Ever since the Switch was announced, there's been one game we've been looking forward to more than anything else - Xenoblade Chronicles 2. With an incredible looking world, a fantastic art style, and more than a hint of Dreamcast era role playing classics like Skies of Arcade to it, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a game we couldn't wait to lose ourselves in, as we explored its gorgeous land. But sadly, it seems Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn't quite feel the same way about us.
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The story here is your typically over the top role playing fare. Set in a world where there is no land, everyone lives on the back of humongous beasts known as Titans, which sail the "cloud seas" of the world with entire villages and ecosystems atop their back (seriously - how cool an idea is that?). You play as Rex, a young salvager who makes a living by digging up scrap from the sea, when one day, his life gets turned upside down. Personally chosen for a mission to retrieve a mysterious object, what starts out as an easy enough job soon ends in betrayal, with Rex being killed, and brought back to life by a mysterious woman called Pyra. Lending him a bit of her health crystal thing, the two of them become linked together, and set out on a quest to find the mythical land of Elysium.
What follows is an adventure that's every bit the typical JRPG, with elaborate plot twists, over the top villains, and plenty of spectacular sword fighting cutscenes to keep the story moving. With a stunningly beautiful world to explore, a day/night cycle that affects the enemies you'll face, and a whole host of quests and side quests to complete, this is a game that's absolutely packed to the gunnels with things to do - and a great soundtrack you'll be humming to yourself for hours after you've stopped playing.
Along the way, you'll meet up with a variety of characters, who'll join your team, and lend them your skills. From the rotund and miniscule Tora, who actually becomes your party's "tank", designed to take most of the incoming damage, to the intensely irritating Nia, a girl with cat ears who makes herself useful as a healer, but will have you wanting to mute the game every time she opens her mouth, this is a game with an OK cast, but one that's let down by both the voice acting, and some incredibly repetitive dialogue both during, and after battles. Hearing the same seemingly sincere conversation between Rex and Pyra every few minutes very quickly gets irritating, while Nia's voice acting is so bad, it's amongst the worst we've ever heard in a JRPG - and that's saying something. In honesty, it sounds like it was all recorded without the voice actress ever being able to see the script, or any context, as almost every line gets the intonation completely wrong - something which is an impressive feat in and of itself.
But as any JRPG fan will tell you, easily the single most important part of any role playing game is its battle system -after all, it's in the battles that you'll be spending most of your time. Sadly, though, the battles are also easily Xenoblade Chronicles 2's weakest link - and it's here the brilliance starts to fall apart.
The battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 play out in real time, and rather than having to mash a button, or select "attack", you'll instead automatically attack your nearest enemy as soon as the battle starts, with your input being limited solely to choosing when to chip in with one of your special powers (which the game labels as Arts). In and of itself, that shouldn't be a problem - it's just everything else that's the issue.
For starters, the battles take far too long, as you simply sit back and watch as you and your foes slowly slug it out, and marvel as your health decreases so much faster than your enemy's. When the time does come to use an Art (you have to wait for a little coloured surround to fill up before you can use them), you'll get a bonus if you deploy your Art on the third strike of your auto-attack combo - but of course, with nothing telling you what number strike you're on, and a barely-any-different animation, it ends up literally being a matter of guess work.
But by far the biggest issue here is that the balance is completely and utterly wrong. With a game that's so focused on auto-attacks, you'd think you'd be able to beat at least a bog standard enemy with relative ease - but you'd be wrong. While enemies have their level written in big letters above their head, what level they are actually seems to have very little connection to how tough they'll be to beat in battle, with some enemies of a higher level being easily despatched, yet lower level enemies sometimes toppling you with ease.
More frustratingly, rather than taking place in defined arenas, your conflicts with the wildlife of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 instead take place on a free and open world map, where anyone else can join in at any time. If you have a quest that asks you to attack a level 8 wolf, you may be surprised when a wandering level 81 enemy decides to join the party, and kills you in a single stroke, doing 8000 damage to your 1000 health, but sadly, it soon becomes a depressingly common occurrence.
Wandering the world, going about your business, it's not uncommon to find yourself being swatted by an enemy that's 8x your level, and can kill you in a single hit, or swarmed by a group of foes that are ~2x your level. Annoyingly, it's not usually because you've done anything specifically wrong, either - most of the time, these enemies come towards you, running with such speed that you couldn't have possibly planned or anticipated that they'd basically end up landing on top of you. And so it's a question of a quick death, a mercifully short respawn, and then trying to figure out a way to get across the world map without ending up being beaten into the ground before you've had chance to blink.
And that in itself is easier said than done. Despite its huge, sprawling world, the developers of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 seemingly totally forgot to include a workable map. What you have instead is a practically useless compass at the top of the screen, which shows you the "as the crow flies" direction to your next objective - something that's about as helpful as a sword made of jelly in a world with so many layers, obstacles, huge path blocking branches, and areas swarming with high level monsters. As such, following the compass is almost never a viable option - and instead, you're left trying to simply follow your nose, and hope you luck into the right place.
The problem is, the chances are you won't. With different groups of enemies scattered around the world, you might feel comfortable walking past level 9 enemies if you're on level 11 - but then you'll turn the corner and find a huge field full of level 39s. So you turn around, and try a different way, only to find some level 27 enemies blocking your path. Fine - another detour, and you'll go around a third way, only to get swatted by a level 80+ enemy that's been left patrolling the "easy" areas, seemingly with the express intent and purpose or twatting people who're as lost as you are.
In general, getting around the world is - along with the battles - easily one of the worst things about Xenoblade Chronicles 2, as it's all so stupidly, and pointlessly punishing. After eventually figuring out where we were meant to go, we spent the best part of 15 minutes fighting our way up the root of a tree and into its branches, only to get into a fight with three similar level enemies, which suddenly became a total beat down when two much higher level enemies (who were seemingly just passing by) to randomly join mid fight, leaving us hopelessly outnumbered. After being inevitably killed, we respawned back into the game, only to find ourselves right at the very bottom of the tree, with another 15 minute+ trek ahead of us if we wanted to get back to the top. We did it again, and exactly the same thing happened - another gang attack with another two overpowered enemies joining to decimate us within minutes. In the end, the only way we found to get through was to simply run past, weapons sheathed, and hope they couldn't keep up.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that the battles can be so frustrating, and the incredibly powerful enemies so haphazardly scattered around the map, that it actually discourages you from exploring the game's beautiful world. While most enemies may be of a level you can take, there's always half a dozen enemies of 8x+ your level, and you soon find it's simply not worth taking the risk of even trying to explore. While almost every other role playing game of all time has let you know you're heading the wrong way, because you'll start coming up against tougher enemies, everywhere you turn feels like that in Xenoblade, and so you'll rarely stray from the predetermined quests and side quests - and even then, as we mentioned above, you often find yourself getting one hit killed mid quest by an enemy that shouldn't really be there.
Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if it felt like you actually had any control over the outcome of the battles, but with your input literally being limited to what Arts to use and when, there's very little in the way of strategies, or anything else you can do to try and tip things in your favour. What there is is some bars - a lot of bars - which will fill up as you battle. Do enough auto attacks, and you'll be able to use an Art. Use enough Arts, and you can fire off a special attack, which in turn can be charged to one of three levels.
Literally the only strategy in battles comes from these special attacks, and how you can link them together. After performing your first special, a little tree of icons will appear in the top left, showing you how you can link your moves together - for example, it might suggest you can do a level 1 fire special, followed by a level 2 water, and then a level 3 fire move to pull of a mega special combo, and deal massive damage. The only problem is, you have a pretty strict time limit in which to pull any of this off, and you'll need to rely on your team mates to complete any of the combo chains. And that's easier said than done.
You see, while the game seems to absolutely love its charging bars, it doesn't actually tell you when your friends can use one of their specials, what levels they're charged to, or how close they are to the next level - meaning successfully stringing together one of these combos is more a question of guess work than anything else. If the time comes for you to use your level 2 fire special as the middle of the combo, and you need to follow it up with a level 3 earth attack, you have absolutely no way of knowing how close your team mate is to being able to use said move, which ends up meaning almost every special move you attempt ends up fizzling out before it hits its final level. Worse still, while you can revive a friend who's been knocked down in battle by pressing A, you can't actually revive them if you have a special move charged - instead, you have to waste your special move, and only then, after the elaborate sequence of quick time events (by which point your other team mate's probably been killed too) can you actually bring your buddy back from the dead.
Compounding all this is a bevy of immensely confusing systems, which have seemingly been designed with the sheer intent and purpose of being as obtuse and inaccessible as possible (something which is even more mind boggling when you realise this is a Nintendo game). While you can buy new weapons (or at least, upgrade them), you can also modify your weapons using "aux cores". These crystals can be found around the game world, or earnt in certain quests - but they can't just be equipped as is. One we're particularly interested in, "Damage Heal I" apparently gives you a 25% chance of healing 4% every time you get hit, but in order to equip it, we have to refine it first. Refining is (what else) an overly complex system that requires you to offer up some items to a merchant in exchange for them refining the core. While it tells you what items you'll need, it doesn't give you one jot of information about where you should even begin to look for them. With items usually only being found in specific places in the game's world, even a little bit of a hint would help - but instead, we've spent hours scavenging, and we still don't have that last piece we need.
In all, then, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a real game of contrasts. This is a game that screams potential, with a fantastic soundtrack, a gorgeous world and art style, and a story that's just begging you to explore more - but seemingly, the team spent so long creating the world, they forgot to spend any time on the single most important part of any role playing game - the battles. Role playing games tend to live or die on the strength of their battles, and by putting together such a punishing mix of enemies, and littering the battles with so many awkward and frustrating systems, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that keeps scuppering itself, and that'll frustrate you every bit as much as it amazes.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch