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Many who have played Xenoblade Chronicles believe it to be one of, if not the best game on the Wii. While a technical feat for the system at the time, its graphics are now dated and its UI is excruciating; a notion further validated by the game’s 3DS port. After the success of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in 2017 and Shulk’s appearance in Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Xenoblade found a new audience. With the series popularity at an all time high, the release of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition in May 2020 was a logical move. But does the first game hold up after all these years, or has nostalgia blinded fans to its flaws?
The story and characters are what set Xenoblade Chronicles apart from most other JRPGs. The story revolves around the Homs who live on the Bionis; one of the enormous titans that make up their world. The narrative takes place one year after a war between the Homs and the Mechon. The Mechon are a race of machines that reside on the neighboring titan known as the Mechonis. The game’s main protagonist Shulk is a Homs, enjoying his life as a scientist in a colony which also serves as a Homs settlement. Without warning, the Mechon return and ravage Shulk’s colony. While defending it, he obtains the Monado, the only weapon capable of damaging the Mechon. With the Monado in hand, Shulk swears revenge on the race that destroyed his home.
While this is a simple setup, its execution and evolution throughout the game makes it stand out. The revenge story is the game’s focus, yet as it progresses there is an ever-increasing feeling that there is something larger behind the scenes. There is both subtle and unsubtle foreshadowing of this bigger picture. This is a storytelling technique that, along with other elements, seem to be inspired by 1995 anime hit Neon Genesis Evangelion. This method drops hints that build suspense, making the payoff so much more engaging. What makes all of this effective is Xenoblade’s iconic cast of characters.
Each character brings something completely different to the party dynamic. Shulk isn’t a typical hero or leader. He’s awkward, often conflicted about his actions, and gets lost in thought. However, at the same time he’s caring and lovable. All of these traits are accentuated by the Monado’s ability to allow him to see the future, where Shulk’s decisions regarding the visions he gets drive the story forward.
As for the other party members, Reyn (Shulk’s childhood friend) is the polar opposite. He’s loud, less intelligent, and often acts as a vessel for the player to understand the world better. Fiora is compassionate and kind to a fault, often keeping Shulk and Reyn in check. Her brother Dunban, on the other hand, is a natural leader: stoic, heroic, but attached to his time in the Homs’ military. Sharla is a no-nonsense medic who cares for the party, but she is obsessive over her deceased fiancée. Melia is initially at odds with the rest of her group due to her upbringing, but her energetic and authoritative nature fits her right in with the other characters. Last but not least is Riki the Nopon, who serves as the series’ mascot. He mostly provides comic relief, but still has plenty of great moments throughout the story.
Each character is deeply flawed, yet so lovable. Seeing their arcs unfold alongside the ever-intricating story and solid supporting cast keeps you engaged with both. This is because they are tightly knitted together by Shulk, the titan’s conflict, and the Monado.
The gameplay comes in three sections: exploration, battles, and the affinity system.
The exploration of Xenoblade Chronicles sees you traversing the huge environments of the Bionis. These range from urbanized colonies, vast forests, a boundless sea, and snowy mountains. Exploring each of these areas is important as you can find landmarks. These landmarks are checkpoints that give you experience, access to secret areas, a variety of items, side quests, and unique monsters to fight so there’s always something to keep you exploring.
The only problem with this is that some area maps are too large for their own good. This is especially apparent when compared to the frequent small number of landmarks. This makes some side quests and unique monster battles an absolute slog. There is a newly added autorun system, but it only moves you forward. This means that you might leave the game for a second and find yourself running off a cliff. This can waste a lot of time during exploration. While it may sound a little irritating, sometimes it does incentivize exploration — but that doesn’t happen as much as it should.
Battles in Xenoblade Chronicles are completely different to the standard turn-based JRPG. There are no random encounters, and enemies are all scattered around the map, giving you the option to fight or avoid them. In some cases, enemies attack first if they see or hear you. During battles, each character has a set of eight different special moves called Arts (and one Talent Art), which links to a character’s individual mechanics. The key to combat is to understand the best time to use each character’s Arts and apply that knowledge to understand the best party for any given battle.
This requires understanding each party member’s strengths, weaknesses, and roles. For example, Shulk is handy to have in the party if you’re fighting Mechon, because the Monado can damage them and allows others to as well. Reyn, on the other hand, is more useful against enemies that deal high damage. One thing the game doesn’t really tell you to do is to switch your party up. Playing as all the different characters and experimenting with all their different Arts lets you get the full experience of Xenoblade’s combat.
If you just want to experience the world and the story, you can switch the game to Casual Mode and breeze through battles. Additionally, there is a party gauge, which allows you to revive party members or save up for an extra powerful chain attack. On top of all of that, each Art for every character is upgradeable and each character has passive abilities that can be shared across the party through the affinity system.
Xenoblade’s affinity system is another unique way the game ties the other sections together. Through interactions in battles, conversations with NPCs, and the characters exchanging gifts the party eventually grows closer as friends. From a story perspective, this unlocks heart-to-hearts. These are extra cutscenes that come in the form of a conversation between two party members and develops them in a way that wouldn’t fit into the main cutscenes. During gameplay, having a high affinity between party members means that you can share more passive skills to make up for each character’s weaknesses, and also allows you to increase the length of chain attacks for even more damage.
As for side content, Xenoblade Chronicles doesn’t disappoint. While exploring the Bionis, there are secret areas in each section, alongside a ton of collectable materials. You can use these in a ton of different ways. For example, you can use them as gifts for the affinity system, trade them with NPCs for better things, fill the “Collectopaedia” (where you get rewards for collecting every item in every area), or you could just sell them. The biggest use for the knick-knacks you collect is the Colony 6 reconstruction side quest. Here you can use the materials you get from exploration and battles to rebuild a colony that was destroyed by the Mechon. This unlocks new shops, sidequests, and material gathering points. You can also find characters in the other settlements to bring over to Colony 6 to unlock even more things to do there.
A Mixed Bag Of Sidequests
As for Xenoblade‘s sidequests, their overall quality varies. Some are cute little micro-narratives with special cutscenes and a story to engage with. Sadly, the better quests are drowned out by hundreds of fetch quests, “kill X amount of this enemy” quests or “kill this unique monster” quests. Even some of the better quests in the game fall into these categories, but the rewards outweigh the monotony. Most quests will give you experience, money and equipment. However, some give you new skill trees, a higher upgrade limit for Arts and even entirely new Arts.
Through all this, you increase your affinity with settlements you visit. This unlocks better items in shops and more interesting quests, which act as payoffs for the boring quests. Other than their tedious nature, the only other problem with Xenoblade’s sidequests is that the story is so laser focused that there’s never really a point where it feels right to take a break and relax in old areas. You have to stop yourself from continuing the story so that the side content doesn’t become an inaccessible mass of busywork. If that wasn’t enough, the game has three optional super bosses, 200 achievements, and a newly added time trial mode. Here, you fight hordes of enemies as quickly as possible for new cosmetic armor.
Making The Numbers Bigger (And Looking Good While Doing It)
Weapons and armor in Xenoblade Chronicles are both statistical and cosmetic. In the original version, optimizing stats could lead to pretty stupid results. A prime example is using heavy armor as upper body armor and a swimsuit on the lower body. As a constant reminder of your mistake, your currently equipped armor shows up in cutscenes too. In the Definitive Edition, the game now has the cosmetic armor feature from Xenoblade Chronicles X. This allows you to choose the look you want for each character without affecting their stats and making them look like this:
On the topic of stats, each piece of armor has a certain number of gem slots. They can have anywhere from zero to three slots. You get these gems by mining and refining elemental ether crystals from across the Bionis. The efficiency of crafting is determined by which two party members you choose to craft them as well as the whole party’s affinity. The gems themselves provide just about any statistical boost you could ever want, allowing you to customize or optimize each party member the way you want. Alternatively, you can avoid using gems entirely. Every battle (apart from the super bosses) is just as manageable with or without them.
I have mentioned Casual Mode, time trials, and the cosmetic options, but there is much more. If you wanted an extra challenge from Xenoblade’s combat, there is Expert Mode. This mode, taken from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, pools all of your experience points. You can either lower or raise your level to match the challenge level you want from the game.
The most important change to Xenoblade Chronicles in the Definitive Edition is the updated UI. Before, Xenoblade’s UI was a nightmare to look at, with an unclear compass to direct you to the next destination, uninterpretable icons for each menu and no way to know what materials you need for Colony 6 without going there. Now there’s a minimap with a clear guiding system for both the main story and side quests, easier navigation, health bars to make healing easier, and clear indication of what you need for future quests.
The other obvious update to the Definitive Edition is Xenoblade’s art style, which is was what allowed many to overlook its graphical limitations on the Wii and 3DS. Now that the game is on Switch, its characters and world have never looked better. You only need to look at the change in any of the main character’s models to see the difference.
The graphical updates not only enhance the character models, but they also bring the gorgeous environments of the Bionis to life. Gaur Plains and Valak Mountain looked great on the Wii, but now they shine and feel more alive. The updates also allow the original artstyle to stand out more, with a greater sense of scale in each area and clearer changes during the game’s day to night cycles.
The music is another of Xenoblade‘s greatest aspects. Each of the composers that worked on the soundtrack bring something unique to it without clashing with other pieces. The soundtrack has been updated so well for the Definitive Edition that the original versions of each track pale in comparison. The only track I don’t like is the one that plays when you change the future in a battle. There’s no way to turn it off, and after the two-hundredth time it just gets irritating. Other than that small gripe, the team really outdid themselves with Definitive Edition’s soundtrack.
Xenoblade’s English dub is as iconic as it is infamous for its cheesy lines like “I’m really feeling it” or “now it’s Reyn time”, but it is a ‘love it or hate it’ situation. The highlights for me are Adam Howden’s emotional yet sweet portrayal of Shulk during cutscenes, and Melia’s regal yet somber voice acting by Jenna Coleman (yes, that Jenna Coleman). On the other hand, there are voices like Reyn’s that fit the character, but just become irritating in serious scenes. One minute I love the voice acting and the next it’s unbearable. Luckily, if you can’t stand it you can change the voices to the Japanese dub or even turn voices off altogether.
Addressing A Concern
As a final point, around the game’s launch Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition received criticism over its performance in handheld mode. While I did see framerate drops once or twice alongside a lot of textures popping in, I can safely say that it didn’t ruin the game or exaggerate any issues with it.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is a fantastic game. It has an immediately engaging story, great characters, a unique style of gameplay for the genre and a breathtaking world. The Definitive Edition’s new content on top of the base game’s customization options allow you to enjoy the game however you want. The updated visuals and soundtrack make the experience even more unforgettable. There is a ton of side content and a New Game +, so I can wholeheartedly say you can’t do much better than Xenoblade Chronicles for anyone looking for a meaty JRPG to sink their time into.
I haven’t included my thoughts on the Future Connected expansion that comes with the game, but I will address it in a separate review aimed at people who already played the original and still aren’t sure about this version.
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