Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in: Systems Shock

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There's a common apprehension against what are colloquially referred to as anime fighters for their surfeit of mechanical complexity, leading to a longer than usual learning curve, that will often have players - even seasoned fighter game pros - running for the hills after one air juggle super cancel tutorial or superfluous charge gauge explanation too many. It's not that these games are necessarily difficult to pick up, but they are initially intimidating and unless you're approaching from the angle of having played several similar games it'll no doubt involve a decent amount of time until you're confident you have at least the basics down, and that's before you start learning individual characters and who best to draw them against.

There could be several reasons for why these games adopt prohibitively high levels of complexity, but a common one is that the genre - due to its popularity - has continued tweaking and evolving based on the mainstays that have come before. Any Guilty Gear or BlazBlue or an Arc Systems Works fighter of your choosing is the result of a fandom with decades of Capcom and SNK fighters and thousands of hours spent in same to master their every aspect. Fighters are fairly niche, so they've long since joined the likes of shoot 'em ups as games that are generally played by those already deeply invested in them and are thus always looking for the next level of challenge. (Of course, there are exceptions, and any game that goes out of its way to be "entry-level friendly" seems to do fine also.)

You could apply the pattern to RPGs, specifically Japanese ones. Though their drop in appeal isn't quite as precipitious as the many hand-wringing "the death of the JRPG" article would have you believe, we've long passed their peak era of the mid-90s to early-00s, around the time when Final Fantasy VII captured the global mainstream zeitgeist like no other JRPG had done before. I'm not going to sit here and claim there aren't newbie-friendly JRPGs coming out every year, but a significant portion of that industry has determined that it makes better business sense to pander to the established base, either through copious amounts of fanservice, a steady creep in mechanical complexity, or both.

All the above is just my half-educated musing about why it is that Xenoblade Chronicles 2, even more so than its already mechanically dense forebears, has so many layers of mechanical depth going on. In a sense, it's not too dissimilar to Bandai Namco's Tales franchise: a series that continues to see tweaks to its core real-time combat system (the legendary LMBS) with each new entry, with these advancements only having significance to the people who buy each new game and maybe less so to an unversed player who maybe only views the series as a homogenous mass of anime tropes. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has its fair share of anime angst also, but I wanted to discuss specifically how long it takes to figure out its battle system and the many approaches and features and menus you need to be cognizant of if you intend to make any serious progress quickly and not get trapped in a series of overly long fights with inconsequential mobs. While the game only beats my ass down when I wander off the beaten path and get attacked by something several dozen levels higher than my party, it's taken a while for me to figure out how to end random battles at a fair clip - and the game hasn't stopped rolling out features yet. I suspect the two types of comment I'll get from this are "what the hell does any of this mean?" and "oh yeah, of course, it's all pretty simple stuff when you get the hang of it, my dear idiot".

The Titans are a little more animate in this game than the colossi were in XC1. It's a little disconcerting to see their gigantic heads bobbing around or their tails wagging in your periphery.
The Titans are a little more animate in this game than the colossi were in XC1. It's a little disconcerting to see their gigantic heads bobbing around or their tails wagging in your periphery.

The Basics, or "I Coulda Done That Blindfolded!"

The Xenoblade series are pseudo-MMOs, so the combat is a mix of real-time auto-attacking and occasional tactical consideration. Characters attack automatically when in range of their quarry, but it's down to the player to decide when to use the stronger "Arts" (which covers both spells and special attacks). Arts regenerate their charge through normal attacks. There are also "ether" attacks that are dependent on the element of the character's Blade.

Blades are an unusual combination of summons and weapons. Characters able to use Blades (called Drivers) will swing weapons based on the type of Blade they're using, and Blades can also have one of three roles in battle: Healer, Tank, and Attacker (or DPS). The type of weapon the Driver uses, the elemental damage they do, and the combat role they perform are all determined by the character's currently equipped Blade. Drivers can have up to three Blades equipped at a time, switching between them in a battle to suit the current foe: for example, if you have a fire-based Blade out while fighting a fire-based enemy, it might be prudent to switch to a water-based Blade for the elemental superiority.

Otherwise, the conceit of the MMO trinity holds true: Tanks soak up aggro, drawing enemy attacks which they can whether through defensive skills or their higher than usual HP and defense stats; Attackers use the distraction to position themselves to do the most amount of damage to end battles quickly; Healers keep the other two alive through curative skills, and can hopefully contribute to damage when no-one is in need of intensive care.

This UI is... well, it's a lot. At least initially. I mostly know what all these HUD icons do/mean now. Mostly.
This UI is... well, it's a lot. At least initially. I mostly know what all these HUD icons do/mean now. Mostly.

The Intermediate Stage, or "Let's Not Lose Our Heads, Though!"

All right, so we've established that combat follows the standard MMO pattern of a trinity of basic classes and explained what Blades are. To speed up battles there's a few avenues:

The first are Blade Arts and combos. Similar to Driver Arts, these are built up through performing auto-attacks, but they can continue building up past one tier all the way up to four. If a character uses a lower tier attack, a different character can follow it up with the next tier, and so on through the group. Each successive tier does more damage, but the level IV Blade Art can also be devastating too if you decide to save up for it. Like the Blades, these Blade Arts are all elemental themes, which also determines which ones can flow into others (a Fire-based Blade Art can be followed by a Water-based one to produce a "Steam Bomb", for example).

Then you have a system brought over from the first Xenoblade Chronicles, where you manage the enemy's condition through a successive process of knocking them down and setting them up to be stomped. This starts with a "Break" condition that makes the enemy unstable and susceptible to being "Toppled". Toppled enemies cannot attack and instead lie there for a few seconds while you drop damage on them. However, you could also follow Toppled with "Launch" - you need a burly Driver/Blade for this - which sends them flying into the air. You then have a very short window to use a "Smash" attack, which brings them crashing back down to earth and completes the series. Smash attacks do an incredible amount of damage, but obviously the difficulty is cycling through all four stages in a relatively brisk timeframe. Worse is that certain stronger enemies seem to be resistant to any of those four states. I've not found anyone with a Smash Art yet, but seeing enemies Launched is already pretty amusing. They really go flying.

Then you have Chain Attacks. There's a three-block gauge, up in the top left corner, that slowly builds in combat and can be used to resurrect fallen party members once per block. However, filling all three blocks allows you to pause the battle for a Chain Attack: this involves all three characters landing a special Art one after the other to create a chain. Chains will end after everyone's attacked once, but there's a way to extend it further.

Then there's some minor but still effective battle tips like cancelling an auto-attack at the right moment to use an Art, maneuvering to the enemy's flank or rear for specific Arts' damage boosts, remembering to kite enemies from afar so you aren't stuck fighting them in groups, and so on.

It's taken some time, but I've just about got the hang of all the above. They do speed battle along somewhat, as you start doing several thousand damage with the right conditions, but you'll still do marginal harm if you haven't bothered to go into your menus for some vital character customization and development. I've been picking up on the importance of the following:

  • Driver Affinity Charts: These are Driver specific passive skills that can significantly boost stats, immediately unlock specific Arts at the start of combat (rather than building up to them through normal attacks), build resistances, and other techniques. These use an exclusive development currency to build up called WP. Drivers can also individually upgrade their Arts (per Blade) via a different currency, SP. SP seems to accumulate for each equipped Blade individually, so there's no need to stockpile it.
  • Blade Affinity Charts: Far more extensive than the Driver charts for some reason, Blade charts aren't increased through spending points but by completing objectives. These might be as benign as talking to people, finding resources, using Blade arts, defeating certain monster types, or using pouch items (more on those in a second). However, upper echelons of the skill tree aren't available until you've gained enough "trust" between the Blade and the Driver (which increases slowly over time, though it goes faster if you complete side-quests).
  • Core Chips and Auxiliary Chips: Blades are like digital computer people, or something, so if you feed them specific computer chips they acquire stat boosts. When used, core chips make significant changes to the weapon associated to the Blade, often vastly increasing damage output and stats like critical chance and block rate. Auxiliary chips are more like accessories that you can equip and unequip.
  • Pouch Items: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a huge amount of temporary buff items, which can range from food and drink to stuff like artwork, musical instruments, books, and textiles (I've no idea why these are consumable, but non-food items will last up to a couple of real-time hours). Blades all have their own pouch item preferences, increasing the gain they get from those specific items. Fortunately, the Blade's affinity chart gives you some hint as to what they're into. I'm usually resistant to worrying about temporary gains - I'm the type of guy who hoards healing items "in case I need them later" - but it's not a system you can afford to ignore here.
The key to Blade development is going out of your way for these mini-achievements. Much is still currently locked until I've spent more time with this big fluffy cat.
The key to Blade development is going out of your way for these mini-achievements. Much is still currently locked until I've spent more time with this big fluffy cat.

The Advanced Stage, or "It's Fine! We'll Get 'Em Yet!"

So a lot of this game is still a mystery to me, even some fifteen hours in. There's an option on the main menu I can't access currently (I'm in Chapter 3) and I've yet to unlock the third Blade slot, meaning my characters can only march into battle with two each - the exception being the nopon Tora, who cannot use normal Blades and had to create an artificial one. From what I've read, the game insists on some strict limits while it's in the process of teaching you the ropes, making every local enemy damage sponges to encourage you to master the above intermediate mechanics to end battles faster.

There are hints of the madness yet to come, however. Crafting auxiliary chips (each needs to be "fed" a bunch of resource items before you can use them), acquiring storefront properties to earn various passive bonuses, playing the salvage mini-game to gain money quickly as long as you're adept at QTEs, completing Blade affinity chart objectives to fast-track their growth, completing side-quests to earn XP, spending bonus XP while resting to earn the lion's share of your levelling (it's an odd system where side-quest XP is stored here instead of given to you directly, but I've read that it's like an honor system to prevent power-levelling - if you're already smashing through story encounters, you can save that XP for a time when you aren't). The game has a massive number of Blades you can acquire, from generic "commons" to special "rares" - the rares all have unique personalities, appearances, and sometimes voice actors.

Economy plays a huge part in XC2, and most population centers seem to have at least a dozen storefronts with distinct stock to sell. By improving the economy by helping the populace and buying stuff, these storefronts gain even more inventory.
Economy plays a huge part in XC2, and most population centers seem to have at least a dozen storefronts with distinct stock to sell. By improving the economy by helping the populace and buying stuff, these storefronts gain even more inventory.

It's an especially deep game that has yet to give up all its secrets, making this blog seem premature given that I'm still in the learning phase. However, my goal here was to demonstrate just how much information XC2 has to throw at you at a turning point in the game where the training wheels are about ready to come off. Unlike fighters, RPGs have the benefit of accommodating a long learning curve into an already long narrative process, so you can spend tens of hours and still be introduced to new systems. Of course, there's a way to bungle this up: Final Fantasy XIII is a fairly excellent game (mechanically, let's say) once it's done teaching you everything, but it's a very long and not particularly interesting road to get there because of how slowly it chooses to dole out those mechanics. XC2's not quite as cautious, but it's also in no mood to drop an enormous infodump on you and instead rolls out what it's got in increments that you can more easily absorb. It's a delicate decision process for a designer who maybe put too much game in their game, but I believe players benefit more when there's more to learn and more to integrate into their playstyles and more viable approaches to challenges in their path. Versatility hurts no-one, though too much all at once will just push players away.

Anyway, I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but I'm loving everything I've encountered so far. The characters are appealing (though I wish the VAs hadn't leaned so hard into nopon characters exclaiming a very Eric Cartman-esque "meeeeh" so much), having multiple titans to explore instead of two gigantic colossi makes for some more varied landscapes, the odd focus on commerce and Blade-raising micromanagement is an overall boon to the series if only because it helps set it apart from its predecessors, and it obviously looks and sounds great as I imagined a HD Xenoblade game would with most of the same production values and talent behind it as the original game. I'll be playing it almost throughout the entirety of March, I suspect, but it's been a fine companion so far.