Does Xenoblade Chronicles 2 really feel like a proper Xeno- franchise descendent?
Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Heck yeah, definitely. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
With the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 launching today, the last big first-party title for Switch's impressive freshman year has arrived. It's also the third huge open-world action RPG for the system. As I noted in my ongoing review for Polygon, portability transforms open-world games from an intimidating time-sink of a genre into something far more approachable for those of us on tight life budgets.
Until now, such games have been fairly scarce on handhelds, and until Switch they've always felt scaled down and compromised to better fit the limitations of a portable. Dragon Quest IX, Fantasy Life, Ever Oasis: Each was big in its own way, but each felt cramped and downsized, too. Over on Vita, Gravity Rush flirted enticingly with open-world format, but its beautiful art nouveau settings came at you in relative dribs and drabs versus something like Breath of the Wild. Not like Xenoblade 2, which starts out as a decidedly railroaded experience before opening onto a vast grassland stretching into the distance. Xenoblade 2 suffers compromises to fit onto a portable device, too — if you play undocked, the frame rate gets choppy and the visuals are upscaled pretty hideously from a reduced resolution — but it's refreshing to see technical compromises in a vast portable game as opposed to the usual meek reduction of design and ambition.
(There is the question of why Nintendo and Bethesda were able to make Breath of the Wild and Skyrim look so good when played undocked, especially since both games began life on other platforms, but that's outside the scope of this blog post.)
So, the Xenoblade series has gone portable now for the second time, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 works a lot better as a game on the go than New Nintendo 3DS conversion of the first game did. But is portability all that Xenoblade 2 improves on over its predecessors? And does it really feel like it deserves to wear the name "Xeno"? After all, director Tetsuya Takahashi originally intended to call the first Xenoblade "Monado: Creation of the World" but ended up giving it a Xeno- prefix as "tribute" to his earlier works, Xenogears and Xenosaga. So it stands to reason there should be some substantial connections to those older works, right? Besides having Xenosaga's KOS-MOS as a bonus Blade companion to unlock, I mean.
In fact, I can see many connections to Takahashi's previous work, especially on a spiritual level. Some of these involve dropping a few spoilers, but I'll try to keep everything very vague and restricted mostly to the first three or four (of 10) chapters of the story.
It's so anime
Xenogears was pretty much a case of Takahashi and his writers penning an interactive love letter to all the cartoons they loved… all of which involved giant robots. Fundamentally, Xenogears owed an enormous existential debt to Neon Genesis Evangelion — the religious imagery, the reluctant pilot with a preternatural skill for combat, the horror of a "god" that turned out to be a stranded cosmic being using humanity for its own ends — but there was plenty of Gundam in there, too. Oh, and Macross. Do you remember lov…ing the part in Xenogears where an entire city transformed into a giant robot?
There's just as much anime in Xenoblade 2, though the focus has shifted somewhat. Maybe Takahashi's tastes have changed, or maybe he's just trying to stay on-trend, but the Blades the player's party ventures into battle with are cut from the cloth of the Stands in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure or the Servants in Fate/ — making this a very hip and with-it kind of game. I haven't seen the credits roll yet, but I have my fingers crossed that composer Yasunori Mitsuda ripped off Yes' "Roundabout" for it.
Yasunori Mitsuda is back, baby
Speaking of which, yes, Mitsuda is back in prime form this time around. Xenoblade 2 has the best soundtrack he's written since Chrono Cross (which was Xenogears' kissing cousin on many, many levels). Please, for the love of all that's good and decent, turn off combat voices as you play so you can hear his compositions over the cacophonous din of your party's battle calls.
Despite shying away from giant robot anime inspirations, Xenoblade 2 definitely has some hulking mech suits on display. You have to play for a while before they show up, and their first appearance is presented in a way that leaves you wondering, "Did I really just see that?" But yeah, there are definitely -gears to be found in this Xeno-.
And while the game plays down the overt Judeo-Christian religious imagery, at least compared to Xenogears and Xenosaga, it's there. Without spoiling too much, a dude named Addam figures into the backstory. He is enticed by the allure of a mystical, forbidden tree. What he does afterwards lays ruin to the world. And that's merely the beginning.
Episodes and connections
And most of all, Xenoblade 2 manages to tie into the original Xenoblade with some direct plot connections while also feeling like a descendent of the "episodic" content and "alternate angle" philosophy that lurked beneath the surface of Xenogears and Xenosaga. You don't need to have played any of the previous games to understand the storyline of Xenoblade 2, but those who have completed the first Xenoblade will experience a few "a ha!" moments.
Also, protagonist Rex's primary Blade Pyra conceptually bridges a gulf between Xenosaga (she's a superweapon in the form of a young woman, a la KOS-MOS) and Xenoblade Chronicles (she also manifests a gigantic red sword with a funky geometric design).
Training wheels? Not a chance
And, as with all previous Xeno- titles, Xenoblade 2 features a ton of intricate mechanics and systems that the game barely explains, leaving you to sort things out on your own. For example, there's an element-chain mechanic that you read about once early on in the game and are left to figure out on your own through trial-and-error, made even more difficult by the fact that you won't really have all the tools you need to exploit it for hours after the initial explanation. It's rather reminiscent of the Deathblow system in Xenogears, which is very useful… but you more or less have to puzzle it out on your own. Xeno- games don't have much patience for hand-holding.
So yes, fans of previous Xeno- games will find plenty to enjoy here without necessarily feeling like they've already traveled this territory before. Xenoblade 2 hearkens back to its predecessors (and to other media properties) without being a total retread of what's come before. On top of that, it's another great portable open-world game. I don't know how many charge cycles the Switch's battery is good for, but between Xenoblade 2, Breath of the Wild, and Skyrim, what a great way to find out.