Xenoblade Chronicles was always an ambitious game. The sci-fi RPG, which debuted on the Wii in Japan in 2010, takes place in a massive open world set on the backs of gigantic creatures. When the game was ported to the Nintendo 3DS a few years later, its huge size meant that it was only playable on the enhanced version of the handheld.
According to Tetsuya Takahashi, executive director at developer Monolith Soft, the team was able to cram almost everything they wanted into the experience, including a sprawling world, epic storyline, and intricate battle system. But because of the limitations of the hardware, that came with a price: the visuals. “We deliberately passed on using the best-looking graphics so we could pour every last ounce of effort into the content of the game itself,” Takahashi tells The Verge.
A decade later, a “Definitive Edition” is out on the Nintendo Switch, finally giving Monolith Soft a chance to remedy that. “Now that we have the opportunity to remaster the game as the definitive edition, I am very happy we got the chance to upgrade the graphics, which had been the one regret we had with the original,” Takahashi says.
The new version makes a number of notable quality-of-life changes, including redesigned menus and a navigation system that makes it easier to know where you’re supposed to go. (That’s particularly helpful in a world this large.) For those who played the original, though, the most striking change is how the game looks, with updated visuals that include completely reworked character models.
“The content of the game itself holds up rather well to modern standards,” Takahashi says, “so we decided to focus on making it more playable, easier to understand, and better looking.” While the characters are still recognizable, they’re much more detailed and are rendered in a new anime art style, making them stand out even more from the lush backgrounds. This has the dual effect of making the cast look more modern and more in line with recent entries in the Xenoblade series.
“The content of the game itself holds up rather well to modern standards.”
As for how the game plays, complexity is both a large part of Xenoblade’s appeal and a potential sticking point for some players. The game’s real-time combat, for instance, is dominated by a cluttered interface and various abilities that can only be used effectively at certain times. It’s not the kind of game you can hack and slash your way through. You need to carefully plot your moves and approach character upgrades thoughtfully.
Balancing that complicated nature while also welcoming new players has been an ongoing challenge for the series. A sequel, 2017’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2, streamlined things somewhat, and that was followed by a standalone expansion that was explicitly designed to be more approachable. Because of this, the developers made streamlining Xenoblade’s systems a focus for the remastered edition, according to Yuki Sakamoto, a director on the game at Nintendo. But they couldn’t exactly redesign the game from scratch. Here’s how he describes the process:
The original game had a plethora of character customization options, and that complexity provided a certain sense of accomplishment if you came up with your own ways of building strong characters. But on the other hand, there was so much involved that sometimes players had a hard time figuring out what to do with the things they found. We learned from listening to players that not everyone got to enjoy the game to its full extent because they never even saw certain parts of the game.
That is why in this version we made improvements to the customization screen and provided better UI support to help players complete quests, rather than trying to rebalance the original game. We hope more people can discover the depth of the original and be creative with it. I think the basic game balance was already where it needed to be in the original. We wanted more people to experience this in a natural way and kept this in mind as we worked on this installment.
Of course, like most games — particularly sprawling open-world adventures — Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition also benefits from the move to the Switch, as players can grind through some battles or knock out a few sidequests on the go. That’s part of what made the sequel one of the more interesting titles to debut during the Switch’s first year, and it’s the reason why fans clamor for ports of older titles like Skyrim and The Witcher 3. “What’s great about Nintendo Switch is that you don’t always have to commit to long play sessions,” says Sakamoto. “Playing for a short while has its appeal, too, and I think that suits this game well.”
While the original game has been available for close to a decade on two very popular platforms, the new Switch version does present an interesting scenario. There’s likely a sizable group of players who only started with the series playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 — despite being a sequel, it tells a standalone story — which means that they may end up playing the original game out of order. For Takahashi, though, this doesn’t appear to be much of a concern, despite the many differences between the two games.
“The game systems and look of the characters might be slightly different, but the underlying characteristics are no different at all,” he says. “I am confident that the transition will be fairly smooth for those users as they enter the world of Xenoblade Chronicles.”