Tom Quirk plays a lot of video games, but when he isn't, he is reading fantasy novels and watching way more television than is healthy.
May 29, 2020
This has been a long time coming. Originally coming out in 2011 on the Nintendo Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles was a revelatory role-playing game, combining elements of other genres, such as MMO-like combat and a western RPG-like focus on exploration, into a truly remarkable package. Nintendo has tried to bring the game to a portable platform in 2016 on the New 3DS, to mixed results. The Nintendo Switch has finally given Xenoblade Chronicles the ultimate chance to express itself, providing the portability of the New 3DS port with the improved processing power of the hybrid system. With several new features, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is a must-play for Xenoblade veterans and newcomers alike.
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a mysterious setting where the only landmasses are two dead gigantic warriors, known as the Bionis and the Mechonis. These titans were frozen in the middle of combat aeons ago, long enough for entire ecosystems and societies to form on their dormant bodies. The societies of each titan are at war, with the inhabitants of the Bionis frequently attacked by raids from the Mechon, the mechanical denizens of the Mechonis. The story concerns a young man named Shulk who obtains the Monado, a mysterious sword capable of wounding the otherwise invulnerable Mechon, and which grants Shulk strange visions of the future. After an attack on his colony by the Mechon, he takes off with his best friend to travel to the Mechonis in search of revenge. As with many plots like these, the scale and scope of what is going on turns out to be far grander than it initially seems.
The localisation and voice acting are one of my favourite aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles’ presentation. Players can choose between the English or Japanese voice acting if they prefer. I very much enjoyed the English dub, particularly the use of British voice actors rather than the standard US dubs for English localisations. If you can forgive the jarring lack of lip sync in the cutscenes, you will be drawn right into the story and the interactions between Shulk and his friends. Something I enjoyed doing was playing with different party combinations to hear different inter-party banter after combat.
“The places you go seem designed to focus your gaze on the gorgeous landscapes and skies.”
The setting might also be one of my favourite video game worlds. The landscapes and character models may not match up with something like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt on a graphical level; after all, this did start life as a Wii game. However, it manages to compensate with sheer artistic vision and commitment to providing a free and open world.
There is a very strong emphasis on exploration in Xenoblade Chronicles. This includes aspects like providing gameplay XP for discovering new locations, to a lightning fast and useful fast travel system. The places you go seem designed to focus your gaze on the gorgeous landscapes and skies. This is particularly demonstrated in how each area totally transforms visually at night-time. I played Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition mostly in docked mode, so as to better appreciate the vastness of the explorable areas on my TV.
On Shulk’s quest, there are plenty of things to do along the way. In addition to the aforementioned exploration, each area is brimming with dozens of sidequests. While they don’t usually go beyond the standard “kill x number of monsters” or “locate x number of items”, Xenoblade Chronicles makes an effort to streamline the process. Few quests actually require you to revisit the quest-giver, providing the reward as soon as the objective is complete. The ability to track sidequest objectives on your map also makes completing them an oddly addictive activity.
The player can easily spend hours grinding through those, although as a result it is not hard to become very over-levelled for the main quest. This isn’t even considering the other side content, like completing your Collectopedia, or experiencing all the secret Heart-to-Heart conversations between the party members.
If there was an aspect that I have some lingering issues with, it’s the game’s combat. Despite some efforts to address some problems in this port, there are small imperfections that remain. It is somewhat MMO-like, with enemies roaming the field, and up to three party members automatically attacking targeted enemies when they are in range.
Special attacks known as Arts can be used, which are on a cool-down. In the Definitive Edition, Arts that have additional effects when attacking from behind or on the side have a mark next to them when they are especially useful. This can make the often very chaotic combat a bit more manageable.
I really liked how Shulk’s ability to see the future is tied in with the combat. Occasionally against strong opponents, particularly dangerous attacks are shown to the player, and you are given a short amount of time to use an ability to counteract it. Shulk’s visions also occasionally let you know if a random collectable will be useful for a later side-quest. I like it when story and gameplay come together in ways like that.
What I wish was present was a greater degree of control over your AI-controlled allies in combat. You only control your leader directly, and otherwise can only choose your allies’ abilities during infrequent Chain Attacks. The issue is that maximising your effectiveness in combat means applying certain status effects in order, which is difficult to coordinate when you can only manually control one character. The AI also has some other issues, like playing the squishy caster Melia as a melee fighter, or wasting Shulk and Riki’s back-attack Arts in ways that are sub-optimal. Some way to customise party AI or more frequently manually trigger allies’ Arts may have helped. Although I was still able to get through the game’s combat just fine, I rarely found the party members to be as useful as whoever I was directly controlling.
Adding to that is the voice actors shouting out each of their attack names each time they use an Art. On one hand, it at least makes it clear which attacks are being used in the otherwise cacophonous combat. On the other, you get very used to the ways each character says each attack name, which can become repetitive after several dozen hours. This is a massive game; depending on how committed you are to side-quest completion, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition will likely take a good 60-80 hours to complete, not counting the additional chapter.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition comes with many new features that make it worth checking out for returning veterans. There is a new arranged version of the already amazing and varied soundtrack (although the original soundtrack can also be chosen). While the visuals as a whole have been revamped, the character models in particular have been improved greatly, resembling the more high-quality, anime-like models from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. One small feature I liked a lot was the ability to choose the appearance of one kind of gear with the stats of another. No longer would I need to choose between something that gives a great mechanical benefit, or something that does not make the characters look completely ridiculous.
The biggest new addition to the Definitive Edition is Future Connected. This new chapter comprises of a new 10-hour epilogue focusing on Shulk and Melia following the events of the main story. Future Connected can be selected from the main menu, so returning veterans can jump right into it without replaying the entire main game. It was a lot more robust than I was expecting, featuring a whole new explorable area and raft of side-quests.
The story mostly concerns the rise of a new threat that has attacked Melia’s home, and wrapping up some loose ends from the main story. It has some cool features, like some gameplay alterations and a fun side-quest chain about reuniting a team of Nopon explorers to help you in battle. That said, I did not overall feel that Future Connected felt especially compelling story-wise, even if it is still fun. More Xenoblade Chronicles is always welcome, but it did not add a whole lot to my appreciation of the main game in the end.
Xenoblade Chronicles has finally found its true home. With myriad small improvements and the portability of the Switch, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is the best version of the game yet. If you missed out on its release on the Wii or New 3DS, this is the optimal opportunity to experience it.
The Future Connected bonus chapter might not be super interesting as new stories go. Furthermore, despite some minor improvements, the combat is still kind of a chaotic mess. Still, those minor annoyances pale in comparison to how much Xenoblade Chronicles does right. From its gorgeous world to its appealing characters and exploration, Xenoblade Chronicles is one of the finest Japanese RPGs out there, and has aged fantastically. If you have even a passing interesting in RPGs and want something to sink your teeth into, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is an easy recommend.