It's been eight years since the release of Xenoblade Chronicles, but Monolith Soft's now-classic RPG still has that aura of intrigue about it. As one of the flagship games of Operation Rainfall—a fan campaign to bring three major JRPGs to the U.S.—it was hotly-desired by RPG fans in the latter days of the Wii. It helped that it was a spiritual descendent of the beloved RPG classic Xenogears, and a Nintendo exclusive besides.
Upon its release in 2012, that desire morphed into a longing for better versions than what the Wii could offer. One of the earliest "updates" was for the Dolphin, an emulator capable of rendering Wii games in high-definition. In 2015, it was released for the 3DS, making the series portable for the first time. Now, finally, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is coming to Nintendo Switch, combining the best of every platform with some solid graphical upgrades—or so it would seem.
Having spent some time with the review version, which is due out later this month, I think it's best to manage expectations when it comes to Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Editions' graphical improvements. Obviously, it goes without saying that Xenoblade Chronicles for Switch is the best-looking version to date, which isn't hard given that its competition is the original game for the Wii and the overmatched 3DS version. Suffice it to say, any upgrade is going to be an automatic improvement. But once you get past the newly cel-shaded character models, its limitations are apparent.
Playing Xenoblade Chronicles, it's evident that most of Monolith Soft's available resources went into sprucing up the characters—not the worst call given the extent to which they dominate the screen. By comparison, the backgrounds have a smeared look to them, as if they're coated in vaseline. Standing at the edge of one of Xenoblade Chronicles' grand vistas, I felt like I had forgotten to put on my glasses; to the point that I started to get a headache from playing on the Switch's handheld mode. Xenoblade Chronicles' roots are likewise apparent in the NPCs, many of whom look like refugees from the PlayStation 2 era, and in the stiff way that the characters animate.
It's fair to say that Xenoblade Chronicles: Definition Edition looks worse than Xenoblade Chronicles 2—a game released at the beginning of the Switch's life cycle. Its main saving grace is that it manages to avoid the slowdown that plagued Xenoblade Chronicles 2 at launch, and that it's blessed with superior character art. Seriously, Shulk and company aren't exactly remarkable, but compared to the astonishingly dull Rex and Pyra, they're practically Ghibli.
All of this is to say that it's best to keep your excitement in check regarding Xenoblade Chronicles' graphical update. It looks like what it is—a souped up version of a Wii game. Barring a complete remake, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition's ceiling was always going to be lower than its peers, many of which were originally released on HD consoles like the PlayStation 3 and the Wii U. With this version of Xenoblade Chronicles being pitched as a proper remaster, it's best to go in with eyes open.
So What Does Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition Have to Offer?
As for whether Xenoblade Chronicles holds up in general, I'll say that it does, at least for the most part. I wouldn't exactly call Xenoblade Chronicles "dated," but playing it does feel a little like climbing into a time machine and transporting back to the era in which MMORPGs were the model everyone wanted to emulate. Shulk's automatic attacks and ability combos, not to mention Xenoblade's emphasis on expansive outdoor environments, definitely make it feel like a game from a particular time and place—one in which World of Warcraft still dominated and JRPGs were considered a genre on the wane.
Nevertheless, its strengths still resonate in 2020. I'm not one for MMOs, but Xenoblade Chronicles' battle system is just interesting enough to keep my attention, requiring that I consistently rebalance my party around the strengths and weaknesses of each character. I especially like that the Monado, Shulk's trademark blade, does massive amounts of damage to the hulking Mechons—insect-like robots with grasping claws and tail lasers—but is virtually useless against biological enemies. It's a weakness that adds to the story while ensuring that Shulk isn't too overpowered, at least at first.
The Mechons themselves are really cool, obviously stemming from director Tetsuya Takahashi's appreciation for mech anime, and look all the more ferocious in HD. They have a clean, angular look to them that reminds me a little of Kojima Productions' Zone of the Enders, and the way that they'll reach out and snap up hapless soldiers with their claws is terrifying. The Mechons also have an air of mystery to them that I like, as it's not entirely clear what they actually want, or what the war between Bionis and Mechonis—two gods that play host to their own ecosystems—is really all about.
All of this makes Xenoblade Chronicles an enjoyable RPG, even if it doesn't quite rise to the level its reputation suggests. It joins a host of other JRPGs that have flooded the Switch of late, but still manages to stand out thanks to its more technical battle system and its excellent soundtrack, the latter of which features contributions from Xenogears and Chrono Trigger veteran Yasunori Mitsuda. It's mainly held back by its rough visuals, which look all the more dated when put up against peers like Ni No Kuni and Dragon Quest 11.
One way or another though, Xenoblade Chronicles bolsters the Nintendo Switch's credentials as a must-own platform for RPG fans, and completes the arc that began when fans rallied for a North American release back in 2011. It's emblematic of how far JRPGs have come over the past decade, which is perhaps one reason it holds a special place in the hearts of RPG fans. Dated graphics or not, that makes Xenoblade Chronicles a very welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch's library.