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.
Final Review Update:
Some 115 hours later, I’ve finally seen Xenoblade Chronicles 2 through to its conclusion. It was a ride, to be sure: up, down, up again, and finally a gentle slant downward until the game ultimately settled into a slot somewhere below its two predecessors. I’m not mad at Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for moving in a new direction. It’s full of new ideas, brimming with creatures and places to discover, and it answers most every question it poses throughout the course of its lengthy narrative. What a magnificent world it is to explore! Taken as a whole, it’s a good RPG. But it stumbles, and when it does, it’s often into a full-on faceplant. I’m convinced that it could have been so much better.
My chief frustration with Xenoblade Chronicles 2—and even “frustration” feels like too strong of a word here, to be honest—is rooted in the way it feels…well, dumber than its predecessors. The dialogue is juvenile been-there-done-that anime schlock. It caters to the most insipid, lowbrow industry trends, with half-hearted speeches about the power of friendship and characters who make noble sacrifices before they establish themselves as people worth caring about. One point that bothers me personally is how the game’s core concept of the relationship between Drivers and Blades often verges on uncomfortable thanks to the way it objectifies Blades, both male and female. Why would Pyra, who wields near-omnipotent power, need lessons on how to become a demure maid? The camera’s lusty gaze works hard to rob her of the impressive presence she should have at every opportunity. It’s not offensive so much as it is stupid. The rest of the game suffers for it.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does hit a lot of highs. I’m no stranger to melodrama, and there are some genuinely interesting sci-fi threads woven throughout the game’s story. I continue to be impressed that its fight scenes start out excellent and somehow manage to raise the bar ever higher, chapter after chapter. Less agreeable are the vain attempts at humor in between. Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s voice cast started to wear on me partway through the game, Mòrag and Nia aside (I was wrong about her, by the way. She’s Welsh, not Scottish.) The problem here is that the playable cast is evenly split down the middle between decent, likeable heroes and insipid comic relief characters. It’s almost like the game is afraid of taking itself too seriously, so it peppers one-liners throughout to convince the player that it’s more clever than it is. It’s like having one person in a theatre who insists on cracking jokes when everyone else is trying to enjoy the movie. To be fair, some of the best character moments come from optional Heart-to-Heart events that are easy to miss. More of that personality in the main story would have helped it feel less wooden.
My initial concern that the battle system would feel too slow, even after all of its intricacies became apparent, wound up being valid. There is certainly a great deal of depth to explore, but to be blunt, I became bored with it quickly. I do appreciate that it takes a higher-level approach to strategy; it’s less about managing the player’s ability cooldowns and more about viewing the battle from a tactician’s perspective, unleashing each character’s Blade Arts at just the right time to perform powerful combos. In this way, it’s closer to something like Final Fantasy XIII’s Paradigm system than traditional JRPG combat. But when compared to Xenoblade Chronicles, where every character had a unique gimmick and felt completely different with the player at the steering wheel, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels shallow. It’s my least favorite system within the Xenoblade series, but this is one aspect I’m willing to chalk up to a matter of taste.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s soundtrack, on the other hand, might be the best in the entire trilogy. Without an official tracklist, I can only point to where songs play and not their precise names: Leftherian Archipelago, Kingdom of Tantal, Gormott Province, Mor Ardain, the third battle theme…all are brilliant, dynamic pieces that could easily be the standout track on a lesser game’s OST. Here, we’re treated to them in buffet format, each one outdoing the last. I can’t wait for the whole thing to release as a multi-disc album—and who knows, maybe there’s a bit more to come, what with an all-new story on deck for 2018 as part of the Expansion Pass.
I’m pleased to report that since my review-in-progress was first posted, developer Monolith Soft has patched the map function, making it far more user-friendly. There is now a clearer, reasonably-scaled map overlay, and the fast travel button brings up a map of the player’s immediate surroundings. It could still do with more information, like shop locations and clearer labels, but it’s a hell of a lot better than what we had at launch.
Even with all of my criticisms, I remain hopeful for the future of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Monolith Soft has already promised to continue making adjustments to the game’s balance and map systems, as well as add new Blades and other features like New Game+ in the new year. I absolutely see myself revisiting it as its wrinkles are ironed out, and with any luck, it will be a better overall package by the end of 2018. At the very least, the current incarnation of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tells a complete story in a stunningly imaginative world. With one foot rooted firmly in muck, things can only get better from here.