Xenoblade Chronicles is a game, and a property, that has seen quite a reversal in fortune over the past few years. While a highly anticipated and long-gestating Wii RPG project by Monolith Soft in Japan, the game wasn’t well known in the West. It took the concerted efforts of the unprecedented fan campaign Operation Rainfall just to pester Nintendo into finally, finally localizing the game to America in 2012, two years after its Japanese release. Even when it did make it to the States (by way of the excellent European localization), Xenoblade Chronicles was a Gamestop exclusive with a vanishingly small print run that sold out almost instantly. If you can find a copy of the original Wii version for less than $90 on auction sites, count yourself lucky.
By word of mouth Xenoblade Chronicles has acquired a well-earned, almost mythic reputation as the Holy Grail of Wii collecting, one of those coveted “best games you’ve never played.” It helps that Xenoblade Chronicles legitimately is one of the best RPGs of the last decade, so it’s rather unfair that the game is so hard to track down and appreciate. Previously Nintendo seemed just a bit annoyed that fans were so interested in the game at all.
How times have changed. Xenoblade’s protagonist Shulk is now a headlining fighter in the most recent Super Smash Bros game. Monolith Soft is poised to rewrite the JRPG book again when they unleash their colossal Wii U follow-up, Xenoblade Chronicles X, upon Japan in a couple weeks (and later this year in the West). And now Nintendo has charged Monster Games, the studio behind the superb Donkey Kong Country Returns 3DS port, to bring the original Xenoblade Chronicles to their new handheld. It appears that Nintendo has realized just how popular, important and special this fledgling franchise is that they’ve been idly sitting on for the past half-decade.
So now Xenoblade Chronicles is exclusively on the New 3DS. The good news is that for the most part, the game is unchanged. That isn’t a bad thing, as the Wii original is a massive and fantastic adventure in its own right, from its clever gameplay to its sweeping, thought-provoking story. The setting is classic high-speculative fiction, something you’d expect from a 60s scifi novel or a really good anime. Millions of years ago two immense titans, the Bionis and the Mechonis, came into being in an infinite ocean. The titans clashed for countless eons until finally they struck a deathblow simultaneously, freezing both titans in a static pose of eternal combat.
The titans stood there so long that life itself evolved on the vast surfaces of their petrified bodies. The Bionis gave rise to natural animal and plant life, and eventually the humanoid Homs. The Mechonis however birthed the relentless Machina, a race of artificial lifeforms that assault and prey on the Homs. And so the Homs are in a constant struggle for survival against the Machina; the “children” of the two titans seem destined to continue their endless battle. It’s heady stuff and it took me a little while to just wrap my brain around the premise. What’s great is that the game continually reinforces this awe-inspiring setting. For the Homs, living on an enormous dead titan is all they’ve ever known, but seeing the thing’s body stretching off into the distance was pretty breathtaking at times.
It’s Xenoblade Chronicles’ head-snapping scope that defines it, and this factors strongly into the gameplay as well. The real-time combat system is enthrallingly deep—easy to pick up but some of the tougher fights are absolutely brutal. Xenoblade’s battle system has a lot of similarities to an MMORPG. There are no random encounters; rather, the environment is populated with roaming enemies, from lumbering dinosaur-like wildlife to the creepy Machina. You choose to engage an enemy by targeting them and attacking, which will start Shulk (or another party member) landing regular basic attacks. These standard blows do little damage, however, so you must learn to effectively utilize your special moves which are called Arts.
Arts are powerful attacks unique to each party member, which have conditions that make them more effective. For example Shulk’s Backslash deals a ton more damage if it hits from behind an enemy, so it’s a good idea to get another party member to draw an enemy’s aggro, leaving it open for Shulk to stab it in the back. Conversely Shulk’s Slit-edge Art will topple an enemy, but only if it’s already been knocked off balance by a heavy attack from your party’s tank player. Better and stronger Arts are unlocked as you progress, and each one has a unique cooldown time in battle. This lets you use a variety of special attacks without the combat system relying on a superfluous mana meter.
The combat also smartly incorporates the Menado, an arcane high-tech sword that Shulk inherits, which also plays a big part in the game’s plot. The Menado has the power to glimpse the future. Sometimes an enemy will wind up for a particularly nasty attack, and the Menado will show a brief premonition of this enemy taking out a party member or in extreme cases, flattening the entire party. This gives you a few precious seconds to quickly rearrange your party and plan of attack to survive the onslaught or prevent the enemy move altogether.
The combat can get pretty hairy sometimes and the harder battles will require some split-second strategy, but I appreciated the immediacy of the real-time system. It reminded me a lot of the system in Knights of the Old Republic, and any comparison there is a good thing in my book. Xenoblade Chronicles also tempers its challenge with an optimistic urge for exploration. Bionis is simply staggering in vastness and scale, and you can explore all of it. There’s a dawning epiphany when you see the majestic, scalloped terrain arches of Gaur Plains towering off in the distance, and then you slowly realize that you can run and climb and explore up and down every last inch of what you can see.
Though populated with dangerous monsters, the world encourages exploration with a very forgiving checkpoint system. If you get absolutely stomped in an enemy encounter, your entire team will just respawn at the last landmark that you passed. Bionis is littered with these scenic landmarks and they’re utilized in an effortless fast-travel system, so you’re never very far from where you died. Your party incurs no loss of loot, XP, HP or money in a defeat; if at first you don’t succeed, etc. This lack of hard penalties for falling in combat might seem lax to the Bloodborne fanatics out there, but Xenoblade Chronicles isn’t designed to be a meat grinder or a roguelike. It will challenge you, but it’s also a game that knows how sprawling and packed with secrets it is, and it wants players to hunt around in its world without too many distracting fears of failure.
This epic scope is augmented with a thrilling main story full of existential twists, and extensive side quests to go with it. There are plenty of errands to complete, monsters to hunt and gear to discover off the beaten path and it’s all fairly streamlined. Most of the smaller quests don’t even require that you backtrack to the quest-giver, and the few that do are easy to handle with the aforementioned fast-travel system. Most NPCs follow set schedules much like Zelda: Majora’s Mask, but the game includes a handy time-skip feature so you never have to wait around to finish a quest. There are so many side quests in this game, though—over 400—that it can become a complete preoccupation. I like to call this “the Skyrim effect.”
Like Bethesda’s gigantic fantasy RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles has so freaking much to do that it’s easy to play a few story missions and then get utterly wrapped up in the extras. Playing through all this extra content often adds subtext to the main story, and it will give you so much XP (you gain experience just by finding landmarks) that you’ll be able to pulverize many of the late-game enemies when you finally get back to the story. Of course by that time you might need a refresher, as it’s easy to forget just where you left off in the plot. Conversely, skipping all the side quests just to power through the story will make the endgame much harder. Like Skyrim it can be difficult to find the right balance and pacing between the main game and the side quests, but if this is my biggest complaint I consider this a good problem to have. Between too much content and not enough, I’ll always choose the former in a game like this.
If I were to have one legitimate complaint about this port, it would be the visuals. Make no mistake, Xenoblade Chronicles is still a gorgeous game on 3DS, but it’s the original quality of the art direction that makes it stand up today. Some obvious sacrifices were made to the visuals, especially in the texture resolution. The models are still expressive and the sheer vastness of the world retains its ability to awe and inspire, but on 3DS the game has an overall muddier, smudgy appearance compared to the Wii version. The silver lining is that the game rarely strays from a 60 fps framerate. It’s clear that the doubled CPU cores and extra VRAM of the New 3DS are the only way Xenoblade Chronicles is even possible on a handheld; I shudder to think how the game would’ve looked and played on the old 3DS.
Thankfully the audio experience is untouched, for the most part. The game’s 90-piece orchestral soundtrack, composed by six individual artists, is intact and the 3DS version even has a simple boombox app that lets you put your 3DS into sleep mode and listen to the music on the go. The music stands on its own as a major accomplishment and makes an epic game feel even grander.
The voice acting, while a bit hammy at times (this is a JRPG after all) is still believable and emphatically performed. Far from a laundry list of role playing archetypes, the characters as acted are believable as regular people in an extraordinary situation. Shulk’s lifelong friendship with his soldier-adventurer companion Reyn is particularly evocative. Interestingly, the entire English cast is composed of people with UK accents. Nintendo localized the original game to the United Kingdom first but hadn’t decided on bringing Xenoblade Chronicles to America yet, so the voice cast has a distinctly European flavor. Sadly the Japanese voice dub, included in the Wii version, is absent on the 3DS. I have a feeling this had something to do with the 3DS game card size restrictions.
The 3DS version has a handful of new features, including a model viewer and eventual support for Nintendo’s Amiibo figurines, but these are really just novelties. We come to the inevitable question of whether this port is worth the money, and on the whole I’d have to say yes. Naturally the best way to enjoy Xenoblade Chronicles is on the Wii, displayed in the highest resolution possible and played from the leisure of your couch. The 3DS version takes a graphical hit, but the ability to carry such a ludicrously huge RPG around in your pocket is a big enough selling point on its own. The 3DS version, especially the simultaneous release of both physical and digital copies, ensures that this notoriously scarce and sought-after game will never be hard to track down again, at least in some form.
For these reasons, I definitely recommend you add Xenoblade Chronicles 3D to your library. No serious gamer should pass up the portable version of one of the best RPGs ever made. Just be careful with this one...in Bionis, it’s frighteningly easy to lose track of time.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.View Profile