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Monolith Makes Worlds Part 3: Xenoblade Chronicles 2

January 11th was the night of the first in-depth press conference for the Nintendo Switch, and I remember jokingly telling my friends at the time that I would likely hold off on buying the new system until Monolith Soft announced their first title. Imagine my surprise when I saw the first, bare-bones teaser trailer for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (XC2) that very same evening, with a tentative release date of 2017 attached. I reined in my expectations in the months to come, knowing full-well how XCX had taken such a long time to develop, and how little of this new title we had seen. News that the original soundtrack had just finished recording before E3 did not give me much hope, but the game would be featured there and given a release date in the same holiday time-frame as XCX. Shocked and now enthralled, I began to listen more intently to how the game's mechanics would work and play. While the Treehouse demo was informative, it had only a few instances of exceptional play, which made me wonder whether or not the game's heavily modified combat system would work. But when I finally started to play XC2, I would realize that my previous fears were not justified.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is not a perfect game, from a technical or mechanical perspective. Upon launch, it had a tendency to crash. Its map system, specifically regarding fast-travel, was extremely convoluted.Its voice acting is far more of a mixed bag than either of its predecessors, and it has a number of additional oddities that can very well dissuade a first-time player of the -blade series, or even a seasoned JRPG veteran. And yet, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the first game of the series that I have clocked over two-hundred hours into on my first playthrough, and is a title that surprised me in so many ways, despite said flaws.

Having sunk as much time as I have into the game, and still looking forward to the future DLC installments (which I will likely cover in a separate article/installment), and also having recently done some intense revisiting of the previous -blade titles, I feel that I have a very clear idea for what XC2 accomplishes, as well as what it fails at achieving. Although my initial focus for this series was on world design, there are other aspects of XC2 that are far more rewarding to discuss. As is the case with both of the previous titles, we will cover every aspect of the game here, but particular emphasis will be placed upon the defining keyword of this game: combat.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Organic and Addictive
Part 013: Stripping Down (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 014: Inside and Out (Setting and World Design)
Part 015: We'll Show You What Me and Pyra Can Do! (Characters and Combat)

Part 016: Gotta Catch 'Em All (Story and Side-Missions)
Part 017: It's Not Perfect (Organic Discovery)
Part 018: What's In a Name? (Final Impressions)
DLC Part 019: We'll Fight for Our Future! (DLC Musings)

DLC Part 020: Give Them What They Want (DLC Impressions)
DLC Part 021: The Golden Country Conundrum (Torna Musings)
DLC Part 022: I really, REALLY like you two. (Torna: The Golden Country)
DLC Part 023: Looking to the Future (Conclusion)

If you've made it this far, you're likely aware that I don't particularly enjoy being specific about spoilers in a game, but several important plot points will be directly integrated within the analysis of combat in XC2. Because of the proximity of this analysis in relation to the game's release, I strongly advise that players complete Chapter 7 before reading Part 015, as they will have discovered the majority of the combat mechanics and the most important story revelations at this point.

...Onward, to Elysium, then.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Organic and Addictive
Part 013: Stripping Down (Core Mechanic Variations)

One of the more surprising aspects of XC2's adherence to the series' core mechanics is how much it streamlines a number of the complexities found in previous entries. Some of these likely contributed to the faster development period, while others seem to have been altered in order for balance and simplicity's sake. Either way, I feel that this game is more accessible and easy to grasp from a mechanical standpoint in comparison with the accessibility of story in XC, and the freedom of control and exploration found in XCX.

Because of the setting, maps are now far more segmented, in more than a few ways. Each Titan has its own map, sometimes with multiple levels based on the density and vertical limits of each environment. Landmarks and fast-travel points are not always mutually exclusive, but there's a much lower amount of fast-travel points per region in comparison with XCX. Towns are directly integrated into world design, often sandwiched within or layered atop environments, which creates a very different feel from the segmented nature of XC, which only possessed one instance of this sort of design on the Fallen Arm. Town development has additional features that are meant to streamline the process, but it sometimes interferes with the economy of the game. In addition, development level is also directly and bizarrely tied to specific aspects of character progression.

Unique mobs can now be battled again at any time upon being defeated, as they create a tombstone that allows them to be summoned on cue- this works even if they initially required specific weather conditions in order to be encountered. This system is similar to the modifications made regarding material drops, as they are now specific points that drop multiple items upon interaction. These can be reset upon fast-travel, in the series' tradition, but certain drops possess context-specific materials- for example, a drop located by a cliff will likely contain minerals, or a drop in water will possess fish. The rarity of the drops found can be manipulated thanks to specific field skills equipped upon characters. This is rather huge.

A curious aspect of Heart-to-hearts is that they can be found in the field, but contribute little to boosting Affinity levels. They often add flavor text and very rarely appear before the player is able to access them- although this is also a result of how certain Affinity links occur. In fact, there is no inter-party member Affinity system, only between the party members and their Blades, which we will touch upon later. The quest marker system not only marks multiple story-related objectives, but will also mark new quests while roaming the world. It also signals the elevation of each objective, which can be beneficial in towns, though not always in the field.

There are a number of additional elements that have been altered so heavily that they actually affect the normal structure of this review, so we'll have to cover them here. Equipment, especially that which grants aesthetic changes in the field, is no longer present, likely a result of the emphasis on unique character design. In its place are accessories and item pouches, which have a maximum of two slots each. Accessories are extremely specific in function and can, at maximum, alter a single character statistic around 30 to 35 percent. Accessories can often grant passive bonuses, but a single type of accessory cannot be stacked- two accessories that lower enemy resistance to the Break status cannot be equipped on a single character, for example, or two accessories that boost a specific statistic by a certain percentage. However, an accessory that boosts a statistic by a certain amount of points can be paired with one that boosts by percentage. It's weird.

Pouch items are Monolith's way of making sure you have a low amount of money, at least until you unlock Sheba. There are an absurd amount of pouch items, appearing in the form of food (signature dishes, meat, fish, vegetables, desserts, and drinks), cosmetics (makeup and textiles), and trinkets (books and games). Some characters gain the ability to create certain pouch items through Affinity building, but more than often, you will be buying these from the many, many.


Shops in the game. Like material drops and accessories, they come in three tiers of rarity, and you better bet your sweet Blade that they get more expensive. Pouch items have the ability to raise Affinity levels if your bonded Blades like them, but you need to learn which categories they like, or actually pick specific items if you are looking to get their favorites. Outside of boosting Affinity, however, pouch items also grant specific passive bonuses in combat which, though nice, aren't truly beneficial until you start equipping the highest-tier types of items. And yes, like accessories, you cannot put doubles in both pouches.

In terms of weapons, well, that's an entirely separate story. However, Weapon Points, used to level up specific Arts, can be obtained by maxing out Affinity with your Blades, which is why you should try to do so as often as you can. Experience not gained in battles (via side-content) can be applied to each party member while they rest at an inn. This is also the first of the -blade games to have an inn-resting feature, and it is specifically for this, and one other purpose.

Regarding these alterations, my only assumption is that Monolith designed XC2 to be more accessible than previous entries, with distinct character designs that would stand out against one another, and more limited in application, but broad in concept accessory design. When paired with a number of the combat mechanics, which also factor into customization, the game's systems are much more easily learned. Despite this, there are still a number of in-game tutorials that will appear as text boxes, but they are much more straightforward than those of previous entries. In fact, this ease of accessibility and understanding means that Monolith does not stop offering tutorials to the player eight chapters into the game, with tiny additions that add a few more layers to the established formula. Because of this, XC2 has a brisk pace and a focus on action that is translated through the speed of its new introductions rather than the actual pacing of its combat, although that too eventually becomes a mad dash in its own right.

Part 014: Inside and Out (Setting and World Design)

The world of Alrest is inhabited by a number of races, a mixture of familiar species and new additions to the -blade series. Its populace live atop Titans, massive creatures able to bear all different kinds of life. This means that each biome is isolated and their concepts are heavily inspired by the architecture of the Titan itself, allowing for large, uninterrupted space an a variety of unique spaces. Although Takahashi has stated that XC2 has roughly the same amount of surface area as the original XC, and after looking back at each of the biomes, I can safely say that I agree. Though there are areas like Gormott, Uraya, and Tantal which have large surface area and vertical space, other instances, such as Mor Ardain and Leftheria, are narrow and packed together. Others still are nothing more than linear spaces with even less shoulder space than the original XC. Fortunately for this analysis, this segmented world design means that each biome is immensely unique, offering plenty to discuss, while also sharing some climate similarities with previous titles in the series.

Gormott, for example, shares aesthetic similarities with Guar Plain, but that is more or less where the comparisons end. The area players first encounter is in the underbelly of the Titan, a narrow, swampy area that steadily leads uphill. This leads to the right upper level, one of the more sprawling and open areas in the game. While not particularly surprising, it is impressive that Gormott's layout and distinguishing characteristics are completely different from Guar Plain. It's central features are two massive trees and the waterfall between it, but there is so much more dense content to be found in and around this area. While there are a number of smaller sub-sections, or vignettes, so to speak, strewn about this area, there are really only two critical paths- one leading towards the town of Torigoth, and the other towards the left upper level. The left upper level is relatively barren and lacking much of the variety of its counterpart, however, with only a sloping plane bordered by a high narrow cliff and a large set of trees. It feels lacking in personality compared to the rest of the region, which ditches the idea of “shoulders” that we saw frequently in XC for a design that feels far more looping and open. While the vignette design of these regions- featuring smaller scenes that utilize Monolith's usual bag of topographical features in unique ways- is still familiar in a sense, the Titans of Alrest feel as if they are siphoning the player in a particular direction far less than the regions in XC.

I would be remiss not to mention the first example of truly stellar dungeon-like design in XC2, which is the Titan Battleship found stationed in Torigoth. Players are tasked with accessing this area from below, climbing through its interior in order to free a party member from its depths. The Titan Battleship is so labyrinthine that I was unable to access all of its secrets- as it features two hidden unique mobs- until much later in the game, when tasked with finding them. However, all of these areas can be accessed upon its initial run through, even if one of the two unique mobs is much higher level than the player. There are a number of switches, valves, and doors to unlock within this area, which allows Monolith to tier the action and engagements in a methodical manner. This is a shining example of Monolith's increased comfort and prowess with dungeon-like design, although we'll find even more examples later in the game. What is important to note, however, is that this area is given story context, as well, which allows the developers to approach it in a more linear fashion. With JRPG design favoring dungeon quest lines more than anything, it is surprising to see the more exploratory Monolith try- and succeed- at integrating the concept into their latest game.

There's a great deal of consistency of space to be found in Gormott, as it is one of several areas where players can rest to raise and lower the tides of the Cloud Sea. If a player should fall off an edge at high tide, they will not find themselves falling to their death, but saved by the Sea level and able to explore the limits of the area. On the other hand, raising the tide also cuts off access to the lower level, which isn't much of a setback, considering the lack of content there. But even when the tide is low, you'll find plenty of places where you can slip from the upper level to the lower one, although few of these feature proper backtracking. Players will find that they can only uncover certain secrets through exploiting the tide-changing mechanic- but this mechanic is short lived, as Gormott and Mor Ardain are the only two Titans whose designs utilize this feature. Seeing as there are thirteen areas to explore, I had hoped to see this mechanic reoccur more often.

The reason it does not, however, is because of the nature of Titans, which can house life atop their bodies and within them, as well. Uraya is the next biome, a strange one because it fails to fit any familiar environment. Its opening area is a strange set of ridges circling a narrow valley that evokes the design of the Bionis' interior, but it leads into a small town before its paths branch, heading further skyward, or down towards a series of cliffs that border the massive stomach of the Titan. This opening area, which I would lump Garfont into, feels more like a set of smaller linked floors, each possessing a small body of water and some running space. They work well for the sort of linear, story-centric objective they are related with, and it's no surprise that the enemies here are of the same level, as it is one of the less-frequented areas in the game. Where Uraya truly shines is its stomach area, open in space, and possessing a lovely blue and orange color scheme. The cliff side that borders this area is anything but narrow, featuring some nice vignettes that mesh with the overarching “small pool” design found elsewhere. There are a number of ways to scale this cliff, one of which takes the player into the center of its marshes and leads back upwards towards Fonsa Myma, Uraya's more substantial town. While Uraya is the closest example to the shoulder-like design of XC that can be found in this game, its shoulders and many vertical tiers create a vastly different experience, and although it can feel like a linear progression to the story entrance point to Fonsa Myma, there are a number of shortcuts and interlinking paths that make this region much more open than its first impression implies.

Because of its numerous shallow pools, we should probably address an ability exclusive to XC2- exploration-based Field Skills. Blades can have numerous Field Skills that allow players to raise their chance at obtaining higher rarity materials from material drops. However, unique Blades- those acquired through story and side quests as well as through luck-based summoning- will often possess a tier of rare Field Skills and their own unique Field Skills. These rare Field Skills- diving, leaping, superstrength, lockpicking, etc- can be used upon finding an area in field exploration that requires them. If the player has enough Blades equipped to meet the requirements of a Field Skill check (a check may require Earth Mastery, a common Field Skill, and Leaping), they will unlock a shortcut or passageway to a treasure chest. This is a fine addition in concept, as it encourages the player to summon common blades, whose elemental Mastery skills will bolster the rare Skills of unique Blades, it is somewhat flawed in execution. There is no way to check the cumulative Field Skills of your party members, which can lead to attempting- and failing- a Field Skill check numerous times. One might argue that Monolith should have just factored in all available Blades and their Field Skills for unlocking these checks, but once again, the idea is sound- having to equip the proper skills on your party members in order to achieve the right combination is a novel idea. But the check animation is simply too slow- even when sped up- which can prove aggravating. Many players will find that they simply cannot unlock some of these Field Skill checks upon their first encounter, which is just fine, as a number of them are side quest-related, and can always be revisited. There are several particularly annoying instances where the player will have to complete two checks in rapid succession, with the second having higher requirements than the first, which means the player will have to enter their menu to equip the proper replacements. As the player progresses through the main story and grows their ability to pull higher-level common Blades as well as their collection of unique Blades, however, this problem is circumvented.

While Monolith's environmental design is the main highlight of their -blade series, the towns of XC2 are similarly unique, with Gormott possessing a port-like design and bustling market, while Fonsa Myma has a multi-tiered city design. While none of these towns are as expanse as NLA from XCX, they maximize their area with many different buildings to climb and secrets to uncover. You will find yourself performing jumping puzzles and Field Skill checks even when within towns, which further enhances the feeling of exploration.

Next up is Mor Ardain, an area I have particularly conflicted feelings about. As the craggy, industrialized biome of the game, it is extremely claustrophobic, much more so than I assumed it would be. However, within the context of the game, Mor Ardain is positioned on the left shoulder of its Titan, and the entire surface area is based around this concept. This results in an area that is narrow in size, flanked by two shoulders teeming with late-game mobs. Likewise, it feels as if there was underutilized or undeveloped content in Mor Ardain, specifically in its Ether Processing Plant, an area teased as only accessible through a lift system, but upon utilizing this system, offers no substantial environmental design.

What redeems Mor Ardain are its intense vertical limits and high density of content in three particular areas- Alba Cavanich, the town of the region, the Old Industrial District and its neighboring Abandoned City of Teddim, and one of the finest dungeon-like designs in the game, the Old Factory. When reflecting on these features, they actually make up the majority of Mor Ardain itself, so my negative feelings stem more from what the biome lacks in surface area rather than its actual features. The rooftops of Alba Cavanich act as a dungeon-like sequence during its first visitation, and though its map appears to be two intersecting avenues, there are a number of catwalks and hidden areas to be found on its Western face. It is not the largest town in the game, but it is effective in utilizing its space. The Old Industrial District, on the other hand, is a maze-like series of rooms and floors with holes, multiple exits, and a number of treasures to be found. That it features its own set of keys and links to a number of other areas makes even its hollowed-out interior feel like an extremely well-realized structure, and I found myself discovering new portions of the area late into my first run through. This area is linked to the Abandoned City of Teddim, a dangerous area because of its high-aggression mobs and vertical nature. The Old Factory is such a fantastic dungeon that Monolith sees fit to reuse the area twice more in side quests- its numerous air ducts, mechanical devices, interlinking rooms, control towers, and catwalks make it feel more like a town than Alba Cavanich does, at times. It has a number of instances of one-ways doors that can be unlocked from within and allow for more freedom of exploration, and is one of the few areas that actually has a dungeon hazard in the form of its incinerators.

As noted before, Mor Ardain is the second of two areas where the Cloud Sea tides can be manipulated, although it is used very sparingly, even in this instance. I would recommend keeping the tide low as much as possible. It is unfortunate, because Leftheria, the following area, seems primed for exploitation of such a system. As an archipelago, it is one of the more unique areas in the -blade series, featuring floating islands high in the sky as well as smaller shores closer to Sea level. Readers may recall that I was curious as to why an archipelago design was not featured in XCX, but after trekking around Leftheria for a while, I came out with some mixed feelings. While it does use a number of smaller traveling bodies to create shortcuts and passages to smaller islands, the main chain of islands are very small in both number and surface area. There is also a strange set of passageways that separate the Rigitte Waters from the Fonsett Waters- a choice I can only assume was made to reduce loading times and extreme draw distance. Despite their small size, however, Leftheria's islands are not bereft of content. The islands on the Eastern side of both Rigitte and Fonsett have multiple accessible levels, revealing their own unique mobs, while the Western islands are dense with higher-level monsters, each one featuring their own population of unique creatures. Fonsett, Leftheria's town, is also small in size, but purposefully so within the context of the game. While light in content, it fits its cozy, quiet nature perfectly. Leftheria is a curious biome, one rich in lore and often revisited in side-content, but offering little to discover because of its openness.

It is necessary to address Leftheria's truly distinguishing feature, an extensive dungeon known as the Spirit Crucible Elpys, which is accessible from Fonsett, but occupies its own division on the world map. As a subterranean area, there is little to say of the Spirit Crucible, which has a great deal of variety to offer within that context, but is far more interesting from a mechanical standpoint. There are several poison swamps, collapsing bridges, bottomless pits, and other variations on the theme- an ancient hall, and a webbed-up area similar to that found in Tephra Cave from XC. Its design is extremely linear in nature, but its critical path is actually suitably difficult to discern, making it a somewhat stressful, yet ultimately rewarding experience. Even when creating a gauntlet like the Spirit Crucible, Monolith takes care to add several hidden paths and areas that offer access to new treasures, enemies, and hazards. The collapsing bridges found within are another one of the simple, yet effective obstacles utilized to give the area its own personality. The intricacies of the Spirit Crucible's mechanical twists will be covered later.

There isn't much to be said about the Indoline Praetorium, an area of contextual importance, but rigid structure and wide swaths of empty space. Featuring a small port and market, a refugee camp, and the illustrious sanctum of the Praetor, the civilian area has some interesting conversations to be found and a few Field Skill checks to be made, but its long hallways and relatively bland aesthetics make navigating the area tedious. The sanctum, on the other hand, features an impressive mural, and... that's pretty much it. There is a story-related aspect as to why this area is ultimately forgettable, and once more, its backstory is much more fascinating than the environment itself. However, Monolith utilizes sharp corners and a lack of color to create a pristine, immaculate appearance that contrasts heavily with the other populated areas within Alrest. The Praetorium is also redeemed by a somber choral tune, setting its mood perfectly. The port here is used in order to facilitate a second encounter with the Titan Battleship, although this repeat visit is much more brief in nature.

Leftheria and the Praetorium, and finally Temperantia comprise what could be considered a lackluster second act of XC2 in terms of environmental design. Once again, Temperantia is context-rich and possesses a sprawling amount of surface area with a number of very successful vignettes, but its effect is ruined by a repetitive and grating tune that has no day-to-night transition, meant to evoke a constant state of high tension, but instead inspiring feelings of tedium. Because of its openness similar to Leftheria, Temperantia has huge draw distance, and its multitudes of large mobs- including some frightful level 90 dinosaurs- mean that a sense of carefulness and danger is established from its very first impressions. Temperantia is also home to an extremely unique boss battle atop a massive weaponized Titan, but this creature's presence is somewhat diminished by its reuse in the tucked-away Ruins of Judicium in the region's Southwest corner. What's worse, the additional two Titans stationed here mean that the area lacks the presence of other mobs. You can't even engage these other Titans in combat, which makes this wide area feel like a waste of space. The sooty, craggy nature of Temperantia offers some additional instances of poison swamps, as well as a few more mob lairs, canyons, and dangerous encounters, and the relative lack of vertical levels means that the area feels like a death pit with little safety of its own.

Luckily, Tantal presents a striking contrast to these three areas, with a number of unique features that offer up a familiar feeling to previous -blade biomes, but with a wholly different aesthetic. Tantal's docks lead upwards towards Theosoir with a narrow path. On its own, Theosoir is not very large, with about half of its content allotted to Theoscaldia Palace, but the concept sells itself when you realize that the entire structure is suspended above the Tantalese Wastes. The player eventually leaves Theosoir and must descend to the Wastes via a number of large pillars, which have many Field Skill checks and some surprising multi-tiered design. While the Tantalese Wastes do have some variety, all of it borders a central frozen lake and uses the large expanse to spread its content out. A lack of fast-travel points means that you'll often have to walk a great distance in order to get to where you want to go. However, there are very few quests that have you delving into these wastes, which is something of a relief, as there isn't all that much to do there. It's a shame, because its more fascinating, story-related vignettes like the Aegis War battlefield are aesthetically engaging and context-rich, but have little content within them. If there were more to do and a few more fast-travel points here, Tantal would likely place a bit higher on my list of locales.

The next areas visited are the Cliffs and Land of Morytha, two biomes with very different aesthetics, but the same primary function. Both are linear areas with barely any shoulder-space to be found. The Cliffs are a dreary area with sine vegetation and a mixture of enemies seen in other biomes, with a critical path that, while hidden within the Titan itself, is not at all maze-like in comparison with the Spirit Crucible. There are some dilapidated structures here and there, but most of the action takes place on, you guessed it, the cliffs, which are very narrow and offer little in terms in content. The Land of Morytha, on the other hand, is derelict in its own way, although it resembles the ruins of a real-world city. This area has some more shoulder space that the player may not notice the first time around, in particular, the ruined streets at the start have much more to see and do than the later deceased Titan. However, the unique mobs found in this area and the slow foreshadowing of the true nature of the World Tree makes this area more suspenseful and mysterious in relation to the other biomes of Alrest.

As for the World Tree and Elysium, both share a futuristic, technological aesthetic that feels completely alien from the rest of the game. Cold and sterile, its architecture is linear and straightforward much like the Indoline Praetorium, but the use of elevators and drastically different mob composition give the area a distinct lack of humanity. There are a number of scripted enemy appearances that allow the reveal of its more bizarre designs. However, for the most part, the World Tree is a linear affair, with a number of set pieces that contribute greatly to the increased momentum of the narrative, but aside from some unique mob encounters and a surprising side quest or two, the World Tree is not a standout. Elysium itself is saved by the jarring aesthetic change and narrative twist that it presents, but it is a large space littered with several treasure chests and not much else.

There is one final environment left to cover, however, and that is Argentum, the large market and home of the Nopon. Argentum is one of the first areas the player encounters, and does not leave a particularly strong impression. The Goldmouth is actually the area available for exploration, a large ship hanging underneath the Argentum Titan, and its first two floors are initially the only place accessible. This is mostly storage and a small market, as well as several docks, while the second floor is a small canteen area with an inn and two food stalls. However, as the game progresses, so do the accessible portions of the Goldmouth, resulting in a residential area with an impressive amount of variety and plenty of questing to be done. Although it is not as large as other Titan biomes, Argentum is one of the larger towns in the game, and its excitable scoring and high number of side quests make it an enjoyable location to revisit.

XC2 offers a mixed bag in terms of world design. While its opening act offers a vast amount of content and variety, it seems to slowly taper off into concepts that, on paper, sound interesting, but falter somewhat in execution. What impresses me most about XC2 is its improved dungeon-like design and towns, while the environments that they partner with all possess strange quirks that make it hard to say whether or not the design has improved.

I can say with confidence that Gormott is one of my favorite biomes of the -blade series, however, and that I find Mor Ardain and Tantal's ideas to be exciting and different, despite their questionable execution. But while XC2's world design doesn't feel quite as strong, there are a multitude of quality of life improvements that have been made elsewhere, and its combat is an improvement on an entirely different level from other entries. 

Part 015: We'll Show You What Me and Pyra Can Do! (Characters and Combat)

XCX differentiated itself as a game with a greater emphasis on questing in comparison with XC's focus on narrative, and XC2 returns to this narrative-driven experience with a plot just as, if not more complex than XC's own. This also means a return to character, which XC2 has in spades. With a more whimsical air present in some of its core cast, each character has their own quirks that make them distinct from each other. I was surprised to see how this game's "blade" factored into character development, especially in regards to the main cast, as each of them presents a unique fold upon the established lore that allows them to serve a purpose within the plot.

Rex and Pyra are the central characters of the game. Rex is a rookie salvager, a deep-Cloud Sea diver who finds sunken treasures and cashes them in to make a living. His design utilizes stylized scuba gear as a motif, and many of his contextual characteristics make an appearance in gameplay. An essential method of obtaining mechanical material drops is by salvaging off of docks and points forund throughout Alrest, which triggers a quick time button input that will increase the chances of receiving better materials. Rex's grappling anchor is also one of his signature Arts, which eventually gains the ability to inflict Topple status later in the story. He is an enthusiastic and benevolent character with some combat potential, but is unable (or rather uninformed) about the nature of Blade resonance, the ability to activate Core Crystals and awaken the Blade within. He is your standard protagonist, thinking of bettering the world for others rather than himself, and promises to bring Pyra, the fabled Aegis, to Elysium in return for saving his life. As the Aegis, Pyra is a Blade far exceeding others in potential, able to retain her memories after the death of her original Driver Addam. She has her own motivations for reaching Elysium that don't quite match up with Rex's, as she's seen a fair bit more suffering in her time than many others. Pyra's more unique feature, and one that actually goes unexplained throughout the narrative, is her split personality and element, able to transform into the brassy, bossy Mythra whenever she wishes. Both personalities are closely interlinked, but Mythra is one of two Blades in the entire game with the Elemental Mastery of Light, making her invaluable in creating certain Blade Combos.

Before continuing to the rest of the party, I would like to say that Rex is one of the more rewarding protagonists to play as within the -blade series, not necessarily from a narrative standpoint. While Pyra's ability to switch to Mythra grants him access to a fourth crucial element, her weapon type makes him a position-based DPS attacker at his core. However, because of the nature of class-building within the game, this is only one of several roles that he can play, and within Chapter 7 in particular, he is granted the ability to function as an entirely different class archetype due to a narrative twist. Even after this chapter, he is able to switch between the two with ease, his bond with Pyra ensuring that he can act as an attacker, but his bond with another Blade granting him the ability to act as a healer. In fact, his ability to consistently Anchor Shot for HP potions means that, even with Pyra in his loadout, he can still function as a healer. In addition, he gains a unique ability in Chapter 7 that not only increases his Blade Combo potential, but allows him access to a myriad of other combat options. Even if I wasn't playing as Rex, I almost always featured him on my team.

Nia and Dromarch are the second pair of recruits, with Nia not only being the best character in XC2's narrative, but also being one of the best character concepts from a gameplay perspective. Scrappy and sassy, she belongs to the Gormotti tribe, a race of human/cat hybrids exclusive to XC2. Initially assisting the antagonist, she has a change of heart and decides to team with the idealistic Rex. Dromarch is the only unique beast-type Blade in the game, granting his Driver Twin Rings, and offensive healer-based weapon class. Stoic and faithful, he has some knowledge of ancient history, but is mostly there to be a big, cute white tiger. While his character arc is tied to Nia's own, he does not receive nearly as much character development as her.

She is arguably XC2's crowning achievement in terms of blending story concepts and gameplay, a bold statement that can only be justified by spoiling part of her character development. That is something I intend to do right now, so if you don't want to hear those spoilers, skip to Tora's entry.

Nia is a Flesh Eater, a Core Crystal infused with the genetic material of a human. Unnatural in nature and considered unclean by the Indoline Praetorium, Nia joins the only group that would accept her and hides her secret from the rest of the party until late in the main narrative. Upon the revelation of her true form, Rex is able to equip her as a Blade, and she grants her own unique weapon class as an offensive healer. As if this weren't neat enough, you can also switch her back to her Driver form when outside of combat to have her function as a pure-healer archetype. This is one of the more novel aspects of XC2's gameplay, and I was surprised and delighted to see that Monolith would offer Nia playable in both forms. While XC2's combat system features some aspects that detract from the ability to create unique play styles for each character, the variety of play styles found in customization methods is ust as rewarding, and hearkens back to the unique nature of XC's party members.

Anyway, Nia's cool.

Tora is the token Nopon of the game, serving a very different and more intellectual role than previous Nopons. I mean, for a Nopon. Unable to resonate with Core Crystals, Tora has completed the work started by his father and grandfather and built Poppi, an Artificial Blade. Poppi may be mechanical, but she isn't heartless- she experiences the world with the mind of a young, subservient, and knowledgeable child. Tora might be a bit smarter than most Nopon, but he still has his own odd quirks. The pair get a fair amount of character development, and although Poppi is only one Blade, she can receive two form changes that have their own unique weaponry exclusive to Tora. Although her first two forms are variations on the Tank role, each individual form's element, function, and various passive bonuses can be altered with a unique system called Poppiswap. Blueprints for parts and capacity to increase Poppi's potential can be gained through the Tiger! Tiger! minigame, an absurd arcade-style experience with its own scoring system and weird mechanics. It's kind of crazy.

Tora shows an almost absurd amount of dedication on Monolith's part to make sure that a single character is unique as possible. The only problem is, that Tora's versatility is somewhat hindered until the final portions of the game because of his inability to access a number of options until the late-game. While this means his endgame potential is high and he will likely prove useful for the eventual challenge mode release from the Expansion Pass, he will likely be shelved for the superior option.

And Speaking of the superior option, Morag and Brighid may appear as antagonistic forces early in the game, but they join the ranks as an evasion-based Tank build. Morag is a high ranking Ardainian Special Inquisitor, and Morag is a Blade who has been passed down through the royal family, given special privileges along the way. Because of this, she is one of the rare Blades with some form of memory retention in her own preserved diary. Although Morag is one of the more reserved characters, she has some nice moments with the Emperor of Mor Ardain, and her unique position allows her access to information the other characters would have no knowledge of. Like Rex, Morag receives her own story-exclusive Blade in the form of Aegaeon, which pushes her Tank-build further. Other than the unique weaponry of her main Blade, Morag has few other differentiating traits, but her position as one of the most powerful Drivers in Alrest makes her an impressive addition to the team.

Zeke and Pandoria are the final pair that comprises the party, though their attempts to obtain the Aegis may make you think otherwise. Zeke's exclusive, impressive weapon is known as the Big Bang Edge, and grants its bearer a number of absurdly-named Arts. Although he is fought three times as an event boss during the events of the story, his role is to test the power of the Aegis as it draws closer towards the Indoline Praetorium. Zeke is a wanderer, disappointed with the state of his domain Tantal, though he has gotten into a fair bit of trouble. Pandoria is aware of this, and after a particularly gruesome encounter, takes their bond a step further in a way that is different from a Flesh Eater. Their bond as Blade Eater meaningful from a story context only, however, and ultimately, Zeke is about as unique as Morag from a customization standpoint. His role is that of a high-critical rate DPS attacker.

In terms of additional, ancillary characters, there are a few standouts. What struck me as surprising, however, was the lack of engaging aesthetic design from Torna. While the mysterious Jin sports a nifty mask and appealing outfit, the other members of Torna all wear relatively bland-looking, samurai-inspired garb. The fact that Jin has two extremely cool-looking forms makes me wonder whether or not he was meant to be the main antagonist of the story rather than the actual villain, whose design is so painfully bland, I wonder who gave it approval, and for what purpose. The main cast themselves all have very distinct aesthetics and characteristics, so this adherence to the samurai motif in Torna is bewildering, to say the least.

But one thing that is immensely enjoyable- and also the cause for grief in certain circles- is that XC2 is something of a character designer's dream title. Although the main cast was designed by Masatsugu Saito, Tetsuya Nomura contributed the designs for all the members of Torna, and a melange of other artists developed the designs for the other obtainable unique Blades. Fortunately, Monolith seems to have taken great strides towards improving the accuracy of their character models, to the point that almost every single unique Blade matches their 2D character art almost exactly. Though this leaves the game looking a bit muddled in regards to aesthetic consistency, the sheer variety on display more than makes up for this, with some truly awesome (and bizarre) designs to be found. Because of the Affinity system's exclusive application between Drivers and Blades, each unique Blade also has the potential to unlock exclusive side-content by being utilized in battle, which further emphasizes their use in battle and creates stronger ties to each of them. While their personalities are nothing overly complex, that there are around thirty unique Blades to find with their own side-content greatly expands the amount of time a player can sink into the game.

But enough of that, let's talk about content.

One of my favorite JRPGs of all time is one that not many associate with the term “JRPG,” and that is Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (here we go...). I love this game because of its atmosphere, its heartwarming story and characters, and most of all, its combat. Although on the surface, it is nothing more than a riff on the combat motifs of Super Mario RPG, featuring action commands that increase attack damage, there are additional layers of complexity available that allow a skilled player to efficiently progress through the story and endgame content. The Mario and Luigi titles feature action commands that are focused around a single button, which is tied to one of the two party members, but the Paper Mario RPGs focus on adding personality to party members through the placement of their action commands on the controller as well as the kinds of attacks they can execute. What I'm saying is, Intelligent Systems needs to ditch the current Paper Mario Action-Adventure gameplay and get back to the series' roots.

But the concept of adding action commands to a turn-based battle system enhances the experience, as it requires more attention and engagement with the game than simply selecting an attack for execution. There is an inherent urgency to the system, and selection of certain attacks has the added layer of its ease of execution. That the Thousand Year Door also features an interactive audience, who will throw helpful and harmful items at the party depending on their consistency, as well as stage and set design that factor into the environmental effect of specific attacks, only adds to its depth.

How does all of this apply to XC2's active-selection system, however?

The brisk pacing of XCX's combat has been dialed back, with characters having much more exaggerated auto attack animations. Each weapon type has a specific combination of attacks, with weapon size often factoring into the speed of the auto attack combo and movement speed when positioning a character. These chunky animations serve multiple purposes, as cooldowns for combat Arts are no more. Instead, Arts become accessible for use when their gauge is recharged by a certain number of completed auto attack animations. This number is not always a complete “cycle” of animation, which is broken into three stages, so careful attention to the recharge number, which can be found on the Arts information page, as well as the actual gauge itself, which can be found on the right side of the screen. Once an Art is recharged, it can be executed by pressing the corresponding face button at any time, however, players looking to build up their Special Gauge, which executes an elemental-based attack, must synchronize their input with the ending of an auto attack animation, “canceling” the auto attack into a combat Art. If a player cancels during a later stage in the auto attack animation cycle, they will charge their special gauge even further.

The cancel system is a revelation for the -blade combat system, a method of justifying the cooldown that occurs between Arts so that they cannot be spammed, as well as a mechanic that adds multiple folds to the gameplay formula. Upon progressing a party member further in their own skill tree, players can gain access to specific Arts at the start of combat, allowing them to build special meter faster. When players finally gain the ability to cancel Arts into one another, they can begin learning the ending of Arts animations in order to chain those inputs together to build meter atop that. Blade switches, the period where a player is changing weapons, can also be canceled, as can the execution of Specials themselves. There are a number of accessories that can boost damage based on cancels, as well as increase the period during which a cancel can be executed.

The reason precision canceling is an important layer of finesse, is that Special attacks start a countdown before they lose the ability to be stacked upon. This stacking is part of Blade Combos, where the elemental attacks of three Blades can create certain combinations that inflict massive damage and specific debuffs upon the targeted enemy. Not only that, but a successful three tier Blade Combo also generates an Elemental Orb, which can be shattered during a Chain Attack in order to extend the duration of the attack. Of course, this all relies on the ability to cancel attacks and build meter, which a relatively skilled player can do with a single character on their own, or utilize the meters of their party members.

There is only one way to prevent the Blade Combo countdown from depleting, and that is through the Status chain, making its return from previous games and adding some new tricks as what the game labels a Driver Combo. While the original XC had Break-Topple-Daze, and XCX had Stagger-Topple, XC2 goes full on anime with Break-Topple-Launch-Smash, where each successful status inflicted will add a chunk of time back to the Blade Combo Gauge. Performing Driver Combos during a Blade Combo will also grant specific benefits to the party. If this all sounds difficult to envision, a much more aesthetically pleasing battle UI ensures that you can catch all of these rapidly diminishing gauges, buffs, and future options. XC2's user interface is as friendly- or as transparent- as you'd like it to be, and customization is encouraged, as the game allows you to switch out and re-position Blades, Arts, and party members where ever you'd like.

Because of the Blade system, players can also assign specific roles to their party members based on their weapon loadouts. Each weapon type has a specific class assigned to it, lumping them into the following categories:

Attack: Spear, Axe, Gunner
Healer: Bit Ball, Twin Rings, Knuckles
Tank: Katana, Hammer

Each of the Blades unique to a specific character also have their own classes, which results in the Tank class having fewer weapon types, as the two  canon tanks have three unique weapon classes between them. While, in concept, this allows party members to switch (snap!) between combat roles while fighting, the benefits of fully committing to a class type are far more lucrative, so once again, the min/maxing philosophy shines through here. However, these weapon types have their own functions within their class, for example, a Katana Blade is geared more towards evasion-based tanking, while a Hammer Blade is more suited for sturdy, HP tanking. While Morag can function well enough in both roles, other party members may benefit from evasion-based mechanics. Rex's Aegis Blade is something of a jack-of-all-trades, however, in that it possesses position-based Arts as well as one of the more reliable Topple Arts, which also drops valuable HP potions, a new mechanic introduced in XC2 that encourages movement in order to achieve healing. In this way, Rex can function as a DPS position-based attacker and an extremely competent healer, thanks to one of his other story-unlocked Blades.

With such systems in place, however, one might wonder why Blade variation is necessary at all. Why would I want to have a Katana and Hammer on Morag, when her unique Blade Brighid is clearly primed for evasion? Well, it depends upon what a player is looking to accomplish when in combat. The three combination-based mechanics encourage a mixture of Blades, and each of them feed into one another or into one of the game's other systems. Each character is able to utilize specific Arts to further the Driver Combo chain, which, when executed properly, gives a brief period of respite from enemy attacks and also knocks mob-specific drops for collection. If a player wants to utilize a specific set of party members, they need to organize Arts in order to further this chain, while also paying attention to their elemental loadout for Blade Combos. Computer-controlled party members will prioritize specific types of combinations when the situation calls for them, so you have to get a feel for what member to operate as in certain situations. When a player is operating a character, for example, they can maximize their potential as a certain role in a way that a computer-controlled party member would not.

I could go on and on about XC2's combat system, but an important note to make is that, like other -blade games, multiple types of experience factor into character progression. If a player fails to capitalize on the progression-unlocks that tap into the full potential of cancel-chaining and combination mechanics, they will find the opening hours of XC2 to be something of a slog. In between battles, Arts that are not primed to execute at the start of a battle through character progression will require recharging with each new encounter, and drawing multiple enemies into a battle in order to subvert this can often be difficult and time-consuming. If a player wants to fully appreciate XC2's combat, they need to understand that the cancel system is its central feature.

Of the three -blade games, XC2's combat clicked the fastest, for me. It is also one of the rare titles in which a prolonged enemy encounter was something that I enjoyed, rather than feared. While its slower pace means that a longer battle will often occur, there are many times when a player can successfully navigate an escalating conflict through smart Blade-switching and combo-building, and since combat is by far the best element of the game, having long engagements is something of a delight. If there is anything that Monolith should carry over from XC2's design, it is the cancel mechanic.

It's just that damn good.

Part 016: Gotta Catch 'Em All (Story and Side-Missions)

Now that we've covered what is actually decent about the game...

I'm kidding, of course, though the tone of XC2 is something of a curious matter. I have become fond of the term “tonal whiplash” as of late, as it occurs in many ongoing series with new installments, and in relation to previous games, XC2 has a mixture of dramatic highs and absurd lows that result in a very different mood from previous games. While there are some absolutely fantastic thematic elements in the latter half of the narrative, the opening is a mashup of odd comedic beats and complex politics that some might find inapproachable.

I can recall my concern, or rather lack of interest, regarding XC2's narrative upon viewing its first story-related trailer before release. The number of Titans with their own unique governing bodies and their respective alliances is difficult to explain, but their gradual introduction within the narrative is  handled well enough. The Ardainian occupation of Gormott is the only exceptional case of a governing body having control of more than one Titan, I feel that the idea would have had greater impact if the Ardainian Empire's reach extended further. This would likely require more biomes and more development, but I feel that Leftheria could have at least been included in the Ardainian territories, considering its relatively peaceful nature. This would work against one of the later side quests of the game, however.

The game swings between comedy and drama a great deal, more than the original XC, likely as a result of its earlier introduction of a Nopon party member. Let's face it, these potato-rabbits are very hard to take seriously, and even during a surprisingly in-depth family plot in Chapter 4, Tora provides a great deal of comedic relief. Zeke is another example, although upon joining the party, his comedic role diminishes substantially. There are many other examples of the game's humor in XC2's side-content and Heart-to-hearts, but what is most surprising is how quickly and effortlessly the game is able to switch (snap!) between drama and comedy, exhibited rather well in the main subject of its narrative.

One aspect of the -blade series I have championed in my analyses so far is the integration of its namesake, and XC2 is no exception. I would go as far to say that, of the three games, the -blade in XC2 is best integrated in both combat and story, as the nature of the Monado and its ability to change the future is somewhat muddy, and the BLADE organization is a bit forced as an acronym. The concept of Blades is fully fleshed out within XC2's narrative, semi-immortal constructs whose memories die with their Driver. However, there are multiple variations upon the idea that blur the line between Driver and Blade, as well as what a Blade is able to achieve on their own. The only somewhat ill-defined concepts in the game are the nature of Pyra and her dual personality Mythra, and Jin. The former would make a lot more sense if Pyra/Mythra's canon opposite had the same sort of situation going on (but he doesn't), and Jin would make more sense if there was some sort of contextual evidence of his particular circumstance elsewhere in the world (but there isn't). These are the only two complex layers atop the previously established Blade lore that don't quite fit, but Jin's circumstances are at least explained within the narrative, even if they are extraordinary.

Another aspect of XC2's story that isn't covered in full is the nature of the Aegis War, the conflict that occurred 500 years prior to the events of the game. There are numerous revelations that occur which offer some context towards why these events came about, but the nature of the antagonist of that particular conflict and his independence, or lack thereof, from other characters in the game is muddled, ill-defined. It is used to paint the Aegis in an unfavorable light, but also as a device of immense power. In any case, its best to continue powering through the narrative in order to reach its mind-bending conclusion, which raises some ponderous questions about some elements that aren't in the game, if you catch my drift, while also tugging at your heartstrings.

If there is one thing that XC2's cinematic sequences and story-related content have going for them, its an effective score that highlights the melancholy, tension, and absurdity of its plot points. Its soundtrack matches the cutscenes with great ease and impact, in a manner that seems similar to the original XC, where music was deliberately synchronized with the action and pacing of the cutscenes, to great effect. However, the recording of XC2's soundtrack was not finished until late in the game's development, which does raise some questions.

Anyway, it's important to understand that XC2 is not a literal sequel to the original XC. And, that's all I have to say about that.

Blades are elaborated upon further in side-content, as are the complex nature of Alrest's politics and cultural context. In terms of streamlining the inane, grinding nature of the series' previous side-content, XC2 is yet again a marked step forward, tying material collection and mob-slaying “quests” instead to Blade progression. While these elements still exist, they can be circumvented in the “nursery” mechanic, Merc Missions, or performed directly by the player by equipping Blades in combat. Common Blades will often rely more heavily on executing Blade combos and lower-commitment collections, higher-rarity Blades will demand more of the player in a number of ways. There are a great number of unique Blades that, as mentioned prior, possess specific Field Skills, but also possess their own Heart-to-heart interactions and extensive quest-chains, to the point where, while none of them are particularly fleshed out in any deep manner, they function well as side-content material that adds more charm to the game.

But the non-Blade related side quests are, for the most part, much more streamlined and narrative-driven than either XC or XCX's, featuring portraits that accompany them and much more direct hints and information that assist in their completion. While it does feel as if there are much fewer than in previous games, this is likely a result of the relegation of more tedious quests to Blade progression. There are a few quests that can be available simultaneously, however, which will require the completion of one in order to further the other, a curious, yet surprisingly extensive idea that can sometimes generate some frustration. Which is a perfect segue for our next segment...

Part 017: It's Not Perfect (Organic Discovery)

2017 was the year of organic exploration, at least, in Nintendo's case. Players were encouraged to discover new elements of gameplay, environments, secrets, and characters through the freedom of movement and the overlapping of various systems. We stumbled across Shrines in Zelda, we scoured the world for Moons with Mario, and in Xenoblade Chronicles 2...

We summoned.

XC2's unique Blade system is luck based, in a way that I can only imagine works like a roulette. If there are 15 spots for Finch, an Air Hammer, on the roulette, then each time the player resonates with a Core Crystal, the main method of obtaining Blades, there is a 15 in (x) chance of receiving that Blade.

Now imagine this roulette has 100,000 spots. Welcome to XC2.

Takahashi has admitted that the rare Blade selection method is entirely luck-based, although there are two particular statistics that can apparently influence the odds in the player's favor. Each party member has an Idea Chart, which will grow if they unlock skills from Blade Affinity trees in combat. The “in combat” part of that is important, because you can grow Blades in Merc Missions, but because they are separate from the party member during these, they do not grant Idea points upon completing parts of their tree. The higher a party member's number in one corner of the Chart, the more likely they are to summon Blades of that type. Likewise, by cashing in materials obtained while salvaging or releasing excess Blades that will no longer be of use to the player, they can gain Boosters, which add more points to the corner of the Chart that they are invested in.

Also, you can boost your Luck stat.

Now, there are a number of players who have found that they unlock a number of unique Blades in certain chapters, and there are many instances of players drawing unique Blades from low-level Idea Charts and Cores, of which there are three types. This is likely because of the nature of a roulette system. Even so, there are a number of Blades that have a higher frequency of being drawn, like Finch, who very often will show up early in playthroughs. When these Blades are drawn, however, it seems as if their “spots” on the roulette wheel are replaced with common Blades, which is what you get when you don't summon a unique Blade. This means that the frequency of drawing common Blades rises, while the frequency of drawing unique Blades stays the same.

Basing a summoning system like this on luck is no revolutionary technique. We see it in mobile gaming apps a great deal, but that is to generate more profit and time-commitment from those kinds of titles. I will say that, at the point when I completed XC2's main narrative, I had about six unique Blades that I had not acquired. However, I had spent about 15-20 hours before ending my story playthrough on grinding cores in order to obtain two or three Blades before then, and I found out that two of the six I had not yet summoned were actually side quest unlocks. Since finishing the game, I have spent around 10-15 additional hours grinding high-rarity Legendary Cores, which are supposed to grant a higher chance of obtaining a unique Blade. In short, a great deal of my time spent with XC2 was completing side-content, but a great deal of time was spent trying to exploit a luck-based system in order to obtain MORE side-content, as there are a number of Heart-to-hearts and quests that are locked behind unique Blades. This is a surprisingly artificial way of increasing the amount of playtime for a game, and while I'm a bit disappointed in this design choice, there have been minuscule percentage systems in previous -blade titles. It has just never been this blatant, because unique Blades are the core of what makes this title unique and enjoyable, no pun intended. The scramble to acquire Core Crystals and summon in the hopes of getting Blades that would benefit my party composition was constant, pushing me to explore areas more thoroughly, and complete more side quests. There's a subtle, addictive quality to Blade acquisition, and while it does mean that no two playthroughs will ever be the same, it's a bit of a hollow victory.

In terms of other imperfections, there is a strange feeling that XC2 like a rushed product, unlike the previous -blade titles. Upon release, the game featured bugs, a map/fast travel system that was a pain to utilize, and some voice loops that were... less than enjoyable, to say the least. That might be debatable, however, seeing as a number of people have expressed disappointment that these lines have been patched out. But there is more to this claim, I believe, especially when looking back at my experience as a whole. A number of environments are extremely narrow in design and sparse in content. The Blade summoning system is an artificial and luck-based method of locking away side-content. The expansion pass, which adds an additional 30 dollars atop the base price, has offered very little in terms of content so far. While we are still early in its life, the additional side quests that have been released have unlocked features that should have already existed within the game, such as the ability to craft Premium Cylinders for salvaging at a high cost. While XCX did not feature a New Game+ function because of its ungodly amount of content, the original XC did, and XC2 shipped without one. It is on its way, and will feature some additional content that I will likely be sinking some substantial time into, but my real question, and perhaps the question on Monolith's mind, is whether or not acquired unique Blades will be carried from one save file to the next. If not, then I can safely say that I will grumble and complete the New Game+ without investing an atrocious amount of time into completing it 100%. (Update: lol I'm wrong and dumb)

Part 018: What's In a Name? (Final Impressions)

The -blade series is currently a massive trilogy, filled to the brim with side-content, unique features, and a distinct personality that makes Monolith Soft's efforts feel substantially different from other JRPG developers. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game that leaves the series in unsteady territory, however, for reasons both good and bad. While I can truly say that I have found it to be immensely addictive, featuring advancements in the series' various formulas that are more than welcome and unexpectedly delightful, I also feel that it is the weakest of the three existing titles in terms of world design, soundtrack, and side-content. This may sound harsh, but we are comparing this title to two others that are extremely solid in their own rights. If the systems on display- such as canceling, the new field material drops and field skills, and greater focus on memorable and contextual side quests- were carried over into a game with as cohesive a world as XCX, featuring a travel cycle similar to that game, I think I'd likely be looking at the ultimate JRPG, one that I should probably not imagine for fear of ultimate disappointment.

When I reflect upon XC2, I think of the personality that its unique combat mechanic brings to every other element of the game. While three of the five characters have progression systems that bring it some healthy variety, it doesn't stack up to the seven unique play styles and five solid narratives that XC possessed in combat alone. Its world is unique, but it doesn't have the same “wow” factor as XC's twin gods, or the immaculate travel cycle mechanics of XCX. At its heart, Alrest wouldn't be as compelling as it is without its Blades. The environments offer new discoveries, and the side quests have more heart, but even they wouldn't pack as much of a punch as they do without the nuance and lore behind its central mechanic. Blades are the heart and soul of this game, and I want to play as much of this combat system as I can before I am compelled to move on to other JRPGs, other games, because it is one of my absolute favorites. It combines party customization in real-time with precision inputs, it justifies positioning and the urgency of utilizing auto-attacks, and features more straightforward approaches to combat Affinity and application. I can imagine how I would replay this title, to put limitations on myself, to push and pull the boundaries of its addictive combat, and I know that its randomized, organic summoning system would offer me surprising twists.

XC2 was released in the first year of the Switch's lifetime, and it is the first of the existing -blade titles that I will have to create additional content for as its DLC expansion is released. I don't imagine that this expansion will feature any more environmental design for me to cover, but hey- if it does, I'll be pleasantly surprised. However, this also leaves Monolith Soft with some amount of freedom as the Switch's narrative continues on. Rumblings of acquisitions with experience in multiplayer-oriented titles may give hope for another shot at more substantial online functionality, and I do wonder what elements would carry over from this title to their next offering. I also wonder where Monolith Soft could take this -blade series, or even if they should continue forward with it. As it stands. XC2's narrative ends with something of a question mark- not a cliffhanger like XCX, but instead a diving board. The potential to create something even more compelling, a mixture of sorts, lies on the tip of the -blade series' tongue, but I do also wonder if such a venture would be worthwhile. Either way, Monolith Soft has established a niche among Nintendo's library, one of exploration and character progression, somewhat similar to the route that Zelda has taken, but much more imaginative and expansive in scenario. Where ever they should travel next, I will be there, uncovering every corner of their journey and reveling in the way that Monolith makes worlds.

DLC Part 019: We'll Fight for Our Future! (DLC Musings)

WARNING: The following segment contains major spoilers for the ending of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Do not read ahead unless you are fine with knowing what transpires in the final hours of the main narrative.

Because of my undying faithfulness to the -blade series, I purchased the Expansion Pass about a month into my playthrough of XC2. While the first two parts of the pack have already been released, I would like to voice my opinion on what already exists, as well as what is to come in the future. There are some curious possibilities that exist for the future of this game, and it gives me a rare chance to look at DLC practices from a developer who possesses drastically differing strategies from others in the RPG genre.

The first two DLC packs have been a mixture of helpful in-game items and new quests to be tackled, however, there is no indication that either pack will be the “only” addition of its type. Each pack has been labeled numerically, and the expansion pass description on the product page lists the quest pack as something “starting” in January 2018. I sincerely believe that this will be the case moving forward, as there are only five new quests available in the supposed first quest pack. If this were the only pack of quests being released, I would hope that the remaining content would be substantially larger, as these quests, although enjoyable, only amount to about an hour of playtime, especially for a player who has reached the endgame. The helpful items that have been released are aptly named, as the game is extremely ambiguous regarding its “favorite items” affinity unlocks, giving players the category of items that the Blade in question enjoys, but nothing more. This results in a great deal of trial-and-error, leading to wasted resources. These helpful items are an immediate subversion of this aspect, although they are still limited in application. In addition, the player is gifted with a number of salvaging cylinders, which are especially useful in gaining currency early-game, and are required for certain quests. Considering the extremely high cost of Gold Cylinders in early development levels, this can be something of a boon.

The quest pack features five quests that are unlocked via story progression, which have players retreading certain areas of the game with certain limitations and event enemies present. Again, for an endgame player, a number of them possess little challenge- there are some intense field checks here and there, as well as a few mission objectives nestled in high-level mob lairs, they grant the player with a number of benefits. Pyra's cooking skill is a tedious affinity unlock, but one quest grants her an additional recipe. Another gifts the player with a much more consistent, cost-intensive method of obtaining Premium Cylinders, arguably the best addition of the five, and something that feels curiously absent from the base game. If these are some of the quality of life additions that Monolith would include in the first pack alone, I look forward to seeing what should come in the future. That a number of these quests are available as the story progresses is also a welcome feature, as a number of them will assist an expedited second run, as some of them allow for currency and experience power-leveling. On the flip-side, a number of them take place in areas that are difficult for a lower-level player to overcome, and may require a delicate touch. It's a delightful little balance, that overall adds to the content of the base game in a worthwhile manner.

This brings me to another curious aspect of the DLC of both XC2 and that of Breath of the Wild, which is that these additions often serve to enhance a full playthrough of the game, and not necessarily exist as endgame content. In the case of Breath of the Wild, the final DLC installment is endgame content in its purest form, but can be completed by a player relatively early if they wish to prioritize Divine Beasts over Shrines. XC2's additional content serves to enhance a playthrough with additional content and challenges found around the map. We'll have to see whether the future DLC is specifically endgame content or not, however, which brings us to our next subject.

There are three remaining DLC packs yet to be released, and although one is likely endgame content, its bookends are still up for debate. The Challenge Mode Pack will likely be some sort of arena-style combat simulations that grant players healthy rewards, but require extremely specific Blade, Aux Core, and Blade Chip setups, similar to the system found in XCX. While I never delved extremely deep into the challenge mode in XCX, it also offered rewards that boosted experience and affinity for characters, which would be another worthy incentive for players. Because of the combat system, I look forward to this mode a great deal, as I believe that environmental hazards and specific enemy combinations and types could offer a healthy dose of difficulty and customization to the game.

The New Rare Blade Pack, as well as the New Story Content Pack, are something of a conundrum. Numeric implications are a huge part of this, as there are a number of possibilities for the former, while the latter could serve as prologue or epilogue material for the base game, with a worst-case scenario being an additional chapter within the main narrative. I find that highly unlikely, however.

The New Rare Blade Pack, if taken literally, could contain a singular unique Blade design, tied to some extensive quest unlock similar to Praxis, Theory, or Vess. If this were to be the case, there are two obvious candidates for this slot, but the explanation for these choices, once again, possesses some extreme spoilers for the main narrative. I would assume that this Blade would feature some sort of unique function, similar to Pyra, Mythra, Poppi, or Nia, for its inclusion to be separate from the main narrative. Likewise, I would expect that its release following the base game would mean that it is something that exists separate from the main narrative, a conceptual “maybe.” Therefore, the worst-case scenario would be that this Rare Blade would be Malos, who fights with his Monado in Chapter 7. Malos could possess some sort of form-changing mechanic or destructive Dark Mastery abilities to counter Mythra, perhaps even featuring a Pneuma mechanic of his own as Logos. However, I have a great suspicion that Malos will be accessible via the New Game+ function that is being added to the game in a few weeks' time at the point of this segment's composition, where he will lack these sorts of unique functions because of his inclusion alongside other new unique Blades. If that should not be the case, however, I would like to let the record stand that this is a likely possibility.

Should Malos be included in the New Game+ update, that would lead me to the most obvious second choice, which may come as a surprise to some. That would be Alvis, the computer simulation from the original XC, and the possible third Aegis Core Ontos. While this is something of a leap of logic, Alvis' immense power and revelation as the Monado of the XC universe leads me to believe that he is the third Aegis Core that was drawn into the dimension existing parallel to that of Alrest. Were he to appear as a unique Blade in XC2, this would solidify the tentative hints Takahashi drops at the conclusion of XC2's main narrative. There are several pieces of evidence that could counter this point, specifically Alvis' existence as an emerald light at the end of XC's narrative, which shares too close a similarity with Pneuma's own Core Crystal, as well as his nature as the program Klaus used to access the Artifice. However, his lines the indicate he is at the beginning and end of XC's universe lead me to believe that he is the Aegis that disappeared in a time rift. He could add some unique mechanics that hearken back to XC's combat system, and provide some narrative closure for the XC duology. However, given Takahashi's tendency for ambiguity the exact opposite could occur and we could receive absolutely no answers.

Also, Akira Toriyama should design a Blade.
The New Story Content Pack, on the other hand, could explore one of two very important points in the main narrative, which both open up the potential for new locations and characters, but also could feature previously created assets. In terms of chronology, our first option could be fleshing out the Aegis war more thoroughly, which is a conflict that is explained with ambiguity over the course of the main narrative, yet has a number of characters who appear in the main narrative. In particular, Addam's appearance remains cloaked throughout the narrative, yet there are clearly designs for the character. Lora is another character design that remains underutilized, and both characters possess Blades that appear in the main narrative for them to utilize. An opportunity to explore the Tornan Titan could offer a new area with a number of its own secrets, offering its own dungeon-like design and an eventual confrontation with the antagonist of the Aegis war. However, a story segment based entirely around these characters and their Blades would add context, but nothing meaningful that isn't already covered in the main narrative. It could be a nice look into Addam, but he is not a particularly fascinating individual, and his own narrative arc is completed within the base content of the game.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some post-game content could tie up a number of narrative loose ends that exist within the XC duology, and offer exciting cohesion to the universe while still existing within the environmental context of the Titans. At the end of the game, each Titan is shown merging with a new, unexplored continent, which would allow for their designs to be reused, but the nature of this new continent could be explored further, perhaps with its own landscape that could offer new space to explore. The most appealing aspect of this idea is that this continent could be directly related to the place inhabited by Shulk's universe, and as we have already seen from the main narrative of XC2, there is an HD Klaus model ready for use. Having Rex and his party meet the XC characters would not only allow players to use the party they built within the game's narrative, but it would offer a sense of closure to the duology that would perhaps allow Takahashi to move on from the -blade series. This concept could just as easily be explored in a future installment, but depending on Monolith's- or perhaps Nintendo's- dedication to the Xenoblade name, it could also be the perfect chance to put a succinct period on the series.

A great deal of this is baseless speculation, with the exception, of course, that the universes of XC and XC2 are inherently linked. There are other clues hidden within the Expansion Pass information page, such as its emblem being that of Torna's itself, that lend more credence to the entirety of the DLC to be centered around the Titan and the organization than anything else. Still, the potential for a tie-in, especially with the notion that DLC is often a gift to fans that fulfills their desires, is undoubtedly present and possible. An aspect to consider, however, is that Monolith Soft has already utilized DLC practices for XCX, and we can perhaps look to that game as evidence for what to expect in regards to XC2's Expansion Pass.

Each of the four DLC characters in XCX are modified versions of preexisting classes, each possessing their own Affinity missions and signature Arts for Cross to utilize. This DLC also featured three unique Skell designs that were unlocked upon completing their characters' respective Affinity missions. While none of these characters featured drastically different character designs (all were humans), their Affinity missions offered unique enemy encounters, and their combat Arts did possess unique functions. All four were caricatures somewhat, although nothing more extreme than the other party members from the game. Their Skells, while powerful and unique in their own ways, were capped at level 50, slightly short of the endgame level 60 Skells that possessed a high level of potential. Taking this into account, we should not assume that XC2's Expansion Pass content should offer anything that is marginally different from the preexisting norms of the base title, similar to Breath of the Wild, in a way.

Role-playing games possess a particular edge, however, which is that, aside from giving new textures to mob designs, they have a variety of abilities that they can expand upon and combine in order to make a variety of previously-unseen encounters in their additional content. Other developers have exhibited entirely new environment and boss design in their DLC, one of the finest examples being the Dark Souls series. Monolith's ambitions for their own Expansion Pass start slowly, but rapidly ramp up- adding more Blades could require a great amount of effort, which is why they may have tentatively announced only one. Additional story content offers a swath of options for exploration, the only caveat being that it cannot exist nestled within the main narrative, which is already strictly plotted in terms of cutscenes, not necessarily in linearity. With the New Game+ update being added soon, I have no doubt that I will be returning to this segment in order to reevaluate some of my claims, as well as hopefully addressing some unexpected surprises, however, as it stands, the remainder of the Expansion Pass content is certainly something to look forward towards, if only because of the exciting possibilities that it will offer.

DLC Part 020: Give Them What They Want (DLC)
As of writing this section, all of Xenoblade Chronicles 2's DLC save for Torna: The Golden Country has been released. Although I did originally draft several installments regarding each addition, from the first Rare Blade pack to the Challenge Mode additions and beyond, I decided to hold off on them, as each would have likely contained a fair bit of speculation regarding the subsequent installment, which would have likely turned out false. As you can probably tell from the previous section, I can be pretty damn wrong when I let my mind wander, and erred on the side of cautiousness for the remainder of these DLC installments.

Instead, I would like to give my comprehensive perspective on this wild and crazy ride known as the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Expansion Pass, as well as a few remarks regarding New Game+ in its current state. New Game+ was distributed as a free update, which amuses me a great deal, because most of its content is essentially worthless unless the player has purchased the Expansion Pass. While the ability to obtain the Torna members as Blades is fine, their execution is somewhat flawed. While each of the Torna members and their Blades are variations on the standard weapon archetypes, they appear on the Arts upgrade page as their own unique weaponry. A quick recap:

Sever is an air sword tonfa tank Blade that utilizes knuckle animations.
Obrona is an electric dual katana attack Blade that utilizes twin ring animations.
Perdido is a fire gunner attack Blade that utilizes gunner animations.
Cressidus is a stone mech arm tank Blade that utilizes knuckle animations.
Akhos is an electric scythe healer Blade that utilizes axe animations.
Patroka is a stone bardiche attack Blade that utilizes spear animations.
Mikhail is a dark fan tank Blade that utilizes twin ring animations.

There is also T-elos, but despite her using a scythe weapon, she still adheres to the axe animation and Blade Arts menu slot. While some of the New Game+ Blades occupy interesting and different niches within their respective element and combat types, it is their special abilities that truly shine, giving them a great deal of personality and character. At least, in the case of the actual Blades, and not the Flesh Eaters. While the actual Blades have fantastic affinity trees that play up their traits- Sever having a back-stabbing ability, for example, while Perdido has a guaranteed double attack mechanic- the Flesh Eaters have extremely powerful abilities that don't really speak much for their personalities. If there is any choice that is particularly baffling, its Akhos' awkward transforming scythe- a slow and unwieldy device in the hands of a Driver with animations that don't mesh well with the healer archetype. The harshest aspect of these New Game+ Blades is their trust requirements, however, which are still high-numbers that can be somewhat subverted via the reset quest-chains, but really only benefit from the additions made in DLC quests.

The way New Game+ uses experience points and inns is absolutely brilliant, should a player wish to go out of their way in order to create devastating team layouts for beating the endgame superbosses to a pulp. Traveling bards will gladly convert any bonus EXP- which can be taken from party members by lowering their levels at inns- into valuable items that can break the game's customization options further. While this is fantastic for players who missed out on rare Blades or items for specific characters during their first playthrough, it benefits an Expansion Pass players the most, as these broken combinations truly factor into the insanely difficult Challenge Mode the most. Outside of being able to obtain some tough-to-find items, New Game+ exists almost exclusively as a waiting lobby for the Expansion Pass, and a somewhat aggravating one, at that. The game rudely strips the player of all previously obtained checkpoints and map information, meaning they will still have to travel great distances to skip cutscenes and reach the point where certain Blades and characters become available. It is one backwards choice in an otherwise inoffensive and mostly entertaining mode.

That's not the worst of it, however.

An aspect of the Expansion Pass that I previously mentioned is its ability to exist as an enhancement to the base game- there are quest-chains the player can encounter throughout their first playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles that will grant them invaluable tools for Trust grinding (the most aggravating form of grind in any Xenoblade title to date), currency grinding, and general combat situations. In attempting to make a band-aid that would soothe some of the main game's rougher patches as well as reward endgame players, however, Monolith created a menagerie of quests, Blades, and challenges that will very easily bore one camp just as much as they might infuriate another. While the quality of life improvements and genuinely novel scenarios and that come with the DLC quest-chains are more than welcome, the Rare Blade pack is a huge pile of wasted potential that offers two extremes: a novel quest that unlocks a fast trust-scaling Blade upon summon, or freely distributed Blades with similar trust-scaling and little-to-no reason for acting as DLC additions. There is a third option, but that has more to do with the Challenge Mode, which we'll cover later.

The three non-Challenge Mode DLC Blades are strange. Poppibuster is accessed through a genuinely delightful and odd challenge, requiring the player to equip certain Blades and defeat enemies in order to analyze their combat information. Poppibuster is also the only Blade of the three that is truly a unique scenario- a mechanized device that contains a duplicate Poppi, artificial in nature, but immensely powerful. Crossette, on the other hand, is a fire bit ball- an exclusively rare element- with the ability to cook like Pyra, but no other traits in particular that make her combat ability appealing. The last of the three, Corvin, has a fabulous and completely exclusive combat ability, but exists as yet another light-based Blade, which dampens his impact, as he is the sixth Blade to feature an element that was once in very rare reserve. Still, he makes up for it with a very flashy and different set of abilities otherwise.

Part of me wonders, however, if these Blades were unfinished concepts from the base game, their mechanics, quests, and affinity trees added afterwards simply to justify the existence of the Expansion Pass. In terms of unique mechanics, two of the three are fairly standard, but in comparison with the Challenge Mode Blades, they are hardly unique. In a way, I am not certain what makes these DLC Blades worth the title- they present little new or different, and have mechanics that could have easily been added into the base game. While having more quests and more characters to interact with is never a bad thing, per se, it feels a bit cheap that only Poppibuster has an acquisition quest. The rare Blades that truly stand out, for better or worse, were those with quests associated with them- these felt earned, rather than a result of some randomized roulette. Even Wulfric, a Blade obtained via a story cutscene, has some involvement and interaction with the world- Crossette and Corvin are simply gifted to the players, perhaps out of respect for their time. I personally would have found an acquisition quest more satisfying, but that does not detract from the heart-to-hearts and quests associated with the Blades themselves.

The more unique, and in my opinion, deserving of their title of DLC are the Challenge Mode rare Blades. In a spectacular and somewhat bewildering move, Shulk, Fiora, and Elma can be encountered within the exclusive arena, many of their affinity unlocks being tied to specific challenges. Though Fiora doesn't feature any unique mechanics like Shulk's future sight or Elma's Overdrive, she is still extremely powerful once she has had some time invested into her. The other two retain their mechanics from XC1 and XCX respectively, offering unique twists and additions to XC2's strong foundations. The surprising aspect of adding Shulk and Fiora, of course, is that XC1 already has canon ties to the XC2 universe, so the meeting of these characters could have some canonical significance. Or not, since the Challenge Mode is very much an exclusive addition to the game. Either way, Shulk and Fiora must be obtained for exploration of Alrest via a very difficult challenge, while Elma must be defeated twice in a pair of duels that are sequentially more brutal.

And speaking of brutal, the challenges of this DLC mode are very much that, designed to test the individual who has acquired the strongest abilities and knows how to utilize and exploit them properly. For some, these challenges are the pinnacle of XC2's combat system, requiring know-how that layers atop some of the most difficult encounters faced in the base game. For others, particularly those who are primarily interested in obtaining the mode's many outfit options for the playable characters and the mode-exclusive rare Blades, this mode is a minor annoyance. The easy set of challenges is still demanding enough that any casually invested player will find them difficult, the normal set being extremely unforgiving. It is at this point that the added difficulty options are worth discussing. Throughout the Expansion Pass updates, the option to raise the difficulty to a higher, Bringer of Chaos level was added, as well as the ability to modify the difficulty to one's specific preferences in a custom mode. For those simply looking to obtain Shulk, Fiora, and Elma without investing what is likely another thirty to forty hours into the title, these custom options are the way to go, with the ability to scale enemy attack rates, HP, and the party's own abilities to specific degrees. Although these options do make the acquisition of the Challenge Mode Blades easier, any specific mission completed on this difficulty only counts towards a list of custom accomplishments, while the easy, normal, and Bringer of Chaos missions will remain incomplete. Something to work towards, I suppose.

In a way, it feels like these options were made to appease all levels of proficiency and ability, commitment and dedication. Some people don't particularly need to subject themselves to the abuse present in these challenges, some may be ready to do so once they have acquired and maxed out the trust for these Challenge Mode-exclusive Blades. It's nice, though it leaves the Expansion Pass in a strange predicament. While some of the DLC quests are clearly made to enhance an initial playthrough (although they do not diminish in their usefulness once New Game+ rolls around), the Challenge Mode at its normal difficulties features content that some players might not be prepared for in the least. Where much of Breath of the Wild's DLC content felt like logical additions to the late-to-end game, Monolith's alternatives require hours of commitment for any player to truly appreciate. It is surprising, considering XC2 was the most accessible of the three Xenoblade titles so far. The Challenge Mode requires specificity and diligence that players can only find from going above and beyond the mechanics, exploiting them to their greatest effect. This turns a game that once felt very much like a power trip into something else entirely, which is fine, if you like that sort of challenge.

However, the challenge in XC2 is more gating than anything. Trust levels stop Blades from realizing their full potential. Gathering spots require time and investment and repetitive use in order to gather the proper materials. Pouch item use is limited and loses effectiveness after a certain amount of time. Aux Cores require both a blueprint and materials to craft. These are all ways of buffing the game's playtime further, and although the cancel-chaining system does add the most reflex and skill-base gameplay in the series, there is no shortage of time-consuming, veiled mechanics and tasks that serve to extend the game's playtime beyond that which is necessary.

Which brings us, to Torna.

DLC Part 021: The Golden Country Conundrum (Torna Musings)

We are still two weeks out from Torna, but all that has been shown of this story expansion is looking quite nice. It features an entirely revamped combat system, building upon the cancel-chaining mechanics of XC2, but allowing the player to control a Driver and their Blades by switching when necessary or for added benefits. A campfire crafting system for weaponry, food, and accessories, developed by gathering at material points with far greater transparency. An entirely new continent to explore and a prequel story to discover. In discussing the total playtime for this expansion, some have estimated a thirty to forty hour narrative, which means you can likely double that in going out of your way to explore.

Torna: The Golden Country looks like it is a finished product. Nintendo seems to believe so, as well, seeing as they are marketing it as a separate release. All of these aspects make me think that, in attempting to make a smaller-scale expansion with its own unique features, Monolith may have accidentally made a better game than XC2. Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen, but it wouldn't surprise me. There are aspects of XC2's world design, user interface, and progression systems that baffle me, and were it not for the combat system, I would likely say the whole title needed about a year or so longer to have all of its kinks sorted out- although technically, that is exactly what happened with the slow roll out of patches.

Does that mean Torna will be getting its own analysis? Yes, though likely in a somewhat condensed form. Does that mean that Torna may receive a stronger recommendation than XC2 itself? This is starting to look very plausible. There are times where I have marveled over Monolith Soft's world design and hours of gameplay, but XC2, despite all the love and praise I have heaped upon it, is still a deeply flawed title. If Torna can take the lessons that needed patching in XC2 and address them right out of the gate, it will already make a better first impression. What remains to be seen is whether or not it can sustain that feeling.

DLC Part 022: I really, REALLY like you two. (Torna: The Golden Country)

The question on everyone's lips is this: Is Torna: The Golden Country worth half of what Xenoblade Chronicles is?!
The answer: Only half of it.

I toyed with the notion that someone could theoretically buy Torna separate from the base game and enjoy it as a stand-alone Role-playing Game before the actual release, yet although this story expansion exists in physical form separate from XC2, I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would suggest playing it first. Not only do Torna's enhanced combat and user interface options feel like a marked step forward from the base game, but its narrative severely undercuts the pacing and revelations of XC2 in addition to introducing new and confusing elements to the story. The former of these two points sounds like a positive, and trust me, it is. Save for one extremely odd new combat element, all of the improvements made to gameplay in Torna are extremely satisfying, and well-worth a look, if only for the chance to see how much more smoothly XC2's combat could function. Yet, there are still odd sidesteps that feel unnecessary, unplanned, or just ignored in order to turn this small chunk of ten-to-fifteen hours of RPG into a twenty-to-twenty-five hour affair.

Because of its length and stand-alone nature, I will be reviewing it in a condensed format similar to the other Xenoblade titles. Therefore:

Part A: “More corpses to be!” (Core Mechanic Variations)
Torna features a revamped combat system that utilizes new mechanics, resulting in snappier battles with more valid reasons to switch between characters and play with different combat styles. The most noticeable change is that humans and Blades use their own weapons respectively, and that the player is able to take control of Blades during combat and exploration. In combat, each character is able to use five Arts, with three operating similarly to the Battle Arts of XC2, one of two Switch Arts dependent on the individual in the Rear Guard, and one Talent Art (this is a big deal, people). Like in the base game, the Battle Arts and Switch Arts can be canceled into one another unlike Talent Arts, which are usually buff- or status-oriented.

Switch Arts are a revelation that, because of the extremely centralized cast, allow for the preservation of momentum through their insanely reliable Driver Combo capabilities. Switch Arts are crucial to the flow of combat in Torna because of their added ability to recover “bleeding” damage, which is another new mechanic unique to the expansion. When attacked, characters can lose a proportional amount of recoverable HP, which refreshes itself during a Switch Art. This function is shared between the shared HP meter of the Driver and their two Blades, and it also manages to find use in new kinds of Aux Cores, which can boost damage and other stats while recoverable HP is present. Talent Arts are meant to function similarly to those present in XC1, which often had very specific properties that made each character feel very unique, but those present in Torna lack the personality of, let's say, Monado Arts, Cooldown, or





Which is a shame. But outside of their personality, they do have very beneficial functions that fit the characters very well. All in all, the variations on XC2's combat system are stark and fluid, making combat feel familiar, yet exploitable and faster-paced than the base game feels even when having maxed out skill trees.

There are a few differences regarding gathering points, as there are now gold and purple points that will net greater rewards, with the latter of the two needing to be unlocked via field skills. A new type of mechanical collection point also exists to mitigate the lack of salvaging present in the game, but access is gated behind a side quest and then a crafting ability, which brings us to another huge aspect of this expansion: the ability to craft pouch and key items through encampments. This is performed by setting up at certain camp points around the two maps and using collected materials akin to what Pyra, Vale, and Crossette can do in the base game. This is mainly due to the fact that Torna has no shops to speak of, and that it also enjoys wasting your time with inane bullshit.

The problem is, that with nine party members, the brutal grind of Arts experience and Trust (Trust... ugh) starts all over again in an isolated narrative such as this one. Arts experience is at least an inexhaustible resource, but collection points and enemy drops require the typical Monolith Soft amounts of grinding. What better way is there, you ask, to gate certain side content and pad out the playtime of this little package than to lock certain Affinity Rewards behind crafting items and the like? The answer is: there is none. Of course, some of the recipes for crafting are locked behind side-content, so maximizing the potential of the party is hindered by this element in a very unavoidable manner. Players have to grind to craft in order to complete side-content in order to unlock the ability to grind to craft in order to complete MORE side-content, and the addition of this little mechanic- or rather, an increased emphasis upon it, results in a more tedious, plodding feel to progression that more or less exists to pad out the playtime of the campaign. But we will cover side-content a bit later, because there's one more aspect that must be addressed and it deserves its own section.

Part B: “Not such a bad place...” (Setting and Design)
Two thirds of Torna are really quite nice.

Most of what will be discussed in this section is the Tornan Titan, as Gormott is relatively unchanged with the exception of a few minor overworld elements (coughTorigothcough). The latter of the environments needs nothing more than a brief overview in order to highlight its changes, and although it is nice to have an additional Titan to romp around, there is little to do there outside of challenging some tougher enemies and completing side-content. While its inclusion is connected to the narrative, its usage is a bit lackluster.

On the other hand, the expansion's namesake is quite a treat, featuring a number of biomes and some design more akin to XC in some places and XCX in others. Torna's three regions each serve different purposes, so it is key to address each separately:

The Lasaria region is designed with the intention of giving players a decent tutorial, and as a result it is very linear. The closest comparison would be the underside of Gormott, where Rex and Pyra search for a downed Azurda. There is nothing but critical path in this region, which feels a bit like wasted potential. There are a few areas with some shoulder-space, largely involving beach-like biomes that are mixed with some Temperantia-style cliffs and Fonsett-like architecture. Its an odd mish-mash of aesthetics that gives Torna as a whole a sort of alien feel, vaguely similar to other Titans but unique in its topography. In all honestly, a good portion of Torna is reminiscent of the Bionis, whether it be Colony 6, 9, or Guar Plains.

The evidence of this can be found most in the Aletta region, a wide-open plain with greater vertical limits. Though this plain has elements of water, its mostly grassland with a great deal of Armu, really conjuring that image of Guar Plains. The lower level has more space, but following the critical path takes the player to a bridge leading to a higher plateau with a short path to a small village and some slight shoulder-space. There are several small paths and nooks that can be found scattered about the lower level, as well as a few skill checks and a side-content related Cavern of the Seal. One of the nicer details is the inclusion of a cliff side Tirkin base that is actually deceptively hidden. Aletta also hosts Addam's base of operations, which is a decently-sized village that raises questions about the smattering of houses nearby. It doesn't break immersion all that much, as things in Xenoblade games always have a sort of modified sense of scale, but it does seem odd that the two wouldn't be merged via some sort of stairwell or the like.

The Dannagh region is the star of the show, featuring the most varied terrain and something that was surprisingly missing from the base game: a proper desert. Although Mor Ardain's rocky cliffs evoked a sense of blistering heat and dust, Dannagh gives us a desert broken up by several plateaus, a large, but shallow oasis, and most curiously, a nature reserve close by. There is no real critical path, as the space is wide, with three lanes cutting through on the way to the royal capital. The central route has a rare steep hill that causes a sliding state, which is noteworthy only due to its rarity. Dannagh is also the region where most of Torna can be put into perspective, as there are several points where one can spot Addam's Aletta militia base, the capital of Auresco, and the remains of a village in Lasaria that would have made for a nice little shortcut, but is purposefully wiped out in order to preserve pacing. Dannagh's plateaus hide creatures both beneath their depths and atop their form, with the Turquos (yes, you heard that right) Plateau offering the most XCX style scenic view in all of XC2.

Finishing off Torna is Auresco, the capital city and a place where some people are doing things. It possesses an eastern flair in its architecture, with a nice wooden bridge, an unreasonably large zen garden, and some archways, and things. Auresco's most prominent feature is the climbable guard tower that enables access to the rooftops of the city, but that's pretty much it. There are a few crates to push around here, treasure chests to open, and quests to nab. The shopping district gives a serpentine route to the palace, but only until the main gate opens up, which is a far more straightforward route.
As an afterthought, Gormott's right shoulder appears in a less-developed form, with a number of trees in infancy, and a lack of Torigoth for reasons related to the narrative. Nothing is so drastic that the area feels unfamiliar, but some of the hidden parts of the base game Torigoth are no longer present, and all civilization is absent, save for the dock where an Ardainian battleship sits. Its inclusion is impressive, but raises some questions: why hasn't Mor Ardain improved the technology utilized in their Titan battleships?

The world design of Torna is strange in many ways. While the Tornan Titan does feel large, the Lasaria region is so painfully separated from the rest of the Titan that it feels a bit baffling. Even if one were to use Malos' attack as an excuse, one would assume that some sort of alternate route would have been developed in order to circumvent this, rather than leaving a small port cut off from the rest of the world. Lasaria also just feels like a series of set pieces used primarily to establish the narrative. While this might seem necessary for a small expansion, Aletta also offers plenty more exploration while serving much of the same purpose. Dannagh is large, but not much more than the Brionac occupied area in Mor Ardain, in comparison. All together, Torna is a decently-sized Titan, though in its entirely it only rivals Temperantia in terms of surface area. It makes up for this with density of content, but that can also end up being a double-edged sword.

Part C: “I am who I am. I do not change.” (Characters, Combat, and Story)
One aspect not covered specifically during the core mechanics segment is how this game handles fusion combos, which is equal parts good and bad. Whenever a character performs a Blade Combo, they add an elemental orb to the targeted enemy, and building Fusion Combos in any order can be a great way to bump up the number of orbs on an enemy. In an effort to clean up the user interface, however, the Fusion Combo flowcart was done away with, meaning the specific labeled combinations that have bonus effects and a cutscene are not telegraphed. While this might seem like a minor complaint, it means that the special effects that come with these abilities are much more difficult to utilize, and it comes as a bit of a surprise, given the much more transparent presentation of the base game. While hints are given as to which combination is executable thanks to the labels associated with each stage, but even for someone with around 300 hours of playtime in the base game, I had trouble which combinations would grant the proper bonuses to defeat named creatures. As mentioned before, being able to add elemental orbs greatly increases the pace of battle, allowing for more devastating combinations and chain attack damage. The elements of battle (no pun intended) flow so well, that it's a bit disappointing to see how things falter in just about every other area.

The core cast of characters in Torna are an odd trio, each Driver backed by their own pair of rare Blades. The Drivers in Torna only share their Blades' weapons when executing level IV Blade combos, opting for their own weaponry at all other times. Though each character starts with their own unique elemental affinity that they can use in special attacks (think a Blade special, just without the Blade), one can purchase some alternative equipment that allows them access to alternate elements. While one might think a story taking place during the Aegis war might revolve around Mythra and Addam, they are not the main focus, with the narrative instead focused on the relationship between Jin and his side-piece, Lora.

Lora occupies a strange archetype, a helpful mercenary with a martial-arts-style of combat that utilizes a whip. If you want to go for a deep cut, she is able to keep strong Fusion combo pacing in combat with a Battle Soul-like Talent Art that refills all of her Battle Arts. Because of her elemental affinities and equipment, she can easily craft complete Blade combos with her two rare Blades, Jin and Haze. Lora is a pretty passionate young lady who turned out okay after seeing her father's arm get cut off in her younger days, and she is more or less just a delightful and oblivious young lady. She flirts with Jin on several occasions and seems to take a more maternal role with Haze, but that's just about the extent of her characterization. She frequently complains that she isn't as strong as her fellow Drivers, which is strange considering she has the Paragon of Torna kicking around in her party and is actually the first ever person to utilize Blade weaponry in her fighting style. That's right, you heard it here first: Addam and Hugo learn how to share Blade weapons after watching Lora do it, which I can only assume caught on like wildfire once Addam started touring the other Titans and lead to the way that all of the characters fight in the base game.

I'm not going to lie, the vanguard/rearguard combat system of Torna is really neat, but because of how effective it is, it seems bizarre that an entirely different kind of combat style would be adopted as the years went on. Perhaps its because of an increase in Core Crystal distribution that the new style took off, but... I find it very hard to believe that Lora is the catalyst for all of this. The previous cutscene from the base game where she and Addam spar is used to enforce this context, however, and to be honest, it just makes the whole thing feel even less believable.

Jin is a moody, quiet, stupid Blade who loves cooking and is extremely protective of Lora, even though he apparently doesn't like fighting all that much. Because he serves Lora, however, he kind of has do go along with her crazy lifestyle, and ends up protecting her from harm on many occasions. I heard a fascinating theory that claims Pyra is Mythra's response to spending time with Jin, as she is also complacent and an excellent cook, having a very strong bond with her Driver. I like to think this is the truth, but Mythra seems to have missed the mark when emulating Jin's cold demeanor. He is the least-talkative Blade of the group, and rarely partakes in any of the amusement the others share. Much of what Jin does in Torna ends up raising more questions about Blades than it answers, as he seems to have broken the mold in several instances. He experiences a strong sense of deja vu when visiting the home of one of his previous Drivers, which should be impossible due to the nature of Blades and the memories they lose upon returning to their Core Crystal. While one might brush this remark aside, it very strongly conflicts with the arc of Praxis and Theory, two rare Blades from the base game. Additionally, Jin stumbles upon the diary of his previous self, which reveals to him the secret of becoming a Flesh Eater. Sort of.

Look, I'm not going to lie, there are a lot of moments throughout XC2 that require you to make some leaps in logic. How Jin could come to know about a semi-organic means of creating Flesh Eaters (in comparison with the mixed Core, artificial Flesh Eaters that come from Judicium) is beyond me, but the fact that they never explicitly state how he could come to know this information is rather disappointing. Even a quick note saying that his previous Driver had been stationed in Judicium, or a journal entry about those experiences, would have clarified a great deal rather than leaving it all up to assumption. Even so, the semi-organic method of creating Flesh Eaters seems to be absurdly effective, seeing as it results in a Blade that can cancel the powers of an Aegis and allowed Jin to avoid aging and all the negative effects of being a Flesh Eater that Minoth experienced. Flesh Eaters and their traits vary, of course, but Jin's method, which I'm now officially dubbing a CRIMSON BLADE EATER, just adds one more weird aspect to the mix.

As for Haze, the only competent healer in the party, things are a little bit more bare-bones. Haze is, in many ways, an echo of Lora. She looks similar, but has a slightly sweeter demeanor, and is a bit more childish and indulgent of Lora's feminine side. She can be a bit innocent erring towards ignorance, but she's a pretty bland cleric-like character who rarely gets he chance to shine.

Addam is the leader of the bunch, you know him well. He's got Mythra as a partner and he's a very enthusiastic fellow. He has a very controlled fighting style where he uses a longsword with mixed light and heavy blows, inflicting statuses with great ease. If Lora is effective at Fusion Combos, Addam excels at Driver Combos, as both one of his vanguard Arts and his Switch Art inflict Driver statuses. Always looking out for others, Addam just seems to be too good for his own good. Trust me, he's really good. Everyone who works under him loves him, and he's eager to help just about anyone. He's enthusiastic to a sometimes-grating level, but much of what he does is for the greater good of others, and anything that seems to be unfortunate for those around him is upsetting to him. There's not really much else to say about Addam- most of the time, he's just being a nice guy. Its not in the sort of spunky way that Rex handles things, being a bit more rough around the edges, Addam just genuinely seems to have others' best interests at heart.

His relationship with Mythra is actually quite nice, and the way they interact really gives some meaning to the way she speaks about him in the base game. He is a bit more of a guiding light, as she has a bit more spunk and defiance in her, being unfamiliar with working with humans. She doesn't really seem to have time for small talk or minor problems, but is dragged along due to how much Addam likes to help out. Addam attempts to teach her lessons on occasion, but she often learns through experience, as you'll discover from the many many many many many many many many side quests.

Addam's second Blade is both alien and familiar. A young Minoth, the Urayan writer, appears as a Flesh Eater, wielding twin daggers that can also shoot things. Minoth is pretty no-nonsense, boastful when he wants to be, but just as much tortured and introspective. He is pretty clearly affected by his relationship with Amalthus, who is a big dumb evil person who can't help but be big and dumb and evil. Minoth isn't like that, and so, he values Addam's company more than anything. In truth, he's been wandering for quite a while so when he's given the opportunity to join up with Addam and the group, he decides that things are serious enough to entertain the thought. Unlike Haze, Minoth gets a good amount of characterization, both in cutscenes and side-content.

The last Driver is the least expected, and that is the young Emperor Hugo. He's also a nice guy, as you would expect from the protagonists of your favorite Role-playing game. Hugo and Addam have loads of context and memories together, which is likely why they seem so similar. While Addam has a little bit more cheer to him, Hugo takes things seriously and with more formality. It makes sense, considering he's the Emperor of an entire Titan. Although his inclusion is explained away with “I like being on the front lines so I decided to come to the front lines,” he really shouldn't be a playable character because of his status. Addam is somewhat expendable due to the nature of Tornan politics, Hugo is not. He fills the role of a tank extremely well, playing more similarly to Tora, while his Blades play much closer to their base-game archetypes.

Filling out his role are the Ardainian crown jewels, Brighid and Aegaeon. Both function in similar roles to their base story counterparts, while receiving some new dialogue and animations, serving as critical- and evasion-based tanks. In terms of story, there is very little that they contribute, other than operating separately from Hugo for a short period as a display of strength. Both have very similar dialogue, with Brighid being very loyal, yet with a bit of an edge, while Aegaeon is the straight man. The Ardainian trio as a whole is the most formal and least-developed, and while this distance can be seen as the result of a military alliance alone, they just end up feeling a bit superfluous. There are a few moments where Hugo shows a bit of compassion as a leader, but that's mostly it. He gets his “moment” towards the end of the experience.

There are a few other characters that complicate the matter, such as Amalthus, the Tornan King, High Prince Zettar, Gort, and Milton, but they all serve very stock character roles and are more or less chess pieces being placed into their proper positions. The Torna-exclusive characters are surprisingly given fairly little development, which is something you might expect from a story expansion. However, Takahashi has explicitly stated that Torna's mini-narrative was meant to take place in between chapter 7 and 8 in the base game, eventually growing too grand in scope to afford. This makes much more sense considering the character and plot development in this expansion, but there are still aspects of the narrative that do not gel comfortably with the base game.

Part D: “An uncommon foe!” (Amalthus)
With Torna taking place in the past, there's a great deal of talk about Praetor Amalthus, despite his influence on the scenario being underdeveloped. I would like to take a moment to note a few key moments throughout the narrative of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Amalthus' narrative arc that don't sit well with me, and offer some revisions to the narrative in order to justify and strengthen his role. Keep in mind, I am not saying that I know how to write a narrative better than Takahashi, but I do feel that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a rushed product that suffered in multiple areas, some of which received band-aids in the form of free updates, while others were supposed to be smoothed over in Torna. The problem is, Torna focuses entirely too much on the relationships between Jin and Lora and Addam and Mythra, when it should put more emphasis on the complicated story of Amalthus and Malos.

In the base game, it is stated that the character of a Blade is strongly, though not entirely influenced by their owner. While Malos and Mythra represent two sides of the same coin, however, Ontos, the third Aegis core, doesn't necessarily fit into the equation neatly. Even if you consider that Ontos has some command over time, Mythra already exhibits similar traits. Mythra's desire to fight against Malos seems pretty much directly influenced by Addam's willingness to protect others, even if her own innate qualities seem to conflict with this idea. Therefore, the destructive capacity and personality Malos exhibits seems to be directly influenced by Amalthus. One might even call them a reflection of his Driver, which should lead us to believe that Amalthus more or less wants to either rule the world, or destroy it.

As a result of the impression Amalthus had upon Malos, Mythra was awakened by one worthy of bearing her. With her innate personality being more defiant despite her task being protective, it seems she would be the one at conflict with her Driver more than Malos, who seems to have gleefully inherited his Driver's sensibilities. The main problem for Amalthus seems to be that Malos doesn't want to do things his way. I suppose? Malos seems to be fine with killing Titans, but he doesn't have any specific method of approach. Aside from that, the two of them seem to be on the same page.

But if you have a Blade of such immense power who is more or less doing exactly what you want him to do, what need is there for deception and diplomacy as an Indoline Quaestor or Praetor? Why allow Mythra to be summoned at all? Amalthus seems to truly despise “humanity” and their selfish nature, but he serves an extremely passive role throughout the story. The question I must ask is, what is Amalthus' endgame? Does he wish to control the world, or destroy it? There are so many inconsistent actions performed on his part, such as his slaughter of hundreds of refugees in order to either attempt to kill Addam, or color the opinion of the public towards Aegises for... no real reason, considering he was more than willing to welcome Rex and the party to Indol after a five-hundred year span? Does Amalthus allow Rex to live because he wants to see if the Architect will reveal himself to Rex? If so, why does he get into his Almost-Final-Boss armor and attempt to kill Rex and the party?

While one might consider Amalthus a master manipulator, he appears to be anything but, despite having performed a few key actions over his extended lifetime. First, he made some drastic scientific discoveries- sorry, he pirated some scientific discoveries from the folks of Judicium. Next, he established and blackmailed the Kingdom of Tantal into existence, then using technology in order to create a reliable way of controlling Genbu and supplying Indol with a proper amount of Core Chips. Here are the things that would have made his plan better:
  1. After doing this, retcon Amalthus' Core Crystal cleaning ritual into a way of purging the ability to transform into Titans from a Core Crystal, or explicitly state that he is able to use Fan La Norne's Blade powers to prevent this ability.
  2. By doing so, Amalthus either gradually ensures the death of Alrest by preventing Titans from being created, or essentially controls all forms of land acquisition, allowing him to grow and expand certain nations in whichever way he chooses.
  3. He can either ruthlessly control the Urayan monarchy and Empire of Mor Ardain by limiting their resources in this way, or actually go about destroying the world in his own fine way, considering he likely isn't sure if Malos is dead or not.
I honestly feel that tilting Amalthus more towards the destructive supports the tendencies of Malos much more and gives greater justification for his actions during the 500-year gap that takes place in between Torna and the base game, as he would likely be sitting on his thumbs waiting for Titans to die off so that he could facilitate his own endgame. If you err on the destructive side, it also gives a LOGICAL EXPLANATION for as to why Rex is upset about Titans dying, since it should be common knowledge during his era that Blades become Titans. Unfortunately in the base game, as it seems that, during the 500-year gap, most of “humanity” seems to have forgotten that Blades become Titans. EXCEPT that's bullshit, because “humanity” is already aware that Titans BIRTH BLADES, as explicitly stated by Vandam and likely a fact that Rex's own Titan AZURDA knows about. Either way, the convoluted nature of the story, and the split antagonist of both Malos and Amalthus, makes for a very messy and poorly presented narrative. What's worse, Monolith seems to think that these two destructive juggernauts aren't worth explaining and opts instead to justify Jin's motivations, which are honestly dumber and less-warranted as a whole.

I would sympathize with Jin a great deal more if he would own up to his own fear of death, and the self-loathing that comes from this. Drivers clearly don't have a huge impact upon the personalities of Rare-to-common Blades, seeing as those like Jin and Theory were able to make choices that directly conflict with their Drivers' beliefs. Simply put, I cannot fathom why Lora would willingly let Jin eat her heart unless she were actually a terrible person. Most of Torna seems to imply otherwise, and the notion that Lora finds it sad that her Blade will forget her is something pulled out of her ass at the last second in order to make him feel bad and justify the bizarre knowledge that he seems to have come across in his own journal, a coincidence I find absurdly convenient for narrative purposes. If Torna had focused less on the relationship between Jin and Lora and more on Jin's descent into the cowardly choice he made, I would be able to get behind his actions as a character, but it doesn't. He spends time with a woman who clearly understands the weight of death and the cycle of rebirth that comes with Blades. It seems that Jin is the one who cannot accept this, which on one hand, makes his motivation slightly more human and understandable, but on the other, has no place in the narrative of a character who had a Driver that was a good person.

...I'm done.

Part E: “Think you'll manage?” (Side Missions)
Is it fair to consider the majority of Torna's side-content as such, considering it ends up being mandatory in order to pad out the length of the expansion?
In an odd move, the Community Chart makes its triumphant(?) return, as a means of keeping track of unfinished side-content and... the amount of NPCs in the game, I suppose. The only reason this feature exists is to gate off story content behind completing a certain amount of quests. For the most part, the side-content isn't too unbearable. There's a nice mix of collection, crafting, exploring, and enemy killing hidden behind some relatively charming dialogue that manages to say very little about the core cast of characters and breathe some much needed life into the NPCs. The problem is, the scope of many of these quests is so limited and inconsequential in comparison with the main threat that Addam taking time out of his day in order to answer the call. He has the AEGIS, he shouldn't be cleaning up the trash that appears on an old woman's walk.

This is explained away as wishing to calm the people in preparation for and as a reaction to Malos' attacks on Torna, but I do feel that the people would be much more calm if the Aegis hadn't stolen the device maintaining Torna's docile state and brought it to the Titan's core. That's honestly just me. As a means of fleshing out the issues that the Tornan nation faces during the Aegis war, however, this side-content is fine. Just fine.

The more enjoyable side-content is the discovery-based material, as it introduces PvE mini-arenas, scouring the world for barrels and hidden areas, and the very nice Cavern of the Seal,
where the more legitimate challenges in the expansion can be found. As exploration and wolrd design are Monolith's strongest suits, these challenges are compelling reasons to discover all the nooks and crannies present in Torna. Likewise, while the Nopon-keystone side-content from the base game felt overblown and tedious due to its vast scope, condensing these challenges to a specific Titan helps them flown and maintain momentum throughout the experience. Aside from that, much of the side-content in Torna is similar to the base game in some of the best and worst ways, from gated skill-checks that are thankfully redeemed by a set party, to inane collection quests with little payoff. Many of these quests grant party members access to new crafting recipes, however, which is another way that Monolith makes this side-content integral to gameplay, as Blade Affinity Charts often require the player to craft every single one of their recipes. It pads the run time, essentially, so make of that what you will.

Part F: “All that chatter will get you killed!” (Final Impressions)
Perhaps, after three hundred hours of XC2, I have finally reached my breaking point. My main problem with Torna is that there is some content that I feel is genuinely needed in order to make the entirety of XC2 feel complete, as well as some quality of life and plain old upgrades to the base game's formula that I wish had been implemented sooner. Both of those are positives, so the negative is that in order to get to this material, one needs to slog through more of the most problematic aspects of XC2's design and narrative content that adds very little to the game as a whole.

 Once again, I return to the notion that, once a game comes along that uses all of Torna and XC2's best ideas and improves upon its weaknesses, I will have very little reason to return to this title, the Torna expansion less-so. Its combat is absolutely sublime, but there's only so much challenge and content to be had on the neutered Gormott and skill-check-rife Tornan Titans. Likewise, the Community Chart does little more than offer a progress meter for the advancement of the narrative, a series of dramatic beats that, though not lacking in emotion and featuring better voice acting on the whole than the base game, could have been told in the span of eight-to-ten hours rather than fifteen-to-twenty. If there is one thing that Monolith is good at, however, its a bit of systems and content bloat.

The Golden Country is not a title I believe is worth the full price of the expansion pass, and I also do not think any player would get all that much from it by buying it as a stand-alone title. What makes the expansion pass so worthy is Torna combined with the Challenge Pack, as these two modes offer a substantial enough difference from the base game to feel like half a new game on their own. That is worth praise, though. The difference between the Expansion Pass for XC2 and that of Breath of the Wild is that the former has a number of additions that feel custom-made and like an added bonus to the title, while the latter's DLC feels as though it fleshes out the content of the game.

While Torna pushes the combat options established in the base game a bit further, it just shows how a hypothetical party-based system could be expanded upon and improved in later installments. The Switch Art mechanic is a novel way of increasing the complexity found in party layout and experimentation, so if it were expanded to more character archetypes and Talent Arts per team, the system could offer the kind of possibility that XC2's base game hints at, despite having very rigid character types. Although Torna doesn't necessarily damage my impressions of the base game, it condenses what I would consider to be Monolith's greatest strengths and weaknesses into a smaller package. Whether or not it makes those aspects appear stronger or weaker is very much up to the player.

DLC Part 023: Looking to the Future (Conclusion)

Over the course of this analysis, I have taken a hard look at almost all of the elements that make up each of Monolith Soft's -blade titles, and come out the other side with a far clearer idea of what makes their games both appealing and intense time sinks. At their best, they use multilayered character progression systems and customization options to reward creative and exploitative players alike. They create fascinating environments with unique landmarks and aesthetics and back them with iconic soundtracks that shift from day to night. Despite numerous attempts to contextualize basic, grind-heavy tasks, however, they still struggle with padding out their exploration-based titles with bland side-content. I am personally in the camp that a smaller amount of well-crafted side quests trumps busy work any day, but I suppose if the journey to what you need to find or kill or craft is worthy enough, you may feel otherwise. Narrative has never been Monolith's strong suit, but I do feel that they use narrative context in order to inform their game mechanics in ways that other Role-playing games fail to do so, and I can respect them for that.

All in all, Monolith Soft makes a unique breed of Role-playing game, and though playing each title back to back may damage one's opinion of their craft, the wait in between their titles is unbearable due to the sheer delight they offer in discovery. Because of their complexity, I don't feel that they are very approachable, though if a newcomer were to start with any of the three, XC2 is the most user-friendly and straightforward of the bunch- even with its numerous flaws. It tells a less nuanced story but has much more engaging core gameplay, and the added content, while feeling detached from the base game, allows for a very tangible and direct form of endgame content. XC2's endgame superbosses are also only accessible during its final chapters, further enhancing this feeling. Picking favorites with a Xenoblade game is tough, however, as each title excels in a specific area in which another may lack. I have heard many others profess their love for XC2 and scoff at my own passionate defense of XCX, though I don't believe I've heard anyone decry the original game. If Monolith Soft should continue with this method of presentation and style of gameplay, however, I would prefer that they take as many steps forward necessary so that they do not end up backtracking on the issues of previous titles, such as XC's over-complicated customization system, XCX's lackluster main narrative, and XC2's simplistic environmental design. Torna has done a great deal to show that Monolith is looking to improve the combat in their titles, but it doesn't necessarily give me confidence in the way that they make worlds.

Feel free to share your impressions of the game, its DLC, and any questions or issues you have with the current state of this analysis. I am open to debate and discussion!


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