The burden of expectation weighs heavily upon Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s hard to believe that the first game in the series nearly didn’t make its way to North American shores. Since then, it has built an enduring legacy that cements it as one of the greatest RPGs of its generation, if not one of the best video games in the last decade. Xenoblade Chronicles X, for all the richness of its open world, diverged sufficiently from its predecessor that it alienated much of its fanbase. Enter Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a spiritual successor to the original Xenoblade with a renewed focus on character-driven storytelling. Is it the dream sequel we’ve been waiting for? My gut says that while it’s an excellent RPG in its own right, it’s going to fall just shy of measuring up to Shulk’s magnum opus.
The first thing I—and everyone—noticed about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was its distinctly elevated “anime” aesthetic. There’s no denying that it leans further into mainstream anime tropes, for better or for worse. Rex is a fairly typical shonen protagonist, upbeat and unflappable, while Pyra—at least initially—feels like your run-of-the-mill demure female deuteragonist. Yet they’re a likeable lot, and the more generic designs in the bunch are complemented by some truly standout characters, from the eccentric, lovable Poppi α to the deathly serious Inquisitor Mòrag. A pan-European voice cast breathes life into the cast in unexpected ways; Nia looks like an adolescent catgirl, but sounds like a Scottish mother of three. I admit I’m more taken with it than I expected to be. Tora’s “meh-meh-meh” verbal tic is flat-out awful, though.
A renewed focus on characters and story mean that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has no short supply of punchy, dynamic cutscenes. I particularly appreciate the choreography of its intense fight scenes—characters leap, cross swords, and sling magical attacks with beautiful finesse, making the game as exciting to watch as it is to play. In the first two hours of the game, there’s a cinematic showdown that lesser games would feature as part of their climax. That’s not to say there aren’t long-winded conversations with genre-typical dialogue flow, but they’re at least punctuated by the sort of exciting drama Xenoblade Chronicles X lacked.
Oh, and the music. It’s phenomenal. Full stop. Expect a more nuanced critique once I’ve collected myself.
I do have a number of concerns that I’m hoping to see addressed going forward. The first, in regard to battle pacing, is something I expect the game to alleviate on its own. To be blunt, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels much slower than Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and Xenoblade Chronicles X. The dramatic decrease in movement speed when the characters draw their weapons is jarring. They gradually begin moving faster as their affinity with their partner character rises, but at the game’s outset, the action feels like it’s mired in quicksand. Auto-attacks are deliberately sluggish so as to allow well-timed button presses to confer additional effects; in other words, launching a special Art at the exact moment a regular attack connects boosts its effectiveness. It takes too long for additional layers to reveal themselves, but when they do, they player is swimming in weapons, Blades—partners—and additional party members. With 28 hours on my game clock, I find that it continues to feel a little clunky and slow despite its complexity.
One issue I was genuinely surprised to find was that the game doesn’t perform well in large outside areas. Gormott Province emerges early on as Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s analogue for Xenoblade Chronicles 1‘s sweeping Gaur Plains. It’s an expansive, beautiful zone, full of interesting fauna to observe and hidden crevasses to explore, but the framerate dips frustratingly low when the game is running in docked mode. It actually runs much better in handheld mode, but at the expense of visual detail. I’m much more inclined to play on a big screen, so I was disappointed that I had to pull the system off the dock to get through the area without irritation.
Similarly, I am baffled by the game’s lack of a proper map screen. There’s a mini-map, but it’s too small, even when expanded to cover the screen as an overlay, and there’s no option to zoom it in or out. Likewise, even though the fast travel feature is mapped to a single button, it takes the player to a threaded menu that they have to navigate through from the top every single time. Even a rudimentary cursor memory option would have helped here. With any luck, these quality-of-life issues are something the developers can patch.
My main point of contention with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, aside from its curious lack of technical polish, is its overall shift to a more juvenile tone. A—mostly—strong voice cast does much to balance out its doe-eyed characters, and the story is at its best when the melodrama is turned up high. I just can’t get behind the wacky, “oh no, you saw me in my underwear” sort of schlock and impossibly big-breasted fetish characters that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 dabbles in, much to my chagrin. Dahlia gives me nightmares, but to each their own, I suppose, and I know Monolith Soft is capable of better.
Does the story of Rex and his humanoid not-Monado live up to its considerable pedigree? Given that I’m only about a third of the way through its meaty story, that remains to be seen. Check back with us soon for a full review of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
A retail version of the game reviewed was provided by the publisher. You can find additional information about CGMagazine’s ethics and review policies and procedures here.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Derek Heemsbergen’s reviews, such as Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth and his second look at Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age!
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