Monday, June 11, 2018

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (Switch)

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a JRPG exclusive for the Nintendo Switch.  It is the third game in the Xenoblade Chronicles series (and part of the bigger Xeno series).  Since Xenoblade Chronicles X was considered more of a spin-off / departure, this was given the title "2".  Starting with the major issue of the game and the one that's received the most negative press, is the inconsistent graphics.  Sometimes, it looks amazing, other times, it looks degraded.  Playing the game in Docked Mode will give you the best experience, as there are too many graphical compromises in Handheld Mode.  The game uses dynamic resolution and at certain places in Handheld Mode, it looks like a blurry pixilated mess that not even the smaller size of the Switch's screen can help.

That being said, there are still often noticeable drops in resolution in Docked Mode.  The game has a LOT of subsystems but lets talk about the battle system first.  It uses the battle system from the first Xenoblade Chronicles as a base and then adds plenty of features and twists.  It takes a while before everything is unlocked so while it may seem slow and boring at first, eventually it'll grow into a complex and satisfying battle system but you may have your doubts along the way.  First off, the human characters are Drivers, and with them, they wield Blades, sentient beings that come from Core Crystals only for their chosen Driver.

The Blades provides assistance to Drivers during battle such as improved accuracy and evasion.  Characters will auto-attack which builds up the gauge to use their Driver Arts, special attacks which are mapped to three of the face buttons.  As you use Driver Arts, another gauge is filled which is mapped for the fourth face button, once it's full (and it can go up in levels up to 4), you get to use a Blade Art.  Each Blade is aligned to an element such as Fire and Water, once you use a Blade Art, you can initiate Blade Combos.  Up on the top right of the screen is the path you can take to utilize Blade Combos and deal extra damage.

As the path for Blade combos usually use different elements, it's a good idea to equip your characters withe Blades of different elements.  Each character can equip up to three Blades which you can swap during battle.  Once you complete a Blade Combo to its third tier, it leaves an Elemental Orb that coincides with the last element of the Blade Combo.  Now, on the top left is the Party Gauge, where once it is full you can execute a Chain Attack.  Your party members, of whom you can use three at a time, will continue to attack as long as you destroy the Elemental Orbs that you've placed earlier.

As you destroy Elemental Orbs during a Chain Attack, your attack multiplier gets bigger and once you've destroyed a number of orbs, you execute the ultimate attack and afterwards, you would have easily dealt over 2.5 million damage.  Of course, only bosses survive up until this point where you can use such an attack.  There are a few more nuances and features that only the main character, Rex, can utilize but otherwise, that's the general gist of it.  Of the three party members, you only control one.  Positioning isn't as important as the first game since Blade Combos are the way to go, but you still get bonus damage such as if you attack enemies from behind using certain Driver Arts.

Now, the game has various other complex subsystems fused into one package.  You have quests, Merc missions where you send Blades for a certain amount of time for items and experience, obtaining Blades via a random number generator, Field Skills from Blades which unlock interactions with the environment, items to use in a character's Pouch for special attacks, ability charts for both Blades and Drivers, equipment, crafting, salvaging (a quick time event to get unique items) and levels for Driver Arts.  All this feels haphazardly slapped together.  Rather than designed in such a way that each system complements each other, they feel like a discrete mess.

The game needs some serious quality of life improvements, you end up opening the menu every few minutes, and you're more than likely to spend upwards of 30% of your time fumbling about in the menus.  The quality of life issues are not to be understated.  While one or two of them are no issues by themselves, when combined, they really test your patience and shows off the bad design decisions.  It's like the developers didn't even play the game in its final state to see whether it was fun, because it ends up being a tedious mess.  You gain Core Crystals by defeating enemies and you can bond them to each character.  However, which Blade you gets depends on pure luck.  You will most likely get a plethora of generic Blades before finally getting a unique design.

The random Blades is a terrible time wasting system since you can only skip half of the animation and can only reveal one Blade at a time.  Furthermore, as each Blade (and character), is divided into one of three classes, if you so happy to get a Blade that's not your preferred class for a certain character, then you can only transfer the Blade to another character for a limited number of times... in TOTAL (somewhere around 3, until you've maxed out character stats and done other stuff postgame).  Note that battles are designed for a party of Attacker, Healer and Tank, which makes it all the more annoying when at certain points in the story, the removes all other characters and you just have to grit your teeth and push on with the story as quickly as possible to get your party members back.

The hallmarks of Xenoblade Chronicles are here, being the huge environments ripe for exploration and high level enemies roaming the environment straight off the bat.  It takes around three hours in order to get to the first open area, where many enemies roam the battlefield.  You have to be careful to avoid the high level enemies but the annoying thing here is that they actively target you and chase you across half the map before killing you.  If you die, you respawn at the last Landmark you visited, so it isn't too bad most of the time.

The game is not designed for the party to take on multiple enemies at once, yet this is exactly what the game forces you to do in certain areas, leading to certain death.  Running away doesn't work most of the time since they will following you and while your characters need to be in range to attack, the enemies' attack can damage you even when you're on the other side of a boulder 500m away.  One of the biggest complaint, and this is a legitimate flaw, is the way the objective marker works.  The compass at the top is useless since it points to the direction in a straight line but since the environment has many varying heights, it is certain that you will not get there by simply following the general direction.

The minimap is also quite useless but you can pull up a larger one at the press of a button.  Trying to sort out your route beforehand is a pain when you have to keep pulling out the larger fast travel map.  It is easily one of the worst and most frustrating part of the game, especially when it is so crucial for story and sidequests.  There is a day/night cycle and events are tied to time, thankfully, there is a manual skip time option.  The other thing is a weather system of sorts that affects the height of the "Cloud Sea".  It is exactly that, a sea of clouds that Rex can swim in but it being too high means paths will be blocked.

Having the Cloud Sea at a higher height may be required to reach certain areas.  Add this to the list of annoyances the game has because you need to go back to an inn to sleep and then hope it reaches the level you want.  All this effort and it isn't even used much in the game except when it was introduced.  Earlier, there was something mentioned about Field Skills.  These are skills that specific Blades have, and they have used as a roadblock in exploration.  You want to open a treasure chest?  Hope you have these specific skills.  You want to reach that area up on the cliff?  Hope you have these specific skills.  You want to continue on with the story?  Hope you have these specific skills.

You have to spend time to level up Field Skills and if you did not do that during the game, then you will have plenty of hours to grind them up.  This also kills exploration since a lot of the time, after all that effort, you couldn't get to that one point or open up that one chest.  While the environments are huge, it feels like a big waste of time since they have nothing meaningful to do.  You will constantly be jumping in and out of the menu to rearrange Blades to use their Field Skills before going back in to equip your preferred one for combat.

Sidequests are equally boring and tedious.  All of them are multi-part fetch quests for measly rewards most of the time.  A lot of the rewards are not worth the time investment yet if you don't do at least some of them, your levels won't increase as quickly since fighting enemies nets you measly experience as well.  Finally, there are numerous shops scattered around a town which means you have to waste time searching for them, then walking to each one individually if you want to buy something.  The shops only stock 2-10 items each... but just feels overkill.  Fewer shops with more variety of items would have been preferred even if it makes less sense because it DOESN'T WASTE YOUR TIME.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a slow start.  The first two hours can be tough to push through but once the major cutscene happens and Rex gets his Blade partner, Pyra, the game gets a lot more enticing.  Unfortunately, it quickly loses its pacing for most of the game before picking it up again towards the end.  Like the first game, the English voice acting uses British voice actors but it is average at best since they don't suit the anime style of the characters.  The lip syncing is done to the Japanese voices so that it is horribly off in English and is very distracting.  You can download the Japanese voice pack for free (around 700mb), although you will lose the ability to understand the dialogue outside of cutscenes.

The story concerns Rex, who lives in the world of Alrest.  Alrest is covered in a Cloud Sea and on it rests the Titans, who are gigantic living beings where humans live on or in them.  By chance, Rex encounters and bonds with the legendary Aegis Blade, Pyra.  Together, they decide to go to Elysium, to meet the Architect, the creator of this world.  Of course, they are hampered by various villains and they also meet various other characters that join them on the journey.  There are a few surprising twists, some of which doesn't feel like it works in this world when it is first introduced.

With the twists doesn't feel quite right, there was no warning or hints beforehand that something like that was possible.  There are also plenty of significant events concerning the main characters but by the time they happen, the character development hasn't progressed enough for the player to care as much as the scenes warranted.  It still impacts you, just not as hard as it could have, unlike the original Xenoblade Chronicles where every major scene hit hard.  It feels like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn't know what it wants its identity to be.  On the one hand, it wants to be this serious open-world Western influenced RPG.  On the other hand, and this prevails a lot more, there are typical JRPG cliches with no attempt to avoid the predictability, and the scenes and characters are goofy and cheesy, so it fails heavily.

Scenes fall flat even when there are supposed to be intense emotions.  Everything feels melodramatic, even for a JRPG, but you simply do not care because there is little meaningful character development.  Rex remains useless and unable to protect Pyra, neglecting her and not understanding her powers and weaknesses.  This ends up detrimental in more than one scenario but Rex just whines when he loses so spectacularly.  While the game is built on cutscenes, it gets really obnoxious towards the end when you walk a few steps and it's a long cutscene.  Then another few steps and another long cutscene.

At times you wonder what is the point of allowing you to walk in those brief periods between cutscenes in the first place?  Sure, it might have given you an opportunity to go to another city to grind or whatnot, but since it already gave you three chances beforehand, surely they could have led straight into the next cutscene.  The bosses are the perfect difficulty, unless you rush the game and did not gain many levels.  That said, there are still plenty of stupid battles including one where the enemy constantly goes invulnerable and multiplies.  It was a tedious and boring battle, feeling like they are padding out the already extremely padded game.  The last two to three chapters are fantastic.  There are ten chapters in total and it ups the pacing in the story from Chapter 8 onwards, with things falling into place.

The last few chapters start to have characters showing their true motives and actually act upon them more decisively.  You get resolutions and there is a really neat link back to the first Xenoblade Chronicles.  The ending was solid but predictable, it was emotionally stirring.  This is a long game, depending on how much you explore and how many sidequests you do, it can take anywhere from 60 to 100 hours to finish the story, afterwards you can keep on exploring.  Overall, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an okay game.  It is hampered by too many quality of life flaws, and while all of the things mentioned are typical "features" of JRPG, this game does it so excessively and obnoxiously that it is not fun at all.  It's like the developers wanted to test how much they can get away with wasting the player's time as much as possible.

The quality of life flaws mentioned in this game has started getting patches to fix them.  The playthrough that formed the basis of this review was started before the first patch, and finished by the second patch, thus only some of the flaws were fixed and a lot has remained.  It's probably a good idea to wait until more patches have come out since the game is still rough around the edges and felt rushed.  You'll probably be constantly swapping between being bored, frustrated and enjoyable while playing the game, however, the ending was great, even though it does not justify the huge slog it took to get there.


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