Definitely the largest role-playing game on the Switch as of yet, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an ambitious game that puts the Switch to a unique test. The game is not designed to be played in short sittings so the console’s ability to switch between docked and handheld mode becomes an huge asset. I found myself switching between these to two modes more than with any other game I have play on the Switch, including Breath of the Wild. Some instances of the game feel more grand to watch on my television while the console is docked. Yet some of the more frustrating and attention-demanding battles benefit from holding the Switch as close to your eyes as you can stand. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 also pushes the console’s hardware to its limits, with some areas and battles being very noticeably taxing on the Switch. The vast majority of the time the Switch passes every test Xenoblade throws at it with flying colors.
Let’s talk more specifically about the game’s strongest feature: its story. You play through the game as Rex, a Scavenger turned Driver after taking a contract that sides him with the group Torna (which will later become the main group of villains) until they reach an ancient Blade, called the Aegis. Upon learning that Torna intends to use the Aegis to destroy the world Rex is killed and Torna begins to extract the Aegis. Rex’s death awakens the Aegis, who we soon discover is named Pyra, and she gives half of her life to revive Rex. After escaping from Torna, Pyra tells Rex that she needs to reach an ancient place called Elysium. Rex promptly promises to take her there. The rest of the game sees Rex and Pyra hoping around the world becoming involved in multiple conflicts and meeting many interesting characters throughout.
While the overarching conflict of fighting against bad guys who want to destroy the world isn’t a heavy deviation from a lot of other RPG plots, the main focus of the game is on the relationship between Rex and Pyra. It’s almost a forced romance for the first dozen hours of the game, with a lot of those over-shipped instances (girl sleepwalks into the guys bed, for example) and teammates making embarrassing jokes, but it becomes much more natural as the game moves forward. This is especially true once the role of the Aegis starts to thicken. In the final hours of the story, I was on-board with the romance between the two. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 also tells a story of a boy growing up. While Rex has been forced to act much more mature than his age would dictate, he still behaves like a teenager in a lot of instances. Through interacting with the inhabitants of each of the world’s continents (which are landmasses fixed to the backs of giant living titans) and gaining unexpected role-models in his party members, the entire journey highlights Rex learning to to protect and take responsibility for his team and himself. There are several instances of the game though where failures are attributed to Rex needing to act more responsible/mature that don’t quite make sense. Some areas of the story seem to force the narrative of Rex behaving like a child, even though his actions are completely justifiable or I cannot understand what warrants the criticism. While these are not common in the grand scheme of things, it causes me to raise and eyebrow and ask myself just what exactly the game’s writing is trying to make me infer from these happenings.
Perhaps the largest factor in Rex gaining maturity through the game is having to protect yet learn how to interact with Pyra. This is first caused by his promise to take her to Elysium, but later is because he has grown to love her. Rex’s personality makes him a very easy to back character, which is something you will surely appreciate since you could spend anywhere between 50 and 120 hours with him. If there is one thing worth mentioning about Rex, it’s the fact that he’s always prioritizing his friends (with extra attention to Pyra, of course) over anything else. Because of that, he feels like a very genuine and easy to like character. The addition of each new party member plays a unique role in furthering Rex’s character. The most notable of there characters in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is Mòrag, who joins the team at the request of the emperor. Mòrag forces Rex to analyze situations more tactfully and consider team dynamics and relationships with the proper priority. The most engaging part of the story is the relationships that form between the team. Depth of characters and their development is a strength of JPRGs. That development plays a very key role in Xenobloade‘s overall conflict – which is something many games in this genre have struggled to do in the past.
That game’s combat systems are complex, and are an endeavor to master, but they ultimately leave something to be desired. Encounters with enemies begin when you approach and enemy close enough that they will become hostile. Enemies with lower levels tend to leave you alone, which is nice while trying to backtrack through areas to finish up earlier game side quests. However, areas where you are the proper level are scattered with many high level enemies, meaning you have to constantly dodge creatures that can kill you in a single hit while on the appropriate path for your quest. If this was more of a rare occurrence it would be an enjoyable deviation from the standard overworld exploration groove, but it quickly becomes a chore to avoid these encounters. With such a beautifully created world exhibiting an extraordinary diversity in their locations, it’s a shame that your attention is commonly focused on avoiding these enemies instead of absorbing the environment.
After you initiate combat with an enemy in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, your party transitions into an auto-attack style of battle. While you are close to a targeted enemy, your character will automatically attack them to deal damage. These attacks fill the gauges for your special moves, which have a range of function depending on the class of fighter you are playing (which is based on the Blade you have equipped). Through using special attacks you will fill your ultimate attacks. These don’t always deal a lot of damage to the enemy, but that isn’t their main purpose. Since each Driver in your party has a Blade, using these ultimate attacks in the proper order can trigger other, more powerful, attacks. Due to this, the combat is less focused on the moment-to-moment action and instead rewards players who utilize long-term strategies. After you have started to develop your own patterns and have become comfortable with a party setup, a lot of encounters become rinse and repeat battles. Some of this can be alleviated by experimenting with new Blades and changing the roles of your teammates, but when you start to encounter the tougher late-game bosses there really is no substitute for using your best setup. Especially the Aegis, who is without a doubt one of, if not the, best Blade that Rex can equip.
Because enemy encounters become so repetitive, and battles tend to take a fair amount of time, I found myself avoiding as many enemies as I could. As you can imagine, this caused later conflicts to become much more difficult. Either way, battles become a very grind-y experience and three-quarters of the way through the entire game I was no longer enjoying enemy encounters at all. If the story at this stage of the game wasn’t as compelling as it had become (and the fact that I’m reviewing the game), I would have very likely put the game down indefinitely. The lack of enjoyment in the combat system, for me, voided any possibility of wanting to replay through the game in the future. Hopefully they will make a Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Original Video Animation (OVA) of the events of the game (like has been done with games such as Tales of Symphonia) so that I can experience a story I genuinely enjoy without having to drudge through the combat again. For players who enjoy this sort of prolonged combat, you will likely find your opinion of the combat to be opposite of mine. If this sounds like you, I’d wholeheartedly recommend the game to you.
I believe the story in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is worth experiencing, but it comes at a price. Beautiful music accompanies the triumph and defeat of characters that you will quickly find yourself attached to. The world and its inhabitants are interesting. Unlocking new blades, and completing quests for the unique ones is way more interesting then any of the other side quests in the game since the add to your team dynamic. It’s unfortunate that the game is so set up for success yet has a combat system that I could not wait to get away from. Otherwise it could have easily been in contention for one of the best games to come out in 2017.