Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review – Elysium City, Where the Grass is Green and the Girls Are Pretty

Xenogears, when it released for the original Sony PlayStation, was one of the games that would not only be the driver for sales of that system, but also help spur a JRPG renaissance. Success with Xenogears led to the game’s mastermind, Tetsuya Takahashi, forming his own studio, Monolith Soft, and recreating that same story he started with, only with different characters and a slightly different world. Banishment from paradise, reincarnation, the ability to shape reality, even God. Every single one of his RPGs shares this core theme, and his latest title, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, is no different.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Monolith Soft
Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Release Date: December 1st, 2017
Players: 1
Price: $59.99

It’s worth nothing that both the Xeno and the Persona series on the original Playstation both pushed the JRPG hobby out of the boring “evil medieval empire takes over the world” cycle, and the announcement of their latest Switch-exclusive iterations were also the only two reasons I bought Nintendo’s new console to begin with.

Yet many “Xeno” fans were hesitant to buy into the game because of the controversy surrounding the previous title in the series, Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Chronicles X came saddled with a meme-infested localization done by an unprofessional team, had to endure unfair censoring (No boob sliders or bunny outfits for the puritan Americans!), and teased the player with giant combat mechs only to lock them off for a dreadfully long amount of time….all combining to make Chronicles X a polarizing game within the larger Xeno series and causing many fans to fear the same would happen with Chronicles 2.

So, did it? I’d say you have nothing to worry about.

Like Xenoblade Chronicles 1, this properly numbered sequel has its people living on the backs of gigantic god-like creatures that jut out from above the clouds, their massive bodies existing on a scale that can be seen (and wow’ed at) by the player as they walk along the perilous edges of their bodies. The only difference this time, and perhaps setting the tone for the game’s story, is that these walking landmasses can – and do – perish.

This is the impetus that drives the game’s hero, Rex, to retire early from his job as junk salvager to instead enter the more dangerous realm of a mercenary. His belief is that the constant wars for land that take place in his world would end if, instead of everyone having to sit on giant creatures that would one day die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, they could instead develop colonies on the large and currently inaccessible treetop paradise, called Elysium, that sits on the horizon.

A noble cause, but one that is seen by many as being impossible…and not just due to no ship being able to make it past the beasts guarding the supposed paradise, but because of the fact that, according to their oral history, mankind was kicked out of it thousands of years ago and is not worthy to return.

All of this impossibility gets thrown out the window when Rex joins a group of mercenaries and discovers a legendary blade that gives him powers no other person has ever seen before. Those powers, which come in the form of a woman named Pyra, grant him the ability to summon “Blades” from the core crystals that fill their world. These blades, which are weaponized lifeforms which bond to and are summoned by a “Driver” that commands them, are immortal beings that represent mankind’s best chance at getting back to the paradise they were kicked out of.

It starts as a very simple story with an understandable setup, but as with any Xeno game, you can expect the “neat and clean” narrative to enter deep and muddy waters relatively quickly, with your party questioning their motives, their mission, and their own allies as the plot progresses.

Though I like where Monolith Soft takes the characters, I’ve noticed some gamers (particularly one of our staff members here at the site) were a little disappointed at how the game seems to “drop the ball” near the end. While this was also true of both Xenogears and Xenosaga and is probably done on purpose so as to convince people their sputtering plots are a purposeful act, I do see their point.

I don’t agree with it, of course, but I do see it.

Chronicles 2 is very much like Xenogears in that the main characters all have secrets, and the expulsion of those hidden truths comes at a horrible price for the people around them, both in terms of their trust and their place within the group. What starts out as a bright, shiny, smile-filled anime romp through rolling green fields eventually becomes a dark and sinister game full of plot twists, betrayal, breaking of the world’s natural laws, and allegiances switching when you least suspect it.

It’s all par for the course when it comes to a “Xeno” game, and while it’s a bit watered down compared to -Gears and -Saga, I think it’s leagues better than the first Xenoblade and its solitary plot twist of “Your view of the enemy is wrong, so you have to switch sides”.

Call me easy to please, but the story really grew on me, as did the characters. I especially loved how each of the game’s few dozen different rare summonable blades have unique after combat conversations they engage your other party members with. It felt dynamic and realistic, at least, when I wasn’t hearing the same quote three times in a row.

And really that’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s greatest strength: Its characterization. The game goes to great lengths to make every PC and NPC in the game worth getting to know. Whether it’s the shopkeeper whose daughter you save from eloping with a dangerous man, or the rare blade you just randomly obtained that has a multi-hour long quest that comes with its own cinema scenes and bosses, Chronicles 2 crams an unbelievable amount of story content into that tiny Switch cartridge. It was enough to where I felt overwhelmed having to play through it all.

Yet I did, simply because the characters were so easy to adore and identify with.

Whether it was the protagonist Rex with his smart mouth and cocky (but just shy of being TOO cocky) attitude, Nia and her tsundere bitchiness, Tora and his nerdy Otaku personality, or Zeke and his Han Solo-esque charisma and perfectly timed comic relief, I felt this was one of the stronger party lineups I’d seen in a JRPG.

The way they spontaneously interact with each other inside and outside of combat, as well as the voice acting itself (Which I felt was good enough to not need the Japanese audio DLC) made up for any shortcomings in the game’s sometimes drawn-out battles and unnecessarily long side quests.

If there’s any downside to the otherwise engaging plotline and colorful characters, it’s the fact that there is so much going on and so much to do that you can easily spend 20 or more hours doing unimportant tasks and completely lose track of where you are or what you’re doing…as well as end up over-leveled for the main quest when you inevitably return to it.

It seems ridiculous to make such a complaint, but I have never felt so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of extraneous tasks in a game as I did here with Chronicles 2. I would often step out of the main quest and do 2-3 days worth of “cleaning up” my quest log because it became unnerving to leave so much behind as the rapidly moving main plot chugged along. Granted, that’s more my fault than that of the game’s, but I’m willing to bet obsessiveness isn’t a rarity among hardcore RPG fans.

This feeling of being overwhelmed extends to the land mass itself, since each of the game’s Titans (The beasts who act as the worlds people live on) are absolutely massive. Walking from one “town” to the next is an hour long affair, and even with the fast travel checkpoint system I found that I did a great deal of walking in the game. Combine that with the constantly re-spawning enemies, the slow running speed, and the exaggerated aggro distance of most enemy mobs and you might begin to understand the anguish I experienced when trying to complete all those sidequests that kept piling up.

To be fair, as much as they aggravated me, the large worlds and the extra quests are one of Chronicles 2’s best features. Sure, I felt obligated to spend a lot of time completing quests to unlock my Blades’ second tier skills, and yes I walked aimlessly around the innards of giant Titans looking for poorly positioned quest markers, but I have a lot of fond memories of doing so. Like panning the camera around and taking screenshots of an impossibly huge crevasse, or discovering a rare upgrade chip in an optional battle while completing a secondary objective…it was laborious, but it wasn’t without reward.

Especially when the game is as gorgeous as this. Say what you want about the Switch, but the visuals in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are a miracle of modern software programming. Sure, there’s some pop-in loading issues when using fast travel and playing the game in portable mode downgrades the visuals a bit too noticably, but the overall graphics are just as good as you’d find on a PS4 JRPG like Star Ocean or Zestiria.

The large multi-tiered levels are hard to navigate, but that also means they’re some of the most fun to explore and content-heavy you’ll find in a modern singleplayer RPG. Which is amusing, since much of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 plays like an MMORPG. Something the series seems to be flirting with ever since its debut on the Wii.

This feeling of it being an offline MMO continues to its combat, which is a remarkably hands-off and passive affair…and has its pros and cons, depending on what you want from a modern JRPG. Though the first Xenoblade used a similar system of aggro building/move linkage and party role dynamics, Chronicles 2 goes one rung deeper into the MMO pool by basing power gain around skills and items that rely on passive boosts that only influence the underlying math rather than actually change the way combat is fought.

To put it in simpler terms, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is all about stacking your chosen abilities and gearing a character up to be one type of class, be it Tank, Healer, or DPS. Your mixing and matching of these roles will change as the game requires it, and the vast majority of the games skills, equipment, and items are specifically tailored to passively boost one of the key aspects of those three roles.

In other words, a tank will select Blades that have damage reflection and absorption on them while equipping items that attract enemy aggro and increase power as their hitpoints decrease, whereas a “DPS” character goes for higher attack rates and healers chase after items that lower their chances of being targeted. It’s easy to understand and work with, even if you aren’t too familiar with western MMORPGs.

So easy, in fact, that I often found myself dozing off during random battles and having to struggle to stay awake. Combat is such an automatic “Set it and forget it” affair that it’s entirely possible to lay the controller down and let the game fight for you, then return after 15 minutes of your party doing chip damage to an enemy’s health bar just in time to hear the victory music.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but not too much. Though I love the combo system that requires timed pressing of buttons and linking different elements together to create larger attacks, most of the fights you’ll slog your way through can be won by simply allowing your other two computer controlled party members to act on their own. How you feel about that will ultimately determine how you view the game’s combat as a whole.

Combat is, overall, a bit of a mixed bag. With it being poorly explained in the game and its intricacies only doled out to the player in drips and drabs over the game’s first 25 hours, it can be a bit annoying to have so much left to figure out and no way of obtaining the knowledge outside of Gamefaqs or friends who are further along than you are. Making things worse are strange decisions like having certain moves spawn healing potions and making aggro distribution and “Tanking” methods mandatory in order to survive.

One thing I will say in the game’s defense is that the cinematic interruptions that happen during special moves and combo links never get boring, and seeing the slow-mo zoom-ins with the camera play out as your level 4 combos rip the enemy to shreds is something that sets this combat system apart from the previous two Xeno titles. I mean that in a good way.

Personally, I did enjoy most of the fighting, especially later into the game when I began to hunt down “unique” named mobs and started farming them for rare drops. Switching between blades and setting up long chains of combos while distributing aggro and breaking down an enemy’s resistances is fun work, so long as you’ve been raised on western RPGs and played the first Xenoblade while muttering to yourself, “Gee, if only this was faster and more like Everquest”

What’s enjoyable about the game’s combat is how everything else is tied into it. The way side quests are needed to unlock a blade’s second tier of skills, or how one blade in particular has their combat abilities unlocked by playing an 8bit game-within-a-game. Between that and the wide variety of blades you can equip and the ways different roles and elements play with one another in combat, it’s more than enough to keep the average player occupied for a good 60-80 hours.

You’ll be spending at least that amount of time in the game as well, since with all the quests, material grinding, item farming, rare monster hunting, and core crystal gambling you’ll have plenty to do long after the main quest becomes history.

Want to take a break from combat and walk around town tracking down quests? Maybe hitting up the salvage points and grinding them for materials? Maybe you want to spend money on the shopkeepers and get them to offer you the deed to their business. Or perhaps you want to increase the development level of a town by doing favors for the townspeople.

There is a ton-and-a-half of non-story related content to experience, and people who want the most bang for their buck cannot get any better of a deal than the one you’re getting here.

Ah, but that gambling. That core crystal gambling. I know it’s a point of contention among fans of the game and I find myself siding with those who don’t agree with it. I feel that the randomness of it adds needless frustration to the game.

You see, you gain some Blades normally through the story, but the vast majority of the “good” ones are locked behind core crystals that you obtain randomly from certain tasks, and these core crystals have a certain percentage chance of giving you one of the few dozen “special” Blades that pad out the game’s roster. On the surface, it sounds like a fairly neat feature, but in practice? It’s infuriating to the nth degree.

Sure, you can influence it by having a high luck stat and using higher quality crystals, but myself and many people like me seem to get astronomically horrible RNG, since after using nearly a hundred or so crystals, we barely have enough blades to even fill the empty slots for our starting party members. Yet, there are some that seem to gather every single rare blade by just stumbling into them. To put it bluntly, it’s a disgustingly unfair system that shouldn’t have made it past the testing phase.

Unfair Blade accrual methods aside, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a very solid JRPG with a ton of content, a decent (if a bit watered down for the Nintendo audience) story line and some of the most gorgeous visuals you’ll see on any console. It’s a good reason to buy a Switch, and an even better reason to be glad you have one if you already do. What it lacks in user-friendliness or balance it more than makes up in the personality of its characters, size of its world, and content-heavy questing.

Any fan of the original Xenoblade will find very little to turn them off from this sequel, and to be honest, most JRPG fans in general will walk away with at least a few good memories by the time the credits roll. Though it may aggravate you at times – especially when trying to reach quest markers that seem to continually wiggle out of your reach among the labyrinthine worlds you have to map out – I feel the memorable characters and variety of locales more than make up for that.

Kudos to the translation team and Nintendo themselves who chose not to censor the title when so-called professional critics attacked some of the body proportions of a certain Blade within the game. Having the same group that handled the “localization” for the previous game take this one too would have no doubt resulted in a completely different (and more than likely “Raaaaawr is dragon for I love you”-filled) jumbled mess.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch using a review copy purchased by Niche Gamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.

The Verdict: 9

The Good:

  • Huge amount of content to pour through
  • Gorgeously detailed worlds that are a joy (sometimes) to get lost in
  • Memorable characters that stay with you
  • Lots of skills/Blades/Roles to combine and experiment with

The Bad:

  • Combat can feel a bit repetitive/bland at times
  • Sheer size of world and depth of quests can be overwhelming to some
  • That Core Crystal “gambling” system
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Carl is both a JRPG fan and a CRPG'er who especially loves European PC games. Even with more than three decades of gaming under his belt, he feels the best of the hobby is yet to come.

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