One can furnish a room very luxuriously by taking out furniture rather than putting it in.
“The following is a contributor post by the Middle-aged Horror Mage.”
Sometimes second chances can be wonderful things. Last year’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2 provides the perfect example, as I downright loathed the game at launch and it somehow ended up as my current favorite title on the Nintendo Switch. I can’t quite put my finger on the exact “why,” but I abandoned the JRPG around the 10-hour mark and even came close to selling it off. I liked the combat but found it exhausting, didn’t care for the look of the characters, but found them interesting, and so it went — for everything I liked there was something I didn’t.
A couple of months went by and I decided to give it another shot. Why not, right? Then one day everything clicked and I eventually walked away after 115 hours enamored by the vibrancy of its environments, as well as the characters and stories that took place within them. The combat that once felt tedious became more interesting, and the boredom of leveling up cities, unlocking affinity charts, and collecting rare Blades were all things I began to look forward to. Sure, that last part kinda sucked (praise RNGsus) and the game was still well beyond “anime as hell,” but my point is that sometimes I just have to be in the right mindset for something.
115 hours is a long time to spend with any one game, though, so clearly Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is one that I’m quite fond of. Needless to say, when Nintendo initially showed off the JRPG’s standalone story expansion with Jin and Lora as playable characters, along with a jazzy new battle theme, it immediately skyrocketed to the top of my must-play list.
Was it everything I hoped it would be? Yes… and no. Mostly yes.
Torna ~ The Golden Country features a story that takes place 500 years prior to the events of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Acting as a prequel, it (somewhat) details the lead up to the core game while simultaneously framing the narrative as its own unique story, and does so in nearly a quarter of the time.
It’s a more refined experience in comparison to the original’s open-world JRPG formula, doing away with the likes of salvaging, city leveling, mercenary missions, randomized core bonding, and traversing along its sometimes daunting, expansive world. It also drastically tones down the Blade skill progression roadblocks, which butchered the core game’s pacing on more than a few occasions.
It’s by taking away these time sinks and hindrances that Torna was given the opportunity to quickly sink its claws in me. And by introducing its “new” cast of characters, presenting a new Titan to explore, refreshing the original combat system in interesting ways, and plotting other welcome changes along the way, it never stumbled in its pacing and kept me intrigued throughout. It greatly benefits from trimming the fat in a “less is more” kind of way without teetering in and out of an identity crisis in the process.
For example, Torna ~ The Golden Country makes affinity chart perks easier to unlock, which in turn makes it less taxing to reach a Blade’s necessary field skills. There are also campsites sprinkled around that introduce a new crafting mechanic that’s bound to feel familiar to anyone who leveled Pyra’s cooking in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (just much, much easier to gather materials for). So rather than being welcomed by myriad vendors upon entering a city, selling all manner of desserts, meats, charms, and other whatnots to stuff in your pouch for passively beneficial status effects, you simply craft those items at camp with your gathered resources.
Each party member has their own specialty, like Lora’s charms and Brighid’s perfume, but two members, in particular, can concoct items that offer permanent boosts to XP and gold gains, faster movement speed, and access to additional gathering points. Camping is also where a lot of personal and story-related chatter occurs between teammates as well, so there’s always an incentive in taking these small breaks.
That being said, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time within Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I highly recommend waiting to play this until you’ve finished off the main game’s story. It’s a prequel, sure, but (in the interest of not wanting to spoil things because that isn’t fun) the narrative is guided in such a way that the bigger “aha!” moments won’t land as hard without that prior knowledge.
Without getting into too much detail, the game begins on the Torna titan with Lora having now been Jin’s Driver for seventeen years. Their hunt for Lora’s mother introduces them to Addam and his familiar Blade, the Aegis Mythra, and sees the party off to the titan of Gormott.
The merry band is eventually evened out at three Drivers with two Blades each, but the adventure never expands beyond Torna and Gormott — there’s familial unrest, sinister governments, and the ever-violent Aegis Malos offering plenty of narrative meat to gnaw on, but it all takes place within the confines of these two titans. You’ll frequent both for story and side-quest reasons and they offer plenty of nooks and crannies to explore without your quest marker’s hand-holding, so don’t assume the standalone DLC is just an appetizer.
As much as I enjoyed the overall experience, it wasn’t always full of candy and nuts. There’s more than a few unanswered questions, a pointless economy, and the game runs noticeably worse in handheld mode, but let’s dig into that below in the 8-bit Review, shall we?
The 8-bit Review
Like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Torna ~ The Golden Country has a good-looking world full of characters that are clearly influenced by anime and manga (as many, if not all JRPGs are).
Everything just meshes well in a nice, neat package.
The titan of Gormott returns from the original game with a few noticeable changes in topography, but the new explorable titan of Torna provides the lion’s share of The Golden Country’s visual feast.
A bulk of the titan is draped in a desert theme that offers some well-designed verticality that, as expected, tends to feel a little samey after a while. However, it’s thankfully freshened up by a wilderness preserve, a lake or two, and a wonderfully placed garden full of colorful flora and fearsome enemies. These areas are easy on the eyes on their own, but it’s their juxtaposition against the vast desert landscape that really makes them pop.
The Xeno- series has always excelled at crafting fantastical worlds that manage to feel alien, as opposed to the commonplace environments that exist it other titles within the genre.
We’ve all explored countless forests, caves, jungles, deserts, and snowy landscapes a hundred times over by now, but the Xeno- games build upon that formula like none other. You’re not just frolicking along a grassy field with monsters and treasure sprinkled about — you’re simply existing along the backs of these massive titans floating along a sea of clouds. Torna ~ The Golden Country is no different.
Even Torna’s simple desert motif is given an otherworldly feel as you take in the view of mammoth titan fins paddling along the clouds while flying sealife circle a raised garden lifted high above the sandy floor. While other JRPGs keep their environments grounded in reality, Monolithsoft continues to find impressive ways to challenge tradition.
Similar to the core game, Torna ~ The Golden Country showcases a handful of truly exciting cutscenes full of insanely choreographed and fantastically animated battles between Drivers, Blades, monsters, and mechs. The latter portion of the game is full of them, though I didn’t find them to be quite on the level of those found in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. They’re still marvels by JRPG standards, either way.
While Torna ~ The Golden Country is visually appealing, it does take a noticeable hit while being played in handheld mode (but it’s not nearly as bad as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 did). The lighting effects are hazier, especially sunshafts, while the color palette and visual clarity of the characters appear far more muted. Rotating the camera also cranks up the motion blur, which I found a bit off-putting.
The fact that a game like this can even be experienced on a portable device is mind-boggling today, but it’s still worth pointing out its visual shortcomings for those of you eager to play away from your television. In docked mode, though, I have very little (if anything) to complain about.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 already had a pretty stellar soundtrack, but I ended up enjoying The Golden Country’s quite a bit more. I’m a huge Persona fan, so tracks like the new Gormott arrangement…
…”The Power of Jin’s” wonderfully unique Torna treatment…
…and the hot, new battle theme…
…blew me away. They’re definitely my favorite tracks in the game — those jazzy drums and piano layers are just pure eargasms. Torna ~ The Golden Country is the current top contender for my Soundtrack of the Year award and it’s not even close.
The voice-over work is also mostly solid, with only a handful of missed or awkward emotional deliveries on behalf of Addam and Mythra. I know the general reception toward the English cast was polarizing in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but I really enjoyed hearing all of the different European accents and thought they helped distinguish each of the game’s different races/cities. The Golden Country is more of that, basically, so if you hated it before then there’s always the Japanese option.
One of, if not the most important aspect of any RPG is the narrative. As a prequel, it’s The Golden Country’s job to successfully lead us to the core game’s beginnings and flesh out its history a little better. For the most part, it does just that. Some of my questions were answered, like how Torna ended up at the bottom of the Cloud Sea, while other neat little nods showed up sporadically throughout the adventure.
Hell, some of the dialogue is just genuinely funny.
One equally funny and interesting moment, in particular, involved a greenhorn Driver NPC named Lyta who scraped by with the help of her assertive Blade, Kaeda. Upon nearly passing out from hunger, Kaeda warns her that if she travels ill prepared again that she’ll rename the landmark after her so all will know of Lyta’s failures. If you jump back into the core game and revisit the same landmark, there it is: Lyta Oasis.
There are a few more cool little things like this that would otherwise go unnoticed by someone who hasn’t already played Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
I won’t be pointing out additional narrative beats to avoid spoilers, but there were definitely some questions that I had that went unanswered — things I went in 100% confident they’d cover. We all (as in everyone who finished Xenoblade Chronicles 2) know how it ends up, but it’s the journey of how it got there that brings us to Torna ~ The Golden Country.
In that regard, the narrative did fall a little short of my expectations. However, the overall quality of the story and character development is pretty strong. The game did a swell job at building up the emotional bond and growth between Driver and Blade, defining what set the land of Torna apart from the rest of the world, and shifted personal perspectives while doing so.
For the most part, Torna ~ The Golden Country feels just like Xenoblade Chronicles 2. You control your chosen character inside of a third-person perspective, exploring and questing until you get bored or run out of things to do. However, there are some key differences.
Gone are the core game’s city-leveling and mercenary missions, which have been replaced by a new Community system.
Every NPC you converse with will now be added to a Community list and can eventually be recruited to join Torna’s cause. Some may hop in after you complete their side-quest(s) or give them a bunch of your crafting materials, while others just need a good talking to.
Your community’s rank increases as more folks are recruited, but I never really felt rewarded for my efforts — rewarded for the side-quests, yes, but not for growing my Community. There is a late-game progression blocker that requires a specific community level, which some others have expressed their dislike for, but I typically try to do everything I can in these types of games and had no problem with the aforementioned requirement. I’d imagine that’d feel pretty awful striding through the game only to have a giant stick thrown into your spokes, but none of the side-quests are very time consuming or overly difficult.
The major change from the core game is The Golden Country’s approach to combat. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you were given specific Blades throughout the story, but the rest of your arsenal came by way of an awful lootbox mechanic. Now all of your Blades are story related, which made them all feel far more important.
You could also only control your Drivers before, where switching Blades in combat simply shifted their elemental affinity and weapon type. In Torna ~ The Golden Country, there is a big story focus on Torna’s belief of Blades and Drivers coexisting rather than treating them as basic weapons, and this is represented throughout the game as you’re given full control of every party member — Blades included.
You can swap between Blades and Drivers during combat with a simple press of the d-pad, which essentially gives you 9 playable characters. Those in the vanguard position fill the supporting role between attacks, which provide all sorts of helpful boosts to damage dealt from certain positions, altering aggro gains, increasing defense, and more.
The battle system itself is pretty deep, so buckle up!
Lora, the first hero introduced, battles with her fists and feet while using a rope to trip up opponents. Her given battle element isn’t determined by fighting alongside Jin, her icy Blade, or Haze, a wind blade, but instead by equipping weapons made specifically for Lora. These are frequently obtained by defeating enemies, completing quests, or finding them inside treasure chests. She began the game using a fire whip, but I had Lora switching between earth and water whips depending on what element an upcoming boss fight was weak against and/or how it synergized with the rest of my team. The same rule applies to the other two Drivers in your party, Addam and Hugo.
Similar to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, each playable character has three unique abilities that can be used after a certain number of auto-attacks, which are all mapped to the controller’s face buttons. Using these, in turn, fills up a special meter that, when unleashed, deals elemental damage to the target enemy.
The same special meter can be raised from level 1 to 4, with higher levels dealing increased damage, but can also be chained together with your teammates by using them in numerical order (starting with a level 1 special, then a level 2, and then 3). And this is where things get interesting.
Each special attack used on an enemy places that element’s orb underneath their health bar, which then boosts their resistance against it. This encourages you to use as many different elements as possible throughout the encounter since the same orbs can later be “bursted” during an all-out attack (represented by yet another meter) by using abilities of the opposing elements.
In addition to elemental attacks, certain abilities inflict additional status effects and if they’re used in the proper order, they’ll perform what’s called a “Driver combo.” The party A.I. is pretty smart about this system too, so once one of you inflicts Break another will use Topple, followed by Launch and, finally, Smash. It can be a little tricky to pull off sometimes but greatly rewards your persistence by dealing severe damage to the enemy.
The combat nuances are kind of tricky to put into words, but Torna ~ The Golden Country does a great job tutorializing and, unlike the core game, has a Tips menu that allows you to revisit all of the previous tutorial tips. Why this wasn’t in the base game is beyond me, but it’s a welcome change nonetheless.
Overall, the core gameplay experience mostly lies in the exploration and combat segments, with combat being the most demanding. Said combat feels great once you get the hang of it, and, again, Torna ~ The Golden Country does a much better job of easing you into things than Xenoblade Chronicles 2 ever did. The pure satisfaction of decimating bosses and pulling off the game’s high damage attack combos never got old.
On the default setting, Torna ~ The Golden Country provides a steady challenge that some might find a bit taxing. It’s not overly difficult once you get the hang of things, but combat can be on the demanding side and not using every tactic in your arsenal will often send you packing back to the start menu. If action RPGs aren’t your jam, then you’ll be happy to know that The Golden Country has a more casual mode that makes combat easier to swallow and relies far less on the nuances of combos and weakness exploitations. Other accessibility options allow you to turn off quick-time events during combat, disable enemy aggro entirely, or have the A.I. battle on their own while you watch things play out.
There are (currently) no colorblind modes or the ability to remap buttons, but the above-mentioned toggles may improve quality of life for those with disabilities or RPG fans who don’t feel like digging into the deeper combat systems.
I’m not usually the type to revisit an RPG over a brand new experience, so I tend to do everything I can stomach in a single run. However, The Golden Country does have a New Game+ mode that carries over some of your progress and unlocks deeper affinity charts for your Blades if that sounds like something you’d be into. I spent the better part of 35 hours with the DLC and unlocked most of the default affinity charts, but a second playthrough would certainly ease things up a bit.
As I mentioned above, the Xeno- series as a whole is at the top of the food chain when it comes to JRPG world designs. From Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and now Torna ~ The Golden Country, no developer comes close to Monolithsoft in that regard. They’re great at making familiar themes feel alien in nature, which is great for a genre typically riddled with tropes.
The Golden Country’s combat is similar enough to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but as a standalone DLC prequel, I wasn’t expecting them to reinvent the wheel. The combat system as a whole is unlike anything else out there when all of its moving parts are taken into consideration, and I don’t think I’ve experienced the game’s affinity chart unlock requirements in other games. Rather than simply awarding players boosts for leveling up, you’re instead tasked with performing specific tasks like killing certain enemies, using an ability a number of times, or crafting every possible item for one of the playable characters.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
I mentioned earlier in the review that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is currently my favorite game on the Nintendo Switch and I’m sure that heavily plays into my enjoyment of Torna ~ The Golden Country. I was already super invested in the world and its inhabitants that just having more of that was good enough for me. In a way, The Golden Country exceeded my expectations and provided an equally memorable experience in a fraction of the time.
There were some missteps along the way, like having no use for gold since you could easily craft items and find better weapon chip upgrades out in the wild, but the end result was enjoyable all the same. Of course, I wanted more explained. No matter how deep the writers went, I would have always wanted more Xenoblade. It’s rare that I find the desire to revisit a meaty RPG after finishing it, but when the credits rolled on Torna ~ The Golden Country, I was pretty close to diving into NG+ in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Overall, though, I’d say The Golden Country isn’t going to change anyone’s mind who wasn’t too keen on the original game last year. It’s essentially more of that, and that was in no way a problem for me.
Aggregated Score: 8.4
Trash is the Middle-age Horror Mage here at TWRM, an irregular co-host on The Unlikely Herocast podcast for CA! Radio, and sole contributor for his own games-related website, Cheap Boss Attack. Follow him on Twitter @Trashlevania!
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