Monday, February 12, 2018

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review

A fantasy epic that won't be everyone's cup of tea

It may have taken me almost 100 hours, but I've finally reached the end of the Nintendo Switch's newest massive JRPG, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. For the most part, the points I noted in my impressions post were applicable to the game as a whole, so this review is going to primarily focus on observations I had once I was fairly deep into the game.
  • More than almost any other RPG I've every played, every facet of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 revolves around its combat system. The concept of Drivers and Blades (i.e. human warriors and their immortal combat partners) is not only the focus of the action, but the plot and the entire game world. Every cutscene and benign conversation with NPCs is ultimately about the Driver/Blade system. The integration of the game's main mechanic into the entire game world reminds me in some ways of Pokemon; nothing exists in the world of Alrest that isn't in someway about Drivers and Blades.
  • For the first quarter of the game, I found the combat system to be interesting but also overwhelming and chaotic. However, once it clicked with me, it was really fun to set up complicated combos of special moves and watch the massive damage numbers pop up on the screen. The five different playable Drivers and hundreds of Blade options allow for a lot of experimentation (something I love to see in a JRPG). This complex battle system does come with a downside; since the game's designer's clearly wanted to push the player to master the ins and outs of the combat mechanics, enemies have a lot of HP and battles can last a long time. For boss battles, this isn't a problem. If anything it makes the big climactic confrontations more challenging and strategic. However, even standard enemies tend to be bullet sponges and this can slow down the game considerably.
  • The lengthy battles had a secondary effect: they discouraged exploration. There is also no on-screen indicator to tell the player which enemies are hostile and which are passive, which caused me to keep my distance from enemies. As a result, I often took fairly direct paths between story-critical locations in order to avoid unnecessary encounters and played some sections of the game more like a stealth game than an RPG. Thankfully, once your characters are about 10 levels above that of the enemies in an area, the enemies will no longer target your party. Thus, returning to previously visited regions after leveling up was the best way to explore the map uninterrupted.
  • As I had noted in my impressions, the game's story leans pretty heavily into some anime tropes, even more so than previous games in the series. Even though I enjoy anime, I found this to be a little off-putting at first. Though, as the game went on, the characters began to grow on me and there were enough interesting developments in the plot to keep me interested. Not every plot arc landed with me, however. To showcase all its characters and themes, Xenoblade 2 makes extensive use of cutscenes, especially in the second half of the game. Playing through the campaign involves watching about 14 hours of cutscenes overall with many of the individual cutscenes being over 30 minutes in length. If I could tell I was about to enter a cutscene-heavy area, I would often get a snack and pour myself a drink and just treat it as if I was sitting down to watch some anime. I found most of these cutscenes to be pretty entertaining but there were definitely some that seemed to drag. Either way, this style of story presentation probably won't appeal to everyone. 
  • Like most RPGs, a lot of time spent with Xenoblade 2 is in its menu screen. The game has systems on top of systems and the menus do their best to provide all the relevant info but ultimately are just not up to the task. By the end of the game, equipping the right gear or choosing the proper Blade for the job can be very time consuming since there isn't an efficient way to search your party's massive lists of belongings. This is a particularly glaring issue when using Field Skills, which are a class of non-combat Blade abilities that gate access to certain areas of the game map. If your party comes up to a locked door that requires Lock Picking, Keen Observation, and Electrical Mastery to open, you will be spending the next few minutes scrolling around through menus to make sure you put the right combination of Blades with the necessary skills in your party. The game's designers could have easily solved this by allowing a Blade's Field Skill to trigger from your inventory, rather than just from your active party. Fortunately, most of the Field Skill checks are confined to sidequests but there are a few on the main story path that could pose a road block to a player who hasn't amassed a diverse arsenal of Blades.
  • So how does one get these all-important Blades? The answer: gachapon. Throughout the game, the player finds Core Crystals in treasure chests and enemy loot drops. Using these consumable items adds a new randomly selected Blade to your collection. The majority of the time, a crystal will summon a generic common Blade that are mostly only useful for their Field Skills, but if you're lucky, you'll draw a rare Blade that will be a unique and powerful character that you'll actually want to use in combat. Since the game is very generous with Core Crystals (don't worry, there's no micro-transactions), there are many opportunities to get new Blades but you'll be spending a lot of time on the crystal activation screen if you want to get most of the rare ones. Depending on my mood at the time, I sometimes found this gambling-like activity to be fun and other times found it to be irritating. It didn't help that the summoning animation that plays every time you activate a crystal can't be skipped. Supposedly an upcoming patch to the game will address that.
  • Despite the various things that slow it down, I got hooked on Xenoblade 2 and it's time-sink nature meant that handheld play was a must in order to fit playing it into my life. The game controls well with attached Joycon and the interface is still easily readable on the small screen. However, the performance in terms of resolution and frame rate can be erratic. Since this isn't a reflex-based game, the performance issues don't effect gameplay significantly but are a little distracting and take away from some of the majesty of the fantasy vistas.
What Xenoblade Chronicles 2 ultimately offers is a fun but not necessarily deep story, a complex and satisfying combat system, and an interesting world to explore but it puts a lot of obstacles in your way to enjoying these things. I came away feeling positive about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 even though I think the game would have benefited from more development time to smooth things out. RPG fans with patience (or lots of free time) who also love anime will find themselves hooked by this game. Everybody else might find it just a little too daunting, clunky, and time consuming to see all the way through.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 94 hours (Main story and about half of the side quests)

Note: My feelings about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 very closely mirror how I felt about Tokyo Mirage Sessions. If you're a fan of TMS, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might be right up your alley. I wrote a review of Tokyo Mirage Sessions on Grouvee back in 2016.

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