So as of writing this, the in-game counter for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has me at about 50 hours of playtime. I haven’t finished it – in actuality I just finished Chapter 5 and it supposedly can take close to 100 hours to finish entirely – but I figure 50 hours is a solid enough amount of time to spend with a video game for a good review. And while I can’t say Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a bad game since I’ve spent over two days playing it, it definitely has issues that detract from the overall experience.
Let’s start with the story. Xenoblade 2 takes place in a world where everyone lives on the backs of giant creatures called Titans. Titans are essentially giant, living, roaming continents that cities and civilizations have been built on top of. The Titans walk through what is called the Cloud Sea, which is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin – an endless sea of clouds that cover the world to the point that only the giant Titans can exist above cloud level.
In Xenoblade 2, you play as Rex – a young man who works as a salvager, aka a person who dives into the Cloud Sea to salvage equipment, materials, and basically anything else he can find. Along the way he becomes a Driver – Drivers are special people who can resonate with Blades, which are humanoids (and sometimes animals) that have special powers and essentially serve as the most powerful weapons of this world. However once a Driver resonates with a Blade, they are partnered together until one or the other dies.
So that’s the basics for the world-building of Xenoblade 2. And while the world-building is pretty great, this game is also very Japanese anime. Some of the women in the game are dressed…questionably. There’s a female robot who when activated her initial setting is a maid who calls everyone “Master.” One of the female Blades you can acquire is designed with such “assets” that her spine should probably be broken. And that’s just how the game treats the womenfolk. There’s the typical protagonist-mistakenly-pervs-in-a-big-misunderstanding-so-a-woman-gets-mad-at-him scene, there’s the stereotypical guy who thinks he’s awesome but is actually just a doofus, there’s all sorts of Dragonball Z-esque cut scenes with swords clashing and explosions. It’s a very trope-filled experience from the get-go.
My two personal favorite females in terms of character design – bet you can’t spot the fanservice.
If you can get past all that (which I can completely understand if you can’t) the story itself is sort of interesting. It explores philosophical areas – like how every time a Driver dies, its Blade reverts and loses its memory, so what are Blades? They’re almost immortal, but is it fair for them to be reborn without any recollection of their previous life – to be used as a weapon or whatever else the new Driver feels is necessary? The Titans that roam the world are also dying, and since there is limited living space on the backs of all the Titans it also ends up having parallels to the limited resources of our own planet and what happens when there are too many people to be sustained.
But the philosophical message is occasionally lost as the camera lingers on barely-covered anime girl butt, so your mileage may vary.
The combat is very MMORPG-like – in fact it’s very similar to the combat of Final Fantasy XII, although without the complex Gambit system. You control one character in battle while the other two in your party are on auto-pilot. Within the character you control, you can have up to three Blades active and each Blade has three Arts it can use. While your character automatically uses his or her regular attacks, you choose when to use the Arts which can inflict status effects on the enemies you’re fighting. Each Blade also has a special element associated with it, and if you attack with enough Arts you can link together Blade Combos between party members to do extra damage. And this is just the simplified explanation of it – there’s still a lot more depth to the combat like managing aggro and chain attacks (which are different from combos).
It seems like a very simple and boring combat system at the beginning, but by the time you’ve made your way through all the tutorials it ends up being much more satisfying to chain together long combos against the enemies you’re fighting. And as the game progresses the enemies you face start applying their own status effects and combos against you, so you can’t just let the game run on auto-pilot once the battle starts. Movement and placement of the character you can control can become key to the entire battle. Unlike the aforementioned FFXII, where if you got the right Gambits set up you could literally have the game play for you, Xenoblade 2 requires you to be paying attention to how the battle is going at all times.
There are a few baffling design decisions to the overall gameplay, though. For example, when the game opens up in Chapter 2 and you enter the first truly open area for exploration, you are at a very low level – around 7 or 8 if I recall correctly. And while most of the enemies in this area are around that level, there are a few monstrous level 80+ creatures wandering about that are aggressive that will kill you in one hit. It got really frustrating in the early game when I would be trying to fight something manageable, and then a giant gorilla would come out of nowhere and smash me flat. I appreciate the idea behind not having level scaling and getting a glimpse of the endgame monsters to fight, but having several run around the opening area could potentially turn people off of your 100+ hour game if they’re getting smushed over and over before they make it to hour five.
The sidequests can also get very tedious. A fair number of sidequests start out as “do X for me” and end up being a long string of “oh, now that you’ve done that, can you do Y now?” “Oh Y is done, how about Z?” “Oh you finished Z, let’s go all the way back to A and do that now too!” It honestly feels like busy work a lot of time – an artificial padding to make the game last longer. The main storyline is usually much better about how it lays out its quests, but so far a lot of the sidequests have let me down. Per usual in a gigantic RPG, none of the sidequest characters (except for one in particular so far) have resonated with me – Xenoblade pun intended – and so I’m left wondering why I should be bothering.
Getting Blades is also completely random. Resonating with a new Blade works essentially like a gacha system. You use a core and can add boosters to better your chances, but 95% of the time you end up with a common Blade that is semi-useful. What you want are the Rare Blades that have special art (and spine-breaking assets, occasionally) which have better abilities and are overall more useful for your party. You can better your chances to get a “Rare Blade” by getting better cores, but it is still only a chance. I’ve gotten a Rare Blade from a basic core with no boosting, and gotten a common Blade from a rare core with max boosting. It’s fine since it is entirely in-game – no money involved with getting better Blades, so no microtransactions – but it would be better if the user interface for unlocking Blades wasn’t so frustrating.
In fact, the entire menu interface is clunky and extremely poorly designed. I’ve probably spent as much time in the menus as I have playing the actual game. Any time you want to resonate a new Blade with one of your Drivers, you have to watch a 30-second+ long cutscene to introduce the Blade. And since Blades are like Pokemon (you want to catch them all!) you will likely end up spending hours just watching Blade intro cut-scenes – and most of them will be common Blades that you’ve seen many times before. On top of that, every time a Blade meets the requirement for a new ability you get a notification as you’re playing – but you have to navigate to the Blade’s personal ability chart to unlock its use. It’s also extraordinarily hard to compare and contrast stats and equipment, and the sheer amount of items you collect can give you a headache when trying to figure out what exactly you do and don’t have.
The game world is very, very pretty, though.
Overall, Xenoblade 2 is a decent game. If you like Japanese RPGs with Pokemon-like collecting mechanics and can stand fan-service designs on women (and some men, but mostly women) the moment-to-moment combat and gameplay is worth it. Most of the Rare Blades have their own story quests too, so when you finally do unlock them the ones you use in your party have personality. The main story is engaging enough to be interesting, but the game often suffers from gameplay/cut-scene dissonance. You’ll get into a big battle with an enemy and thoroughly whomp them in the actual game, but then somehow they’re overpowered and too strong for you to beat in the following cut-scene. It deflates your victorious feelings almost instantaneously which is kind of a bummer.
But overall, I’d say I recommend this game. I never played either of the other Xenoblade games so I don’t know how it compares to the others. As a first-time entrant, though, I think I’m pleased with the purchase despite all the frustrating design decisions. And not all of the character designs are bad – there are a few that I like a lot. If you own a Switch and need an RPG fix, this should satiate you pretty well.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a PLAY.