Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition is just as vast and fantastical as it was in 2010. While not every aspect has aged gracefully, Monolith Soft's lengthy role-playing game has withstood the test of time and further cements itself as one of the most memorable JRPGs of the last decade.
Although Xenoblade Chronicles' opening hours may seem standard fare for JRPGs story-wise, what sets it apart right from the get-go is its setting. Years before the events of the game, two massive titans, Bionis and Mechonis, were locked in a devastating battle of unfathomable proportions. One day, the titans froze, and life started to pop up on the backs of these enormous figures. To put things into perspective, Colony 9--where protagonist Shulk lives--and the sprawling plains and lake surrounding it are located near the Bionis' ankle.
Despite Xenoblade Chronicles's age, its sense of scale is still impressive. Throughout your journey you explore wide-open plains, dense forests, snow-capped mountains, and vast lakes. All the while, Mechonis looms over you as you explore every corner of Bionis.
Big, open areas alone are nothing new these days, but the way Monolith Soft plays with scale makes the world enticing. Massive beasts that tower over Shulk and his party roam the wilds, and huge natural formations loom over every region. For example, Makna Forest, located near the head of the Bionis, is home to Frontier Village, a towering city built inside a monstrous, hollowed-out tree. Although ascending the city isn't much of a challenge, reaching the top feels like an accomplishment in itself thanks to the gorgeous views along the way. All of this is accompanied by an enchanting soundtrack that has been stuck in my head for weeks. Many of the iconic tracks remain largely the same, but certain tracks like the field and battle music have the option toggled between the new arranged versions and the originals.
Despite the size of Xenoblade Chronicles' world, exploration rarely feels tedious. This is due in part to the forgiving fast-travel system and speedy load times. You can fast travel at almost any time to any previously discovered landmark instantly. This makes revisiting old locations, finishing off side quests, and defeating unique monsters you may have missed painless.
While Xenoblade has always had an impressive sense of scale, the look of the original hasn't aged well. Fortunately, the Definitive Edition has undergone an impressive graphical overhaul. The characters and textures have been redesigned to give the game a sharper and more defined look akin to Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The real star of the show, though, is the updated UI. While Xenoblade still has some incredibly dense menus and stat pages, the new interface is much easier on the eyes and does a far better job at putting the most important information front and center. This is especially true during battle; the new battle overlay takes up far less real estate than before while still showing you all the important information. While this doesn't dramatically change up combat, it certainly helps keep your attention on the battle itself and your party's position rather than distracting from the action with a crowded overlay.
Combat plays out identically to how it did in the original. You have a basic auto-attack and a series of arts tied to cooldown meters. Much like in an MMO, you'll need to chain arts, abilities, and unique talents--a specialized attack tied to a specific party member--in order to take down enemies efficiently. Although the combat system may not be as flashy as Xenoblade Chronicles 2's, it certainly doesn't lack depth. Even though Shulk is the main character, you can play as any character in your party for most battles, and each character has their own strategy with different arts and talents to master. Shulk is essentially the DPS, Reyn is the tank, and Sharla is the support. There are four other party members as well, each with different arts and strategies to level up and master. Combat rarely gets dull or tedious thanks to how differently all these characters play.
Of course, Xenoblade Chronicles does offer some wiggle room within those roles thanks to Skill Branches and Skill Links. If you want Shulk to be a more defensive fighter, you can equip the Integrity Branch, for example, which will increase Shulk's block rate and boost his overall defense. As you level up and defeat monsters, whichever Skill Branch you have equipped will unlock more perks that can assist you in and out of battle. Additionally, you can set up Skill Links, which allow other active party members to take advantage of the linked skill. The combinations are seemingly endless and can be a bit overwhelming at first. However, there is a lot of depth to this system both in and out of battle. If you decide to invest in Shulk's Integrity Branch, you will eventually unlock a perk that grants allies more HP on a successful revive from Shulk. You can then share that perk via the Skill Link tree so other party members can also benefit from the same perk. Once you get the hang of it, speccing characters and finding optimal ways to link perks together can be just as satisfying as taking down a giant creature. When every character is tuned appropriately, it can feel like your party is firing on all cylinders.
As you and your party land critical hits, a segmented gauge will fill in the top left corner. You can use a third of the gauge to revive a fallen teammate or--if you fill the gauge--you can unleash a chained attack. This will freeze the battle, and each of your party members can use a single art. Matching the same color arts will inflict more damage, and with a bit of luck and high affinity for each other, your party can continue the chain attack for 15 turns, dealing a massive amount of damage. Meeting the requirements for lengthy chain attacks can take a while, but landing them properly and eviscerating a boss' health bar is incredibly satisfying.
As good as the combat is, it can be frustrating at times mostly due to your companion AI. Because you can only control one character in any given battle, you rely heavily on party members to pull off specific combos. Just because I inflict a break art with Shulk does not guarantee Reyn will follow up with a topple art, halting my combo before it even gets started. Alternatively, you may desperately need a health boost from Sharla, but she'll be preoccupied with something else. The only way to directly tell a companion to use a specific art is to wait for Shulk to get a vision in combat, which allows him to see a powerful attack before it happens; at this point, you can warn a companion for a third of the party gauge and select any of their arts for immediate use. Considering how many battles you take part in, these AI issues are rare, but that doesn't make them any less annoying.
Although Xenoblade's combat demands a lot of you, Definitive Edition adds a few new difficulty options that can take the edge off for players who might be struggling or even the playing field for those who have mastered its mechanics.
Although Xenoblade's combat demands a lot of you, Definitive Edition adds a few new difficulty options that can take the edge off for players who might be struggling or even the playing field for those who have mastered its mechanics. These difficulty options come in the form of Casual Mode and Expert Mode and can be adjusted at any point in your adventure. As you'd expect, Casual Mode makes battles significantly easier across the board. Even veteran players may find some use out of casual mode because it can cut down on grinding thanks to quicker and easier battles. In my case, this cut down the game's overall length to a more manageable 65 hours rather than the 100-plus hours it could have taken to finish the original.
I primarily played through the game on the standard difficulty. However, I'd occasionally switch to Casual when I had to grind a few levels or go out of my way to complete side quests. This kept the pace and momentum of the main story consistent. Throughout my adventure, my progress rarely slowed down and never ground to halt.
Expert Mode, on the other hand, doesn't actually make the game harder; rather, it lets you manually level up and level down your party members outside of battle. Every time you earn experience, a portion of that XP will be set aside. You can then use that experience pool to level up your characters further or de-level them on a whim. The inclusion of this mode may seem strange at first, but if you're the type of player who likes to complete every side quest, kill every unique monster, and min-max your characters, you will undoubtedly find yourself overleveled for a majority of the game. Expert Mode is a smart way to combat that. Better yet, just like Casual Mode, you can turn Expert Mode on and off whenever you like. You can even enable Casual Mode and Expert Mode at the same time to further tune the difficulty.
Despite the updated look and improved accessibility, a handful of the game's systems and mechanics feel like unnecessary bloat that add complexity simply for sake of complexity. A prime example of this is the Affinity Chart system, which tracks Shulk's reputation with settlements and the relationship between various side characters. As you talk to named NPCs, they will register in your Affinity Chart. If you complete quests for these NPCs, they may become linked to other NPCs. If you improve their relationship by trading with them and completing side quests, you can improve Shulk's renown in a specific settlement.
On paper, the Affinity Chart sounds impressive, and to some extent, it is. It was an ambitious idea in 2010, but the execution remains clunky and convoluted. The result is a dizzying chart that connects a bunch of forgettable characters to one another by completing dozens of repetitive fetch quests. Fortunately, Xenoblade Chronicles makes it clear early on that you can ignore the Affinity Chart altogether without any consequences.
Thankfully, Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition does away with the Affinity Chart in the excellent new 20-hour-long epilogue, Future Connected. Future Connected takes place after the events of the main game but can be accessed at any time from the main menu. Even though Shulk still plays a big role in the epilogue, the story is centered around Melia, a party member from the original game, as she tries to figure out what happened to her hometown, Alcamoth.
It's a bold move to shine the spotlight on Melia rather than Shulk, but it's one that ultimately pays off. Shulk's story has already been told, and given how Xenoblade Chronicles ends, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up with Melia's story and character. Without getting into spoilers and specifics, Future Connected does an excellent job at exploring the repercussions and ramifications of Xenoblade Chronicles' final moments.
Future Connected also showcases some of Monolith Soft's best world, creature, and art design.
Thanks to Future Connected's shorter length, there is little filler in the narrative. Right from the beginning, Monolith Soft carries you from region to region at a steady pace. Occasionally, you may stop to complete side quests and grind out a few levels depending on your difficulty settings, but by and large, there's a steady momentum pushing you through the epilogue.
Future Connected also showcases some of Monolith Soft's best world, creature, and art design. Rather than a bunch of smaller maps divided by loading screens, Future Connected takes place on the Bionis' Shoulder, a massive, lush area with stunning vistas and incredible architecture at every turn. While you will see some familiar creatures roaming the wilds, there is a host of new and impressive beasts and bosses to take down, including an optional boss that poses a significant threat to those who aren't adequately prepared.
Apart from a few key differences, Future Connected's combat is nearly identical to the main game. Shulk and Melia begin the epilogue at level 60 with all of their arts already unlocked. The big difference here is that the chain attack has been replaced with a new special attack that, while flashy, lacks the depth and strategy of chain attacks from the main game. This is slightly disappointing since it can take awhile to get the hang of chain attacks in the main game. However, since Future Connected has a leaner party and does away with the party affinity chart, it makes sense that it's been replaced.
The only aspect of Future Connected that really left me disappointed is that many important characters from the original, like Reyn and Sharla, play little to no role in the epilogue. While this does make sense for the narrative, it does mean that throughout Future Connected, you'll only have access to a total of four party members, which leaves certain arts, abilities, and play styles from the main game behind.
Although Future Connected does lack some of the depth from the main game, it makes up for it with its focused narrative and gorgeous world design. More so than Xenoblade Chronicles proper, I felt compelled to explore every corner of the new area and complete every side mission.
Although not every aspect of Xenoblade Chronicles has aged as well as others, Definitive Edition proves that Xenoblade Chronicles is still a fantastic JRPG with an immense amount of strategic depth that's still impressive in 2020. Its bevy of improvements and additions, as well as its fantastic epilogue, make this an adventure worth embarking on a decade later.