Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Combat Complexity Without Chaos

Role-playing games, by their very nature, tend to deal in abstract representations of reality.

The exact way in which they do this varies somewhat from title to title — and significantly between typically Eastern and Western approaches — but one challenge developers of this type of game always have to confront is exactly how complex they can get away with making their games.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 strikes a good balance, with none of its individual mechanical systems being dauntingly complex by itself… but its sheer number of different interlocking parts create an experience that is extremely satisfying to learn, explore and master. Today we’re going to look specifically at how you fight in the game.

Japanese role-playing games are typically regarded as very combat-centric. Even in the case of the most narrative-focused, linear titles out there, I’ve heard them described as “storybooks with battles” — not necessarily a pejorative descriptor, but definitely a distinct experience to the typically more “open” approach of Western-developed titles. There are exceptions to this rule, of course — most notably games such as Gust’s Atelier series, which emphasise crafting and interpersonal relationships as their most important elements — but even in these cases, combat tends to still play a significant role. You’re not getting through an Atelier game without crawling a few dungeons to collect ingredients, after all.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is no exception to this unwritten rule, but it doesn’t make battling its sole focus. And that’s one of the things that makes it so interesting. Much like its two immediate predecessors, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 represents an interesting fusion of Eastern and Western influences to create something that has a very distinct feel to how it plays — and something that even those who typically tend to avoid either sprawling open-world games or narrative-centric linear titles can find something to enjoy in.

Before we delve into these aspects that really make Xenoblade Chronicles 2 stand out, though, let’s take a look at how it approaches combat. Because while it’s not all you’ll be doing in the game by any means, it still makes up a significant part of the experience. And before we get into the combat system itself, it’s important to understand the Blade system, which forms the core of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s progression, as we’ll explore later.

In narrative terms, a Blade is an entity that is bound to a Core Crystal. Certain individuals, known as Drivers, have the power to resonate with a Core Crystal and the Blade within, forming a bond between the two that can only be broken by the Driver’s death or the Blade’s Core Crystal being shattered. In the former case, the Blade returns to its Core Crystal, ready to be re-awakened (minus its memories of its previous “life” and Driver) at a later time, while in the latter case the Blade is gone forever.

In mechanical terms, in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 you collect Core Crystals over the course of the game, and can resonate with them using any of the characters who are able to do so. What you get out of a Core Crystal is randomly determined, somewhat inspired by the popularity of mobile “gacha” games such as Granblue Fantasy and Fate/Grand Order but without the necessity (or indeed ability) to gamble real money for potentially better rolls. Different grades of Core Crystal provide different chances of obtaining better Blades, though you can potentially draw any of twenty unique Rare Blades from even the most common of these, with a further seven unique Rare Blades available through completing quests or fulfilling other requirements.

Each Blade, be it Rare or otherwise, has three extremely important characteristics: weapon type, element and role. The former determines the four weapon abilities (or “Arts”) their Driver will be able to use while they are summoned, though only three can be “equipped” at a time; their element determines what special attacks they will be able to use; and their role is Tank, Healer or Attacker, much like the “Holy Trinity” of an MMO. The combination of Blade roles a Driver has equipped determines the Driver’s class and a number of passive abilities by extension, with dedicated specialists arguably being the most effective; a Driver with three Attacker Blades will receive a significant boost to their damage output, for example, while a Driver with three Tank Blades will generate more aggro and thus be able to keep the enemy’s attention off the weaker members of the party.

Each character can equip up to three Blades at a time. Blades don’t participate in combat directly and instead simply support their Drivers, occasionally jumping in to deliver a Special attack. They can’t be attacked by enemies and don’t have a HP or experience bar. Effectively, they’re “equipment”… just “equipment” that can walk around, talk, get sad, slap you in the face and generally act in a rather “human” fashion. It will probably not surprise you to hear that much of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s story explores this side of things in great detail, but we’ll come to all that another time.

Got all that? Good. Let’s look at the combat itself with all of that in mind.

The Xeno series as a whole has experimented with a number of different approaches to combat over the years. Xenogears was based on a fusion of Final Fantasy’s quasi real-time Active Time Battle system with an “ability points” mechanic that allowed you to perform multiple actions in a turn, creating combo attacks using the face buttons on the controller,almost like a turn-based fighting game. Xenosaga built on this with a more strict turn-based system that still made use of button combinations to trigger specific effects. And the first Xenoblade Chronicles abandoned this approach completely, with a real-time (albeit not “action RPG”) battle system that many compared to that seen in popular MMOs such as World of Warcraft.

Xenoblade Chronicles and its immediate successor Xenoblade Chronicles X saw you take direct control of a single character at a time who could be equipped with a “hotbar” of Arts, each of which could be developed and levelled up independently; your other two party members, meanwhile, were controlled by the AI. In Xenoblade Chronicles, each of the main cast had a clear specialism; in Xenoblade Chronicles X, this was also true to a certain extent, though the main character (who was a player-created avatar rather than a set character) had a lot more freedom to change their class and weapon loadout than the predefined cast members.

Key to both games was the fact that each Art had a “cooldown” period before it could be used again, with the intervening period being filled by automatic basic attacks, and more powerful Arts tended to have longer cooldowns, since the game lacked a conventional “magic points” or “ability points” system to otherwise limit the use of these abilities. Some Arts also had positional requirements, boosting their damage or applying additional effects if you hit an enemy with them from the side or back, while others could be chained together in a combo to “Break” the enemy’s guard, then “Topple” them to the ground for a few seconds of uninterrupted, unresisted pummelling.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 adopts a similar approach to its predecessors, with a few notable differences. The most obvious of these is the fact that each character no longer has a single static hotbar; instead, they have up to three palettes of three Arts each, with each palette corresponding to one of the Blades they have equipped at any given time. These Arts still have various optimal uses, but an interesting difference with the earlier games is that cooldowns are now based on successful auto-attack hits, not a simple timer. In other words, if you’re moving around too much, you won’t be attacking and thus won’t be charging your Arts; stand still, however, and you might not be making optimal use of your various moves, particularly those with positional requirements.

The Arts in a character’s palettes are determined by their equipped Blades’ weapon types — which in turn generally correspond to their role in the party — and can’t be set on a per-Blade basis. In other words, if you have two spear-using Blades equipped, both of them will have the same three active Arts out of the four possible choices equipped, though they might have different elemental effects and passive abilities attached according to how the Blade has progressed. Characters earn Weapon Points for defeating enemies with particular weapons, and the individual Arts for each weapon type can be levelled up using these. Levelling an Art makes it more effective in some way — not just by increasing its power, but perhaps also by making effects that have a percentage chance to trigger more likely to occur.

As previously noted, the earlier games in the Xeno series took numerous influences from fighting games, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 also does this, albeit in a slightly different way to its ancestors. The most notable mechanics in this regard are the use of Special moves, the ability to “cancel” moves into one another during combat, and the heavy emphasis on combos to have the greatest effectiveness. Let’s look at these one at a time.

Special moves are fairly self-explanatory: they’re something extraordinary that you can’t normally do. Each Blade has four possible Specials, with each one increasing considerably in power from the last but taking longer to charge. In narrative terms, they represent a Driver throwing their weapon to their Blade and allowing the Blade to perform a powerful ability before tossing the weapon back. In mechanical terms, Specials are charged by using Arts, performing combos and cancelling.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “cancelling” a move in mechanical terms refers to triggering another ability before the first one has finished executing. In a fighting game, you might use this to dodge out of the way while you’re in the middle of a punch or kick if you notice your opponent preparing to counterattack; in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, meanwhile, you can initially cancel a character’s auto-attack animation to perform an Art or switch Blades, and later, by developing your characters, can even cancel Arts together into one another. To put it another way, cancelling allows you to perform strings of Arts one after another without having to wait for animations to complete, thereby allowing you to do more damage in a shorter period of time.

Combos are a little more complex, and will take a bit more time to get your head around in the early game. There are two types of Combo: Driver Combos and Blade Combos. As their names suggest, the former is triggered simply by Drivers using the appropriate Arts in sequence, while the latter is triggered by Blades using a series of Specials in sequence.

Of the two types, Driver Combos are the simplest, since there is only one way they can go. A character performs an Art which causes the “Break” status on an enemy, which interrupts their current attack. You then have a short period of time for another character (or the same character using a different Blade/weapon) to inflict the “Topple” status, which knocks the enemy down and renders them temporarily defenseless. While an enemy is Toppled, another character or Blade/weapon can “Launch” the enemy into the air, which leaves them open to being “Smashed” back to the ground. Successfully completing this four-step process rewards you with boosts to your Special gauge, as well as spawning HP potions that can be used to quickly heal the whole party.

Blade Combos are a little more complex. They begin simply by a Blade performing a Special. From thereon, there is a “tree” of possible progression paths according to the elemental affinity of the first Special that was used, meaning that only certain elements can be used to follow the initial Special to continue the combo — and, like with a Driver combo, there’s only a limited time to trigger the next Special in the sequence, which must be of a level at least equal to the step in the combo. In other words, a Blade Combo starts with a Special of at least level 1, the next Special must be at least level 2, and the final blow must be at least level 3.

Blade Combos have a number of purposes. Firstly and most obviously is the amount of damage they do — the second and third steps trigger some sort of impressive pyrotechnic effect that cause a considerable amount of burst damage in one go, which also has an area of effect in most cases, so can also be used to weaken surrounding foes if you’re being swarmed. Secondly, the final element used in a combo determines one of a number of the enemy’s abilities that will be “sealed”. These range from an enemy’s ability to summon reinforcements to them being able to inflict harmful status effects on you and your party, and as such are an essential part of combat strategy. If you notice an enemy doing something particularly irritating, your first priority should be determining which Blade Combo you need to perform to stop them doing that — though it’s worth noting you can only Seal one thing at a time.

There’s one more aspect of combat to bear in mind, and it follows on from Blade Combos. Successfully completing a Blade Combo causes an Elemental Orb to start circling an enemy according to the final element in the combo. While this orb is present, the enemy takes less damage from that element, though only one orb of each element can be present at once. While these orbs may mostly sound like an inconvenience, it’s actually in your interest to create as many of them as possible when fighting a strong foe. Why? Chain Attacks.

As you fight, you’ll build up a three-segment meter called the Party Gauge in the corner of the screen. This has two main functions: the first is that you can use a single filled segment to revive a downed character, but more importantly, filling the whole thing allows you to use a Chain Attack. Doing so causes time to temporarily stop, and for every party member to have a chance to trigger one of their Blades’ Specials one after another, regardless of whether or not they were charged.

Each successfully performed Special causes damage to one of the generated Elemental Orbs. Each orb normally takes three hits to destroy, and a successfully destroyed orb triggers another round of Chain Attack, this time with the next level up of Specials. In order to control which orbs you destroy, you can use opposing elements — Fire and Water, Light and Dark, Electric and Earth, Wind and Ice. Using an opposing element causes two “hits” on the appropriate orb instead of one, and allows you to attack a specific orb rather than it being randomly determined. This is essential for an efficient Chain Attack, otherwise you’re relying purely on randomness if more than one Elemental Orb is present.

As a Chain Attack progresses, a percentage-based damage multiplier gradually increases. If you happen to defeat an enemy before a Chain Attack is over, a percentage-based bonus multiplier is added, providing significant boosts to experience and other rewards from the battle according to the amount by which you “Overkill” the enemy. And if you successfully burst enough Elemental Orbs in a single Chain Attack to fill a special meter (usually 4-5 depending on how much damage you’re doing), you achieve a Full Burst, which is something akin to inserting a thermonuclear device directly into your foe’s anus in terms of damage under most circumstances.

Does all this sound horrendously complicated? Well, that’s part of the genius of Xenoblade Chronicles 2: it doesn’t throw all this at you at once, so it never feels daunting. You start out in the game by simply learning how to attack enemies and use your Arts. After you get a feel for this, you’re introduced to cancelling attacks and using Specials, and you’re even limited to two Blades at a time instead of three so as not to overcomplicate matters. As you progress through the main story, you’re given explicit instruction in how to perform the two types of Combo separately. Then you learn how to do Chain Attacks. And there are a few other mechanics that crop up later I won’t spoil for now, too.

Suffice to say, though, that between each “step” of your learning journey, you’re given ample time to freely explore the world, complete quests and apply the things you’ve been taught in a practical context. This is a marked contrast to other games that have drawn criticism for still giving you tutorial messages 20, 50 or a hundred hours into the game — you can explore the systems at your own pace rather than either being bombarded with information all in one go at the outset, being forced to move on before you feel like you’ve had time to master a particular skillset — or perhaps worst of all, being forced to play a gimped version of the game for a long period of time because the next mechanic unlock is hours away.

The game is set up in such a way that you’re challenged to apply your knowledge in a variety of different ways, too. Some quests and story beats will see you battling a lot of small enemies, necessitating the use of good tanking and area-effect abilities; at other times you’ll square off against strong individual foes. Powerful “Named Monsters” prowl around the world and present a much more significant challenge than standard enemies — and there’s even variety between these, with some having unpleasant combinations of special abilities that you’ll need to either deal with or seal, others having huge HP pools that require you to make efficient use of Combos and Chain Attacks to whittle them down more quickly, and others still requiring you to fight them in perilous environments, requiring you to be aware of things other than who is hitting whom.

Combat may not be the sole focus of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then, but it’s certainly a significant part of the experience. So it’s fortunate that it’s such a consistently interesting and varied aspect of the game — and all you need to do if you do find yourself getting tired is to change your loadout of Blades and party members for instant freshness. And in fact, as we’ll explore further when we look in greater detail at the game’s non-combat and progression systems, you’ll want to do this regularly anyway. But that’s a story for another day.


More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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3 thoughts on “Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Combat Complexity Without Chaos”

  1. One of the interesting things about the combat in XC2 is that it is such a daunting thing to try and explain, but in the actual execution it feels so good and does not seem as daunting in the moment. That’s not to say there still aren’t advanced tricks the game doesn’t teach you, because there are (namely using things like Chain Attacks, Special Combo finishers, and level 4 Specials to get invulnerability frames during dangerous enemy attacks).

    For all it’s complexity, I’d say it’s a good improvement over XC1 and X’s combats. XC1 had a nice, solid system set up, and X just built upon it. While I love both of them, one thing about X is that stuff does feel quite hectic with 4 members and having to juggle things like Soul Voices and the frantic nature of Overdrive in that game.

    If I had to criticize the Xenoblade combat systems in some way, I’d say they don’t do a great job of giving you feedback on what dangerous things an enemy is doing all the time. You’re oftentimes busy just managing your own abilities and attacks (and that of your team, to the extent the game allows) that it can be tough to judge what is killing you so fast during some fights just by a subtly written enemy attacks and their animations.

    Regardless, I love the series’ combat, and it feels like an evolution of FF12’s combat system, which I quite liked.

    Like

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