damage and link Arts, Specials, and the like. This is a wide-scope combat system, but don’t let it intimidate you, as it all flows together as the game progresses. By the 25th hour of the reported 100-plus needed to finish all 10 chapters, I was given so many tools and options for combat that it almost felt unfair — unless another high-level monster decided that I needed its attention and killed me.
The Blade/Driver mechanic also works incredibly well, as the player gains affinity with their Blades, which in turn, opens up new skills. Building that friendship through the course of the adventure is fun, and maxing out a Blade’s skills becomes important for many reasons. The player also earns additional Core Crystals throughout the adventure, which can be activated to unlock new Blades. This fun little “blind box” randomness means that the player will never know what they will get. Rarer Core Crystals will unlock rare Blades, and finding the right mix of Blades to take into battle, both in element and class, is the key to a well-rounded party. I admit that I was fully intimidated by the combat concepts in the pre-release info on Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and now, after playing the game, it all just feels right.
The graphics in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are a sight to behold. Just like the Xeno games that came before it, Monolith has outdone themselves with their artistry. These worlds are visually stunning, and populated with a good variety of both aggressive and passive beasts to either hunt or ignore. The beasts are well designed and seem to fit in with the lands they reside in. The music is epic and sweeping, and is easily one of the brightest points of the game. The voice acting, either in English or Japanese, is solid, with a variety of Anglo and European dialects at work, giving each character a neat nuance. The problem with this comes with the in-battle chatter, as each character barks out catch phrases over and over and over, and in a game where you will easily battle thousands of times, that chatter gets old quick. I swear, if I ever hear “we’ll win with the power of friendship” ever again, I might hurt myself or others.
One of the biggest issues I have with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is in the actual character design. Monolith decided to adopt an “anime” style for the main characters, which is a far cry from the more realistic style used in the previous games for characters like Shulk and Elma. This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they had used the anime style for everyone, including NPCs, but that’s not the case. NPCs look rather normal, but then along come Rex and Pyra, with her red colored hair and their big anime eyes, and small lined noses and mouths. The mix is a little jarring, especially after so much detail has gone into the art design of the Titans, the world maps, and the monsters. This conflict of art styles was a drawback for me.
Another issue is in the repetitiveness of the combat. After a five or six-hour gaming session, I would find myself avoiding combat because I was sick of the chatter (which can be turned off, though it also turns it off when not in battle) and of the constant button spamming and contextual button presses. I get that this is a JRPG and that is to be expected, but it runs constant with so many enemies populating the map that it grows tiresome. This is a game that is best played in smaller chunks and not for long marathon sessions; be warned, Xenoblade burnout is a very real thing.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a massive title, both in gameplay and story. Rex’s adventure with Pyra is a heartfelt journey that hits old cliches while creating new ones. The range and variety of partner characters and Blades (along with having to constantly juggle them) keeps everything fresh, even after so many hours of constant battles and cutscenes. I don’t feel as much as I’m playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as I am managing it, and that works for me after playing so many epic JRPGs this calendar year.
The unique presentation and intricate combat system make this game stand out and puts it into a class of its own. The stunning vistas and locales of the world and cool creatures that inhabit it help offset the questionable anime designs of the main characters, and the music alone is worth playing for. In a year that has seen the Nintendo Switch dominate sales charts, and present some pretty incredible games while doing it, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a worthy end to the first year of the hot new system, and an amazing title in its own right.
This review is based off the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided by Nintendo.