Nintendo has made a lot of very poor decisions with the Xenoblade franchise, but they may just get it right with Xenoblade Chronicles 2. For starters, it’s the first entry of the franchise to be on a fresh new platform, the Nintendo Switch, instead of being part of a system’s death rattle. Nintendo has also been very insistent that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be a 2017 release, calling more attention to the franchise than ever before.
The original Xenoblade Chronicles was a critically acclaimed hit, and I personally consider it one of the best JRPGs to date. It bucked the genre’s trend of having menu based combat that would grow boring after so much time was put in, instead implementing what felt like a combination of Final Fantasy XI’s Real Time Battle and Final Fantasy XII’s Active Dimension Battle systems. Positioning and timing were emphasized, as well as chaining techniques properly to temporarily disorient opponents and beat them senseless. Xenoblade Chronicles’ combat system raised the bar for what should be expected of a JRPG, and no single mechanic will ever be as cool as Shulk’s ability to read the future in battle.
The 75% fantasy, 25% sci-fi story played out in a world where the only landmasses were the corpses of two titanic creatures that felled one another in mortal combat. The world’s scale was massive, and seeing one of these creatures’ skyscraper-sized fingers really puts things into perspective. I don’t want to spoil any story content, so let it suffice to say that it’s an epic tale that escalates rapidly and tackles issues like xenophobia, what it means to be human, the concept of life, and the true nature of gods. It’s peak Tetsuya Takahashi.
Xenoblade Chronicles had all the necessary ingredients to become the next Final Fantasy, but it was cursed by Nintendo’s sloppy handling. The dying Wii’s last days were barren, and Nintendo of America refused to bring the game to North America, until fans united in a campaign to force its localization. They eventually brought Xenoblade Chronicles stateside, but only as a limited release, exclusive to GameStop. Their mishandling of the game is why its physical release would sell for up to $200 secondhand, and was pirated over a million times.
These days Xenoblade Chronicles is more readily available through official Nintendo channels, but those channels are pretty awful themselves: Buy a n3DS and get the visually garbage, but feature enhanced, handheld port, or buy the long dead Wii U, with it’s awful storage capacity, and purchase the game on virtual console. Both options are less than appealing to say the least, and they offered abysmally small install bases for a deserving game that was struggling to find a second wind. I can only hope fans are offered an updated Nintendo Switch port in the lead up to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, as the virtual console version’s graphics and control scheme have not aged well at all.
It seemed like Nintendo had learned their lesson from the flustercuck surrounding Xenoblade Chronicles and its positive reception: The company green lit Xenoblade Chronicles X, which would be Nintendo’s largest and most ambitious video game by far, up until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was supposed to be a coming out moment for Monolith Soft and the Xenoblade franchise.
Xenoblade Chronicles X brought us a world that felt truly alien, was grand in scope, and begged to be explored.
Xenoblade Chronicles X improved upon the combat of the original, adding verticality, mechs, and flight to the equation. The Soul Voice system replaced traditional healing, meaning players had to perform well in combat, maintaining a sense of rhythm and timing, to heal themselves and power up. I cannot name an RPG, Japanese or Western, that comes close in terms of amazing combat mechanics.
Planet Mira was five times larger than the world of Xenoblade Chronicles, mainly to accommodate the new Skell mechs, and their increased mobility, including flight. Players could go anywhere they wanted, and in case seeing all of the beautiful sights Mira had to offer wasn’t reason enough to explore, players would receive both types of currencies, lots of treasure, EXP, and ability points just for the act of exploring itself. Battling the interesting, highly destructible life forms of Mira wasn’t even a requirement for character development.
It wasn’t a perfect game though, and three changes in particular divided the fan base: The characters had weirdly off putting faces, Attack on Titan composer Hiroyuki Sawano was brought on to compose the soundtrack, and the story had…issues. The transformation of the human race into a potato faced gremlin people with massive foreheads can actually be explained away in the story, but the rest of it, not so much.
People either love Sawano’s Engrish-riddled vocal scores, or hate them. I was in the latter population from the beginning, but I eventually warmed to it, as it fit the tone of the game better than a Xenoblade Chronicles 1 styled OST would have. That said, the New LA night theme is the absolute worst theme that has ever graced a video game soundtrack. I would rather listen to the Donkey Kong Country TV show theme on a loop.
Most troubling, the story was sour grapes for everyone involved. It’s another case of great content being undermined by poor execution. Nintendo pushed for a create-a-character hero and some light multiplayer elements, and it was a mistake. Without a well written central character, the story revolved around Elma and Lin more than the player. The pacing was also erratic, players received almost no explanation for the enemy’s behavior until the game rushed into a finale that ended not only on a cliffhanger, but a double cliffhanger.
The rushed conclusion may have had something to do with Nintendo shifting towards the Nintendo Switch during development, as the Wii U was already receiving its last rites. It’s undeniable that the Wii U exclusives began to rapidly drop in quality from that point in time. Furthermore, after being impressed by Monolith’s world building skills, the studio was made to help with Breath of the Wild’s development, and we currently have no idea if Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s development overlapped with that of its immediate predecessor.
I hope we also see a Xenoblade Chronicles X port for the Nintendo Switch, as it was another great game that deserved better treatment than it received at the hands of Nintendo of America. In all their wisdom, Nintendo of America positioned the awful, bare bones, and utterly incomplete Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash as their Black Friday release, over Xenoblade Chronicle X, the largest development effort by Nintendo thus far.
If it’s any consolation to Xenoblade fans, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash went on to be the greatest Black Friday bomb in history.
To add insult to injury, Nintendo stated the reason Xenoblade Chronicles X didn’t received a big marketing push is because RPGs are a very niche genre, and anyone interested in buying an RPG would already know it existed…
That’s not how advertising works you backwards imbeciles! This was post-Witcher 3 too, where open world RPGs were regularly bought by more people than any Nintendo game had been for half a decade at that point. When taken into consideration with Shigeru Miyamoto’s murder of the Paper Mario RPGs and Nintendo of America’s botched handling of Xenoblade Chronicles, the stupidity of this statement further highlighted how painfully oblivious Nintendo was to the RPG genre.
Fortunately, the failure of the Wii U rattled Nintendo to the point that they’ve changed up the entire company. Yoshiaki Koizumi, Miyamoto’s protege, has become the new public face of Nintendo. He was a major influence on the Nintendo Switch’s development, and he’s now in charge of the Mario games. Koizumi’s practically Nintendo royalty, and while he learned a lot under Miyamoto, he happens to love incorporating narratives into his works.
Why is that important? It means the new blood of Nintendo is acutely aware that narrative driven games can be great too, and must have a place in the company going forward; gamers want stories too. One of the many steps towards re-establishing Nintendo as a company capable of doing that type of game is to turn the Xenoblade franchise into the success it deserves to be.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the game Tetsuya Takahashi wanted to make. The focus has been placed back on the story, and there’s neither a create-a-character nor forced multiplayer element in sight. Once again, giant, continent-sized creatures make up the new world, likely indicating the map is less seamless and more linear, which emphasizes on storytelling over total freedom. An acceptable trade, if the story is strong enough to carry the game.
The character designs of Xenoblade Chronicles X tried to make more realistic versions of the original’s character models, and it came across as being off. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has taken things in the other direction, towards anime. It’s not the best looking anime style I’ve ever seen, but it looks a bit better than Xenoblade Chronicles X, and the anime aesthetic tends to do better with fans of Japanese games in general.
Sawano is out too. Yasunori Mitsuda has returned to take charge of the soundtrack, which he claims is the largest project he has ever worked on. Irish choral ensemble Anuna has been tapped to provide chorus, a drastic change from Sawano’s style, that’s more in line with what fans were expecting from the Xeno saga. On top of that, other Xenoblade Chronicles alums, like ACE+, are returning as well.
Nintendo has rebounded well financially, the company’s philosophy has changed in support of games having story, and the advertising for the Nintendo Switch and its games is now on point. The Nintendo Switch hype is palpable right now, and we’re right in the middle of a lull period in the system’s release schedule. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is currently slated for release either during the holiday rush, where the hype will have gone nuclear, or in early 2018, where it will have less competition and an even larger install base looking for games. Barring the Nintendo Switch experiencing the greatest collapse in video game history, everything is going in favor of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
The third time’s the charm.