At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I can’t stress enough just how great the Nintendo Switch has been for re-housing underrated games from Nintendo generations past, and how perfectly some of its best exclusive JRPGs fit within the console’s feature set. While the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles might not have been quite as ill-fated as the recently-ported Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, it also stands to gain more by making an extra generation leap and thus earning the right to a modernised visual overhaul. It’s not often I spill the tea right in the intro paragraph to a review, but I really feel I need to be upfront with this – Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is exemplary.
Even if all that this release entailed was a simple HD upscaling of Xenoblade Chronicles it would be worth anyone’s time, as the original game still stands as one of the finest JRPG epics to date. Monolith Soft has gone far beyond the call of duty though, giving the game a massive visual makeover and a laundry list of important quality-of-life changes that makes it feel wholly fresh and means that it has a whole new generation of JRPGs to compete with, and still exceed.
Xenoblade Chronicles’ broad narrative of ‘country boy inherits magic sword and uses it to save the world’ isn’t exactly innovative in the genre, but there’s far more to it than first impressions would suggest. For starters, the game’s world is far from traditional, borne from a battle between two enormous beings called the Bionis and the Mechonis. Civilisations now live on these long-dead gods, with humans (or Homs as they’re called here) and other races and creatures living on the Bionis and the Mechonis inhabited by the evil, robotic Mechon. The war still rages on between the two nations though, and a young weapons researcher named Shulk finds himself at the centre of it all when he comes into possession of a mysterious sword called the Monado. This powerful weapon quickly becomes the catalyst in a 60-plus-hour story that sees Shulk and friends traversing these lands, making new allies and uncovering a deeper mystery along the way.
Xenoblade Chronicles truly succeeds in building a world that’s rich, full of interesting and well-written characters and actually feels tangible and lived in. It’s all very JRPG, but in the best way possible, and it’s made all the better by a visual style that perfectly complements the story of absolutely epic proportions. Whether roaming the rolling, green fields of the Bionis Leg, the lush and magical Makna Forest or the winding and mechanical Mechonis Field, the sheer size and scope of each area is just as impressive now as it was nine years ago. Now though, these impossibly huge locales are that much more arresting thanks to the Definitive Edition’s near-total graphical upgrade. With new textures and geometry, new lighting models and effects, increased detail and draw distances and more, there’s almost nothing here that hasn’t been touched up for the Switch release and the results are staggering. That these environments could even exist on the Wii originally is confounding enough, but seeing them brought to a modern standard and subsequently playable on a handheld console is something else.
But while the new and improved environments are still a rough stylistic match for their original counterparts, it’s Xenoblade Chronicles’ cast of characters that have seen the most dramatic shift in the Definitive Edition. Gone are the awkward, stretched faces and terrible (see: no) lip-syncing of the Wii release, and in are brand-new models completely redone and reanimated throughout. The new designs are a touch more ‘anime’ than before, blurring the lines between Chronicles/Chronicles X and Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s more cel-shaded and brightly-coloured roster. There’s always the chance that’ll rub some the wrong way but I thoroughly enjoy every one of the new designs, which look fantastic and fit perfectly into the game’s overall aesthetic. Aside from the occasional small hitch in places, the whole thing runs nicely on the Switch in either docked or handheld mode, though it can drop to some shockingly low resolutions at rare moments when things get hectic. For me, TV was the way to go for a game as rich with detail as it is stuffed with text and UI elements but it still plays perfectly fine on the Switch’s handheld screen.
The game’s music has also had a similar makeover, with brand new orchestrations breathing even more life into each location and scene. The new compositions are excellent across the board, sounding more full and nuanced than before. Interestingly there were just a couple of occasions where I felt the original tracks perhaps had a bit more punch in their simpler forms, but luckily the soundtrack can be switched back and forth between old and new at will.
Outside of the presentation, the team at Monolith Soft has done an exceptional job of retooling almost all of the game’s menu and UI elements to be significantly easier on the eyes and less clunky than the original. Not only does the move to HD mean the in-game UI looks much cleaner and takes up less screen real estate, but small, thoughtful updates like the way an exclamation will appear next to battle Arts that are right for the current situation or the helpful prompts that appear if you’re struggling against a tough enemy make for a vastly more accessible game without watering down the challenge. That is, unless, you should choose to take advantage of the new Casual Mode, which makes the game easy enough that anyone overwhelmed by the dense RPG systems and unique flow of combat can get by and focus on enjoying the adventure. Conversely there’s also a new Expert Mode, which I didn’t have the guts to delve into but which actually allows players to bank experience and adjust their character levels down for a self-imposed challenge, similar to the Inn system in Chronicles 2.
The true triumph of Xenoblade Chronicles’ transition to a pseudo-portable console is that the game is surprisingly suited to the pick-up-and-play experience. There are the requisite long-winded cutscenes and multi-stage boss battles that make it a classic JRPG, sure, but there’s a quickfire mentality to its mission structure and extraneous activities that mean it’s easy to jump into on a morning commute to smash out side quests or just go hunting for big game and elusive spoils. The fact that most of the game’s side content boils down to simple fetch quests hardly matters in the face of how casually fun it is to just roam its expanses and beat up monsters, and the fact that the most fetch-y of these quests will automatically turn in without you needing to check back in with the quest giver has re-ruined me for every JRPG that still doesn’t work that way.
All of this already more than justifies Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition’s existence as a brand new, full-priced game (and there are still so many new things I haven’t spoken about), and yet there’s even more to this package than just the original game. Available from the main menu from the moment you boot up, Future Connected is a brand-spanking-new epilogue story that picks up a year after the end of Xenoblade Chronicles and sees Shulk and Melia take on a new adventure alongside two fresh Nopon faces, Kino and Nene.
Without spoiling Future Connected’s events (and certainly if you’ve not played the base game before you should finish that first) the 10-12 hour story takes place primarily on the Bionis’ shoulder, a previously unexplored location, and one that compares in size to some of Chronicles’ larger spaces. Though some might argue that this new portion doesn’t add much to the overall narrative the character writing is still fantastic, as is the voice acting. In fact the epilogue’s Quiet Moments, essentially replacements for Heart-to-Hearts in the main game, are now fully voiced and make for the most interesting new insights. I might be mobbed for saying this, but the whole thing almost feels like a really good fanfic made canon, which is to say there’s an understanding of the characters and their world at play here that makes it a fascinating and thoughtful addendum regardless of the immediate plot.
Given the new lineup, quite a few of the game’s combat mechanics are tweaked in this new section, including the replacement of Chain Links with some assistance from a team of Nopon called the Ponspectors. Finding each of the dozen or so Ponspectors in the field and assisting them in their research will secure their aid, at which point they’ll follow you everywhere, assisting in battle and unleashing huge coordinated attacks once your party meter is full.
Though having a full platoon of Nopon joining the fray can make combat significantly busier and harder to follow it makes for a fun change of pace, only really becoming frustrating when the Switch itself struggles to keep up and the framerate and dynamic resolution take a (sometimes horrendous) dive. That aside though, Future Connected actually looks even better than the original portion’s update, likely due to it being built from scratch. It’s also a lot more streamlined with things like Gems coming straight from ether deposits rather than being crafted and quest givers with multiple requests handing them out all at once.
In the end, Future Connected winds up being just as engaging as Xenoblade Chronicles’ legacy content. Though it might not be remembered as an essential component, it’s a welcome return to some of its beloved characters as well as a fun, brisk visit to new lands. It didn’t need to happen, but it shows the developer’s commitment to this universe and it’s an incredible bit of added value to an already-complete package.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is without a doubt one of the most impressive and generous examples of a video game remaster that I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Taking a bona fide JRPG classic that already holds up in the face of its modern peers and giving it a top-to-bottom refit is a great move, especially when its new home on the Switch allows for a better playing experience overall. Though I wish the Switch had that little bit more oomph to truly push the game into crisp, high-def glory on all counts, it’s still a sight to behold. Future Connected is the cherry on top as well, making this an unmissable experience for newcomers and veterans alike.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher