With Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Monolith Soft further solidifies its property as one of the biggest representatives of the RPG genre, taking almost everything that made its two predecessors feel magnificent to new heights
Given it is the third chapter of a very successful series, it goes without saying that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 inherits a lot of mechanics, systems, and design philosophies from its predecessors. Likewise, the same comment applies to its world, which once again throws humanity into a depressing dystopic reality that aligns itself quite neatly with the franchise’s signature touches of science-fiction. In the first game, with life springing on top of two giants – one mechanical and another organic – that were frozen in time, people lived in constant war with machines, which could attack at any moment to destroy the few frail human settlements that remained. In the second entry, meanwhile, civilization was built on the body of humongous living creatures called titans, which stood above a mysterious sea of clouds like moving islands; unfortunately, for unknown reasons, these godly beings were slowly dying, threatening the lives of those who inhabited their carcasses as well as creating a shortage of land and resources that, naturally, fostered tensions between nations.
It is all pretty bleak, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 absolutely follows this tradition. However, it can be argued that this time around reality is even darker than usual. Taking place in the world of Aionios, the quest has as its background the seemingly endless war between two nations: Keves and Agnus. Nobody knows when it started or what caused it, but humans who are born into this universe are indoctrinated with the idea that people from the opposing faction are their mortal enemies, and their entire existence is governed by the dichotomy of fighting or dying. To make matters worse, life in this land does not follow a natural cycle – at least not according to the Earth’s standards: people are born out of capsules as ten-year-old children, they are sent to training camps for a little while, and then are deployed to a colony belonging to their country.
There, their task is engaging in battle with the enemy to kill them and harvest their life energy into a device called the Flame Clock, which in turn is used by the nation’s queen to generate yet more young soldiers. Such harshness is daily faced and never questioned: to the people of Keves and Agnus, this is the way the world is meant to be. And as a sad exclamation mark, the biggest honor that humans in Aionios desire to reach is surviving until the end of their meager lifespan, which is only of precisely ten years from the day they step out of their birth capsule, and dying of natural causes in front of the queen in a pompous ceremony called Homecoming.
This extra layer of darkness does wonders for Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Where its predecessor, while excellent, was plagued by moments of excessively campy tonality and even fetishist character designs and concepts, this third chapter emerges as the most sober part of the trilogy by a landslide. Sure, there are humorous occasions and lighthearted segments, but the brutal reality of Aionios paves the way to a story that rather than simply touching upon the usual existential themes of the saga actually jumps into them and stays there through most of the way. And, from an overall perspective, the game is considerably better off because of it: the emotional moments hit harder than ever, the character designs are incredible, and the world’s harshness is conveyed without a hitch.
Like it happened in the previous Xenoblade Chronicles games, the adventure gets underway when a series of events causes a group of protagonists to rage against the despairing nature of the world in which they live. Here, Monolith Soft, taking advantage of the polarized setting they constructed, orchestrates a set of heroes that is rather unlikely for Aionios, forcing a trio of solders from Keves to join forces with a trio of soldiers from Agnus. As they travel through the land seeking answers and trying to liberate colonies of both nations from the cycle of destruction in which they are stuck, fertile ground is set so that each member of the group can get nicely developed via internal struggles as well as personal relationships within the party.
Be it in the unfolding of its story or in the moments when the spotlight is set on its characters, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 reveals that, for Nintendo, this project was not seen as a small endeavor, but as a pivotal addition to the Switch’s library. That is clear because, to put it simply, the game’s production values are basically as high as possible for the hardware in terms of quality and quantity, hence indicating a hefty budget was put behind the product. Gorgeous cutscenes with wonderful direction in both calm and action-packed moments are abundant. The soundtrack is a rich tapestry of over one hundred tunes with tasty instrumentation; and even if there are not as many musical highs as in previous entries, the consistency of the package is just stunning. The voice acting and localization work are borderline flawless, as the emotional tonality is on point and the game is not afraid to take some amusing liberties with slang or varied accents. And the art style is a blatant peak for the franchise and anime-inspired games in general, especially in relation to character models, whose eyes and expressions are able to carry all the weight a story of this kind calls for.
Meanwhile, on the gameplay front, the general framework exhibited by Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is not as much of a big step forward; however, this is one of those cases where more of the same is not essentially bad, since the overall formula that was already in place safely sits among the best of what the JRPG niche offers. Early on, during the first six hours or so of the quest, and towards the very end of the adventure, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 funnels the heroes down a very linear path that is pretty much the standard of the genre. It makes sense; after all, in those moments, it will be either teaching players how it all works and introducing them to the world or wrapping the story up. Through most of the way, though, the game will be thriving on what the franchise does best: enormous open environments.
For newcomers to the saga, it is important to highlight that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is not an open-world adventure; the series, by all means, sticks to JRPG conventions by presenting a critical path that is absolutely linear from beginning to end, and the areas that make up its gigantic world are accessed in orderly fashion as the quest progresses. Yet, the greatest allure of the franchise has, from day one, been its ability to disguise that straightforwardness via the wideness of its scenarios, which stretch vertically and horizontally in a wondrous scale that is populated by geographic features that seem to have come out of a surrealistic painting, therefore creating countless flooring vistas. And charmingly emerging as surprising easter eggs, even though its plot can be understood by anyone who skipped the previous chapters, the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 alludes to its predecessors as, for reasons explained by the script, it contains iconic and vastly transformed landmarks that appeared in its two prequels.
Scale, of course, is important; and, perhaps once more proving that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was backed by heavy investment, Monolith Soft’s developers have even stated that the walking area in Aionios is five times bigger than the one featured in the already gigantic Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Yet, if this vastness were not filled with interesting content, it would all go to waste, especially in a quest whose critical path does not have many detours. Here, though, as it has been the norm in the franchise, the game steps up to the plate in three ways: monsters, exploration, and sidequests.
The first one is easy to explain: Aionios is filled to the brim with a variety of creatures, machines, and enemy squadrons roaming its fields, with players being free to either engage them, avoid them, or try to run away in case they are spotted. The highlight of this particular bunch comes in the form of unique monsters: especially tough creatures lurking in specific spots that can be fought for nice loot, a good experience boost, as well as the simple the joy of overcoming a challenge. To boot, once downed, they will be buried in graves that can be both used as warp points and as a practical way to restart the combat, with the best clearing time even being recorded by the game as a way to foment some good old battling time trials.
Regarding exploration, it could be argued that, geographically, Aionios is not as interesting or mysterious as the worlds of the previous two games; after all, Keves and Agnus do not lie on the backs of frozen giants or sentient titans. Nonetheless, this fact is countered by how Monolith Soft seems to have further polished their level-design skills, as there is great intricacy in the midst of each area’s overwhelming openness. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is filled with moments when players will naturally wander away from the main path to go after a point of interest they spotted in the distance, be it driven by the curiosity of finding monsters, hidden colonies, and treasure or simply ushered on by the desire to completely explore the map. And as they do so, not only will they come across unexpected caves, ledges, and secrets, but they will also be met with geographical conundrums that will challenge them to try to figure out how one is supposed to get to various alluring spots. The answer to those riddles will invariably lead to pleasant discoveries, which are satisfying enough; however, aware of its prowess in exploration, the game (like its predecessors) rewards players with experience points as they find locations, landmarks, and secret spots – with the last ones yielding quite a lot of those.
As for sidequests, this is an area in which Xenoblade Chronicles 3 absolutely trumps its two prequels. Although there are still some extra missions, with a pair in particular standing out, that revolve around the dull gathering of a large amount of materials, the game relegates empty fetch tasks to Collectopaedia Cards that are automatically sent to players and that can be completed at anytime from anywhere. That brilliant choice leaves the actual sidequests free to exclusively bet on missions that focus on character development and world building. To do so, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes advantage of a key feature of Aionios: the Agnian and Kevesi colonies that the heroes free from the tyranny of the Flame Clocks as they advance in their journey. Naturally, some of these acts of liberation will be part of the adventure’s critical path, but there are more than half a dozen colonies that are entirely optional, only being found if players sink their teeth into the exploration component of the game.
Whether they are integrated into the central storyline or exclusively liberated via sidequests, all colonies – once free – will offer a myriad of optional missions that will have the heroes diving into the relationships of the people that inhabit them and into the struggles that will arise once they have to live a life that is completely different from the one they have been indoctrinated into following since the day of their birth. Needless to say, these will pull the curtain on problems, situations, and conflicts that breathe an astounding degree of life into Aionios while taking advantage of the vast expanse of the game’s map. And although all colonies look like military camps built around and inside differently shaped giant robots that house their respective Flame Clock, engaging with those quests, talking to people, and even gathering information and sitting by a fire to have the party discuss a matter will reveal to players that besides being differentiated by the environments in which they are located, every colony is also very culturally unique.
From a writing standpoint, the work that was poured into these optional missions – which are more than one hundred – is mesmerizing. Actually, it would not be exaggerated to compare Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to games usually put on a pedestal because of their extensively written sidequests, like The Witcher 3, the Mass Effect trilogy, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Disco Elysium. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is, without a doubt, that good in its extra content. And the very peak of that component lies in a special group of missions called Hero Quests. Six of them are related to the main cast, with each one triggering a story that is rather personal to a certain member of the party. However, most Hero Quests are linked to very prominent people from Aionios, usually the leader of a colony, and once completed, that character will join the starring group; given there are a whopping nineteen recruitable heroes and pretty much all of them have two quests, the total of Hero Quests is almost forty.
Ultimately, what is notable about Hero Quests is how absurdly full-fledged they are. They are long, they reveal meaty portions of the lore, they possess major moments of character development, they may feature unique epic boss battles, and they even have grand cutscenes. Some, in fact, are so meaningful that they are likely to have players wondering if they should not have been a part of the main quest in the first place. It is a fair question, but it ultimately showcases how Xenoblade Chronicles 3 absolutely wants its audience to travel away from the beaten path to see what it has in store, because a ridiculous amount of care went into designing its world and filling it up with a nigh unthinkable amount of solid content.
This tripod of enemies, exploration, and quests adds unique flavor to Xenoblade Chronicles 3 because, like its predecessors, this is a JRPG that – despite the linearity of its critical path – gives players a lot of freedom to do as they see fit. And this is not just in terms of where to go next, but also in how characters get stronger. Because, sure, one can take the traditional approach of leveling up by battling the mobs that are all around the field. But since unique foes are plentiful and locations to discover as well as quests both reward experience and are abundant, gamers can craft the experience to their liking, choosing to focus on what they prefer. Moreover, to avoid over-leveling, the game puts experience points earned through quests and exploration into a separate pool that can only be accessed in rest spots, allowing players to spend those points to tweak the levels of the party members, hence manually adjusting the difficulty. Sadly, though, for some reason the option to level down characters only becomes available once the quest is finished, meaning if one accidentally gets too strong, it is impossible to undo that mistake the first time around through the adventure.
The treasure trove of options, content, and elements that underlines the entirety of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is also, naturally, present in its combat system. The general essence of the proceedings has not changed all that much compared to previous games. Battles are real-time action-based affairs in which characters perform auto-attacks in short intervals of time. What players need to worry about is executing arts, which are special moves attributed to the controller’s face buttons; positioning the character on the field, be it to take advantage of buffs that affect circular areas or to make attacks more powerful, as certain moves hit harder when performed from certain angles; and, if they want to, switch between the six party members at will to take control of someone they want to use to perform a specific action.
The biggest novelties that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 brings to the table are mostly related to its deep class system. As usual, characters can assume one of three roles: attackers deal brutal damage; defenders work towards drawing the attention of enemies since they can take hits thanks to their immense HP; and healers provide buffs, recover health, and are the only ones who can revive downed allies. However, this time around, every role has multiple classes, which in turn have different behaviors and unique arts. Zephyr, for instance, is a defender who does not have such high health but that makes up for it in speed and dodging; Incursor is an attacker specialized in critical hits; and Troubadour is a healer that focuses on increasing the frequency with which allies can attack. All six protagonists originally come assigned to a class, which can be switched at any time; additionally, every hero that is recruited is permanently linked to a specific class, which is then unlocked for other members of the party. In total, therefore, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 features more than twenty classes, which is quite a lot according to any standard out there.
Needless to say, this abundance is part of a deep customization system that also includes pieces of equipment and gems, but classes go a bit beyond choosing who is going to be taking on a certain role. For starters, every class has five Combat Arts, and players can choose which three of them they will take into battle by assigning them to the X, Y, and B buttons. Moreover, using classes in battle causes them to level up, and when reaching certain thresholds, class-specific skills and arts are acquired, becoming available to a character regardless of the role they are playing. The unlocking of these new actions is particularly interesting because they are Master Arts, special moves that are assigned to the directional pad, and they can be used either on their own or fused with Combat Arts in order to add extra effects, such as Sleep or Bleed, to the regular attacks. Because of that, not only does Xenoblade Chronicles 3 present a highly customizable moveset, but it also foments the constant switching between classes (whose level is capped at ten) so new moves and skills are unlocked.
As it happened in previous games, battles give players plenty to worry about by being a constant race to fill gauges that enable progressively powerful moves. Depending on the class, auto-attacks or the simple passage of time slowly make Combat Arts and Master Arts available. Triggering those arts in timely fashion (that is, right as the previous attack hits enemies) and performing role-specific actions, such as drawing enemy attention with a Defender or reviving someone as a Healer, unlock the Talent Art; a specially strong attack that is delivered through the A button. Fusing arts, meanwhile, levels up the Ouroboros transformation, a special power the party gains access to that has two characters joining to become a mighty creature whose moveset is also customizable; and although this transformation is available basically anytime during battles, the stronger its level is when it is activated, the more effective its powers will be. Finally, all of these actions fill the gauge of the Chain Attack; the group’s ultimate move, which essentially stops time and lets players deliver lengthy combos of special attacks performed through stylish animations.
Overall, battles are a fun wild ride, and even if their mechanics are plentiful and complex, the game does a great job of slowly introducing them through its first dozen hours via well-paced text tutorials. Furthermore, if players do not grasp all quirks immediately, they can freely use the menu to access a helpful practice room in which they can freely polish their knowledge on the game’s numerous systems. Nevertheless, a few complaints about battle-related elements need to be made. Firstly, with a minimum of seven characters on the screen (the six protagonists, the hero, plus the enemies), flashy effects constantly being triggered, and transformations happening every once in a while, it goes without saying that the action can frequently get visually messy. Secondly, the animations seen during Chain Attacks could have been skippable, as besides making the move unnecessarily lengthy, they also get repetitive quite fast.
Additionally, with seven party members; gems; pieces of equipment; classes; customizable movesets; skills; and the fact that six combatants will always be under the control of the generally competent CPU; the tweaks that can be done in the game’s menus will, to some, certainly feel like meaningless micro-management of variables that will not matter too much in the grand scheme of things. And indeed, perhaps predicting that reaction, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 even goes as far as providing players with the option to generate automatic builds for the characters and let battles occur without their intervention. Yet, especially to those tackling the game in the hardest of its three difficulty settings without being overleveled, these are choices that will be critical, particularly the composition of classes assigned to the party.
All in all, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a substantial wonder. Its meaty adventure ought to last about sixty hours in case players follow its critical path directly, but the experience can easily reach the one-hundred-hour mark if the wonderful sidequests are included, and go far beyond that point if one wants to get to full completion. And through it all, the only issue that truly holds the game back from being better is the fact that its storyline, despite absolutely nailing its themes and tone, visibly falters when it comes to answering a few relatively big questions that it raises. It can be said, of course, that given this is an RPG, storytelling shortcomings are a rather big deal, and it definitely feels like the game could have used its final two chapters to deliver more information, as they come off as undercooked when compared to the rest. But, in general, it is safe to claim most will end up enjoying the journey regardless of its narrative warts.
And that is unsurprising, after all, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is – quite simply – one of the most ambitious projects to ever come out of Nintendo’s pipeline. With it, Monolith Soft further solidifies its property as one of the biggest representatives of the genre, taking almost everything that made its two predecessors feel magnificent to new heights. The world is not just the biggest one yet, but it is also intricately designed; the art style is vivid yet sober, achieving an immaculate level of quality; the plot’s tone is alluringly bleak; the customization options are unbelievably deep; the cutscenes are abundant, brilliantly directed, and greatly dramatic; the protagonists are the best in the saga by a very large margin; and the full-fledged nature of the more than one hundred sidequests threatens to set a new very high standard for the industry as a whole. As such, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 safely qualifies as one of the best RPGs of all time, and its mixture of exploration, battling, and questing goes straight to the history books to serve as a blueprint for the future of the genre.