It’s no surprise that the Nintendo Switch is off to an amazing start. With main installments of their 2 big franchises launching within the same year, The Legends of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Coupled with a string of releases of new IP’s, a ton of ports, and the overall appeal of a hybrid console. But there was one notable genre missing from that launch success and that was a big traditional JRPG. Yes, you could count Zelda as their first long open world game to sink 100+ hours into, but it doesn’t capture that more traditional JRPG feel. Luckily, Monolith Soft was ready to drop their sequel to Nintendo Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles capping off Nintendo’s launch year with a massive RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It is a massive game much like its first entry and spin off Xenoblade Chronicles X, and while it is mostly an excellent experience with story, lore and scope, it is let down by its many mechanics.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tells the story of a young salvager named Rex who is sent on a suspicious salvaging run that ends up changing his life forever. During the salvage run, he comes across a mysterious Blade named Pyra who ends up saving his life after an attack by a terrorist group named Torna. By giving a little bit of her life to him, Pyra, forever connects them as Blade and Driver. Together they must try and stop Torna, find Elysium and save whats left of humanity. Now, this is the very bare minimum synopsis of the story I want to give because I don’t want to spoil anything, but do know that the story is very good.
The entire game, characters, and environments are steeped in heavy lore. It did a very good job of making the unbelievable feel real in this world because of how much depth there is to it. Essentially the world before was drowned by a sea of clouds, and all living things now live on the back, or stomach, of these giant Titan’s. These Titan’s are so large and have so many natural looking areas that you often forget you’re actually on a Titan. That is until you look up and see the Titan’s head swinging back and forth as it’s slowly walking. Human’s also use smaller Titans as air ships or boats on the cloud sea to get around to different civilizations on other Titans.
I mentioned above that Rex is a Driver and Pyra is a Blade, so I want to explain what this means before I start getting into the combat. These beings called Blades are exactly what they’re called, blades. Blades come in all different traits, shapes, personalities, elemental strengths and weaknesses and they possess a physical form as well as their weapon form. Drivers are people who have the correct characteristics where they can bind Blade Cores to themselves which connects them to a Blade. Once connected to a Blade, Drivers become a force to be reckoned with. However, if a Driver happens to die their Blade returns to their core with their memories wiped clean awaiting their next Driver. This dynamic weighs heavily on the story and the connections between Blade and Driver and it’s definitely intriguing.
The combat had me a bit worried in the beginning since it revolves around an auto-attack system. It felt like a very basic MMO, but boy was I wrong. Once Rex and Pyra are connected, the combat quickly becomes complex. Each character can perform Battle Arts, which are usable attacks that can’t be used again until a certain amount of auto-attacks. Using Battle Arts then fills up your special move which can be stacked up to 4 times, with each level delivering unique moves and attack strength. Then you throw in team attacks, team combos, team elemental attacks, power moves, combined team power moves, roles, enemies’ strengths and weaknesses against certain attacks and elements and it quickly becomes convoluted. I’m no novice to RPG’s, but it took me until around the half-way point of the game until I fully got a hang of all the mechanics. All the things I mentioned above doesn’t really seem all that confusing or out of the norm, but it’s the way it’s implemented that’s tough.
The leveling system is also elaborate. You do gain XP like any other game which will raise your total character level and base stats. Using Blades in combat gain you points to upgrade your Battle Arts. You also get another get another form of XP to level up the Driver’s attributes such as strength and dexterity as well as unlocking abilities like being able to use specific Battle Arts at the start of fights. On top of all that your Blades also have a set of attributes that require specific requirements to unlock which often times requires a ton of grinding. What’s even more annoying are that some of these attributes are needed to get past certain environmental obstacles in the main missions and side missions.
For instance there is a main mission that requires you to break into a vent that is blocked by a fan, but you need 2 of your Blades to have specific attributes unlocked. I had to unlock an entire tier of attributes to get to the one I needed, which had me salvage 20 times, talk to 15 Nopon characters, and perform certain power moves with that Blade to unlock. Making these things a requirement to advance in the story causes things come to a screeching halt. Depending on if you take your time with the game, doing multiple side quests (which are beyond boring and mostly fetch quests), you may not run into this issue.
First off the tutorials don’t explain things very well and there is no way of going back and reviewing them. The enemy levels aren’t determined by just total level so even an enemy 10 levels below you and your entire team could still wipe you out. The only real weakness the game tells you is the enemy’s elemental weakness, everything else is up to you to figure out during combat. This causes just about every fight to become a massive grind. When it takes you 10 minutes with a team of 3 to kill 1 squirrel enemy that is 15 levels below you, then there’s something wrong with your level system. However, once you do get a hang of all the mechanics it does get better. There are times of brilliance when you string together a flurry of moves between all characters and destroy a high level enemy because you have your team layout prepared. But, unless you read an in-depth description about the combat before hand, the first half of the game can get seriously frustrating.
This combat and leveling system also doesn’t bode well for its open world. Now, don’t get me wrong, the open world and the sheer amount of exploration and scope and all the wildlife is amazing. But, the first 20 hours or so can be a massive headache and you’ll be spending most of your time trying to run and keep your distance from pretty much any wildlife. The combat system is really to blame because if you even get close enough to a predator enemy they will attack, and even if you run, they can still hit you from 50 yards away. I have had so many annoying deaths getting killed by a high level enemy that strolled near me, I try and run, only to get one-hit-killed with the enemy barely in sight. It’s so frustrating that I actually had to switch Rex out from my main playable character and explore with one of my tank characters just so this doesn’t happen every 20 feet.
The game does offer fast travel to try and help mitigate some of these instances, but you need to discover these locations first. Unfortunately, the map design is absolutely horrible. Instead of just showing the entire map area and separating them by levels, they split the map up into multiple separate sections per Titan. You’ll end up spending too much time trying to find where exactly you need to go, but eventually you’ll memorize where the main towns are at least.
The graphics are extremely hit or miss especially if you play it in portable mode. Portable mode is downright ugly. It supports a dynamic resolution to help keep a steady framerate during heavy actions scenes, but that means the resolution can dip down as low as 368p reported by Digital Foundry. Even on it’s small screen this is extremely noticeable resulting in a pixelated mess where you can barely tell what’s going on. What’s even more upsetting is that the framerate can still dip even with the dynamic resolution. When you’re just exploring, though, it looks fine, despite having an extremely low view distance the large vistas still remain impressive. I played the majority of the game docked which gets rid a lot of these issues.
Unfortunately, what can’t be fixed by docking the Switch is the side character designs. These characters are beyond ugly and it is such a massive difference between the main character’s bold, bright, well designed anime style. Why they decided to only make the main character this way is beyond me. They really are a stark difference to every other aspect of the game and makes it look like they don’t belong sometimes.
The soundtrack is extremely well done, I was very impressed by the sheer amount of unique songs it has. Each town and Titan has it’s own theme and they’re all catchy. The sound effects are also well done, but often repeated. However, it’s not as noticeable considering all the things that are going on. The worst part are the voice actors and the combat chatter and such. The voice actors, bar a few, are extremely terrible. There is a strange mix of Australian, Irish, Scottish and English with some high pitched characters who repeat words called Nopon. They are even worse in combat because every time you activate a special move or an art they say. The. Same. Thing. Every. Time. This caused me to completely turn off combat chatter. Also, the terrible lip syncing doesn’t help the voice acting at all either.
I was so excited to see that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was coming to the Switch, especially in its launch year, next to some of their big heavy hitters. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 capped off Nintendo’s year delivering a massive RPG experience that mostly provides a fantastic experience. Unfortunately, it’s hampered by a convoluted and tedious combat and character leveling system that can be rewarding at times, messy open world features with hit-or-miss graphics and character design, and a lot of grinding. All of that said, I have enjoyed my many hours within this world and story, for it boasts a fantastic world full of deep lore, fun characters, and a fantastic soundtrack.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is available now on Switch.