Quantity does not always mean quality, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 delivers a lot of the former and little of the latter. While clocking in at dozens of hours in length and overflowing with systems, the resulting experience lacks in depth and emotion, with flat cutscenes broken up by long stretches spent as a courier for half of the game’s world. You may find some joy from the game’s lovely backgrounds and soaring orchestral soundtrack, but I would be hard-pressed to suggest you stay with this adventure the entire way.
Made by Monolith Software, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the third entry in the Xenoblade series following the original for Nintendo Wii and Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U. While this latest title is intended as a sequel to the original, there did not appear to be any narrative ties between them. With that, you’re left with a relatively generic plot that checks off a lot of the boxes you will find in other Japanese RPGs. Young orphaned boy out on his own? Political machinations threatening to tip the entire world into war? Vague allusions to environmentalism? All tropes common to many other games or anime that are present here.
The rest of the story does little to inspire any curiosity in what will happen next. You play as Rex, the aforementioned orphan who gets pulled into a mystery when he gets hired on a clandestine salvaging job. In this world, all of civilization resides on the back of gigantic beasts known as Titans that float above a massive ocean covered in clouds. When Rex is betrayed by the crew – one of whom is dressed in all black and named Malos, to give you an idea of their intentions – he is saved by Pyra, a living spirit known as a Blade. Rex and Pyra escape trouble and team up on a quest to find the promised land known as Elysium.
Yeah, hard to believe THIS guy turned out to be evil.
Any potential the story may have is unfortunately derailed by a few different factors related to how the game’s visuals and presentation. While the environment and backgrounds are top-notch, the characters are not as detailed, with body type and color of clothing as their only differentiation. Voices are completely detached from the lip motion with the English language option, and while the actors are British their accents seem gratingly over-emphasized. Conversely, they rarely seem to provide enough emotion for the various trails they encounter.
If the story were subpar but the game played well, that still might be enough to make for a pleasant experience. Many RPGs have been carried by complex but satisfying mechanics that allowed you to create your own emotional investment independent of the trials your characters face. In this case, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 borrows a lot from MMORPGs, which may be enjoyable for anyone already familiar with that style of play. For myself, I did not find my time was being sufficiently valued.
Most notably, the combat is an abstract, confusing slog. Instead of pressing a button to initiate an attack you target an enemy, press a button to draw your weapon, then loop through a short combination of moves. You can then interrupt the combination with a small group of commands, some which are better based on your position compared to your enemies or your Blade. Once you gain additional party members, there is also an option to issue specific commands to them under certain circumstances, though they mostly operate autonomously.
The result is a mess, since coordinating attacks with your teammates is almost impossible, while both allies and enemies shout out the names of their attacks or a short quip constantly. You’ll have a lot of trouble keeping track of the battle between the music, the same 1-3 phrases shouted over and over, and the flashy effects from your attacks. Add to that battles can last several minutes since enemies have unnecessarily large amounts of hit points and you quickly come to dread any random encounter.
When you’re not fighting or in a cutscene, you’ll spend a lot of time collecting things. Almost every quest in the game requires you to go out and find a handful of a few different types of items, then return them to the requester. In some cases, you may have to make a second trip to find another plant, or monster piece, or food. The task isn’t as simple as simply finding what you’re looking for though; you must access “Collection Points” and “Salvage Points” in order to get a random selection of various goods. Of course, while you’re traveling to these different points for the chance at obtaining the item you need, you will encounter plenty of enemies to slog through!
Just one of the vast, vast (…vast!) # of menus to navigate to understand the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Having to return to your starting point to complete a quest is a decision based in reality that should not apply to video games. Monolith has chosen to observe a normal reality when they are able to craft their own; in fact, they even marked a quest as complete once you possessed the key item in the first Xenoblade Chronicles! I was left with several other questions with their development decisions. Why does a level 80 monster roam around the first open area you encounter? Why is a main character’s progression tied up in a difficult mini-game that can only be played in one spot on the map? Why isn’t Pyra wearing pants?
The word I feel most describes Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is mechanical. There is always something to do but very little reason to do it, and after about 20 hours I had little will to continue playing. While I appreciate role playing games are slow to develop and may have fantastic adventures even later than 20 hours in their progression, I felt investing more time to discover them would be throwing good money after bad. At its heart the game is technically competent, so I can’t say it’s completely worthless. But unless you are a diehard fan of the genre, I would recommend avoiding this title and maybe looking for when the soundtrack goes on sale.