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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – A Masterclass JRPG

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    Xenoblade Chronicles 2

    Rating: 5.0 – Flawless

    Xenoblade Chronicles 2 – A Masterclass JRPG

    Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a beast. This is a game where director Tetsuya Takahashi wanted everything to be layered: from the world, story, and gameplay, all of it starts off simply and then becomes more and more complex and nuanced. The result is a satisfying game, which you can sink hours upon hours on. I spent 100 hours in order to beat the game at a leisurely pace doing maybe a quarter of the sidequests, and I can easily imagine completionists spending several hundred hours, which will probably make you rub your hands with glee if you fall in that camp. On the other hand, if you’re the type that just wants to rush through the main game, much like my friend Dan, he reports that he was able to finish the game roughly under 60 hours. While I had an absolutely amazing time, there’s no question XC2 does have minor flaws, which may be the reason why major reviewers feel the need to ding the score of the game. Coming from the perspective of a JRPG fanatic, I would argue that while XC2 isn’t perfect, what we have here is one of the best JRPGs of all time.

    First, the story. Much like the Final Fantasy series, XC2 is a standalone title, and players can get into the game without having played the first. XC2 centers around a young boy Rex who earns a living by scavenging the cloud sea for treasure. While the world is currently at peace, tensions are rising because the enormous creatures, Titans, that people live on are dying out. Every day, there is less and less land for people to live on, and different nations begin to plot out nefarious plans to ensure their survival. Our hero Rex believes that the secret to saving everyone lies in the mysterious Elysium and soon gets sucked into a wild adventure involving Pyra – the legendary Aegis Blade, Elysium, and saving the world.

    My favorite part of any JRPG is the story, and good story-telling will suck me into the plot and make me fall in love with the characters. Unfortunately, this is XC2’s weakest point as I would grade it a B+ due to personal preference. Throughout your adventure you will travel to new worlds and meet several characters with interesting personalities, however, it is immediately apparent that the story was designed to be tightly focused on Rex’s and Pyra’s journey to Elysium.

    While there is nothing wrong with this, if you have seen your fair share of anime or played JRPGs in the past, this is still that same story but without the frills. What is told is well-executed, but for me the things that I love in stories are character backstories, human drama, and interesting banter among party members. And these things just aren’t given enough weight.

    Let me give an example. The coolest part of the world-building here is the concept of Drivers and Blades. A Driver is a person that is able to resonate with this blue diamond called a Core Crystal, and summon a powerful entity called a Blade, which in turn bestows power onto the Driver. Now in this world there are common Blades, which are your generic-looking fighters, and rare Blades, which have unique looks and personalities. Obviously, people in the world, and you as the player are going to want the rare Blades, and this is a perfect set-up for some interesting story-telling.

    One story idea I had goes like this: a young boy unrelated to your party is being teased for having resonated with a common Blade while his friends all have rare Blades. The boy despite already being lucky having resonated with a Blade at all, begins to resent his Blade despite the it being caring and loving towards its master. Rex would try to explain to the boy how it didn’t matter whether his Blade was common or rare, but in a fit of protest, the boy runs away into the woods. Rex and the boy’s Blade chase after him only to find that the boy is being attacked by a monster. The boy’s Blade sacrifices itself to protect the boy, and as Rex finishes off the monster, the boy and the dying Blade talk. With a smile on its face the Blade tells the boy it hopes that the next Core the boy resonates with will be one that he actually wants, and it is at this point that the boy realizes that he doesn’t want any other Blade but this one. The Blade disappears, and as the sun sets, Rex watches the boy cry softly in the woods.

    This is the kind of stuff I like, story that employs the use of emotion and allows the main characters to take a step back to let other characters breathe. XC2 does have this, but it’s found mainly towards the end of the game and sprinkled in a few of the subquests. The first chapter is absolutely exciting and gets you hyped, but the next couple of chapters feel bland in comparison as the game lays down the foundation for the world. The emphasis of the cutscenes lie in the characters talking about where to go next, battles stopping mid-fight as the good guys ¡°strategize¡± while the bad guys wait, and teasing mysteries.

    Thank heavens that the story gets a lot better after chapter 4. When the story introduces most of the cast and Titan nations, that is when the game starts to make the plot more complicated and dense. Characters will start talking to one another instead of just talking to Rex, mysteries that were teased get answered while more mysteries are introduced, and heart-to-heart conversations, which I love to death, become more available. It almost feels that the developers wanted to make the beginning of the game bland so gamers focus more on learning the gameplay. I want to reiterate that the story in the beginning isn’t bad per se, it’s just that there isn’t enough interesting content there to justify the 20-30 hours you invest into it. And I can assure you that if you get past that section and make it to the end, that the plot will pay off.

    The one last thing I want to talk about concerning the story are the characters. Rex, the titular hero, is thankfully well-made. He is this young boy who has a positive attitude about going after his dreams, but also has that naivete that comes with being young. You’re going to see his philosophies being tested throughout the game, and it is absolutely great seeing his emotional reactions. Pyra serves as the kind, older girl-like figure that bonds closely with Rex. You’re going to see her grow closer to Rex with time, and her development is satisfying as well. I won’t spoil the other characters, but they are all great with a couple being absolutely stand-out. While the end party as a whole isn’t what I consider a top tier cast (e.g. Tales of Symphonia, Persona 5, Mass Effect), there definitely are characters that have ended up as my favorite of any games I’ve played. One piece of advice, I highly encourage you to watch as many heart-to-hearts as you can to get the most out of the characters.

    Next, the world. The world is stunning and really what makes Xenoblade stand out from other JRPGs. What you are going to get are large sprawling maps that you can travel from end to end without any loading screens. From the signature grassy plains to snow-covered ancient ruins, the worlds of XC2 are beautiful and littered with creatures and secrets galore. One issue I had with Xenoblade Chronicles X was that the world was very much open-world in the sense that the map was so large, and I had little clue about which sections were safe for my characters with their current levels. XC2 feels more focused as each world contains a linear main road to get from location to location so that players who want to concentrate on advancing the story can do so without getting too lost. There are groups of mob enemies and insanely high-level creatures that will kill you if you’re a little too adventurous, but XC2 feels the best of the three games in that it never becomes a big issue. In fact, one of the best parts of the game is going back to previous sections to where creatures who once killed you in a couple hits are now so weak that they can do nothing but look away as you stare them down.

    There’s a lot to do in the worlds and towns. You can find secret treasure chests unlocking goodies, talk to NPCs to get subquests and mercenary quests, buy shops to gain party boosts, salvage for treasure, and more. This is where the concept of layers comes back again. If there is something that you need for your party, like get more money, get upgrades for your characters, or get Core Crystals the game has a way for you to do it. Surprisingly, in a game this complex, nothing feels unfair or overly difficult. Speaking of Core Crystals by the way, you’re going to get hooked on trying to unlock as many rare Blades as you can.

    The concept of unlocking Blades is based on the principle of gacha games. You spend in-game currency, Core Crystals, and get back a Blade at random. There are shy of 40 rare Blades most of which can only be obtained by using one of three types of Core Crystals: common, rare, and legendary. For me, I was able to get my rare Blades roughly 1 out of 40 common Core Crystals, 1 out of 10 rare Core Crystals, and 1 out of 5 legendary Core Crystals. What it means in practice is that unless you hardcore farm for Core Crystals, you’re going to end up with probably only 2/3rds of all the rare Blades in a single playthrough and a dumpster-full of common ones. Rare Blades have more battle abilities, unique field abilities, and their own sub-quests with voiced cutscenes so inevitably you want to get them if you can, but you will have a hard time both with getting as many as you want and the type that you want. The silver lining here is that while useful, they are in no way necessary to beat the game, and you very well can defeat the final boss having a few common Blades in your party.

    It is here where I want to applaud Nintendo for not incorporating microtransactions. Because of the low probability of getting rare Blades especially as the probability seems to get even lower the more rare Blades you have, you need to get a ton of Core Crystals. If this were any other company, they would have included a microtransaction system to spend a few dollars to get more Core Crystals. Thankfully, it’s purely just gameplay. Again, for me video games are at their best when I am immersed in them, and microtransactions take gamers out of the game and leave a bitter taste in their mouths. I’m sure there is a market for games that utilize the ¡°pay-to-win¡± system, but I’m not part of that market, and I’m glad Nintendo is one of the few companies that care about their core titles and audience.

    This leads me to the battle system. The battle system is the best part about the game, and the best I’ve seen from any JRPG. Period. The battle system is layered, so let me start from the bottom and work my way up. You have three active characters on the field at any given time, of which you pick one to control. When you see an enemy that you want to fight, you unsheathe your weapon and without any input, will auto-attack it. Now your input comes from Arts, special attacks that can do a variety of things. Some will spawn out potions in addition to the attack, some will give you a boost if you attack the enemy’s side, and some can affect an enemy’s stance by breaking it. Arts can’t be spammed because they fill up via auto-attacks. So, the process goes like this: you walk up to an enemy let your character auto-attack to fill up your Art attacks, and then choose which attack to unleash whereby that Art needs to recharge again. It is here where you already begin to strategize ¨C do I use my Anchor Shot Art, because it spawns potions? Anchor Shot also has the feature of Toppling an enemy over, but in order to Topple an enemy I have to wait for one of the AI’s to Break the enemy’s stance, but do I want to wait? Choosing which Art and when to use it is a key part of your battle strategy.

    Now the Arts you have available are dependent on the weapon your character has, and that’s where Blades come in. See your characters don’t have any weapons to equip for themselves, instead they use the weapons that their Blades use. Each character has up to three Blades only one of which is active on the field with the others being able to switch in if you want. Each Blade not only has a weapon type, but also an elemental type. While fighting, the character builds up an elemental attack that can charge from Stage I all the way to Stage IV. Once you unleash an elemental attack, an elemental combo pathway appears at the top right portion of the screen showing which element is required next. Ultimately, you want to do a three-elemental combo otherwise known as a Blade Combo to rack massive damage.

    Now Blade Combos are easy enough to do after you play around with the system, and so you may want to spam them since they do massive damage, but the game knows this. After you perform this combo an elemental orb will appear around the enemy that will weaken future Blade Combos to that element. These orbs actually can be exploited with the Chain Attack system, which does an even more insane amount damage, and I’m not even covering all the things you can do in a fight, but I think the point comes across that there are a multitude of subsystems within an actual fight.

    Now the game does a good job at providing tutorials that ease you into the system. These tutorials are heavily concentrated during the first ten-fifteen hours in and then every once in awhile throughout the game. The game starts off slowly with giving you only one character to control without any Blades, and then slowly introducing additional AI and more Blades. Subsystems are introduced one at a time, so you never are overwhelmed with what to do. However, that being said, you as the player are really going to have to experiment around with what you’re given, but I don’t think most players will have trouble progressing through the game as it tends to be on the more lenient side of things.

    The music created by lead composer Yasunori Mitsuda is godlike. Maybe you’ve heard of a little game called Chrono Trigger? Yeah, he did the music to that, and what he’s done for XC2 is absolutely perfect. The music is distinct and serves as backdrops to the world and fit so damn well. Every world, every battle, and every scene has music that carries a sense of purpose. There is nothing I want to add here except how hauntingly beautiful ¡°Shadow of the Lowlands¡± is.

    The English voice acting here is good, but nowhere as stellar as the casting for Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Shadows of Valentia or in general, Atlus titles. I think two of the issues were that the script tried to match the lip-syncing as much as possible and some of the voice actors were worried about overacting. These were safe calls to make, but in certain scenes, you’ll have wished that the voices were just a tad more emotional and natural. Thankfully, my favorite characters ¨C a certain Nopon and his Blade ¨C were voiced just perfectly, and honestly, the vast majority of the time you’ll be happy with the English VAs. For those who are worried, there is also a free Japanese voice pack download so you’re covered on all fronts.

    The two things that really annoyed me about the game were the negative effects of the dynamic resolution as well as the process of bringing up a map. Occasionally, you’ll find during intense battles or cutscenes that there is increased aliasing, and the sharp outlines of the characters become jagged. These changes last for maybe a brief few seconds, but at these moments you’ll feel that you stopped playing an HD game have gone back to standard definition. I believe this was done to preserve framerate and short loading times, but for me it was a definite issue that I wished wasn’t present.

    The other issue is bringing up the map. There is no way to quickly bring up a nice map of where you’re located. You can click on the left thumbstick to bring up a map that overlays with the screen, but this map doesn’t provide a clear view of everything available. You can also press X, but that leads to the map menu, at which point you have to select which Titan world you want, then the main area and then the specific region to see your location. Since one of the other menus has a map menu option, the X map menu feels redundant, and would have been better if it directly opened the specific region map.

    Overall, XC2 is a massive JRPG that excels in atmosphere and gameplay. The story and voice acting are great, but could have used some minor improvements. While there is no new game plus mode, the sheer amount of content in the game means you will have a ton to do especially as there are a ton a hidden areas and enemies that require a much higher level from your party than is required to beat the final boss. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is masterfully designed, and I believe should be cemented as one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. Thank you Monolith Soft and Nintendo for making such an incredible game, and I’m very much looking forward to where you go next with the Xenoblade series.

    Rating:   5.0 – Flawless

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

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