Let me begin by saying that I consider myself a Xeno– fan. Xenogears on the PS1 is not only one of the greatest RPGs I’ve ever played, but also one of my favorite games of all time. I enjoyed the Xenosaga trilogy on PS2, Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, and what little I managed to play of Xenoblade Chronicles X on Wii U. However, after spending 7 hours with the Nintendo Switch’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I’m struggling to remain interested in just about everything the game has to offer.
For starters, the story feels like it’s going absolutely nowhere — fair warning, I’m about to spoil the game’s first 60 minutes.
You begin Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as Rex, a take-things-as-they-come teenage salvager living atop a dragon-like “titan” affectionately named Gramps. Titans are massive beings that the citizens of Alrest live atop, and among these people are combat specialists called Drivers. Drivers battle using Blades, which are mystical beings that double as party members and weapons. As these titans begin to die out, they’re leaving the world at large covered in a sea of clouds. In short, humans are running out of places to live.
During a salvaging mission, Rex is murdered by one of his employers. However, a particularly special Blade named Pyra awakens from her slumber and brings him back to the land of the living by giving Rex half of her life force. This turns Rex into a Driver, with Pyra as his new fire-branded Blade. All Pyra wants in return is for Rex to help her find Elysium, which is apparently some sort of magical land that’ll help find humanity somewhere to live when the titans die out.
The four hours after this event are largely forgettable, though, as they’re burdened by a constant barrage of lengthy cutscenes, overly verbose character dialogue, and tutorial pop-ups. I shit you not, the game gives you a new tutorial or a cutscene every 5 feet for a good hour or two. I’ve been playing in 30-45 minute chunks and there were two or three sessions where I only saw 5 minutes of actual gameplay. It’s rough.
I’m very familiar with the Xeno-prefix series of games and I’ve spent many an hour watching lengthy cutscenes throughout the Xenosaga trilogy on PS2. This isn’t new. However, those games were at least interesting.
Rex is an incredibly dull hero, with Pyra serving as the game’s only saving grace thus far — despite the majority of internet comments focusing solely on her massive chest size, she’s actually a pretty solid addition to the cast for reasons beyond her “assets.” Nia, a young and sassy catgirl, isn’t too bad, but she exits your party early on and goes missing for an hour or two. You also eventually meet up with Tora, one of a race of Nopon who act as your typical JRPG race that speaks in an annoying manner (think Tama from World of Final Fantasy). Nopon dialogue removes every other word from a sentence, so it’s just as frustrating to read as it is to hear spoken aloud.
Tora himself isn’t a Driver, but has somehow managed to engineer an artificial Blade for himself named Poppi, who can only be upgraded by playing an awful mini-game called Tiger!, Tiger! Rex’s Blades can be upgraded by simply harvesting materials out in the wild, completing quests with Blades equipped, and plain ol’ using them in combat. Giving an overly annoying character an equally annoying method of upgrading their artificial weapon has got to be grounds for cruel and unusual punishment somewhere in the world.
Questionable characters aside, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has an excruciatingly busy user interface that unnecessarily clutters the screen and makes navigating towns a giant pain in the ass. Cities are littered with vendors, which appear as large icons that rest alongside their shop name. As you can imagine, it’s pretty jarring.
Take a look at this eyesore, for example…
The way Xenoblade implements its map system is also a bit puzzling. As you can see in the above screenshot, the minimap shows the location of talkative NPCs (green dots), NPCs offering side-quests (blue diamonds), and your primary quest objective (pink diamond). There is no in-game map that you can open in order to observe a top-down layout of the entire town. You can press in the left analog stick to blow up the mini-map, which covers the entire screen and has such a thick opacity that you can’t really navigate properly, but that’s it. With side-quests scattered around, there’s no *good* way to track them down.
At the top of the screen is an Elder Scrolls-like navigation bar, which serves to point you in the direction of your currently tracked side-quest and primary mission objective. If the appropriate icon has an up arrow, that indicates your target is above you, while the opposite is true for a down-facing arrow. However, with the first town in the game having numerous floors, bridges, and a hidden room, it becomes an unreliable method of stringing you along.
The combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a ho-hum affair early on, with Rex delivering strings of auto-attacks while waiting for abilities to recharge. Similar to Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii, certain abilities deal increased damage when used from the side or behind an enemy, but unlike said game, Rex can only have three abilities equipped at once. He eventually unlocks another Blade slot, which lets him obtain additional weapons through a randomized lootbox-style system, but without the ability to switch between Blades in the early goings of an encounter (you have to wait for your secondary Blade to charge up first, and by then most things are already dead) I’ve still found myself waiting around for his abilities to charge up between lengthy strings of yawn-inducing auto attacks.
Combat becomes more engaging (thus, more entertaining) as the game goes on, though. Timing abilities after a third auto-attack swing increases their effectiveness and contributes more to Pyra’s (or whatever Blade’s) special attack meter. These special attacks come in different elemental affinities, and using certain ones in order delivers a super combo of sorts. It’s a tad confusing at first, but a non-issue once you’ve managed to deliver one or two. These aren’t attacks you’ll be dishing out every battle, since (like Rex’s normal abilities) they take quite a while to charge up — and each combo requires a longer recharge. Essentially, the longer the battle the more cool stuff you can do. But since you spend such a significant amount of time killing standard enemies in the opening hours, you’re mostly going to watch him swing away at things until they’re dead.
Like I mentioned earlier, the game is littered with tutorial pop-ups. Whether it’s how the game’s trading system works, how to use salvage points, access a character’s ability screen, or whatever, there are probably 50 tutorials to read through within the first 5 hours of gameplay. It’s not fun. To top it off, however, the game offers no way to review tutorials that you’ve already seen. So while it bombards you with necessary information, if you forget something your only option is to hit up the Googles dot com. Why this stuff isn’t tucked away inside of a help menu somewhere is absolutely baffling in this post-instruction manual era.
As of now, I’ve spent 7 hours with Xenoblade Chronicles 2. 90% of the characters that I’ve encountered I just don’t care about. The story seems to have fallen off a cliff and died somewhere in the sea of clouds and combat is an absolute bore outside of boss encounters, but I can’t bring myself to stop playing. As a fan of this series, I keep pushing on in hope of things getting better. It’s that fear of missing out that’s become my only source of motivation, which sucks so bad. There have been games that righted the ship after a handful of hours, like Mass Effect: Andromeda, and I sincerely hope Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is one of them.
But if I reach the 10-hour mark and it’s still business as usual, I’ll probably throw in the towel. There are far more rewarding games to play instead.