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The Nintendo Switch hasn't been short of a port or twenty since its launch in 2017, not to mention various deluxe and upgraded versions, and remakes, of games from Nintendo's own catalogue. But going into 2020, if you'd have told me that one of the games of the year on the platform would be a relatively cult-appeal role-player from the Wii era, originally released a full ten years ago, I'd have likely chuckled in your general direction. But, here we are in May 2020, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is out, and it's absolutely magical.
I never played Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii - but its impressive reputation as one of the console's very best titles certainly reached me. I watched videos and read reviews, but for whatever reason I never got around to experiencing it for myself. So for the game's expanded Definitive Edition, I don't have that context to hand, for comparison purposes. I can look at YouTube footage and screens of that old game and tell you that this release looks far, far superior to the Wii one - but then, of course it would.
But it's not just some extra gloss on select textures, and some crisper lines - character models have been remade, vast-reaching environments are richer in detail, and the menus have been redesigned for more efficient navigation. Such is the level of work that's gone into this edition, that you sometimes have to pinch yourself that it's, effectively, a remaster rather than a game made specifically for the Switch. Put it beside the 2010 release and it almost, almost, looks like a different game entirely.
Which is to say: Xenoblade Chronicles is a stunner in 2020. Sure, some areas are a little gloomy, lacking in eye-popping colour, like certain interiors - but when you stumble out into the glowing night of Satorl Marsh or the glistening blue of the Eryth Sea, this ten-year-old game can truly take the breath away. In its range of environments, linked by handy fast-travel points for effortless side-quest backtracking, it rivals Breath of the Wild for variety, spectacle and scale. Simply exploring some of these environments is rewarding enough for an hour's play, regardless of how much story progress you achieve.
And that story sure does take some bracing turns - from genuine horror to hearty laughs via small moments of palpable tenderness. Xenoblade Chronicles' world is a captivating mish-mash of high fantasy and science fiction, where strange, bird-wings-coming-outta-their-bonces humanoids live in a gleaming, floating city at the high point of a seemingly dead titan. It's a world where magic mixes with military might, grotesque and gigantic monsters with huge, people-munching mechs, and where landscapes bend and twist like Roger Dean paintings come to life inside your console. It's a game where you climb a tree to reach an ocean; where you march through a dead colossus to find a forest. And guiding you through all of this is a story of vengeance that quickly spins out into something far, far bigger - of hidden history and royal plots, and of friendships strained but new alliances forged.
Your party is ostensibly fronted by Shulk, the one Xenoblade character who's really found a second life in another Nintendo franchise - he was introduced into the Smash Bros. series for its Wii U and 3DS outings, and followed that with an appearance in 2018's Ultimate on Switch. In those games he wields the same weapon he does in Chronicles, the Monado, a magical sword that cannot deal damage to organic life but is vital in the battle against this game's ostensible antagonists, the mechanical Mechon. Shulk is joined initially by his soldier friend Reyn, and then another human (or a Homs, in the game's world), Sharla - a medic and sniper; later comes Riki, a rotund and knee-high being called a Nopon (they live in the big tree that leads to the sea), and Melia, aka 'bird lady' (see the previous paragraph) and a user of magic, or ether.
Whatever your chosen trio, they'll chatter near-constantly with each other while in battle, and offer some wisecracks once enemies are vanquished. It's crucial to evolve their relationships with each other for a host of reasons, from combat support to storyline asides, so regular visits to Xenoblade Chronicles' menus are essential to track skill trees, levelling up, affinities between characters, spotter's guide-style collect 'em up stamps, and much more. Indeed, sometimes it's all too much, and feels overwhelming. The menus are easy to navigate, but there's so much information thrown at the player this game's opening few hours that it's easy to feel lost when it comes to the best way to manage your party.
RPG veterans will no doubt take much of this in their stride, but for those more used to action-orientated role-players - like Breath of the Wild, which Xenoblade Chronicles developers Monolith Soft also worked on (on the environments, particularly) - the vast amount of things to remember can take a while to click with. Thankfully, there are tutorials available in the menu, and the option to save anywhere means that should you be coming up to a huge enemy, and be unsure of your tactics, you can create a safety net for an immediate return to the moment just before you chose to go in, Monado swinging.
And combat is definitely likely to throw those more used to a strong and fast attack and a few abilities mapped to triggers and the like. Xenoblade Chronicles goes deep on what it calls arts, or special moves basically, which can be purely physical or magical, and can lead to a selection of statuses. Combining these moves in chains is the key to getting the better of stronger enemies, with guard-breaking moves leading to others that will stagger an opponent, before a third party member can unleash a hugely powerful attack. Several hours into proceedings, if you're a newcomer (like me) you'll likely still be pressing the wrong move at the wrong time - but favourite abilities can be added to shortcuts, and when you find a certain, winning rhythm with your party of three, most areas of the game start to feel a lot less threatening.
The Monado itself has to be charged, to be used, too - and it's not always obvious what attacks or abilities encourage that meter to fill. Annoyingly, the tutorials cannot be accessed mid-fight, so if you are up against a seemingly invincible opponent, it's better to quit to your last save and dive into the menu - or check on an online guide, of which there are several (and have definitely been useful to me, when it's come to some bosses). Xenoblade Chronicles isn't really a game where you can ignore what you're told, either - it might not be the best teacher, but its lessons are so important to progression.
Definitive Edition's re-recorded music (sumptuous, enveloping) and overhauled visuals - which extend to its slicker, relatively intuitive UI - give it the solid feeling of a game far younger than its 10 years. But some of the dialogue, deliciously melodramatic and over-wrought as it is, does feel like a flashback to an earlier era. Some of it may irk you, but I never felt annoyed towards any of my party for their persistent trash-talking or unnecessarily enthusiastic celebrations in the wake of crushing a particularly weak monster with a single blow. Reyn in particular is guilty of being a little over vociferous about trivial things - but when you've spent a few hours in his company, the quirks that make him become more loveable than not. The same is true of Riki, whose broken sentences would grate if he wasn't such a delight to have around.
There are a handful of minor niggles that are more relics of the games we played two Nintendo generations ago than any significant problems in the here and now, but for the most part Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition highly impresses. Some will complain that it can dip as low as 378p when played handheld, in certain locations - but in hand, on the Switch, it rarely looks like a game lacking in the visuals department. The addition of an all-new epilogue called Future Connected, which you're advised to start after finishing the main game, adds some 20 hours of content on top of an adventure that's already clocking in at some 80 hours over 17 chapters - far more if you choose to explore each beautiful area (which you should). So in value-for-money terms, this is one hell of a package for RPG fans itching for a new fix.
It can't be stressed enough how engrossing, how enchanting, and how uniquely designed Xenoblade Chronicles is. At times it feels a little Final Fantasy-ish, at others like a Zelda game - but these are passing flirtations, inevitable and understandable nods to inspirational series that came before it. But the deeper into this game you get, the more it becomes clear that it, too, has been influential on the role-players we love today - not least of all Breath of the Wild, in its wide horizons and encouragement to get out there and see what's over that hill. It's a game where trying to process everything it puts in front of you, and understand it in the fullest, is missing the point - it's better to accept that some of it is simply magic, and leave it at that.
Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is the best game released for Switch so far in 2020. Its roots might be a decade long, but its excellence in the context of the here and now, in comparison to other role-players on the platform, cannot be undersold. If you missed it when the Wii ruled over gaming's seventh generation, and you play games to be taken out of your everyday and dropped into worlds so incredible, so elsewhere, that only this medium can deliver them, then you owe it to yourself to not repeat that mistake now. File it beside Breath of the Wild, beside The Witcher 3, and the rest of the best. This adventure is that good.
Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition was reviewed using code supplied by the publisher, Nintendo. The game is released for Nintendo Switch on May 29. A full guide to GAMINGbible's review scoring can be found here.
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