A technically impressive port of a masterly RPG, though the small screen ultimately proves too restrictive for a game of this scope.
There have been big games on small screens before, of course. Think of the epic scope of a Pokémon adventure, entire regions charted as you gather together your own vast menagerie, or the toytown bestiary of Animal Crossing New Leaf, as your own village ticks on while hungrily consuming endless hours of your life. Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, the handheld port of Monolith Soft's grandiose 2011 Wii RPG, is different.
This was always a game imagined on the most epic of scales - an RPG adventure laid out in IMAX, where impossible rocky crevices and green fields stretch out to far horizons, and where even subterranean lift-shafts instil a giddy sense of vertigo as they plummet down into the darkness. Part of that has been lost for this handheld port, even if what has been achieved in getting the original running on a New 3DS (the only member of Nintendo's portable family capable of running Xenoblade Chronicles 3D) is commendable, indeed impressive.
Monster Games, previously responsible for porting Donkey Kong Country Returns, provides a conversion for the New 3DS that is as faithful as you could hope for. There's hardly a frame dropped or a texture smeared - although the grass on Gaur Plain seems to have been freshly mowed for the porting process, and some of the rougher edges of the original are plainer to see when they're placed a mere half metre in front of your face.
It's worth remembering what a fundamentally fine game has been ported; without doubt one of the highlights of the last generation, and surely one of its finest RPGs. Xenoblade Chronicles saw all the promise across the career of its director Tetsuya Takahashi fulfilled, the expertise he'd earned during his time at Nihon Falcom working on the Ys series, at Square working on Final Fantasy in its early 90s pomp and through to the painful lessons learnt with the Xenosaga games being poured into a stand-out of the genre.
It's the world that wins you over, a pastoral sci-fi fantasy patrolled by mechas that's generous in its scale and with its imagination. Grassy plains give way to twilight marshes, palatial hallways, ice-white mountain passes and dense forests with lysergic canopies, all hosted on the back of the hulking Bionis, a giant god frozen in time upon who this world has been made.
A 70 hour adventure that crosses the shoulder of inactive giants: there's something there of how Takahashi breathed new life into a genre that's been irrelevant to many for years, and how he twisted the tropes of Japanese RPGs together with their western equivalents to create something fresh. An emphasis on systems over story helps maintain a balance that's more palatable than more traditional Japanese RPGs, where sidequests can be ticked off with ease and where there's a tangible ecosystem stalking that semi-open world.
It's a world you can happily lose yourself in, where you can run for hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the plains before locking yourself into the more defined path laid out by the story, swiping away at beasts several levels higher than yourself before being wiped out with a single brush of a paw, or just happily grinding away at the strange creatures that prance through the grass.
There's a story and a focus there, though it's slight and far from spectacular - even if, over time and through the Stockholm Syndrome of so many RPGs, you find yourself caring for characters far more than their flimsy execution deserves. Xenoblade Chronicles' story comes from Takahashi's time spent in Shizuoka theatres of the early 70s, devouring the tokusatsu action of Ultra Seven - it's a simple, straightforward tale of heroism set against the backdrop of a world slowly coming to its senses. Some of that charm's been lost in an English voice dub that, while far from disastrous, is too often grating, especially in the cries that loop incessantly during combat. In Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, it's the only option available to players.
Xenoblade Chronicles' systems are as straightforward as the story, even if, in their abundance, they threaten to overwhelm players in the early hours. Like Final Fantasy 12 before it - a game Xenoblade Chronicles is often compared to, even if Monolith Soft's game doesn't have quite the same poise and grace - this is loosely an action RPG, where fights are not turn-based but partly automated, allowing you to prod the one character in your command towards the desired move.
There are many crinkles to get lost in: a level of foresight granted by the game's signature weapon, the Monado, gives you occasional brief glimpses into the future in some skirmishes, allowing you to change your plans accordingly, while chain links can be set up between the three party characters once a three bar meter has been filled, giving you access to devastating combo strings. Positioning in combat is important, too, with certain attacks from behind dealing out more damage while status effects can be inflicted by attacking from the sides.
It's one of several areas that gets lost in Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, where combatants get lost in the fuzz of a screen they were clearly never intended for. Fighting was always fussy and slightly scrappy in Xenoblade Chronicles, a problem that's been exacerbated here. It's puzzling, then, that Monster Games decides to largely forego the second screen of the 3DS, and an already cramped user interface is made all the more unpleasant to use as it's squeezed onto a single screen.
Even outside of combat, too much time can be spent squinting at objective markers and waypoints, and too much of the widescreen awe so central to Xenoblade Chronicles' appeal has been lost in the process. Has much been added? Sadly not at all, with a slim collection of 3D models available to be unlocked either through tokens earned through play time or by using a Shulk Amiibo - a throwaway gesture that underlines what little thought has been put into making Xenoblade Chronicles work on a handheld beyond the technical challenge.
The majesty of Monolith Soft's original, and the surprising faithfulness in so much of Monster Games' port, makes Xenoblade Chronicles 3D a worthwhile effort, even if it's never going to be enough to persuade people to upgrade to the New 3DS that's required to play it. It's also a worthwhile reminder of the craft of Takahashi as we approach the release of Xenoblade Chronicles X, the follow-up optimistically pencilled in for western release later this year. Ultimately, it's also a reminder that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should: this is still a better RPG than most, but it's certainly not the recommended way to enjoy Monolith Soft's epic.