If you were around to browse this site about nine years ago, you may have been privy to the rising support for localization of a game called Xenoblade Chronicles. Back then, the title was just a niche Japanese RPG that Nintendo was extremely hesitant to release outside of the country, but the fans saw something in it that seemed to justify the outcry. As time would have it, this was the right move, as Xenoblade Chronicles turned out to be one of the greatest RPGs of modern times and a key marker in Japanese game development slowly rising out of the rut that it had fallen in at the time.
Since those days, Xenoblade has spawned a couple sequels and become a tentpole franchise in Nintendo’s ongoing release schedule, though the original release has taken on a legendary status that its follow ups had a hard time living up to. Nintendo could’ve done a simple half-baked re-release to give Switch owners an opportunity to play it on the new platform, but instead decided to take things above and beyond for Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition. Good news: it lives up to that name. Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is unquestionably the greatest way to experience this gaming classic, expertly layering in new elements over the already wonderful foundation to make for a complete must-have release.
Xenoblade Chronicles has a rather unique premise in how the majority of its story takes place on the massive bodies of two titans who fought each other to the death in long-forgotten times. And though that battle may be long since concluded, the primary race living on the sinister Mechonis titan – fittingly named “Mechon” – are still hellbent on wiping out as many of the humanlike Homs as they possibly can over on the body of the Bionis. The story picks up in the middle of a decisive battle between the Homs and Mechon which leads to a shaky stalemate between the two sides, but one that’s doomed to kick loose at any moment.
Our main character, Shulk, is a bright, young Homs researcher who wiles away his days in Colony 9 during this fragile peace studying the mysterious Monado sword, which was somehow wielded by the Bionis itself in the battle that led to its demise. Shulk’s research is soon interrupted, however, when the Mechon return and completely decimate his colony, initiating a personal quest for revenge that sees him taking the Monado for himself to hopefully finish the war once and for all. Shulk is initially joined by his best friend, Reyn, on this journey, but the two slowly amass a small group of friends and allies along the way who have each been affected by the war with the Mechon and share the desire for the violence to end.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of the story of Xenoblade Chronicles – and something that its later sequels largely failed to recapture – is the masterful balance that it demonstrates between melancholy and goofiness. For example, though Shulk is almost always the optimist of the group and the one who endeavors to see the best in the people they come across, his link with the Monado also grants him the ability to receive random, incomplete visions of the future. These visions are often of his friends dying or of similarly harrowing events, and he is forced to bear the weight of that knowledge not knowing whether he’ll be able to alter the outcome. Not everyone makes it out alive in this story, and that naturally leads to some surprisingly heartfelt interactions as these characters bond over their struggles.
Things are kept from becoming too depressing, however, via the regular and tasteful usage of humour and positive thinking throughout the story. For example, nearly every time you accept a side quest from somebody, at least one of the members in your party will say something encouraging or supportive as you’re in the middle of accepting the request. Or, in another example, the (somewhat annoying) race of Nopon are a part of nearly every community you come across, and their simple grammar and third-person talking style are often played for subtle comedic effect. Between elements like this and the heavier themes of war and loss, Xenoblade Chronicles proves to have a remarkably well-balanced sense of storytelling that keeps you invested as the dozens of hours roll by.
The main draw of Xenoblade Chronicles is that this is an open-world JRPG with a big environment to explore, the likes of which you won't be used to seeing outside of an MMO – though it’s not all contained in one seamless environment like, say, Breath of the Wild. Shulk’s journey see him and his crew making their way to the top of the Bionis, and each portion of the titan’s body acts as its own huge, self-contained area that you can explore at will. Each area is packed with a variety of side quests to complete, secret areas to uncover, and unique enemies to kill and harvest for parts, and most of the environments are built in such a way that really sells the idea of you being this tiny organism traipsing across the splendorous and massive corpse of a planet-sized creature. There’s something about the world design of Xenoblade Chronicles that manages to instill a rare sense of awe in the player, making the adventure that much more gripping as you continue to encounter new astounding sights. Every new area begs you to explore in search of new secrets, and the worlds are designed in such a way that exploration is almost always rewarded with something good.
Along the way, your party will frequently find itself embroiled in combat, which has some nice depth without being too overly complicated. Fights play out in a real-time setting that sees your characters continually auto-attacking while a hotbar of manually-activated skills – called Arts – give you plenty of options for extra actions that are governed by cooldowns. A big part of this system, too, is positioning, where the ideal Art to cast is often dependent on where your character is in relation to the enemy. Shulk’s Back Slash attack, for example, will do twice as much damage if you use it when behind an enemy, while his Air Slash will inflict a slowing debuff on the enemy if he casts it while beside them. This can lead to some intensely dynamic fights, then, as you’re continuously juggling your lead character’s cooldowns and positioning in the moment, while simultaneously planning a few steps ahead as you work to set up combos and chain attacks together.
Underlying all of this is a neat mechanic that nicely ties in with the story in which Shulk will occasionally receive a vision of the future where he witnesses an attack that will take down one of the party members if nothing is done. You’re then given a few seconds to avert this outcome, either by casting an Art yourself or warning another teammate to do something about it. It’s a simple idea and one that doesn’t get triggered a ton outside of boss fights, but it can massively affect your chances of success if you dare to try punching above your weight – and it adds a nice wrinkle to the flow of combat.
Though this base combat is itself varied enough to be interesting for dozens of hours, a big part of its fun factor can be found in exploring the diverse range of playstyles that Monolith Soft has set up with the party members. For example, Reyn’s kit is centered around him having a massive health pool and most of his attacks are designed to draw as much enemy attention to himself as possible. Melia, on the other hand, has a style in which she can summon various passive buffs to benefit the rest of the team, and dispelling any of these buffs will then usually cast a special debuff on the enemy. If you find yourself getting bored of always playing as Shulk, you’re usually free to put whichever party member you’d like in the lead role, and this guarantees that the combat gameplay stays interesting throughout the lengthy journey.
Though your characters gain experience and level-up as usual, there are also various other forms of progression you can engage in to suitably min-max each character’s stats. Over time, each character will learn more Arts that can tweak their playstyle, and these Arts can then be leveled-up individually to heighten their effectiveness and lower their cooldown times. Additionally, each character has multiple skill trees that offer up various passive buffs once you hit certain milestones, and these skills can then be shared between party members via “Affinity”.
What's nice about these interlocking systems for progression is the fact that you're always advancing something at any given point in time. If it isn't a rote level-up, you've probably got an Art that you can advance. If it isn't a new skill unlock, it's a fresh piece of armour you can now afford. Through this continuous advancement, Xenoblade Chronicles entirely avoids any sense of stagnation, which gives the whole adventure an exhilarating and continuous sense of forward motion. It's all too easy to get caught up in doing "just one more quest" and finding that you've lost another hour or two as that "one quest" turns into a dozen.
A big portion of this forward motion is due to the Affinity system, which acts as a catch-all term for the relationships between virtually every named character in the game. Each part of the Bionis usually has at least one large village or community that acts as a hub for all the quests for that area, and completing quests for people there will then raise your affinity in that region. Sometimes this leads to you improving the connections between NPCs, other times it leads to you unlocking new questlines, and as your affinity continues to rise, you’ll then unlock new options for items that you can trade for with the people in that community. What this all amounts to is a remarkably expansive and in-depth take on side quest content, expanding it far beyond what most RPGs do with the idea.
Now, it must be said that the majority of the side quests themselves aren’t all that much to write home about. With a few exceptions, side quests are mostly low effort fetch quests and monster hunts that don’t vary all that much from each other in the bigger picture. That being said, this system works surprisingly well because you can stack as many side quests as you want at a time. In practice, this means that the typical flow when coming to a new area is to first collect every side quest you possibly can, then by simply going out and exploring as you usually would, you’ll usually clear most of them along the way. Another important factor to consider, too, is that these side quests ensure that you are getting the most out of each area, as they’ll generally send you to every nook and cranny and guarantee that you see the most gorgeous views. As ever, your mileage will vary in terms of how you approach the tedium, but suffice to say that there is a substantial amount of content on offer here that is sure to be quite addictive to RPG lovers.
One of the headlining features of this remake is the all-new Future Connected storyline, which acts as a standalone, roughly fifteen-hour epilogue through an area of the Bionis that was cut from the original release. It takes place about a year after the events of the main game, and without spoiling too much, we’ll just say that it delves much deeper into Melia’s character and highlights more of her relationship with Shulk. Gameplay here is kept largely the same as the base game, although the chain attack has been replaced with a slightly tweaked version involving various Nopon that you can find throughout the region in an extended sidequest.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that this new epilogue acts as an absolute must-see part of Xenoblade Chronicles, but neither is it something to be outright dismissed. It’s unique enough in storytelling and gameplay mechanics to feel like a semi-standalone product, but it also doesn’t stray too far from the award-winning formula that made the base game such a fantastic experience. Those of you hoping that this was somehow going to be a mindblowing new expansion will be a little disappointed, then, but it’s quite difficult to complain about finally getting access to previously cut content that’s been given its own standalone story and fleshed out in full. Future Connected ultimately amounts to what is essentially another fifteen-to-twenty hours of original content for Xenoblade Chronicles, which is far from a bad thing given the legacy of this game.
Future Connect is the most notable new content here, but there's also a new time attack mode that acts as a neat distraction with some cool (Pineapple Riki!) rewards. Here, you an participate in short, fixed battles with either a freely picked team, or one that forces you to use certain characters. The goal, as you probably guessed, is to win the fight as quickly as possible, but various other factors of your performance in battle will all affect the grade you receive at the end. Higher grades mean a higher payout, and you can then spend the coins you receive on new weapons and armor sets, many of which are exclusive to the time attack shop. There's nothing particularly exciting about this new mode, but it nonetheless offers up a nice break from the story every now and then, and it can prove to be rather challenging if you want to go for all the highest marks.
Though Future Connected acts as the most marketable draw for this Definitive Edition release, we’d argue that the various nips and tucks made along the way to streamline the game further are what elevate this release leaps and bounds above its already impressive source material. Monolith Soft did a full hundred point restoration of the original release, and has virtually removed any semblance of archaic tedium from the design. For example, side quest objectives are now clearly displayed on the mini-map in real time, and the game will directly lead you to the monsters or item pickups that you need to continue. Or, in another example, the previously clunky UI has been completely overhauled in favour of a new design which echoes the Switch OS UI quite closely.
In light of this, icons are easier to read, battle information is better conveyed, and there’s far less confusion when coming to grips with the finer points of progression or battle systems. It may not sound like features such as this are much to write home about, but there are so many little quality-of-life updates that have been made here that the original feels outright unpleasant to play in hindsight. This is beyond any doubt the smoothest that an entry in the Xenoblade series has ever played; Monolith Soft has smartly integrated improvements from the later sequels while also including even more features that combine to make this an absolute dream to play.
In addition to the UI updates, Monolith also went to the trouble of integrating a scalable difficulty system, too. Those of you that find the journey to be too difficult can enable casual mode at any time to make battles far easier to overcome. On the other end, the 'Inn' system from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 makes a reappearance here as the new "Expert Mode" which can be toggled on or off at will. If it's on, any experience earned from quests or landmark discoveries will be added to a separate shared experience pool for you to manually distribute to your team as you see fit. If excessive questing has led to your party being five or six levels above the current area's enemies, you can alternatively use expert mode to level down as much as you want, with the excess experience going back into that shared pool.
Xenoblade Chronicles has always been a game with a rather modest difficulty curve, but we appreciated these extra difficulty options to appease all camps. Between casual and expert mode, you can fine tune the difficulty to be as high or as low as you want, and it adds even more replayability considering that this opens up the possibility for masochistic 'challenge runs' where you could attempt to play through at the lowest level possible.
We’d be remiss to discuss Xenoblade Chronicles without taking some time to focus on the absolutely incredible presentation on offer here. Though the original was packed with breathtaking visuals, the up-close shots at models and textures revealed that the graphics were humble, to put it nicely. All that is gone for this Definitive Edition release. Textures have been updated, new shaders have been applied, lighting looks better, and character models are more expressive than ever before, splitting the difference between the gritty realistic look of the original release and the much more anime styling of Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Most importantly, Xenoblade Chronicles looks great whether you’re playing docked or handheld, running at 30fps in both modes. Though the dynamic resolution means it doesn’t hit max res on either front, it nonetheless looks to be far ahead of the blurry messiness that plagued Xenoblade Chronicles 2. We’d say this is the best that any Xenoblade game has ever looked, and it certainly deserves to be in the running for one of the most visually impressive releases on the Switch to date.
All this is backed by an excellent soundtrack that has been ‘somewhat’ remastered. Monolith Soft had neither the time nor the funding to get a full orchestra to redo the entire soundtrack, so only certain recurring or popular tracks were retooled for this new release. That being said, there’s not a single track on offer here that doesn’t in some way help to masterfully set the mood. That soaring, sweeping track that plays when you first enter Gaur Plains, for example, perfectly captures the grandiose and awe-inspiring size of the new playground you find yourself in.
We feel special attention needs to be paid to the quality of the voice acting. While the writing can often veer into corny territory, we commend the voice actors for just totally committing to it and playing their roles with a kind of earnestness that’s rare to find in a dub for a JRPG. There’s something oddly comforting with hearing Reyn bray “Whut a bunch’a JOKUHS” for the millionth time after battle, for example, and you may just be surprised at how much the campiness grows on you.
Simply put, there’s almost nothing one can reasonably complain about with Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition. What we have here is an already excellent JRPG that has been improved in nearly every conceivable way, short of a complete reimagining. On top of the fantastic story, enjoyable combat, and incredible world design, Monolith Soft has included an entirely new epilogue story arc while somehow improving upon and polishing up nearly everything in the base game, from progression systems to visuals to UI design. Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is easily one of the greatest RPGs available on the Switch to date, and will no doubt stand the test of time. It goes without saying that if you were ever a fan of the original or of RPGs in general you absolutely must get this game for your collection as soon as you reasonably can. Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a fan, we would still strongly encourage you to think about adding this one to your collection, as this is the standard against which most RPGs should be judged.