The world of Japanese role-playing games contains a cornucopia of cultural influences, not the least of which is anime and its saucer-eyed, empathetic heroes. In addition to featuring characters with emotive eyes and childlike faces, the genre often showcases an assemblage of blazingly colourful battles, quirky, lengthy stories and flamboyantly-clad characters.
“Xenoblade Chronicles 2,” the latest entry in the genre, is a bright, complex offering set in the fictional world of Alrest and a heavenly utopia called Elysium with a story that twists and turns through 100 hours of sometimes-enthralling character backstories and often-annoying caricatures.
Alrest, set high in the clouds, is compelling from the moment you begin. You fly through this puffy miasma as rain pours, lightning dazzles and a sombre solo piano plays. The day grows brighter and, in the midst of sun-drenched clouds, you spy a tiny, pine-filled island and its lone resident, Rex. Dressed in blue bloomers and wielding a hefty blade, he’s the British-accented, cheeky, confident-but-naive main character.
Suddenly, the island rustles and groans, but it’s not an earthquake. The island is a living being called a Titan. A rocky headland turns toward you and you witness a grizzled, old dragon-like figure that Rex calls Gramps. He, like other Titans, have been sent to the world to help what remains of humanity while heroes including Rex embark upon a marathon trek to ascend a mammoth World Tree to the fabled Elysium.
Early on, after a battle with your motley team of heroes, there’s a sad, weird, post-violent moment when Rex moves to another plane to meet the woman who’ll be his cohort, the beautiful, brooding Pyra. It’s a lonely place, beautiful but somehow a purgatory. Here, it’s revealed that Pyra’s story is full of mystery and intrigue.
Unfortunately, because Pyra is drawn in such an overly sexualized way, reminiscent of an underground 1960s cartoon, her multifaceted, powerful story becomes less relatable on a human level. No other primary character is drawn in this manner, and it feels like a shameful marketing effort geared to certain horny teens, a ploy whose time should have passed decades ago.
To the game’s credit, I didn’t hear video games’ most dreaded cliche – “Let’s do this!” – until about six hours after I slashed through victories using magic and blades. While the fighting requires surprising, creative moves, the writing veers from the properly serious to the strangely innovative to cliched humour that rarely hits home. Yet it’s affecting when the comedy works. At one point, a spell called the ‘Ether net’ is cast, and a gold web wraps up the ill-tempered, catlike hero, Nia.
A nerd like me had to smile.
Sadly, “Xenoblade Chronicles 2” is hindered by intricate, unfriendly gameplay and controls that are cumbersome. They daunt me constantly. I remember a time when I could look through a manual for a refresher on how to play a problematic role-playing game. There’s a long, professorial tutorial during gameplay here, but there’s so much to it that it feels like a course of advanced college study. Even to save, you have to press controller buttons five times. Saving is supposed to be just about the easiest thing to do. It got worse. As I proceeded into hour 20, the controls became more tortured and convoluted.
Rare and common items for use in a plethora of Alrest’s stores are found in treasure chests hidden in nooks and crannies. Some are digable with a shovel if you position your character over an icon exactly. Otherwise, it won’t work.
With your gold booty, you can even frequent a stand that sells services like a “bubbly mani pedi.” One way to procure gold, rings and gems are to salvage. You run and leap off a pier into the endless sea of clouds, which rise and fall during the day like fluffy tides. While this task becomes repetitive, it’s also satisfying to see Rex swim around in his blue and copper, Soviet-style diving helmet in this foggy, roiling world.
Later, I forgot how to salvage. What controller buttons should I press? Though there are screens you can pull up to explain what many buttons do, I could not find one to help me with this important work. Worse, I could not repeat the early tutorial that explained how to bring up treasures from the deep. So, I began to look for YouTube for help. Frustrated, my mind wandered. It took me out of the game, out of the story and away from Alrest. That kind of user-experience failure should never happen.
The sprawling, lush environments and the many-layered, oddball characters made me want to play this game until the end. So did the occasionally-stunning story which saw Gramps transform into a baby dragon. But trying to get things done was like ploughing a field with a horse instead of a modern, heavy-duty hydraulic machine. On my shelf, better designed games with friendlier interfaces beckoned.
I won’t play “Xenoblade Chronicles 2” again. A wondrous game lies in there somewhere. But like those viscous cloud seas in Alrest, it’s too often too difficult to swim through.
[Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of video games Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle.]