Back in 2017, I had my first taste of what the Xeno series had to offer with the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Yes, I’m the supposed lifelong RPG fan that hasn’t even played Xenogears, progenitor of the metaseries, despite being well aware of Cloud’s Mako-induced, propagandic babble for over two decades. Pitiful, I know, and this is why I didn’t hesitate to jump into Xenoblade Chronicles 2 upon its release. Although my journey across Alrest would have its share of delightful moments, it would ultimately leave me wondering “what could have been” more than “what actually was.”
I wasn’t ready to give up just yet, however. I had heard that previous Xenoblade entries were in the same vein, but functioned differently than their 2017 sibling. So, when Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition was announced for Nintendo Switch, my curiosity was piqued once again. After completing the game (plus the new epilogue) in roughly 70 hours, I’m really glad that I did not let sleeping dogs lie. This game has not only shifted my perspective on the Xenoblade series in a more positive light, it has also rekindled my hope for whatever may come from Monolith Soft in the future.
Xenoblade Chronicles takes place in a world comprised entirely of ocean, with the remains of two titanic creatures serving as the literal foundation for all life. These gods once fought one another, but even gods tire, and their “deaths” would bring new life into existence. Their husks would soon support their own ecosystems; Bionis would serve as the home of the more biologically pure races – Homs, Nopon, and High Entia – while Mechonis would begat the Machina. History has a way of repeating itself, however, and these races would soon fight with each other in the same manner that their ancestors once did.
Cue in Shulk, a young Homs engineer/scientist that is currently studying the Monado – a mysterious weapon which many consider the only effective tool against the Machina’s army, the “Mechon.” The people of Bionis would somewhat successfully fend of the Mechon at the “Battle of Sword Valley” one year prior, but a surprise attack on Colony 9 – Shulk’s village – a year later would fall in favor of the mechanical beings. While the Monado would prove invaluable in this battle, it would also be ineffective against an advanced form of Mechon known as “Faces.” The losses incurred by Colony 9 would lead to the revelation of the Monado’s true power, foresight, but would manifest this only if wielded by Shulk. A task of great importance would be handed to him through this, but even his visions would prove unable to reveal everything which would soon unfold thereafter.
Don’t let this base synopsis fool you – Xenoblade Chronicles is a densely packed sci-fi adventure that is an absolute mind-trip. While no RPG, especially those of the JRPG variety, is without a trope or two, Xenoblade has the advantage of building its narrative foundation on solid ground. Interesting base plot points, well-developed characters, and the occasional, often bizarre curveballs thrown in make for a wonderful journey from start to finish. This level of detail and complexity does have its downsides, however, as some of the more important scenes are often plagued by a barrage of exposition that can feel a bit out of place. These same scenes will be further hindered – or bolstered, depending on your tastes – by the over-the-top delivery method used to convey these points. While this anime-esque approach is well within the wheelhouse of normalcy when it comes to JRPGs, it has a tendency to take the edge off certain situations that could have been more impactful if presented in a more natural manner.
This was the same beef I had with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, especially given the design of some of its characters, but fortunately the cast here feels far more appropriate despite leaning in on the same anime tropes, at times. We’re still dealing with a “vengeful, youthful protagonist,” but it is handled more carefully rather than being completely on the nose. Shulk and company rarely cast out common sense in pursuit of their goal, which is often not the case with youth-led teams. There are some genuinely trippy things that go on in the narrative – mind-blowing, even – but you still feel like you can relate to the characters and their plight.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is an action RPG that is designed in such a way that feels more like a tab-targeting, cooldown-based MMORPG than a more twitch-based affair. Combat is more about strategy rather than constantly having buttons to press. Battle arts, or abilities, take advantage of this downtime by including some positional conditions that, when executed properly, will increase the Art’s potency and/or apply additional effects. Battle arts aren’t the sole source of damage, as you’ll also “auto-attack” the enemy as long you are within range. Additionally, each character has access to a “Talent Art,” but the conditions for these vary and are beyond the scope of this review.
The “aggro” system in Xenoblade further plays into the necessity for some logical thinking, and is also a staple mechanic in many MMORPGs. For those unaware, aggro is essentially the amount of attention that a specific character draws from the enemy; more aggro, more monsters in your face. Shulk and his companions generally fall in to one of three archetypes – tank, support, or damage – though many are able to perform competently as hybrids, too. Having a more “tanky” character draw (and keep) the attention of enemies is crucial in allowing your other two team members to do their jobs to the fullest. The result is an ebb and flow to combat that rewards those that balance that aggro line delicately with more opportunistic, timely strikes.
The player can only control a single party member at a time, but opportunities abound for those that actively perform their battle arts with finesse, stunning enemies through the break->topple->daze system, helping other “downed” members by pressing the proper buttons at opportune moments, and appropriately timing the occasional reticle challenges throughout combat. Taking charge in this manner will slowly build a three-segment gauge that can either be used to revive a character (one segment used per revive), or stocked to unleash a chain attack, with the latter using all three gauge segments in exchange for some serious firepower.
The chain attack freezes the playing field, resets the cooldown of all battle arts, and allows each party member a chance to use at least one Art without fear of interruption. Using battle arts of the same color in succession will increase their damage drastically, though there may be times where it is instead more appropriate to throw out some uninterrupted heals, or a blend of both offensive and defensive manuevers. Chain attacks are a double-edged sword, however, since they also use the same resource that makes reviving team members possible. Therefore, it is best to “read the room” and strike a proper balance between offense and defense before using this limited resource.
There is a surprising amount of depth to the combat here that I was not expecting. Word on the street is that many feel this game is “mechanically sterile” in comparison to Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and while that may be true to an extent, it takes dozens of hours for the latter to really get going. Here, you may be given less “frills” in the long run, but are able to use way more of what is here immediately out of the gate. Being able to move around at full speed, and without the fear of breaking your auto attacks, are two more things I really appreciate here that were changed, for whatever reason, in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. This isn’t meant to bash either game’s combat design – both have obvious perks – I’m just stressing the differences between them and what I’ve come to prefer.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a treasure trove of content for those that enjoy busywork and collecting various goodies. There are a lot, and I mean a lot of side quests available to the player, as well as a scrapbook-like “collectopaedia” for those that prefer more passive activities. The side quests are generally underwhelming from a narrative standpoint, comprised mostly of MMO-like kill/collect tasks, but often provide great rewards for little effort, and are usually within the vicinity of your main objective. This is the case for the first wave of side quests in each zone, at least, as follow-up quests tend to take pleasure in sending you to the furthest reaches of the world to grab a “special potato” or something — thank goodness for the game’s robust and efficient fast travel system! Fortunately, this version of the game includes quest markers, and I can only imagine what a cluster the original game was without them.
Filling out the aforementioned “collectopaedia”, by way of gathering every blue orb you come across, will reward you with all sorts of items. Just don’t be like me and fail to realize that it is even “a thing” until well into your adventure – you have to manually apply these collectables to your book in order to reap their rewards. These same collectables, along with a healthy wad of cash, can also eventually be used in the reconstruction of a ruined village. Leveling this town up will provide even more questing and shopping opportunities to the player, adding even more content on top of an already staggering pile of things to do. This isn’t even factoring in the timed challenges, postgame challenges, and NG+ that eventually become available to the player. Those that are truly courageous may want to dabble in “expert mode,” which limits the level of your party members to a parameter of your choice until you turn it off.
Besides leveling up battle arts and adjusting their loadouts, Shulk and his companions get access to dozens of unique weapons and armor, which can be further augmented by gems. Some of the more unique equipment, indicated by their purple hue, come pre-equipped with gems that cannot be removed, but “blue tier” equipment can be customized with gems as you see fit. Gems are acquired naturally through battles and questing, or can be crafted through a mini-game that leverages strong party affinities — more on that later. Each character has multiple “skill trees” – more akin to traits, if you ask me – that provide both individual and party bonuses once their respective nodes are unlocked. The “skill link” system allows some of these same skills to be equipped and shared across multiple characters, should they have the required affinity to do so.
The affinity system brings out some of the best and worst aspects of the game. Characters will naturally grow fonder of each other as they spend time together, whether that be in combat, tackling side quests, or giving each other gifts. Strong affinities benefit the player fourfold: they provide access to heart-to-hearts – short events that strengthen the bonds and add a bit of contextual depth to the characters involved – they increase the amount of available skill link slots, they improve crafting results, and they raise the potential for follow-up attacks during a chain attack.
As-is, this system is particularly problematic for players that only want to play with certain characters, leaving the remainder in the reserves not only to collect dust, but also to sport weak affinities. While there is logic to this from a balancing standpoint – skill links can be very powerful and shouldn’t be unlocked that easy – it also puts the vast majority of heart-to-heart sequences beyond the player’s reach unless they go out of their way to grind for it. Again, putting player power behind a time sink is just fine, but I don’t see the point when it comes to the extra story bits. This is perhaps one good reason to consider a NG+ run, though reports suggest that enemies do not scale with the increase in base player power.
Presentation and Performance
If there’s one thing that the Xenoblade series does masterfully, without fail, it is environmental design. The boundless, ocean-drenched world that is seemingly inhabited only by the fallen titans is one that can easily captivate the player. It is a constant (pleasure-filled) struggle keeping your eyes off the many breathtaking horizons, which never let up on that sense of feeling that you’re traveling across a god-sized beast. This world has been built with such care and a grandiose scale that it could easily rival or surpass other game worlds with far superior graphical capabilities. Obvious technical limitations aside, Xenoblade Chronicles looks amazing with this fresh coat of “definitive” paint. Although it may not look the absolute best in handheld – XC2 was no different – it more or less looks fantastic when docked on a 4K TV.
The sound design, like in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, is also superb. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has remained one of my favorite soundtracks to date, despite gripes with it elsewhere, and this one has proven itself worthy of being on that same “frequently accessed” playlist. It is clear that a lot of love and care went into both the original and the definite edition exclusive arrangements, which can be swapped between any time from the menu. From the violin-led main battle theme, to the tear-inducing Satorl Marsh night theme (please, don’t ruin it for me with your silly “Tuna” references), there is a lot to appreciate about the breadth of styles featured in this soundtrack. No complaints whatsoever about the voice acting, which is saying something considering many older JRPGs – even some new ones – suffer from not-so-pleasant English dubs.
The all-new “Future Connected” epilogue is a roughly 10 hour scenario that takes place a year after the events of the main game. This scenario focuses in on a few key characters from the base game – and some new ones – tying up some loose ends while adding even more to think about on top of it. We have an article in the works that will be taking a deeper dive into this portion of the game specifically, so I’ll be keeping this brief. For me, the epilogue was a bit of a disappointment, as the quality of writing and voice acting – reprised by some of the same people which voiced the original – seemed a bit “off.” While I wouldn’t say that it isn’t worth your time, I would not recommend buying this version of the game based on the contents of Future Connected alone.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, without a doubt, has become one of my favorite Switch RPGs Switch to date. While it may lack some of the complexities found in later entries, it is a testament to the “less is more” adage. This game is packed with content that will easily take you 50+ hours to complete, even if you don’t go “off the deep end” with its multitude of MMO-like side quests. Xenoblade’s unwavering quality – even after almost a decade – proves it’s worthy to stand among the other “greats” of the genre.
Now, how about we get XCX on Switch? One can only hope.