Xenoblade Chronicles: The Definitive Review

Xenoblade Chronicles is an open-world JRPG originally released on the Wii in 2012 in North America. It was developed by Monolithsoft and published by Nintendo. A remaster / remake with an extra story chapter was released for the Nintendo Switch in 2020. MSRB is $60. I played and reviewed the original Wii version back in 2019 — if you with to read that review, click here.

This will be the first game I’ve ever reviewed twice on this blog. In my first review, I mentioned that Xenoblade Chronicles was an epic adventure in desperate need of a remaster. Having released on the Wii, its visuals have aged poorly, and even before I had finished the story, I was wishing for Nintendo to make an improved version of the game. I never expected Nintendo to actually do it! I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity.

Upon a second playthrough, I’m convinced that Xenoblade Chronicles is an unequivocal masterpiece.

The little blue exclamation points are a big help for newcomers just learning the combat system.

I stand by almost everything I said in my initial review. The RPG combat system, while complex, is satisfying to master. Your party members attack automatically, and it’s up to the player to manage special moves called Arts, as well as positioning, chain attacks, and many other mechanics. A little detail that I appreciate is that the player seamlessly can transition from exploring to battling and back, never breaking that seamless immersion in the game’s world. To make the game even more approachable, the game will even give a little red exclamation point over an art that would be useful at a given moment. For a game that has as many moving parts as this one, any little bit like that helps.

Exploration is also given a few quality of life improvements. Story markers make it clear where exactly to go, and you can even set a path to help navigate. Quest items also get special markers to help, meaning you have less aimless wandering for an item you need — though it also highlights a flaw in the game’s quest system, but we’ll get to that later.

The game is truly the visual remaster I was hoping for. The bizarre world set on the Bionis is realized in all of its true glory now. The upscale makes every landmark and vista stand out even more. The moment I saw the trees begin to glow in Satorl Marsh, I knew they had done it right. No area feels ordinary. Your typical “grassland” area has these towering columns, like eroded cave roofs, looming above you. Your typical “snow level” has ice crystals that glow gold at night. Your typical “water level” is illuminated by meteor showers. It was a shame that so much visual spectacle was held back by the Wii, and that potential is finally rendered to the degree that it deserves.

You and me both, Reyn.

Unlike the environments, that were simply remastered, the main cast of characters has been remade from the ground up. Their designs have been slightly tweaked to closer match the style of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I think the redesign works; nothing feels lost. As far as personality goes, all of the party members begin as archetypes that you might recognize, such as Reyn, the burly “tank” type; or Melia, the regal “summoner” type; but they all grow as people and become more than how they started. Upon a second playthrough, though, I noticed that most party characters remain stagnant once they complete their arc and take a backseat as new characters come in. Thankfully, Shulk, the protagonist, never stops growing. He begins on a journey for revenge but ends up learning more about the bigger picture. Thankfully the writing for the most important character in the story is the best.

Upon a second reading of the plot, I realize that the game is a masterclass in foreshadowing. Shulk acquires the ability to see visions of the future, and the game soon settles into this pattern of revealing to Shulk details of a future major event, leading the player along to that event, and how they can change the results of that event. The game won’t pull punches, though, when Shulk fails to change the outcome of a bad vision. As a player you never know what exactly will happen. When Shulk meets the people involved in these visions, the pieces gradually come into place and they pay off with big reveals. That’s not all, though. The story sprinkles foreshadowing into almost every cutscene — barely any interaction happens without some overarching purpose, to the point that the early game’s dialogue has double meanings to almost every line. I’m impressed how many layers they could fit onto that plot.

The story isn’t perfect, however. The changing list of villains maintains the tension of the plot while changing the theme, but not every antagonist is equal. The best villain, by far, is Metal Face. The first half of the game is this satisfying arc from feeling overwhelmed by him to finally becoming strong enough to defeat him. The second villain, without going into spoilers, has a different result, and he accomplishes a different narrative purpose. I still appreciated him. The final villain helps achieve an epic climax, but they’re the least interesting of all the enemies.

That’s not the only beef I have with the game. The game’s exploration works best when you are discovering new places and completing the handful of the game’s story-heavy sidequests. The game feels more dull by the sheer bloat of busy-work sidequests, the kind that just asks you to “Kill 5 of these monsters” or “Collect 2 of these resources.” It gives you something to do while exploring, and the rewards are often good, but the actual quests aren’t intrinsically fun to do. The quest marker system helps you get them out of the way faster, though, and thankfully the story-based side quests offer better content, with several challenging fights to finish.

Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is my #4 Switch game of all time, sitting behind Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. That’s good company for it to be with. The combat system holds up well, the world is beautiful, and the story weaves stunning a thematic tapestry. If you’re new to Xenoblade Chronicles, this is absolutely the first one you should play, and I envy that you’ll get to play it without knowing anything about it.

There’s also an epilogue side game called Future Connected, similar to Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s DLC: Torna the Golden Country. I’ve decided to give that a review all of its own as well, but that will have to wait until next time.

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