If my life was a sitcom, there'd be one episode where I, the harried protagonist, stack a bunch of important objects in a neat pile across several painstaking minutes. "There," I'd say, brushing off my hands in satisfaction while admiring my work. Then my free-spirited neighbor would barge into the room and scatter my efforts like a bunch of bowling pins. I'd gawp at the camera while a slap-bass line plays.
Let's label these metaphors. The stack of objects is my 2017 Game of the Year picks, which I thought I had laid out neatly. The free-spirited neighbor who knocked those picks askew is Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Nintendo Switch.
There are obviously worse problems to have than "Oh no, a game came outta nowhere to RKO my Game of the Year picks." I'd just hate to see Xenoblade Chronicles 2 get lost in the holiday frenzy. It's a great game, but it takes a lot of time and effort to grok; time and effort that even dedicated RPG fans might not be able to spare during the busy holiday season. There's a danger Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might get jostled around a bit and then mentioned as a mere footnote while the dust of the Switch's frankly amazing debut year settles down.
On the other hand, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might be weird enough, earnest enough, and beautiful enough to shine doggedly through the end-of-the-year chaos. Like its predecessors—especially the first fantasy-based Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, as opposed to the sci-fi focused Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U—Xenoblade Chronicles 2 carries a very distinct look, sound, and atmosphere. There's nothing quite like it out there, barring its older brothers.
And, like its older brothers, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game about humble heroes literally being elevated on the shoulders of giants. The story takes place in Alrest, a world where people live, work, and play on the backs of Titans, living land masses that travel in a circle through a sea of watery clouds. At the center of Alrest is the mysterious World Tree, an unapproachable titan itself.
The game's hero, Rex, is a plucky orphan (natch) who ekes out his living by diving for salvage at the bottom of the Cloud Sea. Rex dreams of reaching Elysium, the supposed world of plenty on top of the World Tree. Titans are dying every day, making land scarcer, and Rex hopes whatever's on top of the World Tree can stop the inevitable war between Alrest's resource-starved nations.
Though Xenoblade Chronicles 2 starts off as a story about a lonesome anime kid and his hopes and dreams, it becomes more political as you get deeper in. The narrative explores patriotism, war, environmental decline, refugees, and examines the little people who get caught in the crush when big powers scrap with one another. There are also a number of moral and philosophical questions raised about Blades, the living weapons that are awakened and bonded by humans (referred to as "Drivers). Are Blades humanity's partners, or their slaves? The game's band of bad guys, code-named Torna, certainly believe the latter—though that's far from their only beef with humans. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Torna's plans to make humans suffer go awry when Rex is brought onto one of their expeditions as hired help, but accidentally bonds with Torna's prize, an ancient and powerful Blade named Pyra.
The story for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes well over 60 hours to tell, and that's if you don't spend additional hours getting lost while exploring the magical landscapes you find on—and inside of—every Titan in Alrest. You'll also want to block off some time to just get used to the game's myriad menus, side-jobs, and combat system. Xenoblade veterans have an advantage over newcomers, but even series veterans might stumble while trying to find their footing.
As with previous games, Rex and his allies engage in auto-combat when it's time to mix it up with an enemy. Auto-attacks fill up meters for Arts, which unleash powerful attacks with helpful secondary effects (e.g. the potential to topple a foe and leave them wide open for attack). Rex and pals can link Arts to perform powerful elemental combos. The chain attack system from the first Xenoblade game makes a return, too. But even Xenoblade vets might need a little time getting used to having Blades as companions.
Your fighting style, including the elements and weapons you use, depend on the Blades you choose as your partners. Blades arise from Core Crystals, which are scattered everywhere in Alrest. Common crystals are likeliest to "hatch" a generic Blade that'll get the job done, whereas a rare crystal might net you one of the more powerful, more noteworthy Blades designed by one of the game's celebrity artists ("infamously designed" in the case of some of the more scantily-clad female Blades).
While Rex and his compadres can level up to get stronger, use points to beef up their innate abilities, and equip stat-boosting accessories, much of your fighting strength depends on the chips and cores you equip your Blades with. Blades also get stronger by building trust with their Driver and, later, by completing certain tasks. This can involve anything from hunting a notorious monster to reading a certain book, or eating a piece of cake (seriously).
Figuring out how to best configure and utilize your blades is initially a big hassle. The menus in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 aren't intuitive, and the myriad tutorials fed to you in-game—usually right before a big fight, when you aren't in a listening mood—aren't accessible later. To make things stickier, one of the game's main characters, the Nopon engineer Tora, uses an "artificial Blade" whose upgrade system is completely different from flesh-and-blood Blades. There's a lot of "how" and "why" that you need to keep sorted in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Of course, with great complexity comes great opportunity for customization. Once I got the hang of choosing the Blades that best suited my fighting style, and once I learned what each one wanted from me, that's when I relaxed a bit and started to enjoy Xenoblade Chronicles 2 immensely. As with the first game, its cast is endearing enough to endure for 60+ hours of adventuring. There's a great deal of voice acting, all of which is delivered on the first Xenoblade game's level. Take that as you will; I adore the doofy British, Scottish, and American(?) accents, but I don't doubt some people will quickly opt for the Japanese option. The endless battle chatter, for example, is guaranteed to be divisive. I personally use it to gauge the mood of a battle without relying on the characters' HP bars, but I suppose Rex's earnest war cries would be condemned as an instrument of torture in most developed countries. You can adjust the voice volume in fights, or turn it off entirely—but then how will you know you can beat your enemies with the power of friendship? Turn down the volume at your own risk.
The thing I appreciate most about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is how it captures nearly everything that made the first game great, borrows the best elements from Chronicles X, and then improves on much of it. Though Blades change up how you fight in Chronicles 2, the game spills over with the traits that make the first Chronicles game a stand-out experience. More story, more enemies to scrap with, more landscapes to tread across. Chronicles 2 is a dialogue-heavy game, but there are many points where Monolith Soft lets its environments narrate the seriousness of Alrest's plight. When you visit the barren, wind-blasted Titan Mor Ardain, you get a sense for why tensions are blossoming between Alrest's nations. Here's one of the realm's biggest land-masses, and it's clearly on the verge of dying. Once it's gone, that's one less Titan for people to live on.
But one area where Xenoblade Chronicles 2 actually regresses from Xenoblade Chronicles is its side-quests. Once again, there are countless fetch quests and hunting missions to take on, but you're not rewarded as soon as you complete them like you are in the first game. Instead, you have to trek back to the original quest-giver to collect your dosh. Boo. Hiss. Nobody wants this, Monolith Soft.
Granted, you can send your extra Blades on mercenary missions and those earn instant rewards upon completion. Alas, that doesn't lessen the tedium of having to personally thrust a carrot at some peasant whose legs seemingly aren't strong enough to carry him over to the shiny spot ten paces north.
Despite its flaccid side-quests and its sometimes-baffling systems, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 puts a very nice lid on an incredible year for the Nintendo Switch, and for RPGs in general. While it might be a smidge too late to get on some Game of the Year lists, don't overlook it. Heck, make it a priority in the coming months. You could do far worse for a winter companion.
As with previous Xenoblade games, Xenoblade Chronicles 2's greatest strength is its highly imaginative environments. The Titans of Alrest are beautiful, menacing, and filled with oddities. One Titan's signature weather might be indoor "rainstorms" of crystal, while another will treat you to storms of wind, ash, and ether. The trade-off is noticeable chug during some busy battle sequences and town scenes (though the game still gives you breathtaking plains filled with animal life). The character models in Chronicles 2 are far sharper and more expressive than in Chronicles, though you'll still see plenty of instances of solid-piece anime hair clipping through shoulders, etc. As with pretty much every Switch game, it's a small compromise for the convenience of playing the game in handheld mode whenever you like.
Yasunori Mitsuda is still a genius, just in case there was ever any doubt. Mitsuda isn't the only composer to work on Xenoblade Chronicles 2, though his influence is all over the game. The uplifting theme for Gormott's plains rival Gaur Plains from the first title, and the music for each area changes seamlessly with day and night, often with powerful effect. A female choir that provides background ambiance on the holy city-Titan of Indol gives way to a quieter, more sombre male choir as the lights go down. Whatever you may think of the voice acting in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, its music is unquestionably sublime.
Following the story alone should take you better than sixty hours. Add in all the side-quests and the "Catch 'em All" mechanic for the rare blades, and you see I wasn't joking when I said Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a perfect companion for winter.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 applies an energetic signature and wax seal to a wonderful year for the Nintendo Switch, and for JRPGs in general. Between the amount of time it takes to get used to the game and getting through everything it has to offer, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a worthy investment for series fans and newcomers.
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