While the Xeno series has, from its outset, always been about imaginative takes on worldbuilding, the Xenoblade subseries in particular has placed a strong emphasis on this.
Indeed, as we’ve already explored, the very reason the first Xenoblade Chronicles exists at all is because series creator Tetsuya Takahashi thought it would be cool to have a game set atop the bodies of two gigantic, frozen gods. The concept was subsequently fleshed out into the divide between the Bionis and the Mechonis, and the rest is history.
Xenoblade Chronicles X subsequently provided a somewhat different take on worldbuilding, providing us with a huge, seamless and geographically diverse planet to explore at our own pace. But Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is closer in concept to the first in the series, albeit with a few twists of its own.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 makes use of a worldbuilding trope that has been commonly used in speculative or fantastic fiction from both Eastern and Western authors for many years: the idea of a “world above the clouds”, or floating islands in the sky.
Exactly where this trope originated from isn’t entirely clear, but it’s most commonly attributed to Jonathan Swift’s 1726 depiction of the floating island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s concept of a floating island using its technological superiority for political ends was subsequently adapted by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli’s first movie, 1986’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, though this is far from the only example of the trope being used in Japanese popular media.
There are a number of ways in which the “floating island” idea has been used by developers of Japanese video games. In some, such as Overworks and Sega’s Skies of Arcadia, it is used primarily to put a fantastic twist on a traditionally styled “seafaring” adventure. But arguably the more common depiction is to show some sort of physical “divide” between the current state of the world and something that occurred in the past.
In Gust’s Ar Tonelico, for example, humanity is shown to be living on giant towers that extend high into the sky, with no-one ever descending to the surface until the third game, Ar Tonelico Qoga. In Sony’s Gravity Rush, the floating islands that form the majority of the game’s world have whirling, churning gravity storms beneath them, making descent to the surface of the planet seemingly impossible — though heroine Kat does, of course, find a way to go down deeper than anyone has done before.
In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the latter approach is adopted. As we’re introduced to the world, we learn that humanity lives on “Titans”, giant creatures that support life in a similar manner to the petrified Bionis and Mechonis from the first Xenoblade Chronicles, but fully alive, mobile and airborne. Beneath the Titans is the “Cloud Sea”, a… well, it’s a sea of clouds (the clue’s in the name), albeit one with such density that it’s possible for one to actually float and swim in it. It’s also subject to tides, much like a “real” sea, and some of the Titans throughout Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s world have a habit of diving in and out of the Cloud Sea as part of their natural movement.
At the outset of the story, we have no idea what is beneath the Cloud Sea; we are, however, given some hints by the fact that protagonist Rex is a “Salvager”, a profession in which individuals get tooled up in rather retro-looking diving gear, jump into the Cloud Sea and attempt to recover various artifacts and treasures. Said artifacts and treasures, when retrieved, appear to be largely mechanical and electronic in nature, suggesting that whoever or whatever lived beneath the Cloud Sea was pretty technologically advanced.
The world above the clouds isn’t exactly “backwards” in terms of technology, mind you, but it has evolved in a distinctly different direction to our “real” world. There are strong elements of steampunk throughout the game’s world design, but there’s also a significant emphasis on biomechanical engineering. Many of the nations that live on the different Titans are depicted as incorporating their technology directly into the bodies of Titans to varying degrees; some use this to create “ships” powered by Titans, for example, while others power heavy industry or other forms of manufacturing using the Titans’ energy.
This, in turn, gives rise to a significant environmental message throughout Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s main story. We learn that the Titan on which the Empire of Mor Ardain is situated is dying, for example, leading their landscape to become desolate and arid, while the kingdom of Tantal is perpetually clad in ice and snow, because the energy other Titans would normally use to provide a more temperate climate is being used by the Tantalese for their main “industry”.
What this means in a broader sense is that the world of Xenoblade Chronicles is geographically very diverse, with each of the Titans you explore over the course of the complete game having a very clear atmosphere and character to it. The game begins in Argentum, which is a small Titan that houses the trading post of Goldmouth; after the events that get the “main plot” underway, Rex finds himself in Gormott, which is a lush green Titan filled with forests, plains and bodies of water. From there, you visit Uraya, where civilisation lives inside the Titan rather than on its surface, along with the aforementioned Mor Ardain, Tantal and several other locales too. Each new Titan is a significant contrast to the last, and it’s immediately obvious which one you’re on just by looking at it — everything from the colour scheme to the local flora and fauna sends clear visual signals as to where you are.
The visual presentation of each Titan is complemented by the game’s incredible soundtrack, with each nation having its own distinctive music — typically at least four tracks in total, encompassing day and night themes for the main “overworld” outside of settled areas as well as unique day and night themes for populated areas. Each of these pieces of music adds to the distinctive character of each area; Gormott’s heavy use of stringed instruments adds to its “pastoral” feel, for example, while Mor Ardain’s blaring brass instruments in the daytime and gentle jazz flute sounds in the evening make it seem very “modern”.
The Xenoblade series is not just about having interesting worldbuilding on a macro scale, however; one of the most consistently appealing things about the series has always been that as much care and attention has been lavished into the smaller details as into the sweeping, spectacular landscapes. As Takahashi noted in conversation with the late Satoru Iwata prior to the release of the original Wii version of Xenoblade Chronicles, “I wanted to ensure that wherever you went, there would be something there waiting for you, be it something you’d been seeking, a quest or a fearsome monster. In certain places, I also wanted to have secluded spots where players would think ‘wow, there are beautiful areas like this here in this world!'”
One of the ways the series has added smaller-scale detail like this is through the fact that many of the things you do have significant consequences on the world itself. And we’re not talking about BioWare-style binary choices here; we’re talking about the things you choose to engage with having a noticeable impact somehow — be it on something as small as how an individual character behaves when you next encounter them, or something as large as whether or not a structure is physically there or not.
This is something that many modern open-world games often struggle with; Bethesda’s RPGs, for example, have a huge amount of things to do in each game, but little feeling of lasting consequence when you complete them. Become leader of a high-profile guild such as the Mages’ Guild or Fighter’s Guild in an Elder Scrolls title, and there’s very little feeling of you having real “status” in the world, for example. There are exceptions, of course — Fallout 3’s Megaton is a commonly cited example — but for the most part, these games offer beautiful worlds that you can’t really have much of an impact on.
Contrast with some of the things you find yourself doing in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. In an early quest in Gormott, for example, you come across a young child who is lonely and wants to hang out with some other kids, but is afraid of water — and the kids in question like to go swimming in the nearby lake. Help him with his problems and when you come back hours later, you’ll find him happily splashing around in the lake with his new friends.
In a more significant example, early in the game we learn that Rex often sends some of his money home to his adoptive family, and indeed we have the option to continue to do so whenever we’re back in Goldmouth. When Rex finally has the opportunity to return to his home village Fonsett later in the story, we learn that his contributions have helped send someone to school. Even later, we learn that not all of his money has been making its way to its final destination, with nearly half of it being chewed up by fees and bribes thanks to the roundabout shipping route it has to take. From here, you have the opportunity to complete a sidequest to set up a more direct shipping route from Goldmouth to Fonsett, and everyone is shown being very pleased with the outcome.
Essentially what Xenoblade Chronicles 2 provides with sequences like this is not only a feeling that your actions have consequences, but also that you have some sort of responsibility in the world. The quest to set up the shipping route to Fonsett is completely optional, for example, but along the way the characterisation and setup is such that it feels like the “right thing to do”. And there are plenty of other examples of this throughout the game, too.
There are more abstract implementations of responsibility and consequence, too, most notably through the game world’s economics. Each Titan you visit is represented as having a “Development Level” of between zero and five stars, with each new level decreasing the price of items in shops and in some cases affecting what you’re able to purchase or what side activities you’re able to take on. The Development Level of an area can be increased by stimulating the economy through buying and selling goods, and by using Rex’s Salvager skills to craft and trade a variety of items. The consequences of this become clear as you speak to local NPCs; at higher Development Levels, they seem much happier and more positive, even when otherwise bad things might be happening in the world around them.
You’re even able to take on a degree of individual responsibility for the vendors in a region. Buy at least one of everything a vendor is selling and you can purchase their stall or store outright, conferring a permanent passive bonus of some description. In many cases, you need to use the “Merc Group” mechanic to send unequipped Blades off on missions to establish trade routes and expand store inventories, so this can be significant undertaking at times — though a worthwhile one. Once you’ve done all this, the vendor addresses you as the store owner any time you come back to visit them in the future — though sadly you still have to pay up for the items you might want from the store’s inventory!
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is full of wonderful little touches like this, and they all help the world feel more “alive” without unnecessarily overcomplicating the game mechanics. For example, once you “own” a shop, you don’t need to actually do anything with it to keep it in business; while that would have added an extra layer of complexity and strategy to the game, it wouldn’t have really made it any more “fun”, since there’s already plenty to do in the game without having to spend half your time on delivery missions to make sure your board game store in Fonsa Myma has the latest and greatest titles.
This is something the series has always been good at. Even in the Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, which drew criticism from some players for de-emphasising its central narrative in favour of its gameplay, exploration and overall sense of worldbuilding, there was a real feeling that the things you were doing were genuinely “important”. You, as a central character in the story, mattered, and the decisions you made, the things you chose to engage with and the people you spoke with all had an impact on how the world developed.
And besides all this, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is quite simply an absolute pleasure to explore. Besides the interesting landscapes of each Titan, the game also features a wide variety of interior locations — something which open-world games often neglect — along with plenty of beautiful hidden viewpoints and hideaways, just like Takahashi always wanted.
Sure, you can probably zip through Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s story reasonably quickly if you wanted to. But with a world this fascinating to spend your time in — and, more importantly, lots of things to do in it — why would you ever want to leave?
More about Xenoblade Chronicles 2
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or become a Patron. You can also buy me a coffee if you want to show some one-time support. Thank you!