So Far, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Is Everything Right and Wrong With JRPGs
There was a moment early on in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that filled me with wonder that few games this year have accomplished. I came out of a huge, dense forest and walked into a sprawling series of sweeping plains. I was given an objective, but more importantly, I was given the opportunity to ignore it. And I did. I roamed everywhere I could, grinding levels, finding treasure, getting one-shotted by all manners of creature, big and small. It's something I haven't felt from JRPGs in a while, a sense of discovery and whimsy, accompanied by suitably grand music.
And then it broke, for a minute or two. It broke because I looked at the character designs. I looked at the protagonist's stupid exposed thighs. I looked at the major female protagonist's horrid chafe factory of an outfit. Then I remembered what I was doing in the story and realized that, despite being a thematically good yarn, it was full of inscrutable stupidity, big nouns, and garbage character names. For a moment or two, the bits and bobs that make up Xenoblade Chronicles 2 overwhelmed me and made me enjoy the experience less.
Real talk. I've seen a lot of bad discourse about this game, and not from both sides. There are a lot of adamant defenders for this title, for whatever reason, who are shouting down any sort of dissent because... I dunno, don't attack my favorite corporation or some shit. These folks tend to be glorified weeaboos who are convinced that "PC culture warriors" are coming to steal their silly lore nonsense and anime tits. Considering myself both an anime fan and a JRPG nut, let me be the first to say.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is amazing.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is also kind of fucking tired.
Hear me out. All of the warm, fuzzy feelings I felt as a teenager into JRPGs came rushing back to me during the initial first four-ish chapters of the game. That whimsy, that excitement, that sense of exploration, that awe at the beautiful soundtrack. In terms of capturing what it feels like to love a JRPG again, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does a fantastic job, far better than Persona 5.
But the thing is, these games are made for teenagers for a reason. Because if you apply an ounce of critical thought to everything surrounding the gameplay, the world design, the music, you start to realize that it's puerile to high fuck. The character designs would make anybody unaccustomed to anime bullshit balk at first blush. The story is pretty good, but very simple and lacking in nuance, and it tries to hide that by approaching Bungie levels of nonsense made-up words, actively fighting against the parts of the story that are actually decent. Characters are fairly one-dimensional in their development, but it feels like the developers try to hide that by giving them wacky designs.
All at once, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 manages to capture what people love about these games and what people fucking hate about them. This results in something that feels like a mixed bag, both aspirational and low-hanging, both ambitious and rote.
On the one hand, I love that it feels good playing a JRPG game again, especially after sitting through Compile Heart trashfests in order to get my fill of okay-ish combat. This feels like something a 2003-2006 Square Enix might have made. But then, that's just it. It feels like it's from that era because it's... I mean, it's kind of dated??? It's in its own weird vacuum of bad character designs and hackneyed storytelling, like Final Fantasy XV and Nier: Automata don't exist. It has, I think, ambition to go back and time to deliver that sort of early 2000's experience, without ever questioning why those sorts of games don't get made anymore.
The answer, ironically, lies in Monolith Soft's last two entries in this series, which I think are leaps and bounds better. Xenoblade Chronicles did a fantastic job of delivering convoluted storytelling that ultimately tied together into a cohesive, sprawling epic. Xenoblade Chronicles X, my personal favorite, made what is likely the best mecha anime game that's ever come out, and did it without any pandering silliness (for the most part,) an original world, and characters that actually got good development. Oh, and you could pick your character. That was cool. Anyway. Those games did a good job of both delivering great JRPG experiences and evolving the genre.
When I look at Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I see the reason this genre started changing with the times. I see its plucky, obnoxious protagonist and think of what Sora was until Kingdom Hearts actually matured as a series. I see its character designs and I think of my non-gamer friends looking at me weird in high school, and not being able to really blame them. At the same time, I get those same warm fuzzies I did when I first discovered Final Fantasy X and Star Ocean: The Last Hope.
So what's the point to this rambling? I dunno. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is pretty good, but also, it's pretty dated. It's the kind of game I'd recommend to JRPG diehards, primarily teenage ones, and practically nobody else. That's fine, I guess. But I guess it also makes me happy that other series have changed, because frankly, I don't think I can play games for would-be teenager adventurers forever. It's cool if you like it, but you should maybe try to understand why people are tired of playing what is, essentially, the same thing they were playing on the PS2.
And god, stop harassing people over video games. It's fucking stupid.