The Switch's special year is set to end as it began, with another 100 hour classic
Hands-on with the first two dozen hours of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Compare and contrast the lead-up to the launch of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 with developer Monolith Soft's last two Nintendo outings (or indeed its last effort, given how it lent a hand with Breath of the Wild) and you can't help but feel it's all been a little muted. Perhaps it's just circumstance; this is coming at the tail-end of a spectacularly busy year for the Switch, hot on the heels of a mainline Mario. But when the first Xenoblade Chronicles launched on the Wii it was the culmination of a long journey for creator Tetsuya Takahashi, and perhaps the first game capable of matching his grand ambition, and when spiritual successor Xenoblade Chronicles X arrived some five years later there wasn't much else for Wii U owners to cheer for.
It helped, of course, that Xenoblade Chronicles X was a masterly open world RPG, unfairly overlooked by a fair few in part because of its host platform but also thanks to the demands it made of its players - it took some 20 hours for them to be set free on the game's signature Skells, huge mechs capable of devouring the vast landmass of Mira. A small shame, for it remains one of the Wii U's very best games, and one of Nintendo's more important releases of that particular era; play Breath of the Wild and you'll see as much of Monolith Soft's imprint on the expanse of Hyrule as you will The Legend of Zelda series itself.
I've often thought Xenoblade Chronicles X, a game that's as much about reading and conquering its impossibly epic environment as it is anything else, never quite got the credit it deserved when Breath of the Wild was lavished with praise earlier this year for its bold take on open world gaming. But even as an admirer of Monolith Soft's incredible work, I've always been a bit sceptical about Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Maybe it's an element of doubt creeping in - after all, it's only been two years since X, and is it really possible to craft another RPG of such scale in that time?
The answer, I'm coming to having spent a couple of dozen hours with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, is that it certainly is - at least for Monolith Soft, anyway. This sequel doesn't skimp on spectacle or scope, and after the sci-fi detour of X it's a stirring return to the grand fantasy of the original Xenoblade Chronicles, a game in which just drinking in the sights would be worth the price of admission alone. Stretched out atop the back of a series of titans are broad and grassy plains, still lakes and craggy cliff faces; work your way atop one of them and you can see the sun rise and set, just as you might see the titan crane its neck somewhere in the heavens or the horizon. Just like Breath of the Wild, it's a game that constantly has you catching your breath and reaching for the capture button.
It's a two way street - just as Breath of the Wild benefitted from Monolith Soft's open world expertise, so too does Xenoblade Chronicles 2 inherit a few traits from that particular game. The world feels more alive, and with more of a sense of an ecosystem than the sometimes disparate biomes of before - opposing beasts will sometimes rally together, or even kite you towards deadly mobs that lie in wait.
It's a slightly rougher beauty that Xenoblade Chronicles holds, however - whether that's due to its shorter production cycle or the sheer scale of its world, there are plenty of frayed edges to be found here. Played in handheld mode, where the resolution frequently drops until the world is but a smear, and it's all a bit reminiscent of when Monster Games tried to squeeze the original Xenoblade Chronicles onto the 3DS. It's perfectly playable but noticeably compromised - though as these are games that demand to be experienced on the biggest screen possible it's a problem that can be overcome easily enough.
There are some of those same cracks to be found beyond the cosmetics, though for me they only add to its slightly scruffy charm - rather than being a ruthlessly streamlined adventure like Breath of the Wild, this is a wilfully complex, frequently obscure RPG that revels in its own depths. Two dozen hours in and the training wheels are still being slowly removed, and yet for how slowly it opens up Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is strangely reticent to allow you to brush up on its many systems, explaining a new feature before swiftly moving on without leaving anything for you to reference back to.
Still, I've always loved feeling a little lost in the complexities of a game such as this, treading water in the deep end before finding a way to gracefully move forward, and Xenoblade Chronicle 2's combat is elastic and analogue enough to make muddling away at it all perfectly satisfying. Drivers work in unison with Blades, unlockable weapons that can be tweaked, upgraded and equipped at will, making party management a delightfully broad exercise in optimisation.
When a fight is in full swing in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, it has all the unkempt energy of a bar brawl; a proper pile-on of elemental attacks and outrageous numbers, escalating with chain attacks and gloriously overstated fireworks. Looking on from afar it might seem a chaotic mess, but with its MMO-esque timers and a simplified interface from previous Xenoblade entries, there's an easy rhythm to combat that's easy to get lost to; perfect for the grind that's sometimes necessary in what can be a punishing game.
I love it, in short, and having been initially sceptical that Monolith Soft could pull it off I'm now relishing another 60 hours unearthing the strange sights of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This was always going to be a harder sell than Breath of the Wild - whether that's in its divisive character designs or its occasional lunges towards anime excess, as witnessed by a few too many awkward jokes about maid culture - but there's something just as intoxicating to be found here. It's another epic that displays some exquisite craft, and provides the second of two substantial bookends to the Switch's incredible first year.