Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review: One of the Most Unique RPGs of the Year
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is Monolith Soft's latest JRPG for the Nintendo Switch. It's the official sequel to the critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles -- a game which I, unfortunately, haven't sunk my teeth into yet. However, it's not a sequel in the traditional sense, where the same old characters go on a new adventure. Rather, it's a brand-new adventure with all new characters set in the same universe.
You're still traveling around on the backs of Titans, like in the original, but you won't be fighting giant mechanical life forms with the mystical Monado. This game has a truly unique sense of identity that refrains from relying on the success of its predecessor without forgetting its roots. So how does it shape up on its own?
This is a massive game, and there's so much to talk about, so for your sanity and my own, I'm structuring this review with a more traditional format. First, we'll go over my thoughts on the story and plot without getting into spoilers. Next, I'll take a moment or two to gush about the gameplay. Then, we'll touch on the graphics and art style, music and audio, and overall performance. And finally, we'll talk a bit about the replay value before wrapping everything up.
The Story and Plot of Xenoblade 2 (Little to No Spoilers)
From the very moment you hit New Game, XC2 introduces the characters and the world absolutely beautifully. First, you get a glimpse of the main character, Rex, who you find salvaging under the water-like Cloud Sea. Upon snagging his haul, he emerges onto the back of a Titan ship, where he eventually spies another Titan dying and sinking into the Cloud Sea. This entire scene cleverly introduces the main character, the Cloud Sea of Alrest, and the grave state of the world in one fell swoop, and it only gets better from there.
Rex's personality is continually strengthed through the first Chapter as you're introduced to a colorful cast of characters, many with their own motives and desires. You're also introduced to Blades and their Drivers shortly before Rex actually becomes a Driver himself. These aforementioned Blades are essentially living weapons that have resonated with and fight alongside Drivers, lending them their power and their weapon.
On an expedition, Rex discovers a Legendary Blade called the Aegis and, in a twist of fate, resonates with her in exchange for promising to take her to Elysium, the World Tree. Now a Driver, Rex embarks on the journey to fulfill his promise in hopes that they might find something at Elysium to save the dying Titans.
The adventure spans the backs and insides of several Titans, each with its own environments and ecosystems. And of course, everywhere the party goes, people recognize the emerald core crystal of the Aegis, which causes countless problems as others seek to control her fate in one way or another.
On the way to Elysium, the party accomplishes a lot. What's interesting, though, is that the more quests you complete, the more XC2 runs through cause-and-effect scenarios. The main story questline itself is brilliant about doling out consequences for the party's actions, but you'll even find plenty of nice surprises simply by completing side quests. It gives the feeling that they really put a lot of thought into the plot.
Rather in line with the nature of cause-and-effect writing, though, you'll find the story to be quite tragic. There were several moments where I couldn't help but cry, and even just thinking back on them now makes me teary-eyed.
That's really a testament to how great the characters are. They feel real to me. Their personalities are so strong that I feel like I know these characters after only a few interactions. And then they all somehow manage to get deeper and more layered the more time you have with them.
The humor here is really solid, too, in contrast to the cheesy humor found in previous entries. Some of the environments just lend themselves to hilarious interactions between characters that just seem natural. The heart-to-hearts are even a brilliant extension of that much of the time. However, the humor isn't always tasteful.
If you're used to playing JRPGs or watching anime, then you're probably already used to this, but there is a bit of "fanservice" sprinkled throughout. Of course, by that, I mean scenes where a female character is awkwardly exposed or objectified in order to tap in on that sex appeal. While some of these scenes did bring characters closer together, I found them largely unnecessary. What's so jarring about the whole thing is that this kind of fanservice wasn't really present in previous entries. I'm just thankful that these scenes are few and far between because the story is otherwise phenomenal.
So yeah, much of the story is conveyed through cutscenes, and cutscenes may not have the best reputation these days, but these ones are stellar. XC2 may have you sitting through 10-20 minutes of cutscenes at a time, but they're so high quality that I feel like I'm watching a flashy anime. I never once felt like they were dragging on or wished they were over so I could get back to the action. It felt like a natural extension of the gameplay that had me thrilled to see what was next.
Additionally, while you don't need to play the first game to understand what's going on, a friend told me that if you have played it, the ending is a lot more enjoyable. I can't vouch for this since, like I stated above, I haven't gotten past the beginning stages of the first game. However, the story of Xenoblade 2 has me so engrossed that I feel driven to go back and give it a proper go.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Gameplay
Part of the reason I never got invested in the series before now is that the gameplay put me off. I didn't like the idea of scrolling across a hotbar on a controller in order to activate combat abilities. I was able to push through it for X because I wanted to fly in a Skell really bad, but I was never really all that fond of it.
On top of that, I never liked the idea of finding items randomly via non-descript crystals out in the wild or all the fetch quests that went with them. The cherry on top was, of course, the confusing mess of menus that I never bothered to delve into out of sheer intimidation.
Thankfully, it seems XC2 fixes most of these issues. Instead of scrolling across a large hotbar full of abilities to activate anything, Arts are now assigned to the face buttons B, Y, and X, with A being used for Special Attacks. To make up for the reduced number of Arts, you can now switch between three Blades mid-combat and utilize their different Arts and Specials.
On top of that, the combat system has been totally revamped. It has a rhythm to it, and if you get really good at it, you have the potential to unleash attacks that deal enormous amounts of damage. If you want to read up on the details of the combat system, check out our combat guide. It's worth a read just to see how they've changed the combat in this iteration -- and I wouldn't want to take up another 1,800 words expanding upon it here.
The gameplay and combat are slow for the first few hours as the game builds up the story and takes its sweet time introducing you to its many systems so that you don't get confused. I followed along with its tutorials really well, but some things take a little bit of practice to get used to. I wish that they would have added an option to review past tutorials in case you forget or missed important details.
As you grow in level and actually start earning interesting combat abilities, the game slowly ramps up in difficulty. It wasn't long before I started to hit a wall with boss fights and couldn't rely on my knowledge of the combat system to win. I had to actually think about fights and use clever tactics in order to survive. Some bosses wiped my over-leveled party more than a dozen times before I finally managed to clear them.
There's plenty more to do than just beat up enemies, though. There are a bunch of pretty interesting sidequests, even if the tasks are generally similar to ones you'd expect from previous installments. I never felt like I was drowning in too many sidequests, either, and the ones that appeared in each area all seemed to take me to unique places. In a way, it felt like they aided in my exploration of the world rather than wasted my time with menial tasks. The improved Quest Log definitely helps with that.
Of course, there are still collection quests, but at least trying to track down the items you need isn't anywhere near as annoying as in past installments. Those crystals are now Collection Points that drop multiple items when you interact with them, and they respawn whenever you make a lap around the map or Skip Travel. Each Collection Point drops specific types of items, and some of your Blades may have skills that allow you to collect more of them, so all in all, it's just plain better.
Speaking of quests, though, there's this compass thing on the top of the screen now that will track quests for you, but I have such a confusing love-hate relationship with it. It does help give me an idea of where I need to go, especially if the objective is far away, but it's extremely inaccurate at indicating just how far to the left or right the objective is from your position. I found it more or less mandatory to open the full-screen map to track objectives down once I got close enough. I appreciate that the compass is good about indicating distance and verticality, but I do find myself wishing it was just a bit more accurate.
On that note, some quests -- even some main story quests -- are bad about telling you how to get to where you need to go. It's led me to a few moments of wandering around without making much progress (but looking back on it, I'm proud of myself for figuring out where to go on my own). If that's not your thing, you may want to look at a walkthrough for those bits because I can definitely see some people being quite frustrated by them.
As you travel from Titan to Titan, you'll discover settlements and towns. These places are full of shops where you can upgrade your equipment and purchase temporary buffs. If you raise the Development Level of a Titan by talking to the citizens, doing side quests, buying stuff from the shops, and completing merc missions, then the shops found on that Titan will expand their inventory and lower their prices. The development of Titans is further incentivized by allowing you to buy Shop Deeds -- special key items that offer passive buffs and bonuses to your entire party -- once you've bought everything from a shop.
Then there's the aforementioned Merc Missions, which are essentially expeditions that you can send Blades you're not using out on to earn special items, extra funds, and additional experience for your party to redeem at the Inn. It can be a bit of a pain to dive into the menu and micromanage them every 40 minutes or so, but the rewards were definitely worth the break from the gameplay.
Speaking of the menus, although they're still a hassle to navigate, they somehow managed to make them less intimidating. I found myself diving into and utilizing every menu quite frequently, which is a huge step up from how often I dove in on XCX, and my party was definitely in a better spot for it.
However, the frequency of my menu dives may be due to Blade Affinity Charts, which wouldn't update the skills or Trust levels earned through gameplay until viewed. I loved the way Blade Affinity Charts worked, but I wish they didn't make me open a menu every time I earned a new skill. Admittedly, though, this annoyance is far more pronounced in the beginning and becomes a less frequent problem the further you progress in the game.
Overall, the gameplay has a lot of nuances, and the game does a good job of spreading out the introduction of its mechanics in a digestible fashion. I found the gameplay far easier to get invested in than in previous entries, making XC2 the title that I would wholeheartedly recommend to series newcomers.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Graphics, Audio, and Performance
So we're not going to delve too much into the technical aspect of the game, but I do wanna touch on things like the aesthetics, music, voice acting, and performance.
The art style has seen an interesting shift. While the series had previously teetered on the edge between anime and realism, the latest installment has doubled down on the former style. As such, some of the character designs have gotten a little wild.
A wide array of artists worked on character designs for this title, and it shows. While some of the character designs are cool and sleek, others are janky and flat-out embarrassing to witness when others are in the room. The word "fanservice" comes to mind, again. Heck, one of the Blades I got had weirdly engorged body proportions and was wearing basically nothing but fishnet made from snowflakes. I mean, I can choose not to use her in my party, sure, but should I really have to hide characters just to save myself from the embarrassment of onlookers catching a glimpse? I'd like to think not, but this is where the sticky topic of censorship comes in, and I'd rather not get into that conversation.
Characters aside, the rest of the game is stunning. The vistas I saw on the back of Titans took my breath away. Staring up at a hill and seeing it sway back and forth as the Titan wanders around the Cloud Sea is absolutely surreal. The design of many of the cities and towns is wonderful to behold. Even the clouds look gorgeous. It's overall a beautiful title if you can work past the misgivings of the character design.
I'm not going to be nitpicking over sound effects here so much as I want to point out the music and voice acting. Xenoblade is known for its amazing music, and XC2 is no different. Almost every track I heard was delightful and had me whistling and humming along. Ever since the game came out, I've had various tracks from its OST stuck in my head, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. There have only been a few tracks I've heard so far that I was even neutral about, let alone didn't care for. This is easily some of the best music I've ever heard in a video game, and I'm reveling in every second of it.
As for the voice acting, I think it's phenomenal. Both the English and Japanese casts are excellent. I personally prefer the English voices because I think they fit the characters a heck of a lot better, but I can't deny that the Japanese voice cast is strong and recognizable. The lipsync is pretty bad at times, but it never bothered me.
XC2 runs at 30 fps a majority of the time. General combat is pretty smooth for the most part, and traveling around the world is, too. However, there are some spots where the game tanks down to about 22 fps, and it can be pretty disorienting, especially when you're trying to keep the rhythm of combat going. It's kind of what you'd expect from an open-world game, so it doesn't really detract from the experience, but it's something to note nonetheless.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Replay Value
Is this the kind of game you'd want to replay after finishing it? Or better yet, is this the kind of game you'd continue playing after the credits roll? Well, yeah, probably. And it's in large part due to one specific system.
You acquire new Blades by resonating with Core Crystals. It's fashioned much like loot boxes are in other games, in the sense that which Blade you get is completely random, but thankfully there are no microtransactions involved with them.
There are well over 30 unique Rare Blades to collect, and aside from the 8 or so you find through the main story, the rest are all earned in this fashion. When you open a Core Crystal, you have a chance to get a Rare Blade. On Common Cores, that chance is rather low, but it's still possible. On Rare Cores, you're more likely to get a Rare Blade, but it's far from guaranteed.
What's more is that each of these Rare Blades has a unique personality, and some of them even have skills that are exclusive to them. While it's not required for the story to seek out all of the Rare Blades, they certainly make it worth your while.
Aside from the Blade gachapon, though, each Blade also has its own Affinity Chart to max out for better combat and overworld abilities, and every Driver can upgrade Arts connected to any weapon type, leaving plenty of ways to further strengthen your party after the story has finished.
The rest of the post-game in XC2 is a rather standard affair for the series. There are extra side quests that open up and super-bosses available for you to fight, but there's not any more story to experience past the credits. At least not yet.
The Season Pass does plan on adding a few extra things to keep the adventure going well into the new year. Still to come are new quests in January, a new Rare Blade in spring, a new Challenge Mode over the summer, and finally, new story content arriving in autumn. We'll see how all that pans out when it comes out, though.
Verdict: A Deep RPG That Sets Itself Apart from Its Predecessor
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a fantastic RPG and a welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch library. You'll spend several dozen if not hundreds of hours exploring Alrest and all it has to offer, and it only gets better the more time you sink into it. It's shaping up to be my favorite game of the year, which is a tall feat considering how many great games got released this year.
So why only an 8 when I gave other games higher scores this year? Well, simply put, I don't think everyone's going to be okay with the so-called "fanservice" that they sprinkled into the game. It's far from overbearing, and it doesn't really get too in-your-face, but it's still present, and returning fans may be put off by the sudden direction.
Personally, I'm used to putting up with a little bit of fanservice if it means I get to experience an incredible game -- and some of you aren't going to mind at all. However, I felt like the English localization crew did a pretty good job of minimizing the negative impact that these fanservice-y moments could have on players without going so far as to censor it. I suspect that if I had even just played most of the game with the Japanese voices, this issue would have felt more pronounced.
Fanservice aside, I really can't think of anything else totally wrong with the game. It's greatly improved upon the gameplay of the original all while managing a story worthy of the Xenoblade title. This game captivates me like no other has in a long time, and I'm still reeling from the wonder of it all.
If you're an RPG enthusiast, an anime connoisseur, or a fan of the series, and you own a Nintendo Switch, you need this game in your library. There's a ton of value to be found here, both in the number of hours you'll get out of this title and in the deep RPG mechanics buried within. You won't regret picking up this gem of a game.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is available now on the Nintendo Switch for $60 with a Season Pass that will set you back an extra $30.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get back to playing Xenoblade. Ciao!