The First 48 is a review series where we review new titles after spending two days with them.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the last major release for the Nintendo Switch in 2017 and the official sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles, released back in 2010. Xenoblade Chronicles X was also released in 2015 for the Wii U but is thought of as more of a spin-off. At its core, Xenoblade is a JRPG with the typical traits and mechanics of the genre. The game features massive free-to-explore areas, automated combat with timing-based attacks, and stereotypical storytelling with anime-esque cutscenes.
This review will give you an overview of the game as well as what it does well and where it struggles. There won’t be any major story spoilers, particularly seeing as the impressions are taken from roughly the first third of the game (20+ hours). Since I haven’t finished the entire game, I’m consciously leaving some things out that I feel might become more important later in the game.
Living on a Titan
Much like the first game, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is based on huge titans that serve as habitable areas for humans and other creatures to live on. This makes for a wide variety of areas to explore. This time, however, you’ll also see smaller titans that help in other ways like with transportation. The young salvager Rex is introduced as a kind and energetic young man who salvages items from below the sea clouds that cover the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. He lives on a smaller titan he endearingly calls “Gramps” who acts as a surrogate father.
Without delving further into the story, I want to mention that the cast of characters is well written and that they work great together. Over time you build up quite the party, but the cutscenes never feel stuffed and every character contributes something meaningful to each conversation. The diverse cast enriches the story as it incorporates the motivations of each character. It’s been the strongest part of the game for me thus far.
Drivers and Blades
A few months ago we talked a bit about how the game’s combat system was supposed to work. Fortunately, the final product delivers in this regard.
The combat revolves around two different roles: Drivers and Blades. How does it work? According to the world of Xenoblade 2, some people (including creatures) can become drivers, meaning that they can control other beings called blades. Rex is a driver; he is capable of controlling blades and creating new ones through core crystals. Just as the first title gave Shulk control of the legendary Menado, Rex gains access to the Aegis and its personification, Pyra. Blades as such are spiritual beings who empower the weapon of a driver and enable them to do much more than simply strike an enemy.
As the journey progresses, Rex gains the ability to not only use his existing blade but to bond with new ones as well. You find different crystal cores throughout your journey that you can activate to gain new blades. The blades you get are random, but your luck stat can affect the likelihood of receiving better ones. Understanding the different blades and their stats is a bit complicated at first, but the game helps you learn bit by bit. It was a very interesting design choice to keep some features of the pause menu inaccessible until 15+ hours into the game, but this helped me to focus on what was important and learn things step by step.
To go a bit deeper into the combat mechanics, each enemy is different when it comes to elemental weaknesses and individual level. As you might remember from earlier games, the Xenoblade series isn’t afraid to mix diverse and powerful enemies into all the game’s areas, so you need to be careful lest you get one-shot while casually exploring. Depending on which Blade you use, you’ll also have different abilities. These can be attack based, healing based, tank based, and so on. This offers a lot of freedom with regards to how you develop your party and what role you’d like to play. Since the game constantly puts you into difficult combat situations, utilizing some form of the typical tank/healer/damage party is advised.
Am I watching an anime?
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is well written, and each main quest is accompanied by various cutscenes. Most of them are surprisingly long and feel more like an episodic anime than a game. Some of them even last longer than 10 minutes, which is great for driving character development. These intense and often emotional cutscenes do a great job of making you care about the characters. They’re all also done with in-game graphics, so your immersion is never really broken.
The game’s dialogue is surprisingly well dubbed, but it doesn’t beat the Japanese voice-acting. You can download the Japanese voice pack for free in the Nintendo eShop, and I highly recommend you do just that.
Overall, the music takes the cake in the production: heated battles, somber dialogues, and even simply travelling through the world are all perfectly captured through the soundtrack. It is easily one of the best soundtracks this year, albeit not at the same level as other games like NieR: Automata or Horizon: Zero Dawn.
The solid voice-acting and cutscenes combined with the epic score make for an almost cinematic experience. Overall Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does an amazing job of delivering on its promises and it surpasses its predecessor in every production and presentation aspect.
A JRPG through and through
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 hits the right notes for fans of the franchise and JRPGs. However, it brings with it some design choices that might rub some people in the wrong way.
First of all, there’s the confusing leveling system. Xenoblade 2 takes a lot of cues from its predecessor and other JRPGs for that matter. Throughout your journey, you’ll be able to play with up to 3 Drivers in your party, and each Driver can have up to 3 different Blades in their arsenal. Each character can level up certain skills, equip their weapons with certain items (that must be crafted), you can level up each Blade (and also fill their open slots with items for more damage, etc.), and you can also equip an item that gives you certain boosts for a limited period. The game tries its best to teach you the mechanics, but the pop-up tutorial screens and the confusing execution and questionable menu navigation might put you off. After 20+ hours I still struggle to optimize my builds and items. And utilizing these improvements for your Drivers and Blades is necessary because some enemies are tough as nails and will test your patience. If you encounter a T-Rex, just run — trust me.
On top of the complex leveling system, you’ll also need to do some grinding, whether it’s through fighting often as you travel or completing side quests and other tasks. I wouldn’t call the level curve steep, but it’s not shallow. You can invest bonus experience that you collect along the way by staying at an Inn in every town. This will help you to stay on top of the game. But overall, some grinding will be required. This is normal for every Japanese RPG, but it’s not for everybody, so keep that in mind.
A big plus with this game in comparison with, for example, Persona 5 (our game of the year 2017, by the way!), is that you can play on the go. I played the first Xenoblade Chronicles on my 3DS, and I cherished that experience. I appreciate it with this sequel even more. However, you might notice a significant downgrade in visual quality when playing handheld. It seems the game’s resolution drops to 360p in certain areas; it’s still playable, but it feels a bit like you’re playing on your 3DS. Personally, I’m not bothered by it, but it’s hard not to notice it.
Although I was expecting this after the first game, some enemies are also pretty badly placed. There were times when I was forced into the path of a high-level monster and it would insta-kill me several times over. The respawn points are mostly manageable, but some areas are just a bit too unfair to navigate through without dying at least once or twice to this.
Another issue is the confusing combat, particularly when facing multiple foes. Your standard attack is automated and you have to press specific buttons at the right times to deal extra damage. In a battle scene with so much going on, even zooming in on the action won’t help much with timing your button presses. After playing for 20+ hours, I feel more comfortable listening to the attack audio cues and pressing the corresponding buttons than using the visual cues I’m supposed to focus on.
With that said, I think the combat system otherwise feels great, and the controls are tight to boot. With the different element and Blade combinations, it’s fun to keep trying out new builds and tactics, and combat never really feels dull.
“The best JRPG for the Nintendo Switch yet”
While Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does not bring anything particularly new or innovative to the JRPG genre, it holds its own and offers an emotionally rich story with great characters, engaging real-time combat, and a rewarding (albeit complicated) leveling system. I’m fully invested in each character, and while many find the Nopon to be the worst creatures ever, I find them funny and fascinating. The soundtrack is the backbone of the experience and enriches every second of gameplay. Overall, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 delivers a solid JRPG experience for the Nintendo Switch that I highly recommend to every JRPG fan and to anyone simply looking for a compelling and memorable adventure to dive into.
+ Great story and loveable cast
+ Quality voice acting (in both English and Japanese)
+ Long and meaningful cutscenes
+ Great balance between action and somber moments
+ An epic adventure with 70+ hours of content
+ Handheld mode!
– At times confusing combat
– Performance issues in handheld mode
– Quest marker at times not helpful and too generic