It's been a banner year for Nintendo. Any time you pull up from a financial nose dive, like that which pervaded the company's Wii U console, it's cause for celebration. But the reversal of fortunes has been about more than just cash. Nintendo has supplemented its mercifully very popular Nintendo Switch with some of the developer's best, most experimental games in years.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took that series in a all-new, open-world directions. Super Mario Odyssey plays like most of the series' 3D iterations. But it makes up for familiarity with pitch perfect design and a totally bananas settings that see Mario mind-jacking sapient beings for his own sick amusement. That is to say: it's wonderful.
But while they didn't develop it, Nintendo did publish one another marquee Switch title this year. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 from Monolith Soft ticks a number of the same boxes as Zelda and Mario. It's absolutely massive, for one, with dozens to hundreds of hours you could feasibly squeeze from out of the thing. It's also extremely different from the majority of games in its genre. XC2 is a JRPG, sure, but it eschews traditional turn-based combat for a complex and satisfying dance of timing and position-based battles.
Ironically, the same things that set the game apart from Nintendo's other 2017 tentpoles prove that it can hang with the big kids. XC2 deep, languidly paced, and extremely anime. Which makes it the perfect fourth pillar for Nintendo's new platform.
Zelda scratches that action-adventure itch to a T. Splatoon 2 is multiplayer shooting for the whole family and Mario Odyssey is a tight-knit puzzle-platforming delight. Meanwhile, Xenoblade is for the nerds -- the min-maxers, completionists, and those who want to watch people with improbably large swords spit barbs at each other to sensational music.
Unfortunately, you will have to stick it out through a generic intro to get there. It's practically a series tradition at this point. You start as a young and extremely British salvager named Rex and head out on a journey to save the world. Stop me if you've heard that one before.
And yet... you might not have played a game where every continent is a sentient titan, carrying nations with unique cultural and political leanings on their backs. You might not have switched between apocalyptic melodrama and fighting a giant robot maid from one chapter to the next. You might have had a mercenary mentor explain to you that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, but the fact this moment is in the game, too, just shows how wonderfully eclectic it is.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 flips form satire, to romance, to grinding in a gorgeous open-world, to politicking, and back again in any given span of a few hours. In between you might manage your own mercenary company, or play a faux NES game to upgrade your own robot maid teammate. All the while, the warring styles are tied together by that same great real-time combat that makes the game hard to put down.
Not everything hits, of course. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a serious problem with the male gaze--figuratively and literally. Monolith Soft's camerawork is constantly set to ogle the female leads with upskirts and slow zooms onto their chests.
Don't get us wrong. Some appropriately horny art is all well and good. But its so out of place and pervasive in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 that it's just a distraction. That's especially true when it comes to leading ladies Pyra and Mythra, whose outfits are so obviously rigged up for misogyny that they're just plain hideous. Nintendo itself has done a much better job of marrying character design, tone, and fashion with its particular brand of horny in recent entries of the Fire Emblem series.
In any other year, on any other console, criticisms like these, plus Xenoblade's general lack of direction, might relegate it to "good not great" status. Indeed, there are other problems as well: like a clunky UI and lots of fetch quests among the side content.
The thing is, you simply can't ignore how good a fit the Switch is for the shape and scale of this game. Got a couple minutes before you catch your train? Dive through some menus to set up your party for new, savage combos. Tired of listening to your family squabble this holiday season? That's the perfect excuse to spend 10 minutes watching a dragon assault a flying battleship to some of the hypest music this side of your favorite anime. Eat the wrong kind of terrible gas station burrito? Our condolences, but you can burn through bathroom exile by sending Pokemon-like creatures you've collected on real-time expeditions.
Then, when all is said and done, you can dock the sucker back onto your nice TV to fully appreciate and explore the game's gorgeous landscapes. Or, vice versa, if you don't have two hours to spare to learning yet another combat mechanic 30 hours in, you can put your Switch to sleep and come back later.
That pleasant cycle might not excuse Xenoblade's low points, but it is usually enough to outweigh them. There will almost certainly be better JPRGs for the Switch than this one (Shin Megami Tensei 5 just got announced for it, after all). Right now, though, the winter doldrums are just about to set in. The young console is still building up its library. We're all just about to escape a 365-day trash fire called "2017." Right now, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the perfect, bloated, escapist entertainment to round out some of Nintendo's biggest games. Consider getting this game before time catches up with it.