An elaborately crafted game of new worlds, monsters and maid outfits
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Genre: Action role-playing
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release date: 01-Dec-2017
Last year I went on a dive through lists of ‘lesser appreciated RPGs’ to find my next obsession, as I often do. After digging through reams of suggested games from franchises most people know (if everyone thinks Radiant Historia is underrated, does that not make it highly rated? Not according to those lists) I eventually settled on getting to know the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2), the third of the Xenoblade series if you include Xenoblade Chronicles X.
The reason that this series was relatively unknown at the time was one that made me hopeful of the game’s quality. The first game was released on the Wii, which as most of us know was mostly a failure for Nintendo. It was then ported to the 3DS… In 2015. Four years after the console came out. So no surprises that sales were low here.
Xenoblade Chronicles X then came out on… The Wii U. One of Nintendo’s biggest mistakes of a console (even if you can argue that it paved the way for the Switch). So as you can imagine, very few people even played it.
XC2 finally seemed to get something right where its predecessors failed… It came out on the right console at the right time. (I say this now, but I believe the original XC was remastered for the Switch this May and is being received well after the success of XC2 and some characters appearing in Smash Bros). So to say I was hopeful back then when it was relatively unknown in the West was an understatement.
A game I knew very little about, with an expansive open-world map and an interesting premise? That did not come around every day.
Head in the Clouds
XC2 is set in a world called Alrest. There are no ‘continents’ in Alrest in the typical sense, or even oceans. The entire world is filled with a cloud ocean through which enormous Titans wander. It is on the backs (or even inside of!) these Titans that the inhabitants of the world live. This premise leads to some of the most stunning imagery I believe has made it to the Nintendo Switch. Even more so than Breath of the Wild. Especially in the stomach of the Titan Uraya, where the gut flora resemble glowing trees at night.
In this world there are many races of people, each originating from a different Titan. But one of the threads connecting these peoples is the ability a small percentage have to summon Blades by resonating with a core crystal. Blades are humanoid living weapons with wildly different personalities who give their Drivers (those that summon them) incredible powers.
The main character is Rex, a plucky salvager who dives deep into the Cloud Sea to scavenge for lost artefacts. While on a salvaging job he realises he is a Driver when he finds a rare core crystal and awakens Pyra, a Legendary Blade. One impossible agreement to get her to Elysium (equivalent of Heaven) later, and Rex is off on his journey across the world.
As I mentioned before, this game is open world. There are very few boundaries on where you can explore once you arrive on a Titan. This means that you can come across lovely appropriately-levelled enemies on your first day… Or you can be killed within seconds when wandering off-course by an enormous level 91 Sauros like I was. The death penalty is thankfully quite low in this game given its nature, you simply re-spawn at the last checkpoint with no loss to your character.
The Navigation Frustration
I will admit, I was initially unimpressed with a few features in XC2. So I will start with the only one that didn't get much better.
That damned map.
There's no zoom, and the quest marker system is about as useful as a compass would be in your own day to day life. If your life is like mine, that means largely pointless.
This in-game map is rescued by the fast travel feature on the main map, which is what I ended up using more often than not. For a game that focuses so much on exploration and world-building, I really wish they made navigation using the map a bit more user friendly. I found myself relying on sight and distinctive features more than any map as time went on and I familiarised myself with local geographies.
The other thing I was unsatisfied with (for a short while) was the battle system. For the first few hours of gameplay it seemed insultingly straightforward. When you get close to an enemy, your character will automatically start attacking it with basic attacks. No need to even press a button. These auto attacks fill up your Art gauge which allows you to pull off a ‘special attack’ by pressing the corresponding button. The rest of my time was spent watching Rex and Pyra attack the enemy with no input. While you can move the Drivers, the Blades mostly just float behind you powering you up while waiting for one of the special attacks.
These first few hours of the game worried me when I was fighting with just Rex and Pyra and none of the battles seemed especially challenging.
As I progressed past those first few hours of the story and added more members to my party, awakened more blades with different specialties and weaponry to switch between mid-battle, this battle system became so much more satisfyingly complex. Between the Party Gauge, Specials, Blade Combos, Chain attacks, and affinity there were so many different ways to fight each battle. My early worry ended up being completely unfounded.
The battle graphics are also impressive, especially when you consider that this game came out in December 2017.
Do you even Fanservice?
Fanservice is a common thing in JRPGs, and video games in general. But XC2 takes it to a very strange place. Monolith Soft didn’t have the resources to design the number of Blades required and paid a number of designers outside of their studio to design some rare blades for them. Out of the thirty eight rare/special blades guess how many were male? Only six. That means thirty two Blades were female.
Apparently character designers for video games prefer to draw women. Wearing very little, no matter their personality type. Who knew?
I am very much for drawing characters the way a designer wants to, so most fanservice doesn't bother me (if I even notice it anymore) at all. It usually appears a couple of times, but can be ignored or is at least minimised when something plot-centric is going on. But XC2 didn't even seem to try to match the outlandish designs to the characters' personalities, let alone their surroundings.
It was very hard to suspend my disbelief and accept that Pyra is a bit shy when her shorts cover maybe two inches of her goods at all times. Another Blade shows up by the name of Brighid whose personality is strict and dutiful and appears regularly with her Driver in the Royal Court… whose neckline plunges down below her navel. Their appearances are particularly jarring in solemn scenes or serious instances where their appearances do not match their surroundings at all.
Here is what took the above to the odd level for me, though. Either Monolith Soft designed the female Drivers on the team themselves, or they made the decision to go forward with only the Blades scantily dressed. The female Drivers on the team are very conservatively dressed, especially in comparison to their Blades. Is it a power dynamic thing? Is it a visual sign that Blades are less equal and therefore not worth the fabric? Do Blades just prefer to feel the wind on their skin? Were the Blade designs simply outsourced to thirsty character designers? We may never know.
Saying all this… I do actually like the designs. They don't match the storytelling AT ALL most of the time, but they're creative and entertaining for the most part.
Gacha, Gacha, Gacha, Gacha, Gacha
An important part of powering up your characters, both Drivers and Blades, is unlocking abilities through their affinity chart.
The requirements to unlock each new skill for Blades can vary from completing side quests, to defeating a certain number of a type of enemy, to using a special move a number of times in battle… Needless to say it can get old in some cases. Certain moves are difficult to activate mid-battle and I spent way, way too long trying to level up a Blade named Dromarch.
Even though at some points this Gacha-style collecting stopped being enjoyable, I will say that it was a good way to force the player to get to know some of the many Blades in their possession.
Surprising Regional Accents
I want to give a minute of appreciation for the voice actors of the English version of this game for shocking me.
Rex (Al Weaver) has a northern English accent from Lancashire that I really didn't expect to hear. Nia (Catrin-Mai Huw) is Welsh. Morag (Kirsty Mitchell) is Scottish. Received Pronunciation English and Australian also make appearances. The Blades are all general American.
Depending on which Titan each of these Drivers were from, their accent differed. It was a really nice touch that I didn't expect before playing. I was expecting to hear American accents, at best Received Pronunciation English accents. The regional mix in this game made for an extremely refreshing playthrough.
All in all…
I really enjoyed this game. The world building was top notch, the scenery beautifully crafted, and the characters weren't caricatures of tropes that you see time and again (for the most part). There is a bit of chosen obliviousness required with regard to Blade designs, but all in all even that worked well enough.
I also appreciate that they tried to do something new. The battle system was engaging and fresh (after a slow start), and the different Titans truly felt as if they were completely different countries.
Play this game if:
You enjoy heavily detailed open-world RPGs
You like to mix up what 'accepted' battle systems are
You like to get a long story line out of your hard earned money (main storyline alone is roughly 45-50 hours but you can sink way more into it than that with side quests)
You can laugh at what may (or may not) be bizarre fanservice
Pictures 1,5, 8, and 9 can be found in the XC2 press kit here
Pictures 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 can be found on the wiki here