When Xenoblade Chronicles first released on the Wii in 2010, I was really feeling it. The game represented one of the few full-bodied RPGs to arrive on the system, so it was unfortunate that it came fairly late in the console’s life cycle. As good as it was, I put it down after ten to fifteen hours in favour of content on the more active consoles. Five years later, the game has been dusted off, 3D-ified and delivered to the New Nintendo 3DS – and the handheld is all the better for it.
Set in a world of endless ocean, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D’s history states that in ancient times, two titans fought each other for supremacy until a final blow was struck. From then on, the lifeless bodies of the organic Bionis and the mechanical Mechonis remained locked in place, allowing life to spring up on their bodies. Fast forward to the time the game is set in, and the humanoid Hom race, residing on the Bionis, are locked in a long war against the Mechon, robotic residents of the Mechonis’ corpse. Kidnapping the Homs to use as a source of energy, the Mechon are an ever-present threat for the residents of the Bionis.
After a devastating attack on their hometown of Colony 9, Shulk and his best friend Reyn set out on a journey to strike at the Mechon and avenge their home and friends lost in the battle utilising the power of the Monado – a mysterious sword with untapped potential, one of the few things actually able to damage their robotic enemies. Along the way, they encounter unexpected new forms of the Mechon, other races living on the Bionis, and a slowly unfolding story about the mystery of the Monado.
The story itself is a strong point of the game – cutscenes are regularly occurring but not overly long, and clearly signposted on your map. There’s no accidentally triggering a boss fight or cutscene if you want to focus on levelling up or exploring instead. When they do occur, story scenes are dynamic and interesting. Being an RPG it would be very easy for Xenoblade Chronicles to fall victim to Talking Head Syndrome, forcing us to sit and watch as a bunch of vaguely British-sounding characters drone on and on. Luckily this has been mostly sidestepped, and you’ll see a lot of action and cinematic framing as you move through the game’s cutscenes, adding spice to the storytelling that is always fun to see in this type of game.
In combat you’ll focus on three of your seven party members, controlling a single member directly. Much like Monster Hunter, enemies are seen freely roaming the game world and vary from passive to actively aggressive, attacking your party if they see or hear them nearby. Once in combat game operates with a basic auto-attack, causing you and your party members to strike their targeted enemy by default whenever they are in range. Characters then have a selection of special attacks with varying effects, buffs and debuffs. Certain attacks will inflict extra effects when used in combination, or when striking a foe from the side or rear.
Some enemies, such as the Mechon, require specialised tactics – besides the Monado, standard weapon strikes will only damage Mechon enemies 1 HP at a time. To take them down you’ll need to either enchant your weapons using a Mondao skill that allows them to overcome this damage limit, or inflict the Break and then Topple debuffs to temporarily incapacitate them. It’s this layer of complexity that brings strategy into play for the combat, rather than simply leaving your party to automatically bash away at whatever creature gets in their way.
An extra layer of detail is added to your combat via the affinity mechanic. Throughout the game, certain dialogue choices, optional cutscenes and sidequests will increase the affinity rating between your party members, eventually allowing them to share skills and combat bonuses based on their level of friendship. While in combat, you’ll occasionally be presented with a quick time event when one of your party members perform a critical hit or miss an attack. If timed properly, your characters will call out to each other to compliment a well-executed attack or encourage them to keep fighting if they’ve missed the mark.
Affinity allows you to perform chain attacks with your three party members, and higher levels of affinity increase the chance of gaining additional moves to extend the chain. It’s a cute way to implement this kind of mechanic, and really helps sell the party as a cohesive unit. Against a backdrop of everlasting war against an enemy force that wants to eat you for dinner, having someone reassure Shulk that “you’ll get ‘em next time, mate!” when his attacks are way off-base is a nice touch.
It’s easy to see why this game required the extra power of the New Nintendo 3DS. Environments are huge and sprawling, usually featuring multiple levels and taking more than a few minutes to cross from one end to the other. While Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate’s maps were definitely large-scale, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D exceeds them by a large gap. Pretty much anything you see in the distance can be reached, given enough time and effort. Enemies roam the plains, caves and forests you move through, moving in packs or individually, and have basic animations that increase the feeling of life in the world. Rhino-like Armu will travel in packs, with smaller and younger members of the group running and jumping to keep up with their larger parents.
You’ll also encounter higher-levelled Unique Monsters, who tower above you and the rest of the creatures in their environment. Despite the scale of the world, loading times are barely noticeable. Moving between fast-travel points on the same map is all but instantaneous, and moving from one map to the next will rarely take more than a second or two. For a game released on a handheld, this is exactly what you want to see – nobody wants to waste their precious game time on public transport, waiting for the next area to load up.
All this is achieved without any significant downgrade to the game’s original Wii visuals. When screenshots and footage of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D first arrived I was under the impression that visuals had been knocked down a peg, particularly on the game’s character models – but no, this is just how the game looked on the Wii. While Shulk’s slightly fuzzy face textures are definitely noticeable on a Youtube trailer or big-screen TV for the Wii version, the effect is mitigated by the smaller screen of the 3DS.
Enough detail has been packed in that the characters are able to emote effectively without looking like a pixelated mess. The framerate is also quite solid – in my time playing the game, I’ve only experienced brief dips in framerate related to the number of character models on screen. Combat situations with large forces of enemies, all party members on screen and their various attack animations in play may cause the framerate to sag, but not to a point where it feels unplayable. No doubt this would not have been possible on the original 3DS hardware, so it’s nice to see that Nintendo’s first New-only game out of the gate has such a strong showing for the hardware’s increased capabilities.
All in all, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a good game to add to your RPG collection if you’ve made the step up to the New Nintendo 3DS. While it was hard to hold attention on this game in a home console environment, being able to carry this game around is both more engaging and kinder to its visual presentation. The storyline and world are unique, setting it apart from other genre competitors on the 3DS. If nothing else, maybe it’ll help you remember Shulk’s moveset for Super Smash Bros.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D was reviewed using a promotional copy on New Nintendo 3DS, as provided by the publisher.
“Review: Xenoblade Chronicles 3D