I want to be real. Things haven’t felt right for a while now. This past year and a half has been hard on all of us. I want to talk about this game, not because it’s taken 150+ hours of my life to complete, but because every second I had the biggest, stupidest smile on my face. It’s super weeby, and may not be for everyone, but I think Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is special.
Spoiler warning: Some gameplay spoilers (locations, boss fights, optional characters, etc.) and mild story spoilers for the first 5 hours of the game. It’s not much, don’t worry about it
Tetsuya Takahashi, founder of Monolith Soft and creator of the Xeno series, has always worked with the cards stacked against him. All of his games, including the near-perfect Xenoblade Chronicles, were ambitious commercial flops. In 2017, Monolith was to make a new RPG showing off the new Nintendo Switch. Takahashi’s vision: a world of continent-sized titans floating high in the ether, themes of religion, war, and environmental calamity, and a boy-meets-girl love story tying it all together.
Of course, there was a problem. The team had been cut to just 40 people – the rest were working on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Even worse, they only had two years to finish it. This was Monolith’s Born to Run, their last desperate swing for a hit that could make or break their careers. Despite the odds, they absolutely succeeded.
Chapter 1: Encounters
We open on a clear blue sky, hanging over an endless sea of clouds. This is Alrest, a world where the only land is on the backs of titans, and nations are constantly at the brink of war over dwindling resources. We go deeper and darker into the ocean, until we meet a young salvager named Rex.
Rex is a good boy Shonen hero, making a living digging for buried treasure while slumming it on the back of his adoptive grandpa dragon. He lands a job scouring the husk of an ancient warship, and there he finds the Aegis, a legendary living weapon who manifests as a young woman named Pyra. She makes Rex an offer: become her wielder, or Driver, and take her to Elysium, a utopia atop the World Tree. It’s a long, hard journey, not least because there’s a gang of rogue Drivers trying to destroy the Aegis, but Rex will to go through all of it for Pyra’s dream of a better world.
Of course, this is a Xeno game, so it gets much more complicated. Alrest is full of living weapons like Pyra, known as Blades, but their existence is tied their Drivers. If their Driver dies, they turn into crystal and lose all memory of their previous life. They have tremendous power, but no real freedom. They struggle with the weight of their own existence, needing a purpose in life beyond mere tools of war. And Pyra herself has another side to her: Mythra, the original version of the Aegis who created and became Pyra in order to seal off her own destructive power.
Yes, at its core, this is a save-the-world JRPG story full of over-the-top action and gratuitous fanservice. But anime has always put unique spins on familiar tropes, and Xenoblade 2 stands out with its shockingly great character writing. Rex is technically the protagonist, but it’s really Pyra/Mythra’s story. Their personalities are different (Pyra’s sweet and a bit shy, while Mythra is more of a tsundere), but they both share the same struggles with guilt, loss, identity, and free will, in a world that is constantly trying to decide their fates for them.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. My favorite is Nia, the obligatory sassy catgirl who low-key has the best character arc in the game. The tank of the party is Tora, an otaku inventor of the cute/annoying Nopon people, and his moe sentient robot Poppi. Zeke is a total chuuni and kind of an idiot, but his hilariously bad luck makes him charming in a silly way. And Mòrag is an absolute beast of a woman, able to match Pyra and Rex blade-for-blade while spouting badass one-liners in a thick Scottish brogue.
These characters all fall into traditional anime archetypes, but their nuanced backstories and character development make them much more memorable. And even if you don’t grow to love them like I did, you’ll at least remember their striking designs, by a slew of all-star guest artists including Final Fantasy/Kingdom Hearts designer Tetsuya Nomura. Xenoblade 2 is a throwback to the PS2 era of JRPGs, and its story and characters echo those classics while still feeling unique and new.
Chapter 2: Our Own War
As soon as Pyra and Rex bond, they run into conflict. Rex’s former partners, Jin and Malos, have turned traitor and want to take the legendary Blade for themselves. Our heroes charge screaming into battle, but the young salvager is no match for Malos’ dark powers. They put all of Pyra’s power into one desperate attack, only to be stopped by, of all things… a tutorial?!
Unfortunately, as amazing as Xenoblade 2 is, it doesn’t make the best first impression. Even RPG enthusiasts might struggle early on, and it’s mostly because the tutorials are awful. They show up at the worst times, you can’t review them after they’re gone, and they’re often confusingly worded. Sure, no one likes it when games tell you how to do everything, but giving bad or inadequate information is even more frustrating.
Because, hoo boy. I know JRPGs can be a lot, but the combat in Xenoblade 2 is a lot a lot. Like the first game, it runs on an MMO-style system: everything happens in real time, and you have to strategically manage enemy aggro while carefully timing your special attacks. But almost everything inflicts some kind of status effect, with many of them needing to be chained together in a combo to work most effectively. Drivers have a stagger combo (Break-Topple-Launch-Smash), but they can also equip up to three elemental Blades with their own weapons and magic combos. If you pull off a Driver and Blade combo at the same time, the effects all multiply exponentially, knocking even huge bosses down before they can fight back.
The kicker is that enemies have a ton of health, love to call in backup, and can give you all sorts of nasty status effects. This, combined with a cluttered interface, can make battles feel chaotic and overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. Oh yeah, and did I mention that there are skill trees for every Driver and Blade, and the Blade affinity charts look like… this?
Even after completing the first Xenoblade, I struggled with 2’s combat system for a while. My gaming skills are… mediocre at best. But after many hours and a lot of Googling, it clicked. I nailed flashy, high-damage combos. I found all the items I needed to min-max my party. (Narcipear Jelly is sold in the first town, and it’s hella OP.) I did a bunch of side quests, grinded out my skill trees, and soon I was dealing 100K+ damage like it was nothing. Xenoblade 2’s combat has a steep learning curve, but the payoff is so satisfying. Those special moves are pure eye candy, in more ways than one…
Customizing your party is key to any great RPG, and Xenoblade 2 has a ton of freedom with the way Blades and Drivers interact. Each party member can equip up to three Blades, which act as weapons, magic, and classes all rolled into one. You can switch between Blades on the fly during combat, meaning you can potentially be an attacker, tank, or healer all at once – or specialize in one or two classes for greater efficiency. Poppi, being an artificial Blade, can have almost any ability in the game. You have to grind her upgrade materials in a minigame called Tiger! Tiger!, which is actually pretty fun for how silly it is. Why is it the key to having overpowered characters in RPGs is always from doing random side events like playing arcade games or racing chickens?
However, there is one annoying element, acquiring non-story blades is done through a gacha system. No, there’s no microtransactions to worry about (thank goodness), and you’re bound to unlock enough rare Blades eventually, but it is still luck-based. Especially early on, you’re going to pull a lot of generic and (mostly) useless Common Blades. You can beat the main story with a basic party easily, but many sidequests are tied to getting a specific Blade and grinding out their skill trees. Major props to anyone who has 100% completed this game. I still haven’t gotten the best Blade, KOS-MOS…
Also, like, I don’t mind a little fanservice, but some of these designs are approaching Kill la Kill jiggle physics. Not all of them are bad, but, uh… what’s going on with Dahlia over here?
Despite these minor gripes, Xenoblade 2’s gameplay is an exciting twist on the traditional JRPG formula. The combat is fast-paced, while still offering a ton of strategy. Boss fights, especially the souped-up unique monsters scattered throughout the overworld, are always epic and challenging. Whether you’re a newbie or genre veteran, Xenoblade has got you covered. Just make sure you turn the voice clips down during combat. The English dub is kinda terrible in a good way, but all the screaming will make your ears bleed.
Chapter 3: World Tree
The battle with Malos is long and grueling. Even with the Aegis’ power, Rex isn’t strong enough to deliver the finishing blow. The gang escapes on Gramp’s back, but a brutal storm causes them to crash-land on the Gormotti Titan. And after a terse reunion, Xenoblade 2 gets its Jurassic Park moment. Rex gazes out into the horizon, a lush, endless green field full of monsters (including dinosaurs) the size of skyscrapers. The orchestra builds into an explosive crescendo, as if to say, this is it. This is where the adventure begins.
If there’s one thing that makes Xenoblade great, that makes all the grinding worth it, it’s this. These games have some of the most creative and awe-inspiring world design of any piece of sci-fi/fantasy I’ve ever seen.
Yes, this is an early Switch title, and sometimes Monolith’s ideas are too big for that tiny console. There are some weird/hilarious graphical glitches, like the camera getting stuck and zooming in on your Blade’s butt during their special attack animation. The resolution dips in handheld mode, but a game like this is best enjoyed on the TV anyways. But specs aside, the art and sound design of each of Xenoblade 2’s varied biomes is stunning. Each Titan is its own open world, with breathtaking landscapes and a rich history lying beneath.
The Titans live up to their name. Each one is enormous, with something new always beyond the horizon. It’s not completely connected, as you have to fast travel from one major area to the next, but you can still get lost for hours in each location. The eerily beautiful swamps inside the belly of Uraya, the industrial wastes on the back of Mor Ardain, the islands of Leftheria floating high above a sea of clouds… they’re all unique, memorable, and a sight to behold. Some of my favorite moments were spent wandering around, taking in the sights and sounds, and getting giddy whenever I discovered a secret area full of goodies and a breathtaking view. Pyra, time for a selfie!
To be fair, I have one technical gripe with exploring this monolithic (heh) world. Many quests and treasure troves are locked behind Field Skills: non-combat abilities you level up on your Blades. Pyra’s Fire Mastery can melt icebergs blocking your path, while Poppi’s Leaping will take you to new heights. It’s a cool concept, but the requirements are often high, and you can only use Field Skills from Blades in your active party. Either you’ll have to shuffle through all your Blades in the menu, or you just won’t have the right skills and have to come back later. At least these obstacles are marked on the map so you won’t forget them, but it still adds some unnecessary bloat to an already massive adventure.
When you’ve had your fill of exploring and combat, it’s always nice to chill out and go shopping in Alrest’s bustling villas. Each city is wide and diverse, with their own distinct cultures and traditions. Do you remember Tarrey Town in Breath of the Wild, where you built up a ghost town into a prospering village? Xenoblade 2 does that in every city, so even the sidequests feel meaningful. You can even buy out all the shops, because everyone likes Monopoly. Right?
I’ve gushed about this game long enough, but I had to save the best for last. Gaming law dictates that every great JRPG must have an equally bangin’ soundtrack, and Xenoblade 2’s music is some of the best I’ve heard… ever, really. An all-star lineup of composers work their magic here, including Chrono Trigger’s Yasunori Mitsuda and Final Fantasy composer/vocalist Manami Kiyota. There are over 100 tracks in total, each with a different genre and vibe. I could dedicate a whole other post to this OST, but I’ll just play the hits for now.
There are so many incredible overworld themes in this game, but my favorite by far is for Mor Ardain. The bright, jazzy horn section and fiery electric guitar make this track sound so suave and badass. You could totally sample this into a sick old-school hip-hop track!
Speaking of guitar, the battle themes are all metal AF. The fan favorite is “You Will Recall Our Names”, the unique monster music that is almost as great as Xenoblade 1‘s “You Will Know Our Names”. But I actually prefer “Driver VS”, which combines rock, electronica, and a soaring string section. Those are like, my three favorite things, so of course I love this one.
While these tunes show off the composers’ incredible chops, I actually prefer the more understated tracks. Xenoblade‘s music changes depending on the time of day, giving each new area a unique ambiance. Torigoth has one of the most joyous town themes in any RPG I’ve heard, with a Celtic-inspired melody that perfectly fits the rustic atmosphere:
But at night, it turns into a peaceful acoustic lullaby. It’s perfect for winding down, enjoying Pyra’s home cooking, and sitting under the stars…
The main theme, “Elysium”, makes me want to cry every time I hear it. It sounds melancholy, ancient, lonely, longing for another world that may not even exist… somehow, in just a few notes, it captures the essense of this story perfectly. There are several versions that play at turning points in the adventure, but my favorite is the one that plays near the beginning. As Rex tells Nia of his dream to reach the top of the World Tree, the piano and string section give his words more meaning and gravitas than his poor, goofy over-the-top voice actor ever could.
Epilogue: And Thus, Boy Met Girl
Xenoblade 2 is a masterpiece, but it’s not without its issues. It’s got so much thought and creativity put into it, but there are some frustrating design choices that could have been fixed if Monolith had more time and resources. Its gameplay is deep and complex, but does a bad job explaining itself to the player. It’s got a fantastic story that’s heartfelt, personal, and epic all at once, but it also has a scene where Rex and Pyra find out their new Digimon friend has a maid fetish.
Yes, this game has problems, but I love it anyway. I love it so much that, after barreling through dozens of hours into the endgame, I took a break right before the final boss because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet. I still love it now, as I’m slowly working my way through the DLC prequel chapter Torna. I love nearly everything about Xenoblade Chronicles 2: the characters, the fantastical world, the music, and of course, the story.
In the end, I think stories are what keep us going through the hardest times. They make us laugh, cry, forget about the troubles of the world for a little while, or help us remember the few precious things that make it beautiful. Stories have kept us together, ever since we were huddled together in animal skins, singing songs by the campfire. And while too much escapism can be unhealthy, it’s those stories that inspire us to go out and make stories of our own. I hope that some day, I’ll have a story to tell that’s just as good.