Hands On With Nintendo Switch's Big Holiday RPGs

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for Switch.

The Switch is such a familiar part of the gaming landscape now that it’s strange to consider that Nintendo’s hybrid device is about to head into its first holiday season. What’s even stranger is that for Baby’s First Christmas, Nintendo’s lineup is overloaded with deep single-player fantasy adventures: role-playing games Skyrim and Xenoblade Chronicles, and the RPG-tinged action of Fire Emblem Warriors.

Nintendo systems often launch with software that highlights their best attributes: Game Boy had Tetris, Wii had Wii Sports, and the Switch had Breath of the Wild, a massive, hundred-hour Zelda that immediately made it clear why the hardware’s ability to go back and forth between TV and handheld mode was brilliant. No matter how much time you had to spare or where you were, you could play Zelda.


With that in mind, Nintendo’s holiday lineup makes perfect sense—surely, some Switch owners are looking for that next 100-hour time sink! It’s just kind of funny that this is where we are today. Six years ago, fans were so desperate for Nintendo to release RPGs like the original Xenoblade a few years ago that they had to organize a whole Internet grassroots movement around it. But we’re all on the same page, now. I recently had the chance to take these games for a brief spin, so here are my thoughts on a few minutes each of three huge games.


Breath of the Wild brought a Skyrim-like design sense to Zelda, and now Zelda is coming to Skyrim, although in a significantly less abstract fashion: They’re literally putting Zelda gear into the Switch version of The Elder Scrolls V, which is actually published by Nintendo, not Bethesda. Will Hylian Shields and green tunics be enough to get you to play a 6-year-old RPG again?

If not, how about this: Optional motion controls! I’ve said before that I’m a motion controls agnostic, neither a true believer nor a hater. The implementation in Skyrim is… kind of good? It’s basically Twilight Princess motion: As you’re running hither and yon in Tamriel’s snow-covered hinterlands, you can waggle the right Joy-Con to swing your melee weapon. You can take a big swing to do a slower, more powerful, attack as well.


I like this mostly because it frees up thumb to hit other buttons while you’re attacking, which is why I liked the motion controls in Twilight Princess. You don’t have to be precise or overly theatrical with your hand-waving; it lends itself well to the split-Joy-Con play style. And of course you can aim your bow and arrow in motion mode as well. I enjoyed it in third-person mode, although I didn’t try first-person mode extensively. Otherwise… it’s Skyrim, with all of the expansion content already included. And now it’s portable.

Fire Emblem Warriors.

Hot off the heels of Hyrule Warriors comes the next mashup of Tecmo Koei’s Musou series and a hot Nintendo franchise. Again, it’s weird to think of Fire Emblem as a “hot franchise,” but it’s 2017 and now it seems like all anybody wants to talk about is which character is their waifu. Fire Emblem Warriors is all about hack-and-slash combat, although there are still enough RPG trappings to keep it from being a pure beat-em-up.

For example, while you’re running around the map slamming on buttons to kill hundreds of soldiers at once, you can also head over to a map screen and give orders to your fellow fighters. You’ll be able to see on the screen which enemies around the map your current character will fare well against in battle, and who puts you at a disadvantage. You can send other fighters to take out that latter group.


Also, since Fire Emblem is based on the characters’ relationships to each other, this comes into play here as well; if two characters have a strong relationship they can do a dual attack on the battlefield. But mostly, since Nintendo dropped me into a battle that’s many hours deep in the game, I spent my time just whacking a single button and winning. So you know it’s really a Warriors game. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


And now for a game that is definitely not about pressing a single button and winning, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. For this demo of Monolith Soft’s next massive open-world RPG, I was thrown into a spot about 20 hours deep into the game, my party hopping across wide, flat rocks through a shallow river bespeckled all over with enemies amphibian and avian.

Rather than immediately relinquishing the Joy-Cons to me, the Nintendo representative held fast to them to give me a rundown of how the battles play out. Folks, it was pretty confusing, but I will take a stab at explaining it in broad strokes. First off, there were six characters running around in the party. This turned out to be the three party members and their Blades, who are anthropomorphic weapons who hang out with you. You can have a variety of different Blades accompanying you at any moment, although only one can be out and about at a time.


In battle, Blades let you use different Arts moves, each of which has a cooldown time. So while your characters go into battle automatically swinging away at the enemy, you want to manually let loose specific Arts when their timer fills back up. You can hot-swap Blades if you like to get access to different Arts, but you also have to wait before you can tag a Blade back in.

Once you’ve used enough Arts to build up another meter, you can start working on your even grander super-damaging-death moves, which are represented by a tree in the upper-right corner of the screen. You can use different elemental attacks (each Blade has an element, natch) to work your way through this move tree, with the goal of setting off a certain Level 3 move once you make it to the outermost branch.


Confused? Imagine being me! But actually, once the Nintendo rep had gone through a battle and talked me through one, I started to get what was going on. The idea seems to be to make each battle feel like a quest in and of itself, to put abilities together in the right way to weaken the enemy and do major damage, rather than chip away bit by bit. All accompanied, of course, by the gorgeous music of Chrono Trigger composer Yasunori Mitsuda.

What all this means is that no matter what your taste in RPGs—Japanese, Western, light, heavy—Nintendo hopes to have something that will keep you glued to your Switch all during Christmas break. Or while you’re in line for an SNES Classic.

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About the author

Chris Kohler

Features Editor, Kotaku. Japanese curry aficionado. Author of the books Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life and Final Fantasy V from Boss Fight Books.