How much to read into the newly appended title of a re-release like this? In the case of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, a splendorous revisit of Monolith Soft’s 2012 Wii RPG for Nintendo’s Switch, it could mean so very much. By his own admission, creator Tetsuya Takahashi has always struggled to finish off the job with his own games, his Xenosaga series petering out halfway through its intended run, while Xenoblade Chronicles only saw it through to completion upon partner Nintendo’s insistence it be done properly.
Even then, subsequent games have seen ambition often outstrip circumstance: Xenoblade Chronicles X’s ambition was served rough, while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 creaked under the weight of its elaborate systems and some anime excess. A Takahashi game that’s refined and one he’s happy to call definitive? Now that’s some prospect.
In many of the ways that really matter, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition delivers. It takes an incredible RPG – one that could lay claim to being among the best of the last decade – and makes small, considered tweaks in all the right places. It serves the mad, magical majesty of Xenoblade Chronicles’ world, staying entirely faithful to the original while gently polishing it for its HD debut – a little too gently in some places, you might argue.
And what a world it is! Xenoblade Chronicles’ grand concept, and its execution, remains an all-time great. The story it serves is just fine, weaving in Takahashi’s recurring themes; gods will fall and fates will be altered, all at the blade of a blonde-haired hero who sounds like a junior estate agent from Swindon (I’m afraid I’m not a fan of the localised voice work in Xenoblade Chronicles, but at least you can switch to the Japanese voice track at any point in this Definitive Edition, and fans will be delighted that Jenna Coleman reprises her role as Melia for the additional content offered in this Definitive Edition).
It’s not about the story, though, and more about the places it takes you. In the most wide-eyed, excitable terms possible – and I don’t know how else you talk about something as fantastic as this – it’s a world set on the back of two warring, country-sized titans, the pair trapped in stony stasis for many years. So you begin on the wide-open grassy plains on the calf of a god’s outstretched leg then slowly work your way up. Size is everything here – the maps you explore are vast, open-ended spaces drawn with the verve and imagination of pulpy sci-fi’s best cover artists. From the sun-scorched grass of Gaur Plain to the frosted starlight of Valak Mountain by night, Xenoblade Chronicles is a heady delight to explore and discover.
What’s special about this Definitive Edition is how it’s made that much easier to discover, for newcomers and veterans alike. The UI has been stripped back, quest markers and locations made more explicit while the path to your next objective is neatly marked on your mini-map. Exploration of a world as rich as this is its own reward, but it’s certainly been helped along by the more generous XP bonuses that are granted upon coming across a new location or completing one of the countless side quests.
Which brings me to perhaps the best addition made in this Definitive Edition, though it might not be for you. A casual mode’s been introduced that reduces even the toughest of boss fights to a mere inconvenience, while normal encounters are rushed through in the blink of an eye. For new players who wouldn’t mind condensing Xenoblade Chronicles’ sizeable length, it’s an agreeable way to cut the run time without impacting the scope and scale – and for returning players like myself, it makes what could be a slog into a pleasant stroll. Golf is a good walk spoiled, so the well-worn saying goes, and I often think you could say the same for a fair few RPGs.
Not that Xenoblade Chronicles’ combat is bad, and it’s had a few of its own tweaks here. The same MMO-sequel mesh of specials on timers, situational attacks and buffs and debuffs there to be stacked as you please. There’s a sweet music to be found in the battle system’s rhythm, and one that’s a touch easier to get into step with thanks to a cleaned up UI that makes it perfectly clear what situational attacks are best employed at any given time. For those who want to up the intensity, an expert mode lets you tinker with your levels to bring some more challenge,
Then of course there’s Future Connected, an expansion that’s as sizable as the Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s own Torna – The Golden Country. It’s a generous post-game adventure that sits entirely on its own, handing players a group of level 60 characters and a handsome new area to explore. Given how it takes place after the events of Xenoblade Chronicles, I’ll be light on details to avoid spoilers, though of course it’s recommended you see through the main adventure first.
Once you’re good and ready for Future Connected, you’re treated to a self-contained Xenoblade Chronicles adventure that could happily consume a dozen hours or more, and that comes with a few novel ideas of its own. Combat has its own wrinkles, with Shulk’s ability to predict incoming enemy attacks removed while chain attacks have also been replaced with a new system. Oh, and if you’re not a fan of Nopon then you’re bang out of luck, as Xenoblade’s moogle-like cutesy race feature prominently both in your party and the new systems.
It’s fitting, though, that the real star of Future Connected is the world itself. The Bionis Shoulder was left on the cutting room floor from the original Xenoblade Chronicles, and I’m grateful we’ve been given the chance to experience it as it contains all that’s great about Monolith Soft’s series; impossible stone archways line the sky, while you can look out upon rolling plains to see wide lakes that dip into nothingness at the Bionis’ edge. There’s so much to see, and so much to do, with a phenomenal number of side quests squeezed alongside the main throughline.
It looks glorious, and Xenoblade Chronicles’ grand concept, and its grand open spaces, haven’t aged a jot in the intervening years – though be warned that, as graphical upgrades go, this is slight. The bulk of the work’s been carried out on character models – which, given the gormless horror of the originals, is arguably where it should be – but everything else has been given only the lightest of touches. It is, for the most part, the Wii game as you remember it with some gently reworked textures, running at the same resolution as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 when running both docked and undocked (to these eyes this is by far the better looking game, though maybe that’s down to a personal preference for the art-style – rest assured Digital Foundry will be along with a more detailed technical analysis in due course).
This is a Definitive Edition, then, that falls just shy of what you might expect of a full remaster or remake, and instead feels like a re-release with a few very welcome extras. Perhaps that’s always going to be the way with Tetsuya Takahashi and his maximalist approach. Corners will be cut, but maybe that’s the price of such towering ambition.
And I don’t want to sound ungrateful at all – I only want more because I’m so enamoured by what’s already there, for all its minor faults. Like so many of Takahashi and Monolith Soft’s games, there are signs of compromise, but conversely there’s so much more besides. The original Xenoblade Chronicles, with its scope, size and superlative world, still stands as the best in the series yet, and there’s been no better way to play it yet. Rest assured if you love the original as much as I do, there are plenty of reasons to return. And if this is your first time playing Xenoblade Chronicles? I envy you, because this truly is one of the greats.