It seems so long ago now, but the latter half of the Wii lifespan had an overarching tale focused on localisation. Fans in the West kicked off 'Operation Rainfall' when it was clear that three intriguing Nintendo-published games would be Japan-only. Eventually they made their way to the West, and of the three titles Xenoblade Chronicles was - in our view at least - the best of them all. Ambitious, enormous and enthralling, it delivered a memorable experience.
It clearly sold well enough, as there hasn't been any suggestion since that the West will miss out on the Monolith Soft series. The Wii U had Xenoblade Chronicles X, a spin-off with some interesting ideas and approaches that mixed up the formula - it gave the player far more agency, as opposed to the narrative approach of the original. It was fantastic, but in bringing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to the Switch a clear choice has been made; this is the true sequel and 'main' entry.
On the surface, then, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 brings us back to the straight line approach - there are no faction choices here, no jobs based on loyalties in the sense we had in X. Rex, his Blade Pyra (plus alter-ego) and friends embark on a sweeping and almost neverending quest to reach the promised land of Elysium. It's a simple bildungsroman tale at its core, with the young Rex transforming from plucky scavenger to powerful hero over the course of dozens (and dozens) of hours. The plot is clearly a labour of love, though, with a surprisingly large cast and twists and turns galore; not to mention all of the side quests and optional details that give more insight into Alrest's people and the world's intriguing history. There are also, we should add, some nods to lore that will have fans of the original purring.
All told, the adventure is indeed memorable, which certainly matters for those wondering whether to sink a lot of hours into another Monolith Soft title. The world is a collection of large 'Titans', God-like beings that float / fly in the 'cloud sea', each the home of distinct nations that have their own people, challenges and roles to play. While the main story is of an ancient war, God-like beings and an almighty power struggle, underneath we have a very human tale of nations in conflict, friendship or isolated from the rest of the world. The tone and occasional humour is sometimes goofy and at times toe curling, but the broad story is another high point for Monolith Soft.
The fact we've opened on the story is deliberate - this follows the Wii original in focusing on the main tale, funnelling the player from checkpoint to checkpoint. Underlying that is startling depth, with layered systems and lots of menus, bringing a time consuming yet oddly compelling mix of adventure and micromanagement. You do the small tasks to level up and earn vital resources, all the while triggering the next major battle and cinematic. On the latter Monolith Soft went all in - you can sit watching cutscenes for 10 minutes+ at a time, and some of them are truly exciting and add to the appeal. Time melts away (we played into the small hours without being aware of the time on multiple occasions), making this a game for long sessions on the sofa rather than gaming on the go.
We'll tackle presentation later, but those of you that do like the idea of playing this primarily as a portable title should be able to do so. Having seemingly learnt from feedback on the tiny user interface and text of X on Wii U, this is a game that's far easier to navigate. For a title with such depth and numerous menus there's clearly been a lot of thought put into how it's presented, which is a step up for the franchise.
We also see key revisions in general controls, adapting to some new ideas while making a few welcome improvements. Like its predecessors' combat, for example, this has a mix of auto-attacking and strategic use of 'Arts', varied moves that have cooldown periods. In this case you have Blades to manage in addition to Arts - each is essentially a weapon, with their own distinct element (the likes of Fire, Ice, Electricity and more besides) and Arts to consider. Blades also come in different types - Attack, Healer and Tank, which are self explanatory. Some of your characters and teams are mandatory in the story, but you also gather crystals to create a dizzying range of new Blades through a 'Gacha' style lucky dip. It's a system both complex but easy to understand when playing, and you find yourself building a hefty and diverse squad.
As your group grows, so do your strategic options. Sometimes you'll have a gang of five characters (all 'Drivers' to their Blades) and only three slots, and if you choose you don't even need to play as the main protagonist Rex (though we did). Finding useful combinations of Drivers, Blades and related Arts can be hugely rewarding, and occasionally a tough conflict can be cleared on a second attempt by trying a different team. The combat comes alive as you get further into this, as you start to master not only Arts but the implementation of specials that charge up through three levels. Stringing elements together is key for major combos to damage foes, especially if you can also target an enemy's elemental weakness. For example a fire special triggers a potential 'Steam' attack from a water-based Blade. As the AI of your buddies is pretty good at charging its gauges you can pull off some amazing sequences - teammates are generally smart, so if someone in your group is a healer they often step up just when you need a boost.
There are even team combos that use another gauge (familiar from previous entries) which can do enormous damage. To veterans it'll all be familiar, with the added complexities of Blades and elements to shake things up. To newcomers it may seem daunting, but the game moves at a very steady - borderline glacial - pace, and new ideas are introduced gradually (capturing the tutorial screens is a good idea). Anyone watching a battle as an outsider may think it looks like a baffling mess, but in practice it's incredibly immersive. One boss battle took us 45 minutes to clear, but it felt like no time at all.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 also goes all in with micromanaging. We've mentioned Drivers and Blades, and these all have sub-menus for boosting abilities, 'Affinity', improving equipment and using an extraordinary variety of items for temporary buffs. There are even in-game economies in play, so if you spend plenty of money in different lands you upgrade their 'level' for various benefits. Menus have sub menus, and some sub menus have more menus. It can be rather like going down the rabbit hole and some of it is important to grasp and maintain, but it becomes clear which areas can be left aside. As mentioned previously, too, the user interface is excellent, which makes it seem less taxing.
Another area of micro-management worth mentioning is 'Merc Group', which starts about a third of the way into the campaign. It's here that all of your extra Blades go to work, as you can send them out on quests to play out as you continue the adventure - it reminds us of a similar mechanic in the Monster Hunter series. After accumulating a lot of Core Crystals this becomes their home, as you'll likely not use most of the new Blades with your core group. To some this is busy work, but we liked building up our little crew on the side.
It is important, all told, to keep on top of various side areas, especially when it comes to levelling up your characters - one vital tip is to regularly stay at inns, where fast-track levelling is possible. By being vigilant we were generally able to stay ahead of the difficulty curve, but just like the original it then spikes as you get closer to the finale. Some grinding may be necessary, and occasionally the game also stumped us with an unexpected requirement. Thankfully not as bad as the 'find x number of this obscure item' tasks that slowed down progress in Xenoblade Chronicles X, we nevertheless hit a few points where our Blades needed a specific ability to clear a hazard. Briefly baffled, we then had to do busy work to level up that area on a specific 'Affinity Chart', before then finally making progress. One frustrating section also needed Blades with specific secondary abilities, and we burned through a lot of core crystals to generate a specific type to clear the section and then move on.
These are very Monolith Soft-style quirks, and that is one of our only issues with this game. It continues the brilliance of its predecessors in so many ways, but also carries the flaws over, such as level spikes, a few overly punishing and repetitive boss fights and occasional inexplicable walls blocking progress. In a year where Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild arrived and set new standards in their respective franchises, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is more of a great thing but fails to make that leap. We found ourselves tutting at design conventions that had popped up in the Wii and Wii U days.
That partly plays into performance, it must be said. At times Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is gorgeous, with attractive and creative landscapes both in standard gameplay and the many cutscenes. We grew to like the general art style too, even if this writer wasn't overly keen on some of the fashion and character design - the switch to an anime style does allow for greater expression, which really comes to play in the more heart-wrenching moments. At times the set-pieces and surrounding story sequences are downright breathless and emotional, as hours drift by in the everlasting chase for the next story beat.
And yet, the story - being as enormous as it is - has its misfires. These include Nopon being given 'serious' roles despite their daft appearances and voices. Animation is also below par by modern standards in sequences utilising the game engine - characters move as if they're puppets on string.
That said, a lot of credit is due for most of the voice acting, which adds to the experience despite some inevitable iffy moments - we played with the English voicetrack, full of regional British accents, Americans and Australians, but look forward to trying the free Japanese track (via a download) when the game launches. Music is another high point. At its worst the music is competent, but there are some areas and stretches where it's fantastic - from pumping RPG rock in boss fights to choral singing and orchestral beauty, there are some wonderful sounds here.
Moving on to how the game plays, there's a clear split between docked and portable play. Short answer first - this game is best enjoyed when docked on a TV. The resolution and action belong on a big screen, and though there are still performance hiccups it's smooth enough; it's not a game where lightning reflexes are required. It's also playable on the portable, but the evidently dynamic resolution goes from passable to rather fuzzy depending on what's going on.
It feels like one of the biggest docked / portable gulfs yet on the Switch, and combining the busy action with a dipped resolution and occasional framerate drops can be a tad underwhelming on the portable. Out of necessity to hit a deadline we played a decent amount on the handheld and it was still enjoyable, but the game is truly at home when docked and treated as a home console experience. Another factor is time - as mentioned above this is a game full of lengthy battles and cutscenes, which are more suited to quiet time at home than a quick bit of gaming on the go; nevertheless, you can pop your system into sleep with the game still running if you're keen to keep your place.
All of that said, for fans of the series Xenoblade Chronicles 2 delivers, and we're frankly overwhelmed by the thought of the enormous campaign being added to with the upcoming DLC expansion pass. There's a huge amount of game here, but despite the inevitable repeated actions - go to point A, kill some wildlife on the way to level up, have an enormous set-piece battle then move to point B - it remains addictive and immersive. Plenty of Switch owners will be playing this long into 2018, and they probably won't mind. Battles have an enticing flow to accompany the complexity, the world is varied and beautiful enough to encourage exploration, and the storyline is suitably bombastic.
What this game won't do, despite its excellence, is win over a new audience. Perhaps that's for the best, as not all IPs need to become more accessible - gaming still needs incredibly deep, involving and complicated games to satisfy their audiences. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is just that, though Monolith Soft has maintained its standards without making a notable leap forward - it feels like the true Xenoblade peak is yet to come.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on the Switch won't disappoint series fans, especially those that love the Wii original (or even experienced it on New 3DS). It's a new cast and world, with some fresh mechanics and ideas, but much is still familiar. The story has high points, the world and its varied Titan lands is intriguing, and it draws you in for many dozens of hours.
It's Monolith Soft doing what it does best, albeit without shaking off the occasional flaws of the series. It's ultimately an important part of an incredible launch year for the Switch - a reminder that while system concepts change some things are constant. This is another Xenoblade gem, and a must-have for the most dedicated of adventurers.