When the New Nintendo 3DS XL finally came to North America in February, it launched alongside several great showcases for the improved hardware. A remake of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask looked particularly great using the handheld's new eye-tracking 3D, while the newest Monster Hunter showed how capable the tiny second analog nub was for controlling a camera in a big open world. But neither one actually required the New 3DS: they were just better experiences thanks to the new features.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, meanwhile, will only work if you pick up the latest version of Nintendo's dual-screened handheld. It's the first game that's exclusive to the New Nintendo 3DS XL, making use of the device's extra processing power to squeeze a massive, sprawling sci-fi role playing game onto a portable device. It’s actually a port of a Wii game that launched in 2012, towards the tail-end of the console's lifespan. Because of that poor timing, it’s turned into something of a cult classic: a great game that not a lot of people played. It might not be the obvious choice for the New 3DS’s first exclusive, but Xenoblade works surprisingly well on the smaller screen.
And for RPG fans, it's worth the upgrade.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D takes place in a distant future where an onslaught of strange, mechanical aliens has decimated the human population, forcing those who remain to live in tiny settlements where they worry about when the next attack will happen. But, like in most Japanese RPGs, there's hope in the form of a young boy and a powerful sword. The game stars Shulk (a familiar face to fans of the most recent Smash Bros. game), who eventually comes to wield that sword, known as the monado. It not only lets him slice through robo-aliens, but also catch glimpses of the future so that he can change events that haven't yet happened.
The story is charming, if somewhat generic, with a largely loveable cast and a blend of science fiction and fantasy that makes it feel sort of like Final Fantasy meets Edge of Tomorrow. But while the narrative itself might not feel especially notable, the world it takes place in is absolutely breathtaking. During your quest you'll venture out into locations ranging from huge open spaces surrounded by mountains that look almost like architecture — one area features winding paths that resemble naturally occurring highways — to alien places of worship, complete with strangely angular altars and towering priest-like monsters. It's a unique but enticing mix of sci-fi and fantasy that constantly surprised me over the course of the few dozen hours the adventure lasts.
But what really makes Xenoblade great are its clever new twists on the typical RPG structure. The most important change is that the game does away with random battles, those irritating, repetitive fixtures of series like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. In their place is a more action-oriented system, where you can actually see your enemies out in the field, and you can choose to either attack or avoid them. When you do engage in battle, much of the monotony has been streamlined: characters will perform their basic attacks automatically, letting you focus on other things like healing spells or the tactics of your small group of fighters.
By taking the boring basic combat out of your control, Xenoblade actually makes things more challenging, especially when you're up against bosses or other powerful enemies. Most of them require very specific tactics to defeat, forcing you to use your plentiful special abilities in different ways. A few hours in, Shulk's precognitive ability even becomes a gameplay mechanic, giving you an early warning for devastating attacks. Meanwhile, when you're just grinding for experience against weaker foes, the action can largely be automated, which is a whole lot more enjoyable than constantly mashing the attack button. Essentially, Xenoblade lets you ignore the boring bits typical to RPGs while making the exciting parts more engaging.
It also has a structure that makes is a great fit for a handheld. You can save pretty much anywhere, for one thing, so it's easy to just pick up and do a bit of exploration or level grinding while taking the train to work. Unlike many RPGs, every play session doesn't have to last a few hours. Similarly, there's an incredibly useful fast-travel system that lets you jet back to any location you've visited before, and at any point you can hit a button to get a reminder of what exactly is happening in the story at that moment (perfect for when you get sidetracked taking on extra quests). Over the years I’ve found it increasingly challenging to play the kinds of JRPGs I grew up with, because they require such a massive time investment, but Xenoblade is a game I can play whether I have 10 minutes or a few hours to spare.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D isn't the most obvious showcase for Nintendo's handheld. For one thing, its chunky visuals actually look worse if you use the 3DS XL's 3D capability, turning the whole thing into an ugly, jagged mess. It's also a niche game in a niche genre, without the strong name recognition of something like The Legend of Zelda. It’s not entirely clear why it needed to be exclusive, unless the New 3DS’ processing bump was required to run the former console game.
But for RPG fans who missed the Wii version the first time around, this is a great chance to catch up — especially if you think you've outgrown the genre. Xenoblade gives you all of the great things about JRPGs and cuts out most of the fluff. And even better: there’s a follow-up on the way.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D will be available Friday, April 10th for the New Nintendo 3DS XL.