The tragedy of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t that there is a good game buried within garbled code, peaking out at you, but never quite making direct eye contact. No, the tragedy is that an all-time great JRPG is buried in a good-enough game.
You see, Monolith Soft has the unenviable task of chasing a ghost. The first Xenoblade was already a legend before it was even released outside of Japan. It was the game that launched Operation Rainfall, that helped resurrect a breed of software thought to be a relic, that promised a world beyond our wildest imaginations. The hype was unimaginable, and yet the finished product was such a revelation, such an intelligent reshuffling and reinvigoration of its genre, that it managed to exceed the highest expectations even the most optimistic had placed upon it. Topping it is nearly impossible.
But damnit, they sure tried.
I’m not sure I have ever played a game with ambitions so disparate as this. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (henceforth XBC2) is something that could not have been created by any other developer at any other time. Only Monolith Soft, challenged with quickly delivering a launch-window Switch game after releasing the experimental Chronicles X in 2015, could have done something this bold. A new, numbered sequel to the original? With a new art style? With a completely revamped combat system? With a world as big, as memorable, and as bonkers as the original? Virtually no one else would take on such a project, let alone come as close to delivering on the tantalizing promise of it.
The key to Nintendo’s investment in Tetsuya Takahashi’s Xeno-mythos is the interplay between world and story. Other RPGs have stories about characters in a world. In Xenoblade, the world is the story – the stage is also an actor. XBC2 takes place, literally, in a sea of clouds. That they conceal, contain, and create part of this tale is not a spoiler, but anything more specific than that honestly would be. You play as Rex, a scavenger who dives into the cloud sea for detritus. He eventually takes a job that introduces him to the world of Blades – humanoids birthed from crystals that are paired with Drivers (the humans who touch their crystals, who are thereby granted mystical powers). Comedy, melodrama, and tragedy follow.
Where those acts play out is the highlight of the game. The original might have a more iconic hook, with its twin titans frozen in time, but it’s hard to argue with a sequel that throws even more titans with ever-more outlandish and clever designs at you. The views are routinely breathtaking, the music always fitting, the sense of scale unfailingly giggle-inducing. I can, and have, spent thousands of words describing how it feels to explore these types of worlds. Words never do it justice, though. When a perfectly crafted soundtrack melds so seamlessly into an interactive painting, it’s best for the writer to just shut up and allow you to experience it yourself.
On more objective grounds, I can report that the more “traditional” Xeno colors, saturated and vivid, make a return. One could quibble on some texture quality here and there, but you can spend hours gaping in wonder, were it not for fauna and monsters getting in your way.
I suppose that brings us to the battle system, which is kind of brilliant. As a general law of gaming, you can either have some RPG as a garnish in your action (in everything from Symphony of the Night to Bayonetta), or you could have a whiff of action in your “traditional” command-based RPG. In the latter camp, game creators (not named Atlus) have been continually dickering with their combat designs, trying to do something, anything, to break from being just another turn-based menu scheme. In the original Xenoblade, Monolith’s choice was to merge MMO auto-attacking with one simple menu – the Arts palette, which used ATB-esque cooldowns for its actions, and let you cash in a one-time, turn-based special attack. XBC2, though? It’s a command-based RPG with no menus. There is no racing through menus to get to a heal or charm. All of the information is on the screen, a button press away. (Or, put another way, the screen is the menu. Take your pick.)
The original’s auto-attacking is retained, but the arts wheel is cut down to three. Auto attacks charge up those arts. In turn, those arts charge up special attacks. Hitting a special charges up blade combos (aka elemental attacks). Hit three consecutive blade combos, and you’ve inflicted your foe with an elemental status. That status can then be mauled in a chain attack, the gauge for which is fed by all specials heretofore explained.
Sound complicated? It can be. Your auto attacks are actually three-to-four hit combinations themselves; hit a button at the end of the combo, and you’ll charge up your special attacks faster. You can also layer in the previous game’s “break/topple” attacks for variety. But the game literally spends about 10-20 hours, depending on your proclivities for exploration, explaining all of this in bite-sized increments. You’re later given access to more blades and more abilities. Which leads us to some problems.
Firstly, the tutorials that explain this all cannot be revisited; miss it once, and you’re off to google. But secondly, that it takes more than a dozen hours to explain it all is a little ridiculous. This tendency towards glacial explanation bleeds into some narrative problems, as well. Unless you are absolutely racing through the plot, taking no time to explore (shame on you, philistine), you will spend dozens of hours in the dark, taking part in an adventure that really needs a little more light shone on its central conceit.
Still, when the sights are so exquisite, it’s hard to complain.
…yes, I guess that brings us to the character designs, which you will be seeing the – ahem – most of. The blade designs are hyper-sexualized, and a fanservice/objectification line is one you will have to decide on for yourself. What is less arguable is the camera during cutscenes, which never fails to miss a gratuitous ass shot or up-skirt. We get it, Monolith. You gave Pyra an impossible 13/10 butt. You needn’t shout about it.
However, an occasionally lecherous cameraman does not change that these are characters worth caring about. If you hate shonen manga or magical girl anime, XBC2 probably won’t change your opinion on those things. And yet, there is depth and heart to this cast. They matter to each other, which has a way of making them matter to you. The bonds they forge may seem facile to the most jaded viewer, but ask yourself: how much do your friends matter to you? You’d need a heart two sizes too small, made of coal and anthrax, to not feel for this troupe. Even with their terribly repetitive battle banter.
So it’s beautiful, it has a brilliant battle system, it has a story and a cast that one can’t help but love…it has all of the ingredients to be a classic. Why can’t XBC2 catch the ghost of its forebearer?
The aforementioned pacing does drag down the overture, and the creator’s gently guiding hand limits the scope of the game early on (whereas the original gave you all of Colony 9 and the surrounding field to wander about in). It has mechanical imperfections – the button prompt at gathering points sometimes doesn’t register at first, you might find yourself fighting enemies through walls, the quick travel map honks at me like a rude cabbie, there’s odd pop-in during cut scenes, and the mini map is functionally useless. Furthermore, the sidequests are more tedious than in past installments, the penultimate area feels a bit too rushed and linear, and hiding story progression behind a skill tree was probably not the wisest choice.
Those faults are somewhat balanced by other facets of the game’s design. Armor and gems are far more manageable this time, for one. And although you aren’t led by the nose to explore certain maps, it’s well worth your time; even seemingly throwaway areas contain secrets and some surprisingly large fields to stomp around in. It’s worth noting, too, that at their best, JRPGs are supposed to be sprawling efforts. I spent 90 hours playing elaborately interlocked gameplay loops across diverse and challenging locations. Huge JRPGs are not polished to within an inch of their lives like a 2D fighter or driving sim; they take more chances, and thus have a few more rough patches than hyper-focused projects. All in all, Monolith Soft has achieved something here that is obviously related to their past work, but manages to feel very, very different. Reinvention is a task that vexes the best of developers; to do it in the time frame this game was delivered in is frankly astonishing.
I didn’t always love these types of games. It took me five years for the first game to click with me. Now? I can tell that there is a certain magic here, the type that only comes from videogames. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is flawed, as tragically as the heroes and villains it portrays.
But I’ve grown to love them, nonetheless. Maybe you will, too.