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One of the key ways many people like to distinguish the stereotypically Eastern and Western approaches to role-playing games is via non-combat mechanics and progression.
It’s fair to say that, as we’ve already discussed, many role-playing games from Japan place a strong focus on combat both as a core aspect of gameplay and the central aspect of their overall progression. You can contrast this strongly with something like an Elder Scrolls game, which still involves combat at times, but, depending on how you choose to play it, can also place a strong focus on crafting, spellcraft, stealth, exploration and all manner of other aspects.
Xenoblade Chronicles has, since the first installment of the subseries, always been about something of a fusion between the linear, narrative-focused nature of Japanese games, and the more open, flexible, “emergent” gameplay of Western titles. And this tradition is well and truly intact in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
In order to understand what you might be getting up to besides fighting in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, it’s important to understand how progression works, because, much like the combat system, there are a number of intertwining, interlocking systems at play.
The most basic of these is the usual experience points and levels system, whereby you earn experience points through defeating enemies and noticeably increase in power with each new level. A twist on the usual formula is provided, however, through the “Bonus Experience” system. Rather than immediately receiving experience points for completed quests and other non-combat activities, these accumulated points go into a per-character bonus pool which can only be redeemed by resting at an inn. If it’s been a while since you rested, you might find yourself able to gain several levels at once — though you have the option not to if you so desire, and in the New Game+ mode added post-launch, you can even deliberately decrease your level to increase the overall challenge factor if you so desire, with rewards on offer for doing so.
We’ve previously noted that the Xenoblade Chronicles series is often compared to an “offline MMO”, and one of the ways this is reflected is through the fact that enemies you see wandering the world have their level prominently displayed. Taking on something considerably higher level than you is not recommended under most circumstances, and if you considerably outlevel a foe, it will ignore you rather than attacking you on sight unless it’s a unique Named Monster.
Besides experience, characters accumulate Weapon Points and Skill Points through combat and questing, and these are used to increase the power of Arts and unlock passive abilities respectively. In the latter case, you can even unlock some game mechanics, such as the ability to immediately use certain Arts at the start of combat rather than having to charge them, or the ability to cancel Arts into one another for a rapid string of powerful blows.
So far so straightforward. Where things get more interesting is when we take into account the Blades that we’ve previously discussed in the context of combat.
Blades are graded in terms of rarity on a scale of one to five. The top-ranked Blades are all unique, fixed in their loadout of skills and known as Rare, Legendary or Special Blades according to their importance to the story. Blades ranked 4 or lower have a more generic appearance (though they can still be “male”, “female”, “animal” or “huge”) and a more random combination of skills, traits and physical characteristics.
Blades do not progress in the same way as characters. They have no experience points or levels, and instead power themselves up entirely through a mechanic called the Affinity Chart. This is perhaps the most interesting part of all Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s mechanics, since it provides a huge amount of variety to the gameplay without necessarily relying on structured quests.
An Affinity Chart is a semicircular chart with five “tiers” of nodes, each of which is divided into three broad areas: Specials (red), passive skills (yellow) and Field Skills (green). The former of these either add special effects or bonus damage to the Blade’s Specials when they perform them. Passive skills apply ongoing bonuses of some description while the Blade is active in combat. And Field Skills… we’ll come onto those in a moment.
When you first acquire a Blade, you only have access to the first tier of nodes and will probably find most of them are already unlocked. This represents the Blade’s basic capabilities. To allow them to progress further, you need to unlock the further tiers, usually by building up your “Trust” with the Blade in question. This can be accomplished in several ways: through fighting alongside the Blade in combat, through completing quests with them equipped, and through sending them on Merc Missions, which we’ll explore more shortly.
Individual nodes can subsequently be unlocked by fulfilling particular conditions, which can vary enormously from Blade to Blade. In some cases, for example, a Blade can improve its abilities simply by using them repeatedly. In others, you’ll need to defeat a certain number of a specific enemy, visit a particular location, gather items or talk to people. And in many cases, the Blade’s requirements to unlock a node are thematically appropriate for the Blade’s personality: a Blade named Zenobia who is obsessed with testing her strength against the strongest possible enemies unlocks pretty much all of her nodes by defeating Named Monsters, for example, while a food-obsessed Blade named Boreas can unlock pretty much his whole Affinity Chart in one go if you simply stuff him repeatedly with the types of food he wants to try.
Most of the non-Special (story-essential) Blades also have their own questline to follow, and there’s even a ton of variety here. Crazy puppet lady Azami gets a little obsessed with an investigation you send her on, but doesn’t want to spend time apart from her Driver, so prefers to send other Blades off on a series of Merc Missions to solve the mystery. Ice knight Godfrey travels the world to develop his knowledge of kindness, passion and justice before applying them in a lengthy quest to track down a missing person and understand why they’ve done the things they’ve done. Nature-loving Nim has a substantial sidequest where she learns to speak with the fox-like Phonex creatures. And some Blades even have pre-existing relationships with one another, such as the deadly duo of Praxis and Theory, each of whom you can acquire separately in a long and ongoing side story.
The use of the Affinity Chart in such varied ways makes Xenoblade Chronicles 2 an interesting and flexible experience that means you can always feel like you’re making some sort of progress. Only have half an hour to play? You’ve probably still got time to unlock some simple nodes that require you to just use Specials or defeat enemies. More time available? Go explore a Rare Blade’s sidequests or Heart-to-Heart events to get to know them a bit better. Really want to min-max? Fill up a Common Blade’s Affinity Chart to get bonus items, including substantial one-shot injections to a character’s Weapon Points, allowing you to beef up your overall strength levels considerably.
The astute among you will have remembered that it’s only possible for a character to equip up to three Blades at a time. So what do you do with all the excess? Well, after a certain point in the story, you unlock the ability to send your non-engaged Blades on Merc Missions. Here, one or more Blades are dispatched on a mission that takes a certain amount of real time (which must be spent with the game actively running — no Bravely Default-style “come back in the morning” stuff here) to complete before returning with various rewards, including experience, gold, skill points and equippable items. Some one-time only Merc Missions even unlock trade routes between the main geographical areas of the game, broadening the selection of things available in each region’s shops.
Merc Missions are useful in a number of ways, chiefly because they allow you to build up Trust and unlock Affinity Chart nodes with Blades you aren’t actively using, thereby allowing you to effectively expand your arsenal of abilities in a number of different directions simultaneously. They also play a key role in “developing” the various regions of the game, which in turn affects the prices of items in shops as well as the aforementioned inventory expansions. And there’s good reason to do this, too; buying up one of every item in a shop’s whole stock when it’s fully unlocked allows you to take ownership of the shop, which confers a permanent passive ability to you and all your party members.
Merc Missions are also used in a number of quests to provide an alternative means of completing objectives. For example, in one quest you’re required to track down a number of items that have been hidden all around the game world. You can attempt to track down the pieces of information yourself from the “Informant” NPCs in the various cities if you so desire, or you can send a Merc group off to do it for you while you get on with other things. In some cases, Merc Missions are even essential to progress in a particular questline — in one example, there’s a sequence of missions where you get your excess Blades to help someone build a boat so they rediscover their enthusiasm for life.
Merc Missions aren’t just a case of throwing any old Blade at the job, however. Every Merc Mission has certain prerequisites in order to be successful. This might be as simple as a waitressing job requiring a female Blade to complete, or it might be as complex as demanding at least three Blades with 30 or more in their “Strength” stat (which increases according to how many nodes they’ve unlocked on their Affinity Chart), two that wield spears and two that wield Bitballs. Some even require specific Field Skills to complete; in other cases Field Skills can be used to reduce the amount of time the mission will take to complete.
These Field Skills in question are passive, non-combat abilities that many Blades have, and which can be used in various predefined places around the world to have a variety of different effects. The most basic Field Skill a Blade can have is mastery of a particular element, which is generally combined with something else to produce an effect. Wind Mastery combined with the Leaping Field Skill allows for inhumanly large jumps to otherwise inaccessible locations, for example, while Ice Mastery combined with the ability to Focus intently on something might allow you to create an ice bridge over a crevasse.
Other Field Skills are less abstract. “Ancient Wisdom” allows you to recognise ancient artifacts or read old script, for example, while “Nopon Wisdom” allows you to take advantage of the mercantile (and occasionally shady) knowledge of the small, fluffy Nopon creatures who have been a series mainstay since Xenoblade Chronicles. Again, these are sometimes combined with one another to have various effects; unlocking a particularly complex chest, for example, might require both Nopon Wisdom and the Lockpicking ability.
The Field Skills provide one of the main incentives to develop a variety of Blades rather than just sticking with your favourites. The Field Skills of all the Blades the party has equipped — including those who aren’t in the main party of three “active members” that participate in combat — are combined together to pool the group’s overall effectiveness in accomplishing particular tasks. In other words, there’s no need to separately select an individual character to do something, though you may find yourself needing to change your Blade loadout according to the situation in which you find yourself.
For particularly complex Field Skill challenges, you may find yourself having to temporarily rearrange your entire party to, for example, get your mastery of a particular element up high enough — this can be a bit fiddly and clunky, especially as there’s no way to save and recall loadouts quickly, but gives certain areas of the game an interesting “puzzle-like” feel as you attempt to figure out exactly how to complete the task in front of you. Pleasingly, the game’s map marks Field Skill challenges you haven’t yet been able to complete along with the requirements to pass them, so you can easily come back later with a more appropriate combination of Blades.
The use of Field Skills gives Xenoblade Chronicles 2 an almost tabletop role-playing feel at times as you attempt to pass skill checks to achieve things. They’re even used in some sequences to see if your party notices something subtle, remembers something important or makes a logical deduction.
What’s interesting is that there are often a few ways to overcome a particular challenge, be it through Merc Missions, Field Skills or, in some cases, brute force. When these options exist, it rarely feels like BioWare-style binary choices between “the good option” and “the evil option” — instead, they simply represent different ways to approach the same situation according to your own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the quest that introduces you to Field Skills early in the game requires you to track a monster; if you have a combination of Blades that allows you to track it yourself, you can do, leading to a The Witcher-style sequence where you follow your quarry’s tracks and scent. If you do not, however, you can solicit the help of someone who is experienced in the outdoors life, who will point you in the right direction. You’re never made to feel like the latter option is the “wrong” or “lesser” choice — it’s actually a rather realistic way of allowing you to still progress rather than throwing a brick wall in your path.
Besides all this, one other very interesting aspect of the game is the fact one of your party members doesn’t resonate with Blades in the same way as the rest. Instead, he has an “artificial Blade” named Poppi, who evolves into three different forms over the course of the game, effectively giving her the same capabilities as three separate Blades, since each form has its own Affinity Chart.
What’s interesting about Poppi is that she’s greatly customisable with different parts, chips and software. She’s a tank by default, but can be turned into a healer or attacker by installing the appropriate modifications, and can be adjusted to favour particular elements as you so desire. You can’t just throw the best items at her and hope for the best, however; her internal power source (which is upgradeable) must be able to cope with the combination of items you install in her. “Ether Crystals” required to construct new parts or upgrade her abilities can be acquired by playing a retro-style arcade game called Tiger! Tiger!, providing yet another interesting and peculiar aspect of the experience as a whole to engage with.
Poppi is also one of the most entertaining characters in the game, with her withering putdowns of her master Tora being a great highlight of the localisation. That and the fact she speaks like a Nopon. But we’ll enthuse about Poppi as a character in more detail another time!
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is such an enjoyable game from a mechanical perspective because of all these elements it combines together. All of its systems feel like they overlap nicely with one another to varying degrees, meaning that spending some time on one aspect of the game will often end up helping you out in others down the road. And there’s something here for all types of players to enjoy — those who enjoy powering up their characters will get a kick out of the many and varied ways there are to do this, while those who enjoy narrative and characterisation will appreciate the ways in which you feel like you really get to know your collection of Blades as you develop them.
All of these cool mechanics are no good without an interesting world in which to use them, however, so that’s what we’ll be taking a look at next.
More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2
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