“Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?”
-Isaiah 10:15 [ESV]
2017 was a great year for games. From Nintendo’s new hybrid console/handheld to a variety of award-winning exclusives all around to the little gems that popped up here and there, it the first year in decades where I played more brand new games than retro ones. In 2017 I enjoyed amazing titles like Final Fantasy XV (to an extent), Wulverblade, SteamWorld Dig 2, Super Mario Odyssey and GOTY The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There is much more for me to sample from 2017, besides, like Horizon Zero Dawn and Cuphead.
So where does Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stand among the giants? Let me begin with what Xenoblade 2 is and then I’ll explain my level of interest leading up to its launch, and finally I’ll discuss my impressions on the game.
Closing out our terran solar cycle, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a sprawling, open-world JRPG developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo as an exclusive for the Nintendo Switch. It follows on the heels of the first Xenoblade Chronicles as its sequel and it belongs to the Xeno metaseries, which began way back in ’98 with Xenogears on the PlayStation One. This series is noted for tackling psychological, philosophical, and theological themes in their separate and frequently unrelated stories.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 began development as a response to fan feedback concerning Xenoblade Chronicles X, an intermediary title between the first game and its direct sequel. Xenoblade X altered the structure of the original Xenoblade by swapping out the traditional JRPG flavor for a mission-based framework. Xenoblade 2 was developed with an emphasis on anime appearances versus the more realistic art in the previous games and special attention was taken to telling the story in Xenoblade 2 with a cinematic approach. This is plain to see in the expressive and vibrant (if sometimes stereotypical) anime-influenced characters as well as numerous cutscenes.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 follows a new cast that lives in a dying world. Rex is a young orphan boy who becomes involved in the hunt for the Aegis, Pyra, a powerful and ancient entity known as a Blade. Briefly, Blades are weapon-entities that are attached to Drivers who use their abilities for combat.Rex and Pyra begin their search for paradise, Elysium, which Rex believes resides at the top of the World Tree. The existence of such a place is his hope for the world as people are living on the backs of gigantic living islands called Titans floating around in the Cloud Sea. The Titans are reaching the end of their long lifespans so a new home for civilization must be found.
Think Waterworld where Kevin Costner is Rex, Pyra is that little kid with the map tattoo, and the myth their looking for is dry land: Elysium.
However, Rex finds himself in the middle of a power struggle for the Aegis with a host of villains out to get Pyra and use her abilities for their own whims. Along the way, Rex and Pyra begin to encounter questions of destiny, free will, and ontology. Drivers are mortal but Blades live forever, though if their Driver dies then a Blade returns to its original crystalline state. The next time a Blade is awakened from their crystal, they will have forgotten everything that happened previously, including their former Driver. This is too much to bear for many Blades, driving the quest for several characters to reach ascend the World Tree, reach Elysium, and question the Architect, the creator of this world.
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?””
–Romans 9:20 [ESV]
Catching hints of the theological questions raised by Xenoblade 2 piqued my interest, and I already knew that the Xeno games were known for this. However, my interest in the game first began when Nintendo unveiled the game as part of the Switch’s reveal in January of 2017. It immediately appeared to be a robust JRPG and mainline title, and I’ve got a soft spot in my heart of hearts for the JRPGs of yore. Further, the initial trailer revealed that Yasunori Mitsuda was attached to the project. That got me excited.
Mitsuda is known among video game music fans as the composer of the soundtracks for Chrono Cross, Shadow Hearts, and Xenogears. His passionate, intense labor on the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger is legendary and the end result is one of the most beloved scores in gaming. Seeing his name as composer for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 sent a thrill right through me! But Xenoblade 2 wouldn’t be arriving for a long time, though I in January. All I had to do was wait.
As Breath of the Wild came and rocked the world, then Arms, Splatoon 2, and eventually Super Mario Odyssey, December neared and with it Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Along the way an extended gameplay presentation for Xenoblade 2 appeared. This is where a little apprehension set in.
I suppose it was hard to maintain interest in the gameplay while the presentation was being narrated by Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh. This soft-spoken voice that was at times barely audible ended up belonging to Gramps, one of the smaller Titans and Rex’s own personal mode of transport at the start of the game.
Then came the controversy. The game’s character designs reached the eyes and ears of those offended by them and overnight Xenoblade 2 became a source for talk and accusations of misogyny and sexism. The scantily clad and unrealistically endowed female characters, specifically some Blades in the game, were denounced, with several people claiming they would boycott the game.
My own take on that sudden but brief explosion of outrage is this: I’m skeptical of emotional outbursts. Additionally, people have been tolerating (if not enjoying) this sort of ridiculous character design in anime for years. Yes, it is ridiculous and the “male gaze” is strong with this one. It’s hard to take anyone seriously when they’re dressed in booty shorts. Anime is rife with this kind of gratuitous and self-indulgent hyper-sexuality. That’s one of the reasons I don’t watch much anime but don’t misconstrue my point.
I am not somehow deciding for you that it’s bad to watch anime, neither is it my direct or indirect intention to guilt-shame someone who likes anime. What I am saying is it’s dishonest to condemn and boycott a single title, which isn’t even the worst offender among its peers, without having the integrity and consistency of worldview to condemn it all, or at least the wide array of similar offenders. That’s my view, for what it’s worth.
Also, women were apparently a meaningful part of the game’s character design team (including Risa Ebata, who drew Dahlia, and Soraya Saga). To me that seems to deflate the narrative that all men are sexist misogynists because here was evidence of that, supposedly. Where that revelation of the women was enough for some of those who were outraged, there seemed to be a sudden realization that the backlash was at least somewhat unfounded, yet that wasn’t enough for everyone.
Now while that all seems like I’m defending the game, I’m actually not. I do think that the character design is lame (not even counting Rex), anatomically impossible, and in some cases profoundly stupid but I am not interested in entering one of a billion ongoing culture wars. All I’m saying is that the instant-microwave outrage was largely unjustifiable in its lack of condemning the context of media that Xenoblade 2 sits in on the whole, its unjustifiable nature perhaps demonstrated in how quickly and how easily the fires of rage died down, how they did not persist, how slander brought against the designers of the game didn’t stick once some of them were discovered to be female.
Ogling what are essentially cartoon characters isn’t my thing, anyway; the only woman I like to ogle is my wife, but we’ll keep it PG here. Ridiculous and belittling female designs are a larger issue in the gaming industry to be addressed with much more than the sporadic and easily distracted whims of social media backlash. I took aim and criticized a JRPG I played earlier in 2017 with many of the same problems: Final Fantasy XV. Cindy, ya’ll.
Xenoblade 2 isn’t even the worst game I can think of when it comes to this. Where outrage is ineffective in its brevity, prolonged criticism is not. Essentially, if players want to change this about gaming then as individuals they should buy what they want to see and not what they don’t, and even partake in developing what they want to see (the tools and resources have never been easier to take hold of). I played Xenoblade 2 as a critic and now I’m criticizing its worst aspects as a public voice.
All of this leading up to the launch of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 let a lot of the air out of my excitement for the game. I picked it up anyway and got off to a slow and awkward start, punctuated by some hours of enjoyable experience running around Gormott and Torigoth, then brute forcing my way through the rest of it. I had to muscle through the cutscenes, the filler, the padding, and the “enormous amount” (director’s own words) of innumerable, mundane side quests to reach the end of the game after 120 hours. That makes my playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 the longest I’ve ever put into a game I didn’t actually enjoy, though the learning experience and the reflections upon the game’s structure and design were valuable enough to me.
So why was I disappointed by Xenoblade Chronicles 2, especially after enjoying so much of 2017 with the Switch, especially after adoring the JRPGs of decades past?
I have a handful of associates who had roundabout the same take on the game but we appear to be in the minority, if going by mainstream scores is any indication. Ah who am I kidding? That’s barely any indication at all! Heck, score inflation is so bad and so commonplace that I thought IGN’s new logo was “9/10”! But upon Googling information about the game and how to do things in it (since it uses constant tutorials that you can see once and never again), it seemed to me that the bulk of the fandom surrounding this game is concerned with Deviant Art and Tumblr comics of the game’s characters kissing… That told me everything I needed to know about this gigantic, flashy, bloated game with its massive script and little meaningful substance.
Well, let’s get into the nitty gritty and I’ll attempt to explain why I think the Switch debuted with a bang in March but ended the year with a whimper in December.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does not provide much basis for the graphical competitiveness of the Nintendo Switch. Bearing in mind that the emphasis of the hybrid device is on “new ways to play”, as Nintendo is fond of reminding us, and on its flexibility and portability, not on graphics, but for what is essentially a mainline triple A exclusive for the system, Xenoblade 2 doesn’t even rival the graphics of the Switch’s games that were released earlier in the year. I’m not a graphics snob, now. I’m merely saying that Xenoblade 2 does not achieve the same visual depth and vibrancy of earlier, big name Switch titles, nor does it even accurately convey the sense of grandeur, space, and expansiveness that it wants from its environs.
To talk about the elephant in the room once more, the character design is unremarkably familiar.
As I pointed out, the designers opted for anime-esque trappings for this game and so the characters fall neatly into anime clichés and stereotypes, both in terms of personality and presentation. The move toward anime looks was doing in an attempt to get away from “stiff” characters in the earlier games, but these characters still move like animatronics in the cutscenes. The Blade designs are going to be the most talked about and indeed the most noteworthy of all designs in the game, and these were created by multiple artists brought together into one team. That explains the dissimilarities between the Blades’ art styles, which in the menus seems distracting, but it allows for a degree of variety, albeit within the scope of what is “anime enough” and what is not. That self-indulgence explains the presence of the skimpy clothing and insane breast physics.
Even male characters have fetishistic chests!
Lastly, the occasional frame rate drop turns the game into molasses in some areas, such as the Abandoned Factory. It was enough for me to pull the tablet out of the dock and check to see if my Switch was overheating. Considering the visual beauty that other Switch exclusives were able to accomplish earlier in the device’s life cycle, I presume that the rumor and jaw of a lack of polish in Xenoblade 2 is the real culprit here, setting what might have been a game of grandeur and majesty back a generation or two in graphics. Monolith Soft apparently made an agreement with Nintendo to release Xenoblade 2 early on in the life of the Switch, so there you are.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was ecstatic when I discovered that Yasunori Mitsuda was the composer of the game. Though the melodic era of short, looping tunes is largely over in gaming, Mitsuda crafted many songs that stand out from this rather sizable soundtrack as being catchy and memorable. The soundtrack is dominated by flute and piano, primarily, and these were the flavors of music that most resonated with me. They helped bring some semblance of dignity and gravity to what is essentially a game recycling anime jokes from the 90’s.
However, while the score is mostly incredible, though incapable of rivaling his former discography, Mitsuda wasn’t the only musical creator attached to the project and that ought to be apparent without reading the credits given the differences in sound between some songs. A group was formed to contribute to the score, including the band ACE, Kenji Hiramatsu, and Manami Kiyota, and sections of the soundtrack were distributed among them. ACE was placed in charge of the game’s field music and Hiramatsu tackled the battle themes. Mitsuda ended up directly responsible for only about a fifth of the game’s score, though he had a kind of supervisory position over the team. Vocal tracks were performed by a variety of artists as well: Irish ensemble Anúna, the Slovakian Bratislava Symphony Choir, and Jennifer Bird, who performed the ending theme, written by Mitsuda.
Pooling together such talent is as impressive as the actual music itself, which only makes the terrible sound mixing in the game all the more reprehensible. For some bizarre reason, the songs containing vocal tracks play frequently during significant, dialogue-heavy narrative scenes, such as at the ends of chapters or during highly emotional sequences. The voice actors are doing their best to be heard and convey their sorrow or mirth, but the actors end up clashing with the vocals in the music and vice versa until neither are discernible. You simply cannot play Xenoblade 2 without subtitles on. Cataclysmic crescendos in the music drown out the actors at multiple points; a poor implementation of an otherwise beautiful score.
Further, the placement of some of these songs is shocking, (spoilers: highlight to reveal) such as during Vandham’s death and Rex’s mourning for him. It’s as if a song was meant to communicate upbeat, teeny-bop (sorry I said that) happiness while the circumstance in the plot is demonstrating tragedy. What a waste, but that is hardly even the biggest thorn in this game’s audio side.
There is the voice acting… So a lot of what I’m criticizing in this review I believe to be pretty defensible. After all, when we give our opinions don’t we then usually try to defend them with reasoned arguments we believe to be true, or otherwise, why hold those opinions? Or conversely, if you believe that everything about reviews is subjective then how will you objectively convince me that opinion is correct?
Anyhow, you may not agree that music competing to be heard with voice acting is as subjectively terrible as I do, but I think it’s fairly objective to say that two high volume sounds are difficult to hear simultaneously and therefore there’s an element of poor design there. That being said, I’ll concede that the voice acting was not good “to me”. The presence of European accents (Welsh and Irish is what it sounded like to my ears) are a unique touch from what I’ve encountered in JRPGs, but none of them at all resonated with me beyond Morág’s, likely because she was soft-spoken and hers sounded the most natural and comfortable with her lines.
The main cast benefits from reliable and consistent performances for Rex, Pyra, Mythra, and Nia, with Dromarch and Brighid beside, but the rare Blades you pick up throughout the game sound as if they’re phoning it in and then Zeke the Zekenator (who is trying way too hard), Pandoria, Poppi, and especially that shrieking annoyance Tora made me thank heaven that the music suffocated their voices and stilted syntax more often than not.
I was put off enough by the voice acting to scramble for the Japanese voice track download once I saw it was available. It was novel to hear the original Japanese voices but I’m not a sub-purist anyway so I eventually switched back to the English voice track once I thought about it. I’m reviewing the English version of the game, after all, so I didn’t want to muddle the critique by avoiding the “full” English version, voices included.
Finally, and this is absolutely objective, the implementation of some of the voice acting in battles is a repetitive grievance. As per the laws of the anime gods, characters must say the names of the special attacks they’re performing as they execute them. With up to three active characters in a battle and enemies and bosses saying the names of their attacks as well, the fast-paced battle music falls faint beneath the deafening roar of multiple characters talking all at the same time. When I first noticed this, I couldn’t help but let out a laugh. If you think I’m making to big a deal of this, then… well… “THINK YOU CAN TAKE ME? DON’T FORGET ME! THINK YOU CAN TAKE ME? DON’T FORGET ME! THINK YOU CAN TAKE ME? DON’T FORGET ME! THINK YOU CAN TAKE ME? DON’T FORGET ME! THINK YOU CAN TAKE ME? DON’T FORGET ME!”
Gah, and one last thing. It’s dirty when characters whisper something we’re not meant to hear and there are no subtitles but we see their lips move in an extreme close-up. Why? Because the lips don’t sync up with the English voices, anyways. I have no idea what someone says at the very end of the game.
(scene below may contain light SPOILERS)
Gameplay… hoo boy, alright down to the straws that broke the camel’s back. First, though, I’ll bring up what I enjoyed in Xenoblade 2’s gameplay, for the sake of positivity, though I plan to give reasons for every point on why I think these things worked or didn’t, for the sake of rationality. Not just gushing or fussing here, or at least, I’m not intentionally trying to; I took my time with this game to ensure I didn’t.
My final playtime.
So things I liked:
I liked the Blades and having them in my collection (though not the act of collecting them itself, more on that later). There are common Blades in the game with differences in elemental affinity and weaponry, but there are additionally 38 rare Blades with unique attacks and abilities that you’ll really want to get. Many of them have passive traits that allow you to complete missions or access secret areas and more, so it’s this utility that makes the rare Blades a memorable and distinctive part of the game. Their unique designs are also interesting and modifying your party members with up to three Blades each affords an interesting way to customize your team. I really wanted to collect all the rare Blades by the end of the game but though a few of them are obtained as part of the story or by completing quests, many of them are bequeathed randomly, so even after spending a week grinding for them and playing the game for over 120 hours I can report that I did not catch ’em all.
Blades can lump their field abilities together to open the way forward.
Merc missions aren’t unlocked until Chapter 4 but when they are, they present a good opportunity to use the rare Blades you aren’t actively pressing into action. You’ll eventually have these rare Blades sitting on the bench as you accumulate more but instead of taking up space, you can send them out on mercenary missions to earn extra experience points, items, and cash. The Blades themselves will even have their skills increased now and then. In fact, some Blades require you to send them on missions in order for their skills to improve. The missions each have a timer that must run down before your Blades can return successfully, though certain missions favor Blade abilities that will actually reduce the amount of time needed to complete them.
For a bit of advice, I recommend you put a little bit of thought into which Blades you send out and when. You may need their passive field abilities to reach new areas so think about whether their abilities are used frequently and if you may need them in the near future. Lockpicking is more useful than Forestry, for instance. You can always call them back but then you’ll have to start the timer over.
The towns and cities in Xenoblade 2 feature a kind of simplified economy, which seems complicated and possibly overwhelming at first though eventually its purpose becomes clear. Basically, each city has a developmental level that you can raise by spending your money there, purchasing items and equipment from merchants or selling off items you’ve salvaged. You can also raise this level by completing merc missions for the region.
Raise the developmental level enough and merchants will start to give out discounts or even introduce new merchandise to their selections. If you manage to search out and purch all the merch that a merchant will ever offer, they’ll give up their deed, a key item that grants a small but permanent bonus such as improving your running speed by a tiny percentage. It’s pretty beneficial to have these lasting effects as they accumulate over the course of the adventure.
Almost looks like an MMO.
Exploring is a basic part of the allure of these massive, open-world RPGs, though some grant meaningful rewards and experiences toward the joy of discovery more so than others. For me, I got hooked into Xenoblade 2 roundabout reaching Torigoth early in the game. I had everything I needed: a town with a few side quests to prompt direction in the wild, nearby monsters to defeat for experience and practice combat with, and a wide field of green with multiple tiers, chasms, bridges, alleys, valleys, and treasure chests to explore with the rising and falling tides of the cloud sea to take into account.
I actually stopped the story in its tracks for a while just engaging in inconsequential, unproductive activity around the area. That pleasure lasted for a decent amount of time. It wore off when I began to see that there wasn’t much I could access or advanced monsters I could fight at that point, and the treasures I found weren’t the most useful, but it was great while it lasted.
Salvaging was also an early interest in the game. Rex, the main character, is a salvager who dredges up scraps and artifacts from beneath the cloud sea. Specific spots marked with a fishing hook icon allow him to take a dive beneath the clouds, granted you have at least one salvaging cylinder in your inventory. You’ll have to successfully complete a series of prompts and your accuracy with these determines some of the treasure you’ll get or the monsters you’ll encounter, along with a healthy dose of randomness. It was a decent way to make money early on but toward the end of the adventure I was already sitting on a ton of gold so I didn’t do much salvaging mid to late game.
Combining special attacks in battle was a great way to keep the battles interesting and it became a necessity for dealing out damage later in the game against tougher bosses. Every Blade, common or rare, has an elemental affinity and they can unleash different stages of an elemental attack after doling out enough special attacks. Using the first tier of an elemental attack will open up a chart in the upper right corner of the battle screen that shows which element is needed next in the combo to reach the third tier finishing move.
In the example below (on the left), someone has already used a tier-one fire attack, followed by a tier-two water attack, so now Rex can use a tier-three fire attack called Steam Explosion, or Nia can use a tier-three ice attack called Diamond Mist. Both Rex and Nia will need to build up their elemental specials gauge by using their other specials, though. In the next image, Poppi is shown using a tier-three earth attack called Mega Eruption.
When the game was first released there were some significant navigational issues. The on screen mini-map was pretty useless given its sizing and opening up the world map didn’t automatically center the cartography around your current location, forcing you to navigate through the map’s layers to find where you were. These have since been rectified so good on Monolith Soft to fix the issues, though that seems like something that should’ve come out during testing (how much was this game rushed?).
Alright now for things I did not like:
The act of collecting the Blades themselves is just like opening lootboxes. You have to first acquire a Core Crystal and then open it with a specific character, which will tie the random Blade that pops out of the Crystal to that character. So sucks for you if you get a healer Blade on a tank character, or an attacker-class Blade on a healer. You can swap Blades around only through a specific item that you don’t often come across, so just hope that you’re lucky.
Luck is exactly what popping Core Crystals depends on. The RNG is diabolical here, though. Like I mentioned, I played for over 120 hours and spent plenty of time farming for Rare Core Crystals and I still didn’t get all of the rare Blades. It’s not like there are a ton of them, either, but you’re going to have to sift through a bazillion common Blades until you get sick of them even just to get one rare Blade. What made me give up on farming for Crystals was when I popped 90 common Crystals and 43 rare Crystals and still got nothing but commons. Apparently, the chance of getting a rare becomes even more slim after finding a good chunk of rare Blades, but all of that number crunching is hidden from the player, as is the exact purpose of using Booster items during the Crystal resonating process. Add to that the fact that you have a limited inventory for Blades that fills up and you’ll therefore have to release them into the wild one by one by one in order to free up space. It’s all a tiresome task with great promise but low reward.
I’m really not sure why the developers would do this and how much they honestly expected people to play the game. Imagine how well received Pokémon Red and Blue would have been if you could only catch the creatures by opening Poké balls throughout the game but you got Pidgeys and Caterpies 95% of the time. The whole game.
There are Legendary Core Crystals that apparently have a higher chance of rendering a rare Blade but I’ve only ever got commons from these, too.
Clumsy battle mechanics involve an unintuitive way to gain an enemy’s attention and trigger a battle. Some enemies won’t even fight you even when your character is literally touching them! You can throw a rock at a baddie to get its attention but this slows down what should be an otherwise streamlined process considering battles take place in the field.
Other odd mechanics include having to sit and wait for cooldowns, just watching your characters auto-attack for minimal damage, especially early on in the slowest portions of the game. Attempting to swap targets in battle has a kind of aimlessness to it, as well. Few AOE attacks mean that battles drag on and on most of the time, even against enemies that are a dramatically lower level than your characters. Parts of the battles are exciting, such as triggering elemental combos but it’s essentially just sitting and waiting for metrics and affinities not fully explained to build up and bars and gauges to fill. It seems needlessly complicated since essentially you’re just sitting and waiting your way through most fights and the climax of a Chain Attack either never comes or when it does it seems anticlimactic in terms of damage output.
Xenoblade 2 has drawn comparisons with Final Fantasy XII for its treatment of automated battles, but ultimately it’s the game that came out over a decade ago that did it better. FFXII had a true seamlessness and speed that made its fights a more engaging and lucid experience than Xenoblade 2’s. I got through the game and still didn’t figure out what the heck all the little phrases like Affinity are for or mean, making the items and food that minutely affect attributes like these practically worthless.
One more thing to mention is healing in battles. There are no items like potions or elixirs you can just whip out for some healing. Instead, healing is attached to specific attacks granted by your Blades. Using these attacks, such as Rex/Pyra’s Anchor Shot, makes potions fly out of the enemy for some odd reason. So you can generate healing items in combat, great… except now you have to walk over to pick them up while the enemy keeps attacking you. Larger monsters produce potions that bounce a good distance away which in turn makes healing really unreliable unless you spam healing attacks. Characters with their weapons out crawl at a snail’s pace so heading off for scattered potions is a chore.
In short, aside from the odd boss fight or unique monster, the battles are like wading through cement. This is especially true early on with only one Blade per party member.
Character customization is typically a welcome distraction in RPGs but here there are simply too many options without significant effects. I could mention the game’s SP system or Affinity charts but to illustrate this, let me merely mention accessories. There are no traditional pieces of armor or even weapons (individual Blades equip Chips that affect their stats when attached to a party member), instead there are accessories that a character can equip, one or two at a time usually. Accessories come in three levels of rarity, the rarer meaning their effects are slightly more potent, but you get a new accessory after defeating an enemy, opening a treasure chest, completing a mission, or finishing a side quest, nearly every time.
You quickly end up with a massive hoard of accessories that discourages you from wading through your inventory to find the best set, and even then, effects like “restores 5% HP when canceling an auto-attack with a Driver Art” or “slightly fills the Party Gauge for each critical hit delivered” are far too specific to even be considered when you only have two accessory slots on a character. I spent almost the entire game with accessories equipped that raise HP, Dexterity or Strength and did just fine, making the ocean of accessories I picked up virtually worthless.
It’s a matter of way too much doing much too little. Even the odd items you harvest from points in the field are useless beyond the rarest exception, unless you just want more useless items through sporadic crafting.
That takes us to the concept of money in Xenoblade 2. Since accessories are out of the picture, that leaves you with Chips to buy for your Blades for better attack capabilities or defense. That was the first thing I looked for upon reaching a new town, then I’d buy up any new foodstuffs or merchant items I didn’t already have just to have them for the developmental level (nevermind that a lot of these have the same limited effects as accessories, so they’re useless in their over-abundance as well). After all that, I’d spend the night in the inn. This meant that by the end of the game I had in excess of several hundred-thousand gold with no clear use for it all. This in turn makes the discounts you can earn pointless since it’s only discounting items that you don’t have much use for anyway.
Being forced to do side quests for experience points is where I absolutely resented this game.
Having to sit through every NPC tell me their sob story, word bubble after word bubble, before asking me to run off into the forest to gather 10 mushrooms of a specific species or 5 chunks of scrap from some salvage point got old pretty fast. I already have a distaste for filler side quests like these, chore lists, fetch quests, mundane activities that don’t develop the characters or advance the story but actually bring it to a screeching halt. Too much emphasis on side quests can effectively drain all tension and pace out of the plot of a game, but Xenoblade 2 coerces the player to complete side quests in order to gain any significant amount of experience.
You gain a paltry amount of experience from most monsters but there are supplementary bonus experience points that accumulate on your characters over time. You can only use these points by sleeping in an inn and then manually spending them to raise each character’s level. Why? Because this system forces you to complete the enormous amount (as if that were a good thing) of monotonous side quests that the game’s devs spent so much time on, but a clear indicator that none of these side quests are at all meaningful is the canned responses that your party members render during their exchanges with quest-giving NPCs.
Near the end of the game, I just gave up on leveling and muscled through the last few fights and laboriously long cutscenes. I’d had enough of being an errand boy just to have the experience points necessary to beat the game.
This game seems to be about doing things in the most roundabout and time consuming way. To cite a specific, there’s a part when you need to enter a factory but the door is locked from the inside. A short conversation between your characters follows in which they talk about exploring for a way in, perhaps through the window over a scaffold above the door. When the player regains control, they can find a ladder key in the chest immediately nearby, which is used to activate the ladder literally right around the corner from the locked door. I ascended the ladder and reached the window to get inside but I had to wonder why the developers went through all that bit just to enter a building. Xenoblade 2 is full of such instances: non-world building, non-character developing tedium.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a pretty but sloppy and bloated mess. More content doesn’t a better game make. Meaningful content does. Xenoblade 2 seems like a 100 hour game that could have been more like a 75 hour game.
Why on Earth can I not get rid of the first common Blade I got? I have no personal attachment to him!
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS about the plot and themes of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then Ctrl+f Accessibility to navigate past these sections!
So because the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is laid out over such a length of time in ten Chapters, I don’t intend to delve too much into explaining it all. In a nutshell, though, Rex discovers the Aegis, Pyra/Mythra, this legendary Blade who is sought after by people wanting to use her powers. Rex and crew seek Elysium atop the World Tree which Rex believes exists and is more than a fairy tale, a place where civilization can survive since the Titans people live on are dying.
The good guys are opposed along the way by the empire at first, though they eventually come around and the imperial inquisitor even joins the party. There is still the other Aegis, Malos, as well as Jin, Chairman Bana and a host of cardboard cutouts from Naruto to assail the heroes until they eventually decide to quit putzing around and get to climbing the World Tree, learn about Pyra’s true nature, talk to the Architect who ends up being a human who created this universe, face off against Malos and save humanity, discovering the true Elysium.
What struck me most about the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 were the themes it brought up, which I’ll address here in a minute, and a few others notables.
One of these surrounded the meaningless deaths of characters we never became familiar with which are somehow meant to evoke emotion. Vandham is the perfect example of this. He’s in the party and in the story for such a comparatively short time, with so little bearing upon the outcome of the tale, that he’s forgettable and therefore so is his death. Beyond him, there are minor antagonists throughout the game with their own gimmicky anime tics who suddenly swing to chaotic good at the end of the game and we’re somehow supposed to feel sorry for them in the end.
The unoriginality of the characters likely means that people will bring their own investments to them based on similarities with characters they’ve encountered before, but that’s not going to hold up for everyone. For example…
Or discount Team Rocket.
The script itself is impressive in its size though what it boils down to is worse than if it were just spoon feeding the player. It’s full of intermediary banter and conversation that whittles away at any pacing in cutscenes, which seem to drag on and on with characters saying nothing important and repeating each other’s statements.
My favorite Final Fantasy album cover.
Further, the placement of narrative elements in Xenoblade 2 works actively against treating story elements as respite from battles and dungeons. I found that battles and dungeons, though monotonous in themselves, seemed like a break from the storyline! Walk a few steps and suddenly there’s a cutscene or tutorial, walk a few more steps, another cutscene or tutorial, walk a few more steps, cutscene or tutorial, and that repeats literally throughout the entire game, from Chapter 1 to Chapter 10, draining the thrill out of entering a new area since you’ll realize there’s a load of cinematics ahead slower than exposition, bogged down by overtly familiar characters whose stories have already been written in other titles elsewhere.
Take a wild guess at who the silver-haired villain with the tragic backstory is.
On a personal note, I had some frustration with the final reveal of the Architect. This kept me wading through the last portions of the game, which felt strangely constricting as did those in FFXV. I don’t think that fiction often goes far enough with its analogies in attempting to address actual issues in philosophy and theology (but I’ll be addressing these issues in a separate video).
The Architect ends up being a man with human flaws, deflating the difficulty of theodicy, instead of an all-good, all-powerful Aristotelian Prime Mover that makes the riddle much more challenging. The multiverse doesn’t solve the problem of infinite regression and neither does making “God” a man solve the problem of suffering and free will that the Blades and Flesh Eaters moan about in the story. There is payoff for Rex and Pyra and the people on the Cloud Sea, but not much payoff for the thematic build up revolving around these high thoughts.
The question is asked how much prior knowledge from the earlier Xenoblade games is necessary to enjoy and understand Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The answer is: not much. Klaus, the Architect, is a character which appears in Xenoblade Chronicles and there are references to objects from that game, but the references are slight.
While the constant harping on “the power of friendship” and Rex’s own impenetrable sense of the lack of consequences for evil actions (making him a not truly good character) are simple themes in Xenoblade 2 which have played themselves out in entertainment for decades now, there are some interesting themes in the game to address. Perhaps they’re rendered more interesting for the fact that the game doesn’t do much to attempt to explain them, sort of like the orphan Rex’s ancestry (likely to be addressed in dumb DLC) or the significance of Pyra’s final form Pneuma and Malos’ alternative name Logos.
Both pneuma (spirit, breath, soul) and Logos (the incarnated Word as in John chapter 1 and the organizing principle of the universe in ancient philosophy) have tremendous significance in the New Testament and Greek thought but the game uses them merely in passing, which seems like a case of lazily pulling from biblical references in an attempt to ascribe weight where there is no actual substance. Or perhaps the explanation is in the game but unclear. Regardless, I have no way of even attempting to interpret the meaning of these two words and characters.
What I would like to address here is something brought up in a couple good videos (like this one) circulating around the internet: the changes to character and place names in the English localization. You’ll see that the changes actually confuse the storyline more by drawing from multiple points of reference instead of just one.
Pyra/Mythra/Pneuma is called the Aegis in English, referencing a mystical artifact in Homer’s Iliad, typically thought of and depicted as a shield. Pyra shields Rex from harm throughout the game, yes, but in Japanese she is referred to as the Holy Grail, not the Aegis. This makes more sense out of her core crystal on her chest that is shaped like a crucifix and it also explains, thematically, why so many people were searching for her.
Elysium is a reference to the incorruptible land of joy, land of the blessed, a concept of the hereafter again in Grecian myth. Referenced again by Homer in the Odyssey as the Elysian plain, the original Japanese version of Xenoblade 2 uses a term that simply means “paradise”. However, that term breaks down into roots that mean “happy” and “garden”, a reference not to Greek religion but to Judeo-Christian ideas, a reference to the Garden of Eden. Milton’s Paradise Lost seems to be a more than likely influence on the themes and nature of Xenoblade 2 and it has as its title in Japanese “Lost Happy Garden”. “Xenoblade: Paradise Lost” would’ve been an appropriate name for this game.
While the concept of the World Tree is likely a reference to Yggdrasil of Norse legend, a gigantic tree at the center of the cosmos, the Architect in Japanese is called the God of Genesis in the introductory scenes of the game. Once again, that’s a deliberate Judeo-Christian reference and certainly it falls in place with the themes of the game.
Finally, there’s Rex. Within the game, characters pose the question of why this orphaned nobody became the Driver of the Aegis. While the game doesn’t confirm this theory, I believe that Rex is the descendant of the heroic figure Addam who was the Aegis’ original Driver. Two reasons why: Addam founded the town where Rex grew up (though Rex was not born there) but more importantly, Rex is able to interact with mystical mechanisms associated with Addam. That’s why he was assigned the mission to retrieve the Aegis at the start of the game.
Rex is a Latin word that means “king”. Rex is the Driver of the Aegis because he is thematically determined to be. He is a Grail King. If the theory that he’s a descendant of Addam holds true, then he is a descendant of “kings” (here a heroic lineage) associated with the Holy Grail (here the Aegis). King Arthur (Addam?) had the Holy Grail introduced to his stories in the 12th century but the last in the lineage of those charged with keeping the Grail is one known as the Fisher King. Not coincidentally, Rex is that Fisher King, the last to wield the Holy Grail/Aegis before the world is fundamentally transformed. This is likely hinted at by his occupation as a salvager, one who “fishes” up artifacts from the under-world. The salvaging icon, again, is a fishing hook and Rex often quotes from the salvager’s code similar to a sort of chilvaric code that might’ve existed around the proposed time of King Arthur.
I’m sure there’s much more there to explore.
Nintendo was once known for censoring their games and removing religious, specifically Christian, references and symbolism, likely in an effort to avoid offending anyone when their games were taken to the Western market. Oddly, Xenoblade 2 offended a lot of people anyway but not for what was removed. These themes are tied together in Japanese but a lot of their significance is scrubbed out in the English version, sorry to report.
This game presents itself very poorly and may be one of the most over-tutorialized games I’ve ever played. There are tutorials all the way into the final chapter, if you can believe that. Occasionally the tutorials are for things that are obvious, minuscule, or already established from the previous cutscene. Reading a tutorial that pops up and then taking literally a few steps before another tutorial pops up was laughable to me.
Yet even with this abundance of tutorials, the game isn’t clear about itself. For one thing, tutorials cannot be accessed again after seeing them for the first time (as if the devs took Googling into account when designing the game), also there are no tutorials to explain the things you’re actually curious about (such as the Boosters). Lastly, the tutorials are presented by an unseen individual speaking in first person to you, meaning they feature the same chatty filler that NPCs use in communicating with you, burying key information in in-universe chit-chat.
I don’t even recall this particular tutorial being relevant all that often and it’s something that is easy enough to figure out based on what the NPC just told you… Why is this here considering reaching this point is harder than what the tutorial is describing to do next?
The game is a sequel but while a few interesting thematic elements enrich and deepen the intrigue of the game and its characters’ goals, the characters themselves are all entirely familiar archetypes. No, that’s not even the right word. They’re less archetypes and more like square pegs in square holes. Their presence and passions, their moods and attitudes are all too familiar, meandering through a story that’s been played out already and a game structure that’s just as thick with fat as any open-world indulgence.
Anime was a mistake.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
So it’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy this game. I am happy for those that did but I wanted to like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and it ended up disappointing me. Nobody can say I didn’t give it a chance. I played the full English version, didn’t change the voices, for over a hundred hours. A learning experience about the nature of games.
A lot of what turns me off to Xenoblade 2 is the same stuff that keeps me away from anime: the clichés, the stereotypes, the gratuitousness, the extreme corniness, the horniness. How it all not a self-parody at this point? I mean when you have a whole word like tsundere just to describe a very specific character development blueprint, there’s a problem with cookie cutter storytelling. Will this be the death of JRPGs?
Does that mean that if you like anime that you’ll like this game? I don’t know. I can’t make that statement for you but I can say more: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not a game with good intentions that went awry. It is a poorly structured game full of empty promise that drags its experience out for far too long, forces you to take in its most mundane attributes, and it is stuffed with filler scenes and padding items. It’s a sad close to the Switch’s launch year.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a solecism against the grammar of game design. I’ve always wanted to say that.
Aggregated Score: 4.7
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