It may not look as pretty as the Wii original, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is still one of the best JRPGs we've played in the last decade
Available formats: New Nintendo 3DS / New Nintendo 3DS XL
3D remakes of classic console games have been coming thick and fast on the 3DS ever since it launched four years ago, but even the hardiest of Nintendo fans are likely to draw a blank when it comes to Xenoblade Chronicles – which is a shame, really, as it was (in our opinion) one of the greatest games ever released on the Wii and possibly the best JRPG we’ve played in the last decade.
It seems incredible, then, that Monster Games (previously responsible for the port of Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D) has managed to shrink Monolith Soft’s massive JRPG down to such minuscule proportions. It really does push the 3DS to breaking point, so much so that you can’t physically play it on the standard console. Instead, you’ll need a New 3DS or New 3DS XL to play Xenoblade Chronicles 3D (and at least an 8GB microSD card if you’re downloading it digitally), making it the first major exclusive for Nintendo’s newly upgraded handheld.
^ Shulk (right), Reyn (left) and Sharla (centre) form the core of your early party, but you’ll meet plenty of other colourful characters before the game’s over
Admittedly, it’s probably not the best poster child for the New 3DS, as even the original Wii version looked as though it had been born at the wrong end of the PS2 era. Still, to judge Xenoblade on looks alone would be short-sighted, as this is easily one of the most enthralling and exceptionally crafted RPGs to ever hit a Nintendo console.
The story goes that there were once two great titans locked in a timeless battle, the Bionis and the Mechonis. Both perished in a cataclysmic fight, but now new life has begun to evolve on their dormant carcasses, giving birth to all-new war between man and machine. However, the human Homs only have a single blade that can actually damage the deadly Mechon, and that’s the mysterious Monado. Not everyone can wield it either, but luckily hero Shulk is one of two people who can (the other being bed-ridden war hero Dunban), so it’s up to him and his fellow band of survivors to end the Mechons’ tyranny once and for all.
^ Your hometown of Colony 9 is one seamless landscape, but the amount of detail present can make it appear a little fuzzy on the New 3DS’s tiny screens
This being a direct port rather than a 3D remaster, there are a few obvious downgrades in the visuals department, such as low resolution textures, laughably fuzzy maps and some terribly jagged aliasing and noticeable pop-in. Part of the problem is the sheer amount of detail they’re trying to cram into the New 3DS’s tiny screens – zoom in close, for instance, and you’ll see crisp character models, cleaner, sharper-looking monsters and tonnes of intricate environmental detail. However, when most of your time’s spent with the camera pulled out, the huge plains and fields of the Bionis quickly become a busy blur of pixels.
Fortunately, the sheer size and scale of the game remains intact, and in our books that’s more than enough compensation for some slightly wonky graphics. We thought Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate had some pretty impressive worlds for a 3DS game, but these pale in comparison to the truly gigantic landscapes you’ll find in Xenoblade Chronicles 3D.
^ The beautiful Eryth Sea lies at the very top of the Bionis, but just because you’ve (quite literally) reached the top of the world doesn’t mean your journey is anywhere near finished
For instance, you could probably fit the first four Monster Hunter 4 maps quite comfortably inside the massive rib-cage-cum-savannah that is Gaur Plain (which is just the second of over twenty equally large areas you’ll find on your way up the Bionis) and still have room left over. What’s more, whereas Monster Hunter 4 divides its maps into small bite-size locales that are separated by tedious loading screens, each Xenoblade location is one seamless experience from start to finish.
And what worlds they are. From the towering snowy peaks and crystalline light beacons of Valak Mountain to the lush, tropical jungle of the Nopon Forest, each location is truly jaw-dropping, and we’re incredibly impressed that Monster Games has managed to fit them all onto Nintendo’s tiny handheld without splitting them up into smaller hub areas. Gaur Plain in particular still makes us pause for breath every time we run the length of this fantastical landscape, but it’s the sheer breadth and attention to detail in the surrounding ecosystem that really draws you in.
^ The view of the Mechonis from Gaur Plains at dusk remains one of the most impressive sights in the entire game
Life reaches every part of the spectrum here on the Bionis, and you’ll find towering Lv.87 goliaths living alongside tiny Lv.11 rabbits, giving you plenty of challenges to return to later in the game. You’ll also see warring clans of monsters vying for supremacy and super-powered alpha males standing guard over the rest of their pack, adding further diversity to the game’s rich, natural tapestry.
This ecosystem is mirrored in the game’s party mechanics, too, creating another web of connections that feeds into the game’s deep levelling system. Like any group of strangers, your party members start out hesitant and guarded when they first meet, but the more they battle together, the closer their friendship becomes, allowing them to share their unique skills and battle techniques with each other to gain certain battle buffs and status effects.
Similarly, the game’s 400+ challenges and sidequests not only help develop the affinity between your characters even further, but they also help you build a rapport with your fellow communities. The more you help certain groups of people, the more they trust you to take on greater tasks, such as taking down those aforementioned alpha males or exposing the underground black market going on between the cute, fluffy Nopons and the winged Alcamoth aristocrats.
^ Jump off this cliff and you’ll be able to swim all the way to the edge of the waterfall and climb all the way back up to the cliff again without a single loading screen
It all adds up to create one of the most engrossing and time-consuming JRPGs we’ve played in years (we happily sunk over 150 hours into the Wii original), and if you’re anything like us, you’ll revel in piecing together the huge Bionis-wide affinity map and seeing how everyone fits together across all the different communities. Admittedly, managing your sidequests can get a little overwhelming at times, but it’s hard to try and rein them in when Xenoblade does such an excellent job of tempting players off the beaten track. For instance, you can gain experience points simply by discovering new areas and landmarks, something that most RPGs only achieve by forcing players to grind against wave upon wave of enemies.
Battle is a constant joy, too. Taking place in real-time, you control the party leader while your companions execute their own attacks at will. With complete freedom to move around your enemy at all times, this gives you the chance to supplement your standard automatic attacks with each character’s unique Art attacks, which are special skills that deal more damage or give status effects depending on your position. For instance, you can use Shulk’s Back Slash attack anywhere, but it does the most damage when you get behind your target.
^ Arts appear along the bottom of the screen in a row, while your HP and tension levels have been moved to the lower touchscreen
You’ll need to keep your wits about you, though, as one wrong move, or indeed too many moves, will increase the amount of aggro your enemy feels toward you, prompting them to single you out and unleash a wave of pain until another party member like Reyn draws it away. Each Art has its own cool-down period as well, so you’ll need to keep everything in check so you don’t run out of moves when you’re in a pinch.
It’s a fine balance, but this added layer of strategy makes every fight a tense and fulfilling ride of ever-evolving tactics and excitement. It’s an incredibly intelligent system, always challenging the player to react quickly and effectively. This becomes even more important when Shulk begins to receive visions of the future. Occasionally, Shulk will see attacks in advance which will potentially devastate a member of your party if you don’t warn them in time, and this really piles on the pressure when you’re in the middle of a fierce boss battle.
Ultimately, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D delivers on every front and makes the JRPG a genre to be proud of again. Set against a beautiful backdrop of nearly overwhelming proportions, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D tells an enthralling tale of resistance and rebellion and possesses one of the most refreshing battle systems we’ve seen in the genre. With a likeable and well-developed cast of characters and an excellent soundtrack, Xenoblade is here to show other JRPGs how it’s done. It wins a Best Buy award.