I’d be hard pressed to name any console that’s had a better software line-up in its first year than the Nintendo Switch. Whether it’s been a remarkable new entry in a storied franchise, a fresh IP, or a port of a well-loved classic, Nintendo’s spectacular handheld has delivered on all fronts.
Xenoblade Chronicle 2’s arrival as the final big release of 2017 has some weight of expectation, and the Japanese gaming giant will be hoping for an emphatic full stop to the end of the year. Unbelievably, they’ve succeeded, with a spectacular open world RPG that is a late entrant for game of the year.
Chronicles 2, a pseudo sequel to the beloved original, is set in the world of Alrest, a place populated by huge creatures known as Titans who serve as floating islands upon and within which the citizens of Alrest live. It’s a wonderfully imaginative setting, and the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the living Titans, humanoids and other creatures is at times surprisingly thoughtful. You join main protagonist Rex – a salvager clad throughout in Steampunk diving chaps – as he seeks to return Pyra – an embarrassingly pneumatic living weapon – to Elysium, while nefarious forces are set against you.
It’s perhaps not the most complicated of narrative set-ups, but it is mostly well told, with an array of relatable and likeable characters throughout. The British voiceover work is also largely excellent and even genuinely funny, while a day one patch will add in the option to use the Japanese original if you prefer. Having watched trailers with the original voice tracks, the English dub actually seems like the better option and continues the series’ tradition for strong localisation work. Rex’ quips generate real warmth for the character, while the Scottish voiceover work for a number of the key characters gives the game a unique flavour.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a beautiful game, and one which draws on the series’ past while expanding upon it. Monolith Soft have taken the opportunity to craft some incredibly arresting environments. The Titans that serve as both transportation and landscape are ingeniously put together, while the anime-infused character art is stylish, well animated, and – despite some early concerns – marks a new high point for the franchise.
That isn’t to say that it escapes all scrutiny, and some of the obvious Japanese excesses to the character designs can feel out of place. Pyra, whose character is integral to everything, gains nothing from having a huge bosom and spending the entire game in hot pants no matter the weather, while jokes about maid culture and the odd fan service camera shot detract from a gentle and troubled character.
A number of the rare Blades that you can unlock are also overtly sexualised, and much of that can be traced to the fact that Monolith Soft outsourced their design to some of the most prominent character designers their country boasts. There’s no getting away from the way that it can distract at times, but personally I didn’t feel as though it diminished the game overall, and is at the least more restrained than many other examples of the genre.
The game’s combat, after much hand-wringing amongst the series’ fans over the changes from the previous games, has turned out to be better than ever. The action palette that was strung across the centre of the screen has been replaced by two separate control areas, mapped to the D-Pad and the main face buttons, with three Driver Arts available which charge while you auto-attack, which then in turn charge a Special through four levels. In practice, the MMO-esque rhythm of combat remains the same.
This time out though everything is centred around the relationship between a Driver and their Blades, with the pairing between the two allowing access to different special moves. While some Blades join you in the course of the story, you can gather more by synergising with Core Crystals, with your character’s Luck and other attributes altering the chance of gaining a more powerful ally. You’ll eventually be able to take three Blades with you, opening up a huge range of possible combinations, move sets, and weapons.
It’s almost intoxicatingly complex, but you’re drip fed the different aspects of battle over the first twenty to thirty hours so by the time you understand it all, you’re completely immersed in it. Just as with the previous games there are high level creatures roaming everywhere, and no matter how experienced you become you’ll likely still die a number of times on your way to an objective. Rather than being frustrating though I only ever found that it spurred me on to better my character or improve my strategy in order to get past them.
Besides the battle system, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is packed with so many different elements to tinker with that you can spend hours of your playtime simply messing with the menus. From discovering each of your character’s favourite foods, through to playing a retro arcade game to level up a robotic character or sending spare Blades on stat-boosting Merc missions, there’s a ridiculous array of systems whose interplay works incredibly well, and will have you delving into every single aspect of your characters.
The only real problem that Chronicles 2 has is that visually the folks at Monolith Soft have pushed the Switch to its absolute limit, and slightly beyond. Depending on how complicated the scene is in front of you, whether in a highly detailed landscape or in the middle of a hectic battle, the console struggles to keep the framerate steady, and will sometimes drop quite noticeably. At no point is it ever unplayable, but it’s the sole blemish on what is otherwise a masterful piece of production. Hopefully though, much like Breath of the Wild, this is something that can be improved with a future patch.
The technical limitations are also apparent when playing in handheld mode, and the game’s variable resolution can rob scenes and areas of a fair amount of detail. It’s never quite enough to take away from the impressive art, but playing on a television is easily the best way to experience the game. `the creature-packed open world areas, side quests and merc missions are perfect for some on-the-go grinding, you’ll just want to be at home for the important stuff.
No matter where you are, the soundtrack is phenomenal, with Yasunori Matsuda leading a team of composers including ACE, Kenji Hiramatsu, and Manami Kiyota to produce over one hundred separate pieces that shift from frenetic rock, through ambient dance to melancholic piano. It’s marvellous stuff, not only helping to set the tone for the story, but also lending itself to making the horizon feel just a touch more alluring.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a phenomenal RPG. It’s a truly incredible piece of work that builds and expands on the series’ staples, while turning into a unique and heartfelt adventure all of its own.