There is something incredibly soul-soothing and mythical about the image of floating islands in the clouds. Whether it’s the pristine and otherworldly nature of the scenery or the immediate question of, “How is any of this even possible?” we couldn’t help but be intrigued from our very first glimpse of Xenoblade 2’s fantastical, floating worlds.
It helps, of course, that this spectacular setting is completely different to anything else we’ve seen in the long-running RPG series. For the uninitiated, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is actually the eighth game in the beloved Xeno franchise. Originally starting life with Xenogears on the PS1, the team returned to their cult-hit series after a four-year absence with the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles. This 2010 adventure left an immediate impact on the JRPG genre, thanks to its lovable characters, complex battle system, and the finely-crafted world.
After a short spiritual successor stop in Xenoblade Chronicles X, the developer has now finally returned to the Chronicles world. Monolith Soft is promising players another unforgettable adventure, but does this ambitious RPG sequel live up to its alluring setting?
Dive Into the Cloud Sea
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 opens by showing players a glimpse into the simple life of Rex and his floating titan caretaker, Azurda, as they salvage treasure submerged within the cloud sea of Alrest. Despite his skill as a salvager, Rex dreams of becoming a Driver. Drivers are mercenary soldiers that bond with Blades, artificial lifeforms that provide various combat and support roles. When Rex accepts a job to assist a group of powerful Drivers looking to salvage valuable treasure, he inadvertently bonds with Pyra – a legendary Blade known throughout history as the Aegis. By becoming a Driver of the Alrest’s most coveted Blade, Rex is thrust into the middle of a global conflict that will determine the fate of the whole world.
Over the course of his adventure, Rex joins forces with a ragtag group of Drivers who become enamored by his endless optimism. The party characters of Xenoblade 2 each bring their own unique aspirations, fears, and quirks into the mix, and the long journey is made enjoyable by their company. Between the antics of Tora and his artificial Blade Poppi α, the no-nonsense Mòrag and her blade Brighid, or the slapstick off-the-wall insanity of Zeke and his Blade Pandoria, every cutscene and interaction can tap into a wide range of emotions. Not only do party interactions provide a lot of the depth, the relationship between Drivers and Blades is also explored with a surprising amount of complexity.
The main story of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 follows Rex, Pyra, and the gang as they attempt to reach Elysium, which is considered to be the ultimate paradise of humanity and the source of all life itself. The world of Alrest is in the middle of a habitation crisis: the Titans that hold all life are beginning to die and sink into the cloud sea. Tensions begin to mount between nation states as they fight to keep their civilizations afloat. The power of Pyra as the Aegis is a vested interest for many powerful groups who wish to use that power for themselves.
The main driver of the plot centers around events in Alrest that occurred hundreds of years ago, during a pivotal conflict known as the Aegis War. The party tangles with this mystery of years ago, slowing finding answers as they travel the world. Learning more about Pyra’s past is the key to making the plot of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 an engaging one.
The Driver and Blade relationship provides an interesting storyline dynamic within Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as well. Blades are artificial lifeforms but they feel emotions, have their own desires and exist alongside humanity as opposed to being mere tools. There are several scenes that touch on the unique love between Drivers and Blades, and sometimes scenes will show the struggles of Blades wishing to be understood. When a Blade’s Driver dies, they return to their Core Crystal. After some time, they can reawaken and pair with a new Driver, but all of their previous memories are lost. The nature of being is a complex topic and one that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 handles with a surprising amount of narrative weight.
A World From Horizon to Horizon
The visual aesthetic of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is striking. The world of Alrest is embedded within an endless sea of clouds. Pockets of civilization exist as nation states on the bodies of colossal Titans. These Titans are living beings and contain their own unique climates and ecosystems. Towns and cities might be found in valleys on a Titan’s stomach or wedged in the spine of a Titan’s back.
The Titans are massive open-world areas that contain a multitude of lakes and rivers, cliffs and ridges, and mazes of trees and vegetation. The first Titan players explore, Gormott, is a lush wilderness of bright green plains and towering trees, filled with scalable roots, branches, and hollows. The game provides a forgiving checkpoint and fast-travel system, which allows players to explore to their heart’s content and not fear mistiming a jump that might suck them into the cloud sea.
The sheer amount of detail of these open-world environments is enchanting and can lead to hours spent poking around every nook-and-cranny for secrets. It’s easy for time to disappear when fighting roaming monsters, opening hidden treasure chests and clearing away environmental obstacles with your Blade abilities. Some environments even change depending on the level of the cloud sea. Low tides can allow players to crawl into otherwise covered areas, and high tides can allow players to swim to once unreachable islands. Even after 80 hours of spent with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I was still stumbling into brand new areas that I had completely missed. The allure of finding missed secrets has the potential to keep players invested, long after clearing the main story.
Every Titan offers a refreshing change of pace from the one before, thanks to the varying climates and unique geography. The beauty of the Leftherian Archipelago stole the show for me, with small serene residential towns nestled on the top of a school of Titan jellyfish. The mixture of civilization within the untamed wilderness on the backs of these titanic creatures is mesmerizing.
However, the wonder of exploring the game’s world can be hindered by an unreliable compass and navigational system. Questlines will have pins that attach themselves to a directional compass and to the world map, but the intense verticality and intricate nature of the environments can get players lost easily. I often found myself retracing my steps, again and again, trying to find that elusive path to my destination. Some quests took an hour or more of floundering around until I managed to reach them. Despite that lost time, I never felt frustrated; the nature around me was always awe-inspiring.
Combat and Gameplay
Like the previous games, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 use a real-time battle system based around auto-attacks and manually triggered skills and spells. The party consists of three characters and their Blades. Each character’s class is determined by their equipped Blade. Blades consist of three primary classes: Tank (A Tank is a powerful defensive character that attracts the enemy’s attention and damage), Attacker, and Healer. The philosophy of combat is reminiscent of massively multiplayer online games with an agro system and the party members focusing on one role at a time. Any of the party members can be controlled in battle, so players have the option of playing whatever class they are most comfortable with.
Each Blade has three unique Arts and a Special Move. Executing Arts, in turn, will fill up the Special Gauge. These Specials deliver a powerful elemental attack and feature four levels of intensity depending on how much they are charged. Players can combine Specials between different characters to perform Driver Combos for massive damage.
The combat of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the definition of “easy to understand, difficult to master.” Thankfully, the game does a noble job of slowly introducing new combat systems over time so you can gradually introduce new strategies and not feel lost from the get-go. For example, characters are limited to one Blade early on before they are able to equip more. There are tutorials that explain gameplay systems in real time, but they spread these out instead of cramming your head with too much information at once. Battles can be won using simplistic attack-and-skills strategies or by chaining together specific Driver Combo attacks that prey on the elemental weaknesses of foes. The more you play, the more you slowly begin to piece together every viable battle strategy and learn to execute them to perfection.
A helpful element outside of the combat system is the use of Bonus EXP. Whenever the party rests at an inn, they have the choice to use Bonus experience points to level their characters further outside of combat. This system gives players the freedom to grind (or not grind) to their hearts’ content.
As expected with an open world game, prepare to find a dizzying amount of side-quests. Rex and his crew are as altruistic as they come, and they often volunteer to help the needy without a second guess. A majority of the questlines involve obtaining items, finding characters, or slaying monsters. Later on, Rex is also able to send Blades on off-screen Merc Missions that result in experience and items.
An Army of Blades
Blades are the backbone of combat and are defined by rarity, combat role, weapon type, and element. Blades can be obtained by resonating with Core Crystals – which themselves are ranked in rarity. Most of the common Blades you pair look like grey humanoid robots or animals and are easy to forget. The rarest of the Blades, on the other hand, are fleshed out with unique designs, voices, and growth charts. Not only that, but Rare Blades also appear in voiced cutscenes and can feature unique questlines! They will be your most desired possessions. The long, drawn-out animation of a character resonating with a new Core Crystal will make you beg for a Rare Blade more times than you can count — and your whole day will be made every time you obtain one.
Most Blades can be paired with any character, but some can only be paired with a particular character. Each Blade has their own favorite items and their own ability charts that unlock new combat or field abilities. Characters can be given Pouch items that provide different in-battle benefits. A lot of your time will be spent managing your blades and fine-tuning a squad for each of your characters. Blades can be traded to different characters as well, so there are truly limitless options. Managing every Blade can become tedious, but it never reaches an overwhelming level.
Is Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Good?
Extremely. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that will resonate with you deeply if you have a wanderer’s heart and the patience to understand the game’s many intricacies. The main storyline is an epic tale with the power of love and friendship at its core. Rex and company provide hours upon hours of smiles and laughs, and the depth of the game’s systems result in the player feeling like they are truly making an impact on the world of Alrest.
There is more than enough to keep any adventurer at bay here. Even after nearly a hundred hours, I am still itching to go back and meet new Blades and uncover hidden treasure. Every adventure, big and small, is amplified by the astounding world that Monolith Soft has forged. For fans of JRPGs and open-world games, be sure not to miss out on this one.