In an endless sea of clouds, at its heart stands the World Tree piercing the heavens. Around it lies Alrest, and tales tell that, when this world was young, everyone had once lived on the World Tree with their divine father, the Architect. It was a bountiful land, and those that lived there had even held the power to command the heavens. The people called this paradise, Elysium.
But, the Architect had once banished his people from the land, who, taking refuge below, soon started to die out. When it seemed like all hope was lost he took pity on them and sent his servants, the Titans, to save humanity. Those that survived settled on the backs of these colossal creatures, and, since then, they have lived in harmony together. However, the Titans are beginning to die out and no one can understand why it is happening.
Elysium is somewhere that you will repeatedly hear about in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, seeing that, after a fateful encounter in which young salvager Rex is slain by Torna’s head honcho Jin, his life is saved by Pyra – a sacred Blade known as the Aegis. Their lives now inexplicably connected, he promises to help in her quest to reach it.
Xenoblade Chronicles went far beyond my expectations for what could be achieved on Wii, a game with such expansive scale that the player’s party was completely dwarfed by the warring Titans on which they wandered. Mira in Xenoblade Chronicles X was impressive, too, with the uncharted planet became a near endless playground in which we could fly around in bipedal Skells – even if the story won’t be remembered as a particular strength.
Now, with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Monolith Soft present you with the chance to explore many different Titans, the artistic direction for which will astound on frequent occasion. It is story progression that will, unsurprisingly, reward you with the chance to explore each of them – the player starting out at the bustling marketplace at the Argentum Trade Guild, before becoming caught up in events that will move them on to the Gormott Province, which exists on a Titan that is interwoven with trees. Then, there’s the Kingdom of Uraya that has been built in the autumnal innards of a whale-like Titan that, for whatever reason, sometimes swallows up passers-by, and the industrial and militaristic Empire of Mor Ardian, whose desire to conquer and rule unsettles the world’s people.
As with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this Nintendo Switch exclusive is as much a journey of discovery. Sure, this is by far a more linear and story-driven experience with no parallels in the gameplay mechanics that underpin it. But, it is a world to become lost in, built with grandeur in mind, and hiding surprises and scenery with breathtaking vistas to marvel over at every turn. You can even heroically leap off the side of a Titan and swim around in the cloud sea for as long as you like, if you want.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does take time to enter its stride, though. That being said, Monolith Soft waste no time in letting you swing a sword in your first battle, but the opening hours are spent slowly introducing the world, characters, and wider narrative – as well as the numerous gameplay mechanics that are at play, of course.
Your companions are an incredibly likeable bunch, and, as with Xenoblade Chronicles, each character has their own regional accent to differentiate themselves from one another, whether that be Yorkshire, American, Welsh, Scottish, or Australian – something that is matched with those that dwell in the region that they come from.
The performances of the English voice actors are notably strong, whether that be the endearing boy-meets-girl relationship between Rex (Al Weaver) and his fire-wielding Blade, Pyra (Skye Bennett), the headstrong Nia (Catrin-Mai Huw) and her sagely Blade, Dromarch (William Roberts), the forever entertaining Tora (Rasmus Hardiker) and his artificial Blade, Poppi (Arina Ii), or the comical wanderer Zeke (Daniel Barker) and his fussy Blade, Pandoria (Becca Stewart). There’s also the super-strong mercenary leader Vandham (Simon Thorp), and antagonist characters such as the military commander Mòrag (Kirsty Mitchell) and her twin whip-wielding Blade, Brighid (Jules de Jongh).
It all adds to Monolith Soft’s talent for world-building, which, when you aren’t racing between locations to continue the main storyline, will often see you traipse around on side quests to help anyone out that you come across. This can see you clearing out enemies for a Nopon merchant to safely continue his travels, concocting a potion so that a Nopon can improve their voice to live out their dream of becoming a famous singer, or hunting for buoyweed so that a young boy can learn how to swim, which, looking at these side quests collectively, continue to breathe life into the world – the player gaining a greater understanding of its people and their behaviour through such interactions.
There are also Heart-to-Heart moments between your party characters, which are much simpler to trigger compared to Xenoblade Chronicles. These are often heartfelt or comedic, and interactions where the characters – and voice actors, for that matter – can deliver some more lighthearted scenes away from the storyline’s darker moments. Tora, again, will soon prove to be a favourite, who, when he isn’t teaching Pyra how to be more “blushy-crushy,” is acting out the play “Uraya Goes To War” with help from Nia and Poppi.
The battle encounters in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are largely similar to what has come before. The enemy that you are targeting (or has targeted you as you scarper around) has a marker displayed above them, and you can either choose to engage them or try to run away. As Monolith Soft has always loved to do, towering enemies far stronger than your characters can be found in every area in the game – the chance to cut them down to size coming much later, when you have levelled and strengthened your party. You will still be caught out repeatedly, hilarious moments in which you will flee for your life in the hope that your newfound enemy will give up the chase.
Those that stand their ground will see their characters rely on their standard auto-attack, which will charge the special Driver Arts that you can use to deal more damage, create HP Potions to keep your party on their feet, or to inflict statuses in turn – namely Break, Topple, Launch, and Smash. The battle system has some tremendous depth, with the use of Driver Arts steadily charging powerful Specials that have four levels of potency, and there are Blade Arts, which can help swing things in your favour.
Rather than having a lengthy bar across the screen with multiple icons, everything is assigned to its own controller button. This means that you can worry less about making your way to whatever you want to use, and can simply slam the respective button to perform that action. Your party can also perform a Driver Combo, Blade Combo, and Chain Attack, and knowing how to best make use of these will help you to overcome trickier encounters.
It’s worth mentioning that each character can take up to three Blades with them into battle, aside from Tora who, as he isn’t a Driver, can only rely on his artificial Blade, Poppi. Blades are awakened from Core Crystals, a gacha-like experience that will see you choose which character you want to be able to wield it, a Core Crystal, and throw in any Boosters to try and sway the result, to then see which randomly selected Blade you get. Now, I won’t lie, there is excitement to be found here, thanks to the rare Blades that you can get your hands on – each having been drawn by a different artist, resulting in a collection of striking designs.
The Blades in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are important, and not least for the fact that they have different weapons, moves, and elemental attributes. Each plays a particular role whether that be an attacker, healer, or tank, and having balance across your team will undoubtedly help you. I should add that the player is free to switch between the three Blades that they have assigned to their character mid-battle to expose elemental weaknesses or to rush to heal a weakened party member. There continued use will see them become more powerful on the Affinity Chart, which has a far more understandable approach compared to the previous games.
They also have their uses elsewhere, with Field Skills helping you to open doors, unlock treasure chests, or decipher clues. But, more importantly, early in the game you will be able to form Merc Groups with your blades, sending them on missions that can broaden the item selection at shops in a particular town, or to simply earn them experience to unlock new skills to become more powerful. These are timed, so a mission could, say, take 20 minutes in real-time for the Blades to complete, but it’s useful in that the spare Blades that you collect are given a purpose rather than just idly sitting around.
Many were expecting Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to receive a last-minute delay, and, while it rounds out what has undoubtedly been an incredible year for Nintendo, it’s clear that it needed a little more time. The game, broadly speaking, is sound, but, whether playing in TV mode or Handheld mode, there have been jarring instances where the resolution has unexpectedly changed. And, clearly keen to impress with lightning quick load times, when fast travelling between locations I have sat and watched textures, shadows, and lighting effects load in over a near 10-second window – the screenshot below shows how it looks as you arrive in the area, and then momentarily later. The frame rate is perfectly steady for the most part, but, in busier situations, it can become inconsistent.
Now, Nintendo has started to address this with a day-one software update. It was released this morning, so I haven’t had much time with it. But, it has reduced the delay in assets loading in to around five seconds, so, while the issue is still present, they are hard at work to resolve it. I don’t think that anyone would mind waiting an extra five seconds on the, otherwise, short loading screen, but, I’ll leave it to them to decide what’s best. An Events Theater has also been added, which lets you rewatch every cutscene that you have already seen in the game, as well as the awakening animations for the Blades and rare Blades that you have unlocked.
Despite some technical shortcomings there is still much to celebrate, especially given the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has been squeezed on to a device that can both be played at home and on the move – which is a godsend, given the fact that you will be looking to spend some 90 hours with it, to see it through. The cinematic direction that has been taken for cutscenes is often incredible, not only in heightening the drama around a momentous battle but also in the game’s more intimate and heartfelt moments.
The soundtrack is phenomenal, too. Whether clashing with gargantuan bosses in battle or simply spending a moment to take in the breathtaking views, the music that has been penned by Yasunori Mitsuda, ACE, Kenji Hiramatsu, and Manami Kiyota is the perfect accompaniment to your time in Alrest. It changes to reflect the time of day as well, which, while nothing remarkably new, is still a wonderful touch.
It’s clear that there has been no compromise in what Monolith Soft had envisioned for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and, given that we have had to wait for some time each generation, to have the chance to explore such a remarkable world so soon after the Nintendo Switch arrived is an opportunity not to be missed, and a cataclysmic close to the portable home console’s first calendar year. Sweepingly epic in every way imaginable, this grandiose adventure is quite simply an unforgettable experience. And, with that, the fate of Alrest is now in your hands.