Xenoblade’s Love Interest is a Sword
Hey everybody, this game is bad; I can’t stress this enough. It’s bad, and I love almost every minute of it. This is my first time, hands on, with the Xenoblade franchise (aside from playing as Shulk in Smash 4), but this game is hard to play by any standard. I wanted to take a moment and outline the game’s more irredeemable features, then explain why I play it anyways.
For context, I’m just under 18 hours in, finishing up Chapter 3 as I type. While many games (looking at you Bloodborne) have a steep learning curve and complex mechanics, things should start to click by the 20 hour mark. So I’m confident my ineptitude isn’t the (only) problem with Xenoblade 2’s systems. Regardless, let’s dive in with an analysis on all the different ways this game hates you.
Naturally, there are going to be some spoilers. Good news, there is so much of the game I can’t spoil for you yet. Further good news, any spoilers are vague at best. But, hey, be warned. Some things I can’t avoid talking about.
Xenoblade 2’s map strikes a rare balance between delivering too much information and telling you absolutely nothing at all. In four separate missions, I found myself needing to traverse Xenoblade’s grand continents to hit a waypoint, only to spend multiple hours trying (and failing) to find my way. I don’t completely blame the waypoint compass, but it’s definitely a major liability. Borderlands did that system okay and Assassin’s Creed Origins used the same method to great success. But as Xenoblade’s expensive overworlds are riddled with looping, one-way paths, a lone compass is not enough.
I’ll use a modified picture from IGN to explain:
This is from an early mission in Gormott (the first major location). Rex and his party must travel to a workshop to get a ship (Point A). You start from the bottom right corner and work your way northwest. The only information you have says travel in the general direction of points A and B. So, I spent three hours running circles in the fields around B, climbing every tree, backtracking to my initial spawn, manipulating tides, dodging level 80 enemies, all to no avail. All I knew was my objective was roughly 300 units northwest of my location. I was stuck at a dead end.
The minimap provided even less help. Its incredibly limited scope did little to clear up confusion. With no intermediate waypoints to help guide players, it took multiple frustrating hours to discover (accidentally) I needed to walk 180 degrees opposite the waypoint to point C, only to follow the red arrows you see above. Remember, that involves me backtracking in a way completely counterintuitive to standard gaming conventions to arrive at an unspecified, elevated, one-way path to loop around an arc that was hidden from my minimap.
None of this is intuitive and I’ve had this exact problem three other times. The worst offender involved clearing a path through a random, destructible set-piece—with no quest indication—to curve myself well off the direct (read: only) path the game gives players.
Okay, that’s mainly the compass and minimap’s faults, but the only map players can remotely manipulate is hidden on the fast travel screen. It takes one button to open and five to close. Oh, and new territories (the ones I’ve struggled so badly to find) are greyed out until you “discover” them. So you can’t even rely on the only map to be an accurate map.
Too Much Information, Too Little Information, and Everything in Between
To say “Xenoblade 2 is overwhelming” is an understatement. Let me be clear: I enjoy the combat. While I was initially thrown at the notion of constant auto-attacking, it quickly grew on me. The game slowly reveals combat is one part rhythm game (timed blade arts do bonus damage and power up “specials” meters) and one part micromanagement sim. Effects like Freeze or Steam Bomb require careful combo pairings, all on a tight but fair timer.
Meters like “break” lead to topple and launch effects. I’m not sure what those do besides create an opening and allow certain buffs to do bonus damage. Next to those timers are your “Special Chains” (I can’t remember what their official name is), a relatively manageable system on its own, but one that comes with its own pain-points. What does “Shackle Self Destruct” mean? The game assumed I already knew. My understanding is that “shackling” a trait means opponents can’t use them. Do opponents often Self Destruct? Half the “third-tier Special” perks are opaque. Also, once you use a special like that, it grants opponents resistance to the special’s elements. That makes sense. But the Chain Attacks (charged by those three party bars) have something to do with them too, and I honestly have no idea why.
Okay, so chain attacks can sometimes last multiple rotations, and other times only go through each party member once—even though I have fresh blades that could still attack. But certain elemental attacks have added damage against the buffs you can give enemies on those “third Tier Specials.” I can’t remember if you want to hit an Earth resistance with Earth, or the opposite of Earth which probably is Wind but I think that might also be Fire’s weakness. Fire is definitely weak to water, except for Pyra because she’s magic.
Look: long winded rant aside, Xenoblade’s highly detailed combat system needs a highly detailed tutorial, as well as easily accessible guides. Are there guides on the internet? Probably. Does that forgive a game’s inability to properly explain fundamental gameplay mechanics? Absolutely not. Sure, okay, maybe it’s just me. I could be the only person out there confused by shackles and chains. But the lack of transparency turns an otherwise enjoyable, unique combat system into a major barrier for casual gamers. Judging from Switch sales numbers, this will likely be the first Xenoblade game for many. This isn’t the time to get opaque.
Xenoblade 2 also has the opposite problem. While it’s distant in many game mechanics, it overshares too much. The UI is a nightmare in battles. The system is very complex (as I have just noted), so it makes sense that, on some level, it’s important to distinguish between breaks and launches. But with three party members on screen, health bars for all three, three additional blades that require close regional proximity to their drivers, combo menus, multiple timers, your button inputs, and available specials, there is hardly room to see what you’re swinging at. It’s overstimulating and something you can quickly learn to live with. This may boil down to another personal problem, but with trying to manage multiple blades in battle, it’s easy to lose rhythm.
I got lucky and summoned the rare blade Electra pretty early on. She’s bonded with Rex and, naturally, plays very differently from Pyra. As a tank, she swings much slower and at a different rate than Pyra. So adjustments have to be made on the fly. But I’m preoccupied making my party members use specials in the proper order, within time limits, and spot chances to turn breaks into topples. Jumping to a radically different attack tempo adds a complication to an already clustered system, pushing Xenoblade 2 over the edge of manageability.
Things are fine when you’re fighting normal enemies. But when a Kingdom Hearts reject comes along for a boss battle with the uncanny ability to completely (and randomly) negate certain elemental attacks, we’ve left the realm of a fun combat system for something that actively hates the player.
Xenoblade’s Identity Crisis
I really want to like this game. And I do, for the most part, but there is so much that just tears into my soul, slowly killing me and my optimism. If it’s a “99 problems” deal, Tora is half of them. Tora represents something bigger than just the terrible “napon” archetype, but he is the most egregious instance of Xenoblade 2’s identity problem.
Who is Xenoblades for?
Is it for serious JRPG fans? The crowd who played Xenogears? Hardcore Action-RPG fans looking for a complex micromanagement system? On the one hand, yeah okay. All of that is here for you. It’s rated T after all, a sign that it’s more mature than the traditional Nintendo game (at the very least, Twilight Princess maturity). But it is loaded with super childish themes and moments that completely go against this proposed audience. Rex can survive through the power of friendship. Tora is a muppet who speaks in obnoxiously broken English, a comic relief character constructed to appease seven-year-olds. Then, boom, you get a glimpse into his painfully uncomfortable Hentai maid fetish.
Who is Tora written for? Why does he exist? I’ve seen two scenes that involve (in his own words) “Blushy Crushy” anime tropes. First of all, notice how even the other characters in the scenes can’t stand that behavior. Second of all, why include it if it’s just uncomfortable/makes me regret downloading the game? Are we supposed to laugh it off, or genuinely relate to this half-rabbit deviant?
The developers have half a foot in hardcore RPG systems with too-complicated timer mechanics alongside some of the most immature characters/general narrative I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong: immature is fine, hardcore is fine, but both at the same time is confusing and makes me play with the sound off because I can’t trust the game to not start blaring the most cringe-worthy anime tropes, completely at random.
SO Why Play Xenoblades 2?
I’m still trying to find out the answer to that one myself. The combat system is a serious wall, but one I believe will be satisfying to master. The boss battles have been pretty solid (aside for the arbitrary power negations). The maps are huge, and there is no shortage of impressive, gigantic foes I cannot wait to take on. All the stars are lining up to prove this is a massive JRPG I can throw in a backpack, flaws and all.
There’s backstabbing, religious undertones, lootbox unlockables with rare character drops, side missions based exclusively on character development, and countless hours left to explore. By the way, if that loot box comment puts you on edge, I can attest the drop rates have been pretty fair. I have two rare blades and they’re both a blast to use.
This is far from a perfect game. In fact, it’s a game I actively hate myself for playing. It’s a game I actively hate to play, and I love every second of it.
Look, it has so much good and bad all wrapped up into the same package. Objectively, I think the bads outweigh the goods. Personally, I’m genuinely having fun and yelling at my TV. I’m going to stick with it and pray it grows on me. At the very least, pray Tora gets killed off.
If you enjoyed this “rage against the Nintendo machine,” I wrote up a similar breakdown detailing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s problems. (I have a new one on Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu and Eevee problems up now!) Maybe you don’t want to hear bad things about Breath but are very interested in learning the definitive rankings every Breath of the Wild character. I suppose you could also brush up on our ranking of the best Zelda dungeons (based solely on number of Small Keys).
Oh, and as a quick callback to my opening header:
The Love Interest is a Sword, and I’m all for it.
Let’s get weird.