The Nintendo Wii was an unlikely candidate as the home for an immense open-world RPG, but clearly nobody told Monolith Soft that. As one of Nintendo’s most trusted first-party development teams, the studio’s previous work on the Xenosaga and Baten Kaitos series fed directly into the creation of the critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles, which arrived in 2010, still sporting a degree of incredulity as an exclusive to Nintendo’s casual-centric console.
As a showcase of what even modest hardware is capable of, it’s fitting then that Xenoblade Chronicles is returning as the first exclusive piece of software for the revisionist New 3DS, being tasked with proving the system’s enhanced capabilities are worth the upgrade. The port not only looks to bring the whole experience across virtually intact, but also offers a few additions that only Nintendo’s handheld would be capable of.
For the uninitiated, Xenoblade Chronicles follows the exploits of Shulk, a young adventurer, and his companions, as they explore the mystery of the Monado blade and travel across the unique world of the Bionis and the Mechonis, two dead titans locked in a deathgrip which have become home to a variety of creatures and races, from the human-like Homs to the diminutive Nopon.
The first, and in fairness only, major omission that players come up against at the outset is the loss of the original’s dual language tracks, with only the English voice-acting available. Having played the Wii version with the Japanese voices it was initially a hard blow to be forced to endure the British-centric version, but I soon came to enjoy it, and the refreshingly down-to-earth and occasionally humorous localisation lends plenty of character and likeability to the proceedings. It’s quite possible that I found the cast more relatable this time around thanks to those regional accents we so rarely hear in games, making the narrative even more affecting.
The game’s systems remain as well-crafted and oft revolutionary as they did five years ago, taking various rote RPG elements and turning them on their head, from fetch quests that automatically complete when they’re fulfilled rather than having to return to the NPC that set them, to an instantaneous travel system, or the ability to save anywhere. It’s surprising how well the title fits handheld play, with its well-populated and expansive areas lending themselves to an enjoyable pick-up and play grind, with the additional reward of the game’s collectopaedia granting various upgrades for those willing to explore the fantastic landscapes to find rare items.
One of the key facets that makes the game stand out within the genre is its sense of pace. Despite the huge areas, or the enjoyable grind, the game flows incredibly well, with very little chance of tiring of a task or an area before you find yourself moving along to the next one. Even the boss battles have been approached with the same attention, with one encounter teaching you that only when the boss is suffering a particular status will you be able to inflict damage.
Getting your team to achieve this is a tough task in itself with various minions getting in the way, but just when you’ve achieved it the first time and you expect to have to grind away at it time and time again, the game’s narrative moves on, releasing you from the impending boredom so many other game’s mistake for challenge.
The action-based battle system is similar to that found in Final Fantasy XII, or indeed in any number of MMOs, with your character automatically attacking as you choose special moves from the battle palette at the bottom of the screen. The rest of your party behave in a sensible manner, and while you can take limited control of them, and their actions, on the whole their AI is incredibly robust, working in concert with you to cause various effects and grant buffs to help you get through each battle.
It makes each encounter genuinely enjoyable, though not without challenge, as the game ensures that the careless adventurer will soon be overrun by multiple enemies. The landscapes are also populated with various high-level beasts that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to tackle until you complete the game and return through it in the New Game Plus mode. As it stands, there are many points where running away is the only sensible option, though refreshingly defeat simply returns you to your last waypoint with a minor debuff, ensuring that you’re able to return to the fray quickly; a boon given the size of some areas.
Stuffing the game onto the New 3DS has been accomplished with very few technical drawbacks. Somehow it’s still distinctly a 3DS game, but the title’s huge areas stretch off into the distance, and the 3D effect lends them even more scale. Interestingly the 3D effect is so consistent that I found playing it with the 3D slider up all the way to be hugely effective, with no distinguishable drop in performance.
There are very occasional hiccups, with some slowdown rearing its head during a few of the larger battles, foliage textures popping in as you approach, and there may be a dropped frame here or there, but on the whole its incredibly reliable, and speaks volumes to the improved grunt of Nintendo’s dual-screened handheld.
The console-specific extras are relatively limited, with the first being interaction with the rare Shulk amiibo, though it’s primarily only to earn tokens which players can then redeem in the game’s Collection mode. Thankfully tokens can also be earned through Streetpass, or by exchanging five of your Play Coins. The mode allows you to view 3D models of various members of the game’s cast, in a variety of outfits, as well as unlock access to the game’s exemplary soundtrack which you can then listen to with the system closed. The score is often breathtaking, and it’s a welcome addition to be able to listen to it without the distractions of battle.
The touchscreen’s use, or lack of, is perhaps the most frustrating omission, with a small mini-map and your party’s stats being the only thing displayed. What makes it more frustrating is that tapping on these items doesn’t do anything, with access to the map tied to the main menu. It’s a relatively insignificant oversight, but an annoying one nonetheless, particularly given the attention to detail the game sports as a whole.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is an excellent port of one of the best RPGs of the last generation. It features an emotive story, strong characterisation and an engaging battle system, which combine with an approach to the genre that still feels fresh and innovative. The fact that you can now experience the game whilst on the go is hugely alluring, and while it may not make a New 3DS an essential purchase, it certainly provides a compelling argument.