Cool environments are cool.
A week and a half of receiving the game and I beat the final boss at ~85 hours. I’m pretty sure the actual time I spent playing is 75 hours since the clock bugged out once and counted time in sleep mode. Anyway my point is that I found the game extremely addicting and played it nonstop (outside of work and commute and some sleep) for 1.5 weeks. A day after getting off the high of finishing the game and thinking about it a bit, I had to ask myself what exactly compelled me to play this game for 80 hours in 1.5 weeks. The story was cool in the last third of the game but suffered from jarring tone whiplashes and some laughably bad scene execution in the first two. For a game so focused on the main hero and heroine pair I was entirely unable to get invested in either of them, and found myself wishing for more scenes and developments with the other party members. But the game itself was fun. The battle system is pretty entertaining once you’ve unlocked enough options to actively do things in battle instead of standing around waiting for your chatacter’s auto-attacks to charge their Arts, up until Rex’s protagonist abilities wreck everything to the point where no one else can keep up with DPS-wise. The quests suck for the most part since they are usually multi-stage fetch quests where the guy asks you for more shit after you bring him the shit he needs. But really, what impressed me is the environment design. Maybe it’s because all the other games I played this year had shitty linear corridors or confined DRPG mazes or were just so bad they were an Art, but I was incredibly impressed with the beautiful, eventful, sprawling environments in Xenoblade 2. I never played any of the previous Xenoblades so I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the new areas stopped being good at around the same time the plot got good, but 70 hours in and I was still discovering new paths and locations in the early game areas. New places always had cool things to see or stuff to do, secrets to discover but weren’t so massive that I had long stretches of time running through empty places. It reminded me of the maps in Atelier Firis and Ys VIII, both of which I loved travelling through and felt like I was going on a real adventure. Xenoblade 2 has the bonus of being made with a larger budget too, and you can really feel it in the extremely rich グーラ and インヴィディア maps. The リベラリタス islands which come up later are less interesting functionally, but look so cool I feel like I have to mention them. The art direction in this game is incredibly impressive at times. スペルビア, while not exactly beautiful, is also an interesting map due to how much trouble I had figuring out how to get to some areas and resorting to jumping off buildings to try to get to places until I find a height that doesn’t kill me.
For how rich the earlier locations are, the later parts of the game definitely feel like they had less effort put in to their level design. It’s justified since the plot has you going places that aren’t exactly known for their gorgeous scenery, but the game is at its worst when you are forced to go through indoor hallways and the entire final dungeon is the linear corridor that I was praising the game for -not- having. It isn’t a huge detractor since I went through 116 hours of Sen no Kiseki III corridors fine two months ago, but it certainly brought me out of the magic that early-game areas cast on me.
There’s quite a bit to take in regarding the battle system, so the game has the great idea of unlocking many mechanics behind progress. I thought the comabt was fine in the middle parts of the story, but it sure took a while for me to feel like I was actually doing things in battles. The game has a lot of mechanics to explain and there’s no tutorial logs for you to refer back to unlike every other modern game. Early on when you don’t get full access to all the mechanics, trash mobs can take forever to fight and give you less exp than completing a fetch quest. The system is based on auto-attacks and canceling into a chain of arts, which have charge up time based on landing autoattacks. There’s a lot to keep track of with the system, but once you figure out how the system actually works the game becomes kind of easy and repetitive. That’s par for the course for a JRPG I guess, but my interest in the combat lasted a lot longer than most recent JRPGs I’ve played so that’s a plus. Of course Rex becomes unbeatable in pure DPS by the end of the story and fights are either very lengthy because the enemy has too much HP, or easy because you end up learning to abuse Rex’s exclusive mechanics. Gameplay-wise I actually enjoyed Chapter 7 when Rex doesn’t have access to Homura/Hikari and became much less smooth to play, forcing me to mess with a new setup and control Meleph for a while where I learned the true wonders of the evasion tank and the very cool manual evasion skill.
Speaking of gameplay, you obtain non-story and non-sidequest Blades through gacha. Someone somewhere interpreted the success of soshage as “people actually enjoy gacha as a gameplay mechanic” and ended up half-heartedly putting it into an offline single-player game. The game autosaves when you pull and I ended up getting mostly commons from the Epic Cores which are supposed to have the highest rate of getting Rares. Furthermore, your Blades are tied to the character you decided to pull for and the only way to move blades between characters is to consume a rare item or release it and pray for it to pop up again on another character. Draw a healer on your tank character or a guard type on your healer? Tough luck. The game also doesn’t directly tell you that you need to use a rare consumable to transfer a Blade to another character either, so I ended up wasting one on a common Blade early on when testing the feature. The saving grace is that you get a number of decent Blades through non-gacha methods like by advancing the story and doing certain (long. multi-step) side quests, and that unlike in a lot of soshage the common Blades are not actually garbage and getting a Rare early on doesn’t mean you instantly wreck everything.
There’s a character who doesn’t use Blades but a customizable robot girl, except to actually be able to customize her you need to repeatedly play a certain minigame. I ditched him as soon as another character who fills his role came, as I did not want to spend time playing a minigame to make him actually good in the main game. This is some design reminiscent of the PSX/PS2 era right here, where games were allowed to force you to play and win some kind of irrelevant minigame that directly affects your progress in the main game. Personally I think it’s kind of cool that the developers had the guts to do this in a 2017 modern JRPG marketed to a wide audience (nevermind that I think Xenoblade 2 is actually more directed at a very specific user base much narrower than what the scale of the marketing aims to hit), but a good number of people seem to dislike it and I myself never bothered with the minigame and dropped Tora for Meleph ASAP.
I have a problem with the general interface of the entire game as well — it’s like they designed it to be as user unfriendly as possible for a game with so many unique mechanics. You will find yourself reaching for options buried 3 menus deep quite often, and boy the menus themselves are also laggy as fuck. But that’s not the worst. The biggest, most atrocious crime the game commits is making X the fast travel shortcut and + the menu. That’s like making triangle the fast travel and start the menu on a ds4 controller. Every time I try to fast travel I end up opening the menu and every time I need to mess with Blades and arts I end up opening fast travel. The menus are slow and I still have not gotten used to this after 80+ hours of this game. You may think I’m being awfully nitpicky about menus and buttons, but if you’re going to make the player spend lots of time fiddling in the menus and constantly check certain screens, going with a clunky interface and unintuitive shortcuts makes the experience far more frustrating than it has to be.
Speaking of annoying features, the minimap options suck and the quest marker is both more complicated and less helpful than the simple 3D pointer from the 3 hours of Xeonblade 1 I played on the 3DS. In Xenoblade 2 I have to look at the quest marker, constanly check the minimap, sometimes open up the fast travel map to get a better sense of direction since you can’t view the entirety of the minimap, and still look around at my surroundings to triple check where I’m heading. I got used to this eventually — not the sense of direction but the habit of checking 3 things at once to know where I’m supposed to go. It’s just like real life!
I enjoyed the level designs and some of the battles. I really did. But there’s a lot of basic quality of life stuff that the game could have easily improved on if they spent more time playtesting it.
As for the non-battle stuff, the first thing that stood out to me was how much Xenoblade 2 aimed for that adventurous PSX/PS2 feeling. It begins with a premise and carries on with a structure reminiscent of that era, luring you with the smell of a grand adventure in the air. I love the kind of JRPG that makes you travel across lands with fun party members and go through a fun journey exploring new areas before the real deal plot kicks in, and welcome extremely ANIME moments with an open embrace. Xb2 started off with a tone that gave me this kind of expectation and actually followed this structure pretty well, except there’s just something really off with the script/dialogue and comedic sense that made a lot of the early game more 寒い than charming. I don’t mind mixing in ANIME comedy in a serious plot, but a lot of the scenes in the early main story are corny in a 90’s kind of way combined with hollow characterization that did not bring out the full potential of the party members. Whether the comedic scenes work really depend on the person and I actually liked many of the kizuna talks, but most of the comedy in the main story cutscenes feel kind of off or half-baked. I think if you’re going to do silly comedy, you either stick them all into side events and make the main story cutscenes serious, or really commit to perfecting the comedy aspects so that they don’t feel like a weird tone whiplash.
I expected more good scenes with Meleph and Zeke since they bring a different flavor to the party than two kids and a Nopon with a robot girl fetish, but they joined late and stopped having cool scenes after becoming permanent party members. Zeke was fun before he joined the party and and Meleph is amazingly ponkotsu in kizuna talks, but they were basically used as wallpaper and meatshields in the real deal story scenes later on. It’s a real shame, because they are fun in kizuna talks. I was basically more interested in the side party members than the main duo that the game chooses to focus on, but the game really didn’t want me to divert my focus. The main story is focused on Rex and Homura/Hikari with some Nia and Tora (or Hana, rather) moments here and there, but I couldn’t really care for Rex or Homura even if I appreciate what the game tries to go for with the former. With Homura you barely see any exploration of her character outside of her outlined heroine traits before the game just pulls her and Rex together into their own world and are moved mostly by external forces in the story, and then later in the game she gets sidelined for Hikari for plot relevance. It’s like watching the hero and heroine start off at high affection for each other the moment they meet, skipping any attempts at appealing to the player or building up some kind of chemistry to pull me in. I was wondering if I became a jaded individual who can no longer enjoy a straightforward boy-meets-girl scenario, but I think I just don’t find the appeal in Homura or Rex or the dynamics of their relationship. Design-wise I like Nia (both forms) so maybe I am just a salty moebuta on a sinking ship. Looking back it’s a lot more enjoyable when you just watch the main romance like you’re watching a silly romcom anime from the 00’s. Except whenever I’m watching one, the girl I prefer is also the one who gets majorly shafted…ok so yeah it’s exactly like a romcom from another decade. And that’s not really what I’m looking for in a big profile JRPG.
While reactions to the silly antics of the beginning of the game vary from person to person, some of the mid-game scenes are just really badly executed. The writers obviously knew what stage setup they wanted for the last third of the game with its non-stop story, but something tells me they didn’t really think through how to setup that stage. Between a scene where someone sets up a shield to protect everyone from an explosion and then walking out of it as the explosion happens, and introducing a character and barely letting the player get to know her before killing her off, I had trouble recognizing the intended emotional effect for the player and sat there confused as I watched the dramatic emotional outbursts. The latter could have definitely be fixed with more character development, but the former scene was actually so bad it was hilarious again and I thanked it for the ultra good Blade it gives. I wasn’t all that emotionally invested in the main party or the narrative at that point so watching all these extremely forceful developments were kinda entertaining in a way, and there were some neat flashbacks and conversations here and there with Shin and Metsu. It’s also extremely weird for the main party to not question a certain character as being obviously evil, given a later scene that shows that at least one person there should be sharp enough to detect that something is “off”.
I didn’t mind the really OLD ANIME stuff like the giant robot maid which felt like I was wandering into another era, but the early chapters had weird diversions like a random kid stealing your core crystal that you have to chase after to a land you’ve already been to. If you’re going to put in a bunch of diversions and world-building, might as well go all the way out there. The game is very long due to the amount of shit that is there to get you sidetracked, so it doesn’t hurt to just have even more text.
For what it’s worth I thought the last third of the story was solid, and even in the early portions of the game I progressed forward with a surprisingly good momentum. The game has so much stuff to distract you with that you will always feel like you’re doing something, and two hours go by in the blink of an eye. I think JRPG fans who happen to enjoy the exploration and variety of options in Zelda BotW would appreciate the amount of stuff to distract you from advancing the plot in Xenoblade 2. It’s a game that I ended up genuinely enjoying, at the expense of swearing at some design decisions every two hours or so in my 80 hour playthrough. The strong parts are strong and left a good impression on me, but the amount of clunky and unpolished stuff balanced it out with sheer numbers. I couldn’t get invested in the main boy-meets-girl romance in the way Takahashi intended but Nia had a very cute character model for me to appreciate from every corner in every cutscene (the main charm point are the fangs obviously) and I was a fan of Meleph’s design as well. I do think some of the complaints about Homura’s very otaku-targeted design are justified since Xb2 did get marketed like a game targeted towards a wider general audience and the game gets kind of ridiculous with its boob models and camera focuses in serious cutscenes. I just kinda assumed that Blades all dress like 痴女 and let it slide but I guess people are stricter on this type of thing on a Nintendo console.
If I had to be truly honest, despite the game’s focus on Homura’s tits I was much more interested in Hikari’s t h i c c thighs. And Nia’s. Instead of boobs and jiggle physics, JRPGs should master the appeal of thighs for sure. Hats are also great and the animation where Meleph holds down her hat is my strike zone, but that’s some next-level stuff that I can’t explain the exact appeal of. True gap moe is the gap between a girl with her hat on and hat off.
The English localization is a more interesting topic — the dub gives everyone dank British accents and the script actually seems quite good from some of the videos I checked. Certain lines do sound more suave in their English counterparts, and the British accented dub will probably become weirdly charming if I were to ever play this game in English. I guess they changed all the Blade names from Japanese mythology references to Greek mythology references, which is kind of weird but there’s no actual purpose to the Blade naming scheme other than being Cool so it doesn’t really matter in the long run. Kagutsuchi is a fire blade and Watatsumi is a water blade, what else is new. My knowledge of Greek mythology is probably even worse than my knowledge of Japanese mythology because I don’t play enough western games so I won’t debate about this, but it’s certainly a very interesting localization choice. The only thing the game loses out by being in English is Meleph’s very androgynous voice and pronoun dropping, because I realized her gender at about the same time as Tora did in a kizuna talk. And I guess Zeke sounds less unique in English because literally everyone has a dank accent there. And Nia sounds too old and loses some of her charm…actually I just reminded myself why I haven’t touched a JRPG in English in years, nevermind. I laughed at some of the English cutscenes I looked up because Rex sounds like some monotone ossan instead of a hot blooded young boy.
Any more and I’d be rambling but I enjoyed my time with Xb2, despite there being a lot of elements in both the system and characters/writing that would be very easy to nitpick on and bash. The one thing that most people can agree on is that the soundtrack is good, at least. And the resolution when undocked is pretty shit and even in docked mode the game could really use something like the PS4’s graphical power to enhance its beautiful areas since the art direction is so good (インヴィディア in 4k would make me lose my mind). But it still looks really nice as it is right now, as long as you play it docked.