I used to struggle to immerse myself in a JRPG because I considered them lengthy and intimidating, and I actively avoided them with the exception of Persona. However, over the past few years, I’ve started to develop a knack for the genre, exploring games that I wouldn’t normally consider playing. As a result, I’ve recently gotten around to playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 on Nintendo Switch, a game that I regret not playing sooner. While I haven’t finished it yet, the worldbuilding and exploration in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 have left me in awe. With that in mind, I’m going to investigate Xenoblade Chronicles 2 from an outsider’s perspective to pinpoint why it works so well to entice genre newcomers, as well as which elements other RPGs might do well to incorporate.
Alrest, the world amongst the clouds
After now playing several JRPGs, I’ve realized that the introduction is probably one of the most important elements. For instance, if a game fails to explain the “rules” of the world and set the scene in a timely manner, the player is likely to lose interest. Likewise, making an audiovisual spectacle out of the opening moments can really sell the promise of the coming adventure to iffy newcomers.
Although Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes a while to get the ball rolling, the opening cutscene introduces you to some of Alrest’s more important grounding elements, such as the role of the Titans and some basic information about the World Tree. It’s an intro with style too, as you descend through the clouds during a storm before finally settling on a more pleasant view. Plus, the soundtrack is phenomenal. It’s all engaging in itself and only becomes more so as the pace picks up and introduces the concept of Drivers. Not every RPG needs to go all-out right away like this, but it’s definitely a great way to capture newcomers’ attention.
Alrest itself is captivating — the idea of a world being consumed by clouds is fascinating, and it’s presented in a way that piques the player’s interest. I believe this is because of the way new areas are introduced. For instance, you are first sent to the Argentum Trade Guild, which somehow reminded me of an outpost from the likes of Star Wars. Having this robust organization in the middle of the clouds provides a narratively intriguing way for the player to digest information about the game’s world in the opening section. It creates player anticipation for all of the future locations it teases. Again, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is using worldbuilding to sell the promise of adventure, not giving a newcomer time to lose interest.
Gormott defines Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s approach to worldbuilding
Traversing through each major civilization in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is spectacular, from both a visual and gameplay perspective. People live on massive Titans, and each one feels distinct in its exploration and the types of stories it tells. In particular, Gormott, one of the first major locations you visit in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, is an excellent case study into how to perfect the first major area of an RPG.
When you first arrive in Gormott, you are surrounded by nothing but forest and are separated from Nia and Dromarch. This opening section introduces you to more basic traversal methods, such as climbing, before you enter the sprawling landscape of Gormott. The moment you see the vast field is extraordinary, as you can see the abundance of creatures roaming the fields, in addition to tall mountains in the distance. In a single view, it instills excitement to explore every nook and cranny.
There’s a lot to do in Gormott; it doesn’t feel like an empty sandbox. As is the norm with JRPGs, there is a wide array of sidequests, in addition to a multitude of enemies. The creatures of Gormott are aesthetically novel, each with their own behaviors and movement patterns. Each landmark in Gormott has its own story to tell too, but the game often lets the player decide what that narrative is. Any RPG would benefit from engaging with environmental storytelling like this.
The inhabitants of Gormott are the Gormotti, the same race as Nia, who reside in the town of Torigoth. During his travels, Rex learns of how this once great society fell under Ardainian control approximately 50 years before the awakening of Pyra. It inspires player sympathy to see the residents lament this situation, and there are other ways you come to care for the characters. For instance, one quest focuses on a Romeo-and-Juliet-like relationship between an Ardainian and Gormotti. These sorts of moments are powerful worldbuilding tools in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that some games simply fail to include.
Meanwhile, the music continues to effectively invoke emotion from the player. “Gormott” by ACE utterly embodies the thrill of adventure during daylight exploration. Then “Gormott/Night” presents this differently, taking advantage of your curiosity as a player with something more dreamy. The music combined with the effective worldbuilding and environment makes Gormott one of the best areas I’ve traversed in a video game.
An influential JRPG
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an excellent case study into how worldbuilding can accommodate a player’s thirst for adventure. It does the right things to capture and keep the attention of people who are new to RPGs, like establishing foundational details early and painting a compelling picture of the epic things to come. The developers understood that you have to actively persuade the player that a lengthy RPG is worth every second of their time. In these ways, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has quickly cemented itself as one of my favorite games of all time, even though I’ve yet to see the credits.