It’s been a phenomenal year for the Nintendo Switch, and one which even Nintendo themselves probably couldn’t have hoped for. After the disappointment of the Wii U, the Japanese console maker needed to come out swinging, and besides making the unique hybrid machine actually work, it’s been the games that have really set the Switch’s first year off. While Super Mario Odyssey may be bundled in with most of the Switch’s under Christmas trees the world over, for RPG fans the final big launch of the year is coming on 1st December.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the sequel to one of the most beloved RPGs of the past decade, which came out on the Wii, while its spiritual successor Xenoblade Chronicles X was one of the Wii U’s highlights, pushing the system to its limit. Chronicles 2 retains a number of its predecessor’s characteristics, though this is an all-new story set in the world of Alrest, a land covered by the Cloud Sea where civilisations exist upon the back of giant creatures known as Titans.
At the dawn of creation everyone lived upon the World Tree, atop which is the paradise known as Elysium. However, the Divine Architect cast them out into the world, only to take pity on them just as it looked as though life would die out. Coming to the rescue were the gigantic Titans, but after many thousands of years those Titans are dying out and the future is in jeopardy once more.
You start your adventure meeting the main protagonist Rex, and his Titan transport/home, the gravelly-voiced Gramps. Rex travels Alrest as a salvager, hauling up treasure from the ocean, or at least, attempting to. Soon enough Rex is hired for a special mission by a team of Drivers, and it’s on the ancient ship that they dredge up from the deeps that the story really begins. Even at this early stage in the game, few recent RPGs have caught my attention in the way that Chronicles 2 has, and while the British regional accents used for the localisation may have caused some concern in the trailers, they really do fit and add a flavour that few games have, barring Ni No Kuni and, well, the original Xenoblade Chronicles.
One of the most controversial changes in the run-up to launch has been to the battle system, having moved away from that of the original Chronicles and its successor X. However, in practice it’s more of a streamlining than an overhaul. Selecting an enemy still sees you auto-attack, though now your strikes are set in groups of three, with the final blow being more powerful. Each strike powers up your Arts – special moves which are now mapped to the controller’s face buttons.
It still retains the MMO feel that combat had in previous games, albeit with fewer immediate options. It’s going to mean some tough choices later on as well, as you decide whether to continue upgrading a well-used Art or replacing it for a brand new one, as you can only have three active at any one time. One of the key elements to the battle system is the relationship between a Blade and their Driver, where the symbiosis between two characters allows the use of more powerful moves. Drivers and Blades are connected by an Affinity line, which will glow golden when the pair are in harmony, providing a much needed boost to movement speed and your Arts’ recharge speed.
This relationship gains access to your Special, an almighty attack that dwarfs the power of your others, and which you charge by attacking with Arts. These can be powered up to three levels, and you can speed things along by perfectly timing your Art use when an auto-attack hits home. To make the most of it, you’ll need to be prepared for QTE prompts which can multiply your chances of causing even more damage.
If you land your Special, a new gauge appears which shows your window of opportunity for following it up with a Blade Combo, where another party member can also wade in. Any worries that the combat had been dumbed down from the previous games should be firmly allayed, though it initially feels a touch more static than in previous games, as moving your character resets your auto-attack combo. It means you have to pay more attention to each and every blow and time your Arts and specials at just the right time, all the while keeping an eye on your health and the rest of your party. It’s still just as chaotic as in the earlier games.
The levelling up system is interesting in that you don’t just advance through levels as you acquire XP in battle. Instead you can rest in order to apply bonus increases to your character. As you level up you also learn new Arts which can then be levelled up by using Weapon Points that you accrue in battle, while Skill Points unlock passive skills along the way. It certainly looks as though it’ll give a different flavour to grinding through battles, but at this early stage I do wonder if it will become tiresome having to find somewhere to rest each time you’re ready to level your character.
The early locations in the game look fantastic, with views stretching out from expansive plains all the way to the the head of the Titan in the distance. All of that grandeur seems to have come at a cost though, and performance has been variable in our early play time. There’s no real hard and fast rule for where the drops occur, but the more packed the screen is and the more complicated the visuals, the more likely it is for the frame rate to suffer. Hopefully this is something that is still being worked on in the couple of weeks left before the game releases, especially as the world itself is brilliantly put together.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has all the potential to be one of the best RPGs this year, with a fun combat system, an interesting and beautiful world, and characters that are relatable and likeable. On early impressions there are few games that can boast the same level of humour, heart and hope on display here. Fortunately, Switch owners also don’t have long to wait to experience it for themselves.