In marked contrast to its predecessor, the Wii U, Nintendo’s Switch has had a storming first year on sale, characterised by a string of incredibly good games. You could almost argue that it doesn’t really need another game of the year contender – but that’s exactly what Xenoblade Chronicles 2 turns out to be.
At first glance, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might appear a rather niche title. It is, after all, a Japanese RPG – a form of game more likely to inspire a cult, rather than mainstream, following. But it was made by Monolith Soft, which worked extensively alongside Nintendo on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the developer has clearly fed that experience back into its own work.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 casts you as Rex, a boy (he appears to be in his teens) scratching a living as a salvager in the bizarre fantasy world of Alrest. Most of Alrest lies beneath the Cloud Sea – a sea, oddly enough, covered by clouds – into which Rex dives to salvage gear that he can sell. He, along with Alrest’s entire population, lives on the back of a Titan, some of which can be the size of an entire continent.
Venturing to the nearest port to sell his salvage, Rex is roped into an expedition to raise a sunken ship by a group of dodgy characters. There they uncover Pyra, who turns out to be the legendary Aegis, most powerful of Blades – weapons that can harness the elements, who exist in human or animal form, but must be wielded by Drivers. Rex bonds with Pyra as her Driver, and an epic quest unfolds. Epic, in this case, is no exaggeration: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is so huge that you’d do well to navigate it in 60 hours; all told, it probably offer over 100 hours of gameplay.
If you’re a fan of anime, you might just as well go and buy it now.
As far as Japanese RPGs go, Xenoblade Chronicles moves the genre forward in just about every discernible respect. It looks simply stunning: if you’re a fan of anime, you might just as well go and buy it now, as it’s right up there visually with the best work of Studio Ghibli and co, and has the typically convoluted but absorbing storyline to match.
It has a great battle system, too – thankfully abandoning a turn-based format in favour of wall-to-wall action. It takes its sweet time in its early stages: the full depth and degree of nuance in the battle system isn’t fully revealed until you’ve completed the third chapter of the game — by which time you’ll have already put in around 15 hours' play.
The open world is gloriously conceived, too. Apart from being a visual delight with shades of Breath of the Wild, it’s full of interesting diversions, including side-missions galore, digging up useful objects (which can be used to enhance your Blades) and solving the odd puzzle. Rex can return to salvaging (a button-mashing mini-game) to acquire objects which essentially can be converted into perks, and there’s even an 8-bit-style game-within-a-game to keep you busy.
The unfolding storyline, which is surprisingly emotional yet manages to avoid descending into schmaltz, sucks you into caring about Alrest itself as well as the major characters — all of which have been granted regional English accencts. Rex is from the north of England, Nia’s Welsh and Vandham’s Australian, an odd combination but one which somehow works and actually enhances believability — implausible as that might sound.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is huge, endlessly absorbing, overflowing with interesting ideas and beautiful to behold. As well as a shining example of the genre, it makes you feel a part of the longest, most absorbing anime film you’ve ever encountered. If ever a game was destined to generate a fanatical cult following, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is it. And if you’ve ever wondered why people get so worked up about JRPGs, this offers the ideal means of finding out.