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My 2017 Game Of The Year

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    Anclation
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    Xenoblade Chronicles 2

    Rating: 5.0 – Flawless

    My 2017 Game Of The Year

    The first Xenoblade game absolutely blew me away when I first played it, and my appreciation for it has only grown over the years, to the point where I now consider it one of my favorite games of all time. Xenoblade X, while in my opinion changing many things for the worse, was still a fantastic game judged on its own merits, and is my second favorite Wii U game. As such, my expectations for Xenoblade 2 were very high, though I had at times been a bit concerned: The early trailers were somewhat underwhelming, and even later on there were persistent worries about things like a seemingly slow combat system, bad frame rate and cringeworthy voice acting. Thankfully the finished product, while still suffering from its fair share of imperfections, still ended up doing so many things so incredibly well that it turned out to be a worthy successor to the first Xenoblade, and even ended up being my favorite game of 2017.

    Concept

    Xenoblade 2 is a fantasy-sci fi RPG, very much in the mold of the first Xenoblade game, rather than the less story-focused, pure sci-fi and more ¡°Western¡± Xenoblade X. Reverting back to the old Xenoblade formula is a very welcome move in my opinion, as I felt all along that it represented the best of all worlds: The perfect mix of fantasy and sci fi, of gameplay and story, of linearity and freedom, and of Japanese RPG and Western RPG elements. Despite a number of tweaks and innovations, it all still comes together beautifully in Xenoblade 2 as well. And despite being a numbered entry, this is very much a stand-alone game, and can definitely be fully enjoyed even by people who haven’t played previous games in the series, despite some connections between this and the first Xenoblade.

    The game takes place in the world of Alrest, where there is little solid ground to speak of, just a seemingly endless cloud sea that is solid enough that one can swim around in it. In the middle of this world there is a gigantic tree (known as the World Tree), where the Architect who created this world is said to live. The World Tree is inaccessible to humans, and so the people of Alrest instead live on giant living creatures called titans, the biggest of which serve as the world’s countries. However, this magical place is far from harmonious ¨C the titans are gradually dying out, sinking to the bottom of the cloud sea once they draw their last breath, meaning that living space is dwindling and that the battle over resources is gradually becoming more desperate. All-out world war seems ever more likely, but the even greater problem is that the Alrest itself seems to be doomed regardless of what happens.

    Our main character however, a young salvager named Rex, refuses to accept this outcome. He dreams of reaching Elysium, a mythical paradise believed to be found at the top of the World Tree, and somehow opening it up to all the people of Alrest. An impossible dream you might say, but when Rex through a series of unexpected events manages to awaken the legendary Aegis, an ancient Blade (basically a living weapon) supposedly from Elysium itself, it seems there might actually be a chance of making that dream become reality. However, once news spreads about the Aegis awakening, a number of factions and countries begin the pursuit of Rex and the Aegis (who takes the form of a beautiful young woman called Pyra), desperate as they are to gain control of her power.

    Story and Writing

    Starting off with an interesting premise, the story of Xenoblade 2 keeps things engaging with plenty of neat twists and reveals throughout. It excels in many other areas as well, offering great world building, many powerful, memorable moments and lots of strong, likable characters. The interactions between the various party characters are especially good, easily the best in the Xenoblade series so far ¨C the teasing, the banter, the heartfelt confessions, even the romance, it all feels so real, and truly makes the characters come alive. On a more negative note, there is one particular type of reveal that feels a bit overused (people who have finished the game will know exactly what I’m talking about), and the motives of certain villains aren’t necessarily that convincing. While I enjoyed the story of Xenoblade 2 tremendously, I do feel that the story in the first Xenoblade is more solid and well put together overall.

    However, in terms of pure heart and emotion, this is easily the strongest Xenoblade story so far. Video game stories rarely even make me tear up (the first Xenoblade made me misty-eyed once), but this game made me cry multiple times, which I really didn’t see coming. Even rewatching cut-scenes now, there are still some moments that get me every time. And despite packing such an emotional punch, the game also manages to fit in a lot of enjoyable humor and comedic moments. Unlike in past Xenoblade games, which basically had designated comic relief characters (which worked fine in the case of Reyn and Riki in the first game, but was a lot less successful in the case of Tatsu in X), most of the party are involved in some really funny moments this time around, without it feeling forced. As a result, this is simultaneously both the saddest and the funniest Xenoblade game so far.

    Graphics

    Starting with the positives, Xenoblade 2 is filled with massive, gorgeous areas that stretch for miles and provide many stunning sights to behold. The variety is top-notch, the use of colors is absolutely lovely and the art design is spectacular ¨C despite the Switch not being the most powerful system out there, one Xenoblade 2 area in particular ranks up there with the most amazing visual spectacles I’ve seen in any video game. The colors are just so pretty, the art design is so beautiful and creative, and the draw distance is simply stunning. Also, the fact that you’re running around on these colossal, living titans, and can actually see them move their heads or tails far in the distance, is truly breathtaking.

    There are however a number of drawbacks. The frame rate, while certainly better than in the early trailers, is still pretty poor in several areas (though strangely, it’s one of the very first areas in the game that has the most consistently bad frame rate). There are also some unsightly graphical glitches from time to time (some even appear in cut-scenes), textures that load a bit late (and plenty of low-quality textures in general), as well as some pretty bad pop-ins and transitionary lighting effects. None of this prevents Xenoblade 2 from still being a very visually appealing game overall, but they are notable issues nonetheless.

    One visual controversy where Xenoblade 2 however most definitely ended up proving its critics wrong relates to the more cartoony, ¡°anime¡± style the game has going on. This style actually fits the game perfectly, and allows for characters that are far more expressive than in past Xenoblade games. The facial expressions in general are extremely well done in Xenoblade 2, and really help make major, emotional scenes that much more effective. Speaking of cut-scenes, they are absolutely superb ¨C the action scenes in particular are better than what you see in many shonen animes and represent a new high for the series, which in general has been known for truly excellent cut-scenes.

    Music and Sound

    There are just so many things I could say about Xenoblade 2’s soundtrack, so instead of spending 5 pages gushing about the best songs in the game, I’ll just sum it up thusly: This game has one of the best video game soundtracks EVER. There are just so many songs that are so incredibly good! Just listen to a few of the Xenoblade 2 songs uploaded to YouTube and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The game is arguably worth buying just for its soundtrack alone.

    The voice acting is however more of a mixed bag. Xenoblade X and especially the first Xenoblade featured consistently excellent English voice acting, but Xenoblade 2 is to a significant extent plagued by uneven voice work. Rex’s voice actor is particularly bad at screaming and shouting, which stands out all the more because the voice actor for Shulk in the first Xenoblade was exceptionally good at precisely that. In general there are quite a few dubious line deliveries from several of the main characters, even in really major scenes.

    However, that’s not to say that the voice acting is bad overall ¨C in fact, for the most part it’s quite good, there are still several voice actors who are consistently excellent, and there are plenty of scenes where all the voice actors involved really nail it. Rex himself sounds good most of the time, it’s mainly the screams he struggles with. I should also mention that the original Japanese audio is available as free DLC, which is pretty neat. Based on what I’ve heard the Japanese voice acting is generally quite good (Japanese Rex certainly has no problems yelling), but there are a couple of recurring characters that have pretty annoying voices. Basically, neither the English nor the Japanese dub is perfect, they both have their strengths and weaknesses, so which one you go with will come down to personal preference.

    Gameplay

    As I mentioned earlier, Xenoblade 2 is basically the perfect mix of Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs. The game is story-driven and strictly speaking linear, with clear quest markers showing you where to go next in order to advance the story. At the same time the different areas are so huge, and there’s so much to, that you can easily spend many hours just exploring and doing sidequests without ever advancing the story. This way the game provides an amazing sense of freedom, while still keeping the overall adventure focused on the bigger goal and sparing the player lots of aimless wandering. Convenient features like quick travel further ensure that the size of the world never becomes a problem for the player.

    Like in past Xenoblade games, the exploration is amazing. While it no longer holds true that you can actually reach any part of the world you can see, there’s still so much to see and do. The game is absolutely gigantic, and yet it doesn’t feel even remotely empty. There are lots of treasure chests to be found in every area, various spots to gather useful collectables, secret areas to uncover, places to use your Field Skills (more on those in a bit) and many, many Unique Monsters (basically optional bosses, some of which are far stronger than the final story boss) to fight. You might also stumble upon surprise side quests while simply exploring a field, or come across Heart to Hearts that show off various funny and/or heartwarming scenes involving your party characters. The sense of discovery is thrilling and exploration feels constantly rewarding ¨C I could return to pretty much any old area for the 6th or 7th time and still find something new. Revisiting old areas is further encouraged due to new sidequests opening up as you advance the story further, and because even early areas are home to really high-level enemies and Unique Monsters that you will only be able to beat much later on.

    The game is overall quite complex, but it introduces you to its many different mechanics pretty gently and gradually. For that reason, the game starts off somewhat slow, but it doesn’t take more than a couple of hours before you arrive at the first truly massive, open area that you’re free to explore, and not too many hours after that before the combat system gets really awesome (more on that later). The complexity of Xenoblade 2 allows for tons of neat customization options, while still feeling easier to grasp and master than the likes of Xenoblade X.

    Blades

    Blades are a huge part of Xenoblade 2, both in terms of story and gameplay. Pyra the Aegis is a particularly important Blade, but there are many Blades in Xenoblade 2, story-critical Blades as well as many completely optional Blades, not to mention Blades used by the villains. These living weapons are very much sentient beings, who come in all shapes and forms (some are not even humanoid) and have unique personalities of their own. There are a bunch of Common Blades available that can be of situational use, but the real draw is the Rare Blades. There are dozens of Rare Blades, and each one is unique in terms of design, battle abilities, buffs and Field Skills. Each Rare Blade also boasts at least one unique Heart to Heart, as well as a big, elaborate, voice acted sidequest. You can have up to 3 Blades equipped to a party character at the same time, though each party character has one plot-critical Blade (such as Pyra) that can’t be removed.

    Perhaps the biggest complaint people have with Xenoblade 2 relates to how you get Blades. Simply put, it’s largely due to luck, as you have to pull Rare Blades from something known as core crystals. There are a number of ways to increase your chance of getting a Rare Blade, but it’s never guaranteed from standard core use. Opening lots of core crystals can be a somewhat time consuming process, and to make matters worse you only have room for a limited number of Blades, so from time to time you will also have to waste a number of minutes releasing the useless Common Blades you pulled. On the plus side, the system does make it likely that each playthrough will be at least somewhat unique, given that you’ll probably pull at least some different Rare Blades from playthrough to playthrough. Furthermore, there are still a number of Story-important Blades and Blades you get from particular sidequests that are not subject to the luck-based system. Basically, unless you are absolutely desperate to obtain every single Rare Blade, or have your heart set on a particular one, the system isn’t really a big issue. You’ll almost certainly finish an average playthrough of Xenoblade 2 with plenty of Rare Blades just by opening the core crystals you find on your journey.

    The Blade-dependent Field Skills have also caused some annoyance among players. Early in the game you will somewhat frequently come across treasure chests and suspicious spots that you can’t do anything with at the moment, because you lack the necessary Field Skills. Some Field Skills aren’t at all difficult to deal with, as even Common Blades have access to for example elemental skills corresponding to their respective type, but others require special Field Skills that only a few Rare Blades have access to, and even require significant mastery of said Field Skill. After I figured out how the system worked, it really wasn’t that bad however. it’s a bit like in a typical Zelda game, when you come across an area you can’t do anything with at the moment because you lack the required item. The fact that every Field Skill spot you find will from then on be marked on the map makes it easy to locate and return to once you have access to the required skills, and is a very welcome feature. From then on, the only real annoyance I had with the system pertained to areas where you have to use somewhat rare Field Skills to advance every single time you’re there, causing additional, unwanted Blade-management in the menus. Such spots are however pretty rare.

    Combat

    The combat system in Xenoblade 2 is a curious beast, simultaneously streamlined and simplified from the first Xenoblade while also having gotten much more complex. With 3 Blades equipped your party character has access to a total of 9 attacks (called Arts), and each one is never more than 2 button-presses away (provided the Blade you need isn’t currently recharging). At the same time, there’s just so much depth to the combat system.

    I’m not just going to try to explain the whole thing in this review, suffice to say that it’s complex, but that it’s explained well enough and gradually enough that you should have a good grasp of it by the time the last main combat mechanic is introduced (despite the game inexplicably not letting you re-watch tutorials). The downside to easing the player into the combat system like this is that the first few hours will see you rely on your auto-attacks pretty heavily, but once you get past that this is easily the best Xenoblade combat system yet. Yes, some enemies do have tons of HP, but you’ll be so focused on chaining together elemental special attacks, pulling off combo attacks, picking up health potions, using the right Arts and positioning yourself to do more damage or avoid particular attacks that you’ll hardly notice. Some battles may take a while, but they’re anything but slow ¨C the battles in this game are intense and action-packed, and all the different Blade- and party combinations result in ridiculous amounts of customization options. The enemy variety in the game is also nothing short of fantastic.

    There are nonetheless some downsides to the combat system. While the AI is better than in Xenoblade X, there are still some occasions where your party will simply not do what you need them to do, especially the healer, who can sometimes seem completely oblivious to the danger the party is in. Also, for some inexplicable reason you can no longer call the party to you in combat (basically your way of having them temporarily retreat from danger in the original Xenoblade), making it much harder to make the AI-controlled party characters get out of, say, a toxic swamp that’s quickly draining their HP. Situations like that don’t come up too often, but it’s very frustrating when they do.

    Conclusion

    There are other issues with the game as well ¨C the platforming elements for example are welcome overall and add quite a bit to the exploration, but still feel just as clunky as in the first Xenoblade. There are also some minor glitches and annoyances that crop up from time to time. However, Xenoblade 2 is overall an absolutely delightful experience, one that kept me utterly hooked from start to finish despite its length. No other game on the Switch has had me glued to the TV screen (I only very rarely play in handheld mode) like this, let alone for more than a month.

    Longevity

    As you might have guessed by now, this game is huge. Just finishing the game normally for the first time could easily take something like 70-80 hours, but seeing and doing everything in the game (even allowing for the fact that RNG might prevent you from getting every single Rare Blade) could easily take 200-250 hours. And all of this is without the Paid DLC that offers additional content. Myself, I’ve spent 200 hours on the game so far, and there are still quite a few things I haven’t done yet. Perhaps even more noteworthy than the game’s massive size is the fact that I still don’t feel burned out, which is a testament to just how much I’ve been enjoying Xenoblade 2.

    Closing Comments

    2017 was a great year for gaming, but despite all the brilliant games that came out that year, there was none I enjoyed more than Xenoblade 2. The likes of Super Mario Odyssey and Zelda: Breath of the Wild might be less flawed and more polished, but Breath of the Wild didn’t have me hooked from start to finish like Xenoblade 2 managed, and Xenoblade 2 complete dwarfs Mario Odyssey in terms of size and scope. Factor in one of the best video game soundtracks of all time, many colossal, gorgeous areas to explore, a fantastic combat system and a story that literally made me both laugh and cry, and there’s little doubt in my mind that this game deserves the title Game Of The Year. Furthermore, it lives up to the legacy that comes with being titled Xenoblade 2, which I if anything would consider even higher praise.

    Rating:   5.0 – Flawless

    Product Release: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Collector’s Edition) (EU, 12/01/17)

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