Monolith Soft has had a storied history of fascinating role-playing games, and while they’ve worked on various projects, one of their franchise remains most sought after. The Xeno series has been around for just under two decades now, and while it has had its ups and downs, remains a staple in company’s strong catalog of games. Looking at 2017 in general, it has been one heck of a year for not only the industry as a whole, but for Nintendo as well. They didn’t succeed with the Wii U, but the Nintendo Switch has taken off in a big way thanks to an absolutely stellar lineup of games. In just nine short months, we’ve gotten Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, ARMS, Fire Emblem Warriors, and various ports and remasters. There’s one game left before the end of the year, though: Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s exactly what Nintendo needed to even things out, bringing an RPG of colossal size to a portable platform. An immense game with seemingly infinite potential, is this the closer Nintendo needed or does it put a damper on one heck of a year?
An RPG is only as good as its story and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is, well, very much a Japanese-written game. The plot centers on a scavenger by the name of Rex who gets a job that puts him on a journey with his newfound partner to save the world. These partners are called Blades, which act as support and gives someone the ability to wield a power weapon (provided they have the means to do so). The problem with the story is that it’s too typical; bad guys want to destroy all of humanity and you’re there to stop them. There’s a little more to it (with the group venturing to a mythical haven called Elysium) and politics between multiple nations come into play as you traverse the vast world, but that’s the crux of what’s going on. The story itself has plenty of nonsensical moments. Here’s an example that hopefully won’t spoil much. A villain is about to blow himself up in a last ditch effort, so a character has his Blade put up a shield to protect everyone. Instead of staying in the bubble, that character immediately leaps out to try and grab the explosive device in the villain’s hand. The villain literally has his finger on the button, so our heroic individual takes the deadly blast to the face. That’s more or less what you can expect from many of the story beats. There are the occasional exciting and well-choreographed scenes, but they’re few and far between.
Fortunately, while the story doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, there are two elements that stay strong: the world and its characters. While Rex is still a child and ultimately overly happy-go-lucky, and the military veteran Mòrag is far too tense, there are some highlights among the cast. There’s a wide variety of fascinating individuals, from the mysterious Nia to the overly comical Zeke. Some of the villains can get on the irritating side of things, but at least they have a wide range of characteristics and personalities. As for the world, it is easily Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s biggest draw, as the lore and exploration potential can be overwhelming at times. Everything is built on a sea of clouds with no land other than giant ancient Titans, so it’s only natural that humans and other species started civilization on the backs of these beings. You will travel across the world onto (and in some cases into) new Titans and experience drastically different environments. These areas are monstrous in size, with plenty of hidden paths and areas that can only be accessed by leveling up your Blades. You can find yourself lost in each area, although sometimes you literally will become lost because the navigation system isn’t exactly the best, and had us going in circles on numerous occasions. As big as the world may be, enemy placement can also be called into question as, among the appropriately leveled enemies, there will be overpowered monsters roaming about, and more times than not their pathing would lead into an ongoing battle. The number of times an enemy double our level randomly joined the fight only to crush the party in one fell swoop became in the double digits. It doesn’t help that combat doesn’t rely on hitboxes. Battles frequently felt unfair because enemies could hit you from tens of metres away yet you have to be within a very close vicinity to strike them.
While the open areas are a highlight of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the side quests are also some of the best done in any JRPG. While it has the standard quests you’d normally see, each of the Blades that can be collected have their own lengthy stories, and this is where the game shines the brightest. These are unique adventures and cutscenes dedicated to the Blades to better build your relationship, and considering there’s a huge array of companions to obtain, just over 50 that are optional, there’s a lot of content to be had. The only complaint with the various side quests themselves, be it regular or Blade specific, is that there isn’t any indication of what is the recommended level. You can maybe guess if you go into the menus and check the experience and gold rewards, but even then we ran into many side quests that were well above our capabilities without knowing it.
The Blade system is also a bit of a mixed bag as it relies heavily on RNG (random number generator), so you can have insane luck one day, and atrocious luck the next. There’s nothing like going through 20 Rare Core Crystals in a row only to get absolute garbage. It almost feels like a mobile game in this respect, except there isn’t any means to buy Core Crystals with real money, so I suppose it has a leg up on its competition with that. Another big problem is the roll itself. You have to select a character, and if they get someone they’re not usually attuned to, they’re stuck with it unless you have an incredibly rare usable item. So if your dedicated healer only somehow gets offensive Blades, then you’re out of luck. Still, this is an addicting quality of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, as pulling up that one Blade you were hoping for is an exhilarating feeling. There are even a couple of Blades tied to completing specific quests, but I do wish there was more of a balance between this and randomly obtaining them as it ultimately locks a lot of content behind chance.
Combat can be an outright mess at times thanks to the incredibly ridiculous artificial intelligence. We lost count of the number of times our allies just happened to fall off an edge during battle – which doesn’t help their revive spot is usually where they hit the ground – or not being on a specific Blade when they need to do a specific task. Something the game fails to properly explain is, you really can’t be mixing and matching classes. It took twenty or so hours before realizing each character needed to be assigned Blades with the same skillsets only because they seem to focus on combos over anything else. So for example, if you have an offensive Blade on a healer, you might find them failing to uphold their healing duties when it matters; same can be said about tanks. In addition, reviving someone in battle can also lead to death, mainly because it is assigned to the A button, which is also assigned to your special. If you’re off place or are too early in trying to revive someone, you will perform your special instead and be locked out of picking them up for around ten seconds. This has led to multiple wipes and much frustration. Speaking of revives, it makes absolutely no sense why, if you go down without at least one bar on the Party Gauge, it’s a complete wipe, whereas if a party member goes down, you have time to build up the gauge. There is just some awfully confusing mechanics at play here.
Now, this isn’t to say the combat is bad by any means, as there are a number of exciting and tense fights, and pulling off a combo with another character is as entertaining as it is a spectacle, but it doesn’t feel as polished as we’ve come to expect. It doesn’t help that the characters seem to be moving at a snail’s pace not only in the world, but especially during combat. I also ran into a number of frustrating, not necessarily bugs, but poorly-implemented mechanics. For example, after the game crashed and two hours of progress was lost because there’s no autosave feature, which in some respect is my fault for relying too heavily on the game not breaking, I had to fight the same battle in the quest “Sniff out the Spy” four times. This is due to the fact that, if the enemy pushes a teammate off a cliff, they will follow, and after a certain point they will leash, or in this case disappear, and respawn even if it’s not that far away. If you wait up on the ledge, your teammate will magically reappear, but the enemy will stay down there, ultimately leading in everything resetting. A lot of the issues could be avoided if you could swap between characters mid-fight, as ally placement is imperative, and as stated before, your teammates aren’t the most intelligent beings.
Like everything in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the presentation is a complete mix. From an artistic standpoint, there are elements where Monolith Soft completely nails the aesthetic, but there are plenty of spots where everything just falls apart. The core cast of characters are visually striking and a lot of the open areas have a strong amount of variety, but unfortunately there’s no consistency to this as character art outside of the main cast is all over the place and there are areas that feel unfinished at times. It doesn’t help that the battle UI is over packed with information and commands, once again resembling that of a mobile game. We should also mention the technical limitations that are more than disappointing as in portable mode the dynamic resolution can go down to a resolution lower than that of a PlayStation 2 game. It’s not as bad when docked, but you can still see the resolution fluctuate during battle. The frame rate also takes a massive hit in towns, slowing Rex and his party down when you just want to get them from point A to point B. There also seems to be a problem with asset loading, as while the load times are fast in general, traveling from one city to the next can get messy. The game will only begin streaming in assets when the load screen concludes, meaning you’ll be stuck looking at untextured low-poly models and in many cases through the world itself. While there are a few action-packed cutscenes, most of them seem void of a lot of standard sound effects such as footsteps – which is bizarre considering they can be heard when actually traversing the world. Fortunately, while there is a lot of negativity in this section, one component holds up above anything else: the music. There is a large assortment of tunes, from faster rock during combat to more calming melodies whilst in town. It doesn’t make up for all the technical issues, but at least it’s one of the better soundtracks released this year, which is saying a lot.
Despite so many missteps, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 remains an enticing experience. It’s on the same level as the Tales of and Atelier series, and actually reminiscent of Dark Cloud in spots. Even with a phenomenal world, though, the story feels boilerplate and can be downright frustrating at times, having nonsensical, poorly-established events. The combat can also be aggravating as the AI has a hard time properly comprehending their surroundings and failing to stick to a given role. It doesn’t help there’s a strong RNG element to obtaining Blades, meaning you could be stuck with a bad hand for quite some time. Still, with all of these complaints, it’s hard to put it down. With an absurd amount of content, there’s no denying there’s an addicting and alluring quality to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which makes it all the more disappointing it turned out the way it did. It had the potential to be one of the best RPGs of the year, but instead it ends up being just above average.