When I think back about what makes a great video game, I tend to think of places before anything else. Halo's ringworld, Zelda's Hyrule, WoW's Azeroth - and to that list you can surely add Xenoblade Chronicles' Gaur Plain. It's a sci-fi marvel of impossible geology that crabs across the sky, curving stone bridges that arc over broad lakes and green hillocks that curve across the horizon. It's as breathtaking a sight as you'll find in any other video game.
And it looks simply astounding in the new Definitive Edition of the original Xenoblade Chronicles, a sumptuous port of the 2011 Wii game for the Switch that's coming out at the end of the month. It confirms my suspicions that Monolith Soft's first Xenoblade game could be the best, and what a thrill it is to play a less compromised version, away from the restrictions of the Wii and New 3DS where a bold but slightly wrong-headed port made its way in 2015.
What is it that makes the first Xenoblade Chronicles so good? In the context of what came after - the freewheeling, open-ended brilliance of Xenoblade Chronicles X, or the anime excess of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 - it's both the sense of purpose and sense of restraint that make the original shine. The battle system's rhythm is easier to get into step with - even more so with the additions here that make it that much simpler to read - its characters and story are ever-so-slightly more grounded and the world... Well, the world is just sublime.
Technically this feels like a big step up from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and while it's not blemish-free it certainly doesn't have the same fuzzy aesthetic that the 2017 game had - the draw distance is more generous, the textures more defined. There's some anime influence in the new face models that grace characters, particularly so with lead man Shulk, but given the weirdly derpy models of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that's no bad thing. When all the improvements of this Definitive Edition combine it makes for a much more visually coherent game.
There's new content here, though I'm not able to go into the nuts and bolts of many of the improvements until review later in the month, and I'll save impressions of Future Connected, the all-new epilogue, for then too. What I will say is that exploring Xenoblade Chronicles' landscapes on Switch has offered the same thrill of discovery as in Breath of the Wild, that same sense of spotting some beguiling rock formation in the far distance and trekking out that way to discover what secrets it holds. I've often felt Monolith Soft didn't really get the credit it deserved for help laying out some of the blueprint of Breath of the Wild - a game the studio helped develop, and one it lent its expertise on wide open spaces to with great effect. They're different games, of course, and there's no doubt that Xenoblade Chronicles is a more acquired taste, but their approach to landscape share many similarities.
If you've not played Xenoblade Chronicles before I'm deeply envious that this port might well be your first taste of the game, and those first steps you take on Gaur Plain or Satorl Marsh are going to be heady ones indeed. I'm a dozen hours into what's now my third playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles with this Definitive Edition, and I can't wait for the next 60 or so that'll see me through to the end (plus the bonus of Future Connected, of course). And now I'm idly thinking of what wonders could be done with a Xenoblade Chronicles X Definitive Edition...