I’m going to get this out of the way at the very beginning: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) is a deeply flawed experience. To call this game niche would even put it under too broad of an umbrella. XC2 is a dense, uncompromising, and unapologetic JRPG that takes at least 30 hours to begin to flex its muscles. But if you can bare with the game long enough for it to show its real potential, Chronicles 2 holds some of the best moments I’ve had in any RPG, full stop. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is also in a very unique position being the first major JRPG released on the Nintendo Switch, and while this may seem unimportant, some of XC2’s biggest design strengths lie in the Switch’s hybrid nature as a portable home console.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is at its core, a coming of age story. Set in world of Alrest, a cloud-covered ocean dotted with mobile living landmasses, called Titans, who have begun to die out at alarming rates. Players control Rex, a teenage boy who unexpectedly has the weight of prophecy shoved on his shoulders after a rough day at work ends with him being killed and resurrected by one of the universe’s most powerful living weapons, Pyra, an entity called the Aegis. What follows is your typical JRPG fare: Rex teams up with an ever-growing party of anime friends as they deal with the typical struggles of young adulthood: Finding love in a dying world, trying to understand the meaning of life and whether humans have purpose, and grinding out specific animal hunts for hours on end to level up sentient, pokemon-like weaponry. While it all seems like roads well-trodden, in the 100+ hour playtime, a bond can’t help but be formed with Rex and his crew, whose undying positivity serve to lift the story to some incredible highs as the characters are forced to wrestle with some heady philosophical concepts near the game’s conclusion. The questions XC2 poses in some of its best moments are quite stimulating and sure to tickle sci-fi and fantasy fans alike. At the core of everything are Blades, eternal beings that bond with mortals to serve as partners in life, work, and of course combat.
Combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a deep, deep, hole to dive into and try to explain. Most simply, players encounter enemies as they wander through the massive open maps and combat plays out in real time. Your party consists of three characters out of a pool of five, each one with three blades that can be switched out at will to affect everything from role composition in your party (Tank, DPS, and Healer), elemental typing (enemies have elemental strengths and weaknesses, as do you), and types of status effects you can inflict on your enemies.
At its peak complexity, reached somewhere at around the 60 hour mark, XC2 becomes a thrilling dance as players work to synergize 12 characters to set up combos that deal damage in the millions. It never stops being satisfying to see strategies you’ve been conceptualizing and tuning for literally dozens of hours come to a head in a thrilling battle against a unique world-boss who had been dogging your party in your initial passes through each map in opening (read 30-40) hours of the game.
While combat is mostly numbers-based, you will rarely be standing in place as your characters auto-attack. XC2 has an intense focus on timing and positioning your strikes in order to inflict maximum damage. Each weapon class has a unique auto-attack pattern with escalating damage after each strike in a combo. At any time players can cancel an auto-attack into a special, dealing more damage the later into the combo it is. This encourages players to pay attention and develop a rhythm with each weapon type in order to deal the most damage and generate the most special attack meter. Each auto-attack charges a palette of 3 special attacks, which in turn charge another meter governing elemental moves. These elemental attacks deal massive damage and build into the game’s combo system, which is ultimately what will govern your team composition. If this sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is. While many will likely be dissatisfied at the rate which the game drip-feeds its complexity to you (expect to still be given tutorials well past the 20 hour mark), it is a necessary evil to create a system that is deeply, cerebrally satisfying in a way few other games could hope to attain.
Luckily, managing your party is a streamlined affair. All characters, human and blade, only have a maximum of three equipment slots to manage and most items only offer simple buffs to health or damage. This keeps the focus on XC2’s most satisfying elements, strategizing typing and special move palettes, above everything else. Don’t misunderstand, your playtime will involve hours being spent in menus, but outfitting your party to maximize your desired synergy is always easy to do.
Exploration and side quests make up the other half of XC2’s gameplay pillar. Exploration is by far the strongest of these elements. Alrest is a breathtaking world, magisterial in its scope and intricacy. The Titans that make up XC2s core set of seven maps (there are about eight more maps that just serve as hubs for shops, dungeons, or story moments) offer hours of free-form adventuring, as players hunt monsters, collect hundreds of crafting items, complete quests, and find secrets.
The variety of biomes combined with how well XC2 uses the scale of the living creatures you’re trekking across make slogging through the often dull quest objectives bearable. Most quests fall under the “go here – kill/mine this” formula, and with very little variance across the game’s 100+ hours I often elected to forego many sidequests in my backlog that didn’t offer significant XP rewards. Puzzlingly, XC2 foregoes an excellent element from XC1 that fixed a major issue with the simple quest design. XC1 boasted an autocomplete feature that would reward you for completing a quest as soon as you collected the material or finished a hunt, rather than making your venture back to the quest-giver to be rewarded. Being absent in the sequel, the constant necessity for fast travelling from town – wilderness – town kills all the momentum that exploring builds up. However, XC2 boasts its own fix to its dull questing problem. By virtue of being a Switch game, these small, repetitive tasks are transformed into the perfect portable activity.
Every play session with XC2 offers potential value at chipping away at the monolithic objective of powering up enough to confront the challenges of the storyline or high-level world bosses. Sitting down at the TV for an extended play session? Go ahead and tackle the story — watch some cutscenes, experience a new titan in its full glory, connect with your party in unique heart-to-heart scenes dotted across the map. Got a 20 minute commute? Pick up a few quests from a town or consult your blade’s affinity chart for smaller, stat-boosting objectives.
XC2 doesn’t hide the fact that it is built on a skeleton of excessive grinding. Several key elements of the game are timer-based, from small party-wide buffs applied by eating food to “Merc Missions,” side-quests you can send your unused blades on that award XP, money, and items. With these timers usually counting down from 20-40 minutes, a short play session can usually give full value to your consumables as well as award you with pops of experience and skill ups for your party to take into longer more committed sessions with the game. Even more so than Zelda or Mario before it, XC2’s gameplay flow seems tailor made for the Nintendo Switch. Empowering players to choose their commitment level before any given play session benefits the leisurely pace at which the game unfolds its complexities and lightens the sting of the mundanity of so much of the side-content. XC2 knows its strengths, and whether its a monster hunt, seeking out secrets in the open worlds, or driving the plot forward, it always feels like your time is rewarded.
If you own a Switch and have a passing interest in JRPGs, you should give Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a shot. Its joys are wholly unique, and if you fall for it as deeply as I did, you have at least 100 hours of game ahead of you. This is not a game for everyone — the dense combat, plodding pace, and dull questing are sure to try all but the most patient gamers — but what XC2 has on offer is a monstrous, almost incomprehensibly huge, adventure across some of gaming’s densest, most interesting worlds. The payoffs for both story and gameplay come with some large asterisks, but the ambition on display deserves the highest marks. Whatever Monolithsoft has in store next, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 marks a huge success for what designing a hybrid console/portable game means.