Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition Review (Switch, 2020)

I've always had a love-hate relationship with this game, even back on the Nintendo Wii. Xenoblade Chronicles — or just Xenoblade in Japan — is an unorthodox mix of a PSX-era JRPG, a dungeon crawler and a World of Warcraft clone. While those aspects work surprisingly well together, the game is known to have its ups and downs depending on the individual genre preferences of the player.

My favorite aspect of the game is its excellent map design, from terrain layouts to visual themes, coupled with its fantastic soundtrack. Few other games match the experience of Xenoblade in terms of exploration and atmosphere. At its best playing Xenoblade Chronicles is almost meditative, also thanks to its action combat system still having much in common with turn based systems. Unlike many other action RPGs combat in this one is still relatively simple and requires little no strenuous efforts to execute. What stands out to me is that cpu controlled characters don't feel like background props the way they often do in more recent Square-Enix games. Every party member matters. The protagonist, or any player character, is no superhero able to slash through armies of monsters seemingly on his (or her) own.

My least favorite aspect on the other hand is the balance of obligatory and optional content. Xenoblade features a massive amount of MMORPG-style sidequests. The stream of quests in some areas sometimes appears to have no end. Diligent players who decided for themselves to complete all of them will often feel overwhelmed while having to put the main story aside for many hours in succession. Although the sidequests are generally well written with a strong narrative link to the game's world, diligently completing them more often than not ends up feeling like busywork that the game could have better done without.
The definitive edition on Nintendo Switch comes with a set of new features that alleviates these issues a little. Quest markers on the maps help in finding NPCs and goals for certain types of quests. A new setting allowing players to level down helps to keep the difficulty in check since questing otherwise leads to the party being rather overleveled.

Xenoblade's narrative is solid in the game's early hours but steadily loses its pull as the plot around the main culprit unfolds. The lore the story is based on in itself is not bad, but the writers failed to introduce the antagonist and his motivation in an organic way. The narrative increasingly relies on scenes of exposition upon scenes of exposition when it could have given Shulk and his friends a deeper involvement in the plots surrounding its core. In the end the player learns what led to the antagonist's horrible personality and thus to the events of the game. In one line. Why wasn't that relevant anywhere in the story? They could have done much better with the material they had ready to work with. However party's characters all have strong, distinct personalities and all around feel alive. Many of their interactions with each other have a charm to them that's not found in just any game.

All in all Xenoblade Chronicles is a very mixed bag. I enjoyed exploring the game's areas — especially those with a strong atmosphere such as Satorl Marsh and Fallen Arm — when I had little or no quests to deal with. It was much less fun and felt like work whenever I had a dozen or more of quests tracked in the quest log, or when a couple of quests led to another set of quests, and then another and another and god is there ever an end to this? I get irritated just remembering. Maybe the definitive edition could have fixed a lot of this, but I don't mind that it respects the original game to the degree that it does. Somewhere around the middle Xenoblade starts to feel more like a dungeon crawler. I didn't like those parts when I first played the game in 2012, but having since warmed up to the genre I didn't mind them at all this time around. But I've heard complaints from friends. It's all a matter of taste. The new extra chapter Future Connected is more of the same. It's a nice little bonus but also feels like a slog at times and could have done with a better antagonist. The nopon ranger gimmick is great innocent fun that fits perfect with this sort of bonus content.

Xenoblade isn't the greatest of RPGs, but it's still got its strong points and impressive visuals for a game on the Nintendo Switch. These days it no longer has the impact it had on the Wii over ten years ago (its scope was exceptional for a Wii game) but it's still worth giving a try. Despite having a lot of flaws I'm still glad it got the HD treatment. This game always deserved it.