Review: Dense, rewarding 'Xenoblade Chronicles 2' gives Switch a well-executed RPG
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TORONTO — As the latest entry in a long-running role-playing series, "Xenoblade Chronicles 2" follows in its predecessors' footsteps by offering a huge world to explore and a dense story to wrap your head around.
That in itself is an accomplishment for a game in which most of its world is sunk underneath a sea of clouds.
"Xenoblade Chronicles 2" is the latest in the loosely connected "Xeno" series of games by developer Monolith Soft, starting almost 20 years ago with the release of "Xenogears" for the PlayStation. It's the first title in the series since 2015's "Xenoblade Chronicles X" for the Wii U, a game laudable for its ambition, if not always its execution.
This game takes place on the world of Alrest, which has mostly sunk due to a cataclysmic event. The people of Alrest now live on the backs of enormous floating, living beings called titans. A young boy named Rex and his battle companion Pyra are searching for a paradise Elysium among the clouds. Predictably, things go awry, sending Rex, Pyra and their friends on a titan-hopping adventure.
To explore the titans of Alrest, you will form a party of three "drivers" which will act as your fighters. Each "driver" is supplemented by a "blade," who channels the energy needed for attacks. For example, Pyra can give Rex the ability to unleash fire-based attacks when serving as his blade. Most characters can have several blades and switch between them in battle to link up devastating elemental combos or exploit enemy weaknesses.
Sound confusing? Like "Xenoblade Chronicles X," the latest game in the series throws a lot of mechanics at you quickly, and without a lot of explanation, so combat can at first seem daunting. But once you get the hang of the timing of using your battle arts, and figure out how to link combos with allies, it becomes a fun, deep system that is challenging but rewarding.
Another enjoyable element of the game is collecting the blades themselves. Some are given to the player over the course of the story, but most will come from finding core crystals from the bodies of fallen enemies or from quest rewards. Cashing them in will give you a new blade. Often they are generic in design and function, but there are rare ones to collect with their own personalities and a broader skill-set. It gives the game a bit of a Pokemon-like feel.
"Xenoblade Chronicles 2" does suffer early pacing issues, a problem that is common with story-heavy RPGs. It gets bogged down with too many cutscenes in the prologue and first chapter, which is frustrating when you just want to get out there and check out the world. By the time the second chapter kicks in, however, the game starts to strike a balance between exposition and exploration, and zipping around from titan to titan to see what adventures each one has in store is a treat.
The Switch is not a processing powerhouse when compared to other consoles of this generation, so "Xenoblade Chronicles 2" doesn't quite deliver the graphical masterpiece that a "Final Fantasy" game might. But it does a lot with what it has to work with. Every titan has a pretty distinct vibe, from the bucolic splendour of Gormott, to the depleted, barren Mor Ardain, to the swampy Uraya, whose people live inside the titan instead of on top of it.
The game looks good in both console and handheld mode, though when playing portably there is occasionally a slight delay in the rendering of some textures. It's probably not an issue for anyone but the most ardent of graphics wonks. The accompanying soundtrack is of a consistently high quality, a relief after some of the misfires in "Xenoblade Chronicles X."
The story is mostly executed well but "Xenoblade Chronicles 2" doesn't avoid all the pitfalls that plague its genre. Outside the early pacing issues, there is the exhausting oversexualization of some of its female characters. That Pyra, and her alter-ego Mythra, are ridiculously proportioned and scantily clad is not surprising given character design in these games often looks like it was left to a lonely 13-year-old boy. But we could have definitely done without the vignette where two of the older male characters debate the appropriateness of her appearance. It's played for laughs but comes off as crass.
That aside, "Xenoblade Chronicles 2" adds a well-executed Japanese-style role-playing game to the Switch's arsenal, with tons of content and worlds to explore, a well-rounded cast of characters and some neat mechanics. It is well worth the time investment for RPG fans, or anyone looking to add a meaty title to their Switch library.
"Xenoblade Chronicles 2" is rated T for teen gamers and up, and retails for about $80.