I’ve already written a couple of pieces about Xenoblade Chronicles 2, so what I’m going to say here shouldn’t be any surprise at this point. Nintendo’s role-playing game is an endearing, disappointing, exciting, embarrassing spectacle. It is one of the best games I played in 2017, and also one of the worst. It’s so packed full of story and characters and things to do and things you don’t have to do and things you shouldn’t have to do that it’s impossible to have any kind of blanket, overarching reaction to it. It is great. It is awful. I played it for over 100 hours and I don’t even begin to regret it.
Let’s focus on the positives today. The rhythms of its elaborate combat never grow old, and I coasted on those roller coaster rails through both the game’s highs and lows, which often occur simultaneously. Based around three different kinds of combos that your party can unite on, fights become a kind of super combo as you wait to chain them all together. Hit the four moves required for a driver combo, or the three elementally coded attacks for a blade combo, or work towards both at the same time. If your party gauge is full after that, you can launch a chain attack, where all three of your party members can pile on huge, one-sided damage to a stunned enemy; those chain attacks can then be extended for a second (or third, or fourth…) round if a blade combo created an elemental orb that floats around the enemy, which can be burst by striking it with opposite elements during the chain attack. Early on it feels like a needlessly complicated system, and one you might struggle to understand or even remember since the game’s tutorials can’t be revisited. Once you fully know what the game wants you to do, though, those battles become some of the most satisfying RPG fights you’ll ever find yourself in.
It doesn’t just come down to its copious mechanics and systems, though. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might be filled with questionable, embarrassing character designs, but when the writing is at its best, it’s a surprisingly poignant game with an abundance of memorable characters and genuine real world wisdom. Nia, a prickly but honorable playable character introduced early in the game, escapes from the anime-influenced clichés that ground many of her party-mates, with an internal struggle and deep personal secret that becomes one of the most compelling plot threads. The game is full of non-playable support characters (they’re called Blades, and up to three at a time can be assigned to each Driver, the in-world term for the playable characters who control the mystical Blades), and they all have at least one side quest that attempts to flesh out their character. That doesn’t always work very well, but the best affinity missions feature some of the best writing and character work in games this year.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 most consistently succeeds with its deepest themes. It revisits territory that might sound familiar for Japanese role-playing games—the relationship between man and his creator, the importance of loyalty and reliability, disgust with organized warfare and the military-industrial complex, a distrust of systems of power—but sets it in a world that always feels true to itself while still allowing for commentary that’s clearly about the real world that we live in today. I’d hesitate to call it “nuanced,” but it can be far subtler than many big-budget would-be blockbusters that try to discuss real issues. It can be uncommonly thoughtful and perceptive, like the two great Xenoblade games that preceded it on the Wii and Wii U.
If this makes the game sound inconsistent, well, it is. And that inconsistency is part of what makes it charming. It tries to do way too much, but it does enough of it well to make the enormous time commitment feel acceptable. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an overstuffed buffet of a game: a lot of it might be trash, and it’s probably not healthy to visit something like this all too often, but you’ll feel more than full afterward and won’t regret it nearly as much as you expect.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.