The second Xenoblade for the Nintendo Switch isn’t an entirely new game, it’s a remaster of the original Wii Xeno-venture from back in 2010. As the first entry in what would become one the best action-RPG franchises in Nintendo’s stable, like many, I didn’t really pay too much attention to it at the time. Even though word on the street was that it was legit great.
Fast-forward and smash cut to ‘Five Years Later’, and Xenoblade Chronicles is ported to the then brand-new Nintendo 3DS. Not a lot has changed from the original, other than the game running at a lower resolution to squeeze all those Xenoblades onto a tiny 3DS screen. This time though, I played Xenoblade. Well, some of it. In a strange twist of fate, I bounced off it quickly - even though it was quite good. Definitely ‘my bad’ there.
By 2015 there was a substantial Xenoblade fan base bubbling up too, with the game already appearing on a few ‘Greatest RPGs of All Time’ lists. A fact that filled me with some regret. But, screw regret because now we’ve got the definitive edition of Xenoblade. Called Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, this remastered version for the Nintendo Switch offers everyone the chance to experience and play what is, to put it mildly, one hell of a journey. In a package that definitely lives up to its title, definitively.
Okay, so this is the point in our story where I let you in on a little secret – my favourite RPG of all-time is Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Getting the chance to visit the original and see how my beloved franchise started? An exercise in pure joy. On the story front this review won’t spoil any of the main beats, because like any great RPG or soldier in Daenerys’ army this is an experience best enjoyed unsullied.
I’ll start off by saying, the games in the Xenoblade Chronicles series – like the Final Fantasies - are typically stand-alone and aren't directly tied to each other. Which means they can be played in any order. So then, what are we going to talk about for a few thousand words outside of the story and what happens to [redacted] after [redacted] [redacted]?
Well, this game is huge – so let's start with combat.
That thing you do a lot of in this game, and well, just about every other action-RPG. If you’re coming from Xeno 2 (me and my boo are so far beyond formalities we’ve got dozens of pet names), then the combat system in Xeno 1: The First is simpler and best described as action turn-based. Once you initiate battle and/or aggro an enemy, combat begins. Every character's default or go-to movie is an auto-attack, and from there you select an action from the ‘Arts’ bar covering special attacks, buffs, and other abilities. Each action has its own cooldown before you can activate it again and with the ability to choose up to eight Arts for each character you take into battle, well, that’s where the deep depth lies.
“The Definitive Edition isn’t just about giving the graphics a makeover, a brand-new haircut, and a closet full of stylish clothing to wear - it’s also all about bringing several quality of life improvements to the experience.”
The Definitive Edition isn’t just about giving the graphics a makeover, a brand-new haircut, and a closet full of stylish clothing to wear - it’s also all about bringing several quality of life improvements to the experience. For example, protagonist Shulk (cool name by the way) has a side and back-attack ability you can use in combat. Where, if you’re exactly to the side of an enemy you get a chance to do bonus damage. This is great and all, but with some enemies in the game, it's impossible to tell what direction they’re facing. This is where you say, “Dude, just take a look at their face”. And this is where I respond, “Girl, this game be putting me up against small bugs and gas clouds”.
One key QoL update that warrants a bonus check handed out to whoever put it in is the little mark on your ability bar which lets you know when an ability is most effective. Solving the gas cloud problem once and for all with some aspects of combat no longer a guessing game. A small thing sure, but it’s one of those little things that makes the entire experience so much more enjoyable.
Another small, but not so small addition, is the health bar. Weirdly, in the original release each character's health would just be their current health out of max health in number form. Yeah, a decision that makes about as much sense as that description. All you need to know is that with a bar representing health as a percentage, in addition to the numbers, Xenoblade Chronicles combat is now easier to read at any given moment. Sorry boo, had to go all formal there.
Continuing our travel down the Road of Changes (that aren’t graphics) a potentially controversial one comes in the form of the new quest-tracking system. That thing that shows you where to go and how to get there. For me, it’s one of the best additions they could have brought to the game because like Xeno 2, Xeno Chro 1 is huge. In fact, it's hard to express the sheer scope of the adventure without devolving into a string of “Your momma so fat…” jokes. That’s just how I was raised – poorly and exclusively by VHS tapes and Saturday Morning Cartoons.
The simple fact is a big part of Xenoblade is side quests, and if I can be for reals honest for a mome, most of them are generic. Collect three of this, deliver this package to this NPC, defeat x amount of a monster x in valley x. In the original release, you’d collect these quests and were told which area you could complete them in. But that’s like saying “Oh that Skyrim quest? That’s somewhere in… Skyrim”. Xenoblade Chronicles is so massive the areas in this massive game are massive.
They’re awesome to explore though, so quest tracking lets you do just that without spending large quantities of time trying to clear out your quest log. Xenoblade Chronicles is a long game too, taking over 100 hours to complete if you want to see and do most things. In the age of shame piles and so, so, many games to play, the new breadcrumb trail on the map gives a clear sense of direction and purpose to help you navigate the ginormous world. When the alternative is wasting hours trying to find some Sour Beetroot and then finding it in the corner of a map in the exact last place you looked – might just make it the remaster’s killer feature.
Of course, side quests are totally optional, but if you want to unlock special conversations called “heart-to-hearts” and experience the additional stories between your characters, they’re a must. For fans of the old ways you’ll be glad to know that obtaining the items needed for Colony 6 construction remains untouched. In that the game won’t hold your hands here, so it will feel like space-travel, the old-fashioned way.
Another neat feature added is Expert and Casual modes. One of the problems with the original Xeno Chron was that if you were a completionista and wanted to complete all the side quests before moving on, you’d be vastly over-levelled. OP even. To counteract this, there’s the new Expert Mode. An opt-in and opt-out-at-any-time feature that is simple and brilliant. What it basically does is instead of giving you all the experience for killing an enemy, discovering a landmark, or completing a quest, you’re given a percentage of the total.
“The simple fact is a big part of Xenoblade is side quests, and if I can be for reals honest for a mome, most of them are generic.”
The remaining experience is then put in a reserved section, like some sort of superannuation scheme. It’s such a great balancing feature for completionists and for those that want that extra challenge in an RPG. We’d love to see it implemented in other games. It mirrors how Xeno 2’s XP system worked, but unlike Blade 2 you don’t have to sleep to apply reserved experience. You can apply it at any time, or even lower your character’s level if you want that extra challenge.
With so many systems, equipment variations, and equipment mods, Xenoblade Chronicles is challenging. Applying the same balancing stick to the other side of the pool, you’ve got the new Casual Mode. Now, I’d love to talk about it or even let you know how it works but you’ve got to understand that someone in my shoes wouldn’t dare turn it on. It wouldn’t only ruin my street cred, but my reputation at home. Even without manually selecting baby’s first Xeno, I’ve heard that if you fail the same battle a few times a UI notification pops up giving you the option to enable it. The nerve of Xeno to treat me like that. I mean, I wonder what that would feel like.
Like that famous scholar Rockinald J. Balboa said, “Life's not about how hard of a hit you can give, it's about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.”
Which brings us to the story. Don’t worry, the no-spoiler rule is still in effect. What you get here is epic to a fault. One the reasons many love the Xenoblade series comes down to the wonderful storytelling featured within, and sure, characters can be cheesy, and some of the dialog can dip into the land of cringe, but all the lows help build tension towards the sweet release that comes from the glorious highs. There are twists found throughout Xenoblade Chronicles that would not only impress M. Night Shyamalan but a beach-bound Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes too.
One of the biggest reasons for dipping into a remaster benefits the narrative side immensely. Yep, it’s Graphics Talk time.
First up, characters and enemies. They’ve all been given a substantial and impressive makeover, which makes sense when one of the biggest regrets from the game’s director was the concessions the team had to make here due to the Wii's hardware limitations. More in-line with the look and feel of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, they not only look great, but you’re also given the option of altering appearances. New pieces of armour can drastically change the look of your character, and with the option to override each equipment slot's appearance with items you’ve had at least once in your inventory it’s both a masterful and personal touch. Now you can keep rockin’ that Colony 9 look throughout the entire journey. With all cinematic sequences, flashbacks, flashforwards presented in real-time, the team spending a lot of the remaster effort on characters has been well worth it.
“One the reasons many love the Xenoblade series comes down to the wonderful storytelling featured within, and sure, characters can be cheesy, and some of the dialog can dip into the land of cringe, but all the lows help build tension towards the sweet release that comes from the glorious highs.”
Shiny new graphics fans will be pleased to learn that the environments have been given the remaster treatment too - with higher resolution textures, improved lighting, and shader effects. Advanced stuff too like the addition of ambient occlusion and the water given screen-space reflections ala Xeno 2. The visual updates alone give the now dated original a much-needed face lift. But like with any facelift given to an aged appearance, sometimes you can see the old Wii polygons beneath the surface. Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition isn’t a built-from-the-ground-up remake like Final Fantasy 7 or Resident Evil 2, so changes to the environment are mostly surface level.
Usually, I play my Switch games in handheld-mode whilst taking public transport to and from, err, places people used to go to. They have a name… offices. In these strange times, I played the majority of Xeno Chro in docked mode. Performance wise, it runs exceptionally well. The use of dynamic resolution scaling helps keep a Rocky Solid Balboa frame-rate. As for the big differences in handheld mode I noticed that screen-space reflections were turned off to maintain a higher resolution. One of the many sensible concessions made to have it still look good in handheld, and overall, the image quality is less crunchy than Xenoblade 2.
With or without the visual updates the environments are impressive. Staggering in scope, to the point where every now and then you’ll stop to simply look around and marvel at the breadth of it all. Split into different regions (Xenoblade takes place on a giant creature, somehow I forgot to mention that), discovering landmarks opens up fast-travel – and weirdly, this is one area where Xenoblade Chronicles feels next-gen. The act of transporting and travelling between landmarks in a region happens in an instant. No loading screens, no delay, no matter how far apart they are. And if you were to travel to another area, there’s about a four-second load time max.
With all the talk of Solid Snake Drives for the PS55 and Xbox Story Z it’s remarkable how quick you can jump from area to area in Xenoblade Chronicles. Around 20 hours into the game, I wanted to re-visit Colony 9 (the first area) and the speed at which that was possible was surreal. Like travelling three weeks to Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, and then a few seconds later – Shazbot! - you’re back in The Shire because Sam forgot his foot-hair comb.
One clear point made when this remaster was first announced was that the UI was getting an overhaul. Loading up Xenoblade Chronicles on my 3DS version to see what they meant, and the difference is huge. This time around the UI not only looks great, it’s also cleaner and polished with little conveniences littered throughout. Equipment screens are now much clearer and show you more information. If you’re a newcomer, this is not only good on the ol’ eyes but a huge improvement because Xenoblade systems aren’t always straight forward. There’s a lot to learn.
Weeb purists will be happy to know that the Japanese voices are included in the localised release, and it's easy to switch between the two any time you’re out of combat. With the other of the two choices being a sort of formal King’s English, either option is great. One welcome addition in the audio department is the remastered soundtrack. It doesn’t stray too far from the original score, but you can now hear individual instruments clearly with the orchestral score sounding richer and fuller. A major improvement in the clarity department and worth putting on your home surround or stereo system setup. As with the voices you can switch between the original and the remastered score, but with the improvement being such as it is, I don’t know why you would.
If you’re a Xenoblade newcomer, I can’t stress enough how huge and awesome this game is. You could easily sink over 100 hours in the main story and side quests. If you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, well you’ll be glad to know this is on par with that masterpiece. And as a nice little bonus you’ll be awarded 100K of in-game gold at the beginning of your quest. Even though you’ll burn through that cash quick.
This Definitive Edition package also features a new standalone story called Future Connected, and similar-ish to how Xeno 2 handled its standalone DLC it changes up the combat. But unlike that prequel affair this one takes place after the main event. You start off at Level 60, with the only gear carried over being costumes. The combat refresh adds a new flavour to attacks that is tied to the story being told which makes it less ‘more of the same’. Very cool. You can access the Future Connected campaign from the very start too, but fair warning, doing so will prompt a “this will spoil everything” message.
“If you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2, well you’ll be glad to know this is on par with that masterpiece.”
In the end Xenoblade Chronicles is as grand and all-encompassing as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and this Definitive Edition presents a wonderful remaster of an already excellent RPG. From the expansive and gorgeous worlds to explore to the memorable story and the stellar soundtrack. For those that have played the original the main story is all about the face-lift, with the new stuff reserved for the Future Connected expansion. So it’s hard to say if this is worth picking up for the visual update alone. If you’re a newcomer though, or curious about the series, do yourself a favour and pick it up.