The icing on the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Season Pass is here. After sprinkling smaller drops of content for several months to feed the RPG that released for the Nintendo Switch a year ago, Monolith Soft. is coming full circle with the final expansion. Torna - The Golden Country is a farewell by the Japanese studio to the world of Alrest, and what a farewell it is.
Available in both digital and physical versions, this expansion, which might as well be called a sequel, releases in a very unexpected way when it comes to DLC, at least for a Nintendo game. It's an extra, totally standalone chapter, launched pretty much like a whole new game but keeping in mind the content on offer balanced against the pricing.
That being said, you can rest assured that the story of the golden country really is worth its weight in gold. Monolith has been ambitious and has approached this chapter with no punches being pulled, going all out, and the good thing is that, instead of a complete mess, the result is in a beautiful harmony that's even better than the source material that spawned it.
Torna - The Golden Country not only reaches Xenoblade Chronicles 2's level - it actually surpasses it. It might pale in comparison in terms of numbers, as the lasting appeal isn't there to the same extent and there are fewer places to visit, but despite the obvious constraints and the smaller number of activities to involve yourself in, locales to find, characters to meet, or the shorter duration of the narrative itself, the whole manages to achieve something much more impactful than Rex's story.
It really is standalone story-wise as well, as you don't need the base game to understand what's going on. Even though having played the 2017 original means going in with a richer knowledge, you'll be perfectly fine even if you don't know who Pyra, Mythra, Rex, Addam or Jim are. In other words, Torna's puzzle can be solved without the base game pieces, but for maximum enjoyment of both adventures, we recommend you follow the order in which they were released and play this prequel after the main game. A double-edged sword, maybe, as this means you'll know how things end up right from minute one.
This episode's events happen 500 years before Rex's story. Here, the action is split between Lora, Addam, and Hugo, though we could say the weight of the plot is born by the former, its blade Jin, and Mahlos, the antagonist from the main game. We won't spoil anything else here, but for those who are a bit in the know, just know that it all revolves around the Aegis War, both in terms of precedents, how things unfold, and the outcome.
Specific events aside, narrative-wise the game has the same pros and cons you could find in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 every now and then. Characters are clichéd, such as the rude and solitary huntress, the ice-cold, silent type, the kind but brave heroine... Torna follows the Japanese stereotypes by the book as you meet the whole cast of characters. That said, we don't mean to imply that this is utterly wrong, nor that it prevents you from connecting with some of the heroes.
Actually, it's ok as long as you're used to the Japanese idiosyncrasies in this regard, and the same happens to the cutscenes pacing (at times terribly slow, other times just hectic). It's very Xenoblade, so to speak, and either the developer was determined to keep the same style, or they just don't know how to do it differently.
While we're on the subject of pacing, what we quite disliked was how some sequences connect to each other, chaining in a way that can feel very frustrating as you complete one, walk two steps, enter the next one. It might be understandable for important events, and for example, when the game is explaining how terrible a cook Mythra is, as the dev just wants to add some humanity to one of the most powerful beings in the world. We know it's a smaller offering and not a full release, but sometimes it breaks up the tempo.
The whole thing feels very ambitious and that applies to pretty much every aspect of the game. Torna - The Golden Country takes the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 formula and keeps the core, essential parts, then adds its own touches and twists, and finally packs it together and squeezes it into this additional adventure. It never feels like a banal content drop, rather it's something much more significant and ambitious.
You can tell the difference in terms of the graphics, and in particular, during the first third of the game, you can see a clear visual improvement over the main game. That impact then somehow lessens when you get used to it, and there are some touches such as the excessive blur during cutscenes that don't work as well, but you'll welcome the higher resolution when in handheld mode, as well as the foliage and lighting enhancements.
On the other hand, what looks like a step back at first glance, other than the reduced scale of the world (something that was also criticised in XC2 when compared to the insanely massive Xenoblade Chronicles X), is the combat systems. You no longer have Core Crystals to get Blades, and the range of options available goes down to just six of these beings (as in two per character).
However, this step back is just to make room for a whole new system, which turns out to be more dynamic and rewarding than the one in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. It inherits the automated attacks and the Blades switching in order to have different abilities, same as the special ability combos which are recharged by using standard abilities. This time, however, you control all this instead of changing weapon. Each Blade makes a difference and adds to the battle, allowing you to alternate during combat by just pressing a button, and making for even more chaotic, amazing situations. Just imagine, releasing a chain of punches with Lora to stunt the enemy, quick-changing to Jin to take them to the ground, and then using any of the remaining party members to finish them off back up in the air.
You can control every one of the characters, switching as you battle through this part of Alrest, again, with something as simple as pressing a button (though you cannot switch humans when in combat). It's immediate, quick, easy, without intricate menus or commands. It's not cutting, it's streamlining to make the more complex more user-friendly.
The streamlining is also present in the progression system. Your characters grow at speed, to the point where in five hours of playtime you could be connecting attacks that inflict four figures of damage. It's the result of a more tightly packed system: the rate increases, but it's even more rewarding, and you don't even realise that until, a few minutes later, you'll able to tackle monsters you wouldn't even stare at before out of fear.
Because the independent and roaming creatures remain here as well, the world feels more natural. Side quests are back too but slightly improved and with some added importance (pro tip: do as many as you can). With them comes a new reputation system which, along with camping, introduces a couple of new concepts. The first one is as simple as making a name for yourself so that other inhabitants give you tasks and bonuses in return. The second one is blatantly inspired by Final Fantasy XV; a moment of peace and relaxation for you to level up, cook, or craft items.
And before we go we need to dedicate a whole paragraph to the musical score of the game. The work by Yasunori Mitsuda and his crew in Torna - The Golden Country is just superb. There might not be many brand-new pieces, but each new track perfectly conveys the spirit of this episode: darker, more mature, blunter. Acoustic and jazz tones are predominant, with a combination taking you from the celerity of Gormott to the nostalgia of Torna, all with exceptional accuracy and ease.
Where The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had Blood & Wine, Xenoblade 2 has Torna - The Golden Country. It's an absolute must-have chapter for those who enjoyed their time with Shulk, Elma, and/or Rex, and it's also fully recommendable for RPG lovers with no time for longer, more epic adventures. They say great things come in small packages, and this episode condenses the very best from the base game, at the same time making the formula even more convincing.