A number of years ago this scribe was sitting playing Xenoblade Chronicles when a relative walked into the room - what they saw was weird characters and a jumble of text, icons and assorted madness. As we tried to explain what was going on it became clear that it was a doomed task - "it's a quirky RPG" was the get-out-of-jail description we opted to use in the end. "Oh, another one of those is it". End of conversation.
Some games make sense to a broad range of gamers (a term that should mean 'anyone that has played a video game') and are instinctive. This year's mega hits on Switch - The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey - arguably meet that criteria, as we've seen gamers of various stripes enjoy both to great lengths. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will, like its predecessors, likely intrigue but ultimately push away a percentage of Switch owners because of its inherent depth and strangeness. That's absolutely fine, as the games industry needs experiences like this, but let's call it for what it is.
The more pertinent question around this one, then, comes from those - like this scribe - that have battled through the adventures of the Wii original (which also landed on New 3DS) and its Xenoblade Chronicles X spin-off on Wii U - what kind of Xenoblade game is this? Looking back they were very distinct experiences, and having played the new entry for about six hours so far - which is likely to be about 2% of game progress - we reckon this one is certainly a return to the formula of the original, as Monolith Soft has indeed promised. It's less about factions and dictating your path, and more about embarking upon a narrative story.
This time the protagonist is Rex, and indeed his Titan friend / ally 'Gramps', and early on there's an introduction to the world of Alrest and the 'cloud sea'. Nintendo's multiple showcases and Directs give a good sense of the early game, and in fact the initial 90 minutes is relatively sedate, as you amble from basic tasks to cutscenes and back again. It's a useful opening, as it teaches the basics for any series newcomers.
Then, it all kicks off. We hit a sequence of events that jolted us into action and was downright exciting, even if the most snazzy moments were cinematics - big music, drama, slightly baffling narrative, it's all there. It's at this point that it's very clear this is in the style of the original, as Monolith Soft returns to the roots of its Nintendo-based era.
Considering the key points that series or RPG fans may want to know with this new entry, we think the UI (user interface) is worth mentioning. It's rather chunky and easy to follow once you grasp the mechanics, which is light years away from the modern touches and tiny text of Xenoblade Chronicles X. It seems Monolith Soft listened to the feedback and ensured that it's easy to read and understand what's happening on a TV or in portable mode. So far we've had little problem following on-screen information and working through menus, so that's a notable early positive.
Visuals and broader performance are another interesting point, with varied opinions on the aesthetic used in this one. In some respects the art style works quite nicely, with characters being far more expressive than in the past, though we still have stilted animations to contend with, an old bugbear with Monolith Soft's releases. That said, the studio retains its flair for impressive landscapes and vistas, with early environments being undeniably eye-catching. We also have a return of many regional accents, with subtitles to help out. UK gamers may get a kick out of it, and already we've had voices from Tyneside, West Coast of Scotland and - pleasingly for this writer - an entire town of Welsh accents. One of the main characters sounds like they're from the US, we should add, so it's a global cast.
One area we're less pleased with early on is visual fidelity. At times the game looks fantastic, but there are also some rather rough areas and a low core level of assets. This is easier to get past, strangely, on the TV, where the scale of environments compensates. The game does look rather choppy and fuzzy on the portable at times, though it just about holds up in terms of its framerate and performance. Though we've enjoyed the flexibility of dipping in on the move so far, this feels like a console game that looks and feels at its best - by quite a distance - on a TV.
In terms of gameplay, the opening feels familiar to a series veteran, and as mentioned draws its broader style and approach from the Wii original as opposed to the Wii U spin-off. You gather as many resources as you can, pick fights with wildlife, work through scripted and at times exhilarating story set-pieces and then do it all again in a new, larger location. We've barely scratched the surface and have already visited three distinct areas, each with their own spin. There's also scope to dive off into sub-quests, but early on the game is quite keen to keep you on the story path; we'll see how much it opens up for sub-quest shenanigans later on.
New this time is the relationship between Drivers and Blades, and having gone through the early stages we're starting to see how this will play a role as a major evolution in the series. The core combat feels the same - characters auto-attack to charge 'Arts' that you then trigger. The Blades initially hover nearby, with their affinity reflected in the colour of the line between them and your character; as you attack you charge a special Art for your Blade, and this triggers a powerful attack. This also has levels, so you can hold off triggering this special to unleash an ever more powerful Blade assault later on.
Even in early skirmishes we can see the strategic potential for this feature. For example when in a team with another Driver / Blade you can bring together Blade combos, and elemental attacks also come into play. You're then introduced to the idea of creating new Blades as you can utilise more than one at a time - depending on which is in action your weapon and moves change, too. It's an interesting system, and while we're still mastering its intricacies it is intuitive as long as you pay attention to tutorial prompts and experiment in battles.
Blades, then, feel like the key unique selling point for this one, along with the fact that it's a new cast, world and story to work through. The plot hasn't grabbed us as quickly as in the original, but it's done a decent job and has us intrigued. Like series predecessors there's some cringe-worthy writing and animations - and a few of the outfits and designs aren't to this writer's personal tastes - but the broad potential is there. Even in the opening half dozen hours some segments have had us on the edge of our seat, and there are attractive worlds in which to explore, potentially endlessly.
So far it's more of the Xenoblade gameplay we know and love, and the additions seem to be well thought out. Time will tell whether it'll be an evolution or generational revolution for the IP, but for now we're pleased to report that it's still delivering a very 'Monolith Soft' experience.