Look, let’s get this out of the way right now. My title, to you, is going to read a lot like clickbait bullshit, but I am prepared to argue this through to the bitter end here. There’s going to be a lot of spoilers in both of these game here, so if you haven’t played either I do suggest you turn back now, or skip the “Indirect and Direct Approaches to Telling a Tale” portion of this article.
Imagine a sprawling world. You look down to see a sea of clouds as far as the eye can see. You are a tiny dot, on this giant landscape, irrelevant as the days become nights. As the cycle moves forward, you go on with your daily life doing whatever you’ve got to do to keep food on the table.
This change in my game approach began in the fall and winter of 2016 with the release of Final Fantasy XV. It probably extended way earlier to what felt like my first dose of a game with a great plot, Final Fantasy IV, which I played for the first time back in 2005 on the GameBoy Advance. I loved the world of Eos and the lore surrounding it. The world had stunning vistas, and a cast of interesting characters that developed nicely and became some of the most memorable characters by games end. There was never any denial from critics in the strong relationship shared between Noctis, Prompto, Ignis, and Gladiolus. Many thought it was the game’s strongest point. Final Fantasy XV was never centered around the romance between Noctis and Lunafreya, but the relationship between the group. When The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out, another enormous open world came to be, this time bringing the formula to Hyrule. The series grew up. The game handed me my ass in many ways, and as I learned to be better at the game, I fell in love with the feeling of living in Hyrule. The townspeople had their own lives and changed their words in various circumstances. Climbing all over the world felt amazing and it made me wonder why nobody had implemented a system like that. Breath of the Wild reimagined getting around in the world, whether it was by soaring over cliffs, or just picking a direction, and traveling. When the Champion’s Ballad came out, it was just a week after Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s release date. Having taken a break roaming Hyrule, it was great to come back and revisit. My tastes continued to further develop in open world game play.
So now, enter Xenoblade Chronicles 2. After playing the original on the New Nintendo 3DS, the second one was a point of interest and after receiving a good deal, I took the plunge. There really is a difference between playing that game on a deadline and playing a game for leisure. My initial hesitation was based on the anime style visuals, and thoughts of a more streamlined combat further held me back. I didn’t want a watered down experience, and boy was I glad to be wrong.
A Clash of Design Choices
My Managing Editor, Jordan Aslett, reviewed this game around its release and had a good time with the narrative, but struggled with the gameplay and combat, citing tedium. I played the game seven months later, well after immense quality of life patches [slightly better map system, removal of mandatory Blade resonation animations, etc.] and season pass updates [Auto battle, difficulty adjustments, challenge prompt completions, reduce aggro from enemies that are not unique or bosses] came out for the game, and it feels like I’ve played an entirely different experience. The combat felt a lot faster to me, faster than the first game, and in a way felt similar to Final Fantasy XIV. As I got into the late game material with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the combat further continued to develop and could be further optimized after some searches for materials and accessories that truly redefined the combat experience. While my combat was initially simplistic in approach, playing safe during the story (Tank, DPS, Healer approach on all three Drivers), my endgame team could not be more different, as I started utilizing Tora a lot more. Instead of beefing up my accessories with HP boosting items, I started using the Overclocking Bangle and Avant-garde Medals on all my units, to quickly switch between my Blades. My button smashes became a lot more coordinated to take huge advantage of the attack cancel to faster recharge my Blade Arts, and my team building started to focus more around completing Driver Combos [a damage builder that revolves around Breaking an enemy, then using a skill that topples them and paralyzes them for a short period, followed by Launching them into the air, and then Smashing them into the ground for massive damage] and obtaining much more loot.
That above paragraph is a mouthful. I know it is, and I’m not at all sorry. Looking back at Breath of the Wild, now, combat feels lacking in gratification. It’s not a bad thing, but I look at the game now and there’s just not a ton of variety in the Hyrule enemies in comparison to the massive enemy catalog available in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. With the various weapon types in Breath of the Wild, I often stuck to standard staples like swords and spears for their speed, and greatswords for heavy damage. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 gives the player the chance to better explore each character and their strengths, by allowing them to perform Driver Combos using a wide range of weapons on each character (what may be used to Launch one character will not apply to the next). The game encouraged me to try new setups, and as I obtained new rare Blades from the Core Crystal gachapon system, my builds continued to optimize upon investing into individual Affinity Charts that further enhanced the Blade’s skill set. When I got a new rare Blade, after looking at their loadouts, all it took is for that one blade to be great to change my entire strategy. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, focused on durability and the cooking system, both which worked out well for it. There are still immensely novel ways to go about killing enemies and using the four runes, no doubt, but it just doesn’t beat the idea of Smashing somebody into the ground or using the ascended form of Mythra and Pyra in a Chain combo and smashing five orbs.
Ambience Versus Catchiness
Here is another front to consider: the music. You have two games that take an entirely different approach to the music, with both being used to great effect in elevating the play experience. Breath of the Wild went for the softer music to immerse the player in the sounds of the natural environment, with a heavy focus on ambience. With a heavy focus on exploration, the ambience does work nicely in its favor, but it lacks the punch and the catchiness.
Recall that I’m a musician, and I play the piano. I didn’t have as much of a desire to learn Breath of the Wild songs on the piano; in comparison, there are tons of songs from Xenoblade 2 that I want to learn. The easiest comparison to latch onto from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the Empire of Mor Ardain – Roaming the Wastelands Daytime theme. It’s one of the few themes where I just set down the controller and listened for a while. It’s incredibly catchy and the trumpets play full blast during the daytime, which makes the change to the nighttime theme all the more incredible as it still keeps things on an extremely high level of quality. Yasunori Mitsuda went all out on this game, and it shows just how diverse his music is. Each of the alien Titans features distinct themes that are catchy. The Kingdom of Uraya at nighttime will beat the daytime variant, and isolationist nations like Tantal opt for a choir that sounds imposing and grim; in comparison you get a world modeled after Vatican City that sounds distinctly holy, even though in the storyline the city is anything but with a quest line that has a girl hiring a mercenary to kill a classmate for getting a choir spot that she wanted. Even on these softer themes, there was still room for the ambience to shine through; players can further make the music quieter and enhance the sound effects of characters.Both games took very different approaches to their music, and the quality of both cannot be denied. Here’s my stance though. Hyrule has an enormous, diverse world, just as much as Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The same themes playing in the environment pale in comparison to the varied themes playing in Alrest. Character themes from Breath of the Wild are rather memorable, but the songs are few, whereas it felt like everything from Xenoblade felt memorable from start to finish.
Xenoblade’s Alrest and Zelda’s Hyrule are two immense worlds. Both games feature stunning backdrops and environments, from the lovely Titans to the mountaintop vistas of Hyrule. Both games had a great advantage, though, and that was in the art style that the games used. Both games went for a brighter color palette, a slightly cartoony look that will age well in the next couple of years. The anime-esque orbs that are eyes, the overly large busts of Pyra and Mythra, these appearances are going to bring in a lot of the “shounen” anime fans. Breath of the Wild, being more subdued, still has its fair share of shipping elements and fanservice.
The core that they both share, though, is that both use a similar art style that just holds up well. With technology getting as advanced as it has in the last couple of years, something from last year looks dated compared to something this year, and something next year just looks insanely realistic (I’m looking at you, Last of Us Part II). Will that hold up in the next couple of years, though? These two games use a timeless art style that, while it may not be hyper realistic, will last longer. Look at The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and how that art style used in 2005 still holds up even today. I won’t ignore the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 looks terrible on handheld mode, though. It’s great for short stints or running quests, but not a long-term solution at all. The frame rates drop noticeably in areas like Torigoth, and the resolution changes on the fly from bad to worse.
Indirect and Direct Approaches to Telling the Tale
Breath of the Wild had one weakness though, and that’s its story. The story develops through the interaction with NPCs, where your job is to piece together who you were a hundred years ago as the hero of legend. As Link is mute, a lot of his actions and speech are left to interpretation. The big bad, Ganon, comes back, and you need to stop him, with the help of a few dead Champions who felt underutilized. While it was nice that The Champion’s Ballad expanded on their stories slightly, I wanted to see more about them and their interactions with Zelda. Their stories felt like casual small talk, where the main focus was in exploring an apocalyptic Hyrule that was terrorized by Ganon and the ancient Sheikah technology.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, on the other hand, delivers the story in spades. In contrast to Link, Rex is far from mute. He is idealistic, endlessly positive (except for a brief yet entirely understandable stint in Chapter 7), and comes off as selfish. By the end of the storyline, Rex has to accept that not everything is going to be his decision to make, and we see a hugely emotional payoff for him and for the rest of the cast. This is just Rex. There’s Nia, who undergoes her own self-growth journey. Pyra and Mythra become much more than characters who want to end their existence. The Imperial Special Inquisitor Mòrag develops finely into much more than the stiff and stoic bureaucrat. Tora is a ball of loveable fun whose spotlight is stolen by his Artificial Blade creation, Poppi. Then there’s Zeke, who is much more than an unlucky fellow. All of these characters have one thing in common, they all shared advice with Rex and helped him grow tremendously.
Xenoblade is helped with a healthy mix of gameplay and cutscenes. There are fourteen hours of full cutscenes with voice acting and intense action choreography. From start to finish, the story engrosses. There was much more than a battle between good and evil going on. While Zelda games were typically about a big clash between black and white, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 operates a lot in the gray, giving characters with stories that make the player sympathize with them. It’s one of these rare games that gives players a third side that takes place in the conflict. You can’t root for the other two parties because of what they’ve done, and even though you clearly will side with Rex and the party, you can’t help but cheer on the efforts of Torna as they go from this cookie-cutter terrorist organization to an actual sympathetic element against the third party. These two groups have clear motivations and rationale for why they do what they do. Jin went from a cool looking samurai to someone with a lot of layers, and I look forward to exploring how he fell from grace in the new story expansion coming in September. This third party, the Indoline Praetorium though, gives an interesting take that has some interesting parallels from the city-state it’s modeled after. Praetor Amalthus, the in-game universe of the pope, is supposed to be this neutral third party that doesn’t intervene in the various Titan politics, but by end of the game, he’s fully involved and trying to usurp the power of the Architect, the being who created the world of Alrest. Each character has a specific development arc, and the parties want the same thing, but they use different methods to do so, and that’s fantastic.
What is amazing, though, is that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has direct ties to the first game. In the end sequence, when the player reaches Elysium and meets the Architect, it’s revealed that he’s none other than Klaus, who ran experiments in the first game that destroyed the world. His body split in two, one in the world of the first game (the evil side) and one in Alrest (the good side). The good side creates Alrest to atone for his crimes, and the standout is that both parts are taking place simultaneously. Hearing Shulk in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 with his line of slaying God, it all made sense, and I’m immensely glad that Tetsuya Takahashi made such a callback.
Let’s go back to Breath of the Wild for a second. There are a lot of callbacks to the previous games, which leads to an interesting lore buildup which in contrast is left up to player interpretation. There are many locations, like Linebeck Island and Koholint, callbacks to Phantom Hourglass and Link’s Awakening, which begs the question of timeline location. I, personally, would have loved more direct of a confirmation about some of the story elements, like what happens to Hyrule afterward. What happened to the Temple of Time?
To say that Xenoblade is immune from this though would be a denial, though. The game takes out some very crucial voice lines. You’d get a fully voiced cutscene, only for the sound to just cut out entirely. What did Malos say to Jin before leaving at the end of Chapter 9? What does Mythra (or Pyra, depending on your Chapter 8 choice) say to Rex in the very last line? Did the two of them retain their memories after being reborn from their sacrifice just moments earlier? While the lyrics to “One Last You” point to the memories being retained (incredible song, by the way), Poppi’s rather sad face in the last frame says otherwise, and Rex’s slightly contemplative, neutral reaction shows the depth of his growth, going from trying to take charge to realizing that even though the girl he loves may not remember him, he’s going to be there for her anyway. It’s these open-ended questions, though, that made Xenoblade Chronicles 2 so great, combined with the fact that I was deeply invested with the characters, every step of the way. I didn’t have that same attachment with much of the other cast in Breath of the Wild, save for Zelda and maybe Mipha, whereas the game had me howling at the loss of Vandham and some of the later sacrifices.
So Brandon, What the $@!# Kind of Game Do You Like?! I’m Confused!
Let me be entirely clear here. Breath of the Wild deserves its accolades, every single one of them. I am not saying that the game is terrible, considering how much I adored it when I played it. I sunk an ungodly number of hours into it, and the same is going to hold true for Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Rather, the point I want to make is that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stands alone and it does so proudly. What stood out the most is that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was made with a team of only 40 designers from Monolith Soft, as 60% of that team had been helping Nintendo develop Breath of the Wild!
Any studio that can make a game that resonates with me at a level such as this that I spit out 3,000 words deserves my praise. Both Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have done that. I cannot stand idly by and hold Breath of the Wild on a shiny pedestal, all alone now, when I played a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 which captured me from start to finish. My team mates know that this is a stunning admission from me, too, because I am overly positive about the game.
These two games have marked a seismic shift in the way I approach and play my games. The games that I now want to focus time and effort into are those that take a painstaking period of time to develop the world and create a living, organic environment. I want to play games where I feel irrelevant. What do I mean by irrelevant? I want to feel like a nobody in the world, doing my own thing. Doing the small things. I guess you can say, I want to play more open world type games. Makes sense, with me talking about Final Fantasy XV too. I want to feel the joy of being Link staring out the cliff of the Great Plateau of Hyrule, or the joy of standing on the mountain of Torigoth looking at the wide plain ahead of me, with the Gormott titan in the backdrop. Is that going to limit my library of open games? Yeah, you bet, but the investment for me is worth it.
And the Winner, By Decision, Is…
I’m going to have to revoke my nomination votes of Breath of the Wild for last year’s Game of the Year 2017. Because Xenoblade Chronicles 2 came out at the end of 2017, it stands as a contender for that year, and I’m transferring two votes of my Breath of the Wild count into Xenoblade 2, and naming Xenoblade Chronicles 2 my personal Game of the Year. I just can’t ignore the gravity of the storyline that Xenoblade had, and both games are great, don’t get me wrong. Monolith Soft, though, with what little manpower they had on this game, made a real monster and that’s absolutely terrifying knowing what they could have made at full power.