Reviewing Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 frustrated me. It’s packed to the gills with content, so I could never claim Monolith Soft is getting lazy. In fact, I think they tried very hard with every aspect of the game’s design. But in spite of that, the game just isn’t that remarkable, at least not compared to its predecessors on the Wii and Wii U. It feels like more of the same, except with less excitement radiating from it. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a good game–just not a great one.
Titanic World Apathy
XC2 borrows its world design ideas from the original Xenoblade Chronicles. All of the game’s inhabitants live on or inside colossal creatures called Titans, which function as continents. Titans travel over the Cloud Sea, an ambiguous mass of swimmable clouds that covers the world. Each Titan has its own distinct look, and it’s pretty cool to look up into the sky and watch a Titan’s enormous limbs sway from side to side. That being said, I did not find the design of the actual areas visited in the game to be anywhere near as striking as they were in either previous Xenoblade title. There are grassy areas, rocky areas, one snow area, and not much else. It never induced a sense of awe in me the way the original game did, and exploration is nowhere near as exciting as it was in Xenoblade Chronicles X. In fact, the game overall felt less “open-world” to me than even the original Xenoblade Chronicles did (though that’s neither good nor bad). It’s very strange to say, but–continent-sized creatures are not in themselves enough to make the game world exciting anymore. And the rampant pop-in that occurs whenever you teleport to a new area does not help matters.
The character designs run the gamut from “awesome” to “uninspired” as well. Too many of the villains look like generic anime characters, but the protagonists all have distinct looks at least. The protagonists comprise the main heroes and their companions called Blades. Many of the Blades are especially attractive and exotic because they were designed by a multitude of guest artists, which is actually an excellent idea. I’d like to see more games try that.
One additional spot of good news is that the soundtrack is outstanding. No matter where you are, something catchy and engaging will be playing. And at nighttime, there are often more gentle, sobering versions of daytime tracks, and they are all equally excellent. A wide range of instruments is used, but the rocking electric guitar always stands out the most. In any case, the soundtrack is a home run, start to finish.
Humanity Sucks, Part 17
The aforementioned Blades have a variety of physical appearances–some look human, others like animals–and they have the intelligence of humans, but they function somewhat like Pokémon. They exist exclusively to support the person with whom they are bonded, and when that person dies, the Blades go back to sleep until they are awakened by a new person (but the Blades’ memories of their previous life is always permanently erased). The relative immortality of Blades is an important plot point.
The premise of the game is straightforward. Rex, a salvager who fishes up relics from the Cloud Sea for a living, accidentally awakens Pyra, the most powerful Blade ever. Pyra saved the world 500 years ago with her power, but she also destroyed Titans and societies in the process. So now Rex needs to survive attempts from outside forces to take Pyra away from him, all while escorting her to the top of the World Tree, which is a paradise where the Architect (the god of the world) lives. So in other words, the story is–boy meets girl, boy goes on adventure to make girl happy. Simple!
Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s worst failing lies in its pacing. The first 20 hours or so of the story just consist of fleeing from place to place, getting attacked by people who want Pyra at arbitrary intervals. More characters constantly get introduced without adequate explanation, and even worse, the characters are seldom used to compelling effect. Even when characters’ backgrounds and motivations are finally fleshed out (which, in the case of the villains, takes multiple dozens of hours), it seldom makes them more interesting as a result. I think the writers and designers intended for the villains to be multifaceted and internally tortured, but the poor pacing and confusing storytelling made it so that I could only ever view them as “Humanity is awful and must be destroyed!”-spewing stereotypes. That’s really frustrating to me because the game does have some interesting themes about life, death, memories, and legacy, but the presentation of it all is so muddled and even boring that it just fell flat for me. I had a legitimately hard time paying attention to the cinematics, which is something I could never say about, for instance, the incredible space opera of Xenosaga.
And that’s not even to say that the game lacks action. It doesn’t. There are actually a lot of fantastic action scenes in the game, in and out of the cinematics. There is one time near the end of the game where a huge battle casually unfolds far in the background, while you are just walking around, and I took a screenshot for those who would dare spoil it for themselves. It’s a terrific technical achievement. But great action is not enough to hold a story together. And for that matter, not even the likeable protagonists are enough to keep the story together. The plot of the game just shuffles along haphazardly, never having the focus or the originality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles, and the results are unsatisfying.
Combat, Combat, Combat
If you have played Xenoblade Chronicles or Xenoblade Chronicles X, you basically already know the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s very similar, sans the giant robot combat that I loved in X. You control one character out of a party of three, walking around and conducting MMO-style RPG combat, with attacks that have cooldowns. The only real difference here lies in the presence of the Blades. Each character in your party can equip up to three Blades, and one Blade per character can be used in combat at a time. The Blade dictates what abilities are available to the character, and you are supposed to mix and match Blade combinations to make for different party strategies.
But realistically, I seldom had reason to ever strategize. Buffs/debuffs are not a big deal in this game, so strategy always devolved into “Just keep HP high,” for every single battle. Additionally, by simply keeping on top of the sidequests in the game, (There are many sidequests, and some of them pertain to specific unique Blades you can acquire by pure luck.) I was consistently 10 or more levels higher than the story required, which made the game even simpler. And in the extremely rare times where I did have difficulty with a fight, it seemed that luck was a bigger factor in my eventual victory than strategic changes.
In a game that can take over 100 hours to finish, a combat system that wins itself is a big problem, even if it is still enjoyable in a mindless way. This same monotony existed in part in previous Xenoblade titles too, but the original had the benefit of being something new, and XCX had the benefit of giant freakin’ robots. XC2 can claim neither. However, one good thing this game can claim over its predecessors is that it has cut back on boring fetch quests, and it also streamlines some other small, frivolous features of past Xenoblade titles that are not worth discussing in detail.
One final point of differentation between Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and its predecessors is that you can send your army of Blades away to do missions by themselves. These don’t require any input from you except for you to assemble the teams, and then those teams come back after a specified period of time. You earn experience, money, and unique items through completing these missions, and completion also helps to develop town economies in the game, which unlocks more purchasable items. I spent upward of 15 percent of my total playtime just in these menus, assembling teams. It’s actually pretty addicting, but again–in a mindless sort of way.
It’s a Xenoblade
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has all the trappings that we’ve come to expect from a Xenoblade title, and it makes some small quality-of-life improvements to the formula along the way. It also packs a huge amount of content, by way of lengthy cinematics, an abundance of sidequests, and a large assortment of Blades to collect. But it doesn’t offer anything new and exciting over past games, and the story is executed too clumsily to be compelling. At times, it even reminded me of Final Fantasy XV, which I don’t consider to be a good thing. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game without focus or imagination.
That being said, I did have fun with the game. But if the next game in the series doesn’t make some big changes–I probably won’t play it. And that’s one of the worst things a developer should want to hear.