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Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Nintendo 3DS Review: Big Adventure, Tiny Screen

Jeremy and Kat set out on their respective journeys across Bionis in search of an answer: Does Xenoblade Chronicles hold up on the Nintendo 3DS?

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Update: Our review is now complete! You can find our final thoughts along with a score on the last page.

If you're one of those adventurous gamers who have experienced the pleasures of Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii, you should have a pretty solid idea of what to expect from its port for New 3DS: A massive open-world RPG journey spanning a good 100 hours of gameplay. It's a huge game, and developer Monolith has ported it over in its entirety to the handheld system.

Given the sheer amount of content in the game, we want to put this version through its paces (despite the fact that its contents, at least so far, appear to be entirely identical to the original game). We'll have a full review before the game's launch on April 10. For now, though, both Jeremy Parish and Kat Bailey are making the journey from Colony 9 in their own respective ways — here are their thoughts so far.

Jeremy:

Let me tell you how I play Xenoblade Chronicles. When I come into a new area, I look at all the blank space on my game map and try to see how much I can fill in before some roaming monster with an angry red icon and a level several dozen above my own comes after me and wipes me out in a single hit. I wander around gathering up shiny objects on the ground, seeing which new creatures in the area I can take on safely, and basically treating the current destination flag icon as if it doesn't exist. This is the danger of an open-world game; and it's why I never made it all that far in the Wii version of the game; and it's exactly how I'm tackling the 3DS remake.

There was a moment pretty early on in Xenoblade 3D, when I first stepped into Colony 9 and the game returned control after the little cutscene of the town played out. I swung the camera back around to look out over the area I'd just traveled and my breath caught in my throat slightly. Here it was: A legitimate, large-scale, 3D, open-world game on a handheld system. Crazy.

Others have attempted to tread on this challenging ground before. Dragon Quest IX was a pretty big, free-roaming RPG — but it had a fixed perspective. Gravity Rush had an open 3D world — but the space it covered was fairly compact compared to Xenoblade's world. And there were the PSP Grand Theft Auto games — but they always felt like awkwardly compromised imitations of their console counterparts. Resolution aside, Xenoblade on 3DS feels as huge and immersive as the Wii game did. That's pretty impressive. And I haven't seen any major performance issues, either; the game doesn't move at a silky-smooth clip, but it's very consistent so far.

But just because you can do something, does that mean you should? The verdict's still out on that one, I'm afraid. A grand game like this loses something of its grandeur on a small screen — I love the portability, and I really love the fact that I can use the Classic Controller mode without having a Wii remote dangling from my controller, but there's something missing in this rendition of the game. It doesn't help that the interface design is pure eye-vomit — ugly boxes, ugly icons, ugly fonts. A little more help on the aesthetic front, and ideally some better use of the bottom screen to declutter the top screen (why in god's name is the map not on the bottom screen at all times!?) would be a huge help. I'm enjoying Xenoblade on New 3DS, but something about it feels hollow… and I'm not sure what that is, exactly.

Kat:

So let me offer something of a counterpoint.

I agree that Xenoblade Chronicles feels almost too big for the Nintendo 3DS, much as Final Fantasy Type-0 HD in some ways feels almost too small for a console. Both games betray their original roots in the way that they are designed. Xenoblade Chronicles offers a huge world to explore, but even on the New 3DS XL's comparatively large screen, it feels sort of scrunched.

That said, it works better on the Nintendo 3DS than I was expecting. First, the pacing feels right, which is always a tricky thing to pull off in a port like this. There are plenty of cutscenes, but they are rarely too long; and in the instances that they do overstay their welcome, they can be skipped relatively easily. Xenoblade Chronicles' pacing is also aided by a large number of checkpoints — a welcome feature that encourages you to keep playing after you die rather than putting your 3DS away in frustration.

Its sheer scope is also an advantage in that there are few 3DS RPGs like it. To this point, the 3DS has mostly followed in the footsteps of the DS, with the bulk of its RPG library being comprised of either sequels (Fire Emblem: Awakening, Pokémon, Etrian Odyssey IV) or games that are deliberate callbacks to the 16-bit era (Bravely Default). By contrast, Xenoblade Chronicles feels like the sort of game that you might find on the Vita, which I consider a good thing. It feels newer, fresher, and more advanced than the traditional 3DS fare.

With that in mind, I've mostly found my journey through Xenoblade Chronicles to be a pleasant one thus far. I've been able to pick it up and set it down with relative ease, the majority of my play sessions lasting from 30 minutes to an hour. Thus far my biggest gripe is that it's surprisingly ugly on the New 3DS. Aside from the rather plain interface, it feels like the whole game is being projected through a fuzzy filter, almost like a Wii game on an HD television. I've gotten used to it to some extent, but I definitely remember it looking a lot better on the Wii. At least the load times aren't too bad.

Jeremy:

Don't get me wrong. Despite some misgivings about the suitability of the format, I'm happy this version of the game exists. Yesterday I was foaming at the mouth about the evils of re-releases and remasters, but Xenoblade 3D is the good kind of re-release. The game barely even saw an American release, initially passed over for the U.S. and eventually published here in limited numbers as a GameStop exclusive. It continues to sell for well above its original retail price. Here's a chance for the game to see much wider release on a more viable system than the Wii was by the time Xenoblade originally came over… though admittedly the cost of admission (buying a New 3DS) is a bit too steep for its own good.

Uncomfortable fit for the platform aside, I think my biggest complaint about Xenoblade on New 3DS is simply that Monolith and Nintendo didn't really take the opportunity to improve anything. Besides the god-awful text and icon designs, the localization could have used some tweaking. And I dearly wish I could turn off character voices; I spend most of my time exploring this world in complete silence, because my love for the gorgeous soundtrack can't begin to outweigh my absolute irritation at the constant battle screams and grunts from the annoying English-language voice actors.

Despite these complaints, so far I'm finding a lot to love about Xenoblade 3D. It's a great "chill out" game, thanks to the Final Fantasy XII-esque semi-automated combat and immense open world. In many areas of the game, you don't even have to worry about fighting at all if you don't want to. You can simply roam, explore, collect, and fulfill requests at your own speed. That's exactly what I look for in a portable RPG, and even if the choppy framerate and low resolution make me question the wisdom of putting such a massive game on a tiny system, the leisurely pace and overall flexibility of the game design make me think that maybe it's a perfect fit after all.

So at this point I guess I'd say Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a welcome conversion that probably needed just a bit more refinement. An essential New 3DS purchase? Absolutely, but thinking of all the ways it could have worked just a bit better on this different platform is going to drive me nuts for the next however many dozen hours I play it. I'm not sure what my final verdict on this remake will be, but I'm looking forward to the journey there.

VisualsThe massive landscapes are great, and the art is often very attractive. Unfortunately, it all looks so muddy on the Nintendo 3DS that the details often get lost. The compromises in this instance are disappointing.

Sound"What a bunch of jokers!" Get ready to hear that line a few thousand times. It's a shame that the voice acting is so bad because the soundtrack is phenomenal, and it's particularly great with headphones.

InterfaceAs we discussed earlier, the interface is simple and often quite ugly, with no touchscreen functionality to speak of. It works, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Lasting AppealXenoblade Chronicles should last you a minimum of 40 to 50 hours. It feels a bit padded out, with many of the secondary quests being drab fetch quests, but there's a lot of meat to this RPG. It'll keep you busy for a long time.

ConclusionXenoblade Chronicles is an above-average RPG hamstrung by a really bad port. From the muddy visuals to the barebones interface, it's hardly a visual showcase for the New 3DS. It has merit, and its best qualities still manage to shine through on the small screen, but it's definitely not the optimal way to enjoy one of the more celebrated RPGs of the last generation.

This is the Power of the Monado!

Kat:

So now that we've spent some time talking about how well Xenoblade Chronicles translates to the Nintendo 3DS (it's pretty variable), let's dive into the nitty gritty of whether or not it holds up as an actual RPG, starting with the battle system.

In the past, I've heard it compared to a more streamlined Final Fantasy XII, and in some ways that's fair. Both are expansive pseudo-action RPGs that draw upon the standards set by the MMORPG genre, and both are populated by monsters large and small wandering massive fields. Between the two, I'd say Xenoblade Chronicles feels punchier and more immediate, while Final Fantasy XII has the greater array of tactical options.

When battling an enemy, your chosen character will attack automatically, leaving you to choose from an array of offensive and defensive skills. The rest of the party generally does their own thing, periodically hopping in to support you with combos and healing. In my time with Xenoblade Chronicles, I've found the best thing you can often do is to call for your party to focus their fire on one enemy at a time, lest you be worn down and eventually overwhelmed.

In terms of tactics, the single most useful one-two punch I've found thus far has been an attack that inflicts Break on an enemy, followed an attack that inflicts Topple, which leaves them open to large amounts of damage. It can be used on both normal enemies and bosses, though the latter are more durable and typically require the use of the special Combo Attack, which fills as you inflict damage. There's a bit more to it than that — status attacks that lower attack or slow enemies are also important — but the core of the system thus far is the Break-Topple-Daze combo.

You could certainly do worse in terms of constructing a battle system, and there have been only a few times where I've wished for something akin to Final Fantasy XII's Gambits, in which complex instructions can be given to the A.I. But there have also been a handful of instances when I've found myself thinking, "This is actually simple than it looks." There have even been points where it's almost verged on repetitive.

What's saved it, at least for me, have been the varied boss battles, which introduce wrinkles like enemies who are all but immune to Shulk's Monado. I also like that there are skill trees with loads of passive skills, which can in turn be distributed to the rest of the party through the Skill Link system. I haven't had to crunch the numbers in real detail yet, but I have had to consider whether, say, I want Reyn to be more of an offensive tank capable of dealing large amounts of damage, or whether I want him to focus more on defense.

I'm curious to hear what you think, Jeremy. Does the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles offer enough depth for you? Do you find yourself missing Gambits?

Jeremy:

I find myself missing a lot of things when it comes to Xenoblade's combat, actually. It was my least favorite part of the Wii version of the game, where I found it cumbersome to control with the Wii Remote setup, and now it's my least favorite part of the remake. I mentioned before that I wished Monolith had done more to fine-tune this conversion, and never do I feel that more keenly than when I get dragged into a difficult battle.

My biggest complaint about combat in Xenoblade is that it's complicated without being complex. As you said, there's very little depth to it, and most encounters amount to me cycling through my list of special actions while waiting for my best attacks to cool down, occasionally marshalling my team for a more focus attack when the occasion warrants. Despite there being so little substance to fighting, though, the actual interface for issuing battle commands is a cluttered mess of tiny icons that require you to cycle through linear menus in real time.

It's awful, awful, awful user interface design, made worse by the eyesore scaling on the icons and the gross font choices, and there's absolutely no reason whatsoever that these commands shouldn't sit on the bottom screen of the 3DS for players to tap at their leisure. Why don't the battle command icons pop up on the bottom screen when you enter battle? Why can I not create custom icon sets or rearrange skill button locations for easy access? Why does this game, meant to showcase the New 3DS hardware, do such a poor job of living up to the promise of friendly interface design that Nintendo was touting more than a decade ago when it pitched us on the original DS?

I guess there's only so much you can do with a brain-dead combat system like Xenoblade's, but I wish Monolith and Monster Games (who ported this version) had made more effort to at least try. A better interface wouldn't have completely salvaged the battle mechanics, which sits unevenly between action RPG and something fully-automated like Final Fantasy XII, but it kind of feels like the worst of both worlds. After playing the fantastic Final Fantasy XV demo, which does a great job of solving the problem of a three-character party in an open-world RPG by forcing you to really focus on the controllable character's basic survival, going back to Xenoblade feels painful. I can shrug off the iffy visuals, but the mediocre combat really drags this one down for me.

Don't get me wrong, I still really like the game. But there's a sharp divide in my enjoyment between the parts where I'm wandering through the world and the parts where I have to go into combat. I live for meaty RPG battle systems, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is really bringing out my pacifistic tendencies.

Kat:

Interesting. It seems like you're much more down on Xenoblade Chronicles' combat than I am. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, I like how tangible the combat feels in comparison to a lot of RPGs, especially in the way that you have to attack from different angles for maximum impact. And it can be downright nerve-wracking to get a vision from the future telling you that a powerful attack is on the way, leaving you to fumble for Shulk's Shield ability, or some other counter.

To the extent that it has depth, Xenoblade Chronicles is rather like an MMORPG in the way that you have to put some thought into what gear you wear, what Arts you choose, and more broadly, how you compose your party. Each character fulfills a pretty specialized niche, so when new options start to arrive, you have to think pretty hard about who you want in the party, since synergy is so important. In particular, it's tough to choose between Shulk, who plays a kind of mixed offensive and supporting role, and another party member, who offers more in the way of pure offense.

As for the gear, the differences in the equipment you find become more and more apparent as you go along. Enemies drop tons of loot, some of which sacrifices offense for defense, and others which add critical hit and status attacks. Admittedly, it's pretty par for the course in terms of how RPGs play out, but it's not entirely bereft of depth. And as you get further into the game, you can start to craft your own gems, which confer additional benefits to your gear.

I mostly agree with the complaints about the interface. It's definitely not the most attractive UI around, and it often feels cramped and cluttered on the Nintendo 3DS' screen. You bemoaning the unfulfilled promise of the Nintendo DS' interface makes me realize that Xenoblade Chronicles basically ignores the touchscreen, which is really too bad. Done properly, I'd imagine that selecting abilities with the stylus while in combat would be miles more intuitive than scrolling back and forth with the directional pad.

That said, it's still much better than the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo offered by the console version, which could feel incredibly cumbersome in tight situations. I feel much more at ease with the Nintendo 3DS version in that regard, with the New 3DS' camera nub (that's what I'm calling it from now on) being especially useful for rotating the camera and helping me gauge my surroundings. I realize this might be a matter of personal preference, but I actually find it a relief to be playing on the 3DS, even with everything that's being crammed onto one screen.

As battle systems go, I find Xenoblade's combat distinctly middle of the road. It neither adds to the game nor really detracts from it. Like last year's Dragon Age: Inquisition, it's accessible without being entirely bereft of depth, though I can certainly understand why those who prefer really deep RPGs might find it objectionable. What I like best about it is that it's forced me to occasionally stop and consider what I want to do next with my party, and that it can bring about some genuinely intense encounters, particularly against bosses. But while I definitely like it better than you, Jeremy, I agree that it's not Xenoblade's biggest selling point.

VisualsThe massive landscapes are great, and the art is often very attractive. Unfortunately, it all looks so muddy on the Nintendo 3DS that the details often get lost. The compromises in this instance are disappointing.

Sound"What a bunch of jokers!" Get ready to hear that line a few thousand times. It's a shame that the voice acting is so bad because the soundtrack is phenomenal, and it's particularly great with headphones.

InterfaceAs we discussed earlier, the interface is simple and often quite ugly, with no touchscreen functionality to speak of. It works, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Lasting AppealXenoblade Chronicles should last you a minimum of 40 to 50 hours. It feels a bit padded out, with many of the secondary quests being drab fetch quests, but there's a lot of meat to this RPG. It'll keep you busy for a long time.

ConclusionXenoblade Chronicles is an above-average RPG hamstrung by a really bad port. From the muddy visuals to the barebones interface, it's hardly a visual showcase for the New 3DS. It has merit, and its best qualities still manage to shine through on the small screen, but it's definitely not the optimal way to enjoy one of the more celebrated RPGs of the last generation.

Does Xenoblade Chronicles hold up on the Nintendo 3DS?

Jeremy:

I'll be honest, now that I'm making a serious attempt to play Xenoblade at long last, I'm surprised by how unengaged I am. The entire concept of the game demands I love it, and I had really liked what I played of it on Wii. I guess you could point to the problems of the 3DS conversion (or rather, New 3DS conversion) as the culprit here, but really I think it's more a matter of me finally having played far enough into the adventure to get into more of its core mechanics.

Let's rewind to something you said: "And it can be downright nerve-wracking to get a vision from the future telling you that a powerful attack is on the way, leaving you to fumble for Shulk's Shield ability, or some other counter." I agree! But not really in a good way. Those future visions are nerve-wracking, because you do end up fumbling with the controls. There's no elegance to the game. It feels clumsy through and through, and while I love exploring Xenoblade's world I've taken to sighing in annoyance when my party gets dragged into battle. At best, it's going to be time-consuming; at worst, some over-leveled mob is going to wade in and kill everyone.

You make an MMO comparison, which I think is apt. Xenoblade definitely goes for the open-world real-time vibe of an MMO, and it succeeds. But is that really such a good thing? The problem I have with most MMOs is that they sit in a weird in-between zone of game design: They offer the immediacy of an action game with the sprawling complexity of a PC RPG. Even with the most considerately designed interface, such as Final Fantasy XIV's hot cross bar or whatever it's called, you're either fumbling through too many commands in the heat of battle (which feels clumsy) or paring your actions down to a regularly used set (which becomes repetitive).

I don't know. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I'm too much of a purist for a game like Xenoblade. I want my action games to be crisp and responsive, and I want my complex games to allow me to take my time and pore over menus. Xenoblade falls into an uncomfortable space in between that I've never really enjoyed. I had been counting on Xenoblade to change my mind, but I guess there's just no avoiding my own inherent nature. All of this isn't to say I'm not enjoying the game, because I have been... but I find myself gravitating more toward Etrian Mystery Dungeon, which has a much less grand style but feels a lot more put together, and a lot more down my alley. Truth be told, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D's biggest accomplishment has been to remind me how irritating it is that Square Enix still hasn't converted Final Fantasy XII to Vita…

Kat:

Four years ago, I spent some time with Xenoblade Chronicles on the Wii, but I never got very far. Still, I liked what I saw enough that I made it a point to eventually come back to it. Now that I have, I find that my emotions about it are likewise mixed, which is partly due to the fact that it's encumbered by the visual compromises of the 3DS port.

So I'll just get this question out of the way: Should you buy Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo 3DS if you've already played it on the Wii? No, you're fine. The port brings no meaningful changes to the table outside of portability, and it's kind of ugly to boot. If you haven't had a chance to play it, though, then keep reading.

So one thing that jumps out at me about Xenoblade Chronicles is that it is in fact a deeper RPG than I first supposed. There are a lot of little touches throughout, from the way that the Monado impacts boss battles, to the gems, to the distinct roles played by each party member. I found it interesting that the Monado is incapable of harming biological creatures, forcing me to juggle my party to compensate.

Xenoblade Chronicles can be quite tough at times, and if you're underleveled, some of the boss battles are really intense. One particularly nasty fight pits you against a monster called the Solidum Telethia, which is capable of using a technique called Soul Read to make itself all but unhittable, and an accompanying assassin. Shulk is pretty much required for his Purge ability, which wipes out Soul Read, but he's next to useless against the assassin. I ended up rolling with Shulk for Purge, Dunban for his damage potential and ability to quickly build the party gauge, and Riki for his bulk and healing abilities. I felt a little like I was playing a variant of World of WarCraft where I was controlling all three characters at the highest possible speed. At its best, it could be exhilirating.

Having said that, though, there's plenty about Xenoblade Chronicles that has left me feeling cold. First, there's the cast, which varies from decent but forgettable (Shulk, Dunban, Reyn) to outright irritating (Riki). Look, Riki looks cute, but I don't know that it was a good idea to cast a man in that role. We've already ragged on the voice acting a bit in this review, but I feel like Riki in particular is worth calling out.

I will say that even if the characters themselves aren't especially interesting, I still really like the way they're designed. The Mechons in particular are great, mixing elements of the Angels from Evangelion, Terminators, and Decepticons (they can turn into fighter jets — so cool). The same goes for the main party members, especially once they start to pick up a lot more gear. I wish I had more use for Sharla because I love that big old sniper rifle that she carries around.

The story, which follows Shulk as he battles the Mechons and slowly uncovers the secret of his sword, does its part to keep the action moving; but like the characters themselves, the writing doesn't quite do justice to the splendid art. In some ways, it feels like Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off, with the One Ring being replaced by the Monado. Reyn, at least, reminded me a lot of Samwise Gamgee, while Shulk was like a more homicidal Frodo.

In any case, I eventually began to tire of the story and found myself inclined to skip through more and more of the scenes, with the story memos being used to figure out what to do next. On top of that, I felt like many of the later quests were overly padded out to extend playtime. I'm always irritated when I arrive at the entrance to a dungeon, only to find out that I have to go to two separate islands to hit some arbitrary switch.

It's moments like that where I feel ambivalent about Xenoblade Chronicles, on top of the fact that I had a hard time getting invested in the story and the characters. It's a beautiful-looking game with a pretty solid battle system, and it really brings with it a sense of scale that I haven't seen on the Nintendo 3DS, but it falls short of the home run that I was expecting.

What really hurts it for me, though, is that it's just not a great port. It was always hurt a bit by being stuck in standard definition; but on the Nintendo 3DS, it looks far worse. It feels as if the visuals have been overlaid with a grit filter, which in turns serves to obscure the lovely landscapes and terrific character art. I eventually got used to it, but the visual compromises required to get Xenoblade Chronicles on the Nintendo 3DS felt excessive.

Anyway, is it worth playing? Yes, I think it's a good, solid JRPG that's worth playing, and it can be a great time sink on the Nintendo 3DS. But if possible, try and find a copy of the original and play it on the Wii or Wii U instead. This is a game you'll want to experience on the big screen.

VisualsThe massive landscapes are great, and the art is often very attractive. Unfortunately, it all looks so muddy on the Nintendo 3DS that the details often get lost. The compromises in this instance are disappointing.

Sound"What a bunch of jokers!" Get ready to hear that line a few thousand times. It's a shame that the voice acting is so bad because the soundtrack is phenomenal, and it's particularly great with headphones.

InterfaceAs we discussed earlier, the interface is simple and often quite ugly, with no touchscreen functionality to speak of. It works, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Lasting AppealXenoblade Chronicles should last you a minimum of 40 to 50 hours. It feels a bit padded out, with many of the secondary quests being drab fetch quests, but there's a lot of meat to this RPG. It'll keep you busy for a long time.

ConclusionXenoblade Chronicles is an above-average RPG hamstrung by a really bad port. From the muddy visuals to the barebones interface, it's hardly a visual showcase for the New 3DS. It has merit, and its best qualities still manage to shine through on the small screen, but it's definitely not the optimal way to enjoy one of the more celebrated RPGs of the last generation.

3.0 / 5.0

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About the Author
Kat Bailey avatar

Kat Bailey

Contributor

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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