When I first started playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I made up a unique milestone. I said, "I want this game to give me a 'Guar Plains moment.'"
Those of you who've played the original Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii are probably nodding in understanding, whereas the rest of you think I've had a knock to the head. Here's what I mean. There's a moment early on in Xenoblade Chronicles when you step onto the Guar Plains, a sprawling grassland area brimming with life of all kinds. This area of the game frames Xenoblade Chronicles' unique setting more than any other: We see the Titans looming above us (the Bionis, forever locked in combat with the Mechonis), and we're instantly made to understand our characters are tiny, insignificant guests crawling on the back of something much, much bigger.
The Guar Plains realization is an awe-inspiring experience, and one that no other RPG I've played to date has managed to replicate with the same weight. Xenoblade Chronicles X for the Wii U has praise-worthy ambition and imagination, but it never gave me a Guar Plains moment.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, on the other hand, places you on the back of a massive Titan (a living island) early in the game. Mother Armus graze with their babies beside them, and wolflike Volffs menace you. High above, the Titan you're riding slowly sways its head back and forth as it slowly shuffles through the Cloud Sea, paying its tiny inhabitants no mind. It's very much a Guar Plains moment. In HD.
In fact, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is seemingly tailored to give fans of the first game a big, warm "Welcome Home" feeling. While there's no trace of the Bionis, Mechonis, Shulk, Reyn, or Dunban (yet), it's clear from the game's opening moments that Monolith Soft wants to steer Xenoblade's fans towards the series' more fantastic elements and away from X's generic sci-fi setting.
In other words, this really is Xenoblade Chronicles 2—and you get everything that comes with the first true sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles. Bizarre monsters with strange names. A literal living world. A spunky hyper-anime protagonist with a doofy British accent. Scantily-clad female sidekicks. Side quests for years. Non-stop battle banter. Kick-ass swords. A skills system that initially makes you turn up your palms and say "Whaaaaat?", but slowly becomes second nature.
You also get a plot that's initially a bit hard to follow, but holds your attention with the help of its unusual setting. You play as Rex, an orphaned boy who makes a living salvaging scrap from the bottom of the Cloud Sea. When he's not salvaging, Rex drifts on the waves on the back of an ironically small Titan nicknamed "Gramps." Like all anime heroes, Rex has a dream: To reach Elysium, the paradise rumored to be atop of the World Tree in the center of the Cloud Sea.
Rex, being a money-driven sort, soon finds himself wrapped up in a salvaging job that ends with him being double-crossed and back-stabbed. His life is saved by a living blade named Pyra. They vow to reach Elysium together, but they're quickly forced to detour because bad guys are doing bad guy stuff.
While the story, setting, and general tone of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels familiar, the battle system might give you pause. The basics are still intact, i.e. you auto-attack and fill up your special attacks ("Arts") as you bash foes. However, your living blade companions are tethered to you on the battlefield and provide support as you fight. When you're fully in sync (which is achieved by using Arts with good timing), you can unleash massive elemental attacks. If other party members are also in sync with their blades, you can chain your specials for extra damage.
No lie: Finding your footing in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes some time, and the game throws a lot at you in its first hours. If there's a way to re-access the tutorials that are fed to you as you go, I haven't found it. On the bright side, you pick up the gist of the game's mechanics by making mistakes and trying again (Miss Frizzle would be pleased). The first time I took on a major boss, I got planted. The second time, I did much better. On the third try, I prevailed by a comfortable margin. Thinking back, it took me a while to get the hang of previous releases, too.
Thankfully, as with the first Xenoblade game, the consequences for death are relatively minor. You're sent back to the last checkpoint you triggered, and there are plenty to spare. This is a good thing, because the enemies don't level up alongside you. It's not uncommon to chase after a level 5 bunny rabbit, get too close to the nest of a level 70 hell-raptor, and wind up as an entrée.
I suppose that's par for the course as far as the Xenoblade series is concerned, though. You're invited to explore your surroundings, but if you don't make careful observations as you go, you're going to get skewered. If that's the sort of thing you love, rest assured Xenoblade Chronicles 2 dishes it up in heaping piles. I'm only a handful of hours into the game, and as a Xenoblade Chronicles fangirl, I couldn't be more chuffed about where this game is taking me. Yes, the characters look like dorks. Yes, they talk like dorks. Isn't it lovely?
Oh, and I suppose this won't come as a surprise, but: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a great match for a handheld system like the Switch. While it's not the most technically beautiful game on the market (you'll see some jagged edges and occasional frame hitches), it's certainly better-looking than Xenoblade Chronicles 3D. Hooray for the end of blurry Vaseline-smeared faces.