Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Hands-on Preview – A tale of two worlds

Posted on July 7, 2022

In February, Nintendo delighted fans by announcing Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the latest entry in Monolith Soft’s iconic JRPG franchise. Two months later, they surprised further by announcing the title would be coming to the Nintendo Switch in July, two months earlier than its initial September release date. After months of trailers, speculation, and a recent Nintendo Direct, we finally have our hands on a preview version of this much-anticipated sequel to 2017’s Xenoblade Chronicles 2.

The world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Aionios, is fractured with discord. Two warring nations, Keves and Agnus, are engaged in an eternal struggle. Their conflict is fuelled by desperation: the colonies in each nation must constantly take lives in order to fill their Flame Clocks, which are giant energy sources that drain over time. Citizens of Aionios are born close to adulthood and live for only ten years (unless their lives are taken or their colony’s Flame Clock runs dry). If they survive to the end of their tenth year, their essence is ceremoniously returned to their nation’s queen. This life-cycle is a major focus for the main characters of XC3 and the topic of most of their discussions.

Noah, the initial protagonist, is an off-seer for Keves. His role is to attend battlefields and “send off” dead soldiers by playing his flute. The other party members, Eunie and Lanz, are Noah’s friends and escorts. You’ll eventually meet and team up with Mio, a rival Agnus off-seer, and her escorts Taion and Sena. There is a tonne of time given to establishing the party’s relationships and histories, making the early game feel like a real prologue to the emerging drama. Much of the first few hours resemble the party-centric Torna: The Golden Country than any other title in the series.

I’m conscious that the Xenoblade Chronicles community is justly wary of story spoilers. These are, after all, lengthy JRPGs with plot twists and intrigue galore. Instead of diving into the plot, I’ll touch on the presentation of the narrative thus far. More lines are voiced than in any of the previous games, with absolutely superb voice-acting. The mish-mash of UK and US accents give life and personality to each of the characters. My favourite so far is Lanz, who gives so many lad vibes he might as well have been pulled from Skins.

Keen Xeno-fans will have noticed the many callbacks to earlier titles presented in Nintendo’s trailers: the name Aionios gets its root from a late-game boss from XC2, the “queens” bear a more-than-suspicious resemblance to XC’s Melia and XC2’s Nia, and there’s a number of familiar locations and mechanics hinting that Keves and Agnus may be linked to the Bionis/Mechonis and Alrest respectively. Nowhere is this more evident than in Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s combat, which takes mechanics from both of the previous entries and throws them into a gloriously diverse blend. Gone are the early-game hours of slow, grindy battles. From the beginning, combat is engaging, exciting, and incredibly accessible to those familiar with the series.

The flow of combat remains the same: you’ll target an enemy and attack automatically, deploying Arts once they come off of cooldown. Each character has a Talent Art with a unique effect, and Arts can be affected by your position in the field (for example, some arts deal extra damage when attacking an enemy from behind). However, Arts are now divided between Keves and Agnus variants. Keves Arts charge up over time and are mostly adapted from the original Xenoblade Chronicles, while Agnus Arts charge up as you auto-attack and are based on Arts from XC2. You can also instantly switch between your six party members at will, initiate a Chain Attack (which has a new points-based system for inflicting massive damage), or fuse two party members into their “Ouroboros” form using the Interlink ability.

There are so, so many options available in every fight. It would be incredibly overwhelming for new players, but Monolith Soft have finally implemented a decent tutorial system that is accessible from the menu at any time – bittersweet news to anyone who suffered through the (often factually inaccurate) tutorials from XC2. It’s still a complicated system, but the drip-feed of mechanics is balanced enough to not completely bamboozle newcomers.

You also have access to a rotating seventh party member via the “Hero” system, which replaces the Blade Quests from XC2. Heroes, once recruited, unlock their weapon classes for a party member. The class system has received an overhaul as well, allowing characters to level up and unlock different weapon types and battle roles as they fight together. Most weapons feel similar to those in previous entries (such as the Monado and Twin Rings) but there are a few cool unique types – I particularly love Taion’s Mondo, little paper spirits that float around and cause havoc.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s overworld is the sprawling collection of biomes we’ve come to expect from the series. Environments are lush, so far leaning more towards the naturalistic environs of the first game than the second’s otherworldly Titans. There are some additional challenges in “elite” and “lucky” monsters that give extra experience and items when defeated. You can also find fallen soldiers scattered around the world, which Noah or Mio can send off to gain affinity with their respective faction. I’ve got a feeling these will eventually feel like yet another collectable, but they’ve so far been adding a rather sombre layer to the world, constantly highlighting the fragility of life on Aionios.

Between the quality of the character relationships, the rapidly developing story, and the expanded combat system, I’m positively basking in the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Just over twenty hours in, I’m relishing the thought of the next seventy or so in this beautiful universe. Make sure to keep an eye out for my full review just before the title launches on 29th July, and in the meantime, you can check out our reviews of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition – there’s still time to catch up on the story before diving into Aionios.