You play a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for the details. Not specific details, but the sheer amount of them. You’ll probably never come close to finding, much less remembering, every detail in this game. With tutorial windows still popping up over 20 hours in, you won’t even fully know how you’re supposed to play this game until you’ve poured almost a day into it.
You play Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to be overwhelmed by its audacious size and scope. You play it so you can get lost in its absurd, novelistic length. You play it so you don’t have to think about playing anything else for weeks or months. It’s the kind of game that’ll take a solid chunk out of your life, dozens and dozens of hours, and then sit on your shelf (or your eShop purchase history) as a memento of all that time. It’s the kind of game you get nostalgic for before you even finish playing it.
Yes, it’s a Japanese role-playing game, with all the grinding and questing and anime aping you’d expect. Like all the Xenoblades before it, it’s a clear adherent of the traditional Final Fantasy school of role-playing. Your party of heroes traipse across every continent in a world that mashes up historical eras, crafting a milieu that’s part fantasy, part sci-fi, and simultaneously unique and deeply familiar. Swords, lasers and superpowers comingle in an all-purpose arsenal of comic book might, wielded by all manner of robots, magical beings and anthropomorphized animals. The rewards aren’t just experience points, new abilities and piles of gold, but the sense of progress those instill, along with the occasional doling out of story in the form of anime cut scenes. The numbers go up, the world grows smaller as it grows bigger, and after slashing through missions, sidequests and monsters you’ll gain a better understanding of your adventurous crew.
Let’s talk specifics. There’s a “2” in that title, but you don’t really need to know anything about the first Xenoblade Chronicles (which came out on the Wii during its final days before getting a second life on the 3DS) to understand this one. It’s also distinct from Xenoblade Chronicles X, which came out two years ago on the Wii U. The reason this one numbers itself after the first game and not the last one is because it’s structurally and mechanically more similar to the original. Like both of them, though, Chronicles 2 features a large open world teeming with monsters that won’t surprise you with random encounters, interspersed with a number of towns with shops and civilians to interact with.
This time the “blade” of the title refers to Blades—superpowered, immortal creatures who bond with a mortal Driver, who helps guide and focus the Blade’s abilities. The player only directly controls the Driver, and the Blade is basically in an AI support mode, except for their special attacks. Their relationship is built on trust, which is an actual metric in the game, made up of numbers and a letter grade and everything. The more a Blade trusts its Driver, the more powerful it is, and that trust is built through a variety of ways. The Driver can equip food, drinks, art and musical instruments that the Blade is partial to, but the chief driver of trust comes through battle. Every time a Blade and Driver fight together that trust goes up a little bit. There’s also a stat called affinity, which is depicted on screen via a string of light that connects the Blade to the Driver; if that line is gold, that affinity is at its peak. That makes both the Blade and Driver’s attacks more powerful, and also helps unlock the Blade’s Affinity Rewards, a variety of permanent buffs on a skill tree that opens up the more a Blade is used.
The Blade and Driver have a special bond, but this isn’t a culture built on monogamy. The Driver can have multiple Blades at once; in fact, it’s crucial to eventually have three Blades assigned to every Driver in your three-member party. Each Blade has a different environmental charge to their attacks, and when deployed in the right sequence those various battle techniques can create combos of incredible force. And since your Driver’s basic attacks are automatic, you’ll spend most of your fight time waiting for your Blade’s special attack meters to fill up so you can tap one of the four face buttons to unleash that move. (As before, these special moves are called “arts” within the game.)
As you win skirmishes and complete quests, you’ll accumulate a variety of different kinds of experience points. One of them acts like traditional experience points, helping you level up, improving most of your basic skills and total amount of health points. Another pool of points can be used to improve the arts used by your Blades. Yet another lets you unlock new perks for your Drivers. Blades can also have their weapons improved by buying stronger materials or equipping something called aux cores; the former changes how much damage a Blade can do and the likelihood of blocking an attack or making a critical strike, and the aux cores add minor buffs, like slightly strengthening affinity during a fight, or boosting damage against specific types of enemies.
There’s also one Blade that can’t use aux cores but instead unlocks new abilities and perks through crystals and “cards” that are won through an in-game 8-bit arcade game called Tiger Tiger. To power her up properly, you’ll need to play a lot of Tiger Tiger.
I’m going into such detail here for a reason: to really hammer home how complicated these systems are. You have to keep tabs on multiple skill trees for an ever-growing roster of characters, and the real-time battles basically boil down to triggering specific arts in a specific order to maximize damage. And because the game inexplicably doesn’t let you revisit tutorials (instead you have to buy very cursory, one or two sentence recaps of those tutorials from informants hidden throughout most cities), you might find yourself forgetting some of the peculiar eccentricities to this complex web of special attacks and power-up menus as you play on. It took me far longer than I’d care to admit to fully grasp how to manage the stacking combos and environmental effects in combat.
It might have taken too much time to understand it, but once I had combat down I came to appreciate its patient, rhythmic pulse. The Driver’s auto-attacks have a slight pause between them, and if an art is triggered right when the Driver makes contact it increases the power of that art. It becomes a kind of rhythm game, waiting to tap at the right moment to deal the most punishing blow. And when a full three-pronged Blade Combo lands, with one special art landing on top of another, the much larger-than-usual damage number that floats out of the monster’s broken body is extremely satisfying. This is a numbers game, and those numbers can be very fulfilling.
Surprisingly the story doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of those numbers, despite its extreme anime influence. There are a lot of questionable decisions on display—why does Pyra, the main Blade and female lead, basically run around in a thong with something barely larger than a handkerchief wrapped around it? (For that matter, why is each breast larger than her head? “Because anime” is the only answer, and that’s not really good enough.) Many of the stock types and situations you might expect from an anime-biting JRPG are in full bloom, including a supposed comic relief character that is extremely aggravating from the start, but the well-written English script develops a legitimate emotional core beneath the tropes, and the voice-acting is more natural and subdued than usually found in English dubs. The decision to use various English and Scottish accents for most characters helps a lot—many of the standard vocal styles and clichés heard in overdubbed animes are nowhere to be found here.
There are so many other details to this game that I haven’t even started to get into. (Hell, I haven’t even begun to talk about the plot, which sets itself apart from the last two Xenoblade games with its focus on a centuries-old secret conflict and a poignant exploration of personal relationships between the immortal Blades and their mortal Drivers.) This massive tangle of systems, mechanics and submenus might not tie together elegantly, but you’ll have a deep understanding of everything you need to know within a couple dozen hours. That depth ensures that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 accomplishes the main goal of all role-playing games. It puts you in an unfamiliar world with unusual inhabitants and makes everything feel alive in a way most games don’t strive for. Like a great novel or a TV show that you’re binging, you’ll start to think about Chronicles when you’re not playing it. You might even dream about it. It’s complex and perhaps too full of details, but it’s still way easier to get a handle on than the real world.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.