Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (2017)

At some stage in a young nerd’s life, they’ll have to decide just how far down the geek wormhole they are willing to go. Think of it as the iconic red pill vs. blue pill scene from The Matrix, except here there’s a whole host of wee capsules in Laurence Fishburne’s hands. In one of his hands you’ve got mild nerd pills like mobile games, The Sims and being into wrestling. But then in the other, it’s the social-suicide pills – Warhammer, trainspotting and My Little Pony. And striking some sort of indeterminable sweet spot in between these two extremes is anime.

I made sure to steer well clear of it. What if you got lagged up in court because your mouse-mat was a massive-chested anime girl who looked to be in her 20s but was actually only 7, i.e. just a teensy bit underage in your jurisdiction? That’d be quite a bitter pill to swallow. Ho ho! But then you have the opposite effect, where the shut-in otakus tell us that it’s OK to masturbate over this particular lolicon, because despite appearing to be 10 years of age and wholly immature she is in actual fact an incarnation of a 5,000 year old goddess of virginity. This somehow makes it all above board again, and you shouldn’t have any problems explaining this phenomenon to the police. Well, go ahead then.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 had me worried, very worried. It was no problem to deal with the corniness of the first game on Wii, because that didn’t look anything near as embarrassing. And I hardly played Xenoblade Chronicles X on Wii U, but that’s okay because nobody else did either. Here though, the latest instalment on Switch would be an affront right from the get go. Almost every day before its release, new ‘Rare Blades’ were being announced, Rare Blades being fully voiced, unique companions that you use to fight with.

Well knock me down if the vast majority of them didn’t have boobs bigger than their heads. Even Pyra, the shapely redhead who adorns most of the advertising and the most pertinent Rare Blade in the story, sees her own ridiculous proportions give way to her alter ego, the watermelon-breasted Mythra. Great if you’re a teenage boy, which I sort of am anyway. But a bit of a headscratcher when they’re trying to deliver some sort of serious story and the male gaze is in overdrive.

I need hardly remind you that both of these Rare Blades, and possibly more, will be getting the anime figurine treatment. You know, those incredibly detailed, $100 or more figures that tend to be in a pose just that notch too perverted and that have groups of very deviant people queuing up to collect them, organise them, and do things to them far worse than that.

I never elected to do a PhD or any kind of masters in education so I am not really qualified to review the combat system. You will need not only a brain to rival little carton Dexter (who disappointingly doesn’t show up as a Rare Blade alongside Dee-Dee) but you’ll need a memory of the Gods too because in a strange move for the series, tutorials are never, ever repeated and you have no repository to review them from.

The result is that you’ll be told of some algebraic mechanic ahead of time, fool yourself that you’ll remember it, fail to do so and then wonder why you’re being smacked around by a set of bosses 30 hours later. The whole user interface is pretty much a step back – you will need to process upgrades on your own characters and blades individually, engage blades, disengage blades, work out why you can’t swap blades between characters, and so on.

You’ll always be diving in and out of menus looking for the screen you need with a bunch of numbers you don’t understand and trying to make those numbers go up. Not such a bad prospect when you’re swapping out cars in Gran Turismo, but not great when your many waifus are beginning to be neglected. While all this is going on, you’re trying desperately not to linger on these screens for too long, in case other people see the anime portraits and you are sadly judged.

Yes, it all comes back to the anime aspect. As a given, Japanese voices are included with the game and probably most aficionados of this type of thing will have the JP dub on as a matter of course. After all, you’re not going to understand the story anyway, so why not go the Japanese route and not understand what you’re not understanding?

As it is, the English voice acting has gotten a bit of a mixed reception to say the least, but I don’t mind it, in fact I probably like it. It’s the hodgepodge of accents that make it. You have the lead character Rex (a bit soft and brittle but with a big heart, not the worst) with a Sheffield twang, you’ve got a load of Scottish accents among the villainy, an unusual inclusion of some American accents… it all combines to sound like an action-packed episode of Emmerdale with some bad anime dubbing thrown in.

Probably the best of your sidekicks is a sassy catgirl with a Welsh accent as thick as stout, and I didn’t think I’d see that in a Nintendo game. Nor did I imagine characters called Padraig and Mórag and people referring to their ma and da. But where were the Irish?! If ever there was a golden opportunity to have a memorable bait-and-switch villain, some mad Paddy would have been it.

With the dubious anime aspect out of the way, we take a look at some of the selling points from the Xenoblade series. Namely, massive and expansive areas to explore, a top-notch soundtrack, and an overall streamlining of the jRPG experience. But strangely, some of the jRPG tedium is present here.

Probably the worst offender is just how bad the map screen is. You could be shown a billion cutscenes before being told time is of the essence and you’d better get to some obvious trap quickly or it’s curtains for your ecchi harem.  You try running towards the objective marker on your map for hours, only for it to be mountains or some other untraversable terrain every time, before an unkillable Level 95 enemy clocks your party and puts you out of your misery in one blow.

You really do need to Google a walkthrough to see exactly which obscure ridge you need to travel down, just so you can progress the story. What can also be aggravating are the Field Skills – in a similar way to how the HMs work in Pokémon, you will need certain Blade abilities to make mega jumps up cliffs, dispel evil walls of energy and other such feats of anime.

But where Pokémon drew ire was its HMs, and how they were permanent moves on your Mons. Not so good when you could only carry 6 chaps at one time, with 4 moves each, but at least only a few were necessary – and even that’s been toned down a lot in recent generations. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you’ve got about 50 different Field Skills with different levels of experience required, and God knows if your line-up of J-Pop idols can come up with a solution between them.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then, is a game that hits a lot of the classic Xenoblade notes but lets itself down with some iffy game design as well. I enjoyed it quite a bit, when I had half an idea as to what was going on. But the decisive aspect for any potential player here, the one that will make you stick or twist, is whether you can take the anime nature of the game and run with it, or if you’d feel much less guilty walking around town with a sawn-off shotgun sticking out your pants.

5 October 2018

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