Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii had a slightly messy localisation and release schedule in the West, with North American gamers even victims of a retailer-exclusive distribution. Its arrival late in the Wii lifecycle didn't help its cause, and those troubles on arrival were far from ideal for an RPG that is exceptionally large and, to those without about 100 hours to spare, borderline inaccessible.
Despite these factors it was undoubtedly a hit among devoted fans, and the arrival of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D gives gamers around the world a second opportunity to enjoy this sprawling adventure. It's a remarkably impressive technical achievement, matching its Wii source material in almost all aspects but screen size.
For those unfamiliar with this Monolith Soft title it fits snugly into the JRPG category, particularly that group of games that demand full commitment and dedication in order to see the credits. Many modern development trends strive for linearity and deliver experiences that are over in a dozen hours or less, but this subscribes to an entirely different model. In moving through a number of vast areas that encompass one enormous world, you embark on a quest with plenty of twists and turns, a sprawling plot and a legitimate sense of wonder. When you throw in the occasionally vital side-quests and tasks to the main campaign, you have a title that'll occupy most players for months, not days.
The initial setup for the plot is relatively simple - there are two inactive, enormous and once-warring mythological beings called Bionis and Mechonis; the former is home to a range of creatures and human-like races, while the latter is the source of Mechon, mechanical villains that lay siege to those on Bionis. There's some dramatic lore and backstory here - with the iconic Monado weapon integral to that - but the focus of the storytelling is admirably character-driven. It's easy to forget how borderline outrageous the overlying concept is due to some respectable and earnest writing, in which you're likely to care more about main protagonist and Monado-bearer Shulk and his various colleagues - such as Reyn and Dunban - than the fantastical complexities of the world and its conflict.
It's excellent writing in that structural sense, though as with the Wii original there's plenty of clunky dialogue in the localisation. It comes across as largely charming, especially as an accompaniment to primitive character animation that was inevitable for a game of this scale on limited hardware, though our view remains from the original that the almost exclusively south-east England voice cast can fall the wrong side of trite. Cockney 'geezers' cackle their way through proceedings as deadly mechon with faces, while Shulk's "I'm really feeling it" and Reyn's "It's Reyn time" loop ad-nausea - those particular examples have since become chuckle-worthy internet memes. It can get wearing after a time, and sadly this New Nintendo 3DS version lacks - at launch - the original Japanese voice-track that provided a welcome alternative on Wii. Time will tell if this gets added at a later date via an update, but with the game already proving too much for the microSD card which ships with the New Nintendo 3DS, we're not holding our breath.
Two things define this experience, then - the extraordinarily large and vibrant world is one, but the gameplay and depth on offer are also fundamentally important. Beyond the core of exploration and combat Monolith Soft developed a truly impressive set of foundational mechanics. Our heroes level up, naturally, while there are various weapon and armour categories to manage for each crew member. There are a host of statistics to accommodate, along with debuff and critical hit percentages, and these can be supplemented by linking Crystals to specific equipment; naturally you collect gems that you can fuse into crystals, for that little bit of extra complexity.
On top of that there are more items besides. You can earn or acquire manuals that boost your Arts levels - more on them shortly - or collect all sorts of odd items that you can sell or hoard. There are limits to your inventory space, so you'll find yourself assessing descriptions of animal hairs and scrap parts to try and figure out whether they'll likely be required in the future; if not they're useful for getting quick cash. The many NPCs in each part of the world often throw up collection quests, and while those that are ongoing mark the relevant inventory items to avoid mistaken sales, it's wise to try and guess which items will be required later on.
The economy and sub-quest system at work here is beautifully balanced; sub-quests are worth pursuing - though 100% completion is for the very few - as they bring experience points, equipment and vital cash. This isn't a title where it's easy to buy all of the best equipment, but rather it insists on you earning the privilege. It's the right side of fair, in the context of an undertaking as hefty as Xenoblade Chronicles, and fulfilling sub-plots, re-building colonies and boosting affinity with NPCs - the latter being yet another facet of the whole package - all add variety and, occasionally, a respite from the full-on storyline. It's all necessary and worthwhile.
Acquiring resources and levelling up are the key tasks for progress as this adventure ramps up. It's useful, then, that the real-time combat mechanic is so well structured and enjoyable that it makes repeated battles - big and small - entertaining. When a battle is initiated with three or less members of your party you can immediately lock on to targets and direct your AI partners to fight at will or focus on your opponent, which needs to be managed carefully if tackling a group of foes. You have free movement throughout - though dodging attacks is down to your character's stats, not actual movement - and can position yourself for automated basic attacks.
It's in Arts where the battles come into their own, however. Whether you're directly controlling Shulk or another member of the party - which vary from 'tanks' like Reyn, to gunners like Sharla and more besides - you activate key moves at the right moments by selecting from a row of icons with the D-Pad. These all have specific impacts, which can be to 'break' an enemy ahead of a useful 'topple', temporarily putting them out of the game, to applying a Sleep affect or even protecting and healing allies. Some attacks are most effective from specific angles, as well, necessitating you to position yourself to the side or behind a foe - initially this can all seem daunting, but it becomes intuitive and second-nature given time.
The strategy at play becomes increasingly vital with progress to the later stages of the game, particularly with Shulk and the Monado; we suspect most players will use Shulk as their main playable character. Some enemies require Chain Attacks to be charged and unleashed in order to cause damage, while for others specific Arts and debuffs have to be used to attack effectively. The combination of movement and Arts management works wonderfully, while protecting, aiding and utilising the strengths of various members of the party is critical. The fact that levelling up Arts with acquired experience points is an extra area on which to focus should come as no surprise - like many other aspects, it commands attention to detail.
The difficulty level in key story quests will show most players, too, whether they've paid enough heed to grinding, completing sub-quests and levelling up across the various areas of the game. Enemy levels should typically be similar or a little weaker than those of your team, and being ill-prepared will slow down core progress a great deal. In a nod to some accommodation among all of this complexity, however, your entire party levels up with progress, not just the three that are actively being used at any given time. Affinity only improves among those active, but completing quests thankfully benefits all of your playable characters.
When you combine the dense structural depth with this strategic, clever real-time combat, you're left with a thoroughly involving, entrancing experience. The scale of the overall quest for the end credits is truly daunting, yes, but the gameplay remains fresh and compulsive.
As the first title exclusive to the New Nintendo 3DS this release does face - however - a slightly odd predicament. It is, we feel based on all we've said above, the very definition of a home console adventure for which you set aside sessions of 2-3 hours at a time. Portability can be a benefit occasionally, if you jump in to hunt down a specific collectible or clear a sub-quest, but if you advance the story or trigger a cutscene it's a long-haul effort. That is in no way a criticism of the game or the hugely impressive job that Monster Games has done porting it from Wii, but a recognition of reality. This is a game to play in a comfortable seat and with plenty of time to spare, so there'll be occasions for legitimate yearning to play on the TV; you can do that with the Wii - or with backwards compatibility on the Wii U - version and lose next-to-nothing in terms of the extra treats you'd miss from this portable iteration.
The extras that are here on the New Nintendo 3DS are limited, though the latest portable hardware is necessary to get the game to run and to accommodate the old Classic Controller button layouts. You do put every button to use in various ways, whether dishing out instructions or locking onto enemies, and the C-Stick works well in manoeuvring the camera; we seemed to upset the calibration of the C-Stick a few times that required restarts, however. There's also a de-cluttering of the top-screen that's welcome, with the touch screen showing a mini-map and the all-important statuses of your party - that said, the complex menu systems and battle Arts are still on the top screen. It's a logical if low-fi use of the dual screen setup, so in that respect Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a natural fit.
Beyond that there's minor use of StreetPass and the Shulk amiibo. These revolve around the Collection menu, which will delight fans with its unlockable 3D character models and music tracks; the music can be played through headphones when the system is in Sleep mode, too, rather like in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. You need to use tokens to grab these extras, with one token earning you a random pick - where duplicates are possible - and three tokens guaranteeing a new item in either category. StreetPass hits and Play Coins can be used for tokens, while the Shulk amiibo works very simply in a similar manner to non-Link figures in Hyrule Warriors. You can scan Shulk once a day to earn 3 tokens; it is, rather appropriately, a tokenistic and unremarkable implementation of amiibo.
That is all rather throwaway, in summary, so the question of whether this is a better option than the Wii original is up for debate. Considering how rare and expensive the home console original can be in some regions, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a fantastic option. It delivers a technical marvel in producing this sizeable experience on a portable, with only minor detail lost visually, a framerate comparable to that on Wii - always sufficient for gameplay, albeit with some drops - and some nice stereoscopic 3D to enjoy. It feels very much like an indication of what could be possible in the future, as home console and portable distinctions potentially melt away.
For those with access to the Wii version, however, that original remains the best option. That brings no shame to this port, but is a recognition that an experience like this is best enjoyed in the luxury of a comfortable chair with a decent-sized TV. When the landscapes are this gorgeous, the art design so rich, we feel the desire to appreciate them fully on a large, clear display. We're hopeful Xenoblade Chronicles X on Wii U will deliver just that, and with that in mind Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is - for those with a New Nintendo 3DS and a yearning to experience a Monolith Soft classic - a perfect warm-up and accompaniment.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a high-quality port of one of the Wii's most demanding yet brilliant experiences. A sizeable and stunningly diverse world, full of wildlife and fantastical cultures, is admirably recreated for the small screens of the New Nintendo 3DS. Its natural home may be on the TV, but this release gives more gamers an opportunity to set off on a lengthy and dramatic adventure. A brilliant portable version of a true classic, fans of RPGs willing to commit themselves to the task of saving Bionis shouldn't hesitate to pick this up - it is, quite simply, the biggest world we've experienced on such small screens.