Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Too Many Tutorials, Too Many Invincible Villains
Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo Wii was one of my all time favorite games, probably in my top three, even. I couldn't wait for a sequel, but unfortunately I was among the 7.7 billion people to not get a Wii U, and so I missed out on Xenoblade Chronicles X. But then I got a Switch in 2017, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was the first game I bought, alongside Breath of the Wild. And it was... alright. I returned it a few months later because frankly I just wasn't that into it. And then three years later, the Xenoblade Remaster came to the Switch and I played that all summer. And I thought, maybe I should give 2 another chance. So I did, and it's been a trip. Here are my thoughts. There will be spoilers.
The first really great thing about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is its world. Similar to, but also very different from, the first game, the characters live in or on titans, which are gigantic beasts ranging in size from whale to continent. The big difference is that these titans are smaller than the Bionis, and more active. They swim, or fly, or maybe even walk(depending on the titan) in the Cloud Sea, roughly orbiting a gigantic central structure called The World Tree. This World Tree and the Titans in orbit are the basis of XC2's basic story and mythology. Supposedly, the World Tree holds up Elysium, a paradise where the problems plaguing the titan world(basically, climate change, resource scarcity, and the imperialist brutality that comes with it) don't exist.
The game follows a young Cloud Sea salvager named Rex as he tries to find Elysium along with his new Blade, Pyra, and several friends who join along the way. Pyra is a ridiculously powerful Blade known as the Aegis, and is being hunted by the main enemies of the game, Torna. They are led by a guy named Malos who will never, ever lose a fight, even if you outlevel him by ten or more levels, and Jin. Jin is pretty interesting; he was designed by Tetsuya Nomura, the main character designer for Final Fantasy VII. Jin will also never lose a fight no matter how overleveled you are, but he at least has the excuse of being able to move faster than light. The rest of Torna are pretty forgettable, honestly. We only ever learn anything about them after their deaths in the last hours of the story, and though their backstories do a lot to flesh them out as characters, they come way too late to make me care about them. Up until their deaths, they were just, for example, a really annoying theater nerd who thinks he's in a play for the entirety of the game. Then he dies and we get a cutscene of his backstory where he and his sister were rescued from the abuses of imperial prison by Jin.
Fleshing out a character in one quick cutscene after their death does not count as character development, yet XC2 does this for nearly every antagonist in the game. The only ones who don't get this treatment are the early villains who are all caricatures of the capitalist robber barons of the early 20th century, and being thus, they do not deserve to be known.
Moving on, the Blades I mentioned above are part of the new combat system. Each Blade is a sentient weapon, more or less. A Driver awakens a Blade from a Core Crystal, and the Blade takes a humanoid or animalistic form and lends the Driver power. Pyra is Rex's main Blade for the game; her weapon is a sword and her element is fire. Another party member, Nia, has a Blade named Dromarch who takes the form of a tiger, gives her two large bladed rings as weapons, and has the Water element.
Each blade gives their driver three active combat skills. To use the skills, you have to hit stuff to charge them. Once you use enough combat skills, you get a Blade Special, a powerful skill that applies a status effect to the enemy. Repeated specials from a Blade Combo. For example, a level 1 Special with Pyra applies Heat. Then a level 2 Special with Dromarch will turn that into Steam Bomb, and then a level 3 Special from Pyra will turn it into Steam Explosion, dealing massive damage and forming an elemental orb that orbits the enemy. This is really cool, but it's only really useful against bosses or very high level enemies, since most level-appropriate foes in the overworld will have died from Steam Bomb already.
That said, once you've applied the elemental orb, you can apply more of them or you can break it during a chain attack. In a chain attack, you choose one of your Blades to do a level 1 Special, which will deal increased damage and also hurt the elemental orb if you use the right element. For Steam Explosion, you'd want to use water Specials for the best results. If you break the orb, you get a huge damage boost and another round to the chain attack, this time with level 2 Specials. The more orbs you apply, the more damage you do, and the more rounds of chain attack you can hit. But again, it's really only going to be useful against bosses.
In addition to Blade Combos, there is also a Driver combo. Unlike Blade Combos, which have a ton of different combinations and affects, there is only one Driver Combo. Break, Topple, Launch, Smash. Due to having to rely on AI-controlled party members to do the right move at the right time, it's much harder to do than a Blade Combo, but you also get less satisfaction from succeeding.
Outside of combat, Blades come with different skills on an affinity chart. The most relevant ones are the field skills, things like Leap, Excavate, Elemental Mastery. They can help you travel to certain hard-to-reach places in the overworld, dig up resource drops, remove obstacles like thick roots or walls of miasma, or get information from people or ancient murals. It's a cool idea, but in practice it becomes a matter of finding a field skill map point and then having to go through three or four menus to switch to the Blades that will let you pass. This is a massive downgrade from XC1, where if you had an impassable barrier in the overworld you would complete a quest and that quest might build a bridge or remove some rubble; and items were just out in the world and you could collect them without needing to have a certain skill.
The Blades as characters are mostly very well done. Each unique blade(like Pyra, Dromarch, or artificial Blade Poppi) has their own questline to complete to help unlock their skills and affinity chart. My personal favorite was for a Healer Blade named Vess, where you meet her at the market and help her out with taking care of her aged Driver, and deliver some heirlooms to his children for him before he dies of old age. It was a very personal, very human, in an otherwise fantastical game.
A lot of the sidequests are longer than you'd expect. There are no "bring me twenty bear pelt" type quests. Each one has an actual narrative to follow and get invested in, even if it's not always a good narrative(I'm looking at you, Nopon American Idol quest). No, what brings the sidequests down for me isn't the content of the qeusts themselves, but how many of them are reliant on the War Table system.
Early in the game, Rex becomes the leader of the Garfont Mercenaries and gains access to their war table. This works similarly to the war table in Dragon Age Inquisition, where you send out operatives to do quests that you're too busy to do, or that the devs just didn't want to put in the game. In XC2's case, you send out teams of Blades. When they return, they might randomly unlock a few parts of their affinity charts. This is the main reason to use the mercenaries: developing your Blades' skills. By itself, I really like the Mercenary company. But it becomes a little bit too intertwined with the main gameplay. For example, you can be investigating a child trafficking ring and following leads for a couple hours, and then to get to the next part of the quest you have to take a break and do a specific mission in the war table to unlock it. Several side quests, and even a couple main quests, have this "feature" which serves only to break the flow of gameplay.
All that said, I have three major issues with this game that take precedence over all else.
The first are the tutorials. The tutorials do not stop. This is a ten chapter game and I was getting tutorial messages up to chapter ten itself, more than ninety hours of play-time in. And, yes, a thorough tutorial is a good tutorial, but to take the combat example from up above, it was only barely touched upon in the game. I had to look up most of that on the wiki. You cannot revisit any tutorials in XC2. Instead, you can buy hints from in-game informants. These hints are not useful. They are things like "As trust between a Driver and Blade grows, so does affinity". But the tutorial problem kind of pales in comparison to the next big issue.
I sort of touched on this when I talked about the antagonists of the game up at the top, but Rex and his friends just don't ever win a fight. The bad guys in XC2 are not allowed to lose. They're not even allowed to look like they're about to lose. In my more than 100 hours in this game, I don't think I even saw a main villain fall down in a cutscene. Almost every single boss fight is the "win in the boss fight, lose in the cutscene" variety. Notably, this applies to the final bosses as well. Rex and company just kinda keep losing, and end up being saved by a Deus Ex Machina pretty much every time. I just want to win a boss fight. If I two-shot that theater nerd in gameplay and the cutscene has him beating me into the ground, something's wrong. I've lost all sense of agency in this game. And even those rare fights where you do win in the cutscene, it's not because of anything the player did. Beat Jin to death in gameplay, and the next cutscene starts with Jin having the upper hand and Rex fighting him to a standstill without any player input. I just feel like if the developers wanted to remove player input like that, they should have just made it a movie.
The last part of the game that really bugs me is the process of collecting Blades. It's random. It's a gacha mechanic. You can have common, rare, or legendary crystal cores, and while you'd think legendary cores would have a higher chance of giving you a unique blade(like KOS-MOS, ofr example), it really doesn't seem that way. It's not a game-breaking issue at all, but the random chance nature of core crystals means that you're going to have a lot of useless Blades crowding your inventory, you can only release them individually. Inventory management for Blades is hell, and it seems like it was designed that way intentionally.
Overall, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not nearly as good as the first game. It's beautifully and carefully designed, but it's frustrating to play due to endless tutorials, invincible villains, and an overly-intrusive war table. On the other hand, I love all the party members and their relationships with each other and their Blades. The story is large in scale, and not terrible, but it's at it's best when it focuses mostly on human emotion and philosophy. Unfortunately, it's about seven chapters in when most of the mechanics are finally introduced and the plot begins to really shine. And by then, you're three quarters of the way done. I do recommend this for any JRPG fan, but maybe buy used or wait for a sale. Worth playing, but not worth sixty dollars to play.
Also, some of the Blade designs are way too horny. A completely naked woman with hooves? A military girl with jacket sleeves and a thong? Come on...