Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a niche game and chances are you probably already know if you’ll like it. For everyone else, hit the jump to read our review.
At a Glance – 8/10
This is a fantastic game with a strong story, good voice acting, cool characters and an epic world that is as fun to explore and learn about as it is to look at. Graphics and art assets are beautiful, the soundtrack is often amazing, design and polish is top notch, and the combat system is rewarding. Some issues drag down the score, such as overwhelming menus, design decisions that don’t respect a player’s time, and a really confusing map. If you didn’t like Xenoblade Chronicles than you won’t find anything here to change your mind. However, if playing through an epic anime sounds like a good time to you, you’ll love it as much as I did.
For those amongst you that have played and enjoyed Xenoblade Chronicles or Xenoblade X and are browsing the net wondering if you should pick up the newest one, the answer is unequivocally yes. All of the things you likely enjoyed about those games are bigger and better in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and improved upon in every feasible way.
This review however is mostly written for newcomers to the franchise. Why, one might ask? With a huge new fanbase that likely skipped the Wii U, and possibly even the Wii, there are going to be a lot of new Nintendo fans out there that may not have played the originals and are looking for a new epic to keep their Switch busy. The thing about Xenoblade games in general is that they are for a very specific type of gamer and there probably aren’t many outside that group that will enjoy it. Unlike say, Breath of the Wild, it isn’t quite so easy to recommend for everyone, so it requires a little more breakdown than a more accessible game.
If you haven’t played the Xenoblade series then there is one word I can give you to describe them: huge. That descriptor works on both the length of the game, the massive and epic environments you’ll find yourself exploring, and the epic anime story the developers hope you’ll become invested in. For newcomers to the series you don’t have to worry about having played through Xenoblade Chronicles or its Wii U spin off Xenoblade X in order to enjoy the game, though fans that have played them will see small nods and connections throughout the story sure to please. The game’s story can completely stand on its own, and though there is a two in the title, never fear as it is largely unconnected to its predecessor in all but the most superficial of ways.
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, or XC2 as I shall henceforth call it, is easily the strongest part of the game. It is set in the world of Alrest which is inhabited by giant beasts called Titans whom allow humanity to live on their backs in a symbiotic relationship. At the outset of the game we find our main protagonist Rex living on one such Titan that he lovingly refers to as Gramps. Rex is a salvager and dives into the cloud sea with specialized gear in order to lug forgotten treasures of a by gone error from the depths below. It is for this special skill that he is sent on a job that will culminate in him being pulled into an epic journey to save the world (because it is a JRPG, of course he is), where he discovers the extremely powerful blade Pyra and agrees to help her reach a paradise known as Elysium.
Blades themselves are artificial beings whose energy are bonded to something called a Core Crystal and can be bonded to a worthy mortal individual, who is bestowed the title of Driver. The Drivers and their Blades work together in battle, the Blade channeling energy to the Driver, and the Driver using powerful attacks while wielding the weapon that the Blade’s Core Crystal manifests. The Blade’s are not mindless weapons however, in every other way they mimic humans. They have hopes, dreams, emotions, and feelings; they just also happen to be intrinsically tied to whoever finds them and often claims them like property. Just hearing the set-up you can practically hear the heady themes involved, and you would be right. Filled with anime, fantasy and sci-fi tropes it can at times leave you rolling your eyes, but it has an earnest story to tell with a real message that is delivered by the end of the game.
The battle system in the game also revolves around the Blade and Driver relationship to pull off stunning combos and is a multi-layered system that can appear confusing at first glance. However, I can assure you that the combat is the best it has been in the series and once you learn the ropes can be awesomely satisfying. Battles can take a little longer than what you might consider standard, but typically it isn’t overly long considering you have no random attacks, no cutaways, and no menus to cycle through as in turn based RPGs. Everything can be achieved with a simple button press as all of your attacks and options are relegated to as individual face and shoulder buttons. Though the combat is based on ability cooldown timers similar to what you’d see in an online role playing game, this lets the combat feel snappy and responsive, not entirely unlike an action game.
I’ll explain briefly how the flow of combat works while trying to keep you from being confused, not an easy task at first blush. Enemies are always visible on the map and similar to a game like World of Warcraft will attack you or leave you be depending on how aggressive they are. Once combat begins you will automatically attack with whatever weapon you have equipped and each swing of your weapon will fill up the meters on the aforementioned arts, which are your general abilities. Each of these as performed in turn fills up a special meter that allows your Blade’s to do impressive attacks, filling the screen with particles. Each of these specials has 4 levels you can utilize, leveling as you continue to use your arts. Eventually there is far more to it than that, including using your specials to combo through the elements of those specials to do large numbers of damage. Suffice to say it can all be overwhelming if I simply tossed you into it, but the game does a very good job of slowly introducing concepts and allowing you time to perfect them. Not long after beginning you’ll be juggling timers, characters, and abilities to pull of massive combos that are extremely satisfying.
The world of Alrest provides you plenty of beautiful places to fight as well, with gorgeous scenery ranging from beautiful green rolling hills and forests to desolate wastelands filled with man-made machinery. Each Titan feels unique and memorable, far more than going to randomly named countries or nations. Because each of these “countries” is actually a living being, it tends to make them more memorable and provide more context to what happens to it. The designs of the Titans, characters, monsters and environments in this game are all stunningly pretty, if you like the anime art style that is. Most of the time you would be forgiven for thinking that you are watching a good anime, with over the top and well directed action cutscenes that for the most part have very well done voice acting from actors in Scotland, Ireland, and the UK. Because of the art style chosen the characters faces are able to emote really well and preformed with some great voice acting gives heft to the whole thing, even if some if it is a bit silly and over the top.
Blades themselves are gathered via a system that is a little hit or miss depending on the random nature of it. Essentially you’ll pick up Core Crystals along the way that come in tiers from common to legendary. If you’ve ever played mobile games you can probably tell where this is going, but rest assured there is no way to pay real money to speed up this process. As you open each core you’ll either get common throw away blades, or some amazingly designed rare blades that come complete with quests, personalities, and awesome art made by artists all across the industry. It becomes exciting intrinsically to open these crystals hoping to see the cutscene of a cool new blade, but the flip side of that is that it can be incredibly frustrating when you can’t seem to get any new rare blades. At the end of the game I’m still missing 6 or 7 of them in total and the only way to get them is to grind relentlessly to get crystals and then pray to the random generated loot gods that I get the one I need. You’ll never get duplicate rare Blades, which is a very good thing, but even if you get a Rare or Legendary core it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get a Rare blade, it just raises your chances to do so. The flip side of that is even a common blade can hold a Rare and some of the best ones I’ve gotten in game have been through common drops. That being said I still don’t know how I feel about this system. I love the excitement of opening the cores, but dislike the random drop nature and wish that only the common were random and that you were guaranteed a rare blade from anything above that.
All of this good though inevitably comes with a few things the game could do better, particularly menus and the map system. Outside of combat the game has menus within menus within menus and bogs the player down with too many things to do outside the more compelling gameplay. For instance you have your Driver’s equip screen, the Blades equip screen, weapons equip screens for the Blades, skill tree like affinity charts for each Blade, attribute skill tree for your Drivers, and the list goes on and on. Needless to say it is a lot to take in and it can get overwhelming or frustrating, especially when you have to go three screens deep and arrow over repeatedly to see what the next task you need to do in order to level up your Blades affinity is, thus unlocking new additions to their abilities. The map, though it has gotten better with post launch patches, is very uninformative and hard to read. Even with a spinning directional guide at the top of the screen guiding your way to the next quest point or story beat I still found myself constantly getting lost or turned around and trying to decipher a map that is just extraordinarily difficult to understand where you are, where you’re going, and the different height levels and ways to get there. It made for some very irritating parts where even though I could see where I needed to go marked clearly on a map, I wandered around for 30 minutes to an hour trying to figure out how to get there.
There are some other design decisions that will leave you scratching your head also, like something called Aux Cores that can be equipped to blades to enhance their abilities, but only after fast traveling back to town, finding a specific booth and then using items found through collection points in the world (if you have them) to forge that specific item. These little things add up over time and create a game that has small design decisions that just don’t seem to respect the players time. You’ll be doing stuff like that a lot, so it is good that the load times are quick and snappy making fast travel a breeze, even if it does take some time to load textures occasionally after teleporting.
These issues do detract from a fantastic game, but never enough to make the game unenjoyable and be anything more than an annoyance. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is one of the best JRPG games I’ve played in quite a while with a great cast of characters (except Tora), an epic storyline with a really satisfying ending, and a beautiful art style and world I couldn’t wait to explore. It can be overwhelming, cluttered, and complex at times, but it does so to bring you an in depth combat system that is one of the best seen in recent more traditional RPGs and flesh out a world that can keep you busy for hundreds of hours if you so choose.
If you don’t really enjoy anime or have played the previous Xenoblade games and didn’t enjoy them, this game simply isn’t for you. However, if playing through an eighty plus hour anime sounds like a good time, with all of the awesome and weird that implies, than you will love this game as much as I did.