Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: Early impressions of Nintendo’s ambitious JRPG
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is huge. Having spent over 120 hours playing through The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and over 60 hours with Super Mario Odyssey, yet another sprawling RPG coming to Nintendo Switch within the first year of its life is a daunting prospect. But Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t just another massive open-world game, it’s a JRPG down to its core and that’s something the Switch has been sorely missing so far.
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However, because it’s a JRPG in its purest form, it’s also unbelievably slow to get going. That’s no bad thing in the world of the RPG, especially one that’s as expertly crafted as this. But it does pose a problem for reviewers. That’s why I’ve decided to give you my initial impressions now rather than a full review, which I’ll flesh out once I’ve managed to delve that little bit deeper into the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
So, don’t take these words to be final gospel. Instead, they’re simply my first, honest, impressions after having played roughly ten hours of the game.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: Chronicling the start of my journey
Set in the world of Alrest, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is positioned as a completely new journey within the Xenoblade universe. Think of it as similar to how each of the Final Fantasy games takes place in different universes but share a lot of the same themes.[gallery:1]
For anyone who’s played Xenoblade Chronicles, the concept of a vast and imposing cloud sea and enormous Titans will be familiar. For those that haven’t, here’s a quick primer: Alrest is a world made up of huge beings called Titans that roam around the seemingly endless cloud sea. Each Titan is, essentially, an island or continent that many different races live upon and each one has its own climate, too.
As with every JRPG you’ll ever play, the main storyline isn’t obvious at the beginning. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 revolves around a young, naïve scrapper called Rex. After years of salvaging scrap from the cloud sea floor, Rex takes a job that’s slightly out of his comfort zone. One thing leads to another, and Rex finds himself on a journey to save Alrest from dying as he searches for a mysterious utopia known as Elysium.
Of course, that’s only the story so far. I’m fully expecting it to turn into something far more sprawling as the hour’s tick by. I’ll update accordingly in due time.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: My, that’s a lot of tutorials
As with any RPG, there’s a huge amount to wrap your head around, right from the start. Thankfully, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 deals with this rather well and developer Monolith Soft has integrated an incredibly handy controls guide for the three different sections of gameplay, which you can access at the touch of a button. It also eases you in, step-by-step on things you need to know while playing the game.[gallery:9]
It’s still a touch overwhelming initially, with tutorials sliding into view on an alarmingly regular basis, but as you make your way through the opening chapter learning as you go, they become less frequent. It’s a better approach than talking you through various menus one-by-one but it does make the opening few hours of the game feel rather restrictive.
This is, however, the curse of the JRPG’s many systems and arguably Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does it better than most others. I’ve already forgotten some of the nuances of battle that were explained to me at the beginning, so perhaps a more rigorous training would work better, but I’ll find out in time.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: The art of blade arts
Speaking of battles, Monolith Soft has made great strides in Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat system. It still retains the real-time battle play from the Wii original, with your comrades automatically attacking without your input. You’ll also automatically attack, but can issue cooldown-restricted special attacks known as Arts to dish out more damage or provide buffs and debuffs.[gallery:5]
So far, so Xenoblade Chronicles. But this time around you also have access to different Blades, each imbued with mysterious beings that can deal impressive levels of damage. Each of these Blades also contains elemental attributes that, when activated via a Blade Skill, can turn the tide of battle if used effectively against a foe with a corresponding weakness.
It’s still early days but it’s clear there’s a lot of depth hidden away within Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat system. Just like that of Xenoblade Chronicles, it’s going to take a fair few hours for it to start showing its nuances but it’s definitely bubbling away beneath the numerous systems you’ll need to memorise.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: Anime stylings
The biggest change between Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and its predecessor is its decision to switch to an anime graphics style for its characters. This works an absolute treat in motion – the stills here don’t do it justice.
Much of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s wow factor comes from its environmental lighting, rather than the character and world designs themselves. What I’ve seen so far is similar to the grassy and forested environments you’d have seen in the original Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii.
In some respect, the change in visual style makes Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feel a little bit more like a Tales game but with richer, more detailed worlds. Generally, the decision to change the visuals works but with it comes a side to Xenoblade Chronicles 2 I’m less fond of – fan service.
There’s already been some controversy around how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 decided to design Rex’s companion Pyra compared with many other characters in the game. Dressed rather scantily, complete with stereotypical anime body proportions, Monolith Soft’s game capitalises on its teenage audience’s sensibilities, via some rather dubious camera angles in cutscenes.
For anyone who’s a fan of anime, it’s easy enough to shrug off as “just a Japanese thing”, but for many, I can see it proving to be a significant blemish on an otherwise visually excellent experience.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: Oh god, what is wrong with their voices
The first thing you’ll notice about Xenoblade Chronicles 2, though, is its awful voice cast. I really liked the voice cast from Xenoblade Chronicles, finding Monolith’s choice to go for British actors much more palatable than the all-American alternative many JRPGs end up with when they come West. However, in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, it jars far more than it should.[gallery:8]
Everything in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 sounds like it’s taking place somewhere just outside Birmingham. Even highly emotional moments it feels flat, with characters screaming or crying, their voices convey none of that emotion.
Who knows. Maybe in time, I’ll learn to love them. I did initially find the English voice acting in Xenoblade Chronicles jarring before warming to it so perhaps the same will happen here. Either that or I’ll just flick over to Japanese audio when the language update comes down shortly after launch.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 review: An (extremely) early verdict
I may not be that far into it, but with ten or so hours under my belt, I’m already finding Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a real treat. It’s fun to play and is yet another incredibly well-made Switch game. It’s great to play something as wondrously huge on the bus or train, or just curled up in bed. Once again, one of the biggest draws of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is its inherent portability thanks to the Switch’s unique design.
If my early impressions do seem to lean more towards the negative side than the positive, that’s simply because it does take a little bit of time to wade through the slow start to proceedings. Sure, it doesn’t help that I can’t stomach the voice acting and the fanservice is mildly offensive but both are easily overcome and a gem of a JRPG is already starting to shine through in Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat system and world design.
Give me another week off with it and I’m sure there’s going to be lots to love. After all, there are at least 100-plus hours to sink your teeth into and, as anyone who knows me will attest, I bloody love a good RPG.