The Switch’s latest remaster is one of the most acclaimed JRPGs of the last decade, but there’s more here than just updated graphics.
Nintendo has never been one for traditional Japanese style role-playing games. Technically Pokémon is one, and there’s things like the Mario & Luigi series and elements of Fire Emblem, but in general Nintendo shies away from the anime stylings of other established franchises. The big exception in modern times has been Xenoblade Chronicles, which despite only modest levels of success has enjoyed two sequels and, with this release, is now on its second remaster.
Xenoblade Chronicles was first launched on the Wii almost exactly 10 years ago. Until a fan campaign ensured otherwise, the game was never originally going to be released in North America, which is why it has an unusual all-British voice cast. But eventually the game made it out everywhere and inspired spin-off Xenoblade Chronicles X and still-not-a-direct-sequel Xenoblade Chronicles 2. There was also a remaster of the original on the New 3DS, but while that never really made much sense this new Switch version is exactly as a definitive as its title promises.
As a remaster this does everything you’d expect, with higher resolution visuals (up to 720p when docked and up to 540p in portable mode), some upgraded textures, a remastered soundtrack, and redesigned menus. But the Definitive Edition goes a significant step further by also including a brand new, and surprisingly lengthy, epilogue which can be played right from the start as a separate adventure.
Although the plot of Xenoblade Chronicles is typical fantasy nonsense, involving chosen ones and a magic sword that grants clairvoyant visions, the setting is interestingly unusual. The entire game takes place on the corpses of two gigantic techno-organic gods who died fighting each other centuries ago. The mysteries of their origins are left for you to discover, with the more immediate concern being a robot army called the Mechon, that lives on the more robotic of the two titans.
There are still a lot of clichés in Xenoblade Chronicles, especially in terms of the characters (the naïve youngster, the grizzled veteran that barely looks old enough to vote), but none of their stories are quite as predictable as you first imagine and it’s only a shame the dialogue is usually so unremarkable.
That’s another indication that Nintendo of America wasn’t involved in the game’s initial localisation and while the voiceovers do have their fans, they’re definitely an acquired taste. You get the distinct impression that some of the actors think they’re voicing a kids’ cartoon and while few are outright awful we still prefer the Japanese voices.
The storytelling in Xenoblade Chronicles is component but little more, and so it’s the combat and exploration where the game shines. Developer Monolith Soft helped out a lot on Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and in retrospect it’s easy to see the connection, with huge rolling landscapes filled with secrets and incidental details, as well as Monster Hunter style creatures which will often just ignore you if you don’t start a fight.
You control characters directly but once a battle begins the game’s unusual combat system kicks in and everyone begins to attack automatically. There are some similarities to Final Fantasy 12, in that you’re encouraged to think in terms of tactics for the whole party at once, but you also have to control the movement of your current character, with the attacks they’re able to perform depending on their distance from the enemy and proximity to any weak points.
The basics of the combat are unusual but straightforward, although they do get increasingly more complicated the more options you open up. Everyone has their own range of special abilities, all of which have unique uses and deployment rules, and the idea of aggro is especially important – the idea that one character is willingly the focus of an enemy’s attacks, giving the others a chance to outflank it or prepare a special attack.
Whereas some Japanese role-players seem to revel in wasting your time, Xenoblade Chronicles understands how valuable it is. The game’s unusually generous in terms of the lack of punishment for dying and the way it recharges your health outside of battle, with no need for separate items. You don’t have to return to most quest givers to complete a mission and you can manually adjust the time of day for missions that happen at a specific time, keeping busywork to a minimal and ensuring the game is as accessible as possible for non-fans.
There is a fairly step learning curve at first, with a lot of easily forgotten tutorials, but the game’s never as difficult as it first seems and more complex elements, such as character customisation and gem-crafting, only become more important later on. Although if things do get too much there’s a new causal mode you can switch to if you come to an impasse. For those not used to Japanese role-players it’s perfect, except in the fact that you’ll wish others were as cognizant of your limited time and experience as this is.
Xenoblade Chronicles was always one of the best looking games on the Wii and it has polished up extremely well on the Switch, to the point where the epilogue in particular looks far better than supposedly major releases like Pokémon Sword/Shield and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There is the issue that the 3DS version had, in that there is so much on-screen information, especially during combat, that it can be hard to make out on a small screen but you do get used to it.
As for whether the Definitive Edition is worth getting if you already played the original, we’d have to say that it probably is. The epilogue is at least 12 hours of extra content and while we obviously can’t spoil too much about the story it takes a place a year after the original, in a brand-new open world area where all your characters start at level 60. It’s longer than some games are in their entirety and goes a long way towards justifying the remaster still being full price.
Xenoblade Chronicles was always one of the best Japanese role-players of the last generation and it feels no less impressive now, with visuals and a fantastic soundtrack that stand up remarkably well 10 years later. There now seems every reason to expect a Xenoblade Chronicles 3 at some point in the future, and hopefully that will further help to prove that Japanese role-players can be fun and accessible for everyone.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition review summary
In Short: One of the best Japanese role-players of last generation is still one of the best on current formats, with an excellent remaster that includes a generous amount of new content.
Pros: Huge game world with an unusual setting and lots of interesting exploration and side quests. Unique combat system remains interesting throughout. Great music and quality of life features.
Cons: Often banal dialogue and the voice-acting remains an acquired taste. Cluttered on-screen interface and steep learning curve.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Monolith Soft
Release Date: 29th May 2020
Age Rating: 12
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