There are two ways of looking at the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a sequel six years in the making. Either a folly in the wake of exceptional open world titles like Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, or a case of striking while the iron is hot with another expansive time-sink when vast, sprawling lands are king.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 falls firmly into the latter category, Monolith Soft delivering another deep, charming and emotional journey, matching its excellent predecessor without quite knocking it out of the park. Though no prior knowledge of Xenoblade Chronicles is particularly needed, there are similarities in gameplay, characters and even music that will soon feel familiar to those who enjoyed the superb Wii title.
In the new setting of Alrest, a land covered by the ‘Cloud Sea’, residents live on enormous flying creatures called titans, whose powers are slowly and tragically waning. Certain people of Alrest, dubbed ‘Drivers’ have the inner-strength to wield ‘Blades’ – powerful, magical beings that unlock a host of field and battle skills when bonding with a driver along the lines of Espers or GFs from the Final Fantasy series. Predictably, the main character Rex, a salvager living on the very back of a titan called Gramps whose job involves diving into the cloud sea in search of treasure, is one such individual.
It’s actually fair to say Xenoblade Chronicles 2 didn’t make the greatest first impression on me. After a dull battle tutorial and a couple of slow hours involving a little too much chat with furry, egg-shaped creatures called Nopons, things start to hot up when Rex takes on a dangerous salvaging job and ends up awakening a legendary blade known as Pyra. They vow to reach the utopia of Elysium, a world big and prosperous enough for the occupants of all dying titans to live happily ever after.
By this stage, I decided the English voices weren’t for me and snagged a free DLC for the Japanese counterparts to take over. I was immensely happy with this decision and from this point forth, the characters simply sounded more badass in Japanese than the somewhat comical thick Welsh and Northern accents.
At its best, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s characters are likeable, the dialogue is hilarious and the plot is compelling. But at points, even the cool Japanese voices couldn’t stop me being painfully aware of what was on my screen. In particular, a big group hug involving two of the overly-cute, furry Nopons and a couple of robots dressed as maids had me hoping beyond hope that no-one walked in.
Between each significant plot event lies more of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s charm – exploration. Each titan visited has vast plains to tread, mountains to scale and caverns to exhume. The most commendable part of exploring is how it never feels like running around is pointless. Rex and company are never far from a unique monster, secret landmark, collection point for important materials, or a salvage point allowing Rex to plummet into the cloud sea in search of rare items. Optional plot events called heart-to-hearts are also out there somewhere, where characters usually converse about humorous nonsense.
Around any corner may also be an enemy literally 70 levels above your party (even in the very first open area!), waiting to dispatch you in a single hit. Frustrating as this can be, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 balances the rapid deaths by giving virtually no consequence for them. Upon being killed, Rex and company appear back at their last landmark with minimal fuss. Although beaten enemies regenerate, so do collection points, sometimes making it worth repeatedly leaping off a cliff to collect items over and over.
It’s an age-old RPG trope that enemies coincidentally always turn out to be around the same level as your party no matter where their quest takes them. Not here. The plentiful high-levelled enemies occasionally appear on the path to mandatory story points where the only option is simply to run as fast as possible hoping to escape their murderous clutches.
If the party happen to survive an encounter (or a huge fall) they heal within seconds, saving the hassle of using healing magic or consumable items between battles, as seasoned JRPG players will no doubt be familiar.
When fighting more manageable foes, the battle system may initially lull you into the suspicion it is simplistic. At its most basic, characters auto-attack enemies within range, and more powerful moves charge up as hits land, usually with handy side-effects like more damage being done from the back, or spawning in-battle health potions for your collection.
However, as hours pass new powers are discovered and new facets are positively hurled in your direction, usually accompanied by superbly choreographed, dramatic cut-scenes. Whilst you may catch the main points, the detailed intricacies can get buried in the sheer depth of information revealed, which can feel a tad overwhelming.
This isn’t helped by the inability to revisit the tutorials in the menu. Instead, you either have to pay hard-earned cash at a town to hear the crucial titbits again or – more recommended – view a video guide of the battle system online. Doing this at around the 10-hour mark was a pivotal turning point in my enjoyment, and there is nothing I would suggest more.
Once the battle system is fully unlocked (and fully understood), it brings a remarkable joy to take on a difficult boss battle or an overleveled enemy on the field to test your strength and strategies. There is no better feeling than to chain together a glut of incrementally more powerful combined elemental attacks, allowing the unleashing of a monstrous chain attack, breaking orbs and prolonging the combo long enough to blast their health bar down from half to zero in one fell swoop. If it sounds complicated, it is. But it’s brilliant and satisfying.
The battle system isn’t the only thing demanding a player’s close attention. There is a deep well of content to juggle, involving an unfortunately high amount of menu-delving. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has all the usual character equipment and skill upgrade screens, but includes separate screens to level up attack arts, fill your pouches with useful items for battle, equip your blades, upgrade the blades’ abilities, and empower the blades with their own accessories.
For a reason I cannot fathom, it isn’t even enough to earn a blade upgrade by fulfilling the necessary conditions (for instance, killing a certain number of a particular monster to boost the blade’s attack power). You then have to enter the blade’s upgrade menu before the improvement takes effect. And only then can you start developing the next level of the same skill.
As a mercy, the sheer length of time spent in the menus breeds a familiarity that soon allows efficient navigation. And thankfully, at its biggest there are only five characters in your party.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s depth extends to its multitude of optional quests available at every town. In the early stages of the game, I was eager to complete as many as possible, but as time went on their repetitive nature had rather put me off.
The worst habit of said quests is that they often trick you into thinking they’re a quick and easy EXP boost. But there’s always a catch – what looks like a simple case of battling a marginally tough foe often requires a search for seven rare items somewhere in the vast field, followed by a hunt around town for the client’s lost dog.
Perfectionists will find a lot to occupy themselves, and some quests are genuinely interesting, but those with less time on their hands won’t be overly punished for skipping these quests altogether in favour of the main story.
The soundtrack, like the battle system, rather creeps up on you. What at first may seem perfunctory becomes pleasant, and before long takes your breath away (go and listen to Kingdom of Uraya). I did not hesitate to put the soundtrack on to write this review. Easy, flowing tunes complement your field excursions whilst emotional plot moments are captured perfectly in breathless music.
Even foregoing sidequests, a player will struggle to complete Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in under 50 hours. And spending double that time would still hardly be enough to burn through everything it has to offer.
When I reached the game’s dramatic conclusion and realised my level wasn’t quite high enough to take on the final boss, it’s telling that I didn’t feel frustrated. I felt…happy. Happy that I’d have a few more hours to spend in the world and with the characters, before I had to say goodbye.
Until of course, New Game Plus and the DLC prequel game Chronicles of Torna.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 asks you to really get to know it before it starts revealing its best qualities. But the more you get to know it, the more it dawns on you how beautiful it is. In the end, you might just fall in love with it.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is available here.