"...one hell of a grand adventure."
An age-old proverb posits that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. One way to interpret this saying is that altruistic endeavors and the ill-willed machinations of those with the intent to cause harm may both lead to devastating consequences. Does intent absolve one and not the other? What happens if one had an opportunity to make things right, yet their new choices are met with similarly disastrous results?
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) tackles this scenario with an overarching narrative that also touches on concepts like the meaning of existence, the horrors of war and subjugation, political intrigue, the power of friendship and love, human hubris, and other similarly profound topics. It's a tapestry of narrative threads that is quite broad, though none but a scant few are ever really delved into too deeply. The end result is a plot that's intriguing, emotional, and ultimately satisfying but with little lasting impact in and of itself.
While the plot is fairly strong, XC2's overall story is enriched by the world in which it takes place and the lives of those struggling to survive there. Alrest is a wonderfully strange world with a fascinating backstory in which humankind lives on the backs of giant Titans that march steadfastly through an unending sea of clouds. I found that unraveling the mysteries surrounding how Alrest came to be, and why the Titans are slowly dying, to be one of the most compelling aspects of the story.
The characters of XC2 are more or less a mixed bag. The protagonist, Rex, is the most uninteresting of the bunch. His cliché naiveté is basically essential to the story, but that necessity leaves no room for growth until the very last moment. The rest of the main party, and a few of the core villains, have much more compelling backstories that unfortunately are not fully explored. Many of the characters also lack much of a personality. I found Poppi the most fun, and it's saying something when the artificial being has more in the way of charisma than the "living" characters. Still, by the end of my adventure I truly came to care for my band of Drivers and developed a bit of an attachment.
At the game's outset, Rex is enlisted by a mysterious group to salvage a mysterious sunken treasure. Shortly after he discovers that the treasure is actually a girl in stasis, Rex is stabbed through the heart and left for dead. The girl, Pyra, revives Rex by giving him half of her life force. In return, Rex promises to take her to the fabled paradise of Elysium. As it turns out, Pyra is actually a legendary Blade known as the Aegis and just about everyone on Alrest wants to get their hands on her.
The crux of both XC2's story and battle system is the relationship between Blades and their Drivers. Blades are living weapons that are bonded with their human Drivers in both combat and companionship. Though not human, Blades are much more than simply sentient swords and shields. They have human-like personalities and emotions, and Driver/Blade combos can share their lives together for decades. While the strength and quality of these relationships vary by Driver/Blade pair, the arrangement lends itself to an interesting narrative arc regarding Blade subservience to humans.
Combat in XC2 is constructed as an active battle system where Drivers wield the power afforded to them by their bonded Blades. Each Blade falls into one of the "holy trinity" roles of tank, healer, or attacker. Drivers can equip up to three Blades at a time and the combination of the Blades' roles determine the Driver's class, which in turn affects various character attack and defense stats. Each Blade allows the Driver to wield a style of weapon, like swords and hammers, which in turn affects the speed at which the Driver attacks and the skills available to them. That might sound like a lot to take in, but we're just getting started here.
Blades provide the Driver with a set of Driver Arts to use during combat, which are essentially power moves that charge up as you auto-attack. Each Blade also has a set of Blade Arts that have a chance to trigger and buff their Drivers. Specials are skills unique to each Blade that also charge with auto-attacks and have four levels of lethality. Then there are Driver Combos, Blade Combos, Fusion Combos, and party chain attacks that can be enhanced by elemental orbs generated by successful Blade Combos.
Does that sound confusing to you? It was certainly confusing to me for the first couple dozen hours or so of gameplay, and the tutorial system does players absolutely no favors with its one-and-done nature. The lack of a proper tutorial menu remains my biggest gripe with XC2 because there's no justifiable reason for neglecting to include a way to revisit the in-game explanations for combat. You can purchase one-liner "tips" from characters in each town, but these are no replacement for hands-on retraining. That being said, it was incredibly satisfying to take down particularly nasty foes when I fully grasped all of the weapons at my disposal.
The game's controversial anime art style looks great, and the developer's explanation that it enables better emotional conveyance through facial expressions has proven justified. However, that anime art style brings with it several anime trappings within the narrative and character designs. Resident pervert Tora tries to get Poppi to wear maid outfits and perform weird dances, and there's even a Heart-to-Heart where he instructs Poppi to train Pyra to be more subservient to Rex. Your mileage may vary on this, and I found it mostly harmless and worthy of a few eye rolls, but fair warning about the jiggle factor, frequent chest shots, and commentary about Mythra's anatomy.
The vistas are absolutely stunning, and I really do not want to undersell how amazing it is to explore the lush and varied landscapes that are Alrest's enormous Titans. The rolling green hills on the plains of Gormott open up to players early on, and it's quite the sight to behold as you fight off monsters while the Titan's giant head sways back and forth in the background. The environments are well designed with various nooks and crannies hiding secrets and, sometimes, powerful enemies that will make quick work of you. While it's not truly open world, the areas you do get to explore are quite large and densely packed with hidden items, beasts, and sidequests. One side note is how awkwardly the environments tend to load, particularly when you fast travel to a location with a lot of environmental detail. For example, your characters and base tiles load first, then the textures and other objects a second or so later. Additionally, while I heard whispers of issues, I didn't run into any performance problems while playing in handheld mode. I did experience two instances where the menu froze and refused to fully load or close, though, forcing me to completely close the game and lose some progress. This seems like a somewhat isolated and intermittent issue, but I felt it worth noting.
From the cheery flutes and horns of Argentum and the folksy strings of Torigoth to the incredible vocal, string, and piano combination of Tantal's wilds, XC2's soundtrack is utterly phenomenal. I often found myself roaming around simply lost in the music. The voice acting, however, is remarkably uneven. While many of the main characters are generally voiced well, there are several instances where the dialogue is spoken clumsily and glaringly out of tune with what appears to be the intended cadence. Awkward pauses, improper inflections, and lack of emotion bordered on ruining several emotionally powerful exchanges. I specifically took issue with Rex's screaming/battle cries during cutscenes. I honestly can't recall hearing less emotion put into shouted dialogue in voice-over work.
The combination of engrossing story, fabulous music, expansive world, and complex yet rewarding battle system make XC2 one hell of a grand adventure. That adventure took me just over 90 hours to complete, by the way, and even then I was only at the same level as the final boss. With numerous incomplete sidequests, undiscovered Blades, high-powered super monsters, and new content on the way, I'm certainly going to enjoy spending even more time exploring the mystifying cloud seas of Alrest. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is definitely a system seller, and if you've been waiting to pick up a Switch, now would be the time.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.