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Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition - how much of an upgrade is it?

The remastering treatment put under the microscope.

In 2011, role-playing fans banded together to fight for the Western release of three games on Nintendo's Wii console - The Last Story, Pandora's Tower and Xenoblade. It was known as Operation Rainfall - and, astonishingly, it worked. All three games got English language releases but it was Xenoblade - renamed Xenoblade Chronicles in the West - that found the greatest success. Sequels followed for both Wii U and Switch, but now the original is back - remastered and updated for Nintendo's current-gen system. It's called the Definitive Edition, but just how much of an upgrade do you get?

Perhaps by default, the Definitive Edition delivers the best Xenoblade experience. It's using more modern rendering techniques, there's a fully remastered soundtrack, additional content and a revamped user interface. Technologically speaking, it's built on the same engine that delivered Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for Switch, with some minor graphical tweaks. First impressions are solid, but as it shares the same tech as the sequel, this also means that the game inherits some of its less impressive aspects, principally image quality. The game is rather soft, even compared to a typical Switch release.

It's sharper than any previous version of Xenoblade, of course, but the leap isn't hugely significant. Essentially, dynamic resolution delivers between 504p and 720p when docked, dropping to a 540p-378p window in portable mode - a match for Xenoblade Chronicles 2. There is some good news here, however, in that the TAA sharpening that was so off-putting in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has been adjusted, and it's nowhere near as ugly now, delivering palpable improvement in mobile play. Image quality is the biggest issue, really, and you'll get an idea of how that shakes out in the video review below - it's mostly good news beyond that.

The Digital Foundry video review of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition.Watch on YouTube

Crucially, the docked vs portable experience is well handled. Resolution is obviously lower but otherwise the experience is mostly like-for-like. Distant point lights are pulled back a touch in portable mode but the most notable difference comes from the implementation of screen-space reflections. This is the technique where on-screen image data is mapped onto reflective surfaces: in this case, rivers and lakes. SSR is a fairly intensive technique from a GPU standpoint so while it's implemented in docked mode, portable play sees it removed in favour of a cube-mapped based fallback. Performance-wise, there's very little to comment on and that's a good thing: Xenoblade Chronicles plays out at 30 frames per second, with only minor hitching when the dynamic resolution scaler seems to get 'caught out', a state of affairs that persists between docked and mobile modes. It's not especially noticeable, however, and the game plays out smoothly overall.

Really, the big story here concerns the comparisons between the Wii original and the new Switch remaster. Feted in its day for an impressive visual presentation, it's worth remembering that the Wii hardware was derived from the GameCube, which was engineered starting in the 90s. It's remarkable that a game as vast and as technically accomplished as Xenoblade Chronicles was possible at all on the system, but the Switch is far removed from that architecture and has proven much more capable, so you'd expect big improvements.

First and foremost, the textures are significantly reworked and improved. Most of the game's art has been retooled entirely or touched up. Normal maps are now used in some cases, revealing additional surface detail via specular highlights, especially noticeable on mechanical objects. Generally, this has the effect of increasing perceived detail across the world as surfaces hold up under scrutiny - at least to a reasonable degree. That said, it is worth pointing out that this isn't a total revamp: some textures (Shulk's clothing for example) remain much the same as they did in the original game.

The next noticeable change stems from updated polygon models. While certain elements of the scenery are improved, it's the characters that benefit the most, but the emphasis is mostly placed on facial detail and hand modelling. Each main character has received a literal facelift with a big increase in geometric complexity and overall improvements to shading. Hands now have individual fingers, which looks best in cutscenes, while overall character detail is updated more subtly in other areas. While I feel it's an improvement overall, it does somewhat change the look of the characters in a way that not every fan may be happy with. It's more detailed but is it better? I guess this one's down to personal taste.

A look at the technology behind Xenoblade Chronicles 2 for Switch. The same core engine is used for the Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition remaster.Watch on YouTube

Other improvements include proper shadow maps which naturally lend the world additional depth, though these shadows are fixed in place and do not update with the time of day - a state of affairs we also saw in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Lighting also gets a boost: there are attempts at simulating light shafts and volumetric lighting in the game, though it's relatively basic. Certain scenes exhibit evidence of bounce lighting with the green from the grass influencing the colours of objects placed around it, like a pre-calculated 'baked' solution. Another nice feature is the inclusion of per-pixel motion blur for dramatic actions. It's most visible in cutscenes but can be observed within the game when the camera quickly parallaxes with the scenery.

It's a nicely improved release overall, but I did notice some side-steps and minor issues. For example, trees are static on Switch when they exhibited movement on Wii, and even on the New 3DS port - despite the tree models themselves possessing more complex geometry. There is also an issue with draw distance of foliage, which very visibly 'pops' into view on Switch. It's not really improved over Wii here, it's just that due to the lower overall resolution on the original hardware, it's more distracting now, especially when exploring large fields. In these scenarios, it's pretty obvious to see the 'line' where foliage starts to draw in.

Overall though, despite these minor issues, I do feel it's a generally solid improvement - it's just quite as impressive as I hoped it would be. Despite sharing its technology with the sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles on Switch is much more rooted in the original Wii version - there is no night and day difference here, more an evolution. Primarily, this is due to the rather low output resolution and the range of Wii quality assets that haven't been retouched. Still, Xenoblade Chronicles remains a beautiful game overall and that's still very much the case with this Switch version - it's just that as a remaster it comes across as solid but not quite the event I hoped it would be.

Even if the Definitive Edition isn't quite as much of a revamp as I hoped, I'd still say it's worth checking out, simply because the core DNA of the game is still great and the overall experience still holds up beautifully today. It's a great way to revisit the title or play it for the first time. It remains one of the finest RPGs Nintendo has published over the years and for that reason alone, I'd recommend it - just don't go into this one expecting a generational leap from a technical perspective.

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