There’s something about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that just isn’t grabbing me. The story is fun in its traditional shonen anime style, there are plenty of philosophical and religious undercurrents to the story, the combat system is very fun, and exploring the world is perhaps more fun than it’s been since the first Xenoblade. But about 40 hours into the game, I just don’t feel that inescapable pull I felt with the previous two games – especially with Chronicles X.
For me, the world and play of Xenoblade Chronicles X was more believable.
I know, I know. They’re all fantasy games that take place in mysterious lands with impossible creatures and anime storylines. But XCX was so cohesive that I couldn’t help but feel pulled into it right from the start.
The Ludonarrative Resonance of Xenoblade Chronicles X
XCX often gets a bad rap for many reasons, one of them being that it doesn’t take place on the backs of two frozen, warring gods. But it truly had a compelling premise: Earth is all but wiped out by alien invaders, and the only known surviving colony of human refugees is stranded on a mysterious, hostile planet. Here, humans must pull together and figure out how to survive with only their wits and their technology. The result is New Los Angeles, a hyper-efficient micro-government that nonetheless is fighting a losing battle against time with their limited resources.
It’s a world in which the meaning of humanity is questioned with every step, and with every encounter with other alien races.
It is also a highly cohesive world, in which the players’ actions are coherent with the game’s premise. Every time the player defeats powerful enemies, New Los Angeles becomes a little safer. Every time the player completes a sidequest, humanity gains resources and maintains peaceful coexistence within its society. Even simple exploration and resource gathering is important.
As a player, it’s hard for me to feel like my actions have no consequence. For example, I can choose to buy armor and weapons with my saved money; or I can choose to invest it in technology companies, who then bring more powerful weapons and more resistant armor to the market. By buying these, I can head back out to perform more challenging tasks in the hostile planet of Mira.
Similarly, the progression path that I must take before acquiring my own Skell is justified by the limited availability and high costs of the technology, as well as by their importance in humanity’s survival. Not everyone has the skill to use one of these massive mechanical wonders – yet they are crucial for many tasks, so I must get one.
The main story, too, presents an urgent problem for humanity’s survival. New Los Angeles is running out of energy, and the days of humanity are counted. The clock is ticking, so the player must push forward through the main story. And, because the stakes are so high, character betrayals are more meaningful.
The theme of survival even permeates the game’s sidequests. In a particular quest, rivalry between coworkers leads to envy over one getting a leader position over the other. This is given an abrupt ending when the lead’s research team, attempting to establish a water treatment plant to better supply the human colony, encounters a hostile alien parasite that turns the entire team into monsters.
Petty drama has no place in the survival of humankind, and sacrifices are crucial.
Even the multiplayer has a believable context, in that I’m no more unique than any other player, and we all must cooperate and fight for survival together. I fit into a role of my choice according to my talents, but that’s as far as my individuality goes – to reap the best rewards, I must help my online squad clear up a list of monsters, go on a quest with them, fight massive mega-bosses, or simply make my character available for other squad members to recruit to their own parties.
All of these things work on a story and on a play basis, but there is also an aesthetic basis for why Xenoblade Chronicles X works so great. The setting of a futuristic humanity on an alien planet harmonizes perfectly with Monolith Soft’s talents as a developer: they are very fond of exaggerated semi-realistic monsters (like massive, four-armed primates); mechs and power armor have been in Monolith Soft’s blood since Xenogears, if not since Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6; and gigantic landmarks on alien terrain are their bread and butter.
Still Waiting for the Drop in Xenoblade Chronicles 2
All of this praise for XCX might make you think I don’t like XC2. This is not true. XC2 is a damn good RPG with rich and deep game systems, and a more accessible and engaging combat system. Newcomers to the series will no doubt have a blast with it.
But for those of us that have been there and done that with the first XC, the experience isn’t so fresh. To borrow a phrase from a friend, “XC2 is chasing a ghost.” That ghost is the experience of the first Xenoblade Chronicles, with its mystifying setting on the back of gods and theological currents of thought underlying every plot twist. The shonen storyline is here again. The grassy plains, the snowy tundra, the massive lakes – these are all here, too.
XCX didn’t chase that ghost. It accepted itself for what it was: a post-Earth space opera in which the survival of humankind was the only thing that mattered. Because of this, I accepted it more easily, too.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Monolith Soft’s latest games, is that the whole experience can change at a moment’s notice. The first XC went from a joyful to a nostalgic experience before I even reached the Mechonis. XCX practically became a different game once it put me in a Skell’s seat. With XC2, I just know there’s a bass drop coming soon. And I’m looking forward to it.