Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game which I have a love and hate relationship with.
Considering it is the successor to one of my favorite RPGs of all time, I went in with a benchmark of what to expect.
What I got was exactly what I wanted - but only a slice of it. The slice also came with a lot of completely unwanted toppings that hampered the experience too.
This Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review will make comparisons throughout with the first game. Have elements of the series improved, gotten worse or even need to be removed completely and never thought of again?
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Story and Characters
XC 2 opens with a scene similar to the first - a brief overview of the context of the world. Species live on titans whom are great beasts of various sizes who roam above what is known as the cloud sea; an endless ocean. In the centre is Elysium, an alleged paradise that supposedly cannot be reached. Elysium is now thought of a fairy-tale of some sorts where individuals in the game's context would stop believing when they grow up.
Main character Rex is an optimistic boy who ends up being likable. The immediate character that sticks out like a sore thumb is Reyn from the first game, the similarities are uncanny. Rex lives on the titan he calls Gramps - the character who (successfully) acts as the boy's mentor.
In Xenoblade Chronicle's 2 world there are Drivers and Blades. A blade is a life form with the ability to be a weapon too - they can be attached to Drivers, who are extraordinary individuals of one of the game's species with the ability to wield a Blade. For instance, Rex is a Driver so by using what is known as a Core Crystal, he can bond with Blades who can help him in battle and outside of it. Think of Pokemon, but your Pokemon are creatures who can look human or any other in game species.
The main plot of Rex's story is heading to the paradise known as Elysium under direction of main female character, Pyra. Pyra has had, understandable, controversy over her weird design that ''reeks of animu''. This can, unfortunately, be put offing to players who dislike anime which may cause the game to be judged prematurely. Even I (nearly) did so. Actually, I have a little overall. The game would clearly be better if the character designs were better.
Odd and fan service character designs makes it difficult to take such characters seriously - especially when everything else about such characters are supposed to be portrayed as serious. It's a contradiction in design. The game's camera also ogles female leads body parts during some emotional scenes which damages the impact of such scenes. Have a look at the following screenshot, which is cropped to avoid spoilers, for a nice laugh:
The first Xenoblade Chronicles was renowned for going against these anime and JRPG tropes. It is hugely disappointing to see the sequel take a massive step backwards as what looks like a desperate attempt to ''fit in'' with other JRPGs.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 starts off really, really slow. I was astounded by how bad the intro to the game is, especially when you consider that the original game has one of the best introduction scenarios of all time and pushes the player to care about it's world so quickly. However, when things get started in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, they really do get started. The last moments of the first chapter is the moment the game starts picking up so it is recommended you play up to that part as a minimum to gather first impressions.
Pyra states that she needs to go to Elysium but... why? It is absolutely astonishing that throughout the majority of the game, none of the characters even question this to an acceptable degree.
The plot never really deviates from it's initial path of ''let's go to Elysium!'' Unlike the original where crazy plotwists change the end goal and where each of these moments feel like a final boss fight, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 decides to opt in for a much more simpler story. There's nothing bad with that per se but I would not call it my preference.
The story's biggest issue is the laughable lack of explanation and it's inconsistency. There are moments especially later on which tease certain characters, concepts and they amount to absolutely nothing. The game, no real spoiler, will obviously feature death like any RPG.
Now, usually these have a strong emotional impact for the player. However, the problem with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is that on occasion, a character will die and the game will make a big deal out of it. I would love to care , if I actually knew the significance of the character.
Characters, who have barely been explored, then get killed so are difficult to have sympathise with. It's definitely not that I don't want to, I do, but the game makes the decision to explore the character's background after they die.
On the bright side, the game delivers on what I was hoping for a lot - what I describe as ''epic set pieces''. There are definitely not as many as there was like the first but what is here is good enough. If you have played a JRPG before, you will know what I mean. Those story moments where amazing, fitting music plays and emotional strings get plucked. Even the soundtrack that plays is a complete reminder that the Xenoblade series does this best:
Which is uncannily similar to:
The characters on the most part are, just about good. Just about. Character development for Rex is done well as the player learns more about his struggles, past changes and goals. For some characters such as the mighty Morag, I wished that the writers put more effort into it all. Morag is presented as a character with mystery and ... that's literally it. There is subtle development for her but for a 50 hour plus story, there simply isn't enough.
Don't get me wrong, there are hearts to hearts which return in a better form, which do help characters like Morag get sprinkled with a bit more personality. However, in a 50 hour story a small amount is simply not enough.
Hearts to hearts are optional scenes which help flesh out the relationship between the characters and even offer more characterization. They are great, similar to Person's social links just without a huge emphasis on being a social sim.
Hearts to hearts in the original required affinity between the characters. For instance, Shulk and Dunban's affinity would increase from level 1 to 5 depending on the player's dialogue choices during conversation, if team work is deployed in battle properly and how you interact with sidequests. The affinity between characters needs to reach certain level before you can see the heart to hearts. Character affinity also impacted on raising characters' morale during battle and hence, how well you can battle in the original game.
This time however, there is no requirement to view them and even better, they are all voiced. Voicing the heart to hearts was also wanted in Xenoblade Chronicles X so it is good that Monolith have finally delivered on this.
However, one step forward and two steps backwards. Since there is no emphasis on character relation building based in the game play, the affinity system is made more exclusive to the blades instead. Now, this is not a problem until you realise what the requirements are. Some blades are straight forward to work on, you just have to use them well in battle to build trust. Others, however, send you off in some of the worst side quests in RPG history.
Take Ursula for instance, an ice user with a cute bear. Great blade to have on the side and her side quest story is actually good. But the ''game play'' is atrocious. The game has a mercenary system where you can send your blades to complete tasks in a certain time frame with EXP, Weapon Points (which are used to upgrade each Blade's arts) and items as the rewards. This system is very similar to Assassin's Creed Origins and Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker where you can send side characters to complete optional tasks.
In Xenoblade Chronicles 2 however, they are forgettable for the most part. You send X amount of blades onto a task and each blade needs to fulfil A, B and C requirement(s). Then the task will automatically be completed in usually 30 to 50 minutes. The problem with this is... How is any of it fun? It merely just becomes a hassle to cause the player to remember to open the menu - again - to move some settings around every 30 minutes or so. Oh and menus - more on why how much of a hassle Xenoblade Chronicle's 2 menu system is.
So, with this mercenary system, Ursula needs to complete tasks to get singing practise. Each class goes from level 1 and upwards to what I believe is level 3 at maximum. There are 3 classes and each last 10 minutes long. The problem? You need to complete each one nine times to progress to the next. Nine times. This means remembering to open up the menu, choosing the right blades to complete a 10 minute task, again. And again. Oh and there are 3 classes in total. As a result, you need to complete the same 10 minute tasks a total of twenty seven times. TWENTY SEVEN TIMES.
Monolift Soft, why is this fun? Can anyone explain?
My honest advice to people yet to try Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is to not bother with the side quests. They are off-putting and your time is better spent taking part in the game's decent story mode and excellent battle system.
What the game nails completely is the villains this time around. The group is called Torna; I can't help but compare them to Kingdom Heart's organization XIII. I would dare say Torna is an even better version of them. They are likeable with one certain character's entire motivation and back story being one of the best in series. And that's saying a lot.
For the most part, the game does explain the motivations and backstories of each of its villains and does this even better than the original Xenoblade Chronicles. The towns and cities have some life to them but it is hard to care about each random NPC talking about their lives - due to the side quests being so repetitive and boring. You are compelled to keep pressing A to skip through the endless amount of dialogue as a result of how mundane the side quests are.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Visuals and Audio
Aside from some silly and trope-y character designs, the art style of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is good. Such an art style allows for easy portrayal of facial expressions which helps with dramatic moments of the game.
At times however, textures in the game look like they are from the PSX era. It doesn't help with when the game zooms up in such areas during story cut-scenes.
The game performs quite well too. During my 88 hour play through, I did not encounter any noticeable or problematic frame rate issues. This is an improvement from the other Xenoblade games as I do remember performance drops during chaotic battles in the original.
Upon opening the menu, players can see a colourful display of character designs and drawings. These all look great - apart from some character designs in general, the art itself is drawn well and brings out life from how the characters would look like if the game was an anime.
As aforementioned, the game's soundtrack has no problem in making the context of the moment emphasised. Fitting, dramatic music plays during emotional scenes - most of the time. There is a wide range of tracks too. Some are fittingly haunting which perfectly capture the sense of a mysteries town, as another example below:
On to the character voices. British voice actors have been used again which is great - it feels more fresh than most games. At first, even I found it difficult to like the voices of the main characters whilst in the original game, the voices immediately captured my intention in a positive manner. There is a good range of accents too which include Northern and Welsh. Most characters have a voice which suit them too for the most part - especially Welsh Nia who also happens to one of the best characters.
However, there is a fair amount of lines which are delivered poorly - mostly from obscure side characters. This is in relation to the tone, speed and any emotion behind the lines. Thankfully, during the game's most epic sequences, the quality of the voice acting does deliver.
What is completely inexcusable is the pathetic lip syncing in the game's dub. This is 2017, not the PS2 era ala Metal Gear Solid 3. It is astounding Nintendo and Monolift Soft think it's fine to release a game in such a state. The biggest concern is that the poor lip syncing impacts on the game's many dramatic scenes.
I couldn't help but feel that the game was rushed - hint, it was - and that is disappointing. The game released only around eleven months after it was first announced. This is quite unusual for a game of this scale. Indeed, director Tetsuya Takahashi has recently shared that there were development problems with the game.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Gameplay
Alas, this is where Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shines. At least, during battles and some sections of exploration exclusively.
The game's battle system seems to be a developed version of the original. As before, you can play as one character in a party of three. In battle, the player you control will automatically attack. An auto-attack is the weakest form, usually, when dealing damage. Each of the driver main characters will be able to control up to three blades. One blade is a main character themselves. Blades have arts which are stronger abilities which get recharged with every hit from an auto-attack. Arts were also in the original game and Xenoblade Chronicles X but are handled differently with this change.
Each blade also has a special gauge which fills up with every successful hit by an auto-attack. Further, you can find core crystals which allows you to get new blades for each of the main characters. Some of the blades are common types - which you will probably just use to send on mercenary quests. Others are considered rare blades who have their own characterisation, one blade side quest dedicated to them as a minimum and have their own personality. There is a really cool Easter Egg if you unlock them all too.
You have the ability to recharge the special gauge quicker by doing an 'auto-attack cancel. This means, as soon as your attack connects with an enemy, using an art will increase the special gauge quicker. Special attacks range from level 1 to level 4 and get stronger depending on the level.
Further, you can chain special attacks with your other two party members. So, the first character to use a level 1 special attack can then be followed up with a level 2 special attack and finally, a level 3 or 4 special attack. The player can use ZL and ZR to use special attacks of the AI characters to assist. An issue presented here is that special attacks are chained by using the correct level and element.
For example, you can chain a Fire Level 1, Water Level 2 and a Fire Level 3 or 4 to finish the combo. You cannot do Dark Level 1, Fire Level 2 and then Water Level 3 or 4. Each element can only be followed by two specific elements in order for the combo to progress. Hence, the AI might have a blade which can carry out the correct element but sometimes will switch to a blade which does not have the right element. In such occasions, it is frustrating that the AI can ruin a combo as the player is given a short time frame to chain each attack.
When a full combo is complete, the enemy attacked will be given one element orb. This corresponds to the element used in the final special attack of the combo. Chain attacks from the original make a return thankfully. In a chain attack, each party member can use a special attack once each turn. However, if you break and element orb attached to an enemy, you will get another round with each attack given a damage multiplier.
Hence, the idea is to create as many element orbs by completing blade combos on an enemy and finish them off with a chain attack. The system is quite complex and clearly somewhat hard to explain too but works a charm. Further, enemies have weaknesses to certain elements which you can use to your advantage and as usual, status effects, stat buffs and debuffs, are all present here.
As a result, this all works together immensely well, especially for the game's longer main boss fights and optional boss fights. It is extremely satisfying to deal so much damage from a complete blade combo and reap the rewards.
Now, the game's battle tutorial does a lot of waffling so I needed to figure out the above mechanics out myself. Which isn't necessarily bad - it is rewarding when you unearth a game's mechanics.
Exploration for the game is done decently. You can freely explore fairly large areas if you want to take a break from the main quest. Such areas will have treasure chests with useful items and optional boss fights which net good rewards. Exploration can also uncover hearts to hearts which are valuable. Finding locations and secret areas nets you experience points too. However, you need to rest at an inn to use these experience points. Side quest experience points can only be applied after resting at an inn too.
Credit here is definitely due as this prevents the problem from being over levelled if the player does too many side quests. The player has the freedom to balance their own difficulty which suits them.
One problem is that early game areas have large level 80+ enemies which can randomly interrupt an otherwise good fight you are having and one hit kill you. How is this good game play design? Make no mistake, the series has made this silly design choice since the first.
Onto the side quests and oh boy, are they bad. Essentially, quoting from this article:
The original Xenoblade Chronicles was known for having countless MMORPG style sidequests. The game has more than 400 sidequests. The advice from those who have completed the game is to not feel obligated to do any sidequests. Stop when you feel you have had enough to prevent being overwhelmed.
Many of the collection sidequests are automatically completed as soon as you start the sidequest.In such circumstances, the game conveniently tells the player the quest is completed without the need for the player to manually walk back to the NPC who gave you it. This was a small touch which rewarded the player for engaging with the NPCs in the game’s amazing towns and prevented unnecessary padding. ''
The game has Field Skills which are Pokemon Hidden Machines. Just worse. Field Skills have levels so even if you have the right field skill, you cannot traverse some part of the environment unless it is the right level.
This destroys the pacing of some side quests. You may be going along then all of a sudden, a Field Skill comes and prevents you from progressing. By the time you return to complete the quest, it will be likely that you have forgotten what the side quest was all about considering the dozen of things that happen in the game normally. This ruins the Blade Quests which are story focused quests that help flesh out side characters you can obtain.
More examples as to why the side quests and Field Skill system damage the experience can be found here. In short the conclusion is, quoting from that article:
To conclude, Xenoblade Chronicle 2’s field skill system impedes and ruins the flow of the game’s sidequests. I hope the developers use a better system for sidequests in a sequel. The need to come back to the quests after the development of blades and field skills simply breaks the flow of the quest and increases the chances of the player forgetting (or even caring ) about what is going on. However, most importantly, the process in completing the sidequests is simply not fun. ''
There is a salvaging system which means Rex will dive into the Cloud Sea and collect items. This mechanic is a complete gimmick and completely forgettable. If anything, the mechanic works well with the side quest systems to make them worse and even more repetitive.
Further the menu system is cumbersome. You have a menu that opens to characters, their blades, who is assigned to each character, in within each blade, their affinity skills, gems (which increase stats as usual). Hence, you need to equip the driver to power up their abilities but you also need to do this with each and every blade if you want to optimize your team set up. This makes it all very time consuming and navigating between each character is not that intuitive. On top of the mercenary quest system, this all adds up to a lost of stretched out time being in the game's menus.
Even when you use a Core Crystal to get a new blade, there is an animation that cannot be skipped. Well, the recent March update now allows you to do so. However, it is very silly... It is split into two parts, you can actually skip the second part but you couldn't skip the first originally. With the update, you have the choice to skip it all but that's the thing.
When the rare blades are obtained, there is a cool awakening animation. Hence, by skipping the first part you will miss out on seeing the second part if you happen to obtain a rare blade. My point is, why is there no option to skip the first part - the part no one wants to see - but still be allowed to see the second part? YouTube exists for such occasions but spoilers on YouTube do as well.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has one decent mini game. It's called ''Tiger! Tiger'' and is a 8 bit game where you play as a Nopon - a small comic relief species - who salvages for treasure. There is not much to say here, the mini game was quite difficult so was patched with an easy mode recently. It was necessary to do the side quest to help upgrade a certain characters parts. This lack of flexibility makes it an issue for some.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: Conclusion
In all, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a game with so much potential but falls flat on so many missed opportunities. Despite all of this, what the game does well is done very well, especially how the game's intricate game play mechanics mesh so well together. It is a shame that there are so many quality of life issues and boring side quests which stampede it from it's path to greatness. Alas, I believe this is all down to having a rushed development time. I am serious when I say I wished the game was delayed.
Soundtrack is one of the best in gaming
Battle system, once learnt and used properly, is very engaging and rewarding
Epic and memorable story sequences, even if there are less than the original
No GG (Cons)
Atrocious lip syncing and quality of life issues
Side quests and terrible Pokemon style hidden machine mechanics
Step backwards in regards to JRPG design
Final Score : 8/10. Definitely worth a try if you have the system the game is for!
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