Review: Xenoblade Chronicles Earns Its Definitive Edition Moniker

The most impressive thing about the game is still the strength and specificity of its vision.

Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
Photo: Nintendo

Even for those who never played Xenoblade Chronicles, elements of the game will feel instantly familiar. The broad strokes of the story are certainly nothing new, with chosen boy Shulk wielding a mysterious blade, the Monado, against a race of robotic enemies called the Mechon while fighting alongside his ragtag group of friends. But most of all, the game was integral to Nintendo’s entrance into the realm of open-world gaming. Developer Monolith Soft would go on to assist with the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the Xenoblade Chronicles echoes are all but unmistakable in that game, which demonstrates the same sprawling approach to an explorable space.

Though the game originated on the Wii, its size and scale has scarcely been diminished by the march of time and technology. Indeed, the sense of scope is baked right into its very concept, with one of the all-time great video game settings: the ecosystems growing atop the corpses of two titanic deities, the Bionis and the Mechonis, frozen forever in lifeless conflict. The most impressive thing about Xenoblade Chronicles is still the strength and specificity of its vision, a dense world transcending any familiar hero’s journey. The very air glows in the dark by the light of the world’s ether, the cliffs and rocks jut out at strange angles with an alien sort of beauty, and one deity always looms large in the sky, opposite its opponent.

In retrospect, some of the touches that are used to make the game feel like a coherent world don’t totally withstand close scrutiny, from the glowing blue orbs that stand in for every type of collectible to the general lack of conflict between the various creatures that dot the landscape. But despite such limitations, Xenoblade Chronicles still feels massive thanks to the breadth of its design, for the way it emphasizes its wide variety of fauna by leaving huge disparities in size and strength between them, peppering the environment as much with docile creatures as with looming monstrosities that might kill you in a single blow.

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Though Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition now features an auto-run as a concession for the sheer sprawl of each location, your traversal remains constantly engrossing and involved. You climb, you swim, and you dodge certain creatures, or pass peacefully through herds of others depending on, say, whether a mother dinosaur is around. Experience point rewards nudge you to explore the map, to poke around in dangerous areas and find new landmarks, basking all the while in Monolith Soft’s imaginative art design rather than keeping your nose to the ground, hardly looking up while you sift for inane crafting materials.

The various townsfolk you encounter may have rudimentary schedules and routes by today’s standards (and the standards of the time as well), but our impression of these people truly inhabiting this world is confirmed by their having names and, especially, meaningful relationships, all logged on a screen called the Affinity Chart. It’s just a menu, but it’s that one more detailed step than many similar games will go, even today. Xenoblade Chronicles thrives based on the sheer amount of thought put into it in the first place, and that quality has only been clarified with time, with what is now so much distance from the original release.

Through abilities to fast travel or change the time of day, the original tempered its sense of place with a certain level of convenience. In the face of the world’s scale, these shortcuts often felt necessary, and the Definitive Edition introduces changes that similarly keep tedium at bay without turning the game into a mindless series of chores. Menus are now more coherently organized, while the user interface now includes health bars and notifications when, say, you’re in the right spot to get extra damage for a back attack. But perhaps the most welcome change is the vastly improved quest system, which marks relevant monsters and items on the map and even lets you set an active quest to plot routes to quest givers and destinations.

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This Definitive Edition also comes with a new scenario, Future Connected, that continues the main story. Yet for as welcome as it is to return to certain characters, this new stretch of story never feels particularly essential, as it lacks much of the base game’s stunning environmental design and features some spotty voice acting. But, then, that base game is still very much the attraction here, from the gameplay improvements to the rerecorded versions of an already superb soundtrack to the graphical upgrade, which gives the memorable characters more expressive faces and the environments more detail from a distance. In every possible sense, this release of Xenoblade Chronicles earns its Definitive Edition monkier.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Golin.

Score: 
 Developer: Monolith Soft  Publisher: Nintendo  Platform: Switch  Release Date: May 29, 2020  ESRB: T  ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence  Buy: Game, Soundtrack

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

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