For a story where controlling the future is a critical plot device, it’s pretty ironic that Xenoblade Chronicles
has never managed to get its timing right until now. After it’s unfortunate 2012 debut in the final days of the Wii’s lifecycle and a low-res port to the 3DS that didn’t do it justice, at long last it can shine on a console in its prime – and the result is an improvement as massive as the titan Bionis itself – and that’s before we even get into any of the Definitive Edition’s numerous and largely positive improvements.The most noteworthy improvement is apparent the second you boot Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition up: it has been given an incredible facelift. Finally, Shulk looks like the dorky firebrand we know from Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, instead of a blurry piece of concept art. Environments, which were already unforgettable in low resolution, now take on a whole new life in HD. Some textures haven’t quite been given the same love and are still a little blurry, but it’s such a large upgrade over previous versions overall that it’s hard to complain about any edges left rough.Even nearly a decade later, the premise of Xenoblade Chronicles and the weirdness of the world it takes place in maintains its charm, pulling me right back in after just a few minutes. After your hometown is attacked by the robotic, people-eating Mechon, you and your friends set out on a quest for revenge on an unforgettable odyssey that has you journeying across the titan corpses that serve as the setting. The world is remarkably weird and unique, and areas are diverse and include dense jungles, frozen wastes, and floating islands, just to name a few – you’ll even travel inside a creature’s body and fight the creatures inside it like a twisted episode of The Magic School Bus. Speaking of which, the enemies you encounter are equally varied, ranging from menacing beasts to sinister machines, and even with the enormous runtime of the campaign it’s uncommon that environments or enemy types become repetitive or dull.
Like a lot of JRPGs the story goes to some really, really weird places by the end, and many of which are as confusing as they are preposterous. But Xenoblade Chronicles owns its own absurdity so well that it works. Is the dialogue laughably over-written, almost like characters are trying to find as many ways to say the same thing as possible? Yep. Is the story over-the-top and needlessly convoluted with cutscenes that run on for far too long? Absolutely. But we’re talking about a game that begins with a bunch of people living on a dead god’s corpse, so don’t be surprised when things only get weirder from there. That madness is part of the fun.
The Definitive Edition of Xenoblade Chronicles adds an all-new story chapter called Future Connected which takes place a year after the events in the main story. It’s great to have more time with Shulk and friends, but the standalone adventure – which can be played entirely separately from the campaign – doesn’t really add a whole lot. You spend a lot of time with Melia, one of the weaker characters from the main campaign, and two new, highly irritating Nopon named Kino and Nene. The core Xenoblade experience remains intact here, but everything feels tonally different and disconnected from the main campaign, despite being called Future Connected. Even though I enjoyed the almost 10 hours it took to complete, this bonus chapter was ultimately a bit underwhelming and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a major selling point for this remaster.
Still, it just feels great to be back with Xenoblade Chronicles’ memorable cast of characters. Whether it’s the loveable meathead Reyn or the stoic and inscrutable Duncan, each one shines even when the wonky writing or grindy stretches of gameplay otherwise bog down the adventure. The story is squarely focused on Shulk’s quest for revenge and the war against the Mechon, but it also takes the time to introduce and develop its supporting characters, with entire chapters dedicated to fleshing out and resolving their major arcs. If you stray off the beaten path, there’s even more to be discovered through side quests and optional social sections between two characters called Heart-to-Hearts. You might learn more about the goofy but courageous Nopon, Riki, or gain a better understanding of the compassionate sharpshooter, Sharla. By the story’s end you’ll have spent so much time with your companions that it’s hard not to develop understanding and respect for each of them, even the ones you don’t use a whole lot.Of course, characters can still get on your nerves by literally never shutting the hell up before, during, and after combat, repeating the same tired lines ad nauseum. Thankfully you can turn combat dialogue off, which you’ll probably want to do once you’ve heard Reyn say “Man, what a buncha jokers” for the 5,000th time. But it feels like maybe there’s a middle ground between no combat dialogue at all and having all the characters scream at you, uninterrupted, for the 100+ hours it takes to complete the campaign.
The gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition remains largely the same, though it has been improved in some minor but certainly appreciated ways: characters now have health bars, which is awesome and also kind of crazy that this wasn’t a thing already; the map UI now has a detailed waypoint guiding you towards your objectives instead of a vague arrow; and quest items are marked with a helpful exclamation point so you know which you should pick up instead of having to run toward every glowing blue orb. Each of these adjustments help modernize things just a bit without altering the Xenoblade Chronicles that you know and love, even if many of them are so subtle that you might not even realize they are new.
But probably the most crucial change is the addition of a “chance indicator” that pops up during battle to tell you when you are positioned to benefit from damage bonuses and special effects. This is especially important when you’re fighting bizarre looking creatures, like the floating, numerously limbed telethia as Shulk, where it’s genuinely difficult to figure out which side is their front and which is their back. Now you’ll always know when’s the right time to go for that satisfying backstab.
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While those improvements are great, this remaster doesn’t go far enough elsewhere, opting to maintain a lot of outdated mechanics. The affinity coin and skill tree system, for example, remain an obtuse and bizarre way to buff characters based on social links, both soaking up far more attention than they seem worth. Gem crafting is still a time consuming and convoluted way to improve your gear, usually a huge chore I felt obligated to do rather than an exciting path to getting stronger. And it’s still a really weird choice to make all the most powerful versions of every Art (your characters’ special abilities) only obtainable via a random in-world drop, meaning you’ve just gotta grind certain areas of the world and farm certain enemy types for hours if you hope to reach the apex of your characters’ abilities. I’m all for staying true to the original when it makes sense to do so, but this Wii-era RPG design doesn’t do a whole lot to make you invested in your team and could benefit from more of a refresh – especially when so many excellent RPGs have come out in the eight years since.
Thankfully, another significant upgrade in this remaster is how dramatically the menus have been improved, at least making all of these systems easier to manage. Previously an incomprehensible series of blurry rectangle, menus have now been overhauled into a much more modern and functional UI. This is a godsend considering how much time you’ll spend in them customizing your characters’ abilities, upgrading equipment, and changing your outfits.
Combat itself is still just as tactical and addictive as ever, which uses an action-based battle system where your character attacks automatically within range of an enemy, but movement and the more powerful special abilities called Arts, are controlled by the player. Arts allow you to do things like heal your allies, apply status effects to enemies, apply buffs and debuffs, and more, and are absolutely essential for defeating the many of the world’s most powerful foes. Since you’re able to control any character in your party and have the others controlled by AI, you can select a character that matches your preferred playstyle or switch between them to break up some of the repetition.Which is great, because combat can grow a little dull at times due to the fact that the campaign is a bit of a grind. Certain areas and boss fights essentially serve as power checks that aren’t usually winnable without a not-insignificant amount of running through an area and killing the same enemies repeatedly. This is especially painful towards the end of the campaign, where levelling requires a ton of XP and the power level of enemies goes up at a faster pace than you can organically scale with if you aren’t going out of your way to grind.
It would be absolute blasphemy to not talk about Xenoblade Chronicles’ outstanding soundtrack. This was already a major bright spot in previous versions, and now many of these memorable tracks have been re-recorded and somehow sound even better. While other elements of the sound design, particularly the grating combat dialogue, might give you cause to play on mute, the soundtrack is a reason to turn the dial to 11. Open areas have upbeat melodies that incite a spirit of exploration, which then adjust to an appropriately slow tempo at night. Dramatic moments and crucial confrontations are punctuated with pulse-pounding and dramatic themes. It’s pretty crazy that an adventure weighing in over 100 hours without side quests manages to almost never disappoint when it comes to the soundtrack.