In any other year in recent memory, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 would have been pegged months ago as the measuring stick of Nintendo’s holiday success. Years of struggling in the console market had made significant releases for Nintendo platforms a useful tool to determine where the company was at, and a game on the scale of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 would usually be the centerpiece of a holiday sales blitz. The success of Xenoblade Chronicles X, one of the hidden gems on the much-maligned Wii U, only makes expectations even higher for Monolith Soft’s follow-up effort.
It’s strange, then, to admit that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might have gotten lost in the shuffle ahead of its release this December. The incredible sales of the Switch, buoyed by a year that has been book-ended by game of the year contenders in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, has made Nintendo first-party titles the biggest draw to the console. Surrounded by greatness, can Monolith Soft’s vibrant, open world JRPG carve out a place for itself in the discussion of the best games on Switch?
The answer, to be frank, is unabashedly yes. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a charming title that leans on a complex battle system to bear most of the weight of its hundred-hour runtime. Somehow, in a climate that sees an abundance of hefty video game releases each year, Monolith Soft’s JRPG makes a compelling argument for sinking in nearly a week’s worth of time into it. It has some flaws, and won’t win people over the same way that other Switch releases this year did, but Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is yet another entry into the Switch library that is a “must play.”
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes place on the world of Alrest, a planet that is entirely submerged underneath something called the Cloud Sea. The world’s various races make their homes on top of (or, in some cases, inside) massive beings called Titans, creatures who float on the top of the Cloud Sea and represent the only safe harbor from an endless ocean of monsters and ruin. Players follow the journey of Rex, a salvager, a traditionally upbeat hero who dives into the Cloud Sea to scrounge up treasures from an ancient age to sell.
Naturally, what starts as a rather simple tale becomes complicated quickly, but the game never loses sight of the thing that makes its story so fun—the bonds between its very over-the-top cast of protagonists. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is fun, and has moments of genuine emotion embedded within a narrative that is equal parts fairy tale and science-fiction war story. Characters like Rex and Zeke are standouts in a cast that is beautifully designed, making up for the fact that characters won’t change their appearance based on equipment over the course of the game.
The game is open-world in every sense, featuring a fast travel mechanic from the very start that allows players to hop between different areas at will to complete sidequests or farm materials for upgrades. Salvaging is a fun mini-game that is also functional, there are countless ways to kill time between exploration, gathering materials, and sub-games, and the main quest clips along at a reasonable pace. Once players began unlocking rare versions of Blades, even more sidequests and story content become available.
Blades are the crux of the game, as they make up the bulk of the story progression, combat, and character customization. Blades are living weapons that only specific people in Alrest can control, and, luckily for Rex, he is one of the lucky few. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 starts with Rex, Nia, and Tora, each of which has one Blade to work with, but the game quickly opens up, with most characters being able to equip multiple Blades at once and alternate through them during combat.
Blades are either tanks, damage-dealers, or healers, and they have skills that reflect that. On top of this, they have elements, which help further deepen the game’s customization options. Common blades are pretty forgettable, but the rare ones—acquired during quests or through sheer luck in a gacha-style acquisition system—have unique abilities in both combat and during exploration, opening up new areas, quests, and more. Blades can level up, get more powerful skills, and often acquire better abilities through actions outside of combat, such as sharing their favorite snack with them. Equipment doesn’t play a huge role in the game, and more of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 revolves around finding a team and skills that work for the player’s preferences.
If there’s one major complaint to be had with the game, it’s that acquiring rare Blades can be extremely difficult, and often comes down to luck. The rare Blades are easily some of the most exciting elements of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and it seems a shame to lock them behind luck-based systems. While this does make the rare Blades seem that much more impressive when discovered, it feels like something near the end-game allowing players to create any Blade through acquiring rare materials would not have gone amiss.
The rare Blades also add a bit more to combat, something on which Xenoblade Chronicles 2 thrives. The combat in this game is almost rhythm-based, or, more accurately, reminiscent of raid fights in World of Warcraft—figuring out optimal rotations of abilities and Blades can make fights much more accessible. The timing-based executions of special abilities also keep battles exciting, an essential element given that most enemies are spongy in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, with even trash mobs often taking a minute or two to take down. The wait is much more noticeable in the early game, when players don’t have access to the full range of Blade customization, and by mid-way through the major journey players will be beating enemies much quicker. The game’s combat UI can get pretty messy by the time everything is unlocked, but it still works on the Switch screen even in portable mode, although a bit more tightness in that design would have been appreciated.
Ultimately, any qualms to be had with the game—which also includes its somewhat troubling sexualization of some Blades, which feels completely unnecessary and atonal to the rest of the story—are pretty minor. Monolith Soft has crafted a game in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that takes the very best of JRPG elements and mixes it with some of the open world massiveness we’ve seen in titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild this year. As a standalone title in the Xenoblade series, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 gets a very high recommendation from us to both fans of the series and newbies alike—it’s the perfect game to sink way too much time into during the breaks of the holiday season.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is available now for Nintendo Switch. Game Rant was provided a copy of the game for this review.