Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Pokemon Elevated

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an Action RPG developed by Monolithsoft and published by Nintendo. It was released in December 2017 as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. MSRB is $60.

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It’s a classic conundrum when making video games. After a masterpiece like the first Xenoblade Chronicles, how would Monolithsoft follow it up?

If they kept things the same with only minor tweaks, they’d risk going stagnant and uncreative. If they continue experimenting, the next game would stand on its own, but they’d risk alienating the fans the first had already gained.

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Ahhh, I just love the smell of Open World JRPG in the morning…

In the end, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 maintains a good balance between these two extremes – it retains the open-world exploration and real-time RPG combat of the first game; however, the story’s tone and additional gameplay mechanics make it feel like a bigger departure than your typical sequel. Xenoblade fans feel very divided about this game, and there’s constant debate over which one is better.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 begins with our protagonist, Rex, making a living as a salvager (aka treasure hunter) in the cloud sea. He lives on the back of a small Titan he’s known ever since childhood. After accepting a shady salvaging job, Rex finds himself in possession of the Aegis, one of the strongest weapons in existence. Only instead of the sword having vague magical properties and “a mind of its own” like the first game’s Monado, the Aegis is actually a girl. Like a real girl. With fire elemental powers.2020062220325600-659B13F48903294AE2B3FA4F12DA9898

Here’s where we get to Xenoblade 2’s big new mechanic: Blades. Blades are living weapons that begin life as inert crystals until a person resonates with it. Once that happens, the two form a special bond and the human becomes their “Driver”. If the Driver dies, the Blade returns to its crystal until someone else comes along it gets a new Driver, kind of like a genie in a bottle. Its memories of its previous life are wiped clean. Blade can tap into the ether (magic) of the world using an elemental affinity as well as an elemental weakness. 

Basically, Blades are Pokemon with human sentience, free will, and immortality.

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And that opens up a lot of questions, some of which made me uncomfortable. But that’s why Tetsuya Takahashi’s stories are so good — they deliver fresh ideas, and then give you moral and existential dilemmas about what those ideas mean. The ideas themselves are interesting, but it’s how these characters come to terms with these ideas that makes the story truly eye-opening. Some Drivers view Blades as their servants, others see them as their partners. And that leaves the Blades in a rough spot. Why were Blades created this way? What use is building a relationship with your Driver if they’re going to die one day and your memories will be wiped? How do you cope with that kind of existence? As a human, is it more moral to never bond with a Blade? If you don’t, though, your country might get invaded by another nation bent on living on your Titan.

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That’s not a mountain – that’s actually the neck of a massive creature. Everything lives on the backs of massive Titans.

That’s the other story wrinkle: this time there are not just two Titans, but several, all living atop a sea of clouds with the World Tree at the center. But the Titans are dying off. Land mass is getting smaller with every Titan that passes away, and the nations are on the brink of an all-out war over what’s left. The Aegis, who calls herself Pyra, asks Rex to escort her to the top of the World Tree, where she can petition the Architect to right the wrongs of the world.

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This game never ceases to give you beautiful landscapes to take in.

This kind of complex world building and philosophical musing are why I love Takahashi’s work in the first place. I’m pulled into this strange, bizarre place where I can look up over a field and see Gormott’s towering neck, or wander around the craggy badlands of Mor Ardain’s shoulder. I look at my Blades and wonder what it must be like to be an immortal who is cursed to loose their memory with the loss of each Driver. And each chapter in the story gives me new takes on the idea that I didn’t consider before. In terms of core concept, I believe Takahashi surpassed the original Xenoblade Chronicles.

However, while the world pulled me in, other aspects of the plot and characters often pushed me away.2020071215205900-659B13F48903294AE2B3FA4F12DA9898

Let’s start with Rex. He’s an impulsive anime protagnoist that’s way in over his head, and yet he’s so perplexingly optimistic about… everything. While Shulk from the first game had a desire for revenge and doubts about his cause, Rex just barrels in first and asks questions later. It’s this Pollyanna attitude that grated against me for so much of the game. About two-thirds of the way in, though, he begins to have some satisfying character development. He even has a heart-wrenching decision to make at the ending. But for as much ground as he makes, he never quite reaches the depth of thought that I appreciated in Shulk.

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Next is Pyra. And with that, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: the main reason why Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a tarnished reputation is the character designs. Pyra, along with several other Blades, have oddly tight / revealing clothing and ridiculous body proportions. Your first impression, based on just looks, would be that this is an “anime game” appealing to lonely, smelly teenage boys.

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The fact that Alrest’s most powerful Blade wears such a strange outfit is a hard sell for me.

It’s not like this is unheard of in JRPGs. Many of them have a “fanservice” character – Manuela in Fire Emblem Three Houses, Judith from Tales of Vesperia, Sharla in the first Xenoblade Chronicles, among many others. Normally you can just roll your eyes and move on, but Pyra and the other Blades are so prevalent that it starts distracting from the story. It’s like a scientist trying to deliver a lecture in a tutu. Pyra is a kind character who harbors a lot of secrets. But those heartfelt conversations loose some of their impact when the camera pans over her. It’s not enough to be a deal breaker, but it does get annoying.

Sadly, because those outfits are more front-and-center than in most other games, many people dismiss Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as a “weeb waifu collect-a-thon.” It’s a shame, because underneath that surface are rich story themes. And yet the female fantasy “armor” give this game a terrible reputation.

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Nia gets to ride around on a giant white tiger. What’s not to love?

Let’s move on to Nia. Nia is tough, she always has shade to throw, and she has a low tolerance for bullcrap. Near the halfway point Nia begins confronting her past, and this pulled me in hard. The beginning of her arc lifted me up high, only to drop me by the end. After the arc completes Nia gets a costume change annnnnd… it’s another dumb anime girl outfit.

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On paper, Tora is an interesting character – the only Driver who ever made an artificial Blade, with family issues and some tender moments with Rex. It almost redeems his maid fetish.

The other supporting characters are a mixed bag. Tora is mostly comic relief that misses more jokes than he lands, but he also has his serious moments that land rather well. I actually came around to him by the end. Morag is a powerful, level-headed captain who buries most of her true feelings. I like her the most, but she also develops the least. Zeke is better comic relief than Tora, though he still has his flops. Jin is an aloof and intimidating antagonist who has the secrets you crave to know. The plot goes through a lot of convolutions with these characters, some of them hit the mark, and others strayed. I felt a back-and-forth where sometimes I gripped my controller, and other times I shook my head and sighed.

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As cluttered as this battle UI is, it’s actually better than the original’s. The combat is really just this complicated. I definitely used a guide to help me understand parts of it.

The final divisive part of this game is the combat shift. The overall foundation is the same as the first Xenoblade – attack using arts, build up combos, and defend from enemy attacks on the fly. With the addition of Blades, each party member is less unique in their approach to battle (with the exception of Tora’s Blade, Poppi). In addition to the basic combos such as Break and Topple, there are now elemental Blade combos to manage in real time. Use the elemental specials in just the right order and you get an impressive final special attack. Put those specials in just the right order and you can get insane amounts of damage during a Chain Attack.

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Combat’s easy – you just gotta manage Driver Combos, Blade Elemental Combos, Fusion Combos, Aggro, Arts, Healing, Chain Attack Elemental Bursts… Once you learn it though, you feel like a master tactician.

You got all that? That’s okay, I didn’t either at first. There’s less emphasis on positioning and movement than in the first game. Instead the focus is on timing your arts just right, and planning what elements you’ll chain together. Battle has a different ebb and flow to it. At first it’ll feel quite slow. But the more you invest in learning the combat, the faster and more rewarding it gets. By the end of the game I was pulling off insanely fun stunts. It felt like I was breaking the system. So although it was confusing at first, by the end it was just as fun, if not more fun, than the first game’s combat.2020071406422700-659B13F48903294AE2B3FA4F12DA9898

In addition, there are several systems for building your team. You have the Blade affinity chart, where abilities unlock once you meet specific conditions. This becomes an unofficial source for side quests. Then you can level up weapon arts, equip accessories, equip core chips, use pouch items, and fill out a Driver’s affinity chart. I highly recommend looking up a guide to help with this, as utilizing everything the combat offers is the key to enjoying this system.2020071005114400-659B13F48903294AE2B3FA4F12DA9898

Poppi has an entirely separate customizing system called Poppiswap. You have to play a minigame called Tiger! Tiger! to earn special currency for unlocking weapons and improving skills. The minigame invokes the old-school arcade experience, with the clunky controls and everything. It’s a lot like Dig Dug, only you’re diving for treasure. At first I hated Tiger! Tiger!, but once I learned how it worked, I started to enjoy it. It was a fun distraction to go back to every once in a while.2020071020442500-659B13F48903294AE2B3FA4F12DA9898

The Blade collecting mechanic is done by bonding with core crystals, which happens entirely by luck. It’s a gatchapon minigame, though at least there are no microtransactions. Common Blades work fine for the beginning of the game, but it’s the Rare Blades that you really want. They have unique designs, powerful moves, and even their own side quests and cutscenes. You get most of the Blades that you really need in the story, but it’s worth your time to try and get at least a few more rare ones. They will even come with their own special sidequests and cutscenes. 

There’s also a salvaging minigame, where Rex can fish out treasure from the cloud sea, including money, items, and core crystals. It’s another fun distraction from the main gameplay loop.

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I mean, he’s not exactly wrong…

There are also hidden cutscenes you can unlock at certain vistas called Heart-to-hearts, which embellish the characters a bit more. Some of these don’t accomplish anything, but others ended up being my favorite moments with these characters.

The side quests in this game are numerous. If  you want to truly make the most out of this game and not need to level grind, I suggest doing a good number of them. The good thing about this is that most of these side quests have mini-stories attached to each one, making them more than mindless fetching assignments.

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Basically Merc Missions are what you do with your Common Blades to help mitigate level grinding.

Then there are Merc Missions, where you can send your Blades not used for combat out into the world to get exp and money passively. Not to mention the massive amount of side quests, collectibles, and hidden areas… Xenoblade 2 is just massive. If anyone has said they’ve 100% completed this game, they’re lying.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 gives you a beautiful new scene around almost every corner. From the forests of Uraya to the ruins of Tantal, I was amazed at each new locale. Monolithsoft remain the masters of designing open worlds. As I walk across these grand landscapes I can’t help but think that this is what I wish Pokemon would be. I enjoyed Sword and Shield, but the routes were hallways with pretty scenery. The wild area was fun to explore, but the design felt bland and limited. I wish Game Freak would just ask Monolithsoft to design the next Pokemon region. Can you imagine what that would look like? Combine Monolistsoft’s world design and Game Freak’s creature/character design and you’d have the perfect-looking JRPG.

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While I may not like the character designs, I find Xenoblade 2’s general art direction to be clean and sleek, and the soundtrack is once again emotional and grand. I’ve already listened to Uraya’s main theme several times on repeat.

I certainly have my criticisms for Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s a flawed gem. It’s not quite the masterpiece its predecessor was. But it’s nevertheless a grand adventure with new questions to give me existential dread about. It has satisfying combat, gorgeous environments to explore, and several smaller games to distract you. I find myself forgiving many of its faults. It is a beautiful, massive, 80+ hour adventure, and it was worth every minute in the end.

Now let’s get that Xenoblade Chronicles X port going, Monolithsoft, so that we can have the complete series on the Switch!

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