By the time Xenoblade Chronicles 2 launched in December 2017, Switch fans were near exhausted with content. Less than a year into its launch, Nintendo’s burgeoning new hardware had the best Zelda yet, the return of its most-lauded Mario Kart, the glorious multiplayer action of Splatoon 2, the unique fisticuffs of ARMS and a little thing called Super Mario Odyssey - and that was just the first-party stuff. And yet, somehow, Monolith Soft rounded off the year with a magnificent return to the world of Drivers and Blades.

Nine months on and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 remains one of Switch’s strongest JRPGs, but now it’s time to turn back the clock 500 years prior to the events of the main series with Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country. Some might call this DLC, but that acronym simply doesn’t do this gigantic slice of role-playing goodness justice. This is an expansion - and a big one at that - offering a new story, a fresh setting, an enhanced battle system and all manner of adjustments that make this both a faithful riff on the game you know and love as well as something entirely new and standalone.

Serving as a prequel to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Torna - The Golden Country presents an extension of lore that has you meeting characters and experiencing events only alluded to in previous games. For those of you who’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you’ll already know the fates of Lora and Jin and their fight to stop the rampaging Malos. It’s less about the destination and more about the smaller details that help shape this enigmatic world. If you’re totally new to the franchise, Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country offers an ideal way in. It’s important to note that as well as being part of the main game's expansion pass, this is also available as a standalone retail release, so you don’t necessarily need a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to play it.

Sure, some story beats might not hold as much significance if you're coming in totally cold, but there are plenty of heartfelt moments and lots of character progression to get you invested in this long-lost chapter in Alrest’s history - and considering this is the story that ultimately leads to Jin becoming one of the series’ most feared villains, that sense of warm camaraderie has a dark tone bubbling beneath.

Despite boasting the usual mixture of awkward pauses between dialogue and cheesy lines (this is a Japanese RPG, after all), the Western voice cast of this action-packed prequel is instantly likeable. Jin is your classic stoic warrior with immaculate hair, but Lora makes for a warm and compassionate lead and you’re immediately invested in helping her learn more about her missing mother. Your party of adventurers - ranging from the charismatic Addam to the rebellious nature of Mythra - will grow and shrink as the story progresses, but there’s still lots of banter between each protagonist, even when you’re out exploring. With a decent mix of regional British accents and some (mostly) decent delivery, its lengthy cutscenes don’t seem quite so long in execution.

At its core, Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country retains the same combat model of the previous games, only with a few extras that give a welcome layer of player agency. Characters are divided into two categories - Drivers and Blades - with the former serving as the main combatant and the latter a powerful weapon in human form. Combat, once initiated, is automatic, but you control when more powerful attacks (known as Arts) are unleashed. These are mapped to the face buttons and charge over time depending on how much damage you’ve inflicted or suffered. However, now you can actively swap between both Driver and Blade at will.

The key here is knowing exactly when do make this switch (by pressing ‘Up’ on the D-pad). Combos are still very much a part of Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country’s combat, so you’ll need to watch a bar fill around the portrait of the character currently in support; bringing them into battle at a certain point will open up the chance to string together a more powerful combo. If you want to 'Break' an opponent, then use a more powerful Art to 'Topple' them to the ground. At the same time, you’re also able to swap between other Drivers and their respective Blades, or remain using Lora and manage the building power of your fellow team members’ Arts by pressing ‘ZL’ and ‘ZR’ at the most opportune moments in battle.

This is the beauty of Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country’s combat model. You think it’s going to be a boring exercise when there’s any form of automation, but then you go up against a monster with a noticeably higher level than your collective squad. If you keep spamming attacks with no real tactical approach you’ll likely have your HP drained and pass out, waking up at a previous location. However, once you start using Art combos effectively, taking into account the different elemental powers of each team and whether they’ll be more effective against a certain type of enemy, you realise just how much influence you have over the changing tide of every battle.

As the story moves on, you can even unlock the power to swap weapons between characters, adding even more ways to approach battles. Enemies don’t scale with you either, so knowing how best to utilise these many systems can mean the difference between getting knocked out and overcoming a vastly higher level enemy. Even on the normal difficulty enemies are tough, so if you prefer chasing main story missions and side-quests over grinding out battles, you’ll soon struggle since most encounters start automatically once you stray close enough to a given monster. 'Time to kill' has also been adjusted for this new expansion; taking down enemies took way too long in the base game, but here Monolith Soft has clearly heard the cries of its fanbase and made battles far shorter and more engaging as a result.

Outside of combat and exploration, there are plenty of extra RPG bits and bobs to keep you interested. Meeting NPCs now forms part of the Community system, which enables you to build a wider following of characters once you complete a certain side-quest. The more followers you have, the more side-quests you can unlock. It’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country’s way of keeping you invested beyond the 18 to 20-hour main story, but you’ll need to turn off its incessant notifications early on or you might lose your mind before you finish the game.

There’s also a series of campfires that effectively serve as the game’s inns and crafting stations all rolled into one. Here you can craft all manner of stat-buffing extras and engage in extra dialogue. It’s also in these locations that you’ll level up each party, so you’ll be visiting often in order to make the most of the Bonus EXP you gain from battles. There aren’t that many big cities to visit, but the new locations of Torna and Gormott both make for an enchanting new setting to revisit the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country is also another example of just how beautiful a sandbox environment can look on Switch. Draw distances stretch as impressively far as the base game, and there’s rarely any slowdown (even when your party is packed with members and you’re battling a huge number of foes). There is some screen-tearing and rasterised edges - which are a little more noticeable when playing in docked mode - but it’s still a great example of just how versatile Switch can be in the right hands.

Conclusion

Nintendo Switch is no stranger to DLC and add-on content, but few expansions are as vast in their size and content as Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna - The Golden Country. Whether you’re a season pass holder looking to revisit a series you love from a new perspective, or you’re fresh to the franchise and want a standalone adventure, this hefty slice of JRPG action will grab you right from the moment you start switching between Blade and Driver. With some welcome adjustments to combat and combos, this is a fine addition to an already brilliant game on Switch.