Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – The Switch Island Review
To say the very least, this is a big game. It’s ambition and size can be seen in so many different ways. Firstly, the story arch is sweeping across thousands of years from a great calamity, to the final throws of a precarious age that followed. The different game play elements also reflect the ambition of the game with deep party-based combat to side missions and the development of a mercenary group carrying out missions across the vast lands of Alrest. The latter requiring micro management of manpower and resources to be successful. This ambition is further reflected in the very land that you walk upon where nothing is quite what it seems. A far-reaching meadow can give way to an arching neck and head of a giant beast, on whose back the vast meadow and bustling city in the distance is housed. This game is also ambitious in terms of where it was heralded to fit in within the lifespan of the console that it was released on. Numerous publications and advertisements from Nintendo billed Xenoblade Chronicals 2 as the game to play once Breath of the Wild had been shelved. The next epic yarn to draw you in and justify the first-year adopters of their bright new system, proving that it is in no way just a Zelda or Mario box. But does it match these ambitions?
I have enjoyed my 70hrs so far on Xenoblade and despite all its obvious shortcomings, I do find myself invested in the characters and thinking about the vast world that Monolith Soft created. It is important to note however, that this game does not just exist on a blank canvas. There has been a lot of reports circulated about the representation of women within the game and the downscaled presentation while on handheld. There is also the unusual battle commentary of some enemies that raises an eyebrow at times. I have to say, all these things do impact the overall game. They add a cringe factor at times that take the shine off what has been one very memorable game. However, if I had let the early criticisms of the game influence me, I would have missed out on a thoroughly enjoyable JRPG which has at times real depth in terms of gameplay, character development and narrative.
You start out in the shoes of a Salvager who dives under the cloud sea to salvage parts of what appears to be forgotten tech from long fallen nations. Rex, as he is known, is a positive and optimistic lead character who does win your heart eventually. I’m not sure if I have had a leading character before that has the same level of optimism bordering on naivety as Rex, but it does eventually become endearing. As the story progresses, Rex is saved from death by a being known as a Blade. This Blade is called Pyra. Her introduction at the early part of the game highlights one of the main gripes I have with the overall presentation. The character design, which may be excusable as busty women do indeed exist, is accentuated by a costume that looks like something from a Rocky Horror show. Also, the camera lingers for as long as possible on areas of Pyra’s anatomy as if to say “Hey, have you seen this?” As if you could miss it. Now this is not a game breaker for me, and the objectification of women could in fact be because Pyra is in reality an object to some extent, being as she is a blade. It also fits into the overall narrative which is what humanities relationship with these blades should be, there is a ‘get out of jail free card’ for the character designs if you want to explain them away. Further to this, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is by no means the only game that has to carry the can in terms of poor design choices for female characters. I however did find myself frequently cringing at the design choice which damaged the investment I had in some of the high drama moments of the story.
All this being said, the game’s characters are actually a strong point of the game. The roster of characters grows to around 8 drivers which are playable in the party of 3, and around 30+ of these Blades. It’s in the organisation of the Drivers in the party and the Blades associated with them that strategic choices for the battle sequences comes in. Building Blades into the mix with particular elements to construct a chain combo is satisfying when it comes off right with huge explosions and massive damage inflicted. The combat system itself is also convoluted at first with the characters auto attacking waiting for the player to input one of three attacks to charge up their specials. You can find yourself lost at first with your eyes darting around the screen to look at different levels of charge for your elemental combo, or your cool downs on your attacks, or even your characters attack animation to time the button presses for the biggest bang for your buck. This plate spinning was rewarding however. You do start to settle on a combo that you really like, and everything from the Blades, to the Drivers has a talent tree that can help you fine tune your best party. I find the depth in this area particularly rewarding as everything you do reinforces a sense of progress or improvement. You begin to see how the leg work you put into the formation of your party and the selection of the Blades with appropriate talent tree selections, has a physical impact on each encounter.
All the combat takes place surrounded by a sprawling story of conflict and the shadow of a bygone age. If you like the JRPG epic melodrama type game, this is absolutely the game for you. The story draws you in, despite it being really ‘out there’ and the cinematics at times are quite impressive. When the dramatic climaxes are on, the orchestral style music steps up a notch to create some of the most memorable game music for some time. You really do have to listen to its flourishes as when the character designs can detract from the drama, the musical score picks up the slack and gives the story a much-needed kick.
Graphically, this is a game of two halves. I love the world created. The cloud sea with the giant living landmasses called Titans creates an atmosphere and a feeling that to me, is hugely reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia Legends. Areas of the world which open into meadows and fields with quaint human settlements can be like a dream scape at times, on Gormott in particular. This is contrasted though by the industrial greys and smoke-filled lands of Mor Ardain. The game, more than any other on the Switch clearly is hugely ambitious and should be congratulated for how believable this outlandish concept is. In fact, Alrest (the games world) is one of the strongest characters in the game, and I really do feel like there could be other Titans out there in the vastness of the cloud sea that have yet to be delivered into the game.
The verdict for me is a tricky one because what I love about this game is never without a catch. I love vast fantasy world that has been created, however the navigation through this world is not always as intuitive as I would like. I love the character roster and development of these characters, however the design choice at times makes me cringe. I love the theatrical melodramatic story arch, however some of the dramatic high points can leave you feeling puzzled. All in though, this game is JRPG at its very best and worst and it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine. If you can look past a lot of the gripes, you will have a rewarding and deep experience that asks a lot of you but gives a lot back.