This is a review-in-progress. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a sprawling role-playing game. What follows covers roughly the first half. The review will be updated in the coming weeks with final thoughts on the conclusion and a score.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the latest entry in Monolith and Nintendo’s loosely connected series of role-playing games, is another one of those huge, sprawling open-world adventures that will eagerly devour as much of your time as you’ll allow it to. More than 40 hours in, I appear to be just past the story’s halfway point … and that’s with me skipping over countless incidental side quests and peripheral world-development systems that could easily consume just as much time as I’ve already given.
Xenoblade 2 doesn’t really lend itself to play under deadlines and time constraints. Its designers clearly intended players to take things slowly and soak in the world, a fact that becomes clear the first time you wriggle your way clear from the linear path of the first chapter and set foot into the unruly wilds of Gormott Province. Young protagonist Rex and his newfound allies climb from a crash site in the lower thickets of an unfamiliar land and suddenly find themselves looking out over a rolling veldt populated by a menagerie of monsters. Green grass and impossible topography stretch as far as the eye can see; off in the distance, you can spot the faded silhouette of the nearest city, a kilometer away. Composer Yasunori Mitsuda’s score ties a bow on the moment, swelling to a crescendo as the sheer immensity of the world in front of you sinks in.
As video game environment reveals go, it’s a good one. Between the perfectly timed music and the sudden sensation of cramped corridors opening into an agoraphobe’s nightmare, your arrival on Gormott stands right alongside Lara Croft reaching the buried Colosseum in the original Tomb Raider. More importantly, though, it suggests why players might be willing to struggle through Xenoblade 2’s many design flaws. This is a mess of a game in a lot of ways, but by god, it’s an ambitious and big-hearted mess. And that counts for a lot.
Ambitious, big-hearted messes are nothing new for this franchise and its creator. Xenoblade 2 is the latest brainchild of director Tetsuya Takahashi, formerly of Squaresoft, and the “Xeno” in the title refers back to 1998’s Xenogears and 2003’s Xenosaga. The former was a PlayStation RPG so grand in its design that the second half of the game ran out of budget and became a six-hour monologue punctuated by boss battles; the latter was Takahashi’s attempt to retell Xenogears through a six-chapter PlayStation 2 epic that ended up being compacted down to three.
On paper, Xenoblade 2 should frustrate and annoy me to the same degree its spiritual ancestors did. The game follows on nearly 15 years of modern sandbox RPG design yet frequently fails to incorporate even the most basic quality-of-life features. Consider the fact that this enormous open-world RPG lacks a cohesive or easily accessible world map. To get your bearings beyond the minimap, you have to go to a fast-travel submenu, which breaks the entire world into small pieces: not just separate continents, but individual and unconnected maps for each zone within that region. The interface doesn’t automatically take you to your current zone, forcing you to scroll through the menus to find the tab displaying your active party icon every time you need to get your bearings. It seems like a small thing at first, but considering how frequently you need to refer to maps while traversing a game world this large, it becomes a genuine headache.
The fast travel mechanic does a pretty good job of highlighting how awkwardly all of Xenoblade 2’s elements fit together. You can bring up the option to return to previous areas at basically any time you’re not engaged in a cutscene or combat … even during story sequences in which your party has been stranded or cut off from the outside world, when fast travel makes no sense. Xenoblade 2 wants to be an open-world modern RPG and a traditional, narrative-driven JRPG at the same time, but those two concepts sit at odds with each other and Monolith has made no effort to reconcile them. I appreciate the fact that the game errs on the side of player freedom rather than locking you into lengthy scenarios for hours at a time, but the result is awfully inelegant.
The game also blunders with the visual design of its characters. Most of the world and the people within it have a fairly naturalistic look. Major characters, on the other hand, feel out of place thanks to their colorful anime-style costumes, meticulously rendered (albeit cartoonish) faces and enormous, hyper-detailed eyes. Many of the game’s “Blade” spirit warriors — think Stands from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure or Servants from the Fate/ series — tend to be either hulking beasts or voluptuous, barely clad women adorned with glowing stones and artifacts. It can be tough to keep a straight face during dramatic cutscenes when half the participants look like they arrived straight from a lingerie rave. The game also tends to undercut its own gravitas by repeatedly falling back on annoying JRPG clichés. For example, you’re frequently forced to defeat major villains in combat, but the follow-up story sequence shows your party weary and beaten while the bad guys who lay sprawled unconscious a few seconds prior seem none the worse for the wear.
These narrative hiccups aren’t nearly as clunky as the combat system, though. As with the previous games in the series, Xenoblade 2 draws on the solo faux-MMO style pioneered by Final Fantasy 12. You guide a party of three characters at a time, though you only control the lead member; the computer directs your companions. Even then, your own sense of control is somewhat tenuous, as your designated protagonist automatically delivers endless three-hit combo strikes against the bad guys. You have input, but it mostly amounts to positioning Rex and initiating his three special attacks.
Yet by no means does this amount to a brain-dead, strategy-free RPG experience. On the contrary, Xenoblade 2’s combat system feels needlessly baroque despite its fundamental simplicity. Your special attacks and combat stats are determined by the Blade that accompanies you; the further you advance into the game, the more important it becomes to build secondary Blades to supplement the skills available to Rex’s default Blade, Pyra. Shifting between Blades in the heat of battle opens a new palette of skills, which is to say that Xenoblade 2 borrows from the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy as much as it does from Final Fantasy 12. On top of that, your auto-attacks build toward a four-step super-move option as well as a three-phase party combo meter. You can also “break” enemies’ defenses (again, there’s more than a hint of FF13 here), which allows you to knock them down, juggle them and generally rough them up.
It all feels, well, chaotic. I keep drawing lines of comparison back to Final Fantasy games, and these similarities underscore how rough Xenoblade 2 feels by comparison. FF13’s hyperactive combat system always kept its workings clear and focused even in the most overwhelming battles, whereas the most trivial battles in Xenoblade 2 tend to degenerate into noise. (Literal noise, thanks to your mouthy heroes. Unless you turn off combat voices, every battle explodes into an incoherent din of overlapping shouts and quips.) With three party members accompanied by their Blades plus a host of enemies plus icons and effects, things get crowded in a hurry. All of this is framed by a load of interface indicators whose functions are explained once, in a mid-combat pop-up tutorial, and never discussed again. There’s nothing like a reference menu or tutorial log here. On the contrary, if you want explanations of basic gameplay details, you have to buy them one sentence at a time for bizarrely punitive prices. At times, Xenoblade 2 seemingly goes out of its way to be unfriendly to players.
Any one of these factors would normally be cause to steer clear of Xenoblade 2. The game covers ground that other RPGs have explored with far more grace, and there’s no excuse for how many fundamental interface and conceptual details it gets wrong. Yet in practice, I find the game’s failings to be remarkably tolerable — and not just because of those grand, sweeping vistas.
They help, though. Xenoblade 2 takes place in a world reminiscent of Skies of Arcadia. The world consists of a vast, turbulent ocean of clouds, with humanity and other races living on tiny continents that are in fact the bodies of immense living creatures called Titans. Monolith’s designers frequently take advantage of the unreal nature of the game world. Each Titan has its own distinct look and impossible, organic geography. What appears at first to be a towering cliff face turns out, upon closer examination, to be the root of a titanic limb. The foliage of redwood-sized trees fades into ragged wings. Caverns are illuminated during daytime hours of the game’s diurnal cycle by sunlight filtering through translucent membranes the size of a city.
I love that Xenoblade 2 isn’t afraid to stay weird. All the goofy things that have come to define anime-tinged RPGs, like the prevalence of combat lingerie or goofy character intros that riff on sentai clichés, show up here in full force. Xenoblade 2 cheerfully embraces any and all anime standards. Your rotund, bunny-like party member turns out to be weird shut-in with a maid fetish that finds expression in the robotic Blade girl he creates — a Blade whose capabilities you upgrade, inexplicably, by playing a retro arcade game. Pyra herself is a world-destroying superbeing that has manifested itself as a blushing redhead in hotpants and a Lycra top who adores cooking (her culinary skills, of course, become yet another esoteric and barely necessary gameplay system).
Takahashi and Monolith have always drawn inspiration from trendy anime franchises — Xenogears was basically a Neon Genesis Evangelion fanfiction — and the obvious nods to the likes of JoJo feel right in line with that. Some of the female Blade designs are downright bizarre, at once incredibly risqué yet entirely too grotesque or exaggerated to read as sexy. The story gains more and more layers as you advance, never abandoning its love of tropes and clichés but rather piling up so many of them atop one another that the narrative feels unlike that of any other game… except, perhaps, others bearing the Xeno- prefix.
And all of this plays out with lengthy, fully modeled and voice-acted cutscenes of the type that have long since faded to memory even in big-budget JRPGs. Combined with the kitchen-sink design of its systems and mechanics, Xenoblade 2 feels like a deliberate throwback to a lost era of video games: a cutting-edge PlayStation 2 RPG that somehow wandered into the modern generation.
Xenoblade 2 really has only one truly modern cutting-edge element that I’ve seen so far, though this one’s a game-changer: its portability. No, this isn’t the first sandbox game to show up on Switch, and honestly it’s nowhere near as thoughtful a work as Breath of the Wild or Skyrim. And, of course, the original Xenoblade Chronicles put in a portable appearance as a New Nintendo 3DS launch title. Unlike all of those other games, however, Xenoblade 2 began life as a handheld title, and it shows. Its quest structure has a fluidity that makes the adventure scalable in a way that fits the realities of handheld play: tiny side quests and resource-gathering missions that work for filling short play sessions, and core story quests better suited for longer play sessions. Similarly, the portability introduces a wrinkle I’d love to have seen in the older Xeno games: When a story sequence goes on for too long (and Takahashi does love his protracted cutscenes), you can press the Home or Sleep button to take a much-needed breather.
Therein lies the paradox of this game. It feels like both a relic out of time and a welcome glimpse of handheld gaming’s future. For all its sloppiness, Xenoblade 2’s combination of classic RPG concepts and flexible on-the-go play make for one of the most engrossing takes on the genre I’ve encountered since Dragon Quest 9, which possessed a similar appeal. While I still have quite a bit more of the game to battle through before I can definitively say whether it manages to hold my interest through the final chapter, the first half has at least been a success.
Update: December 8, 2017
I suppose it wouldn't really be a Monolith/Xeno/Tetsuya Takahashi production if it weren't an overambitious mess. So, on that front, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 unquestionably lives up to its heritage.
Xenoblade 2's brazen disregard for orderly conduct and contemporary game design standards can be downright infuriating. I hit a few walls towards the middle of the quest — points at which the boss battles cease to be conflicts you can easily best by making use of basic mechanics and begin to demand more advanced tactics. Unfortunately, those skills are the ones the tutorial phase of the game explains once, clumsily, early on, but never goes over again. You'll play for another dozen hours or so after the explanation before you hit the point at which you absolutely need to worry about things like balancing out the elemental affinity of your Blades, swapping them around during combat, exploiting elemental orbs attached to enemies and maximizing your combat damage. The system itself possesses a good deal of depth and complexity, but Xenoblade 2 does an absolutely terrible job of easing you into it.
Taken into consideration alongside the game's glaring technical issues (ranging from downgraded image quality when playing in Switch's handheld mode to a shockingly amateurish user interface), I feel as though I should dislike Xenoblade 2 a lot more than I do. The gatcha aspect of its Blade-unlocking system amounts to a huge waste of time and in-game resources. The careless distribution of monsters in the open-world spaces frequently causes you to wander into aggro range of high-level beasts as you're fighting more sensible battles, resulting in single-hit party wipes that send you back to your most recent checkpoint save. Bosses can knock party members unconscious while flinging them outside the bounds of the combat perimeter, making it impossible for you to revive them (and resultantly impossible to win). Cities tend to be intricate multilevel affairs in which you'll get lost while chasing after vague quest markers. Sandbox RPGs inherently run roughshod over your free time, but Xenoblade 2 feels more reckless than most.
This is a deeply flawed work. Every once in a while, though, a game manages to overcome its technical and design shortcomings by sheer force of personality, and Xenoblade 2 manages to stumble (often seemingly by accident) into this rarified territory. Things like the lunkheaded tutorial system and bafflingly poor map and quick-travel interface reflect an underlying philosophy that works in the game's favor despite all the unpleasant side effects: Monolith has chosen not to create a by-the-numbers role-playing game here. Yes, sometimes that means Xenoblade 2 bumbles through simple quality-of-life details other developers have long since sorted out. At the same time, however, it also guarantees the game rarely does things quite the same way as the competition.
Sandbox games have become hopelessly formulaic over the past few years, even rote, whereas Monolith has come at the format from an unconventional angle. The only clichéd thing about this package is its fondness for anime tropes (I lost count of how many times protagonist Rex turned an impossible tide through earnest determination and the power of friendship). It isn't always pretty, but neither is it ever typical. And that gives Xenoblade 2 value that can't be itemized with a simple list of strengths and weaknesses. I suppose it's a little like Rex in that regard.
The fact that Xenoblade 2 arrives right on the heels of the Switch port of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim could have worked against it. Instead, I feel it helps underscore the game's worth. About all the two games have in common is that they're enormous role-playing time-sinks that can optionally be tackled on the go. In terms of visual style, combat mechanics, narrative format and overall presentation, they couldn't be more different. Xenoblade 2 may remind you of a host of older console RPGs ranging from Grandia to Tales of Symphonia, and in the end it even circles back around to touch on other Xeno games. Ultimately, though, Xenoblade 2 is its own thing, and that's something rare and precious these days outside of the indie gaming space. Cherish this weird little creature, warts and all.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was reviewed using final “retail” Switch download codes provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.