Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was an absolute joy to review. There's a lot of Switch titles that have come out so far this year that have really grabbed my attention. Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey were two of the most ambitious games of the year, and they actually delivered, which is more than I can say for some other recent big-name titles.
With two critical hits and a new console, I figured Nintendo had blown its wad for the year. Nope, somehow Xenoblade Chronicles 2 proves to be another huge game full of wonder, exploration, and character, further cementing the fact that Nintendo is coming back to claim its throne as THE name in video games.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: The Plight of Humanity, the Blades, and the Titans
This game isn't a continuation of either Xenoblade Chronicles or Xenoblade Chronicles X. Instead, it takes the core gameplay systems from those two games and adds some exciting new features that make the whole thing feel fresh and familiar at the same time. The way you fight is heavily integrated into the plot as well. In this world, there is no land. The entirety of the planet is covered in a dense cloud sea in which dwell creatures called Titans.
Titans can be as small as a bus or as large as a continent, and humanity lives both on and inside of the larger ones in a type of symbiotic relationship. These massive creatures are so big they have their own flora and fauna, so mountain ranges, trees, and grass are all part of the makeup of the Titan's physiology. As for the smaller Titans are used primarily as transportation and many human conveyances are built around the bodies of Titans. Without the Titans, humanity is doomed to extinction.
When the game opens, something is causing the Titans to die out slowly. As more large Titans die, the less land there is for humans to live on. This is starting to cause competition for resources, and a series of wars have been fought in the decades proceeding the game over this.
The weapons humanity uses to fight are mysteriously connected with the Titans. Called Blades, these sentient living weapons are used by humans called Drivers to enhance natural human strength. While Blades are numerous, there are a specific rare few that have enough power to wipe out a Titan or even the whole world. One of these, the Aegis, is a core component in the story. Her quest is to return to the birthplace of Titans, Blade, and humanity: the land of Elysium that legend says is at the top of the mysterious World Tree.
The story manages to avoid many JRPG cliches while embracing others. I never found the journey of Rex the Scavenger and main protagonist, and the Aegis Blade Pyra to get old. You never get stuck in one place too long to get bored, and there's enough side quests and opportunities for exploration that you get a break from the plot when you need it.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: The Switch is a Great Strength and Weakness
The Xenoblade series has been ambitious since the release of the first game in the series in 2010. Unfortunately, during that title's first release cycle a lot of us in the West got shafted by Nintendo's wacky decision to release it two years late and only at GameStop. The next game Xenoblade Chronicles X was absolutely fantastic (and should be ported to the Switch), but released on a console that no one bought. That means Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the first release that isn't being handicapped in some way—at least mostly.
The Switch is a console that only Nintendo could make, mostly because it's the only company that continually does more than it seems possible with less powerful hardware than the competition. In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is just how amazing it looks. There are sprawling cities, magnificent fields and mountains, and a ton of creatures inhabiting them. This pairs with a dynamic day-night cycle that transforms a beautiful sunny vista into a moonlit paradise as time passes. The textures aren't quite up to the standards of the PS4, Xbox One, and PC, but they're detailed enough for portable mode, and it's only a really noticeable problem when you're playing on a big-screen TV.
Unfortunately, even though the Switch is The Little Engine That Could of video game consoles, gameplay can start to chug at times, and there's issues with pop-in. The fact that all the stuff being displayed on the screen can fit in the relatively tiny 3.25 GB of RAM available to developers is astounding, but the game could benefit from better hardware. The counterbalance to this is that there are few RPGs you can play on a portable device that have as much depth and fidelity as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: The Attrition of Combat
The combat system in the Xenoblade games have been enthralling thus far. I enjoyed the depth that both Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X's combat had while still being accessible. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 continues this tradition and streamlines some aspects while introducing others.
The primary weapon of your characters in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is Blades. I'm not talking about a knife or a sword though. Each Blade is a sentient creature that follows your characters into combat while also lending a part of themselves to be used as a martial weapon. Pyra, Rex's first Blade, gives you access to a sword with quick striking abilities and Fire Elemental attacks. Furthermore, she assists you with special attacks called Arts which can inflict status effects on enemies, generate healing items, or augment your stats. She also sticks close to you in her human form, and the closer she is to you, the more Affinity you'll have with her which in turn makes your Arts more effective.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is primarily about positioning. Some attacks are stronger from the side, some are stronger from the rear, and others can inflict status effects like Break or Topple that open the enemy to more damage. You'll use each of your characters to augment the others attack. So one might inflict Break on the enemy, which leaves it open to be Toppled, and then it can be Launched into the air. It's a complicated system that takes some getting used to, but it's incredibly rewarding once you do.
Don't expect Final Fantasy combat out of this game either. Each encounter, be it with regular enemies or bosses can be a time sink. If an enemy is around your level, expect to spend at least a few minutes wearing it down, and if it has friends or reinforcements, a battle can go on ten minutes or more. Additionally, there is no leveling in this game, so you'll find enemies with a lower and much higher level than your party in each area. This means navigating the field and avoiding enemies you can't beat is a big part of traveling. The great thing though is that they'll still be there if you come back. So, if you sneak past that colossal level 90 enemy when you're at level 20, keep it in mind because when you come back when you're stronger and defeat it, you'll likely earn rare items.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Draw Your Blades
Blades in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 act somewhat like Personas do in that series. They imbue you with different abilities and elemental attack types, as well as new weapon types that can fundamentally change your play style. Like I mentioned above, Rex's first Blade Pyra gives him a sword and fire-based attacks, but you can eventually get Blades that let you use spears, giant cannons, knuckle-type weapons, and more.
You get the ability to bond more Blades with your characters a few hours into the story, and from then on you can use items called Core Crystals to get more. There are standard Blades, which give you access to new weapons and some new abilities, but aren't that powerful. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Rare Blades that will provide you with unique weapons, and access to capabilities that lead to new parts of the world, new side quests, and optional story opportunities.
Collecting Blades in this game is essential to getting the most out of it. If you just leave your characters equipped with their original Blade, you'll be holding yourself back. Additionally, Rare Blades each have their own optional dialog that helps you to understand their pasts better and unlock new abilities.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Maybe No Voice Acting Would Be Better
The sound design of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is incredible. There's a ton of sweeping orchestrational tracks, the sound effects in combat and on the field are all crisp, varied, and informative, and generally all the audio meshes well. The voice acting is a different story though. JRPGs aren't typically known for high-quality voice English voice acting, but to me, this game has some astoundingly terrible performances.
The crux of the problem, in my opinion, is the direction they took the English acting. Most games that are translated from Japanese use actors that speak with a clear General American or BBC English dialect, so even if the performance isn't that great, at least it's not off-putting. I have a voice with an Appalachian inflection so I know that it can be difficult for those with accents to get an affectation that is pleasing and easy to understand when recording.
However, most of the actors in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 all sound like Americans who are trying their hardest to sound Welsh or use a Scottish brogue. There's also issues with the acting in general, with some lines during emotional sequences coming out completely flat. There are quite a few human enemies in the game that choreograph special attacks with a voice line. Combine this with the fact that the acting is pretty bad and combat can take quite a while to resolve, and it can get immensely irritating hearing a group of enemies spamming the same two voice lines every five seconds for ten minutes.
This whole thing is entirely my opinion, so I'm not going to judge the game too cruelly for it. Unfortunately, there's no way to switch to the Japanese soundtrack in-game, but even though the English voices aren't ideal, they don't detract too heavily from the overall experience.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Another Masterpiece From Nintendo
It would take thousands of words to touch on how special this game is really. It seemed for a few years like JRPGs were just stuck. However, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a title that takes the genre and distills it into a beautiful and enthralling experience. It has a few flaws, but Monolith Soft and Nintendo have put together yet another game for the Switch that will instantly appear in "Best Game of All Time" lists.
I thought that Christmas came early this year for the Switch with the release of Super Mario Odyssey, but I was wrong. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an outstanding title to finish out the Switch's first year on the market, and it's a must-have title if you're a fan of RPGs and own the system. It can be difficult at times, but it's fair and forgiving, and it's a game that wants you to make it to the end and enjoy the experience as you journey there.
UPDATE 12/1/17: As of the official launch of the game the Japanese voice pack DLC is available to download and you can change the language in-game.