You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Released as one of the Wii’s big-hitting JRPG trio, the Xenoblade series has quite rightly found itself a devoted fanbase, eager to see a repeat of its initial success. With Xenoblade Chronicles X proving mediocre for many, both fans and Nintendo alike look to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) to be the Switch’s December star. Will it guide the way for future entries, or doom the series to a black hole of irrelevance?
That Which Lies Beyond a Stormy Sky
Upon starting the game, you are greeted with a title screen that, for a lack of simpler term, feels wrong. With no logo for the game, no bright field to draw hope, it feels dark, ominous, as though the world you are about to enter is long-since broken. Contrary to the scenic nature of its Wii predecessor, you are lead into this world expecting a tragedy; in oppose to the scenic nuances of the Bionis. Paired with a remorseful piano melody, XC2 sets a tone largely unfamiliar to the series. While these tones are soon cast aside as you burst through the storm into the light, they are not forgotten as you advance through the game.
As with many a modern JRPG, XC2 starts out slowly, taking time to teach the player many of its interesting features and systems. These are presented in short bursts of interaction with the HUD, casually breaking the fourth wall in a conversational way. I wouldn’t call it particularly entertaining, but it does strike a good balance in presenting features, whilst not being overwhelming to the player. While I appreciate getting through these can feel like a pain initially, their contribution to the slow start does an incredible job in highlighting the shift in pace when it finally hits. It changes what would have been just an interesting event to a rite of passage; it forces upon you an appreciation for the fluid action and tense events that wrap up the introduction so well.
To be Scene and Heard
Large, action-packed cutscenes such as the introduction finale put forward some of the game’s greatest strengths. Demonstrating clean and interestingly choreographed movement, along with engaging dialogue passionately delivered by the cast, I found it difficult to avoid becoming engrossed in the ongoing events. Each swing of the oversized sword, each falling drop of rain, you feel every element of the scene come to life around you. These scenes take the Xenoblade name further than any previous iteration, delivering enjoyable and captivating content. I just wish this content could have remained consistent.
The problems become clear when looking at smaller-scale cutscenes; those that sadly occupy the majority of the game. The root of these stems from a simple issue—lip syncing, or lack thereof. Through my hours of playing, this was never something I truly adapted to. My only fix came from occasionally blurring my vision (not recommended) or simply focusing on the subtitles, instead of the characters themselves. The cutscenes are quite possibly my favourite thing about XC2; and to have them held back by something so glaringly obvious truly saddens me, and all I can really hope for at this point is a day one patch. It is worth noting I was playing with the English audio, so one can assume the Japanese track is synced properly. Or at least one can hope, as I never got a chance to try the JP audio while playing.
Looking past lip syncing, and onto the voice actors themselves, you may find yourself conflicted. I’m sure by this point, the majority of people reading this will have seen a trailer for XC2, and already formed an opinion on how they plan to boycott the English audio track. In my opinion, this would be a mistake. I obviously cannot speak for the quality of the Japanese voice actors, but I can say for certain avoiding the English cast because of an initial impression would be doing yourself a disservice. Initially, the characters feel wrong, the voices and the designs mismatched. First listening to Rex’s voice, I recall comparing him to a hoodlum on the streets of London. It’s bizarre, but as time went on, the dialogue soon felt catered to the voice actor, playing the part quite fantastically. The main cast is an amalgamation of English, Welsh, American, and everything in between; and yet it works.
To back up what I believe to be a fantastic cast, we also have some of the best writing I’ve seen in the series. Playing this, I felt the writers’ passion from small quips and deep conversations alike; XC2 has dialogue from across the spectrum and knows just when to hit you hard, or when to break tension with a clever line of ineptitude. The lines feel as though they were written with both the character and voice actor in mind, and I find myself smiling to myself even as I write this thinking back on what I experienced.
Despite their faults, I couldn’t help but enjoy the cutscenes. While lip syncing issues definitely detract from what could have been something truly spectacular, the fact I still hold them in such high regard should speak volumes on the quality of the content itself.
Ode to a Titan
Supporting the cutscenes from start to end is a masterfully crafted soundtrack. Rarely do I see audio so wonderfully capture the essence of a game; from the whimsical and vast open areas, to the dark, uneasy air of war on the horizon. You hear it in every cutscene, tense or timid; in every environment, every encounter or shift in the tide. It stands out exactly where it needs to, and blends seamlessly into the background as an ambient track to encourage immersion when exploring. It goes beyond what I expect from an experience such as this, despite having no real need to in this context. For such efforts, I find myself excited to listen, eager to engage.
Fans of the original Xenoblade Chronicles will likely feel at home in the living environments we call Titans. Reminiscent of the Bionis, they each harbour their own nation; a small civilisation to which they guide across the Sea of Clouds. Each Titan offers a unique landscape to explore, vast and visually stunning on the screen of the Switch.
These areas provide incentive to explore in the form of treasure troves scattered around the environment. Each trove offers something different, be it money or crystals required to get new Blades, it will almost always be worth the time spent finding if you’re willing to go off the beaten track. For those wanting to follow a map through to the end, XC2 also has interesting means of assisting. Even early on, environments feel interactive, and far more alive than previous games in the series. An example that springs to mind is the floor of an ancient ship. At first glance, it seems weak; as one might expect from a ship so old. What caught me by surprise was falling through the aforementioned floor after stepping on it. It’s a small addition, yet acts as a means of pushing the player in the right direction naturally. Of course, you could still rely on map icons to guide you to where you’re going, but small changes like this go a long way in making you forget to check your map. You soon feel little need to.
That’s not to say the environments are perfect. While the game puts good effort into natural progression through maps, it does little in the way of natural limitation when it comes to exploration. For the truly adventurous amongst us, we may want to see exactly what lies at the end of the map. A secret message? Perhaps a treasure trove? Alas, the possibility of such things is ruled out with a simple dialogue box. “Turn back,” to put it simply. I suppose you could call it a secret message, as dissatisfying as it may be.
Live to Fight Another Day
Combat in XC2 is as it has always been in Xenoblade; simple, but engaging. At its core, you just have to move your character close to an enemy, and you’ll start attacking automatically. Standard, bordering on basic, but not necessarily in a bad way. The simplistic nature of automated attacking allows the player’s focus to shift to Arts; skills charged with each automatic hit. Each art requires a different amount of hits to charge, and different conditions to be met for an optimal attack. This may come down to positioning, or the current state of the opponent. Moving while the enemy is distracted to land perfect hits soon becomes a challenge as more allies and enemies are added to the fray. Add to this powerful specials and the possibility of combos with allied Blades, and you have a deep, immersive system to play with.
New Blades are acquired in a system not dissimilar to the ever-popular loot box that has been running rampant around the games industry as of late. Requiring a Core Crystal, the bonding process randomly gives you a blade of rarity one through five. What I’m sure will be of no surprise, all of this is done in-game, with none of the negative strings attached you usually see associated with loot boxes. I would go so far as to say this system is wholly beneficial to the game. Through its random nature, it offers a unique gameplay experience to each of its players, having them rely on different Blades, and in turn, different skills and combos. It also offers a degree of replayability for those wanting a reason to come back. While the distribution of Core Crystals sometimes felt lacking, I never felt as though I was underequipped for battle. The thought of a unique Blade always kept me looking for more.
Quests have always been an integral part of the Xenoblade formula, and as they always have, are distributed across the world to solve a variety of issues. Whether it be a game of hide and seek, or saving a travelling merchant from a horde of enemies, there will always be something to do. The variety in quest types really didn’t disappoint me, and while there were some duplicates in structure, the story and dialogue throughout kept them feeling unique and interesting
The real catch of the quests in XC2 comes in the management of rewards. For each quest, you will get a distribution of Gold, EXP, and SP; and sometimes an item or two for your trouble. While it sounds standard, I came to appreciate how the game distributes the EXP gained. Instead of directly inheriting it, it gets stockpiled as Bonus EXP. Bonus EXP can then be accessed by sleeping at a local Inn, where you get to decide how much of it you want. If you feel the game is too challenging, you can use up all your Bonus EXP to level up your character as much as possible. If you feel the game is fine as it is, you it can be completely ignores until deemed necessary. To me, this system is fantastic. It presents the player with choice of difficulty without forcing their hand; it keeps a struggling player engaged, instead of being too stubborn to change the difficulty to Easy. Perhaps most interestingly to me, it gives completionists a chance to experience a challenge while playing the game, instead of being constantly over-levelled because of the plethora of quests already completed. Such flexibility from a small design choice goes a long way in providing a memorable and player-tailored gameplay experience.
XC2 recaptures a lot of what made the original game so great to me. It provides a story with unpredictable twists and turns; it provides memorable experience after memorable experience in its landscapes, its dialogue, its humour. It encourages exploration through a lack of punishment in death; it encourages death in giving you the choice to explore areas far beyond your capabilities. Despite being a linear experience, Xenoblade has never felt more open, more alive. Should you journey to the skies of Alrest, you will not come back disappointed.