Despite JRPGs being pretty much my favourite genre, I’ve somehow never played Xenoblade before now (or any Xeno games, for that matter). That’s not for any particular reason; it’s just a series that’s always sat in the back of my mind as a “well, that’s something I should probably check out if I can ever find some time for it.” A few hours into Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, I can finally see what I’ve been missing all these years.
I can actually pinpoint the exact moment this game really clicked, and I knew it was something special. While exploring Colony 9, the first town you find yourself in right at the beginning of the game, an NPC made a comment about being able to jump safely from any height, so long as there’s water below. Colony 9 sits on a pillar high above a big lake, and soon enough, I found myself at one of its edges, staring down at the water below. I jumped, enjoyed the rush of falling for a few moments until I safely hit the water below. Slightly disoriented, I made my way towards the nearest shore so I could start figuring out how to get back up to the town…
And then crossed paths with some strange creature of a level far higher than my own, and promptly got knocked out in a single hit when it saw me. (Fortunately, I respawned back in the town, making this deadly encounter a much more efficient way of getting where I was going anyway.)
This moment, for me, clearly demonstrated the openness at the heart of Xenoblade Chronicles. So many RPGs carefully manage your progress and ensure the foes you encounter are of a suitable level; Xenoblade Chronicles does that too, in terms where the story and sidequests take you, but it isn’t afraid to let you wander off the beaten path and run into enemies that vastly outlevel you. If you get clobbered, it’s your own fault.
Nor too does the game shy away from mixing up enemies of a wide range of strengths within the same area. It’s not unusual to be wondering through a level-appropriate dungeon and find most enemies of a similar strength to your party, but the occasional hulk mingling with them for you to either try to avoid or challenge yourself to take down. In this way, Xenoblade Chronicles establishes a world that feels much more organic and alive than your typical RPG world, where enemies aren’t strictly locked to a fine-tuned level progression for the player.
One of the things that helps make this work is relative leniency when it comes to death. The nature of Xenoblade Chronicles‘ world design means that sometimes you will die, inevitably, even if you don’t get too adventurous. Had the game made death overly punishing, that would quickly grow tedious, but dying simply sends you back to the last landmark you passed, with all the experience and items you gained along the way intact. It’s a hindrance enough to make death worth trying to avoid, but not so punishing that the threat of dying quells the desire to explore.
Indeed, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles is so fascinating that I can’t help but want to see all it has to offer, even if that means taking some risks. The landscape exists, quite literally, on the body of a giant creature called Bionis, who’s long fought an endless battle with its rival, Mechonis. Their ceaseless battle eventually leading to a stalemate, life began to grow on their frozen forms—including Shulk, the main character, and the various others who join him along the way.
This premise makes for a world full of intriguing geography that just begs to be explored. Familiar scenes like rolling green hills and glistening lakes take on a decidedly alien feel amid Bionis’ terrain. Cliffs tower above, following the contours of the titan’s musculature, and otherworldly structures rise up from canyons below. Having not played the original, I can’t say how Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition‘s visual upgrades compare, but it looks beautiful nonetheless—it’s not pushing the technical limits of the Switch by any means, but the world really comes to life in both TV and handheld modes.
I’m also really enjoying the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition. It plays out in real time, with you able to freely move around and issue commands, but hefty cooldowns on abilities prevent you from being able to just spam attacks; instead, you have to take a tactical approach, with an almost turn-based feel.
It also puts a lot of focus on threat management to keep enemies focused on the tanks in your party, giving the whole battle system a slightly MMORPG-like twist. My only complaint is that there’s no seemingly no way to switch characters mid-fight, making you very reliant on AI that isn’t always as cooperative as cooperative as you might like. Still, I can’t wait to dig further into it, and see how the rest of the game plays around with those systems.
But most of all, I can’t wait to explore the breadth of Bionis and discover everything there is to discover. Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition gives players a beautiful world that begs to be explored, and encourages an adventurous approach that I just can’t get enough of.
Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition comes out on May 29 for Nintendo Switch.