Scroll down to watch the video review of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition.
Xenoblade Chronicles was exactly what we needed in 2012. In the West, the industry seemed to have lost faith in JRPGs. Even in Japan, few titles were being released, and those that did come out had a hard time making it westward. Luckily, through the noble efforts of Operation Rainfall, Xenoblade Chronicles eventually arrived, and it was a complete revelation. The game smartly blended concepts from WRPGs, like an enormous, stunningly well-designed open world, with the engaging, emotional, philosophical story and compelling characters often found in JRPGs. It seemed like this was the new direction for the genre; while it didn’t necessarily work out that way, today we’re awash in great RPGs, and that’s largely due to Xenoblade’s success.
Of course, if there was one problem with the 2012 release, it was the resolution output on the Wii. It simply couldn’t match the art direction, with its painted-on faces and blurry environments. The port to the 3DS, while impressive for a mobile console, did nothing to allay these problems. Now, in 2020, the Definitive Edition is here. And oh my, what an improvement it is. Not only are the graphics finally up to the task of handling the ambitious art direction of this massive open world, but there are small and large quality of life improvements that make this game the most accessible it’s ever been, all while maintaining everything that made the original release an instant classic.
If you’ve played the original Xenoblade Chronicles, the story here is untouched. And that’s a good thing. For those of you who have not played the original, Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a world where two titans faced off in an epic battle ending in both of their deaths. Over time the bodies of both become populated by two different races, the Homs (humans) on the Bionis and the Mechon (machine life forms) on the Mechonis. As the game opens, the Homs are engaged in battle with the Mechon, and they are saved only by a mysterious sword with the power to easily cut down Mechon: the Monado. A year later, after it seems all is peaceful, the Mechon attack again. When tragedy strikes during the battle, a young man named Shulk takes the Monado and leaves on a quest for revenge against the Mechon.
While the revenge angle is a strong hook, this is a Xeno game, and anyone familiar with writer and director Tetsuya Takahashi’s work knows that it can’t be that simple. It asks many of the same deep philosophical questions as his previous games in a streamlined fashion, and packs more of an emotional punch in some ways because of its simplicity. While the narrative is grounded in a number of genre tropes, I found myself surprised on multiple occasions my first time through the game. The characters are compelling, due in large part to the truly outstanding English voice acting. Seriously, can anyone scream better than Adam Howden as Shulk? The upgraded character models help a lot with this, too. I’m no longer paying attention to how ridiculous a character’s face looks during an intense moment. All of that, combined with the well-directed cut scenes, comes together to create a strong emotional pull throughout the narrative.
While Xenoblade Chronicles never reaches the philosophical heights of previous games bearing that moniker (nor really tries to), it does one thing better than anything Takahashi had done previously: world building. Since the game takes place on two massive titans, you make your way around their physical forms, exploring areas like their shin, their knee, even sometimes going inside their bodies. And these unique areas are a wonder to behold. The sense of variety, scale, and beauty shines through. The beauty of Satorl Marsh at night, the scale of Gaur Plain, and, well, just about everything about Eryth Sea will never fail to amaze. Just stopping to look up at the sky in Gaur Plain to see the Mechonis in the distance shows the care that went into creating these massive worlds. Add to that the various enemy types in each map, including enemies at a much higher level, and the level of immersion is unparalleled outside of this series. This time around, a few of the areas did annoy me a little with overly convoluted design — the game shows its age on this front — but it doesn’t deter from how excellent the rest of the maps are.
This all shined through effectively in the previous iterations of the game, but the Definitive Edition makes all these elements much stronger. While most of the conversations about the upgrades in the version are about the character models, the improvements to the world are also noteworthy. The grand scope of the game is finally matched by a resolution that is worthy of it. I found myself just sitting and staring in awe at a snow shower on Valak Mountain for at least 10 minutes while playing, and even after experiencing it on the Wii previously, it felt like I was almost playing a different game.
I mostly played the game docked and never noticed any framerate drops there; everything ran smoothly. The resolution might only be 720p, but it looks so much better than previous versions of the game that I wasn’t bothered at all. When playing in handheld mode, the resolution drops, the framerate often dropped as well when the screen got particularly busy. It’s not game breaking, and it performs a lot better than Xenoblade Chronicles 2 did in handheld, but it’s worth noting.
Not only does the world look much better than before, but navigating and interacting with it is easier, too. Now, there is a yellow line pointing to the easiest way to get to your next mainline quest. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this. It certainly made getting through easier for review, but part of the point of Xenoblade Chronicles is exploration and discovery. You can turn it off, but for those of you who want to get back on track quickly, it’s useful.
Adding to the massive scale of this world, there are a lot, and I mean a lot of side quests, not to mention a number of unique monsters to take down, building your reputation and the relationships of people in town, heart-to-hearts between your characters, and more. You can even help rebuild a whole colony that was wiped out by the Mechon. It can be quite overwhelming. Most of the quests are pretty simple to complete and not all that compelling, boiling down to kill this number of monsters, gather this number of materials, and so on. Personally, I’ve always liked the ease of the side quests; I enjoy helping people, seeing my affinity chart in each town grow, and getting more quests. My first time through this game, I did almost everything, and that feels like the best way to play the game. It makes the world feel even more alive. Luckily, side content is much, much easier to complete in the Definitive Edition. Materials, monsters and other tasks for side quests are marked on your map. You might have to reload a few times for that Ice Cabbage again, but at least you’ll know if it’s there this time. This doesn’t make the side quests perfect, but it is such a huge improvement that it should quell many of the biggest previously-voiced complaints.
Another common complaint with the original Xenoblade Chronicles was completing all the side quests made you overleveled for the main story. Luckily, this time they’ve introduced Expert Mode, which allows you to bank experience from side quests, discovering landmarks, and achievements, along with lowering party member levels and banking that experience as well. You have a remarkable level of control over the level of your party members. This reminds me a little of what they did with sidequest experience in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 with even more control, and it’s a nice touch. There’s also an added time attack mode, à la Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which allows you to trade in Nopon stones for cool costumes and powerful combat gems, the ability to adjust character’s outfits regardless of their current gear, effects on the monster nameplate display when they are in a certain state or can deal certain types of damage, and a number of other UI adjustments that universally make this the most user friendly version of Xenoblade Chronicles.
The music has also seen a re-orchestration, which I’ll admit I was a little leery about. Xenoblade Chronicles has always had one of my all-time favorite soundtracks; how can they improve on perfection? Luckily, my fears are almost entirely unfounded. Sure, there are a few tracks I prefer in the original, like Engage the Enemy, but it still gave me chills every time it came on. For the most part, the arrangements are faithful to the original while often making the orchestrations a little fuller. If you don’t like it, though, you can always go back to the original soundtrack. The Japanese voice track is also available, and while the English VA is outstanding, it’s nice to have options for those who want them. Taken together, the voice acting and soundtrack create what is arguably my favorite sound presentation in a video game (and a huge part of why Xenoblade Chronicles is such a success).
One thing that hasn’t changed at all is the combat. It’s still as deep as it’s ever been. Taking many nods from MMORPGs, each character has a set of arts that is set to a cooldown on a palette, and you switch between them with the D-Pad. Positionals, buffs, debuffs, managing aggro, etc. are all important to your success. You can topple enemies to prevent them from attacking so they receive additional damage. Different enemy types require different strategies. There are a number of other important elements, like setting gems to your weapons for passive bonuses, managing tension, developing affinity between the characters, and if you have Shulk in your party, seeing the future when a character is about to die and trying to prevent it. Each character has a unique playstyle, and can often be used in various roles. Whew.
Yes, there’s a lot going on here, and it can be a little obtuse at times, but compared to either of its successors, the combat here feels positively pedestrian. Personally, I think the level of depth hits the sweet spot for complexity. You can get by in this game without engaging in everything the battle system has to offer, but playing around with different party set-ups and finding the right arts combinations to take down a powerful boss is a dream for someone who loves to tinker around in menus like me.
Of course, many of you reading this already know that Xenoblade Chronicles is an incredible game, and might be here simply to find out if the newly added Future Connected is a worthy add-on. The answer is…not really.
Future Connected takes place one year after the main events of Xenoblade Chronicles. It is open from the beginning of the game, so while you could technically play it at any time, you should definitely beat the original first, since it spoils the ending of that one. The story follows Melia and Shulk as they go to the Bionis Shoulder and have their ship taken down in the process. The area is plagued by a creature called the Fog Monster that has made its way through a rift in space. It threatens all life on the Shoulder, and, as it naturally follows, the entire world.
At first blush, Future Connected seems like a great idea. The Bionis Shoulder was an area cut from the original that people are excited to see back, and Melia definitely gets the short end of the stick in Xenoblade’s story. Add to that the lofty expectations created by Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Torna: The Golden Country, and it seems like there’s a recipe for success here.
Unfortunately, Future Connected is no Torna: The Golden Country.
That being said, there are some positive things here, for sure. Exploring the Bionis Shoulder is a delight, with more unique monsters to take down, side quests to complete, a huge open space to explore, and more beautiful Xenoblade music to enjoy. In many ways, it actually feels like a prototype for maps from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, especially Gormott, with its multiple levels and lush greenery. It’s a worthy Xenoblade map in every way, but it feels a little derivative at this point; it’s been done better elsewhere.
The narrative itself has high stakes, but we’re never truly invested in them. Shulk and Melia both have few lines and don’t seem nearly as emotionally invested in the struggle of the people on the Shoulder as they should be. The story itself is also only about 3-4 hours long, with the rest of the 10-ish hours spent on side content, which doesn’t give the player time to get invested in the struggle. It has potential, but ultimately it feels like an excuse to give Melia a better send-off. The writers just didn’t deliver it.
The gameplay is also largely unchanged from the original. You only have four characters to pick from this time, and two of them are new Nopon characters (who, depending on how you feel about Nopons, you’ll either find delightful or grating). The lack of variety in characters means that you’ll likely not be able to use your playstyle from the original game, and will also likely be saddled with either Melia or Shulk as an AI character, neither of whom the game controls well. Future Visions are also gone, taking away one of the most fun core mechanics of the base game.
The new wrinkles they throw in are also unremarkable. Scattered throughout the Shoulder are a group of twelve Nopon prospectors looking for a treasure. If you complete a quest for one of the prospectors, that one will join you and help you in battle. The more you recruit, the more powerful you are. They’re also involved in the replacement for chain attacks, a new all-out-attack. I actually sort of liked this adjustment, since chain attacks are often less than useful in the base game unless you have very specific builds, but it doesn’t change things much.
Even with these new changes, Future Connected feels like a watered down version of Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s not offensive, and in no way detracts from the base game, but it is a missed opportunity for something better.
Regardless of Future Connected, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is a must buy for all fans of RPGs, regardless of your history with the series. It is the perfect example of a remaster done right: it retains everything that is excellent about the original, but updates and smooths things in almost every important way. It’s an amazing time to be a fan of the series, and I can’t wait to see what Takahashi comes up with next.
Oh, and can we get that Xenoblade Chronicles X port now? Please?