It’s Time To Talk About Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Let me take you back to a simpler time. It’s 2017. Nintendo’s planning a bombastic launch for their new console, the Switch. They understand that one of the reasons why the Wii U, their previous home console, failed was due to weak launch titles. Therefore, Nintendo charts out an ambitious year one filled with strong titles in recognizable IPs: lead with Zelda, follow up with Mario Kart, pursue with Splatoon, and knock it out of the park with Mario. And obviously, this strategy worked. Not only has the Nintendo Switch pushed 61 million units, the second best of any Nintendo home console (standing behind only the Wii), all four of these games have remained the Switch’s best selling games (Mario Kart at #1, Zelda at #4, Mario at #6, Splatoon at #9). But among this pantheon remains a black sheep, and the title Nintendo chose to play cleanup for an iconic year one: Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Xenoblade Chronicles is actually a spinoff of the larger Xeno franchise, much like how Luigi, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Wario run spinoff franchises of their own. Initially developed by SquareSoft (now Square Enix), a single man named Tetsuya Takahashi (and his studio, Monolith Soft) has helmed three separate but interconnected videogame franchises — Xenogears, Xenosaga, and Xenoblade Chronicles. Xenoblade debuted with Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, released in Japan in June 2010. As time progressed, Nintendo made it abundantly clear that they had no intentions of localizing it — along with two other titles, Pandora’s Tower and The Last Story — due to the Wii being on its last legs. American and European fans launched a movement calling for the localization of these games called “Operation: Rainfall”, and eventually, Nintendo acquiesced and released all three games in the West. Xenoblade Chronicles went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed RPGs ever made, netting a sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U. The franchise built its reputation on strong narratives, worldbuilding and characters. However, Xenoblade — like basically all JRPGs — has always remained a niche in the West. So Nintendo choosing Xenoblade Chronicles as their final year 1 title was an unexpected choice — but it turned out to be the correct one.
Announced alongside the Nintendo Switch itself, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 asserted itself as a completely separate story from the original Xenoblade Chronicles, painting an image of the world of Alrest. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 released to both commercial and critical success, selling over 2 million copies and is the best selling game in the Xeno franchise to date.
I discovered Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a year ago — I was waiting for college to start and had finished Fire Emblem: Three Houses. However, I put the game down after Chapter 3 for a few reasons — namely, confusion about the combat system and needing to…go to school. I picked it up again in for two reasons: being in quarantine and watching YouTuber chuggaaconroy begin his Let’s Play of the game, with the first point helping me find the time and the second point helping me understand the combat system. And I’m really happy that I gave the game a second shot, because it’s one of my favorite experiences of all time.
Most complaints about Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stem from two major points: a narrative complaint that it’s too “anime”, and a gameplay complaint about confusing combat systems and tutorials. And to be clear: the second point is incredibly valid. You get an almost constant stream of tutorials through the first ten hours of the game, with no way to revisit them. Thus, lots of information — especially about the complex but engaging combat system. It’s precisely for that reason that YouTuber chuggaaconroy is working right now to make a spoiler free tutorial on the battle systems.
However, I cannot disagree with the idea that being anime-esque makes it bad or “degenerate”. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has an approach to its art style similar to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker with a simplified, “toon” art style compared to its predecessors and received similar backlash. From a narrative standpoint, the story weaves a complex tale about the nature of destiny and free will, all while beginning deep conversations about the impacts of climate change and its correlation with war, imperialism, and poverty. Slight spoilers ahead for the first three chapters of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. (You can scroll until you see the next bolded section)
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a story about predetermination. The main protagonist, Rex, is an embodiment of free will through self determination. Rex begins the plot as a salvager living life on his own terms before being recruited to a highly lucrative job that ends with him bonding with a legendary Blade named the Aegis. Pyra explains that she needs to make it to Elysium, and Rex agrees to accompany her. Opposing them are the mysterious Jin and the other Aegis, Malos, both of whom believe it to be their destiny to exterminate all humankind. As their adventure progresses, every character reflects on their predetermined “role”, and how they defy that.
At the same time, the game balances its plot with an important perspective on the global climate crisis. Alrest, the world that Rex and Pyra inhabit, is dealing with environmental issues similar to the ones on Earth. There exists no solid ground on Alrest — instead, everyone lives on behemoths called “Titans” the size of continents that rest upon the Cloud Sea. However, Titans eventually die, and when they sink beneath the clouds, they doom their populace. This analogy to our current global situation aligns with Peter Dauvergne and Jennifer Clapp’s perspective on the four paths to a green world — specifically, the view of bioenvironmentalists. Bioenvironmentalists believe the world is limited in resources, and the only solution to reduce consumption. Radical beliefs in this field include one-child policies and Malthusianism. Elysium, a heaven-esque locale, is characterized by the citizens of Alrest as being a legend. By characterizing the world as physically limited in space and by portraying Elysium, a place that can support the level of consumption that the citizens of Alrest live on, as fantasy, it stands as a damning perspective on a reliance of a singular “silver bullet” climate crisis technology.
Furthermore, the major military nation Mor Ardain has colonized the Titan of Gormott before the events of the game. In general, the military occupation and imperialism is portrayed as abusive and unjust. However, it is revealed that the Mor Ardanian titan is dying, exacerbated by the industrial progress of the land. Temperatures are rising, and the landscape is bleak and dry. Mor Ardain’s military conquest is framed as a contingency plan — without colonial expansion, the Ardanian citizens have nowhere to go. To me, this is the most damning commentary on how the climate crisis drives imperialism. From Russia’s search for a warmwater port to America’s search for oil in the Middle East, the environment — and its changes — directly impact and increase the need for war and colonialist tendencies. All global issues are interconnected.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 isn’t all heavy discussion about global issues. It’s deeply charming, develops its characters in impeccable ways, and has more than its fair share of funny moments.
I don’t want to use this to gush about a game that I’m playing through and am in love with. I want to open a discussion about it — how it’s important, and how I can’t recommend it more to anyone wanting to dive (pun intended) into the story of the driver(or drivers plural, if you play the DLC) of the Aegis. It remains a cultural niche but tells a story deeply applicable to the modern world. It’s more relevant now than it’s ever been. Don’t feel intimidated by the “2”, don’t feel intimidated by the combat system.
Also, one of the main characters is a catgirl with a Welsh accent.