Do you like JRPGs? Do you like risking everything for the sake of a girl you met five minutes ago? Can you stomache endless JRPGs cliches? If so, strap yourself in (for at least 100 hours) and get ready, because Nintendo has a game just for you.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the Nintendo Switch is the third title in the Xenoblade series (the second being Xenoblade Chronicles X), and is best described of a mashup of ideas. While overall a JRPG, it borrows design ideas from open world games, MMORPGs, and even mobile gacha-style games. The end result is a somewhat grindy and often frustrating game full of JRPG tropes that isn't for everyone, but at the same it time provides hours of fun combat and exploration.
XBC2 takes place on the world of Alrest, which is enveloped in a permanent layer of dense clouds aptly named as the "Cloud Sea." According to the in-game lore, humans once lived in a place called Elysium, which sits atop the world tree. Unfortunately in the distant past, they were judged unworthy by their god, the so-called "Architect." After their divine eviction, in order to survive the humans had to settle on top of giant creatures known as "Titans," which swim or wade accross the Cloud Sea. Sadly, the Titans are now slowly dying off, which means it is only a matter of time before everyone dies. Because of the ever-diminishing resources, wars are fought by the major powers over the remaining territory, and in Alrest it is up to Drivers and their Blade partners to do much of this fighting. It should also be noted that Blades are essentially the personifications of weapons, and by bonding with one, a Driver gains the ability to use their powers. Of course, anyone who's played enough JRPGs will already pick up at the very beginning that something about this convoluted setting isn't quite right, and that there are likely to be major plot twists that reveal everything people know about their god and the world is either a total lie or extreme misrepresentation.
Because the world is in such dire straights, it is only natural that a couragous young upstart arrives to save the day right before everything totally goes to shit. Our hero, Rex, is a positive thinker who lives atop a smaller Titan he affectionatly refers to as "gramps." Despite not even being old enough to shave, he works as a Salvager who collects and sells junk that floats around in the Cloud Sea. Needless to say, he was also raised as an orphan in a small village, conveniently relieving him of any familial obligations aside from sending some of his earnings back to the woman who runs the orphanage back home. Because of his meager living conditions, Rex dreams of one day finding a way back to Elysium in order to save humanity. As luck would have it, during the opening chapter of the game, Rex gets hired on for a big salvaging job which gives him the financial means to achive his goals as well as sets him upon the path of destiny. As if pre-ordained by scenario writers that have to adhere to cliches, he discovers a Blade named Pyra, with whom he is forced to bond with in order to fight back against the sponsors of the salvaging gig when it is revealed to be a giant double crossing scheme (and also apparently an insurance scam). Not only is Pyra a mythical blade known as "the Aegis," but she's also a (literally) smoking hot chick, so we know our teenaged hero can absolutely trust her and that he's not going to refuse her absurd request to take her to Elysium.
After bonding with Pyra, Rex's adventure truly begins. After a cutscene-heavy tussel with the bad guys (who all look like they belong in Kingdom Hearts because they were drawn by Tetsuya Nomura), Rex finds himself in the first big zone of the game along Nia, a catgirl who defected from other side, and her tiger-like Blade, Dromarch. From here, players are allowed to explore the area, familiarize themselves with some of the finer points regarding the game's combat system, and point the camera towards Pyra at provocative angles while pressing the Switch's screencapture button.
Because the zones themselves are gated by the game's main story, I would not truly consider XBC2 an open world game in the purest sense, but it is close. Once you attain access to a zone you can return to it at any time via the game's fast travel system in order to explore it and complete any available side quests. Most of the areas are relatively large in size, and are full of gathering nodes, enemies to fight (including rare mobs), hidden exploration points and treasures. Certain obstacles encountered on the map can only be cleared once you've boosted your Blade's skills. You are also generally free to put the main quest aside whenever you wish in order to explore, and as you progress in the story the more open the game becomes. Combat is initiated similar to most MMOs. Some mobs are hostile and will aggro you on their own once you're in range, but you can also attack them on your own, or pull them from a distance. Exploration can be dangerous at lower levels because of the number of roaming enemies. On the first map alone, as there are several high level mobs that patrol that will potentially aggro and kill you. Fortunately, when your party wipes it is not a game over. You simply respawn at the most recent major map checkpoint you had been at, losing nothing but time.
The basics of combat are somewhat similar to playing a WoW-style MMO. Characters will do auto-attacks when not moving, and moves (known as Driver Arts) with cooldowns are assigned to buttons on the controller. Drivers are designated tank, healer, or DPS roles based on their currently equipped Blade and typical aggro mechanics are in play. However, there are nuances to the combat system on top of this which can take a bit to get a handle on. Overall I find the combat system enjoyable. Though not as fun as most Tales games, combat in XBC2 is one of the game's better points, especially when you take on some of the optional higher end mobs. Boss battles for the MSQ can get annoying because the game takes liberty to interrupt you with cutscenes right in the middle of a fight, but fortunately the "endgame" bosses tend not to have this problem. The only major flaw with combat is that wonky behavior can occur when combat takes place next to a ledge or next to environmental hazards. Since falling damage is a thing in XBC2, sometimes your AI-controlled party members will find themselves falling off or standing in poison lakes, leading to their demise. While it is advisable to pull mobs far away from cliffs, it isn't always possible due to the geography or the terrain. Beause mobs also drop loot directly off of their bodies (and must be walked over to picked up), sometimes fighting near a cliff will result in their treasures falling into the abyss rather than your inventory. This can be incredibly frustrating, but it is a minor annoyance overall.
As Rex's adventure progresses, additional Drivers and Blades will join the team. While the blades that you get through the MSQ and some of the side quests are generally some of the best, you will still want to augment your team with additional blades. This is where the annoying gacha-style gameplay comes into focus. As you play the game, you will pick up Core Crystals from chests and enemies. These are basically Blades in "crystalized" form, and by opening them up you will get a new blade. Annoyingly, most of the time you will get a randomly generated generic blade that is undesirable in combat. In order to get the rare, unique blades which are actually good, you will end up needing to open hundreds of Core Crystals. To make matters worse, you need a rare item to move Blades to a new driver. Trying to get the type of Blade you want, on the Driver you want, is very difficult. It is interesting to note that while this mechanic is similar to many mobile games, there is no cash shop/DLC that allows you to directly purchase Rare Blades. I wonder if this may have been the original plan, but Nintendo nixed it because they didn't want the backlash that goes along with putting loot creates in a $60, AAA game. Regardless of the intent, the generic Blades are not entirely uselss. After Chapter 4, you will unlock Mercenary missions in which you can send your extra blades out on expeditions in order to bring back extra items and money. You will also likely find yourself, at times, needing to engage a generic blade on the map for their field skills. Overall, the process of unlocking Blades and managing them can be tedious if you're a completionist. And also, let's be honest here: most of the good Blades in the game have the appearance of attractive girls, so you're basically collecting waifus. Unfortunately for female gamers, unlike Fire Emblem, there are almost zero good husbandos in Xenoblade.
In terms of the MSQ, which you will eventually progress through once you've run out of sidequests, you can't really go far without running into some overly-used JRPG or anime tropes. Rex is driven by the power of friendship (and his desire to win the girl), the Artificial Blades created by Tora and his father are robot maids, the stand in for the Catholic church ends up being evil, the bad guys are a bunch of nonsensical emo nihilists that would make Sephiroth proud, and so forth. Most of the major plot points are utterly predictable for any JRPG veteran. It is eventually revealed that Pyra is actually only one of the personas contained within the Aegis, and that the other one has been sealed. This other persona, known as Mythra, is even more powerful and was said to be responsible for destroying multiple Titans in her battle with her evil brother, and Gladiolus look-alike, Malos. Unfortunately, Mythra is a basically the Gollum to Pyra's Smeagol and is borderline abusive. It is almost as if the designers couldn't decide between the altruistic type and the annoying tsundere when designing the main heroine, and ultimately said, "Fuck it, let's do both!" Also, there are mechas.
While Rex is a walking cliche, there are some bright points amongst your team. Morag, the tough as nails military inquisitor (and evasion tank extraordinaire), rises above the rest of the group and actually comes off as someone who might actually be able to save the world from its impending doom at the hands of the evil Japanese boy band that wants to destroy it. Nia's frequent snarkiness is also worthy of a few chuckles every once in a while, mainly because she gets to point out how absurd the rest of the team's behavior is.
As much as I seem to be criticizing the tropes and such, there are far worse JRPGs in terms of characters and story. Yes, there's a huge sense of been-there-done that, but at the very least the plot and characters are coherant most of the time. This isn't Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy XV, and you can at least understand what is going on. Also, as much as there are arguably justified complaints about the amount of fanservice in XBC2, at the very least the game has playable female characters and also doesn't needlessly fridge its main heroine. The game could certainly do worse, and you can at least have fun laughing at some of the silly things that go on in the game because it doesn't try to take itself too seriously. If you can get past some of the facepalm moments, and focus on the combat aspects of the game, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is at least an enjoyable experience that will give you many hours of solid gameplay.
Ultimately, the worst aspect of this game is the localization. The English translation was done by Nintendo UK, and it suffers from many questionable choices. Arbitrary and needless name-changes are one thing, but their decision to make the entire Nopon race sound like a bunch of brain-addled toddlers was an unfathomly terrible one. The voice acting also ranges from "pretty decent" to "horrifically bad," though in many cases the voices just don't seem to fit the characters. Rex and Nia both sound like they are ten years older than they should, as an obvious example. Sadly, the voices for many of the Blades fall into the "bad" end of the spectrum, with the voice for Pyra/Mythra possibly being the worst in the entire game. It is as if the voice actress took one look at her character's artwork and wrote the whole thing off as unworthy of effort. Do yourself and your ears a huge favor and download the free Japanese language DLC before loading the game up.