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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the first high-profile RPG release for the Switch, as well as the first true sequel to the highly acclaimed Wii RPG.  But does Xenoblade Chronicles 2 live up to its legacy, or is this a misstep from Monolith?

Xenoblade Chronicles was a game that was met with much anticipation from JRPG fans, finally getting a release in North America after numerous delays and setbacks and acting as a sendoff of sorts for the Wii system, which was rapidly being supplanted by Nintendo's new Wii U.  A psuedo-sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X, appeared a few years later on that platform, though many were disappointed by the fact that it was much less of a story-driven experience, instead putting emphasis on its online elements and centering much of its gameplay around repetitious quests such as activating beacons and doing side-quests to earn gold in order to buy expensive upgrades for one's mech.  It played tolerably well for what it was, but those used to Monolith's more story-driven experiences were left high-and-dry.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2, announced for the Switch, promised to take things back to a more story-driven experience.  Indeed, the game's setting is now back in a decaying fantasy world, with an overreaching story element of characters having to scavenge ancient ruins and salvage parts by diving into the sea of clouds.  The latter comes into play by having the player purchase "capsules" and dive in at certain points on the map, earning better items as they perform successful quick-time event inputs.

The overall design of the game's environment remains reminiscent of western RPGs, having the player explore massive sprawling environments and beautiful scenery, this time on the backs of seven colossal Titans - enormous creatures who roam the cloud seas.  Surprisingly, however, there is no real sailing element to the game a la Wind Waker; nearly all of the exploration in the game is still based around land-based movement, whether climbing, leaping or navigating caverns and twisting pathways through mountainous areas or towering forests.  This also means that there is no smooth transition between the continents, making them feel much more like distinct video game "levels" than a single large, contiguous world - a slightly disappointing turn considering how fit-together the original game's world felt.

Continuing this design trend, Xenoblade has numerous NPCs to interact with, many of whom have quests to complete.  While these do tend to be of the mundane kill-X-monsters or find-X-items or following a series of waypoints to a goal variety, efforts are at least made to have them be less repetitive than the first game's; each chapter in a given area tends to have at most a dozen of them, and each also attempts to have a bit of storyline or lore behind it. While ultimately nothing too great, it is at least a valiant attempt to make the sidequests feel less like mundane chores to earn extra items and experience and make the player feel as though they're having a tangible impact on the game's environment.

Combat in the game remains much the same as its predecessors as well, drawing many cues from MMORPGs.  Characters attack on their own, with the player's main input being to use skills with the proper timing and synchronize attacks between the three active characters to maximize their effectiveness in a battle.  However, each character's skill set is significantly more limited this time (an attempt to push the new Blade system - more on that later).  Instead of having a bar of nine options to choose from, each character now gets three normal attacks and one special, all of which run off meters that slowly fill as they land attacks.  These attacks do retain some elements of the original game, such as inflicting Break and Topple status or doing extra damage when hitting from behind, but far more emphasis is given to special moves this time.  When a special attack is used, other characters with similarly full gauges can follow up with their own specials, with the third in the chain activating special properties such as weakening an enemy's stats, inflicting a status on all enemies in the fight or shutting down a specific enemy move temporarily (which can help in some tougher boss battles).  An interesting idea, but the smaller variety of skills afforded to each character and the overall emphasis placed on flashy special attacks gives it the inescapable feeling of being "dumbed down" and lacking the dynamic, yet strategic feel of the original game, where properly-timed skill usage would often make or break a battle's outcome.

Blades are Xenoblade 2's signature new mechanic, and a somewhat strange one at that.  While they are weapons in the traditional sense, they also serve as characters within the game and within combat - the player cannot directly control them, but they will apply buffer effects to the character they are equipped to in reaction to certain cues (such as casting Accuracy Up if a character repeatedly misses attacks).  They also come into play during special attacks, with the main character passing their equipped weapon over to them so that they can perform a special move for extra damage (with better effect achieved by timing a button press to a QTE).  One would think that this would lead to story threads and character bonding between the Blades and the ones they attach to, but this ends up not really being the case; Xenoblade 2 bafflingly gives little attention to this dynamic in the overall storyline, even going so far as to introduce a Persona-esque crafting mechanic and allowing the player to create new Blades for their party members to equip, complete with their own special moves, attack timing and skills to learn.  As someone who considers himself a big fan of the Persona games (well, the third and fourth at least), I believed at first that this would lend itself to something akin to those games - fusing new Blades together in order to carry over skills and stats to new generations and lending a sense of fluid customization and progression to the game.  This also proved untrue, however - once a Blade hits the limits of its potential, it ends up just taking space in the player's inventory until it gets deleted.  This, paired with a huge degree of randomness determining a blade's form and abilities (complete with randomly-acquired Rare Blades that have bonus abilities common ones can never get), ultimately just ends up adding a huge grinding element to the game and little else.  Really, the whole Blade idea just feels excessive and rather superfluous, especially as the Special (storyline-related) Blades tend to be far more versatile and useful than Common and even most Rare ones, leaving the player wondering why they're bothering to level up inferior generic ones at all.

Continuing the disappointment is the fact that Xenoblade 2's writing has taken a significant step back in many regards.  While the original game carried a mostly serious story and interesting lore in spite of its outlandish premise and setting, Xenoblade 2 seems to bring in a campy tone in spades.  Dialog is frequently ridiculous, there are many instances of cartoonish reactions and corny anime tropes, and the voice acting ranges from relatively decent to B-movie levels of cheese (with no option for a Japanese voice track, at least in the American release).  A jarring - and rather disappointing - turn for a company and writer who made their names in stories that blended philosophical and religious themes into a science fantasy setting, effectively crafting an engrossing narrative while managing to avoid coming off as pretentious.

Xenoblade 2's overall design also takes a step back in many regards, some of which are just plain baffling.  The map system in the game is a particularly big gripe of mine; in a game featuring convoluted pathways and enormous environments to explore, the lack of a decent waypoint system, or even a map giving a detailed overview of the whole area, is just plain baffling.  Too many times to count I ended up making straight for a quest marker only to be stopped by a sheer wall or run smack into a den of enemies well above my level and get instantly killed.  The minimap can be blown up to full-screen size by clicking the left stick, but it disappointingly provides no landmarks, paths or other useful information and loads only in chunks, meaning that until you get close enough to an area you'll just see a flat edge of the map with no useful information beyond it.  The maps viewable through the Pause menu (linked to the game's fast travel system) do a better job at pointing out interesting landmarks, but provide no view of quest markers or frame of reference for different areas' positions to one another, even upon the same Titan.  This single-handedly makes a basic and key element of the game - navigation - into an overly frustrating nightmare.  A blunder of this level has no place in a title released in 2017, let alone one released after Elder Scrolls and the modern Fallout games (among many others).

Another inexplicable mistake comes in the game's quest tracker.  Namely that completing a story chapter sweeps the tracker clean, which at first I took to mean that the game takes a similar approach to Ys VIII and does not allow the character to revisit quests they didn't complete before the chapter's end.  However, I still found that several of the NPCs would talk about such quests as if I hadn't completed them yet, even maintaining the active quest markers over their head; however, I was unable to actually complete these tasks they mentioned as I could not set the quests as Active in order to see where I needed to go, or even read the text associated with the quest in my journal, so I no longer had any way to guide myself other than looking it up online.  Again, a bizarre and incompetent mistake not just for RPGs of this type as a whole, but a baffling step back from the first Xenoblade game as well, which has a perfectly functional quest log that never makes quests unviewable to the player.  This proved particularly aggravating when a quest marker was pointing me to an area I was unable to reach, with the only apparent way up there being to go through a building that was locked at the time; naturally, I assumed I needed to advance the story in order for that door to open and grant me access to that area, but when I ended up clearing the chapter and wiping the quest log, I still found that said area was inaccessible and I still couldn't complete it.  Frustrating, to say the least.

Those two glaring problems aside, Xenoblade 2 possess numerous minor faults as well.  Collision detection is fairly lackluster on the platforming element, with my character frequently "sticking" in mid-jump on various geometry, sliding down some slopes of a given angle (but not others) and characters getting hung up on objects during fights.  New mechanics are dropped in at arbitrary moments and are explained in possibly the worst way, simply throwing large walls of text at the player to absorb in the middle of what should be a tense battle or moment in the story.  Combat quickly becomes a chore with frequent unavoidable enemy battles and overlapping, repetitious voice clips grating on the player's nerves throughout (particularly the soldiers who constantly shout "YEH THINK YEH CAN STOP MEEEEEEEHHHH?!" in a cheesy Scottish accent), and the constant clutter of the UI listing off every status effect and move and damage point calculated all at once really doesn't  compliment it, either.

When all is said and done, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a letdown.  The MMO elements of the game are taken far beyond the pale for a game with no online element, resulting in massive amounts of grinding with very little tangible payoff.  Joining that with inept interface design, clumsy physics, the dumbed-down combat system, infantile dialog and grating voiceover, the game seems to have been specifically engineered to be a chore to play at every turn.  The original Xenoblade Chronicles certainly had its problems and suffered heavily from the law of diminishing returns once the player hit the 60+ hour mark, but Xenoblade 2's downturn comes in at only a fraction of that time.

Developer: Monolith Soft
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Released:  2017
Recommended version: N/A