An almost amazing adventure that's held back by certain design choices

User Rating: 8 | Xenoblade Chronicles 2 NS

I’m gonna be up front with you, the reader. I loved the original Xenoblade Chronicles. It is my second favorite JRPG I’ve played, mostly due to how well it married its story, exploration, and battle system to create a singular, epic experience that felt like you were playing through a really well executed anime. So, naturally, I went into this expecting something similar, and that’s pretty much what I got. XBC2 is similarly huge in scope, similarly ambitious in its themes, and shares many gameplay elements with its predecessor. It also introduces many new facets to its gameplay, most of which are rewarding but a few of which hold the game back from being on the level of the first game.

The game takes place in a land known as Alrest. It’s essentially a gigantic sea of clouds, with civilizations thriving on Titans, massive beings that resemble everything from dragons to whales. Rex, a young man with a stubbornly optimistic outlook on life, is a Salvager living on a relatively small Titan. He spends his days diving into the cloud sea looking for pieces of technology that he can sell. The inciting incident occurs when he takes on a job that promises handsome rewards: he is to escort a group of Drivers (more on them shortly) to an ancient ship housing a Blade (also more on them shortly) said to contain untold amounts of power.

Quick catch up: Blades are essentially sentient weapons born from Core Crystals. They themselves are immortal, but need to be bonded with a Driver to exist. A Driver can resonate with Core Crystals and channel a Blade’s power through themselves. If a Driver dies, their Blade is reverted back to a Core Crystal, waiting for the day where they will be awakened once more, only without any memories of their prior lives. Rex bonds with this legendary blade, known as the Aegis, aka Pyra, and sets out to help her reach a place known as Elysium, which lies at the top of the World Tree at the center of Alrest.

Anyone familiar with the first game can already see many parallels between the two titles, mainly in the fact that people live on Titans. But whereas in the first game, you were confined to exploring different areas of the Bionis, here each area is its own titan. And also much like the first game, the story is much, much more complicated than it seems at first, launching into twists right in the first chapter. You meet a ton of characters on the journey, some good, some bad, and there are questions both big and small posed throughout. I can’t really comment on the specifics without giving things away, but I will say the game does a great job at building mystery after mystery, as well as developing its large cast of characters. As the story develops, it presents new information to the player that sometimes completely flips things on its head and shakes the player’s understanding of the world.

The main story is a major driving force behind progressing in the game, but side content has been beefed up since the first game. Whereas the majority of the side quests in the original game were extremely standard “kill this many enemies of this type” or “find this item,” in this game the side content helps flesh out the world thanks to a generally high standard of writing. In one side quest, you confront a man a child claims got their parents killed. In another, you find out if a choir member is plotting an assassination on another. It’s fun stuff throughout and while not every single one is gripping, in general the side content is a lot more interesting in this installment. This is to say nothing of the Heart to Hearts, which are fun interactions between main party members about any number of topics. Some of them are touching, others are funny, and yes, some are rather cringe worthy (an early one involving Pyra and the Nopon party member Tora stands out as being almost unbearably awkward). The tone of this game in general is lighter than the first game, which was centered around vengeance, but there are many heavy moments throughout, and the Heart to Hearts help offset those heavier themes.

Much like the first game, each area is different from the last, with wide open aquatic environments contrasting nicely to deserts or holy grounds. Each one is also filled with secrets. The first really big area you explore, Gormott, echoes the jaw dropping scale found in XBC1’s Bionis Leg area. It’s filled with places to go and quests to receive and much like the first, you need to tread cautiously since there are higher level enemies wandering around. The visual variety is terrific, ensuring that the going never gets boring since each area is so distinct. Quick travel also returns, meaning you can teleport to previously visited landmarks, which prevents the sizeable areas from becoming too much.

Not much has changed on that front, but the same can’t be said for battles. The whole system has received an overhaul. Now, the Drivers in your party can bond with Blades, each of which can fall into one of three different categories. There’s Attack, focused on dealing damage; Tank, which draws agro from enemies and takes the brunt of the punishment; and Healer which, surprise surprise, is all about keeping the party alive. There are no class restrictions on any character, meaning if you want someone to have two healers and a tank, that’s a completely viable option. Anyways, much like the first game, you auto attack and use those to fill up your Blade Arts, which are conditional attacks that do different things (for instance, Rex has one that deals much more damage from the back). Arts fill up your Special gauge, which has four levels. Stringing together Specials of certain elements and increasing powers can build Special Combos. Finishing a Special combo places an elemental orb on an enemy, and if you so choose, you can use a Chain Attack once the Party Gauge is filled and get some free attacks off with each character. If you break an elemental orb, you’ll deal massive damage to the enemy and get the opportunity for another round of attacks.

What I just typed probably sounds very complicated, and it is, at first. Even 20 hours in, the game is introducing these elements of battle and it takes even longer to really get the hang of it since not every element can perform a Special combo with others. It doesn’t help that tutorials are shown exactly once, with no way of accessing them after they’ve passed. But the battle system will click eventually, and once you get the hang of giving enemies multiple elemental orbs and taking out the final chunk of their health in one giant Chain Attack, it’s immensely satisfying. However, in the beginning, battles can feel very slow since all of these options aren’t available to you. There’s a lot of waiting during battle in the beginning since you aren’t that strong, which can be a drag. This is echoed in the story which, while still good, does start pretty slow. It takes three or four chapters for it to really pick up, with much of the opening being all set up.

One of the problematic parts of the game comes from the acquisition of Blades. Each Driver in your party has a main Blade and there are a small handful you obtain through progressing the story. You can get more by resonating with Core Crystals found throughout the game and there are three tiers. Common, Rare, and Legendary, and with each rarity tier, the odds of receiving a unique Blade increases. It’s essentially an RNG game. One time I resonated two unique Blades in a row using Common Core Crystals. Other times I used dozens of rare Core Crystals and got nothing but generic Blades. There’s a Pokemon esque gotta catch em all feeling to collecting rare Blades, but obtaining them feels needlessly tedious. And to make matters worse, you have no idea what kind of Blade you’ll be getting, so a character you want to focus on healing might get a damage dealer, while your damage dealer is stuck with generic blades (there are items in game that can transfer Blades between Drivers, but they’re exceedingly difficult to come by).

Still, the game does put the extra, unused Blades to good use. You’re able to send them off on Merc missions after a certain point in the game. These are timed affairs that often require certain skills to be put in place (for instance, a mission might require a Blade that has Fire Mastery and another that wields a Chroma Katana) and are good sources of extra gold, experience, and rare items. At first you can only send out one team at a time, but you can develop the Merc camp later in the game. There are also skill checks all over the world. For instance, there may be a wind current that can launch you into an otherwise unreachable part of the map that you need a certain level of Wind Mastery and Leaping for. I can count the number of times that skill checks were required to progress the story on one hand, but a lot of side content is hidden away behind them. Theoretically, it’s all up to RNG if you have any Blades with the required skills but if you’re like me, you’ll have a whole army of Blades at your disposal and statistically speaking, you will have what you need. It can be frustrating in the rare instances where you don’t have the required skills, though, especially early on.

Even though getting the unique Blades can be frustrating, customizing them is rewarding. Not only does every single one have their own skill trees to unlock (giving them certain buffs and upgrading their field skills), but each one can be given Core Chips (which affect their attack, critical rate, and block rate, each of which are vital to different types of Blades), but you can also give them Aux Cores, which can give them all kinds of Buffs, ranging from increasing Aggro, to improving their healing Arts. Then to top it off, many of the unique Blades have their own individual quests related to their personality. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of room to fine tune your party’s Blades to your liking.

Because there’s no other way to address these smoothly, there are a few small but not insignificant issues with the game. For one, the character designs for the Blades aren’t always fitting. There was already a big stink about Pyra’s design before the game came out. Now, I’m no prude and I don’t mind sexual character designs. But in her case, and a few others, it’s blatantly just an excuse to get T and A in the game. Pyra’s personality is fairly grounded, and she’s a very likeable character, but almost nothing about her is sexual. There are other characters, both male and female, who are sexualized and in their case, it fits them. It’s just that with certain ones, it feels like it was put in their just because. It’s a sharp contrast to the character design of the first game, which was surprisingly grounded, even though there were fan servicey elements. Another small issue is the voice acting. Its quality varies quite a bit, sometimes with the same character. Take, for instance, Rex. His regular voice is quite charming and well done, but when he screams, it falls completely flat. The same goes for the rest of the cast. Sometimes, their voices work well and other times it’s rather cringy (although Tora’s voice is consistently amusing; and thankfully, even though the voice acting is a mixed bag, the music is good throughout). Lastly, you’ll be spending a lot of times in menus. Between simply equipping items to characters and Blades, or sending out Blades on Merc Missions, or even just checking the map, the menus feel very clunky to navigate. Often times you need to get to a sub menu within a sub menu within a menu. It’s not a deal breaker, but I wish the developers had taken more time to streamline the menus so they weren’t so cumbersome.

It’s true that the few small annoyances in the game do add up to hold the game back from being truly outstanding like its predecessor was, but that shouldn’t stop any JRPG fan from playing through this absolutely massive game. Its story is ambitious and epic, its environments are unparalleled within the genre, and the party customization means no two parties will be exactly the same. This is on top of the fact that it is simply bursting at the seams with content. By the time I’d beaten the game, I’d clocked 84 hours in the game. Granted, that does factor in taking plenty of time to beat side quests and thoroughly explore the game’s gigantic maps, but that’s the beauty of it. Even rushing through the story would probably take 50 hours, but doing so means missing out on the generally great side content the game has to offer. Whether you’re in it just for the main story, or you plan on diving into the many side quests the game has to offer, there’s no denying that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is yet another must play JRPG for fans of the genre. It has its share of flaws, but the rest of the game is so absorbing that you might be inclined to forgive it for its missteps.

The Good:

+ Great story that balances the whimsical and the dark

+ A sizable cast of interesting and fun characters

+ Massive, gorgeous environments with plenty of secrets to uncover

+ Lots of Blades to collect

+ Plenty of room to fine tune your party

+ Once the combat clicks, it is immensely satisfying

+ A jaw dropping amount of side content

The Bad:

- Character designs and voice acting are a mixed bag

- Slow start to both the story and battle system

- Menus feel clunkier than they need to be

- Obtaining all the unique Blades frustratingly relies on RNG