Historically, Nintendo's handhelds have always been about two generations behind their consoles in terms of hardware power. We saw SNES-style titles get a second life on GBA, Super Mario 64 was a debut title for the Nintendo DS, and 3DS has in many ways felt like a fusion between the DS and the GameCube.
All of this makes sense—as the technology used on consoles grew more and more sophisticated, the games did as well, which left room for games cut from the simpler cloth of yesteryears on the forever-behind handheld line.
Then Nintendo announced Xenoblade Chronicles 3D for the New Nintendo 3DS.
A Grand Adventure That Goes With You Anywhere
Given that the Big N has not, in fact, broken their handheld history with a portable that closely converges with its consoles (that'll come next generation), a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 3D doesn't really make much sense at all. The original game is just shy of five years old, released for hardware that's from just a generation back, and the machine it's debuting for doesn't really match its initial home platform in terms of horsepower (even if that platform was Wii).
It's a grand RPG with a spectacularly large world... squeezed onto a device with a 240p screen. Surprisingly ambitious, even given that the game takes full advantage of the New 3DS's beefier CPU.
And yet, somehow (resolution aside) Xenoblade Chronicles 3D manages to capture the authentic Xenoblade experience in portable form—quite nicely, even. The sprawling vistas are just as sprawling, the seamless transitions between towns and fields are just as seamless, and the monster battles are just as intense (provided you don't over-level!).
I shouldn't have been so surprised. This is, after all, still Xenoblade we're talking about.
That's not to say the New 3DS version is a no-compromises port. Yes, the beautiful sunsets and soothing meteor showers don't quite come off with the same luster that fans of the original will remember. And in some of the more action-packed cutscenes—particularly those with lots of characters on-screen—the weaker resolution and smaller screen don't really do the cinematics any favors. Given that Xenoblade starts off with a pretty intense battle scene, that means the port doesn't exactly leave the best first impression.
I can't say I'd recommend using the 3D effect, either. It's actually implemented pretty well, but because Monster Games has so faithfully ported over the source material, there's so much stuff on screen at any given moment that it was a bit too blurry for my tastes. That said, it's not as though the success or failure of the 3D effect has ever been a make-or-break factor for any 3DS game, Xenoblade included.
But after I got through the opening scene, after I got used to the draw distance trickery that allowed Monster Games to get the game to run at all on New 3DS, I more or less forgot that Xenoblade 3D was a down-port at all. I was too busy taking in all my favorite areas in the game—the sweeping Gaur Plains, the stunning Great Makna Falls, and the tranquil Frontier Village. I was too busy going around and killing every monster I saw and swiping every piece of loot I could find in hopes of nabbing the thing I needed to add a new and powerful piece of gear to my inventory.
In Xenoblade, exploration and discovery are both incredibly rewarding. You'll constantly find new places to explore around every corner, which more often than not will house beautiful views, interesting NPC storylines, and unexpected enemy nests. The first time I played, as soon as I reached the first town I decided it might be fun to ignore the story objective and just explore the surrounding area. I underestimated how huge it was—I didn't wind up getting back to the main story for several hours. It's a refreshing departure from the reputation many modern RPGs have for consisting largely of a series of linear paths that don't offer any meaningful diversions.
What's most impressive about Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is that, somehow, this experience has been shrunk down and made possible on a handheld. Seriously mind-blowing. The game's even well-suited to the transition, since it already offered convenient features that let you save literally anywhere, fast travel to previously-visited landmarks, and fast forward the time if you need to. The smaller screen means that the game's open areas don't quite shine as much as they did on Wii, but the sense of scale is still present and still impressive—and taking it all in with the New 3DS's C-stick captures the feel of console camera control with incredible precision.
The Flow of Battle
If you've never played Xenoblade Chronicles before, you might have heard that the game's battle system is based around auto-attacks, kind of like MMORPGs. Maybe that turns you off. I don't know that it should.
It's not really correct to say that combat in Xenoblade is automated, like battles were in Final Fantasy XII, the game it's most often compared to. In Xenoblade, your skill in battle is all about driving the proper flow. It's critical that you keep up the pressure against the enemy and try to defeat it as efficiently as possible so it doesn't inevitably wear down your party. The game initiates auto-attacks to ensure that your character is always contributing to that flow, regardless of whether the player has a particular move queued up. Where does the player come in? Through Arts.
Arts are Xenoblade's system for player commands. You can choose special attack-based Arts, magic-based Ether Arts, Debuff Arts that weaken your opponents, Aura Arts that add particular effects to your character, or Monado Arts that let you use Shulk's powerful sword to change the tide of battle. Your job is to select the right Arts to do as much damage as possible while keeping the enemy from downing your party. Even with auto-attacks, this sounds like typical RPG stuff, doesn't it?
Where Xenoblade differs from traditional RPGs is in the way Arts impact the flow of battle. Some Arts are designed to be chained together, and add specific effects when you use them in sequence. For example, pink-colored Arts inflict a status called “Break,” which staggers your opponent and opens them up to green-colored Arts that inflict “Topple,” which keeps your enemy from fighting back for a few seconds. Once they're Toppled, you can stun them for even longer by inflicting a third status called “Daze” using yellow-colored Arts.
In general, you'll need participation from multiple party members to get a foe from Break to Topple to Daze. Other party members are controlled by the computer, but they'll usually reserve their Topple-related Arts so you can chain them strategically. A good way to describe Xenoblade's combat is that you need to watch everyone's moves—both your enemies' and your teammates'—and respond with the correct Arts for the situation. In that way, it's very much like an MMORPG—the characters even fall neatly into roles like DPS, tanks, and healers.
Each Art comes with a cooldown period, so you can't just endlessly spam them. As you level up, your job will be to choose which Arts to power up, which will both increase their effectiveness and reduce their cooldown. In other words, you get to define how your character grows and inevitably how they're able to contribute in battle against tougher foes.
That Xenoblade manages to strike a solid balance between traditional RPG sensibilities and modern, real-time MMORPG mechanics is what makes it so special. Its battles and characters feel both familiar and fresh, all at once. As a result, it gives off the incredible feeling that you've stepped into an alternate universe, where the JRPG had never gained a reputation as a lost art and had always kept moving forward and rising to new possibilities.
Sidequests, Sidequests Everywhere
If you've heard that that Xenoblade is a chore to play because it's bogged down by way too many sidequests—making the player prone to burnout—this is really only half true. I'd best describe Xenoblade Chronicles as two different games.
There's one game that feels like a traditional JRPG. You're in it for the core adventure and story. In this path, you don't need to do any sidequests at all (believe me—I've done it!). Just explore the world at your own pace, kill enemies and optional bosses if/as you discover them, and move on to the next story event as soon as you feel like it.
Because you're not gorging yourself on side content, you won't be ridiculously powerful by the end of the game—you'll just be typical-RPG-ending strong—nor will you be sick of chatting up NPCs and doing stuff for them. The main bosses will be much more challenging. If you find you're too far behind the enemies, you can always kill more things, or even take on a few quests as you go.
The other game, the one where you undertake literally every sidequest you can, is a very different beast. If you take this route, the game's main content won't be nearly as challenging—in Xenoblade, you get so much experience from literally everything that you'll have dramatically outleveled most of the core content by the time you get to it. Instead, as you build up your affinity with the local area, you'll be handed higher-level quests that demand you take on tougher foes—most of which offer a steeper challenge than the bosses you fight during the main story.
It's true that this completionist approach can be a bit of a drag, but it's honestly not really the fault of the content of the quests themselves. In general, as long as you don't explore an area too deeply or sell off all your loot before picking up sidequests, you can rack up all the “tedious” quests as soon as you reach a new area and they'll automatically complete as you comb your way through the world.
The real tedium comes from tracking down all the quest NPCs in the first place. Most NPCs appear only at specific times, and with a full-on 24-hour day-night cycle, and with the tremendous scale even of most of the game's settled areas, it can sometimes take a while to be sure you've completed your sweep and chatted up every available quest NPC. That it's impossible to track which NPCs have quests just from looking at your map—you can only tell once they're nearby—multiplies this problem tenfold.
As a result, Xenoblade is one of the few games where I'll honestly recommend that people use an online guide—not to find out “what to do” per se, but just to make sure they haven't missed an NPC because they didn't check an obscure corner of town between 18:00 and 21:00.
This, however, is Xenoblade's greatest sin. It doesn't have an obnoxious battle system, it doesn't have a meatless world, it doesn't have a throwaway story. It just can be a real chore to track down every single quest NPC. And, yeah, this is certainly far from ideal due to the sheer number of quests and the fact that the later quests often give you access to the best content and gear. It's honestly a little annoying that Monster Games didn't see fit to refine the kinds of information you receive about the sidequests—for example, by giving you a better view of quest NPCs on the map, or reporting their locations more precisely in the quest log.
But if a game's biggest issue is that it makes you do a little extra work to go for 100% completion, it's hard not to appreciate everything it does right.
Nintendo of America provided Gamnesia with a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D for review. This review does not evaluate the Amiibo-related functionality added to Xenoblade Chronicles 3D because a compatible Amiibo was not available for review.