Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 defies a traditional review. Putting a number on this JRPG doesn’t accurately describe the experience of playing it. Xenoblade Chronices 2 is an experience like no other, but I wouldn’t call it good. I would call it frustrating, sloppy, and badly overdesigned.
The strange thing is, despite the numerous issues, I couldn’t stop playing. Something about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 kept a controller in my hand, even if I wasn’t always having fun at the time.
Getting Off on the Wrong Titan’s Foot
I knew that XB2 wasn’t going to be RPG of the year as soon as I saw it in action. The graphics are disappointingly primitive, and look at two generations behind. Character’s movements are stiff, and environmental textures are bland and flat.
The voice acting is laughable. Most characters struggle to express even the slightest emotional affect. The corny script and lack of a Japanese voice option only make things worse. The lip flaps aren’t matched, but that’s because most characters don’t even have them. Their mouths just open and close like some sort of creepy anime doll.
Its presentation is a mess, but I admit there is something charming about it. I have always been a big fan of the PS2 era of RPGs. They were stuck in a strange purgatory between the motion captured characters of modern day games and the blocky tinker toy appearance of Final Fantasy 7. Every game from the era felt like it was trying too hard to be the next big work of art, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels the same. I understand that having the quality of a PS2 RPG in 2017 is practically unforgivable, but something about it just pushed my nostalgia buttons.
A World I Want to Know About
The setting of this game might have contributed to its charm. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place in a world where all land has sunken beneath the sea and all creatures make their home on and in massive flying Titans. At the center of it all is the World Tree, a massive structure with its roots far below the ground that reaches higher into the sky than anyone can see. At the top of the tree lies Elysium, a paradise that mankind was cast out of ages ago.
It’s a great concept for a fantasy world, and practically drips with mythology and lore. Each location is wildly different, and provides a sense that the world is alive. So many neat little details flesh out the world. Tiny titans were used as personal transport, militant civilizations built their cities inside Titans for protection, and culture and wildlife all change based on the Titan’s habitat and behavior. I wanted to know more about this world, and that’s one thing that kept me playing.
The story isn’t great, but I’ve certainly experienced worse. You play as Rex, a Salvager who makes his living by diving below the cloud sea and bringing back pieces of ancient technology. One day he’s paid an exorbitant amount of money to haul up an extremely rare piece of salvage which turns out to be a girl.
This girl is a “Blade,” a living magical weapon. This particular blade, Pyra, has some strange connection to Elysium and the World Tree. After being betrayed by his comrades and accidentally magically bonding with Pyra, Rex sets off on an odyssey to reach Elysium and discover the secrets behind Pyra’s past.
Sure, it’s tropey and cliché, but it brought a smile to my face. Through all the bad voice acting and horrible dialogue, there’s something about the narrative that makes you want to see these characters succeed. Maybe it’s because each step of their journey reveals new mysteries about the setting. Maybe it’s because Pyra is one of the only characters with halfway decent voice acting. Maybe it’s because one of the main antagonists is basically just Archer with a spikey haircut.
Whatever the reason, this standard JRPG plot was engaging. Honestly, it might be because it’s been a while since we had a plot that was so by-the-numbers. When everyone is trying to be different, the norm becomes the new.
Feature Bloat, the Real Enemy
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 starts simple enough.
The battle system is only slightly altered from Xenoblade Chronicles 1. Characters auto-attack the enemy when they are in range, and each attack they land recharges the cool-down on one of three special arts mapped to your controller’s face buttons. It seems like you can dodge enemy attacks, but really you can’t. Dodging is calculated mathematically and attacks don’t actually have hit-boxes.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 plays more like an MMO, in that attacks land as long as they are in range, even if animations hit nothing but air. Battles aren’t won by twitch reflexes. They are won by planning and strategy.
As the game continues these systems get more complicated. You learn you can cancel out of your auto-attacks to increase the power of your arts. You learn that landing a certain number of arts lets you trigger a super attack. You learn that triggering multiple super attacks in a sequence causes a combo, and multiple combos create elemental orbs that raise or lower an enemy’s defenses. Then you learn that using multiple arts with status effects in a sequence causes a different type of combo, and using these two types of combos together deals even more damage to the opponent. Then you learn that you can perform a party wide chain attack after performing multiple combos to remove orbs to do more supers in a row to create more combos and…
Can you tell that this game has a problem with feature bloat? What I’ve just described isn’t even the whole battle system, and out-of-battle systems are even more numerous!
For example, the Blade system is needlessly complex. You can create new Blades from “core crystals”, giving the game a sort of Pokemon “collect-em-all” vibe. Each blade has different map abilities that allow you to farm materials from collection points and solve map puzzles. You increase these abilities by completing achievements, such as talking to enough people, killing enough enemies, or playing for a certain amount of time. You can also send blades on mercenary missions to let them level up during down time. Blades can also be augmented with “Aux Cores” which grant them special abilities, but before you can equip an Aux Core you need to refine it and you refine it by farming a certain amount of materials from enemies and collection points and taking it to a forge. You can also equip “shards” to a Blade which changes their weapon in some fashion but these shards are one time use only.
Get all that? Well too bad, we aren’t done. Non-blade characters level up through EXP, by spending weapon points to increase their art effectiveness, by spending skill points to give them passive skills, by equipping new accessories, by leveling up the trust with their blade, by learning “new ideas” through battle which give you passive benefits, and by completing quests and sleeping at an inn to cash in bonus XP!
Tired of leveling up? Well you can cook meals, create art, or play music to grant you passive bonuses. Find out your blade’s favorite creature comforts and you’ll unlock yet more skills!
Sick of battle? Play a salvaging mini-game for more treasure. Careful though, because you can salvage up… battles…
Be careful when you are out exploring because the cloud tides can come in cutting off routes or opening new ones.
Remember that special abilities that call down light from the sky can’t be used in areas with a roof.
Did you know what one of your characters fights with a robot that uses parts that you can only buy with a special ether crystal currency that you earn by playing an 8-bit video game.
It’s just too much!
I still don’t remember all the systems the game was trying to shove down my throat. At one point it asked me to raise cattle and I just forgot about it. There is a dead cow on a farm somewhere because I was too busy micromanaging all my various stats and numbers. There’s just no way to interact with everything XB2 has to offer, which is a problem because it’s difficulty curve is designed around every system being utilized.
Back to the Old Grind
XB2 is hard, unfairly hard.
Random battles against enemies five levels below you take several minutes to finish. You have HP totals in the thousands but even common enemies have HP totals in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Don’t even think about challenging higher-level enemies. A level or two above your own means the enemy has a one-shot kill attack. Yet, the map is littered with high level enemies. The very first open world section of the game had a level 90-something gorilla wandering around, just waiting to kill my party in one hit.
You don’t lose anything for dying outside of being sent back to the last checkpoint, but it’s still massively frustrating to party-wipe multiple times as you travel from one location to another.
This is where the game’s map system really fails. You have a compass that always points you toward your next objective, but it points in a straight line. This straight line might run you right past some of these absurdly high level enemies. To effectively navigate, you have to use the full screen map, except it isn’t quite transparent enough. Navigating while it’s up runs the risk of encountering high-level enemies because they are obscured by the map. Getting anywhere becomes this horrible dance of opening and closing the map every three seconds to make sure you are on the right route and even then I found myself running off ledges and taking instantly lethal fall damage.
Fall damage? Really Xenoblade? Weren’t we done with fall damage in the PS2 era? Oh…. Right…
I Try to Get Out By They Keep Pulling Me Back In
All of these messy systems had me throwing down my controller in rage. One night I found my only path through a dungeon took me past a group of six enemies that were substantially higher level than me. I struggled fighting for three hours before saying I was done playing forever, yet I came back the next day.
Then I encountered a boss who could inflict a party wide status effect that made me stand there and do nothing while he beat me to death. It even ignored accessories that were specifically supposed to protect from this status effect. I threw my controller again and swore the game off, but I came back the next day.
I tried to complete some side-quests but found that the map and compass actually stops showing you objectives halfway through certain quests. I tried to raise some of my Blade’s skill trees only to find that their level-1 achievements were locked behind end-game activities. Every single goal I pursued was shot down by the games needlessly complexity and unnecessary system bloat, yet I kept coming back the next day.
Why? Why would anyone come back to a game that’s so frustrating?
It’s all because of the Switch. If Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a PC or PS4 game, I would have abandoned it a long time ago, but its system bloat really works with the Switch’s portable format. If I was stuck on a long train ride with nothing to do, I could open up Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and just fiddle around with something. Maybe I’d do a farming quest. Maybe I’d go exploring a dark corner of a Titan and take on an optional boss. There’s no pressure to make any progress since there are just so many things to do outside of the main plot.
Then I’d get home, put the Switch back into its dock, and ram my face against the last impossible challenge the game had for me, but it wouldn’t be impossible anymore. All the random grinding and questing that I did in my down-time eventually made actual gameplay sessions easier. Granted, it takes hours to do. I was barely past chapter 3 at the fifty hour mark and I was still getting new system tutorials.
It only works because the Switch is portable. All your grinding can be done on the go while your main quest progress can be done on the couch. If you stick with it long enough you’ll find each new main quest unlocks more systems to fool around with before confronting you with an even bigger difficulty barrier, and the cycle continues.
More Frustrating Than Fun
I’d hesitate to call Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a game I’d recommend. It doesn’t quite live up to the Xeno name. I liked Xenoblade Chronicles 1 more and I liked Xenosaga and Xenogears much more. This is a game with more frustrating experiences with fun ones. I did sink hundreds of hours into it however, so I suppose that is proof of some sort of value.
It’s something you can play in spurts whenever you have free time, but not something you would want to sit down and marathon. If you are looking for an amazing JRPG on the Switch, wait for Project Octopath Traveler. As for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, it certainly does live up to its promise of hundreds of hours of gameplay, but not all of those hours are enjoyable.