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In the last 20 years, we went from the ambitious Xenogears to this cynically made, rushed cash-in. *SPOILERS*

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    Kazhero22
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    Xenoblade Chronicles 2

    Rating: 2.0 – Poor

    In the last 20 years, we went from the ambitious Xenogears to this cynically made, rushed cash-in. *SPOILERS*

    Xenoblade 2 is a counter-intuitive experience. I’m going to address the core reason as to why Xenoblade 2’s cast and plot are bad and why it’s rpg systems are functional, but uncompelling.

    Plot and Cast

    Starting with the plot and characters, in short, they are dull, poorly written, and unable to make you care about them.

    Protagonist

    The protagonist, Rex, is a dull boy scout. Even as a completely average nobody with great power in his hands, he isn’t corrupted by it or anything, he’s the same “do the right thingâ€?hero from beginning to end, unshaped by anything that happens to him. He’s plot-armored from the beginning too, since he always has an OP blade at his side, except when the plot demands he doesn’t. The writer attempts to avert this by making it so that if the protagonist dies, the heroine does too, and vice versa. However, this false-tension seemingly has no impact on Rex, since he still usually runs into battle blindly to protect his friends without ever truly losing, thanks to magic shounen power ups of course. This gets taken to an even more stupid level of bad writing, as you’ll see soon.

    Heroine

    The heroine, Pyra (well, Mythra), hid herself and fell asleep because she is very powerful and doesn’t want her power to fall into the wrong hands. Yet she willingly revives and follows around this average no name of a protagonist within just minutes of meeting him. This is because of some chosen one magic stuff because the writers couldn’t think of a more natural and interesting way to write the plot without hindering on magic to start the conflicts. The writers want you to believe the cast cares for each other when they’re too busy talking about their feelings rather than showing them.

    Internal Logic

    After the "if Rex dies then Pyra dies and vice versa" rule is established, the writers then have the audacity to contradict this for the sake of the plot. Later on in the story, there’s a situation where the villain has has the heroes in a hopeless position, where he conveniently reveals his true form that’s completely OP and seemingly unstoppable (why he didn’t do this earlier is beyond me)! He is about to kill Rex, when Pyra chimes in and says “if you do that, I will annihilate myself with the Sirenâ€? If you remember the previously established death rule for these two, you’d be left scratching your head. “Wait, Pyra can’t do that! If Rex dies then she’d be dead anyways. Pyra could’ve just threatened them that way if she wanted to keep Rex alive.â€?She then (willingly) goes with the bad guys, since they spared Rex’s life. Two cutscenes later, the writers attempt justifying this by explaining that if either of them were to die, Pyra still has a little time after being killed to make sure Rex remains alive (this being the reason she threatened she kill herself with the mecha death laser). This really makes things dumber for numerous reasons; 1.) This abrupt change of in-universe logic makes it hard for the player to trust the info the writer gives him or her, since the writer is now proven to change the rules at any time to fit whatever direction they want to take the plot. It’s difficult to take this plot seriously when things feel noticeably contrived and improbably convenient just for the plot’s sake. 2. ) Changing the rules makes the previously established rules and consequences void and pointless on subsequent playthroughs, as if they were only setup to give the player a twist for a twist’s sake. 3.) It’s clearly an excuse to give the Siren greater plot relevance, since up to now it’s hardly had any and the writer’s seemingly couldn’t find a natural way to fit it in. 4.) Pyra now looks like a complete idiot thanks to the changing rules. She very well knows the bad guys will use her for bad stuff, which is why she sealed herself away and created the Pyra persona in the first place. In giving herself over, Pyra just let the bad guys win and probably made a worse future for Rex. Of course this doesn’t actually happen, we can’t have characters whose actions have any meaningful consequences. Everything has to be easily resolved through magic cop outs and plot convenience. Using this rule change, she could’ve just annihilated herself while also keeping Rex alive. There, her friend is still around and the bad guys don’t get their way, making Pyra’s rarely shown feelings for Rex and the rest of the world clearly displayed to the audience. Now she looks dumb and suffers no long lasting repercussions for it. 5.) WHY DIDN’T PYRA JUST WHIPE THE BAD GUYS OFF THE MAP USING THE MECHA DEATH LASER? NO NEED FOR SUICIDE OR HANDING YOURSELF OVER BECAUSE THE PLOT NEEDS DRAMA, JUST GET RID OF THEM AND EVERYONE’S TIME WON’T BE WASTED. Um… let’s just say because, uh… because fairies and move on.

    Supporting Cast

    In speaking of the other characters, they’re all two dimensional. With the exception of the main villain, none of them have interesting backstories and they don’t develop. The don’t evolve in any way that feels believable as the plot unravels, nothing worth caring about is lost or gained. The cast just wants to maintain the status quo without becoming mentally stronger or weaker.

    There’s very few times where the characters interact with one another in any significant way. For the most part, they make unfunny, cliche anime jokes and comment on what’s happening around them. Very little about their relationships is explored. The heart-to-heart conversations are usually just used for this purpose, while 14+ hours worth of cutscenes are largely used to give us infodumps. Instead of giving us reasons to care about the casts motivations, backgrounds, or showing how their environment shapes their character in ways that feel human, the cast and plot all feels like an excuse for tonally inconsistent nonsense and constant exposition. This ultimately makes almost every one of them feel like plot devices and flat archetypes rather than believable characters. In a 60+ hour rpg that attempts to have numerous serious moments and many cutscenes, the characters must have more to them than just static archetypes to be engaging. The “romanceâ€?in the game isn’t actually romance, it’s lust. In an actual romance story, the writer explores the trials and tribulations of already established couples. In typical anime fashion, the characters of Xenoblade 2 spend the game lusting for one another while occasionally acting awkward, and even sometimes feeling like they don’t care about one another at all. In 2018 this formula has become incredibly stale, and in here it’s executed in an even worse manner.

    Villains

    The main villain, Jin, is by far the most interesting character of the game. Not that he’s well written, but he’s one of the only characters who’s proactive and the things that happen to him leave a lasting impact on him. He would be a good villain if the root of his conflict didn’t come from the contrived “if a driver dies, a blade loses its memoryâ€?magic amnesia crap. In the beginning, Jin figures out a way to fuse blades and humans together. His first driver dies and he loses his memories, then he conveniently meets someone who just so happens to have known about Jin’s work in the past and informs him about it (conveniently when Jin is attached to this new driver). Finally, Jin uses his “newfoundâ€?knowledge to fuse himself with his driver. Need a conflict to happen but can’t think of a way to do it that feels natural? Just use plot convenience and arbitrary magic rules, issue solved. There’s also this laughable melodrama that the writers expect you to find engaging about an innocent little girl (Jin’s second driver) being victimized because of evil selfish adults, and the writers use this shallow victimization to grab sympathy from the player a couple times. The game should make you care through interesting characterization and compelling motivations, not for the simple fact that a helpless small girl is being abused. It’s emotionally manipulative rather than investing. And to cap it all off, the game pulls complete 180 with Jin’s character out of nowhere where he suddenly realizes being evil is bad and sides with the protagonist.

    Meanwhile, the secondary villain, Malos, is cartoonishly evil and that’s all there is to say about him. Basically he is evil because his driver also grew to become two dimensionally evil. It’s a case of mirrored characterization, where the writers uncreatively rely on copying other character’s personalities for new ones.

    Character Deaths

    Character deaths are also handled poorly in this game. For example, there’s a completely insignificant character death about a third of the way into the game that they completely overdramatize. You meet this one guy like a day earlier, he monologues a bit about how war always affects us (though we never explore this idea through the characters), and when he sacrifices himself for everyone else, the protagonist isn’t impacted in any way. Removing this character death wouldn’t have changed anything other than the player not having merc missions or be able to topple enemies with Rex. There’s another death of this one character who’s whole purpose is to stall the plot so things don’t end too quickly, and with nearly no reasons to care about her. Rex cries like a baby during these parts, but his intentions and thought process aren’t affected by anything that happens around him. The scenes right after these deaths make it seem like nothing ever even happened. The heroines sacrifice means nothing in the end either, since she ends up surviving anyways.This just ends up reinforcing how the characters feel less like characters and more like plot devices, hinging on manipulating the players feelings to get you to care about them.

    Artwork

    The character designs themselves are also pretty bad. The game expects you to take Pyra and Mythra seriously as powerful divine creations despite them looking like brothel whores. Aside from the generic moeblobs, the game has numerous different artists working on on the art direction, resulting in a mess of inconsistency. Most characters don’t even look like they belong within the same game as others. This really cements the "b-team mobile game" vibe of it all, feeling less like a console rpg and more like Fate Grand Order.

    Ending

    Then the game ends with a plot twist that throws the first game in for no reason except so fans can probably theorycraft. This is likely because the new plot and cast is so paper thin and the writers have so little confidence in their work that they don’t believe it can stand alone without the nostalgia of the first game.

    Plot and Cast In Conclusion

    Overall, the plot doesn’t strive to make a big, epic story full of tragedy and exciting moments through well written characters, genuinely funny and well timed humor, or interesting revelations. Some conflicts simply couldn’t happen without magic, even if they could’ve been written out entirely. These scenarios shouldn’t require ridiculous amounts of suspending disbelief to accept them. It’s not a matter of being “exactly like realityâ€?too. Just because something is in an impractical fantasy or sci-fi setting doesn’t mean it can’t be written without powers and convenience being the sole trigger of conflict. It’s shoddy, and to be frank, evidently lazy.

    Gameplay

    Moving on to the gameplay, the core problem lies within Xenoblade 2’s reliance on rng elements and weak enemy design. You aren’t doing much actual role-playing since the player has little control over it’s core systems and little reason to pursue said systems. There’s no synergy between any of its elements or any true challenge to face utilizing the game’s unique systems. It’s indeed very complex, I mean you have driver combos, blade combos, blade cancels, specials, equipment and aux core slots, elemental properties, classes, core crystals, affinities, chain attacks, etc, and all of it may appear expansive at first. But after a while, certain patterns and arbitrary limitations begin surfacing and revealing all of these segments to not be nearly as serviceable as they make themselves out to be.

    Customization & RNG

    Firstly, I’ll address the level of customization you have with your main characters, which isn’t particularly high. Your charactersâ€?stats and arts can’t be affected or built directly ala a points allocation system or skill inheritance for instance. The extent of your absolute control over them is through two equipment and aux core slots for blades (soon three) and drivers, simple blade upgrade system, and blades that grant specific stat buffs (the specifics depend on whether or not they are a healer, tank, or attacker class). The latter is something out of your direct control, as acquiring blades comes down to rolling a dice until you can’t roll it anymore. Imagine playing an SMT game without skill inheritance and only using low level, fusion accident demons. The fact the game autosaves after the use of each core crystal doesn’t help matters, leading you to have to farm and use core crystals until you get what you specifically want after much time and patience is expended. Once you get a random selection of weak blades of various classes and element types, you may begin to notice how unequivocally superior your starting default blades are to the ones you roll in a vast majority of cases and how you can’t ever unequip them. The only use the common blades have is giving you access to different elements so the player can exploit elemental orbs for vastly increased damage. To make matters worse, the characters are already biased towards their starting as a consequence of the limited stat manipulation. The player is better off keeping things the way they are from the beginning rather than advancing the gameplay through experimentation, it’s just too much of a slog to make it worth anything.

    The equipment systems don’t amount to much either, just two stat buff slots and an upgrade system that doesn’t see any real practical use since the game only demands their use for the shitty common blades you’ll be getting from each roll. Even if you can use an aux core to increase a luck stat to raise the possibility of a rare blade being rolled, the fact remains that the absolute result is out of your direct control and the computer’s decision making will still be a key factor in getting a desired result.

    Battle System, Enemies, and Bosses

    I think this level of rng is likely why the next topic, the bosses and enemy design, were so uncompelling. The reason I use such a harsh terms is because vast majority of encounters pretty much go the exact same way, as having a high DPS is ultimately what leads you to succeed. This can be achieved easily by spamming driver combos, blade combos, and elemental orbs. Now, you may notice the elemental weaknesses each boss carries. You can simply ignore them and not face any serious punishment, if any at all. It feels dirty to be capable of accomplishing tasks in such a way, to put it lightly. Death is ultimately quite insignificant, since you don’t expend any resources during the encounter, you heal rapidly after each encounter, and death respawns you a short walking distance away. The player can rely on elemental burts for high dps and beat roughly any boss with little planning or effort, no matter the element or status effects said enemy may carry. You might also realize how many of those bosses have certain weaknesses exploitable via blade combos using the default starting blades only. This reinforces how much better the default blades are compared to the random common blades you usually roll. I believe it’s safe to assume most encounters were designed in such a manner because of the weight the rng carries over the whole game. With the emphasis on the rng elements, the developers can’t assume it’s reasonable for the player to have enough time and patience to: roll a dice for extended periods of time, randomly get a specific required product, then eventually use it to overcome a challenging obstacle each and every encounter. Requiring the player to do this with the level of influence they actually have over the core mechanics would likely lead to abysmal reviews, citing the game as tedious and badly structured. The common blades are only useful to gain access to some new types of blade combos, but I wouldn’t consider their use imperative. As a result, we have an rpg where little room or requirement is left for dynamism and wit to be used in overcoming most given challenges, something I think rpg’s should capitalize on to be engaging and replayable.

    Affinity Box-Ticking

    Moving on, I think the easy enemies are the reason why the affinity system was so poor. I’m going to preface by saying I don’t approve of linear skill trees as a progression system in rpgs. Some games execute them competently, but you almost always end up with a complete tree by the end of the game, resulting in decreased customizability and build variety in the grand scheme of things. The affinity tree in XC2 is slightly different, as you don’t really gain new abilities from them. Instead, they largely give you increased percentages and can grant access to some previously inaccessible loot. This aspect of the element alone can range from being a non-issue to becoming a boring, menial checklist exercise. Most of the tree you’ll complete without intentionally doing so, as the requirements usually ask you to complete X task X times and often involve combat. It becomes a noticeable issue when you are expected to do the non-rpg like tasks like playing a mini game repeatedly, using a character’s favorite pouch item X number of times, talking to uninteresting npcs X number of times, etc. Tasks that don’t ask anything of your creativity or add anything necessary to the experience, and quickly become monotonous if you want a desired affinity at any point. It feels out of place in a system that attempts to be oriented around role playing in the usual sense.

    What elevates this issue higher is that this system is largely unimportant, as the player is already capable of steamrolling just about any encounter effortlessly without ever even knowingly acknowledging affinities. The game tells you of the system’s inclusion through text, but it doesn’t teach you through gameplay and structure. It’s not as though the affinities acquired grant any extra layer of customization and evolve the way you solve a problem. You’ll get a majority of these buffs eventually through normal play and they usually just make easy encounters that much easier. As a result, nothing had compelled me to stay on top of them. In an attempt to not make affinities completely redundant and to pour salt in the wound, the developers included a part during the story where you must either have a certain affinity to a certain level to progress the story, have numerous blades who have the affinity too, or you have to wait for a 30 minute mercenary mission to complete so the game can reach the threshold for you (which is the option most players chose). I like downtime in games when they time and execute it right, but using it in this manner brings things to an abrupt halt and hurts pacing. Expecting players to pay attention to something that’s been so insignificant up to this point, then punishing them for ignoring it by preventing story progression for at least a certain amount of time is a rather lazy way to reinforce the system’s importance. Luckily moments like this are very rare and it won’t make things literally impossible, but it makes the poor execution all that much more apparent.

    Poppiswap

    There are other flaws with this system too, such as Poppi requiring a separate progression system. It’s a minigame that hurts the cohesiveness of everything, requiring I take time aside from the usual progression systems by playing Tiger Tiger repeatedly. I don’t see why Poppi couldn’t have the same system as everyone else (I think the “she’s a robotâ€?excuse is a bit silly) and find that it adds more busy work to progression. The minigame itself grows old quite quickly since it’s so simple, certain levels only unlock as you level up Poppi, and doesn’t require much skill to score highly, making this problem worse and turning the experience into a monotonous trudge.

    For Comparison

    In a sense, many of these issues remind me of the ones that plagued Persona 2: Innocent Sin. In Innocent Sin, the game introduced numerous new types of affinities, status effects, Persona Ranks, exploitable weaknesses, and fusion spells, all with the intent of granting the player greater customization and added depth with each encounter. However, nearly every encounter didn’t demand the player do much strategizing or mid battle tactics and could easily be defeated by spamming most fusion spells. This undermined the intent the developers had behind all of these features. What effort you put into the system isn’t worth the result it yields if you can go about doing it in an easier, less tedious way. Especially since your only reward for paying mind to its mechanics is an encounter that goes by a little faster. There’s no rewarding feeling without any struggle. When the sequel Eternal Punishment came out, it had a few of the same flaws but rectified the core of Innocent Sin’s systems through proper enemy design and balance. Even after so many years, Eternal Punishment is still a solid rpg thanks to purposeful equipment systems, customizable statistics to create unique builds on subsequent playthroughs, and direct control over the types of tarot cards you recieve and the Personas you acquire with them. With the unique boss design, Innocent Sin’s sequel still asks the player strategizes and thinks critically of each obstacle and its systems all while leaving enough room for experimentation each time you return to it.

    Self-Imposed Challenges

    Some people may be asking, “If this system is too easy and superfluous, why doesn’t he just only use the blades generated from core crystals? Why not put the characters in one of the other two classes? Bosses won’t be as much of a cinch and at least you’ll get more value from using aux cores, elemental properties, and weapons upgrading.â€?To tell the truth, focusing on building your common blades or shifting class focus doesn’t change how encounters are still “high DPS to winâ€?affairs. The game still isn’t testing your cleverness to conquer opponents. Games don’t become good just from self imposed challenges and restrictions on yourself. The game isn’t what’s setting the bar, it’s the player who is. At that point, the player is the one making the game and setting the rules for said game. Take a game like Bayonetta for instance. If Bayonetta featured the same punching bag enemies seen in Dynasty Warriors games and didn’t have a balanced scoring system to bolster your moveset, the game would not be nearly as enrapturing as it actually is. The player would have to set their own restraints and rules to make the experience more engaging. For an RPG to be of the highest quality, all of its elements need work together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. To insist something is a good product because of limitations one sets on themself to make it more appealing is a case of tunnel vision. You wouldn’t be taking into account the game in its entirety and everything it offers as a whole.

    Overall

    All of the flaws in Xenoblade 2 come together to undermine the goals of the gameplay. The game doesn’t aim to teach or evolve itself with its combat ideas, ending in an experience filled with stagnation and wasted potential. Everything works on a superficial level and nothing more. There are a few good and interesting ideas here and there though, like some enemies being able to be put into a driver combo from their specific animation states, certain affinity levels with blades unlocking new sidequests, and exploration rewarding the player with materials to level towns and give you better loot. There’s even one well designed boss, where the game asks you figure out what triggers some of its attacks while planning a way take advantage of blade combo status effects, chain attacks, and elemental bursts to overcome it. I was briefly reminded of some of my favorite jrpg’s. But sadly, without a good plot or cast, proper execution, and with some downright bad design choices, Xenoblade 2 becomes an experience that’s less than half-baked. 4/10

    Rating:   2.0 – Poor

    Product Release: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (US, 12/01/17)

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