10 years ago, in June 2010, Nintendo published an ambitious project which many would see as outside their usual realm. Xenoblade Chronicles was originally only released in Japan and did not begin to make its way to the rest of the world until the following year. One of three games that became the initial focus of Operation Rainfall, a fan-led campaign for Japanese RPGs to make their way to the west (the other two being The Last Story and Pandoras Tower). I was lucky enough to have owned all three of these titles around their localisation as I managed to pick them up in our local Blockbuster closing-down sale. Sadly though, when I was fifteen I had a short attention span for games of this calibre – little did I know the collection would be worth a fortune today.
When Xenoblade Chronicles was released, it was an instant hit due to its deep rooted story and interesting take on the classic JRPG combat-system. However, with such a small print-run, not as many people managed to get their hands on this game as it deserved. With the recent release of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition on Nintendo Switch back in May of this year, many more of us had the opportunity to finally play the best version of this game.
Before I officially start reviewing the game itself, it’s worth mentioning a few details. First, I will not be reviewing the epilogue chapter of the game. The reason? I just haven’t played it yet, and I don’t know if I will for a long time – I’ve sunk 50 hours into the main story in just over the space of 10 days and I need a break from it, which is OK. Second, the review format will cover the standard sections (story, gameplay, graphics, replayability etc). Now that those are out of the way – lets get into the review.
What’s the story like?
The story takes place on the titan, Bionis, and his enemy, Mechonis (see above). The titans are two gigantic beings which at the end of a great battle, become the world in which our protagonist, Shulk, and his home Colony 9 reside on the Bionis´ Leg. Already, I found the concept of the world incredibly interesting – I don’t think it has been done before. At the beginning Shulk is your typical JRPG protagonist in many aspects. He’s seemingly weak and needs protecting all the time by his childhood friend, Reyn (the star of the show). That is, until he encounters the Monado.
This is probably a good point to briefly highlight a bit about the Monado and the events leading up to the story. One year before Shulk begins his story, Dunban (known as the hero of Colony 9) wields a sword – the Monado – which can seemingly cut through the forces of Mechonis, the Mechon. Not much is known about the sword except legend says that the Monado is the weapon wielded by the Bionis in the great battle. The sword seems to only be able to be used by Dunban, but it carries a heavy cost for him to use – eventually leaving him unable to wield it. This leaves the Monado without a user, and under the supervision of Dickson (a major side character), Shulk begins to research it.
The story gets off to a bit of a slow start following the trend of the genre, however, the story-telling becomes something that engrosses you. You spend maybe your first few hours finding your feet, being introduced to some of the core characters before you begin your adventure. Its slow start is needed to introduce you to all the systems in the game, it can make for a bit of a dry beginning but I would suggest sticking it out – at least until 10 hours or so to make your decision about whether or not you will keep playing.
The middle hours of the game – between about 15-35 hours playtime – is what I would suggest is the strongest, most enjoyable part of the story. Your party will almost be full and Shulks’ character develops to a point where he isn’t nearly as annoying. The game throws many twists at you in the middle, but what really kept me gripped at this point was the overarching narrative of the titans. Learning more throughout the game about the Bionis, Mechonis and the Monado, are really key parts that kept me engaged. The story of the main characters is almost a typical revenge story, one where vengeance is the main goal until Shulk begins to discover other reasons for his fight.
For me, the end of the story is really overshadowed by something which I found incredibly disappointing – Mechonis. You spend a good portion of your time making your way through the Mechonis interior, which I just found dull. Floor by floor, level by level, you must travel all the way from the foot of Mechonis up to the core and for me, it was mind-numbing. The design of the interior was interesting as it was made to look like a gigantic factory within the body of Mechonis, but there was no variety in design apart from the short moments you went outside. This area lasted roughly around 6-8 hours for me which was exhausting, I felt let down as I expected more.
I think overall, the story is strong, it was the overarching world building story that kept me so interested. The characters and their stories are interesting, however, without the gameplay systems in place – the story could be considered sub par.
Is the gameplay anything new?
Short answer, yes. For me, the battle-system is what makes the game – its slick, intuitive and actually requires some thinking. The system requires the player to consider their positioning, combos and party to be able to defeat your foes. Special attacks – known as Arts – may provide bonus damage or a debuff if the player is positioned behind, or at the side of the enemy. Chain-attacks are another chance to inflict big damage by selecting specific arts that create opportunities for the next party member to capitalise on. Usually, these involve debuffs that affect the stance of your enemy – known as Break, Topple and Daze. Depending on your Tension in battle, there is a chance you may be able to continue your chain attack, leading to massive damage possibilities.
Your party really has an impact on your playstyle. I was relatively basic in my usual party, using Shulk, Reyn and Sharla to allow team the sustainability to last long fights. However, there are so many combinations of party to choose from that you really could attempt so many playstyles. The player is not limited to only controlling Shulk, but they can control any of the seven party members. Each one plays relatively different from the last, and if you check any guides out there, they often recommend different compositions depending on the boss. For me, the battle-system brought enough variety and entertainment to keep me interested throughout and – when you begin to hit those massive damage numbers – you can’t help but smile.
The game is not exactly open-world like its Wii U successor – Xenoblade Chronicles X – however, it is divided up into significantly large area-maps. There is plenty to explore here, and many side-quests to complete along the way. The thing is, the side quests are incredibly boring. I feel like I’m playing World of Warcraft with the endless stream of fetch, find and kill quests. Each area offers up a string of each kind of quest – leaving you completionists with plenty to do – but mostly they just suck. The only quest type that I really find interesting are the challenges. The challenge quests tend to ask you to confront a special type of monster that is patrolling certain areas – almost acting as mini-boss battles – giving you higher rewards for completion. However, I got to a point in the game where I only wanted to proceed in the story, but the monsters began to out-level me too much. This left me stuck, needing to grind out side quests before I could proceed which is a shame, because it somewhat makes me happy to see the back of this game.
The definitive edition brings a lot of quality-of-life features to the game which makes the experience much more user-friendly. Things like:
- A new arranged soundtrack.
- Indicators letting you know when you are in the correct place for Art abilities.
- Change appearance without affecting stats on equipment.
- Casual mode and Expert mode to decrease/increase the difficulty respectively.
- Sidequests now include a guided path and markers on the mini-map.
- The UI is now more user-friendly.
Obviously, one of the biggest additions is the new epilogue chapter – Future Connected – which takes place in an area cut out of the original game and lasts around 10-20 hours. The definitive edition really is just that, this is currently the best way to experience this game. The improvements make the game much easier to get into than the original on the Wii and even the re-release on the 3DS. The definitive edition also overhauls many of the textures, which I will now go into below.
Does the game look good?
By far, this game has never looked better. The game originally on the Wii, looked pretty impressive for the time, but the game lacked vibrancy. I truly believe that when the developers set out to create the Bionis, this is the colour palette that they actually had in mind for it. The game is pleasing to the eyes and if I had to pinpoint one area that really looked good I would choose Valak Mountain. This dusk filled mountain range is populated with crystals projecting beams of light up into the sky – a real storybook scene. In all honesty, there’s too many beautiful areas to really say a bad word about them. Eryth Sea is another that looks incredible, I would spend half my time panning the camera up to the sky.
The character models have all been reworked, such attention to detail made the cutscenes more enjoyable to watch – overshadowing a sometimes dull English voice cast. One of the dodgy parts of the game which has to be mentioned is that it would have been nice to see more effort put into the lip-syncing. For most of the length of the story this is of little bother, but there are a few moments where I would feel disconnected because of this detail or lack thereof. However, what I would say is this, if you are looking for a visually stunning game that fits right at home on the Switch, Xenoblade Chronicles is a good place to start. The games sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, does in fact look more impressive, but considering this is effectively a remaster, it’s a great job.
Will I ever go back?
Honestly, apart from going back to complete the epilogue chapter at another date, I don’t think I will. The game is a brilliant experience, the world building is incredible, but the main story wouldn’t hold me for another playthrough. The issue is, there are plenty of good RPGs out there, and I don’t know if I would actually want to go back and give the game another 50+ hours for the same story.
I can understand that people want to complete every little bit of the game, and for some the story will hold a lot of value for them, but I can think of a number of stories that captivate me in gaming – often at less than half the time. Maybe I just have an issue of attention span, or maybe I tried to do too much, too quickly. All I know is this, I probably won’t be coming back to this game anytime soon.
What this game has done for me however, it´s introduced me to a franchise that I will continue to explore. Since its release, Xenoblade Chronicles has led onto a massive open world adventure-rpg and a direct sequel. I have owned Xenoblade Chronicles 2 since I bought my Switch around 2 years ago, but I never could get into it knowing I wanted to play the first game in the series. Additionally, I sure as hell hope we see Xenoblade Chronicles X make its way to the Switch with the number of other ports coming to the console.
Nintendo have outdone themselves bringing a game which had such a big cult-following into the mainstream Nintendo Switch line-up. To me, what this shows is that Nintendo can bring top-tier, first-party RPGs to the table. We have the likes of this, Bravely Default, Octopath Traveller and many more all showing that Nintendo really does have a place in the JRPG market today.