A good JRPG is really something special for a console. Especially early in the system’s life, it’s tough for developers to craft the 100+ hour experience that is required for a solid JRPG to flourish. This is especially true when the game is full of deep mechanics and customization, with players sifting through menu after menu to craft the characters and weapons that they want to use. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is all of the above, and its release on the Nintendo Switch is the capper to a truly amazing first year. Is it good enough to stand alongside the other amazing Switch games from 2017? Yes, and so much more.
The story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 starts rather simply. You play as Rex, a boy who will soon find himself embroiled in a conflict with world changing consequences. The world of Alrest has been teetering on the brink of war for some time. All of its nations and people exist upon the backs of giant Titans, which keep them afloat above the endless Cloud Sea. Rex is one of the few who dives below the clouds to pull up treasure from below, grabbing weapons and equipment that has been lost for centuries. But the Titans are dying, and the nations of Alrest are afraid as the ground literally sinks beneath their feet. The discovery of the Aegis, a mythical blade of old, could hold the key to saving everyone though, but Rex and his friends will have to get her to the World Tree first.
Full of tropes, cliche, and all the usual suspects, the game might not grab you at the start, but those first few hours are just the precursor to a wonderful tale to follow. Full of politics, conflict, and real world themes, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does what all great fiction does; it holds a mirror to the world while crafting its own unique universe. And, despite those early hours of JRPG and anime cliches, this is a unique universe.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is full of truly amazing design work and intelligent world building
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is full of truly amazing design work and intelligent world building. From the very beginning it’s clear that Monolith Soft is telling their own tale here. The concepts, such as society living on the backs of giant Titans, or how the combat system functions, are all fascinating and almost everything is deceptively deeper than you first think.
This is especially true for combat, which, like the story, starts out a little simpler than you might think. The first couple hours of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be chock full of tutorials, mostly involving the combat system. However, the game doesn’t just toss everything at you at once, it builds it out, keeping some things locked away until you’re ready for them. This does mean that, even over ten hours into the game, you’ll still be getting taught the base elements of the combat system, but it also means that this game has a robust and deep set of fighting mechanics that players will learn as they go.
The basics, as I don’t want to spoil anything for new players, are that you play as a Driver for a Blade. What these terms mean isn’t fully fleshed out at first, and honestly it doesn’t matter too much. You have a sword and you use it to bludgeon your enemies. Standard attacks are handled automatically. You just stand near a targeted enemy and Rex will swing away. As you fight you will build up and unlock your Arts, which are powerful attacks which can have added effects.
While this might sound simple, it builds and builds in complexity, with your Arts working together with your teammates to have various effects. The auto-attack allows players to focus, not on the rote action of attacking, but on the fight as a whole, planning out Art usage and watching the team’s health and other meters to determine the right time to really attack. Even ten or more hours into the game, players will still be learning and unlocking secrets of this combat system, and they’ll love every minute of it.
Now that’s not to say it’s perfect. The depth that this combat offers comes at the cost of being overly complicated at times. There’s just so much to keep track of, if you want to really focus in and deliver the damage that your characters are capable of. Can you just ignore a lot of it and focus on delivering powerful attacks? Sure, but then you’ll need to be higher leveled than the main quest will allow.
Grinding, it’s the boon or bane of any JRPG. Some players love it, other hate it. The real question is, how much of it do you have to do. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn’t have too much of it, especially if you jump off the extremely long main quest to do some of the very enjoyable side missions. However, unless you take that time you will find yourself hitting a bit of a wall here and there. Nothing too egregious, but enough that you need to stop and figuring out how to climb over it.
That might require walking into an area full of enemies and fighting a ton of them, but this is where the combat does have some deeper problems. Fights take a really long time in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Even if the enemy seems easy, if they aren’t a few levels lower than your characters, you should settle in for a minutes long fight just to earn a bit of XP. The battle dialogue is also quite repetitive, adding frustration to the long combat. You can turn this down in the menu, but this seems to be bugged at the moment. In the large, expansive environments where you’ll spend a majority of your fighting time, these long fights can present another challenge where nearby enemies take notice and join in, causing you to lose after a lot of time spent fighting.
Exploring the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is by far the best part of the game. The world is simply gorgeous, featuring amazing art and design work that really shines on the Switch. There’s some rough edges due to the lower power nature of the platform, especially in handheld mode. The game will never look as crisp or realistic as AAA titles on other systems, but that doesn’t matter as you see glorious vistas that stretch off into the clouds, full of amazing looking creatures, structures, and natural environments. Few games have left me as wowed as this one did, and it happened over and over again throughout.
A few things put a bit of a damper on the early hours of this otherwise blissful exploration though. There’s the protracted combat mentioned above, which forces you to avoid enemies if you’re not in the mood. Then there’s the somewhat broken objective marker. Above the screen is a compass that presumably directs the player to their next goal. It does a serviceable job most of the time, but anything more complicated than walking across a flat surface does cause issues.
But this is a small knock on an otherwise fantastic JRPG experience. And there’s more to love about it than what I’ve described here. The soundtrack is phenomenal, and I plan to listen to it over and over again. The characters are fun and interesting, although the English voice actors do have their flaws. There’s a lot of accents going on here, and it can be a problem. Thankfully you can grab the Japanese voices via a Day 1 patch, but I haven’t been able to check that out.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a delightful and fantastic JRPG experience. A long story full of adventure, character, charm, and whimsy will keep you playing for dozens of hours without breaking a sweat. The combat, like the story, takes a while to get going, but once it does its depth shines through, even if it can be a bit overly complex at times. Despite these small nitpicks, this is yet another amazing game for Nintendo Switch, cementing it as a true contender for best console on the market this year.