Back at Gamescom, I got the chance to play around an hour of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Nintendo's big role-playing game exclusive pencilled in for launch on Switch this Christmas. I'm told I was the first person at the show - and apparently the first outside of Nintendo - to go hands-on. Surprisingly little has been seen so far, bearing in mind the game's impending launch, so I'm a little lost when I find myself dropped a dozen or so hours into the game's campaign. I'll be learning its many battle systems on the fly - and I do definitely spend my entire time with the game learning, as layer upon layer of gameplay unfurls itself and things slowly, mostly start to make sense.
It's a feeling that'll be familiar to many, I'm sure. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is designed to be an entry point to the series for the large number of Nintendo owners yet to try its predecessors. I played a chunk of the original, impressive Chronicles way back on Wii but its late arrival in Europe and even later showing in North America meant it was sadly overlooked by many. Wii U spin-off Chronicles X found a slimmer audience still. Chronicles 2 tells its own story with fresh characters in new lands, and with its own take on the series' deep battle design.
Combat takes up a significant portion of my time, and encompasses the vast majority of systems you'll need to master. Battles are a mix of positioning and timing of your character, and a constant, dizzying balancing act of keeping your eyes on all the information available to you. There are numbers to track in each corner of the gameplay screen, making battles a stat-filled spaghetti of bars and meters, with the actual action taking place behind all that, in the middle. You control your party members' blades, the sort-of alive creatures which fight for you, which auto-attack when left near enemies. Moving your blade means they'll stop attacking, so you'll stop doing damage, but the trade-off is you can dart around to pick up potions and heal, or get in a better place to attack from. Auto-attacks come in groups of three, and when paired with an elemental ability (more on them in a moment) with the right timing can be used to knock back an enemy or pause their own assault.
Onto your abilities. In the screen's lower right are your blade's elemental arts, each of which charge for immediate use, or can be left to grow in strength to unleash higher ranked versions. Rank 2 of an ability may just be a little flashier, the numbers it causes to flow out of the enemy just a little larger, but wait for Rank 4 and you'll get a special battle animation and quick-time event which pays off your patience with devastating damage. On the screen's lower left are the three various blades in your party - essentially, your battle party members - each of which then have their own set of four abilities to keep track of.
Battling is a juggling act, one which encourages you to experiment and switch tack whenever another of the many options in your toolbox is available. This is especially encouraged by larger enemies who build up a resistance to certain elements over the course of a battle, stopping you from spamming the same attacks over and over. So, top left, is a bar with segments you can use up for either reviving characters, or for breaking down an enemy's resistance to a certain element using a certain technique. Finally, top right of the screen (keeping up?), lies a mosaic-like path of abilities which you can fill and unlock by pulling off your elemental attacks in the order prescribed.
Outside of battle, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 feels suitably vast. The area shown at Gamescom is entirely set within just one of the roaming Titans - leviathan-sized creatures upon which cities and regions rest. After my time is up I'm just through one enormous area which, atop a cliff, in a town filled with back alleys and merchants, I can still just about see my original starting point on the horizon. There's the occasional movement niggle when navigating a platforming section or trying to climb a ledge using the game's slightly fiddly jumping, but the echoing, cavernous landscape and luminous twilight colours offer a suitable distraction. There are technical trade-offs from having screen-filling vistas, but playing Chronicles 2 while docked to a TV, a foot away from the 4K screen in Nintendo booth was perhaps not the best showcase for the game - I'm confident it'll look the part on the Switch's handheld screen.
My time with the game gave me the basics of battling but still felt like nothing more than a picture postcard of the overall experience. What dialogue I encountered - from the main quest and a side-mission I picked up along the way - suggested a translation which was typically on point from the experienced hands at Nintendo of Europe, with characters chatting in charming and witty asides. The wider story, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2's wider world, remains shrouded in mystery - but I'm looking forward to another lesson in what more the game has to offer.