Update: Our review is now complete! You can find our final thoughts along with a score on the last page.
If you're one of those adventurous gamers who have experienced the pleasures of Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii, you should have a pretty solid idea of what to expect from its port for New 3DS: A massive open-world RPG journey spanning a good 100 hours of gameplay. It's a huge game, and developer Monolith has ported it over in its entirety to the handheld system.
Given the sheer amount of content in the game, we want to put this version through its paces (despite the fact that its contents, at least so far, appear to be entirely identical to the original game). We'll have a full review before the game's launch on April 10. For now, though, both Jeremy Parish and Kat Bailey are making the journey from Colony 9 in their own respective ways — here are their thoughts so far.
Let me tell you how I play Xenoblade Chronicles. When I come into a new area, I look at all the blank space on my game map and try to see how much I can fill in before some roaming monster with an angry red icon and a level several dozen above my own comes after me and wipes me out in a single hit. I wander around gathering up shiny objects on the ground, seeing which new creatures in the area I can take on safely, and basically treating the current destination flag icon as if it doesn't exist. This is the danger of an open-world game; and it's why I never made it all that far in the Wii version of the game; and it's exactly how I'm tackling the 3DS remake.
There was a moment pretty early on in Xenoblade 3D, when I first stepped into Colony 9 and the game returned control after the little cutscene of the town played out. I swung the camera back around to look out over the area I'd just traveled and my breath caught in my throat slightly. Here it was: A legitimate, large-scale, 3D, open-world game on a handheld system. Crazy.
Others have attempted to tread on this challenging ground before. Dragon Quest IX was a pretty big, free-roaming RPG — but it had a fixed perspective. Gravity Rush had an open 3D world — but the space it covered was fairly compact compared to Xenoblade's world. And there were the PSP Grand Theft Auto games — but they always felt like awkwardly compromised imitations of their console counterparts. Resolution aside, Xenoblade on 3DS feels as huge and immersive as the Wii game did. That's pretty impressive. And I haven't seen any major performance issues, either; the game doesn't move at a silky-smooth clip, but it's very consistent so far.
But just because you can do something, does that mean you should? The verdict's still out on that one, I'm afraid. A grand game like this loses something of its grandeur on a small screen — I love the portability, and I really love the fact that I can use the Classic Controller mode without having a Wii remote dangling from my controller, but there's something missing in this rendition of the game. It doesn't help that the interface design is pure eye-vomit — ugly boxes, ugly icons, ugly fonts. A little more help on the aesthetic front, and ideally some better use of the bottom screen to declutter the top screen (why in god's name is the map not on the bottom screen at all times!?) would be a huge help. I'm enjoying Xenoblade on New 3DS, but something about it feels hollow… and I'm not sure what that is, exactly.
So let me offer something of a counterpoint.
I agree that Xenoblade Chronicles feels almost too big for the Nintendo 3DS, much as Final Fantasy Type-0 HD in some ways feels almost too small for a console. Both games betray their original roots in the way that they are designed. Xenoblade Chronicles offers a huge world to explore, but even on the New 3DS XL's comparatively large screen, it feels sort of scrunched.
That said, it works better on the Nintendo 3DS than I was expecting. First, the pacing feels right, which is always a tricky thing to pull off in a port like this. There are plenty of cutscenes, but they are rarely too long; and in the instances that they do overstay their welcome, they can be skipped relatively easily. Xenoblade Chronicles' pacing is also aided by a large number of checkpoints — a welcome feature that encourages you to keep playing after you die rather than putting your 3DS away in frustration.
Its sheer scope is also an advantage in that there are few 3DS RPGs like it. To this point, the 3DS has mostly followed in the footsteps of the DS, with the bulk of its RPG library being comprised of either sequels (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Pokémon, Etrian Odyssey IV) or games that are deliberate callbacks to the 16-bit era (Bravely Default). By contrast, Xenoblade Chronicles feels like the sort of game that you might find on the Vita, which I consider a good thing. It feels newer, fresher, and more advanced than the traditional 3DS fare.
With that in mind, I've mostly found my journey through Xenoblade Chronicles to be a pleasant one thus far. I've been able to pick it up and set it down with relative ease, the majority of my play sessions lasting from 30 minutes to an hour. Thus far my biggest gripe is that it's surprisingly ugly on the New 3DS. Aside from the rather plain interface, it feels like the whole game is being projected through a fuzzy filter, almost like a Wii game on an HD television. I've gotten used to it to some extent, but I definitely remember it looking a lot better on the Wii. At least the load times aren't too bad.
Don't get me wrong. Despite some misgivings about the suitability of the format, I'm happy this version of the game exists. Yesterday I was foaming at the mouth about the evils of re-releases and remasters, but Xenoblade 3D is the good kind of re-release. The game barely even saw an American release, initially passed over for the U.S. and eventually published here in limited numbers as a GameStop exclusive. It continues to sell for well above its original retail price. Here's a chance for the game to see much wider release on a more viable system than the Wii was by the time Xenoblade originally came over… though admittedly the cost of admission (buying a New 3DS) is a bit too steep for its own good.
Uncomfortable fit for the platform aside, I think my biggest complaint about Xenoblade on New 3DS is simply that Monolith and Nintendo didn't really take the opportunity to improve anything. Besides the god-awful text and icon designs, the localization could have used some tweaking. And I dearly wish I could turn off character voices; I spend most of my time exploring this world in complete silence, because my love for the gorgeous soundtrack can't begin to outweigh my absolute irritation at the constant battle screams and grunts from the annoying English-language voice actors.
Despite these complaints, so far I'm finding a lot to love about Xenoblade 3D. It's a great "chill out" game, thanks to the Final Fantasy XII-esque semi-automated combat and immense open world. In many areas of the game, you don't even have to worry about fighting at all if you don't want to. You can simply roam, explore, collect, and fulfill requests at your own speed. That's exactly what I look for in a portable RPG, and even if the choppy framerate and low resolution make me question the wisdom of putting such a massive game on a tiny system, the leisurely pace and overall flexibility of the game design make me think that maybe it's a perfect fit after all.
So at this point I guess I'd say Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a welcome conversion that probably needed just a bit more refinement. An essential New 3DS purchase? Absolutely, but thinking of all the ways it could have worked just a bit better on this different platform is going to drive me nuts for the next however many dozen hours I play it. I'm not sure what my final verdict on this remake will be, but I'm looking forward to the journey there.