It’s Rex time
Monolith Soft has carved out a nice little series for itself in Xenoblade. What kicked off as an incredible first entry in 1998’s Xenogears eventually became a dead franchise in 2006, until it was resurrected by the Phoenix that is Nintendo four years later on Wii. Since then it’s gotten a 3DS port, a Wii U follow-up, and now a full-on sequel on the Switch in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
This one made me laugh, cry, and almost throw my Switch tablet on the ground in frustration. Translation: it’s a Monolith Soft game.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Switch)
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release: December 1, 2017
For a game that was shipped in record time, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn’t boast the sharpest engine in the shed, but it’s beautiful in its own way. The opening crawl is a gorgeous look at the world you’re about to explore — Alrest — as folks have taken to living on titans and swimming through clouds. The only problem is that those titans are dying out, and thus, people won’t have actual ground to stand on at some point in the future.
It only takes 10 minutes for Rex, a salvager, to jump into battle against a small cargo and implant himself into the narrative. As far as RPG tutorials go, this three-minute jaunt is refreshing (though more is peppered in for hours longer through innocuous text prompts). Then it’s straight into your first village, a trade guild.
Chronicles 2 moves pretty quickly from just about all angles, and it’s easy to feel some sort of connection with Rex right off the bat, despite his overwhelming boyish shonen turn. Rex isn’t some asshole — he sends the lion’s share of his earnings back to family, and is fairly endearing immediately. Yet, he naturally gets wrapped up in a grand adventure for money, and the big schism of good versus bad kicks off from there. Even with some light bickering with your new crew, the cast is likable, even when you’re battling bugs and other small fries for the first few hours.
The gist of how the actual party composition works is through Blades, familiars/Pokémon of sorts, and Drivers, purveyors and masters of Blades. Rex is on a quest with his newfound Blade to find Elysium, the world’s equivalent of the Garden of Eden. You know, of course, the Xeno series loves its twists, but there’s also plenty of time for fetch quests and small-time adventures involving star-crossed lovers and prejudiced parents. Naturally, there’s 15- to 20-minute cutscenes spliced in that explain things that could have been cut down to five, which is par for the course for the developer.
That filler isn’t a deal-breaker for me, though it will be for many I suspect. The only other major problem I had is the heavy linking of item-gathering and currency to main story progress. I get that some gates are in place in a lot of JRPGs so you can’t just breeze through the story min-maxing — but why are you asking me to expend most of my funds on a required quest to access a new area? It’s not so egregious that you need to grind every few hours (I rarely did any grinding at all, actually, it was more exploration by choice), but it’s annoying.
Another thing I know people are going to be up in arms about is the dub. Look, the English voiceovers are okay. If you really hate the idea of playing with them, Japanese voices will be ready with a day-one patch (which I didn’t have, and got by just fine without — even if I’ll turn them on for my second playthrough eventually). The soundtrack is also universally fantastic, so it more than evens out.
As expected, combat is done in the open world itself without the need for the swishy separate transitions. I love that copper/silver/gold pieces fly around like an arcade game after vanquishing foes, and the regular “kill stuff/do quests, get experience” system is supplemented by an inn rest bonus XP mechanic that lets you rest to optionally boost levels beyond your normal curve. I love that all this happens in real time too, because it’s amazing to look up and see a titan that forms the ground you’re walking on moving about. Very rarely does the framerate crawl, and even when it does, it’s not a big issue.
If you’re not used to JRPGs though (and in some sections, even if you are), Xenoblade Chronicles 2 can be brutal. For one required quest, I was tasked with finding a vaguely described big tree that wasn’t marked on the map (which is fine). I had just spent my entire life savings up until that point to continue the narrative, and after wandering just a few feet out of the second major town, I was beaten within an inch of my life by a level 40 monster.
An hour later I got a new party member, wandered into the same valley, then battled a giant named unique monster that took 10 minutes to beat (which now has a marked tombstone in case I want to fight it again). This game asks a lot, but it gives it back. Each time I was beaten down I came back stronger, more knowledgeable of the game’s rules and intricacies, and had more incentive to tweak my party. Sometimes, especially in open world encounters, combat can feel like a slugfest. Abilities have individual cooldowns and there’s no real MP management or active items to use (though some powers heal or spit out health potions if you use them to ease you into not using a billion healing items every fight).
Remember when I mentioned the going getting tough earlier? It’s not always going to be that simple. You might need to lure enemies out with a ranged attack to avoid fighting a giant group, and utilize your positional attacks while staying relatively close to your Blades to boost your power. Timing Arts by hitting them right as an auto-attack lands is another way to get an edge — as are miniature QTEs when using finishers or specials that feel a lot like simpler versions of the ones from Legend of Dragoon or Legend of Legaia‘s combo system when using different abilities in tandem with one another. (QTEs or combos can work with restraint in JRPGs, especially if they have the word “Legend” in the title, apparently.)
There’s not too much item management. Most party members can only equip two items (some Blades can equip three), and the roles (attack, defend, and heal, much like an MMO) are straightforward, as are the semi-small affinity charts (read: skill trees). It’s really when you start acquiring special crystals to awaken brand new Blades, just like Pokémon, that the game branches out. You can send said Blades on missions and tweak them, most of which sport a unique weapon type that you can swap out at any time. Given that you can even swap which character you play as (and swap between three Blades at all times), I’d say it’s fun to experiment with. It’s also a really cool feeling to pop a rare Blade out of a crystal, and there’s no damn microtransactions.
The nuts and bolts are old-school, but it’s not archaic. If you die you restart at a local checkpoint with all your progress intact, you might just need to get back to a boss fight (which then starts instantly without a cutscene, thank goodness), or a specific area. You can also save anywhere and fast travel at almost any time, or skip most of the game’s movies if you’re getting tired of watching the myriad short films you’ll be watching over the course of roughly 80 hours (I didn’t, but you can).
To the delight of many, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is less X and more traditional Xenoblade. Although they all have a special place in my library, I appreciate the return to what brought Monolith Soft back into the public eye after a series of portable games.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]