Video Game Review — Xenoblade Chronicles 2

A couple years ago I discovered the “Xeno” series, and have played through all the games, starting with Xenogears, playing my way through the Xenosaga trilogy, Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and finally Xenoblade Chronicles X.Although these games aren’t a conventional series by any means, with no real connection between any of them rather than the combat system and a few thematic links and characer names, I’m so glad I played them in order. Each one has been more fully realized than the last, exploring deeper questions, bringing more polished gameplay, more developed characters and worlds, and stories both more complex and more comprehensible. It’s all culminated in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which is a nearly perfect game and may be my new favourite. Playing through the other games in the series first made me fully appreciate what makes a “Xeno” game and how that all came together in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Let’s look at it piece by piece.

Story

All of the “Xeno” games have super complex stories full of philosophical themes, like what is a god and where is our place in the Universe. This is what drew me to the games initially, and what’s kept me engaged with each entry. In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you play as a boy named Rex, who is a salvager in what is called the Cloud Sea, a very cool setting. It’s a world that is essentially only made of clouds, and the only “land” is on the backs of giant creatures called titans. The story is full of depth, complete with character growth and thought-provoking twists that always kept me hungry for more, right up until the final credits.

Characters

Rex is accompanied by a cast of several other playable characters. Each of them is well-developed and fully realized in their own right. The designs are very heavily anime inspired, and are colourful and varied. Each character has a unique personality that is developed over the course of the game, and I found each of them growing on me as I learned more about them. One of my favourite characters is Nia, who joins the party early. Her personal journey is full of twists and turns, and I liked her more and more as the game went on. Also, she is accompanied by a giant cat, so what’s not to love?

Gameplay

At first, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 seems like any other open-world JRPG, but there is a lot going on here. The combat focuses on beings called Blades. The playable characters are Drivers, people capable of wielding these Blade characters. They reminded me a lot of “Daemons” from His Dark Materialsseries. (If you haven’t read those books you should check them out right now.) There are dozens of blades, and they can be customized in various ways, affecting every aspect of the game from combat to exploration.

The combat is where the gameplay really shines though. It seems like every RPG these days is trying to bring in a new, more MMO-like active battle system, discarding the proven turn-based system RPGs have relied on for decades. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the only one I’ve played that nails it. It feels like a combination of the immediacy and precision of an action RPG with the careful strategy of a turn-based system. This is achieved through the auto-attack system, which is essentially the turn-based element. Once enough auto-attacks connect, your abilities charge up. So essentially the auto-attacking is just a timer dictating how often you can carry out an action (take your turn).

There are many complexities to this battle system that keep you on your toes. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the auto-attacks mean you can just let the game play itself, but in reality it doesn’t take you out of the action, but allows you to focus on your strategy and all of the complicated combo possibilities.

Customization

Pretty much everything can be customized in this game. Your character can learn different abilities and attacks, equip different items and Blades, and the Blades themselves can be equipped and their abilities can be customized as well. New Blades are obtained through core crystals. And each core crystal contains a random blade, so finding crystals is exciting because you never know what you’ll get. In a full playthrough of the game I only unlocked about half of the Blades. Since they are unique characters and also a huge part of combat, it’s really fun to collect new ones and train them as you see fit. It’s like a super-complex version of Pokémon.

Presentation

Not much to say here. The game looks amazing, the world is beautiful and imaginative, and the soundtrack is wonderful. It feels like a AAA experience through and through. I still find myself humming the themes and remembering the stunning vistas of the cloud sea.

The Negatives

Sure there were some downsides, like the over-leveled enemies that wander the world and wipe you out with no warning (something I found to be true in all Xenoblade games), the lengthy main quest (it’s totally worth it but it is an endurance test), and the over-the-top anime tropes that lead to some strange moments and ridiculous representations of female anatomy (luckily there are also tastefully designed characters like Nia).

Conclusion

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an amazing game. The story and characters alone are reason enough to play it, and the unique battle system is just icing on the cake. I would recommend this game to anyone who is a fan of imaginative worlds, deep plots, complex customization options, and strategic battles. I would not recommend it to people looking for a quick pick-up-and-play experience as getting into the game is a time commitment and it takes many hours just to understand the various customization options and battle systems. If you have the patience to immerse yourself, you’re in for an amazing experience!

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Video Game Review: No Man’s Sky

In a lot of ways, No Man’s Sky is the game I’ve always wanted. When I played the Mass Effect trilogy—one of my all-time favourite game series—I spent hours scanning planets in the star map, reading about their geology and weather, and imagining the infinite possibilities beyond our world. In No Man’s Sky, I hoped for a game that would allow me to not just scan and read about these infinite worlds, but to visit them. I think a lot of people had the same expectations for the game, and those high expectations, combined with the realistic constraints of an indie studio with a grand vision, disappointed a lot of people on launch.

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The game has been on my radar since well before its launch, so I was excited to finally pick it up when it finally launched for Xbox One this summer, after some big updates. Disclaimer: I never played the launch version, so my review will cover the game as it plays with the NEXT update.

An Infinite Universe

There is a lot to talk about with this game. It’s huge. So let’s start there. One of the things the game gets right is its scale. When I opened up the galaxy map for the first time I felt completely lost in an endless sea of stars. I still feel that way after sinking dozens of hours into the game. Each system is unique, and there is a great sense of the vastness of the universe and your uncertain place in it. Within the star systems there is a seamless transition between space flight, entering a planet’s atmosphere, and walking around on that planet.

IMG_1007And the planets themselves are vast—and beautiful. (I spent hours using the photo mode to pretend I was a space photographer. All the images here are from my experience.) Each planet is unique, a feat which is amazing when you consider the overwhelming amount of star systems and planets in the game. Some are covered in sweeping oceans or dense jungles, others are full of rocky mountains. Some of the worlds are populated by large herds of lifeforms, others are barren. And the evolution on each planet is unique and cohesive. On some all the plant life is fungal, with tiny mushrooms growing around rocks, and giant tree-sized ones stretching toward a ringed planet that hangs in the sky. On others all the animals have evolved to have tentacles, from small rabbit-sized creatures to giant dinosaur-sized ones. Some have flocks of giant flying centipedes that soar the skies. One of my favourite discoveries was a t-rex rat!

The minerals are diverse too. Thay can take the form rocks, pillars, or odd formations of crystals. The sheer variety is overwhelming at first, but once I learned what types of flora and minerals yielded certain resources, it wasn’t hard to find what I needed.

The Story

The game is set in a beautiful, though often brutal universe, enhanced by a soundscape that has a great synthesized classic sci-fi feel, furthering the sensation of being alone in a strange universe of infinite possibilities. Despite the rich atmosphere and my love of exploration, I don’t like to wander aimlessly, so I soon began following a main quest line, the Artemis path. This quest line guided me through things I never would have figured out on my own, like crafting a base, exploring space stations, and taking on various side missions.

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The story itself is fascinating, and is full of the existential questions. The kind that enter your mind when you’re lost in a strange universe, humbled by the constant reminder that you are a tiny part of existence, trying to find your purpose—if you even have one. The downside to the story, however, is that it almost feels like a text adventure. You travel great distances to meet aliens, and then just scroll through text boxes. I think I enjoyed the game more than I would have at launch because I need that focus of a main quest, but though it presents stimulating ideas, it ultimately feels underwhelming (though I appreciate the fact it led me through the universe). Keep in mind I’m only talking about one of the main quests. If I try another I’ll update this review if it changes my mind.

Open Worlds

No Man’s Sky made me think a lot about what a game is and what it can be. It reminded me of my experiences with the Grand Theft Auto franchise. I’m fascinated by each new entry in the series and the huge worlds they create, complete with TV channels and radio stations, unique brands, characters, districts, technology, and a lot more. They bring a whole city to life, creating what feels like a truly infinite open world.

I’ve always used video games as a healthy—I hope—outlet for my obsessive compulsiveness, completing every quest, unlocking every achievement. I’ve lost countless hours of sleep creating spreadsheets to track achievements and researching how to defeat bosses on extreme difficulty levels, all in an effort to do every last thing, just because it would drive me crazy if I didn’t.

But as open world games have become the trend, and games get too big to complete 100%, I’ve found myself learning to be content with carving my own unique path through the game, and learning to live with leaving quests undone and items uncollected, because there is just too much. I think this has helped me learn to let things go, as game worlds more and more closely mirror real life. We have to choose our paths, we have to prioritize what is important or fun in our own lives. And with No Man’s Sky, for the first time, I feel like this isn’t a choice. The game is so huge there will never be any way to explore it all. And that, in a way, is liberating. I don’t have to complete everything in the game, or visit every planet. I can be content with my own journey, wherever it takes me.

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The Tedious

So those were all things the game did well, but it also drove me crazy on many occasions. The way you mine resources is similar to Minecraft, you’re tearing apart your environment to build new things out of the building blocks, but it is extremely tedious. During one of my most frustrating experiences, I was searching for oxygen, and using up my life support in the search. So any oxygen I found had to go to breathing. Then sentinel drones who enforce order on each planet (and kill you if you don’t run) started chasing me, so I ran back to my ship. But the ship was out of launch fuel, so I couldn’t escape. I had to then search for the components of the launch fuel while I was being hunted by the drone, then craft that to escape from the drone and begin my futile search for oxygen all over again.

Another peeve was that my inventory filled up extremely quickly, so I avoided collecting a lot of things I otherwise would have. I’m sure I could have expanded my inventory and been more efficient about collecting resources, but it all felt very tedious to me, so I didn’t want to spend any more time learning about these cumbersome, complicated systems than I had to. I love collectibles in games, but I generally find crafting to be boring, so that one’s all on me. And to the game’s credit, I still enjoyed it and found a lot to love despite not being a big fan of one of its core mechanics.

Overall, even after numerous updates, the game felt a bit buggy, and I was never sure if my more difficult moments were due to bugs or not, which led to wandering around aimlessly and resetting quests when markers disappeared.

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Conclusion

Though I struggled at times, my experience with No Man’s Sky wasn’t really about gameplay. Like I said, the exploration was my dream, and it scratched that itch, even if it meant doing it in a slower, more grinding, realistic way than I would have chosen. No Man’s Sky is an experience you can’t have anywhere else, and that’s what motivates you to keep exploring. The best moments are landing on new planets full of unique vistas, colorful plants, wide oceans, and chasing the weird lifeforms around to scan them.

In a sense, No Man’s Sky is more simulation or experience than game. Though there is a narrative and main quest, it often feels tedious. If you like collecting, resource management, crafting, and exploration you will love this game. If not, you still may be drawn in by the vastness and wonder of it all like I was.

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