So, I’ve been wondering where to start with game reviews because I want to do them justice but haven’t known where to begin. Do I start with a game that I’ve finished and know inside out, or do I dip my toe into a game that I’m currently playing and love, but then haven’t seen all the game has to offer? What I ended up deciding on was a game that I’m still playing and, after over 50 hours of gameplay, love as much if not more than when I started. That game is Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Nintendo Switch. For this trip down the otaku rabbit hole, we will be taking a look at the good, the bad and the infuriating parts that make up the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 experience and will show you what this game brings to the table to help you decide if it’s worth your time. So, buckle up, this trip down the otaku rabbit hole is going to be a bumpy ride!
The game opens in the world of Alrest, a world where there is no land, and instead people have colonised giant titans that wander the world as living continents. The story follows young salvager Rex who, through certain events, comes to be the driver of a blade, a living weapon, Pyra, who just so happens to be the strongest blade in the world – the aegis. In this one moment, Rex’s world is turned upside down and he is thrown into a world full of twists and turns and blades galore. The journey he sets out on is not an easy one, but along the way he finds friends that join him and prove invaluable in helping him and in shaping his journey. The story is one full of both heart-warming and heart-breaking moments in equal measure and, while nothing revolutionary, is executed with a level of finesse and passion that hooked me straight away and never let go, and damn am I glad that it dragged me along for the ride. Despite being part of the long-running Xeno- series, there isn’t any need to have played any of the previous games – I haven’t, and this game still provided an experience that was accessible and immersive, with the occasional Easter egg thrown in for fans of previous games.
When it comes to the visuals, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a tale of two halves. The general surroundings and vistas that you’re treated to in this game are second to none. The world feels well realised, coming alive with bursts of colour, and through subtle additions like weather, tidal changes and day/night cycles really emphasise the incredible world that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has on offer. While playing in handheld mode, the game runs incredibly smoothly with no major frame rate drops, apart from when there is a lot happening on screen at once. Sadly, this graphical fidelity doesn’t always hold true for the character sprites. Character models can sometimes become pixelated and fuzzy to during gameplay, but this isn’t something glaringly obvious and is often missable, so won’t break your experience – and I honestly put this dip in graphical quality down to playing in handheld mode. When I docked the switch this issue pretty much vanished, so it’s nothing game-breaking but can be a more of an issue for some people.
When docked, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 comes alive and truly offers some beautiful vistas that, at times, makes you feel as though you are playing an anime. The game’s scenery and world is full to bursting with enemies to defeat and areas to explore, and every environment both satisfyingly distinct and breathtakingly beautiful.
The attention to detail in this game is incredible, especially considering the sheer size and scale of the world. Sadly, there have been a few instances where the textures take a few seconds to load, and this is most noticeable when you skip travel from one location to another. While this can be a little jarring the first time it happens, it almost immediately resolves itself and you are immersed once again into the Xenoblade experience, but it can break the immersion if you let it.
Each of the rare blades that you obtain throughout the course of the game is represented by beautifully drawn character art, that has been provided by one of many talented Japanese artists. Every design is both beautiful and unique and makes entering the pause menu a dream, as you’re always met with the designs of your main party blades, allowing you to appreciate each one for their unique traits. The contrasting art styles of the rare blades to the common blades and to one another really makes you as the player take notice and believe that these blades are something extraordinary and are worth the effort that goes into collecting them all.
The battle system is again something that could be hit or miss depending on your preferences, as it is incredibly automatic with battles starting and ending often with a single press of the A button. You have the option to move your character around the screen and to activate your special attacks when the gauge is filled, and the gauge is filled by the auto-attacks. Now, if this sounds simple, it’s because at its core, the battle system is simple. What’s amazing though is that the battle system is constantly evolving as you play and becomes more layered and satisfyingly complex due to combining combat elements such as elemental affinities, elemental blades combos and chain attacks – a risky system where you expend all party gauges to deal a huge amount of damage but at the cost of being unable to use these gauges to revive fallen party members. This is a system that forces you to weigh up the risk of a situation against the potential reward in some of the more difficult battles the game has to offer. Many of these mechanics are drip fed to you as you progress through the story, but due to my own need to explore as much of the in game world as possible as early as possible, I also picked up a lot of these mechanics naturally through gameplay alone, so despite there being a lot of tutorials, you don’t have to wait for a given tutorial for many of these techniques to become available.
There is a wide selection of rare blades to collect in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. While there are a select few that can be acquired through story and side missions, the vast majority will be acquired through bonding with core crystals. This mechanic has the player play a game of roulette, with the chance of acquiring a rare blade being fixed with each attempt. The type of core crystal (common, rare etc.) can improve your chances, but the blades you get are never guaranteed. If you fail at getting a rare blade many times, don’t despair as the game employs a system where, through sheer generosity, will gift you 3 guaranteed rare blades during your attempts via a “pity” system. While blade-bonding is well integrated into the lore of the game through awakening a blade from its core crystal, it can prove incredibly frustrating at times when you use all core crystals in your inventory only to be left with no rare blade for your troubles. This will undoubtedly prove to be a nightmare for completionists, or anyone in search of a specific blade – unless they have incredible luck, that is.
The types of blade weapons in the game are pretty diverse, with some weapons favouring faster flurries of hits but at the cost of lowered damage output, or heavy-hitting power attacks, but are slow as a result. With this variety, you’re given the freedom to play in the way that suits you best. The combat really comes alive with the addition of blade classes – as these will likely guide how you play and the weapons you choose. All blades fall into one of three classes: Attacker – the main damage dealers, Healer – the class that can either heal directly or generate health potions, and Tank – the class that draws enemy aggro and will often have higher health and defence as a result. Personally, I prefer using an attack and healer setup with two attackers and one healer to help my party if health begins to drop low, but the genius here is you’re encouraged to mix and match blades and party setups to find which playstyle suits you, so everyone’s experience will be unique.
The soundtrack for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is something truly spectacular and is a true testament to the genius of composer Yasunori Mitsuda. So far, during my 50 hours of gameplay, not a single track has felt out of place, and instead only acts to enhance the emotions of a scene, be that comedic or tragic – a truly impressive feat. The battle music that plays in regular encounters is the perfect example of this. Regardless of how many times this theme plays, and it will be a lot, I always feel myself getting hyped with a sense of tension and excitement that really builds with the action happening on screen to really get you immersed in the moment. Another standout track for me is “Counterattack”, a theme that’s repeated in many important story cutscenes throughout the game. Avoiding unnecessary spoilers, the first time this track played was an incredible moment and the perfect blend of on-screen action with dramatic music made for a one-of-a-kind experience that helped to further cement this game as one of my favourites in recent memory. Many of the tracks on this soundtrack will blend seamlessly into the background, often providing subtle ambience while seldom taking centre stage. A simple yet effective nuance that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 uses is an altered soundtrack depending on the day/night cycle. Many of the day tracks will be uplifting and drive home that sense of exploration and adventure, whereas the night tracks will often give a greater sense of calm, instilling a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere. This is more noticeable in towns, particularly in the first major town you reach, and the night track of this town, “Torigoth (Night)”, has quickly become a favourite of mine to sit and relax to in my spare time – it’s just that good.
Now, the voice acting in this game polarising to say the least. Whether you love or loathe English voice acting in JRPGs, it is very much a matter of personal preference. Personally, I don’t really mind either way. However, the English voice acting in this game was something that could easily have ruined the entire experience of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for me. The voice cast in this game is mainly British and showcases a wide variety of accents from across the British Isles to help distinguish the different races and regions of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s world and set them apart not only by their appearance, but by their speech. The delivery of these voices, however, is often cringy, awkward, or down-right terrible. When the main protagonist’s voice makes you want to skip cutscenes in a story-heavy game, then you know you’re in for a rough ride. Voices during battles can also be grating to say the least and has resulted in the birth of the now infamous “don’t forget me” line, due it being constantly repeated by guardsmen as you battle them. This is made all the worse in a section fairly early on where you exclusively fight guardsmen, and this is where the problem is most noticeable. I had been warned about the poor quality of the voice acting by a friend before I started the game, and I’m so glad I was. Less than 1 hour into my playtime I ended up downloading the Japanese voice patch with frazzled nerves and a desperate hope that the Japanese voices would be better. Had the English voice acting been all that was available, I doubt my experience with the game would have been the same and it’s very possible that it could have driven me to drop the game – it was that bad. Again, this is my personal opinion but, the voice acting in this game could be a make or break factor for many people and you need to be prepared for that before diving in. The English voice acting may be a home run for some of you, but if it isn’t, then there is the Japanese voice patch that you can download from the Nintendo e-shop and, in my opinion, this will give you the best experience in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
In stark contrast to the English cast, the Japanese voice actors are quite honestly, fantastic. Every character that I have had in my active party, or have interacted with as part of the game, feel incredibly well rounded and realised. The diverse vocal cast deliver some truly hilarious and, for that matter, emotional performances that really hit the right note and make you fall in love with that random side character before they’re either forgotten forever or die. The rare blades are also fully voice acted and the voice actors for these blades in particular are so wonderfully executed, that they really make these characters come alive. Although I wish that the non-story blades had even more of an impact on the game’s overall narrative than they already do, the rare blade-centred quests, where we’re treated to the voice acting talents of a given blade, are some of my personal highlights from the non-story content. This is due, in no small part, to the excellent vocal talent that this game has on offer. The simple act of a well-executed and expertly selected voice cast is just another aspect that fleshes out the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and delivers a far more polished and immersive experience for it.
Now, despite my love of this game, I must admit that it isn’t a perfect experience and that some things can really harm the overall experience.
One of the biggest issues, which seems to be a commonly held problem among many gamers, is the objective/ waypoint marker system. The waypoint marker only appears at the top of the screen to point you in the general direction of your current objective and very seldom will a marker appear on the in-game map. Now while this doesn’t sound like a major issue, the problem ironically comes from the how the game is designed, with a great focus on exploration – using intricately designed levels with hidden paths and a world designed to seamlessly incorporate verticality. At no point will the marker system give you any indication if the objective you’re searching for is above or below you and doesn’t consider any in game obstacles either, which can prove a major issue. More than once, the marker at the top of the screen would point me in the direction I needed to go, leading me to an insurmountable wall. This would result in 10 minutes or more head-scratching, trying to work out how to reach my goal, only for me to realise I had to circle around or explore some more to find the path needed to advance. Now, when this is for a side quest that you can put on hold, this isn’t too bad. But there have been a few main story quests that I spent far too long on due to poor directions and then having to explore the dungeon map from top to bottom to figure out, by process of elimination, where to go to finally continue or complete the quest and advance the story. While far from game-breaking, this does lead to artificially inflating the time needed to complete certain quests and can really leave you frustrated, especially due to how often this can happen.
The other major issue I have with the game is the inclusion of incredibly high levelled enemies in areas and the AI of these enemies. The inclusion of very diverse levelled enemies really makes these ecosystems come alive, building the sense of a monster hierarchy/ food chain, whether your character is there or not. However, the AI of these enemies is something that often teeters on the side of unfair. This could be seen as an excellent learning opportunity for people who think they can take on a level 81 enemy early on, only to get instantly defeated, thus learning that these enemies are for the late game and that character levels are very important in deciding battle outcomes. However, more times that I’d care to admit, I would be exploring a map only to draw aggro from a high-level enemy out of nowhere and get instantly killed just inches away from a quest objective and be forced to re-trace my steps. Now while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn’t punish death, opting instead to respawn you at the last area you entered with no penalty besides a loss of progress into an area, it can get frustrating incredibly fast when areas essential for progression are filled with high level enemies that will aggro with no warning. In these moments, I found the best way to advance was to avoid any enemy encounters and just keep running and hope, a strategy that I’m never a fan of in any game.
So then guys, to sum everything up, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that is fast paced and beautiful, with a fantastic, if at times clichéd story. Despite its incredible high points, it sadly suffers a few lows as well along the way, although nothing that has ruined my time with the game. Although this review only considers the events and side quests that take place in the first 50 hours, I still feel that this game is consistent in its quality – enough so to recommend that any fan of JRPGs pick up this game. I cannot wait to finish Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and find out just how this game will end. For now, though, thank you for joining me on this trip down the otaku rabbit hole, and I hope this review really helps someone find this game that is truly, in my personal opinion, a modern masterpiece. Until next time, keep it weeby!