Today, in May 2020, Monolith Soft decides to return to the origins: with Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition the software house tries to make a gaming experience aged a decade more current, through a graphic, technical and content restyling work that stands on the border between “remaster” and “remake”, and which aims to rediscover the most precious pearl of the Xenoblade Chronicles saga to the general public. A difficult goal that undoubtedly required a great effort, and the result of which simply left me stunned: without going around too much, the Definitive Edition is a mammoth, monolithic work (when does it happen to me to make this joke?), and to fully understand the reasons we have to go head first into his game world. A universe that has kept me glued for over a hundred hours of play, between men, machines, visions of the future and light swords.
Bionis and Mechanis
The World building of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is as complex as it is original: in an unknown universe, two giants have fought relentlessly, in a battle that has led them to complete immobility. One of them is Bionis, made of flesh and blood, and the other is mechanis, a titan composed entirely of metal, gears, electrical components: a rather simple and trivial incipit, if it were not for these giants, actually, they are also planets.
On the titans, for equally unknown reasons, intelligent life has been generated in their image and likeness: on Bionis humans were born, known as “Homs”, together with other animals and races that populate the fauna of the giant, while on Mechanis all life forms are mechanical, sentient robots of various sizes. The peoples of Bionis and Mechanis, unfortunately, are in conflict, and the balance of this mysterious war is entrusted to the Monado, a legendary sword capable of generating visions of the future.
These are the premises of the epic of Shulk, protagonist of the story, who together with Reyn, his trusted childhood friend, will visit every ravine of Bionis and Mechanis, in an attempt to rediscover the past of his universe, know the real intentions of the machines and unravel every mystery behind the nature of the “Monado”: a long adventure, pleasantly twisted, which will see dozens of characters involved, including primaries who will accompany the duo as playable members of the party, and secondaries that will enrich the narrative depth of the title.
Already at the time of the release of the original, Xenoblade Chronicles had distinguished itself precisely for this peculiar union of world building and level design: living and acting on titans means having to literally explore them. Bionis’ legs, for example, not only represent the joints of the giant, but long plains that the player can cross, while his back reveals a forest full of vegetation. The way in which the anatomy of the titans intersects with the level design of Xenoblade is simply a pleasure for the eyes, with lots of panoramas that allow us to see other parts of the visited giant’s body on the horizon: for this Definitive Edition, Monolith Soft has decided to amplify this sense of aesthetic fulfillment, with a truly meticulous graphic restyling.
First of all, all 3D models of the characters were recreated from scratch, with a lot of revisiting of their facial expressions and of the movements of the hands and fingers, giving a graphic rendering to the gameplay events and to the cutscenes much more similar to that perceived on Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The environmental textures then, such as vegetation, rocks and water, have been modified and updated, making the expanses of green of Bionis, or the mechanical plants of Mechanis, much more pleasant to visit.
The same can also be said of the textures of the objects, such as weapons, armor and background elements, all with a much greater level of detail; finally, also the particle effects, the shadows, the fog and the lights are aspects that live a new life, and help the player to immerse himself in the adventure of Shulk without excessively accusing the technical seniority of the original title.
An seniority that, in any case, it remains perceptible even in this definitive edition: unwanted interpenetrations between weapon and armor models, and some rather stiff twisting and moving animations of the characters are still present scars, testifying to the inexorable passage of a decade.
Furthermore, if the aesthetics of the first Xenoblade now approach that of the second chapter, this also applies to the performance that is not excellent from the point of view of resolution, which 720p in docked mode and 540p in handheld, a compromise that keeps i 30 stable FPS during the course of the game, but that does not fully satisfy the eye of the users of Nintendo Switch titles. Nonetheless, Monolith Soft’s work remains commendable: the care taken in revisiting the many original graphic elements is very present, as well as capable of amortizing the weight of the years, making the gaming experience more usable for both novices and veterans of the series.
Main and secondary missions
The gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition will see the player get lost in the maze of numerous maps extended both horizontally and vertically, divided by macro areas that are located on a certain part of a titan’s body: there is certainly no lack of variety, between forests, woods, seas and arid expanses that are teeming with monsters and threats. In full Monolith Soft style, the constant sense of danger is one of the hallmarks of the exploratory phases of this title: each zone is characterized both by the presence of monsters more or less proportionate to the current level of the player, and by much stronger ferocious beasts, which will be avoided in order not to risk incurring an instant game over.
In this slalom between accessible challenges and insurmountable dangers, you are faced with the opportunity to complete only the main quests or to do your best in a large number of secondary missions, which will be collected by the NPCs scattered in the places of greatest interest.
Optional quests usually fall into two main groups: the ones they require the collection of specific objects, obtainable in the overworld or collected from the corpse of a defeated enemy, and those that instead impose the player on kill certain opponents, usually a group of common monsters or some sort of optional mini boss. Except for some particularly frustrating collection missions, due to infinitesimal drop rates by some enemies, most of the side quests are pleasant to face, especially because they reward the player with experience points, money and armor that increase the strength of the party.
And if it is true that the title immediately mentions the possibility of ignoring collateral assignments, the truth is that this choice is correct only in theory: in practice, accomplishing at least a part of secondary quests will be necessary to keep up with the leveling of the title, to be able to face the monsters and bosses of the main chapters, and avoid long and grueling chains of grinding which would then become necessary to bridge the gap between the playable characters and their enemies.
In the original Xenoblade Chronicles, this type of progression presented a big underlying problem: as much as the side quests were pleasant to face, and allowed the player to witness small glimpses of history related to otherwise unimportant NPCs, theFinding the quest objectives on the game map was really difficult. The same problem, in equal measure, was encountered in Xenoblade Chronicles 2: the map indicated the arrival point of the player, an object to be collected or a creature to be killed, but the incomprehensibility of the various vertical differences made it difficult to guess if the target was on the ground or on top of a hill.
Today, thanks to another change, that nightmare is just a past memory: the map of the Definitive Edition always indicates the exact path that the player will have to take to achieve a certain goal, significantly reducing the time required to complete a single quest.
With this new rhythm of play, the level curve required to face the various chapters is also more uniform: in my main playthrough I completed about two hundred secondary missions before completing the game, and in doing so I never had to resort to long sessions of grinding to equalize the level of my characters with that of the most difficult enemies.
Moreover, I would like to underline one of the elements of the Monolith Soft titles that I love the most: compared to other J-RPG games, in Xenoblade Chronicles it is possible to gain experience even just exploring a new area of the map previously undiscovered, a truly exquisite reward that enhances the player’s willingness to go beyond the areas necessary for his main quest.
Until Xenoblade Chronicles 2, this philosophy was not fully enjoyable due to an exploration made difficult by a confused map and an absent tracking: now, however, it is precisely the secondary missions to guide the player towards unknown portions of the map, which they will reward with substantial doses of experience that will be spent in the most complex boss fights.
The other way of acquiring XP, of course, is the classic one: fight.
The combat system
The declination of the concept of Action RPG made in Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition inherits many concepts from the skeleton of a MMORPG: during the various battles presented by the title, the player will have the possibility to control only one of the main characters of his choice, while the other two members of the party will be managed by the CPU. Each playable hero is equipped with both automatic white attacks, and with more powerful techniques, moves or spells with its own cooldown, displayed at the bottom of the screen: depending on the role of the chosen character, which is ideally divided into DPS, Tank and curator, the player will be asked to rotate the strongest attacks according to a specific logic, which will allow them to maximize their contribution to the battle.
Each hero, using a technique, accumulates “Anger” on a certain enemy: a given target will automatically attack the party member who has scored the most “Ira” points, in a system identical to that of the World of Warcraft aggro. For this reason, the parties will have to be built wisely: if on the one hand a member like Shulk increases the damage imparted on monsters, on the other Reyn will be necessary as a tank, because he has high defenses and his techniques mainly accumulate IRA, allowing so to the companion to act undisturbed.
During the course of the adventure they will be added other members to your team, from those who specialize in treatments to those who prefer a magical attack at a distance: one of the most functional elements of this Combat System is precisely the total freedom that is given to the user in building his group of three members, letting him choose if it is appropriate to fight the threat of duty with the classic triad DPS – Tank – Curator, or if perhaps it is more appropriate to insert an additional DPS, an extra curator in the absence of tanks, to better adapt to the requests of a given boss fight.
Party members also often have Techniques that can be combined with those of their companions: during a fight, therefore, in addition to observing their cooldowns and managing them better following a specific rotation of the moves, it is also necessary to preserve certain Techniques for moments propitious in which they can maximize their effects thanks to the actions of the other party members.
The management of these combos between the characters, unfortunately, is not always perfect due to the control of the other two team members, entrusted to the CPU. However, this aspect is expressly desired by the team: each Technique that achieves a secondary effect slightly reloads the “Group Bar”, which once filled to the maximum can be emptied for a “Group Assault”. In this case, the player takes control, in turn, of all three characters of the team, and is able to manage all their Techniques in freedom: this fighting mode not only allows you to better organize the chains between the skills companions, but also to impart debuffs to enemies of great stature, otherwise immune to certain side effects.
To make the Combat System even deeper, the “Group Bar” is also given the power of resurrect party members who died in battle: the player will therefore have to constantly choose whether it will be more convenient to use all three notches on the bar to carry out a Group Assault, and thus inflict great damage and malus on the enemies, or preserve them to have the ability to resurrect a fallen companion, an action that it only consumes one notch.
With QTE during the fights that are able to increase even more the loading of the Group Bar, attacks that can be avoided by physically moving from one point to another in the overworld, and the possibility of pressing the B button next to a partner Landed or Stunned to revive him, the mix of the Combat System of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition presents itself as a combination of movement, positioning, ready reflexes and ability to manage their offensive and defensive resources.
The icing on the cake of this combat system, which is perhaps one of the title’s greatest strengths, is Shulk’s premonition system.
As a former World of Warcraft player, it has often happened to play the most difficult raids with the help of various add-ons: among the many, the most popular was certainly Deadly Boss Mods, an extension that allowed players to know in advance which moves would be used by the bosses over the next ten or fifteen seconds. What happens in Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is very similar, but with one big difference: Monolith Soft inserts the mechanics of attack prediction directly in the title lore, and intersects it with its history.
Shulk can see the future, and for this reason, when the enemies are about to inflict serious damage to the members of the party, the nefarious event will be displayed on the screen, to then rewind the time and give the player the opportunity to change this result with their techniques. The premonition, of course, only shows the attack immediately, and does not suggest in any way how to resolve the moment of tension: the player will choose what to do, whether to cast a Defensive Technique to reduce damage, accumulate Wrath and collect the attack in place of the enemy’s current target, or still accept fate and choose to lose that member to revive him later.
Net of all these qualities, however, we also have some inevitable defect: if the strategic depth is fully sensitive during the title boss fights, the simplest struggles, in the long run, simply involve repeating the same functional tactic. To mitigate the problem we find the huge selection of characters usable in combat, but also in this case it is an element that really spreads its wings only when it is in front of a “Unique” monster, or a real boss: controlling a character other than Shulk diversifies the standard rhythm fighting, but against weaker enemies it simply means using different Techniques to eliminate threats. Furthermore, another defect of the Combat System, and perhaps the most serious one, is the inconvenience of selecting the techniques: to choose a move it is necessary to highlight it with the directional keys and then select it with the A key, a decidedly long process that sometimes does not keep up with the readiness that the player must have to respond to an enemy attack in real time.
And given that the fights always alternate between phases of selection of the techniques and sequences of movement, the continuous passage of the thumb between the left stick and the directional ones is not comfortable in the most frenetic battles: shortcuts for the Techniques in short, perhaps with the pressure of dorsal triggers plus a specific key, would have been much more functional in the most difficult situations.
The Xenoblade Chronicles Combat System, although not without flaws, is dynamic and layered, able to ask the player for both readiness and reasoning and forecasting skills, and in this Definitive Edition it was even decorated with an elegant graphic restyling of the icons: if “Action RPG” is the combination of action and reflection, Xenoblade Chronicles is perhaps one of the products that best embodies this combination.
The role-playing soul
To support the Combat System we have a strong classic RPG component, in which each character has various statistics that can grow during the adventure, not only through simple leveling. Each party member, in fact, can increase his parameters first of all by equipping himself with different weapons and armor, recovered through the completion of missions, the killing of monsters in the overworld, or “Challenge mode” now inherited from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, in which it will be necessary to defeat some enemies within a specific time frame.
These armor sets, then, can also be enhanced with the “Gems”, jewels created from crystals found in the overworld, and which allow the user to choose which secondary statistics to maximize in their characters: in this way the player is given the freedom to significantly customize the experience, increasing for example the Wrath generated by the team member you want to designate as a tank.
With the use of specific armor and the assignment of techniques, even a tank can become, if necessary, a useful healer and a DPS with traits of resistance. Varying the usefulness that the characters have in battle, in some more complex phases of the game, can be the correct answer to the most difficult challenges: during the final phase of the title, several times I recalibrated the character builds, revised as needed requests from the boss on duty.
In this growth system, further functions that regulate the heroes’ performance in battle enter the stretched leg: the first is the Agreement Diagram, who manages the friendship between the characters and increases their “Group” ability in battle. In each chapter, therefore, the player’s goal will not only be to accumulate experience points, but also to strengthen the emotional bond between the team members: to do so, it is possible to attend “Empathic Dialogues”, short sequences accessible by points specific to the map, or simply fighting with a certain companion for a long time.
Another means of modifying the statistics is represented by the Skill Lines: these are three branches of passive talents, also here in full World of Warcraft style, which allow the user to outline the standard traits of his character, and choose whether he will tend to be more inclined to heal or accumulate damage on the opponent. Finally, then, there is the system of Skill Networks: thanks to it it is possible to inherit the talents of a hero to a second member, if there was a strong understanding between the two: in doing so the possibility of getting a certain companion out of the pre-established tracks is highlighted, and transform a healer into a tank over time, or a tank into a DPS.
The strong point of the RPG component of Xenoblade, in short, is the ability to fully customize your gaming experience: adapt it to the needs that battles put in front of the player, or even use the building as an excuse to diversify the duels, counterbalance a possible repetitiveness of the Combat System, and make each chapter of the game different from the previous one.
On the other hand, however, we are faced with a system too layered: leveling techniques, friendship, passive skills, inherited skills, armor, weapons and gems are really many elements to manage, and not infrequently having to take care of the build of your characters will interrupt the pace of exploration, requiring the player to pass a bit of his time among the menus. Other times, in the most excited phases of history, I happened to ignore some growth mechanics, and then found myself having accumulated too many points to spend in the diagrams: a synthesis of functions would therefore have been preferable, perhaps cutting the part of the “Skill Networks” which is already covered by the possibility of setting gems on the armor and weapons of the various team members.
Remaining in terms of equipment, we have another very welcome addition in this Definitive Edition: now it will be possible to associate to a piece of armor the aesthetic aspect of any other garment owned, so that the sets worn are always consistent with each other, allowing then the player to keep a specific item of clothing on him even if, on a practical level, he has been replaced by a stronger and more performing second.
I confess that I spent a lot of time taking care of the aesthetics of my characters, sometimes inventing sets of healthy plants by combining several different types of armor: saving the world is important, but it must always be done with style, right?
The plot and the difficulty of the game
On a narrative level, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition keeps the story of the first chapter unchanged, and it’s perfectly fine that it is: the plot of the title is perhaps its main engine, capable of engaging the player with an iridescent rhythm, full of dialogues, explanations on the laws that regulate Bionis and Mechanis, and twists and turns capable of questioning any certainty.
The main campaign, which consists of 17 chapters, has an extremely long duration, which stands on the seventy hours of gameplay if we carry out a reasonable number of secondary missions, enough to enable us to face the most difficult challenges. In post game they can be easily reached more than a hundred hours, completing all the secondary requests present in the overworld: the replay value, in short, is at the highest levels.
If you look at Xenoblade Chronicles for the first time, its history will certainly be able to satisfy the taste buds of those looking for complex textures but still fully understandable for those who love to pay attention to details: for long-time fans instead, there will be some aesthetic gems that will give some meaning to some conjectures about the lore of Xenoblade that have followed one another over the years.
On the difficulty side, it must be said that the title starts in a soft way, to then know two progressive increases in complexity. The last chapter of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is one of the most difficult RPG sequences I’ve ever played in my life: the final stage bosses are really tough, and will require numerous attempts, experiments and trial and error phases before their completion.
In general, every time the title raises its difficulty, the player can take three paths in front of him: learn the various stages of the boss and spend time to understand the most effective strategy, grind and increase his level to simplify the battles thanks to more damage for the party, or activate the “Casual” option, a sort of mode that is easy to operate and deactivate at all times. From my point of view, I think the first option is the preferable one, more consistent with the spirit of the production: going forward in history the opponents will become increasingly fearful and powerful, and spending a lot of time on a single boss, although it can be initially frustrating , will guarantee a gigantic satisfaction once the threat is knocked out.
And to accompany our explorations, discoveries and battles to the death, there will be a soundtrack completely rearranged for the Definitive Edition: the OST of Xenoblade Chronicles, composed of ACE + and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts) had already been adored ten years ago, and today it returns with updated sound libraries, able to give tracks with even more complex and harmonious to its players.
One of the most awaited additions of this Definitive Edition is the “Future Connected” chapter: it is a secondary adventure, playable immediately and separated from the structure of the main game, and which takes place one year after the final of Xenoblade Chronicles. Unfortunately I have to get my hands on: this extra chapter is the weakest part of the whole experience.
Future Connected is structured as a kind of Free DLC by Xenoblade, which adds several elements: two new playable characters, an extra map, and an unpublished story obviously adorned by many side missions, for a total duration of approximately twelve hours of campaign. Future Connected, however, performs a sort of general simplification of the mechanics of Xenoblade, significantly reducing the role skeleton: the armor are now only objects that can be purchased from the merchants, and the gems to be set no longer have to be created from crystals, but are directly collected in the ‘overworld.
Skill Lines and Networks disappear, as well as the Diagrammi Intesa, in a streamlining that leaves only the leveling system of its techniques unchanged: if in the main adventure it is perhaps too much freedom given to the player for the personalization of the team members, here we are at the opposite extreme , in which inexplicably too many mechanics have been cut, making the player unable to move away from the standard roles of the characters in his party. A group that, however, despite knowing two new additions, also loses five old members, going from a roster of seven to four total members.
The Combat System then remains basically unchanged, with one difference: the Group Assaults have been replaced by a group attack by the “Ponspettori”, cute Nopons at the base of the main secondary mission of this extra chapter. Sponsors have the possibility to consume the Group Bar and perform an all-out-attack, the outcome of which is entirely managed by a QTE, and which can have the effect of stunning the opponent, giving him great damage, or healing the own team and make him immune to Malus. A brute force upgrade from the main game’s Group Assault, but a step back into the strategic depth of the Combat System, which now loses the possibility of concatenating the techniques of the various characters in favor of an animated sequence in which a single key must be pressed.
And in line with this general simplification, Shulk’s entire premonition system has also disappeared: a choice that I understand in theory, but that in practice impoverishes the technical sector of the Combat System. Consistent with what has been said, the difficulty of the general experience is also affected: if the final chapter of Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition is infernal, with Future Connected it returns to the modest tension of the first bars, in which dying is quite unlikely.
Future Connected is not an unpleasant extra content, and despite proposing a somewhat confused story, and a campaign depleted of content compared to the main one, it still manages to give an additional twelve hours in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles: it is simply an inconsistent follow-up with all that the title becomes in the final stages of the main adventure, less qualitative of the main quest from every point of view, it is observed, which generates a reversal of rhythm and a decrease in involvement, both practical and emotional.
Playing Future Connected will amuse you, but it will make it even more to return to the main game for the completion of each available secondary mission: this is why, unfortunately, the extra chapter has more the taste of a not essential addition, rather than new life tip over the Xenoblade Chronicles characters.