I went into Xenoblade with less than positive preconceptions – trailers had focused on seemingly uninteresting characters, and did very little to sell the game to someone like me who isn’t already invested in the Xenoblade saga. I figured, though, the first Xenoblade Chronicles is fairly highly regarded, so surely there’s something everyone sees in the series? It did take awhile to endear itself to me – despite a sloppy start full of overwhelming system explanations, I found that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) completely hooked me in.
In XC2’s world, the surface is uninhabitable. People live on the backs of titans, which are country-sized beasts that float above the Cloud Sea below. Smaller titans are used as transports, and it’s on the back of one of these where we meet our leading man, Rex. He’s a salvager, living on the back of a titan that he affectionately calls ‘Gramps’, and making a living by jumping into the Cloud Sea and selling things that he salvages from its depths. Before long, Rex is dragged into a mission to salvage a mysterious object – during which he meets some other major characters, learns about Blades and their companion Drivers, and the XC2 story truly begins.
The characters and general aesthetic of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are its most divisive feature, and for good reason. Characters appear straight out of an unremarkable shōnen anime – overdesigned and in bizarre, unbelievable garb (seriously, what the heck is going on with Rex’s weird jumpsuit/diving bell combo?) There are some attempts at emotionally resonant moments during the game that are just so difficult to take seriously with our characters in such nonsensical outfits – I felt it reduced the impact these scenes might have otherwise had. If you find yourself a little uncomfortable with the kinda creepy treatment of female characters in anime, you’ll probably feel similarly about some of XC2’s characters. There are exceptions however, like Mòrag, who stands out as a menacing and determined presence. Similar to the first Xenoblade Chronicles, most characters are voiced with heavy European accents. Personally, I appreciated the departure from the standard American voices you hear everywhere else, but if it bothers you there will be a Japanese voice option available at launch (this wasn’t available during the review period, so I can’t really comment on how it compares to the English cast).
Some of these characters join you in battle, which is where I found the game clicked for me – at least eventually. Like a fine wine, there’s a lot going on in XC2’s battles. Also like wine, you probably won’t really begin to understand its complexities without putting in some effort and practise. Battles occur in real time, with basic attacks being performed automatically by your entire party. Your influence in battles comes in the form of player positioning, Blade assignment before and during fights, and triggering combo Specials. The Blades assigned to each character determine the element of their attacks, as well as special Arts they can pull off. These are special attacks that can be used after performing enough standard auto-attacks to build up a meter -Arts have special effects and can do more damage when attacking from certain positions, so positioning your main character is essential in making the most of these moves. Perform enough Arts and you can eventually pull off Special attacks, which can be combined with the Arts of the rest of your party for increased effect.
There’s a *lot* going on at any point during a battle, enough to be completely overwhelming for your first few hours. The game does prompt you with text tutorials as you begin, but these come thick and fast, and are difficult to truly comprehend until you have a grasp of the basic combat mechanics. I felt like for the first few hours of XC2 I was scraping through battles by accident and not fully comprehending how I could influence battle outcomes. Luckily, as you progress and these techniques become more necessary for success, the game gives you a little revision – way more useful at this point after understanding the basics. Until this point, the cacophony of meters and labels on screen make zero sense, but once you begin to understand what they all mean and how they inform your choices in combat things really begin to click. Boss battles became a highlight for me – they give you time to explore the most powerful combination abilities at the same time as testing your system understanding, since these encounters can be quite challenging. It’s a battle system that might be a little too complicated for its own good, but it’s undeniably fun once you have a grip on how it all works.
The most prominent thing I knew about Xenoblade before playing it was that the series was known for its expansive worlds – gargantuan fields full of creatures going about their business. While this makes for impressive screenshots and montage videos, in practice it felt like unnecessary padding to me. There’s nothing terribly interesting to explore on your way from A to B across a huge field, with only the occasional hidden chest and the aforementioned roaming creatures to break up the large but fairly monotonous area. While the battle system shone in boss fights, I found battling with creatures while on the way to an objective annoying more often than not. Since the battle system relies on building up meters to unleash your most powerful attacks, it’s understandable that even battles with basic enemies are lengthy enough to let you build up to your powerful attacks. However, this also means that each enemy you decide to take on ends up being a few minutes’ detour on the way to your primary objective. Maybe I’m just impatient, but I usually ended up leaving a wide berth between my character and any potential enemies just to avoid the lengthy fights that were only ever a distraction from where I was trying to go.
This review might seem overly negative, but I don’t mean to imply that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t worth your time. A lot of individual pieces of the game were off-putting, but I’ve still had a great time with the game overall. In the right situations, the battle system can really shine. The storyline, while occasionally cheapened by the bizarre character designs, still had me playing far past when I should have been sleeping on more occasions than I’d like to admit.
Despite its many issues, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stands out with a deep combat system, compelling storyline, and an endearing cast of characters. Just try not to get overwhelmed and give up in those first hours.
Rating: 3.5 / 5