Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Rex's "staring at the sky" POV is all too often shared by the game's real camera.
enlarge / Rex’s “stare at the sky” POV is all too often shared by the game’s real camera.

Lock an infinite number of monkeys in a room with an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, and I’m not sure they would ever come up with Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The action JRPG lacks a cohesive style – mechanical and artistic – so much that its absence is becoming his cohesive style. It’s a mishmash of ideas from MMOs, anime, gacha games, science fiction, fantasy, management sims, satire, melodrama, and probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t even seen yet.

But like the classic saying about monkeys writing Shakespeare, if there’s enough time, it kind of works.

It does not give that impression at first. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 leads with some of the most common settings and characters I’ve seen since the PlayStation 2 era, when everyone and their uncle released six 80-hour RPGs a month. You start out as Rex: a determined young man on his own. He meets a magical girl who is sought after by an empire, among other things, and goes on an adventure where he slowly gathers party members of different walks of life. Some of those party members get amnesia, of course, because what JRPG is complete without an amnesia subplot?

If that all sounds like the plot of every JRPG from the past 20 years, then you’re not alone. That familiarity, plus the well-documented and tacky glare of the female lead, had me rolling my eyes off the screen for the first few hours or so. The bad start is especially egregious given the incredibly evocative intro to the original Xenoblade Chronicles— which was set on a world made of the interlocking corpses of two continent-sized behemoths.

Drivers, start your engines

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 only starts to shine when you realize how the whole product is put together. The huge game is divided into chapters, but they could just as well be episodes from a real anime. Each act rises to an over-the-top climax, complete with smash-cuts on title cards, swelling music as our heroes discover new hidden strengths, and fantastic camera work that almost feels like more than the middle ground graphics deserve. Sooner or later you’ll be fighting giant robot girls and playing a fake NES game to upgrade a character (but only that particular character, and no, I don’t know why).

Those climaxes aren’t just for dramatic effect, either. Battles start off as milquetoast as the story, but slowly add layer after layer of complexity to cope with the extreme extra plot payouts.

The base remains traditionally MMO-esque all along, just like in Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X. Party members automatically perform physical attacks. Abilities with bonus effects, such as dealing more damage when hitting an enemy from behind, become available when you deal normal blows. Over time, though, you’ll unlock super moves that recharge faster if you time your skills with your character animations. Those special attacks can later be linked to other party members. That builds up your enemies’ elemental resistances over time, but it also leads to a new layer of abilities to break the buffs.

Between all the positioning, timing and resource management, the game can get extremely complicated extremely quickly. I haven’t even mentioned the team building of the gacha game that lets you customize and swap your skills at will, or the six different upgrade trees. It’s a lot to take in, of course, but the orderly array of crescendos gives you plenty of hours to enjoy each new system. In between, you can still explore the gigantic environments that the xenoblade games have always had to offer. Now there’s just a much gentler learning curve to take you through it.

Here comes the messy part

Unfortunately, you’ll also be wading through old annoyances that should have been fixed long ago. As massive as the world is – this time built on the backs of living continents called Titans – it’s easy to get lost in it Xenoblade Chronicles 2. An ever-present compass indicates only the general direction of your marked target. The minimap is zoomed in too much and cropped at the edges to provide much help, and to orient you to the full map requires way too much scrolling through menus.

There is a lot from guessing your way through menus, actually; I spent hours scrolling through character magazines upgrading and customizing Rex and Rex and his company’s skills and combos. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, this is done through “Blades”, magical creatures in the form of humans, robots, monsters and often very large cats that grant special powers. Some Blades are an integral part of the story, such as the extremely badly dressed Pyra, who has interesting things to do when she doesn’t tuck her tight apron into her latex hotpants and thong. Other Blades are collected through random drops.

If you’re not careful, scroll through menus to min-max and theory slide your Blades to their extreme slides Xenoblade Chronicles 2 from 80 hours to complete to several hundred hours to control. There are enough (often annoying) side missions, hidden areas, unique enemies and things to collect to also justify the time, assuming you live the kind of life that let’s you justify that kind of investment.

Parts comply with sum

Which brings me back to my PlayStation 2 comparison. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is exactly the kind of game I would have sunk into for most of a summer as a kid. It certainly has its lows: there are too many fetch assignments; the menus and cards need to be better; and this particular brand of sexy magical girls “fan service” feels particularly characterless and downright bad. The first underskirt camera angle or unnecessarily long dragging shot to Pyra’s chest feels sleazy. The next two dozen are just exhausting.

But there are so many ideas here—wrapped in rhythmic battles that are hard to ignore, even if slow to develop—that I was willing to tick the boxes for fetch assignments if it meant seeing what’s next. offers. Shall I draw a knife that looks like a giant stuffed animal and always talks about eating my companions? Will running my own mercenary business unlock a new skill? How can I weave that ability into my usual boss hollowing combos?

Ever since Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a Switch game, it’s easier to fit those little discoveries into my life than on a traditional console. I’m willing to keep up with some frequent drops in frame rate if I can keep grinding on rescuing robotic parts without turning off Netflix on the big screen.

if i want Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was the perfect combination of the brightest moments in the series. I wish I could transfer this game’s combat to the great atmosphere of the original. Then I would sprinkle X‘s mechs for good, fast-traveling measure. This is not that dream game. But it’s a damn good one in the meantime.

The good

  • Endlessly captivating battles are handed out at the right pace.
  • A mishmash of art styles, mechanics and tones somehow works as a whole.
  • Plenty of things to do in huge, open areas.
  • Highly customizable for min-maxing enthusiasts.

The bad

  • Makes a bad first impression.
  • Awkward maps and too many menus.
  • Nasty frame rate dips.

the ugly one

  • Pyra’s costume design and all the factors that got us to this point…

verdict: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 makes up for in manic energy what it lacks in elegance. The mountain of ideas doesn’t always work, but the core of the game justifies the experiments. Buy it.

By akfire1

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