When I review games, I play them in a vacuum, as if I've been kicked down a hole with no way out. I hiss at sunlight; I eat only garbage food. I have no access to anything about the game outside of what the public knows. There are no helpful casual conversations with friends; no guides to quickly Google if I get stuck on something. It's rare, then, to review a game where the opposite is the case. Xenoblade Chronicles from Monolith Soft made its debut back on the Wii in 2012, and dredged through even muddier textures on 3DS years later. And with Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition on Nintendo Switch, I basked in the internet's embrace of it.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition triggered something in my brain. Unlike my usual side content sampling, I wanted to chase the impossibility of 100%-ing it. I looked to old GameFAQs guides and other fan wikis in my pursuit. There was something compelling about this old internet journey—wading through almost-decade old guides to learn who is the best at Gem Crafting (Shulk and Reyn, duh), or where to find collectables needed to rebuild Colony 6. This quest molded my experience like no other game before. Xenoblade Chronicles is obtuse and overwhelming, but not so obtuse that someone hadn't already figured it all out to a science years ago. I feel like an expert now.
For the Definitive Edition, it appears Monolith Soft bundled up all the complaints that have plagued it over the almost-decade, and ironed it all out. The garish, more rustic-looking UI has been swapped for cleaner text boxes and smaller text, akin to 2017's Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Its battle system remains far less busy than its numbered sequel. Side quests have map markers that are now actually completed upon actual completion, and the bulk of them no longer require Shulk and company to run all the way back to god-knows-where on the giant god of Bionis to find the quest giver. Inventory management is surprisingly straightforward now, even with more collectable, negligible items than I can still feasibly count. Melia's face looks like a normal face now. There's even a new Time Attack mode like recent Xenoblade Chronicles games.
Xenoblade Chronicles is now a much better game for these changes. It is the best kind of remaster: it seems like it's exactly as you remember it, but is secretly much better. The most noticeable new trait is really that it looks much better now, save for the always-blurry environments. But is it the classic it's always been raised up to be? That's the question I mulled over during my 80-ish hours with it.
The Power of the Monado
Xenoblade Chronicles released in a time where many thought the JRPG as we once knew them were dead. It felt like a direct answer to both MMORPGs and open-world video games upon its late release in the West, which were trending upward. Its auto-combat system felt different and fresh. Its world was in no way linear, and in fact, overwhelming in its openness. Today, that openness feels emptier than it once did. The Definitive Edition even now implements an "auto-run," as if it's apologizing for how stupid-big every environment is.
Yet, the overall setting of Xenoblade Chronicles is immediately wondrous; it feels like it belongs in the SNES-era of RPGs due to its unparalleled worldbuilding. The hero is Shulk, and he and his two best friends Reyn and Fiora live in a civilization constructed on the empty shell of the god Bionis, who is forever locked in a fatal blow with Mechonis, their nemesis. Shulk's home is on the Bionis' Leg in particular—something of a continent in this world. Meanwhile, the Mechon from Mechonis are a threat thought to be defeated one year prior to the start of the game. Of course, this being a JRPG, that turns out to not be the case.
Shulk comes into possession of the Monado, a mysterious sword that reacts strongly when he first wields it, giving him the possession to see things before they happen. The sword's origins, and the pursuit of finding one's motivations for saving the world, are what drives the plot. The story drags for a long time in the back half, but largely I enjoyed the overall journey.
For all that glistens, it also shows its age in 2020.
Grinding is rampant, and there's no indicator for what level I should be before rushing into the next mainline quest. I often found myself having to load back the save prior to initiating the next main quest, so that I could skedaddle off to level up through side quests. Xenoblade Chronicles made me a ravenous side quest chaser, as I would pick up any and all side quests in each town for some reason. When I got to the section where building up Colony 6 was an option, I revisited caves and other areas in pursuit of silly collectables with weird names like Kneecap Rock.
The side quests are largely forgettable save for a very scarce few. Kill this exact type of Mechonis three times; collect two Sour Grapes. The net experience gained is almost always worth it; the gear I got from completing the quests severely less so. Still, I did as many as I could anyway because I love having a crystal clear map and zig-zagging my way to main quests, I suppose. With the exquisite reorchestrations of Xenoblade Chronicles' soundtracks, I never even felt compelled to turn on a podcast while doing some this hours-long side questing. (For those curious: Yes, the old soundtrack can be switched to from the pause menu at any time too.)
Meanwhile, the battle system is similarly the opposite of elegant, even with its shiny UI makeover. Characters auto-attack, which hit in a specific damage range depending on what weapons, armor, and gems—like Materia in Final Fantasy 7—are equipped. Each character has a number of Arts abilities, which as the leader are selectable via the D-pad's left or right, and operate on individual cooldowns. Arts range from physical damage to inflicting status effects—an Art move that inflicts Break sets up another character to use an Art that inflicts Topple, which stuns the enemy into a vulnerable position. It's a lot, and that's not the end of it.
All the while, there are meters to keep track of in the Party Gauge, as well as one's party affinity for in-battle effectiveness—a.k.a., how much the party actually likes one another. (This is improved via side quests, or giving gifts.) One Party Gauge meter can revive a fallen comrade, or directly instruct what Art a companion should use in a dangerous situation. Otherwise, the Party Gauge is most useful when it's full, which can engage a Chain Attack wherein all three members inflict Arts in immediate succession, making the Break to Topple and so on all the easier. Xenoblade Chronicles' battle system is always a lot to keep track of, but hey, at least it's not the mess that is its numbered sequel.
Shulk is the default leader, but as the party builds out, anyone in the seven-person party is playable, with two others chosen to be at their side. Party dynamics, in this way, vary dramatically, even just with who is in what order when considering Chain Attacks. But the same issues that were prominent in the original game remain here: Shulk and Melia have frankly stupid AI. When not playing as them, the two are barely effective. Shulk won't utilize his positional Arts; Melia is barely effective with her unique playstyle, wherein she summons magic spells and flings them at foes from a distance. Shulk and Melia are both my favorites to play as, but when one was the leader, I'd leave the other off the party roster. For all the good Monolith Soft did in cleaning up Xenoblade Chronicles, it seemingly ignored one of the original's biggest sore points in the process.
Even with the general messiness of the combat system, I can't say I disliked it, even if the constant party callouts got on my nerves past the 20 hour mark. (When is it not "Reyn Time?") Never cozying itself into a traditional class system, each party member has a lot of malleability in what their potential is. The very annoying Riki can be a debuff-dealing tank, just as much as he can be a highly effective healer. Dunban is great at building up a quick Party Gauge, making him almost a foothold in every one of my parties. Shulk is really the only character who is stuck in his own ways no matter what, with very few new Arts to learn over the course of the journey. But he has the power of the Monado on his side—so who cares, I guess.
Tying Up Loose Ends (For Melia)
Xenoblade Chronicles has four true protagonists: Shulk, Fiora, Dunban, and Melia. Together, the four drive forward the story, while the rest are more or less just along for the ride. Each character gets a big "moment" or two, but largely, their presence is negligible. They are the buffer members of the party. Every JRPG has them.
At the end of Xenoblade Chronicles proper, Melia's arc of the story is left partially unresolved. It's not a huge plot hole, but it's been a curiosity ever since credits rolled back in 2012. The new formal epilogue, Future Connected, puts the focus on Melia. Now it's Shulk who's just along for the ride.
It's set one year after the events of the main game, with Melia and Shulk sailing off to the Bionis' Shoulder in pursuit of... something I will not spoil. Action-wise, it's at first a frustrating experience, given not only Shulk and Melia's bad AI, but also the rough AI of the two new characters: Kino and Nene. The pair are two Nopon stowaways who are basically just stand-ins for Reyn and Sharla with the same Arts—Melia and Shulk even remark as such after a battle with them. The de facto healer of the roster, Kino, would barely heal me.
The epilogue is completely standalone from the rest of the game, and can be played immediately upon starting up the menu. It starts Shulk and Melia off at level 60—near final act levels, but not quite. The two don't have the gems, gear, and armor that were garnered over the course of the campaign, and sadly, the new gear offered in the epilogue is underwhelming save for some nice new cosmetic options. Yet, there is also quite a bit that's different, leading me to untrain my habits from Xenoblade Chronicles proper.
Chain Attacks are gone, as is Shulk's future sight in predicting enemy attacks before they happen. There are no more Skill Trees nor Affinity Charts, and in place of "Heart-to-Hearts," the voiceless character interactions in the base game unlocked via how strong characters' affinity is for one another, there are instead "Quiet Moments." On the bright side, all Quiet Moments are voice acted. On the downside, the majority of them aren't too enlightening—pointedly the ones that include Kino or Nene, the two new Nopon heroes.
But with these gaps comes a new system: Nopon reinforcements. All across the Bionis Shoulder, which is itself a pretty vast environment, Shulk and Melia can recruit a dozen specialized Nopon to help in battle. After a fetch quest or so, the Nopon literally follows the party around, Pikmin-style. When played portably, the additional characters on screen make the frame rate chug a bit in battle, which is a shame. Otherwise, the game performs well, at least. (I played the vast majority on my Switch Lite, while carrying over my save file via the cloud to my base Switch for TV play.)
The Nopon reinforcements also lend to the replacement of a Chain Attack for the Party Gauge: the new Persona 5-ish All-Out Attack. There are three to choose from—an area attack, a focused attack on one enemy, or a big healing move—with the potential of a follow-up. The more Nopon recruited, the stronger the attack will be. Toward the end of the epilogue when I had 10 of them, battles became trivial because of how strong my little army was. I beat the final boss of the epilogue in one straight shot—a far cry from the hours I spent trying to overcome other bosses in the main game.
I wrapped the epilogue in 11 hours, though I left a number of side quests unfinished, and didn't track down all Nopon reinforcements. The Bionis Shoulder reminded me quite a bit of the Bionis Leg from Xenoblade Chronicles' main game. It's big and vast and very green, with stuff to uncover in its depths. The sights may have left me wanting, but Future Connected introduces enough new elements to generally warrant the playtime, even if I left underwhelmed by its addendum story.
For all the video games out there with "Definitive" editions, Xenoblade Chronicles does a lot to earn that word. It streamlines its more annoying qualities, making side quests easier to track and not as annoying to take on. Its refreshed, but less characterized, UI makes everything a lot easier to manage, from inventory to battles. The new main character models are great across the board, even if the rest of the game doesn't look as shiny. Xenoblade Chronicles' improvements are slight but big on impact, and not even a lackluster epilogue can stand in its way.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is the best sort of remaster: its improvements may seem minimal, but it overhauls most of the tedium that once plagued the Wii RPG classic. While some things it can't fix with polish—the too-big environments, the boring side quests, its messy battle system—for fans or curious new players, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is easily the best Xenoblade Chronicles out there, even with its annoyances.