There's always been an air of implausibility around Xenoblade Chronicles. When it received a PAL release on the Wii in 2011, it was hard to believe such a niche RPG would find its way out of Japan, let alone find itself the subject of one of Nintendo's most expansive, exacting localisations. Playing through Monolith Soft's epic, there was the gentle revelation that from a background of adversity had emerged quite possibly the finest JRPG of a generation, one that picked up the baton fumbled by Square as it waded through the Final Fantasy 13 saga.
There's something equally implausible about seeing it land, for all intents and purposes, intact on a handheld. It's helped that Xenoblade Chronicles 3D arrives in tandem with a new model of Nintendo's 3DS - it won't be playable on older models, which is somewhat understandable given both the undertaking and what's been achieved here - launching to help bang the drum for this year's release of the game's spiritual successor, Xenoblade Chronicles X.
The four years since the launch of the original Xenoblade Chronicles have done little to dim its appeal. Indeed, aside from Persona 4, it's hard to think of an RPG that's launched in the intervening years that carries the same broad appeal, or one that's provided the same tantalising fusion of traditional JRPG traits with more modern, western elements. This remains an essential play, a dizzyingly large open world filled with side quests and a taut, thrilling combat system that's deep and flexible.
Does the 3DS port add anything, though? There's one omission that smarts a little, with the Japanese voice track that accompanied the Wii version entirely absent. In its place is the fully localised, fully voiced English dialogue, complete with the slightly amateurish, totally charming voice work that Nintendo has lent its RPGs in recent history. It's the sole compromise that seems to have been made with this port.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a quite astonishing feat, and whereas early videos of the port in motion looked a little wobbly, the final product is stable, the frame-rate holding steady while the draw distance (judged from the first three hours, at least) hasn't diminished. Monster Games is handling the port, and this already seems as assured an effort as its work on the 3DS version of Donkey Kong Country Returns, although this time around there's been no need to halve the frame-rate.
One question mark hangs over Xenobloade Chronicles 3D. The original was never the most technically astounding of games, and not purely because of its more diminutive host console: textures were often smeared, and the character faces sometimes look like they'd been dripped awkwardly on, all of which this new version is faithful to. What Xenoblade Chronicles had, though, was scale, its overworld stretching out towards the horizon as impossible rock-faces curled in on themselves across the skyline. The 3DS version is faithful to that scale - impressively so - but there's only so much you can do with the real estate offered by the smaller screen.
Detail can be lost, too, both in battle where the screen tends to get a little too cluttered and in general exploration where waypoints can become a hard-to-determine smudge. Come its release in April, it's hard to see this ousting the Wii version as the ideal way of playing Xenoblade Chronicles, even taking into account the escalating price of an original on eBay.
That might be looking a gift horse in the mouth, though, and other aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles lend themselves perfectly well to portable play, such as the gentle grind in its vast open fields or its tangle of side quests that can be seen through in one quick sitting. The magic of Monolith Soft's creation hasn't been diminished here, even if the format it finds itself on isn't quite ideal. For a platform that's already received the likes of Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, Majora's Mask and with Codename Steam still to come, this is just another addition to what's becoming an embarrassment of riches for the 3DS in 2015.
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