Does Xenoblade Chronicles hold up on the Nintendo 3DS?
I'll be honest, now that I'm making a serious attempt to play Xenoblade at long last, I'm surprised by how unengaged I am. The entire concept of the game demands I love it, and I had really liked what I played of it on Wii. I guess you could point to the problems of the 3DS conversion (or rather, New 3DS conversion) as the culprit here, but really I think it's more a matter of me finally having played far enough into the adventure to get into more of its core mechanics.
Let's rewind to something you said: "And it can be downright nerve-wracking to get a vision from the future telling you that a powerful attack is on the way, leaving you to fumble for Shulk's Shield ability, or some other counter." I agree! But not really in a good way. Those future visions are nerve-wracking, because you do end up fumbling with the controls. There's no elegance to the game. It feels clumsy through and through, and while I love exploring Xenoblade's world I've taken to sighing in annoyance when my party gets dragged into battle. At best, it's going to be time-consuming; at worst, some over-leveled mob is going to wade in and kill everyone.
You make an MMO comparison, which I think is apt. Xenoblade definitely goes for the open-world real-time vibe of an MMO, and it succeeds. But is that really such a good thing? The problem I have with most MMOs is that they sit in a weird in-between zone of game design: They offer the immediacy of an action game with the sprawling complexity of a PC RPG. Even with the most considerately designed interface, such as Final Fantasy XIV's hot cross bar or whatever it's called, you're either fumbling through too many commands in the heat of battle (which feels clumsy) or paring your actions down to a regularly used set (which becomes repetitive).
I don't know. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I'm too much of a purist for a game like Xenoblade. I want my action games to be crisp and responsive, and I want my complex games to allow me to take my time and pore over menus. Xenoblade falls into an uncomfortable space in between that I've never really enjoyed. I had been counting on Xenoblade to change my mind, but I guess there's just no avoiding my own inherent nature. All of this isn't to say I'm not enjoying the game, because I have been... but I find myself gravitating more toward Etrian Mystery Dungeon, which has a much less grand style but feels a lot more put together, and a lot more down my alley. Truth be told, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D's biggest accomplishment has been to remind me how irritating it is that Square Enix still hasn't converted Final Fantasy XII to Vita…
Four years ago, I spent some time with Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, but I never got very far. Still, I liked what I saw enough that I made it a point to eventually come back to it. Now that I have, I find that my emotions about it are likewise mixed, which is partly due to the fact that it's encumbered by the visual compromises of the 3DS port.
So I'll just get this question out of the way: Should you buy Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo 3DS if you've already played it on the Wii? No, you're fine. The port brings no meaningful changes to the table outside of portability, and it's kind of ugly to boot. If you haven't had a chance to play it, though, then keep reading.
So one thing that jumps out at me about Xenoblade Chronicles is that it is in fact a deeper RPG than I first supposed. There are a lot of little touches throughout, from the way that the Monado impacts boss battles, to the gems, to the distinct roles played by each party member. I found it interesting that the Monado is incapable of harming biological creatures, forcing me to juggle my party to compensate.
Xenoblade Chronicles can be quite tough at times, and if you're underleveled, some of the boss battles are really intense. One particularly nasty fight pits you against a monster called the Solidum Telethia, which is capable of using a technique called Soul Read to make itself all but unhittable, and an accompanying assassin. Shulk is pretty much required for his Purge ability, which wipes out Soul Read, but he's next to useless against the assassin. I ended up rolling with Shulk for Purge, Dunban for his damage potential and ability to quickly build the party gauge, and Riki for his bulk and healing abilities. I felt a little like I was playing a variant of World of WarCraft where I was controlling all three characters at the highest possible speed. At its best, it could be exhilirating.
Having said that, though, there's plenty about Xenoblade Chronicles that has left me feeling cold. First, there's the cast, which varies from decent but forgettable (Shulk, Dunban, Reyn) to outright irritating (Riki). Look, Riki looks cute, but I don't know that it was a good idea to cast a man in that role. We've already ragged on the voice acting a bit in this review, but I feel like Riki in particular is worth calling out.
I will say that even if the characters themselves aren't especially interesting, I still really like the way they're designed. The Mechons in particular are great, mixing elements of the Angels from Evangelion, Terminators, and Decepticons (they can turn into fighter jets — so cool). The same goes for the main party members, especially once they start to pick up a lot more gear. I wish I had more use for Sharla because I love that big old sniper rifle that she carries around.
The story, which follows Shulk as he battles the Mechons and slowly uncovers the secret of his sword, does its part to keep the action moving; but like the characters themselves, the writing doesn't quite do justice to the splendid art. In some ways, it feels like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, with the One Ring being replaced by the Monado. Reyn, at least, reminded me a lot of Samwise Gamgee, while Shulk was like a more homicidal Frodo.
In any case, I eventually began to tire of the story and found myself inclined to skip through more and more of the scenes, with the story memos being used to figure out what to do next. On top of that, I felt like many of the later quests were overly padded out to extend playtime. I'm always irritated when I arrive at the entrance to a dungeon, only to find out that I have to go to two separate islands to hit some arbitrary switch.
It's moments like that where I feel ambivalent about Xenoblade Chronicles, on top of the fact that I had a hard time getting invested in the story and the characters. It's a beautiful-looking game with a pretty solid battle system, and it really brings with it a sense of scale that I haven't seen on the Nintendo 3DS, but it falls short of the home run that I was expecting.
What really hurts it for me, though, is that it's just not a great port. It was always hurt a bit by being stuck in standard definition; but on the Nintendo 3DS, it looks far worse. It feels as if the visuals have been overlaid with a grit filter, which in turns serves to obscure the lovely landscapes and terrific character art. I eventually got used to it, but the visual compromises required to get Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo 3DS felt excessive.
Anyway, is it worth playing? Yes, I think it's a good, solid JRPG that's worth playing, and it can be a great time sink on the Nintendo 3DS. But if possible, try and find a copy of the original and play it on the Wii or Wii U instead. This is a game you'll want to experience on the big screen.
The massive landscapes are great, and the art is often very attractive. Unfortunately, it all looks so muddy on the Nintendo 3DS that the details often get lost. The compromises in this instance are disappointing.
"What a bunch of jokers!" Get ready to hear that line a few thousand times. It's a shame that the voice acting is so bad because the soundtrack is phenomenal, and it's particularly great with headphones.
As we discussed earlier, the interface is simple and often quite ugly, with no touchscreen functionality to speak of. It works, but it feels like a missed opportunity.
Xenoblade Chronicles should last you a minimum of 40 to 50 hours. It feels a bit padded out, with many of the secondary quests being drab fetch quests, but there's a lot of meat to this RPG. It'll keep you busy for a long time.
Xenoblade Chronicles is an above-average RPG hamstrung by a really bad port. From the muddy visuals to the barebones interface, it's hardly a visual showcase for the New 3DS. It has merit, and its best qualities still manage to shine through on the small screen, but it's definitely not the optimal way to enjoy one of the more celebrated RPGs of the last generation.