Xenoblade Chronicles 2: A Focused Look at the Systems and Flaws of the Combat

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 came out in December, and I played about ten hours of the game in that month before putting it down for other titles. I did enjoy those few hours, but there were a lot of issues with it that kept it from gripping me at the time.

Eventually, I did come back to it about six months later, and did power through it to completion. That took an additional 100 hours of playtime, give or take, with a lot more content that I could still go and do; that should give you an idea of the size and scope of the game. It did improve considerably as it went, but there were times even dozens of hours in when I found myself saying “I’m not sure if I love this game or hate it.”

But still, results speak for themselves. I got through the game and overall quite enjoyed my time. The conclusion was satisfying, and some of the plot developments and twists were quite enjoyable. There were nice and unexpected tie-ins to the first game that made it worthy of being called Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in ways that X was not. And then I ended up binging the sizeable expansion that released shortly after I finished it, enjoying that also.

Now, as much as I like the game, plenty of those flaws do stick with me. There’s a lot of questionable game design in there that I wanted to deep dive into, going over what works and what doesn’t. That was originally the purpose of this article; alas, like many of my writing projects of late, it didn’t pan out as intended. It’s been about two months since the first draft of this article was written, which probably comes as a surprise to absolutely no-one. That said, I want to put something out there, so I’m repurposing what I wrote into a more focused article.

I could talk about the Xenoblade series as a whole quite a bit on many levels, and perhaps I shall do so at some point. For now, this article is taking a good look at the fairly interesting combat system that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 offers, and why it ends up being so flawed and clunky despite the promise.

The Rube Goldberg Machine of Combat

Typically, a JRPG’s quality and enjoyment is derived from a combination of three different areas: story and characters, combat system, and other gameplay systems. A particularly good showing in one of these areas might see your game received well even if the other two are lacking, but the better games will hit two or three of these bars. An example would be Persona 5, which has a good story and characters, an in-depth combat system requiring the exploitation of elemental resistances and buffs, and the various life and social sim aspects and time management outside of combat.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is interesting in that it hits on all three of these reasonably well, but each one also comes with an incredibly slow start along with many caveats along the way. The end result is a game I can walk away from saying that it was good, but it took a lot of time to get there and still had me questioning the quality some way into it.

With all that said, it’s the combat system that tends to be the beacon to which most players are drawn, as it’s the one you’ll spend the most time with in the average RPG. It’s also perhaps the most convoluted and intricate system at play in Xenoblade 2. I’m going to break down how combat works and go through the various aspects of it, since this is something you don’t tend to see that clearly from trailers or quick videos.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t keep up with all the details; that’s kind of the point, and why the game is so daunting or questionable from the outset.

In Xenoblade 2, there are two types of characters: Blades and Drivers. Blades are powerful entities spawned from crystals that each have their own weapon and powers, and these can be conferred to those who bond with them: Drivers. Drivers are any of the various humanoid races that populate the world that have bonded with a Blade’s crystal in this fashion. This is a major plot element, but for now we’ll keep it to the combat applications.

Every party member in Xenoblade 2 is a Driver, and each have a specific primary Blade dictated by the story. You’re able to bond with a lot more Blades throughout the course of the game, but you can only take three of them into battle with you at a time. Each of these Blades has a set weapon type, and these weapon types determine their class out of tank, healer, and damage. Your standard MMORPG holy trinity system is in effect here, so you’ll probably want at least one Driver to be one of each primarily, though it is possible to play with the system to mix and match.

Each weapon type also has a selection of four Arts, which are your primary combat moves. You can only have three of these selected at a time, however. These are arranged according to the face buttons B/Y/X, while A is reserved for your Specials (more in that in a second). Furthermore, while each Blade weapon has a selection of arts, every Driver will also have tweaks or outright different Arts for these weapons. Equipping a weapon type to Rex might see him have an Art with knockback, but that same weapon type on Nia will produce an Art that launches, for example.

So with all that in mind, you equip your selection of three Blades with three Arts each and then go pick a fight with the nearest monster. You can’t just launch these Arts at will though, as each has a recharge value. While in combat and in range, Drivers will perform auto attacks, and each one of these chips away one point of recharge per hit. So if your Art has a recharge of 5, you can’t use it until you perform five auto attacks. There are upgrades to start with your Arts ready when combat starts, sure, but they have to recharge afterwards nonetheless.

Auto attacks are the crux of the entire combat system. Every weapon and character has an auto attack sequence of three attacks in succession, with each doing incrementally more damage. But unlike in past Xenoblade games, you cannot keep auto attacking on the move. Moving or being interrupted for any reason will break your sequence instantly, so repositioning to exploit back or side damage boosts will have its price. More to the point, you must always keep an eye on your auto attack sequence, as it enables cancelling.

Animation cancelling is baked into the game, and hitting an Art button right after the damage connects on an auto attack but before the animation fully completes will cause a slight flash on the character to signify that it’s doing bonus damage. Furthermore, just as your second or third auto attack in a sequence does more damage, they also confer this increased damage to an Art that you cancel into.

Still with me? So your average battle will go: engage the monster, auto attack it three times, cancel into an Art for maximum damage. Rinse and repeat for best effect.

But wait, we aren’t finished! Remember how I mentioned Specials? Well, as you use your Arts, your Special gauge will build, and the gauge build up is significantly higher if you cancel Arts off third attacks just like the damage. The Special gauge has four ranks, with each being significantly more powerful, and you can fire it off at any time or rank. Furthermore, they have the same cancelling bonus as Arts with the added point that they can be cancelled into from Arts. The Specials also have Quick Time Event button prompts to power up their damage during them that you have to watch out for.

So now we’re at: Engage, three auto attacks, cancel into Art, cancel into Special if ready, perform QTE. Higher rank Specials do more damage. A bit long winded, but easy enough to follo-

Oh hey, every Driver has three Blades that they can swap to, each with their own three Arts and a Special. Blade Swapping has a short cooldown and can’t be done from the start of the battle, plus you can cancel it into a boost. But why would you do this unless you needed to change your class to tank/healer on the fly or when your cooldowns are all rolling? Well, because every Blade has an elemental affinity for Blade Combos!

There are eight elements in the game arranged into opposing pairs (Fire/Water, Ice/Wind, Earth/Lightning, Dark/Light), and every enemy will have an affinity that you can exploit for additional damage… with the added risk that the reverse is true. Most importantly though, the elemental affinity of the Blade you’re using will impact the Special moves performed.

Enter Blade Combos. Every time you use a Special, the element used will be the first in a new Blade Combo chain that’s shown on the top right of the screen. To fully perform a Blade Combo, you need to perform a Special of the correct element in the right sequence of three. Party member Specials factor into this as well, and they’ll not use them unless you command them to (there’s a dedicated button and prompt when their own gauge is ready and when their Blade has the right element to continue a sequence). These have increased gauge requirements to fulfill as you progress, so while you can use a level 2 Special to trigger the first step in the combo, you must use a level 3 to trigger the final step and so on.

If you perform a proper elemental sequence, then you’ll be given a slightly stronger level 3 Special that’s capped off by a large explosion, and an elemental orb is added to the opponent based on what element the last Special in the Combo was. It also has the bonus of sealing a particular kind of condition that a monster can inflict on you. Keep fighting a monster that knocks your party back? Hit the right Blade Combo sequence and suddenly they’ll have Knockback locked, making your life easier and wasting their attacks.

So to recap: three attacks, Art, Special 1, Special 2, Special 3 to trigger Blade Combo, cancelling all of these for max damage and swapping Blades for the right elements and to keep the Arts rolling. Okay, it’s fairly convoluted now, but I’m sure you can make sense of i-

As you fight, the Party Gauge builds up! There are three stages of this Gauge, with two applications: you can run over to a downed party member and expend a gauge to get them back up, or you can burn all three to trigger a Chain Attack. Chain Attacks stop time and trigger a sequence where you can select from your three Blades to perform a Special, then do the same with the other two Drivers in your party for three quick sequence level 1 Specials.

This is where those elemental orbs come into play. If you’ve done a couple of Blade Combos, these will be listed under the enemy’s health bar as the respective elemental icons. If you use an opposing elemental Special in the Chain, it will strike that orb for two points of damage. Non-opposing elements will strike a random orb for one point. After taking three points, the Orb will break, which triggers a Burst and keeps the Chain Attack going for another round of Specials, this time at level 2, and then level 3 repeatedly if you keep it going.

As you keep the Chain Attack going, a damage bonus builds and gets incrementally higher to the point of sheer ridiculousness. If you did enough Blade Combos to get a few orbs, it’s not unheard of to hit an enemy with a dozen level 3 Specials, all while time is stopped and they can’t retaliate. Some of the later bosses or unique enemies I fought would see me spend most of the fight just chipping away to get their health bar down to 60-70% while I set up Combos, only to hit them with a single Chain Attack and melt their remaining life bar without reprisal.

By now, I’m sure you can see why this system can be pretty intimidating and hard to approach. From the top: three autos, Art, Special 1 then 2 then 3, cancel and swap as appropriate, aim for Blade Combos, hit Chain Attack when gauge full and a couple orbs are in place. Finally — FINALLY — we have the core combat system in place.

…And that’s to say nothing of Driver Combos, Blade Skills, and Affinity. Yep, still more, but these are simple additions that I’ll rush through.

Certain Arts inflict conditions on enemies which can be chained for additional crowd control and high damage, and this is a Driver Combo. You inflict Break, which enables Topple, which allows an enemy to be Launched, and then Smash a launched enemy for high damage. It’s an extension of the Break/Topple system from the previous two Xenoblades, so it should be familiar to returning players.

Each Blade has a selection of skills that it will use while the Driver fights, and these tend to just be passive buffs or effects that will make you stronger. You worry about them when selecting your Blade but then it just happens without input. As for Affinity, the longer your Driver stands still close to their Blade, the higher your Affinity will climb in a battle, which confers additional benefits and higher damage. You also need high Affinity in order to trigger a level 4 Special, which does the most damage of your Specials but cannot be used to end a Blade Combo (though it can count as the first or second stage of them) so they’re best used sparingly.

With all these multitudes of systems in mind, you would then think that the game is a tactician’s wet dream. Setting up your Blades with their Drivers, using the right Arts and Specials from the right Blades at the right time to rack up the massive damage… it’s a neat prospect for combo enthusiasts and such who like to see their plans executed to massive payoff, and melting a late game boss in one massive Chain Attack is certainly satisfying.

Unfortunately, here’s the kicker: if it wasn’t obvious from all this so far, all these systems have a lot of ramp up time before you can execute them. The downtime in fights can be really extensive, particularly before you get all your abilities and upgrades in the later stages of the game.

To go back to the basic example, you have to let your Driver auto attack three times before you’re best off hitting the Art button. Then you wait three more autos for another one… and that’s assuming you have the upgrades that let them not start on cooldown, in which case it might take longer. There’s also late game upgrades that let you chain Arts into other Arts, which is nice, but also exacerbates the problem of auto attacking to recharge cooldowns once that’s done. If Blade swapping is also on cooldown, you’re left just standing there for a bit.

For a system with as many moving parts as this, the amount of time you spend waiting in order to do anything is considerably lengthy. Even in late game sections, I still remember engaging a monster and then having to wait seven to ten seconds before I could actually do anything worthwhile, if lucky.

What makes this even worse is the significant length of time and progress in the game you’ll have to make before you even get access to all of these systems to begin with. You don’t get access to a third Blade to swap to until a good way into the game. Blade Combos aren’t introduced for a while, and even when they are, you might not have the kind of elemental coverage necessary to make them reliably occur until you get a few more Blades and all your party members.

Limiting set weapons to assigned roles is also annoying. Knuckle Dusters, for example, have some of the more interesting auto attack sequences since they hit multiple times and thus have high cooldown reduction… but they’re a healer type weapon, so cycling through your Arts quickly won’t amount to much damage or anything beyond survivability no matter how you otherwise build the character. And speaking of healing, if you’re not using a healer type Blade with direct heals, you’re probably using one that spawns potions on the battlefield on hit… which requires you to run to them to heal your party, thereby breaking your auto attack sequence.

When I talk about Xenoblade Chronicles 2, one of the first things I say to people is that I wasn’t sure whether or not I loved or hated the game, and this is largely why. I was usually enjoying myself, particularly in the out of combat exploration, but there was always that nagging sense that these convoluted systems didn’t add anything to it or dragged the experience down. There was a lot of waiting around and doing very little just to get by and progress.

Even once the full scope of systems is revealed and available to the player, there’s still the matter of it being largely unnecessary. The ultimate sequence of Blade Combos and Chain Attacks might come up against tough unique enemies or bosses that have the health pool to withstand my assault and fight back, but the average enemy did not. Most similarly levelled enemies usually didn’t require anything more than a single Blade Combo to dispatch, assuming they lasted that long.

Furthermore, your Blade Combos only apply to the enemy you’re using them on, so if you’re fighting multiple enemies and the one you set up on is killed, time to do it all over again. Grouped fights often just amounted to giving up and throwing whatever was available at ASAP… and yet these were also some of the more challenging ones, as multiple fights meant that I was taking a lot more damage and thus have to run around and pick up potions.

I think I’ve said my piece about the combat, so the sum it up: lots of systems that are doled out very slowly, execute very slowly, and may take a very long time to finally pay off. Tutorials will still pop up even dozens of hours into the game, and the old discussion around Final Fantasy 13 having a “thirty five hour tutorial and then two hour real game” spring to mind. But in Xenoblade 2’s defence, it’s more like thirty hour tutorial, seventy plus hour real game.

Most of the out-of-combat gameplay systems will also ultimately lead to some kind of benefit to your abilities in fights. The highlight of exploration and side quests is when you get a unique Blade to add to your roster, but many will just afford a wealth of accessories and material items. You can equip both Drivers and Blades with a selection of items for bonuses, you have a pouch that you load a consumable into for a buff over time, every Blade has an individual tree with passive bonuses to unlock upon completion of specific tasks or milestones…

There is a lot to take in. But the biggest thing I found is that after a while, there were multiple aspects of character management that I just chose to ignore for extended periods. If I was struggling with a boss or lost to a tough enemy, I might do a full overhaul of all these facets and sift through the excessive amounts of items and equipment you’ll find in the hopes of seeing something worth using. But otherwise? I could leave these alone for hours at a time, and it didn’t affect me at all.

At that point, I feel like the wealth of systems just lead to a massive amount of bloat. There’s so much complexity and moving parts, but in the end I really didn’t need to mount a laser sight and 8x scope on my butter knife, as it were. And when so much of Xenoblade’s core systems loop back in through this, it can really impact things negatively.

Going through a lot of fights that are effortless because you’ve set up well and thus don’t even see maybe 80% of the systems in play just makes the combat tedious. Exploring a hidden area and finding a chest filled with a selection of minor accessories that improve one niche stat by 3% with a situational trigger just becomes meaningless. Some of the most interesting Blades that I had to do long quests to unlock ended up being unused because they didn’t suit specific builds or elemental combinations I was using, so they were shelved. And always, always, there’s the slow ramp up to the bigger highlights.

At the end of the day, I did still like my time with the game. It’s worth stressing that. But I know that others I’ve spoken to didn’t appreciate having to spend so much time to get anything worthwhile out of it, or just didn’t get the same satisfaction I did on the times when it all did payoff. And I completely understand that sentiment.

When the system works, it really does work well. But for so much of that, the massive amount of complexity doesn’t actually make the game better or more engaging. After a point, Monolith Soft probably needed to ask themselves if some of these features could be cut or streamlined to make for a more fun, focused, and better paced game. They probably needed to realise that the increasing scope of systems in their games since the first Xenoblade Chronicles hasn’t really done anything to make them stand out like it did. It would be entirely possible to refine XBC2 and minimise some of the bloat.

…Well, they actually did it.

Torna New One

While Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn’t technically take place over a long period of time, the full scope of the story goes back 500 years prior. You see many flashbacks and learn many key points of what happened during this time, which was when both the primary antagonist and protagonist were awakened and the events of the game were set in motion. While it can lean a bit heavily on stereotypical anime tropes at times, the game did a reasonably good job of using this past period to make you care for the cast on the side of both friend and foe.

Torna: The Golden Country is a standalone DLC in the veins of the old expansion pack that goes through the events of this past period. I’m not at all hesitant to call it an expansion pack, since it’s a fairly hefty amount of content. Furthermore, many of the game’s systems were refined or tweaked, and the overall package ends up being a more focused and complete experience that alleviates some (though not all) of the complaints above.

First off: a focused party. In the base game, your active party consists of three Drivers with three Blades each, but you have a selection of five Drivers and roughly 38761207 Blades to choose from. Torna does away with this completely, giving you just three Drivers with two specific Blades each. No random generic Blades or sidequest ones, just these guys from start to finish.

This alone ends up making the battle system so much better. With a set roster of unique characters wielding unique weapons, the plot and connection to them ends up being so much stronger. The overall amount of options you might have for combat setups may be lower, but many of the systems are still in play, so you learn to refine and experiment within the confines of that team. It’s a great change in itself.

Torna also does a lot to make both Driver and Blade feel like a crucial part of the fight. You’d never directly control the Blades in the base game, with them instead just serving as funnels of power or aids in special moves while you control the Driver exclusively. Not so this time around: you frequently swap between the Blade and the Driver as if you were Blade swapping (in addition to still swapping between two Blades), and each has a unique set of abilities for both when you’re controlling them, or what they’ll do when in the back row.

This switching is heavily incentivised by giving Driver and Blade a joined health bar. When you take damage, a large portion of this will be “red health” that slowly drains from the bar, and swapping your character instantly heals this completely. As such, many big fights and bosses will have you get your moves out in the time you can, and then swapping once a heavy hitting ability is used to minimise the impact and keep your actions constant.

The fourth Blade Art is gone this time around, leaving each with just three, but since I rarely found a need to swap from a favourite set this didn’t bother me. It’s also made up for by a selection of abilities and long cooldown buffs that the characters will use when not active, so there’s still a lot of customisation you can do.

Lack of Blades and thus lack of variety in elemental combos would have made Blade Combos nightmarish with the base system, so thankfully Torna eased that as well. Now, you will trigger a Level 3 Combo and place an elemental orb no matter what three elements you use. If you do manage one of the named combos from before, however, it performs a critical hit and does more damage on the subsequent explosion, so it’s still encouraged but not penalised. You’re able to throw out a lot more Specials this way, which means more combos, which means a faster overall battle flow.

Between these changes and a few smaller refinements, I ended up finding the flow of battle and my enjoyment of each fight much higher in Torna. Granted, it still wasn’t perfect; the issue of auto attack cancelling making battle starts slow remains a problem, and you still can’t move while performing these. You’ll still absolutely drown in mediocre and unnecessary rewards and accessories as you explore and win battles, so it could still take a lot of time sifting through those for minimal gain.

But the tighter focus on a smaller party just made the experience so much more personal. Since these characters and Blades were all I had, I ended up focusing a lot more on tuning them and getting their setups just right. I spent time filling out their affinity tree conditions to maximise their strengths. I jumped around which Driver I was controlling to find the one that I had the most fun with.

In future Xeno-style games, I genuinely hope that a lot of the lessons of Torna will be taken to heart going forward. It’s still possible to have your grandiose tales and massive landscapes to explore without having to go so overboard on mechanical systems that it just becomes a drag to navigate. But in the end, it occurs to me that by cutting out a lot of the chaff, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 got much closer to feeling like the first Xenoblade did for me. Not quite there… but closer.

I’m Really Feeling It

As stated in the intro, I could probably do another article or two on the other various gameplay systems and the plot of Xenoblade 2, but I think I’ve said what I wanted to say by now. The combat is what most people will spend most of their time on in the game, and it’s the part that has the most moving pieces to analyse and discuss.

Did I like Xenoblade Chronicles 2? Sure did. Even with the expansion pack beaten, I’m considering running through it on New Game+ and experiencing the rest of the DLC and side content sometime in the future. For all the flaws it very clearly demonstrates, there’s enough of a gem in there that I wouldn’t mind reaching out for it again.

Would I recommend the game to another person? Well… that’s a much more loaded question. If you can read through everything I’ve said about it and still feel intrigued enough to be keen, then more power to you, but I know multiple others who simply gave up or didn’t press on like I did. Not only does the gameplay have a slow start, but so does the plot, and it can come across quite obnoxiously before it eases into things.

Whatever the case, that’s the combat of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 looked over and discussed by yours truly. Hope you found it interesting. And if this didn’t scratch the itch for a good Xeno- JRPG that you might have been craving for a while, there’s certainly other alternatives out there that might be worth looking at. Or just… y’know, play Shulk in Smash Bros Ultimate when that comes out. Be sure to spam his taunt.

Until then, I shall write more on another game sometime soon.

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