If you managed to pick up a Nintendo Switch back when the console launched in March, there’s a good chance you’ve played plenty of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And by now you may have exhausted much of what the grand Hyrule landscape has to offer — which makes this week’s launch of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 especially timely. Like the previous entries in the series, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a sprawling role-playing game that melds elements of sci-fi and fantasy into something strange and unique. It’s a world defined by a sense of scale; everything around you seems absolutely gigantic. (Developer Monolith Soft actually worked on Breath of the Wild as well, aiding Nintendo’s EPD team with the open-world design.) It’s a journey that takes dozens of hours to complete.
And while there are plenty of significant differences between Xenoblade and Breath of the Wild, there’s one important aspect that they both share: the thrill of adventure.
In a lot of ways, the two games are actually at opposite ends of the fantasy adventure spectrum. Part of the reason that Breath of the Wild was so beloved was that it challenged many of the genre’s conventions. It was incredibly open, offering little in the way of direction, trusting players to figure things out on their own. You weren’t limited by seemingly arbitrary things like your experience level, and virtually every aspect of the game — from the combat to the cooking — felt like a natural part of the world. This encouraged exploration and experimentation. If you saw an ancient ruin on a distant mountain, you could find a way to get there. If you foraged a strange mushroom in the forest, you could use it to cook new replenishing meals.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2, on the other hand, sticks with many common RPG traditions. The game puts you in the role of a scavenger named Rex, who eventually discovers he has the power to wield a living weapon called Pyra. The two set out on a quest to find a long-fabled paradise for humanity called Elysium, which involves following along a set path. You can take on plentiful side missions, but there isn’t much opportunity to diverge from the main story. Your ability to go places is largely tied to your experience level; if you’re not strong enough, you’ll find yourself quickly wiped out by enemies more powerful than you. Success sometimes comes down to grinding for experience in optional battles.
By role-playing game standards, Xenoblade is on the more complex side. It features an at times confusing array of systems that take a long time to fully understand. The combat can feel strange; characters will attack automatically, with you guiding their placement and unleashing special attacks. It takes some getting used to, and 15 hours into my adventure I was still being subjected to tutorials explaining how to chain together attacks. Similarly, customizing and upgrading the characters on your squad involves a convoluted process with multiple skill trees and a gear system that works differently from most games.
All of this is to say that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that demands a lot from you. If you don’t pay close attention to the details, you’ll find yourself struggling. But once you get the hang of things, it’s engrossing: the complexities and quirks eventually become second nature, and you realize there’s a depth to the game that’s a lot of fun to delve into. But you need to be willing to put in the time to figure out how things work.
What makes all of this effort worth it is the sense of awe that comes from exploring the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It’s a place that makes you feel miniscule. In this universe, humanity lives on the backs of giant creatures called titans, which are big enough that they’re essentially continents, walking through a mysterious sea made of clouds. There’s an incredible thrill that comes from running through an open plain and looking up to see what appears to be a moving mountain, that actually turns out to be the rocky neck of a towering creature. These moments never seem to get old, as the game continually throws new and strange places at you. At one point, you’re actually swallowed by a titan, only to discover a fantastical ecosystem living inside of it.
Visiting a different titan is like going to another country. The cities have their own unique cultures. Some are rural towns dotted by rice paddies, others huge cities with ports full of gigantic airships. The wildlife is especially diverse, ranging from terrifying dinosaurs to strange walking plants. And they behave much more like real animals than typical video game monsters. They run in herds, drink from lakes, and many of the more peaceful creatures will leave you alone if you don’t bother them. The landscape feels plausible, which seems even more incredible when you remember that it exists on the back of a massive creature.
This kind of world building has always been the highlight of the series. Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U felt like you were living inside of a greatest hits collection of sci-fi art. There are some aspects that ruin the illusion — gathering fish, wood, or other resources means searching for specific glowing spots — but for the most part the worlds are a joy to inhabit, especially for sci-fi fans. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 simply takes things a step further by somehow making the sense of scale seem even larger and more intimidating.
But while the gameplay and world are worth investing in, other aspects of the experience don’t hold up quite so well. The story is, despite its unique premise, fairly predictable, and I never felt especially connected to any of the characters. (It’s also a standalone tale, so you don’t have to worry about having played the previous games.) Your squad mates can get annoyingly chatty, constantly repeating lines like “We’ll beat them with the power of friendship!” in the midst of a heated battle. Worse still, the game is filled with lengthy, and not particularly exciting, cutscenes. Thankfully, you can at least pause or skip these moments (a necessary feature if you’re playing on the go).
And while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a gorgeous game — though the resolution takes a significant hit when you play in portable mode — the character designs are a mishmash of styles that don’t really gel together. It’s weird to watch a supposedly serious cutscene where a squat anime scavenger and a doll-like robot are being accosted by a soldier of normal human proportions. It’s even stranger viewed up against the gritty sci-fi backdrop of an alien landscape. It’s a big departure if you’re coming to the game from Xenoblade Chronicles X, which had a much more consistent sense of style.
If you play these kinds of games for story and characters, those aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 aren’t going to fully satisfy you. But the things it does well, it really excels at. The gameplay is deep enough that even dozens of hours in you’ll still be learning new techniques and details, while the world is so vast and strange you can’t help but want to explore. And like Breath of the Wild, it’s the kind of game that fits the handheld console perfectly, letting you dip into the world wherever you are. It may not be quite the same as venturing through the vast fields of Hyrule, but the sense of discovery is nearly as satisfying.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be available December 1st on the Nintendo Switch.