Not so long ago I would’ve balked at the idea of living inside a stomach. Yet, after dozens of hours of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I’ve fallen in love with the kingdom of Uraya’s vibrantly colored forests and cascading, strangely tinted waterfalls. It’s but one of the massive living Titans that serve as floating islands or continents and home to the citizens of the ocean world of Alrest and the setting of this impressively large role-playing game. Much like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 itself, they grow more interesting the further you venture inside them.
You see most of this through the eyes of Rex, a young man initially found making his living by sifting through the junk of dead civilizations on the ocean floor. His boundless optimism somehow never gets annoying, perhaps thanks in part to the excellent English voice acting for him and virtually every character in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. (For purists, a Japanese language pack is available for download at launch.) It’s not long, though, before Rex finds himself permanently bound in a symbiotic relationship with a sentient living weapon known as a Blade – one of the most powerful his world has ever known.
Boss fights rarely feel repetitive thanks to new twists.
Naturally, some bad folks want the power of Rex’s unique Blade for themselves, and that vendetta quickly leads Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to slip into a routine of fighting the same bosses over and over, albeit in different situations. It’s a measure of how well Xenoblade Chronicles 2 handles its content that these fights rarely feel repetitive, as new twists are usually introduced each time. When they do, as in the case of one cocky combatant who called himself “The Zekenator,” it’s usually for humorous effect.
And make no mistake: for all of the heady philosophy bandied about regarding the nature of Blades and their human hosts, called Drivers, and the worry about dying Titans, there’s still plenty of cringeworthy Japanese RPG inanity tossed into the mix. One moment you might be listening to one of the main members of Rex’s crew telling one of the world’s most powerful beings she should act like a “blushy-crushy” maid that “every man is looking for;” the next, you’ll be sitting through intentionally awkward shots of that same character’s chest.
But there’s also storytelling depth here, particularly in complex characters like Special Inquisitor Mòrag, who proves a formidable adversary but also demonstrates her willingness to rethink her beliefs when faced with conflicting evidence. There is evil, darkness, and death in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, but there’s also a welcome thread of optimism in its conviction that the world’s various cultures can overcome their differences when the common good is under threat.
The art design itself seems to reflect this split between lightheartedness and gloomy themes, as many of the main characters are depicted in a smoother, fluid anime style that should age well, while secondary NPCs usually strut about with more traditional “realistic” 3D models. The visual juxtaposition doesn’t always work as well as the narrative one, though, as some characters look as though they’ve wandered in from other, older games. It doesn’t help that the Switch doesn’t appear to be able to run Xenoblade Chronicles 2 at full 1080p resolution when docked, giving it a slightly fuzzy look, and there are still occasional slowdowns when the screen gets crowded. Other than that, the only technical issue I encountered was a weird dubbing issue affecting several late-game cutscenes that set voices out of sync by about five seconds.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has impressive visual variety.
Rex’s jaunt across the expansive world to seek help from Alrest’s great cultures helps grant Xenoblade Chronicles 2 impressive visual variety. Sometimes you’re strolling through Eden-like zones like Uraya, but elsewhere you’ll find frigid wastes or the depressing industrial deserts of Mor Ardain. These are massive zones, and occasionally dynamic: one island opens and closes passes to certain areas depending on the tides and, elsewhere, completing quests allows you to increase an area’s “development level,” opening new items in shops and activating discounts.
There’s an impressive verticality to the zones as well, to the point that I could be standing high above the ground on a narrow icy precipice and know that I could reach the snowy forests beyond if I could find the right path.
Around five percent of my 80 hours were spent wandering in frustration.
It’s harder than it sounds, though – and that’s one of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s few significant flaws. The minimap is junk, and the only clue you’ll usually get for quest direction is a diamond-shaped marker on the compass at the top of the screen. Because that marker only tells you if your objective is above or below you, that’s often not enough information to figure out how to proceed; I’d say around five percent of my roughly 80 hours with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 were spent wandering in frustration, trying to figure out which route would actually lead me to where I was supposed to go.
The maps for the fast travel system (or “Skip Travel,” as it’s known here) helps a little, as it at least shows you the real location of the next objective – provided you’re at the same vertical height. You’re usually not, though, and it’s hard to use the Skip Travel maps for guidance to areas you haven’t been to yet, especially since they maddeningly don’t automatically open up to the zone you’re in. That forces you to waste several seconds each time while you find the proper map. The menu system as a whole can be a bit unwieldy, although it handles some elements much better than others. The map, unfortunately, is not one of the better ones.