I can’t believe it’s been almost exactly three years since the release of Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii. There was once a time when I didn’t think the game would ever make it to North America, even while the groundwork was being laid for a European release. Yet, here we are now. The main character, Shulk, is now part of the Super Smash Bros. roster, has his own amiibo, and we’re getting both a Wii U sequel and a 3DS port (sort of).
You see, along with the added specs of the New Nintendo 3DS comes the possibility that a certain selection of games will take advantage of that added horsepower. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D just so happens to be one of those games. So if you want Reyn time on the go, you’ve gotta fork up for a hardware upgrade. But since I had the new system anyway, I don’t mind the double dip, so it’s time to see if the game is as good as I remember (skip down to the last couple of paragraphs if you’re strictly looking for what’s new).
The game’s plot is virtually unchanged. In the beginning, there were two beings known as the Bionis and the Mechonis who fought for supremacy. This clash of two titans eventually ended in a stalemate, leaving behind remains that would eventually become the home of brand new life. However, the conflict didn’t end there.
The Mechonis spawned machines known as Mechon that wage war with the races born of the Bionis. As the game opens, we are introduced to one of the conflicts between these two sides known as the Battle of Sword Valley. One of the Homs (or humans as we would recognize them as) wields a powerful weapon known as the Monado that is the only effective means of dispatching Mechon. It takes its toll on the user after continued use, and only certain people are capable of using it. The use of the Monado is enough to drive back the Mechon attack though, and the Homs commit to rebuilding their colonies.
Fast forward one year to a place called Colony 9, where the Monado-wielder, Dunban, is a local hero. His arm is damaged from continued use of the Monado, but his sister Fiora aids in nursing him back to health in case the Mechon strike again. A boy by the name of Shulk studies the sword in hopes of discovering its secrets in preparation for the day that its abilities may be needed to drive the Mechon back again in the future. Shulk soon learns that Dunban isn’t the only one able to wield the Monado.
Veterans of Xenosaga might expect the extremely long winded cutscenes to make their return, but they’re actually quite reasonable this time around. There are some that go kinda long towards the tail end of the game, but they aren’t as particularly chatty as other JRPG’s are. It helps that the story is consistently engaging throughout, with some heavy scenes that take place very early in the story and plot twists that keep you guessing despite some obvious foreshadowing. And best of all, it’s not nearly as convoluted as Xenosaga ended up being, so it’s quite easy for anyone to get into without feeling overwhelmed with the amount of terms and information being divulged at once. It’s one of the better JRPG stories I’ve experienced in a long time, and worth taking the plunge alone.
Despite being barely more powerful than a late generation PS2 game (maybe even less so now that it’s on the 3DS), Xenoblade Chronicles 3D manages to bring its expansive world to life around you. The areas you visit are generally wide open and filled with random creatures both hostile and not that go about their business or run about in packs. Each area also has a general theme, though they all transition together in a believable fashion. It’s absolutely breathtaking to go up on a hill or a tall cliff and look off into the distances and see the either the Bionis or Mechonis looming in the distance. You really get a feel for how small you are when you realize the large plains you had been traversing is nothing more than an arm or a foot.
The actual characters themselves are much less impressive looking, though you don’t really notice how dated they look until you get up close. When the camera zooms in on faces or hands you start to see the curvature of the models far more obviously than when things are zoomed out. Aside from that, the character designs are very good and fit in with the art style quite well, and the facial animations are played off convincingly. The dialogue doesn’t match up with the lip movements perfectly, but that’s not uncommon for an English dub and it’s not distracting in the least.
I’m a huge fan of the Xenogears and Xenosaga soundtracks, so it comes as no surprise to me that after its initial release, I had added Xenoblade to that list. While the things you hear traversing fields (Gaur Plains!) and strolling through towns is fine enough, the music that plays during battle in particular stands out. Especially since the songs are situational depending on how the battle is going and who the battle is with. When your party’s tension is really high, it might play one song, but if it sinks too low it will start up another and it does so seamlessly. And then another song might trigger if you happen to aggro a unique enemy. It’s all just so damn good.
The voices for the characters are the same as the ones in the European version, so be prepared for some heavy accents. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was certainly different to have a voice cast that I actually haven’t heard before. They all did a great job too. I can’t think of one character that was poorly done or otherwise grating. The worst thing I can say about the voice acting is that the characters are incredibly chatty during combat and end up saying the same things after battle over and over again (and you will be fighting A LOT of battles). Their conversations during combat were very fascinating though. It was interesting to hear one party member reassure or encourage another by saying things like “It’s okay! We all miss sometimes!”
Right from the get go, combat reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy XII, though it requires far more involvement than the typical MMO-style gameplay. You will control a party of three, though you are only in direct control of the party leader as the other two are led by the computer A.I. As you wander around and encounter monsters or Mechon, they may have some symbols next to their name and level. If it looks like an eye, it means they will attack upon sight. Ones that look like sound waves will engage if they hear you run by. Still others will not attack unless you use ether in their presence or attack another enemy near it. Once you have its attention, or if you decide to engage a passive foe, an icon will come up that looks like two swords that will let you begin auto-attacking.
As you gain levels with your characters you will gain skills that can be assigned to a bar on the bottom of the screen. The cooldown time on most of them is pretty generous, so you’ll be using these quite frequently. However, some skills have effects that will only be gained if you are facing the enemy a certain way, such as from the side or back. Others won’t trigger their effects unless the enemy is in a particular state. For example, Reyn has a move that will topple an enemy, but it only works if Shulk has used a move that inflicts break status. These skills can be improved in your menu and you can even switch them up depending on the role you want that party member to play, as you are limited in what skills can be carried into battle.
On the top left of the screen is a party meter that fills up if you land critical strikes or encourage your teammates. There are three bars in the meter and should one of your party members fall, you can use a bar of it to revive them (or have them revive you). If the gauge is full, you can perform a chain attack with your party members in order to string together a set of attacks unhindered, regardless if your skills are on cooldown or not. The only catch is a party member can’t use an attack more than once per combo, so if you have a lot of skills equipped that have no offensive properties, your damage output is limited. After each person has had a turn, you may get a prompt to hit the B button at the correct time in order to get more turns. It’s not as flashy as team attacks in other games, like say the later Persona titles, but you’ll come to rely on it should you find yourself needing to interrupt an attack or heal your teammates while remaining damage and cooldown free.
Each character also has something called Tension. Tension is measured by the expression on the face of your character portrait on the left hand side. If Tension is really low, attacks tend to miss whereas high tension will allow you critical strikes and a higher damage output overall. Missing attacks or getting beat down pretty bad will lower this status quite quickly, but as the party leader, you can press B next to your teammates in order to encourage them and raise it back up again. If it happens to you, you’re at the mercy of your other party members, though they’re generally pretty good about making sure you’re okay.
Your party members are each delegated a skill tree that is designed to improve one aspect of that character at a time. The trees are linear, so the most you have to decide on is which you want to embark on, though you’ll eventually be able to learn them all. Having certain party members along during battle and side quests will increase your affinity with them, allowing characters to learn skills belonging to other characters, as well as granting access to “heart to heart” cutscenes that add characterization to the people involved. The skills you can equip and how many is limited by Affinity Coins which are earned through level ups and defeating unique monsters.
Some of the items that you pick up can be used in an extensive gem crafting component to make items used to socket some of your equipment. The process requires two party members and the results vary depending on who you use and their affinity with each other. The end results can be anything from additional strength to increased aggro or even defense to a particular brand of attack. Enhancing a character’s role with gems that play to their strengths can make all the difference in a tough skirmish.
You will not be disappointed by the lack of content in this game. Aside from the main story, which took me approximately 60 hours to finish with minimal sidetracking, there are literally hundreds of sidequests that you can undertake during the course of the game. Granted, many of them are very similar MMO style quests that often involve killing a certain number of monsters or collecting a specific number of items. But in doing these tasks you build up Affinity with the various NPC’s you do the quests for. This in turn opens up new quests with new rewards, plus they may offer to trade you much better items that what they would have otherwise. There’s even a quest chain that involves rebuilding an entire colony.
After you complete the game, you have an opportunity to start a New Game Plus. You get to keep your equipped items and levels, plus you can choose to carry over 30 of each item type to bring with you. The core game is made easy if you do this, of course, but there are also a ton of high level enemies wandering the land that you otherwise would not have been able to take down at those stages of the game. There’s a lot crammed onto the 3DS cart, and it’s worth every cent.
While Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is very generous in introducing new facets of the gameplay piecemeal as you go along, it doesn’t make it feel like one long tutorial. This is good, because once you have a full arsenal of moves at your disposal, you’ll be making full use of all of them. The later part of the game becomes very brutal, especially if you don’t keep up with your levels. And even if you are properly leveled, you have to employ specific strategies in order to be successful.
Despite the sharp difficulty hike in the late game, very few deaths seem particularly unfair. Especially since your computer controlled teammates actually behave in an intelligent manner. Characters like Reyn will try to grab aggro from enemies and behave like the tank he is designed to be. Likewise, someone like Sharla does a good job of keeping the party healed and even employs crowd control techniques by keeping extra enemies asleep for you. There are times where you may aggro a level 90 monster while journeying through a low level area and suffer a one hit blow as a result, but the penalties for losing are practically non-existent, so it’s not really an issue.
While the combat builds on the foundation already established by other RPG’s like it, it introduces a few groundbreaking elements that I’d never seen utilized in a game before. The biggest one of all is the Monado’s ability to allow Shulk to see the future. This comes into play not only as a story mechanic, but a gameplay one as well. When you are out collecting items, if you pick up one that you don’t have a quest for, but is a requirement for a future quest, Shulk will have a vision about it. And not only that, the item is marked in your inventory as one that will be used for a future sidequest. This alleviates selling a bunch of junk only to realize that you accidentally sold something you needed for a quest you just obtained.
This also comes into play in battle. When an enemy is about to initiate an attack that could potentially cripple you or your party members (either causing death or paralysis or whatever) Shulk will have a vision about it and a countdown begins. You have until the countdown ends in order to “change the future.” Whether it be by healing that individual, taking on aggro, or using a skill to prevent damage by that attack, your foresight grants you the capability to prevent the enemy from potentially shutting you down completely. While it becomes a nuisance if you have to watch a number of these visions in a row, the fact remains that it’s integral to your survival.
I found myself in the same fix as I was with games like Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Age: Origins before it. I simply couldn’t put it down. There were times towards the end that got on my nerves a little bit since it seemed to have needlessly padded out the experience. Particularly the moments where I realized I had to grind five levels to not be slaughtered by a boss, or being told “You have to take this elevator to go to the next dungeon, but before you do that you have to enable four energy towers!” But by then, I was so close to the finish line and the stakes were so high, that I didn’t care. I think if the worse thing that I can say about your game is that it’s too much of a good thing, you just may have won me over.
I have to give props to Xenoblade Chronicles 3D not only for being great, but also for not being a pain in the ass to experience it. Since I can save anywhere, even in between some of the major cutscenes, I can play for small chunks at a time and not have to worry about finding a save point. Additionally, any sidequests I complete don’t always have to be returned to their quest giver. Most of the quests that involve defeating monsters or collecting certain items will automatically complete as soon as I finish whatever task was set before me. If I do need to return to town for something, I need only bring up my map and instantly warp to and from places I have already visited before. Main quests are marked on this map too and a handy arrow will point you in the general direction of where to go. Even an untimely death will send me to one of these conveniently placed checkpoints with all of the enemies respawned. I don’t lose any progress just because I forget to save.
The 3DS version of the game doesn’t add a whole lot new that isn’t already included in the Wii edition. If you happen to own a Shulk amiibo, it can be used to supply you with tokens. These tokens are in turn spent on unlocking in-game models for viewing at any time as well as songs from the soundtrack. The 3DS can then play the songs while the lid is shut so long as you have headphones plugged in, making it into a pseudo MP3 player of sorts. And let’s not forget about the 3D functionality that’s so prominently featured in the title. Compared to the Majora’s Mask remake and other titles though, it doesn’t make a solid case for why it should be sucking up your battery life, so it’s best left turned off.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is every bit as enjoyable as it was when it released to the Wii three years ago. The graphical quality took a slight hit and there’s next to nothing as far as new content is concerned. But there’s plenty to do as it was, and being able to take the experience on the go was worth the price of admission. Now that retailer exclusivity is no longer a factor, there’s no excuse for not being able to track this game down. You just… you know… have to upgrade the console you’d play it on… Dammit, Nintendo!
Short Attention Span Summary
The New Nintendo 3DS has its first exclusive in the form of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, a port of a Wii JRPG from 2012. The game is every bit as good as it was back then, though slightly less pretty. The trade off is that you get 3D and amiibo functionality (even though it is a bit of an afterthought), plus a gallery of sorts that lets you view character models and listen to the awesome soundtrack. The controls and UI are well adapted, with the lower screen taking on some of the statistical burden and the right analog nub is incredibly useful. If you own a New Nintendo 3DS and you somehow missed out on this, you owe it to yourself to pick it up.