July 29, 2022
Glimmering in streaks of peach fire, the sun sinks lazily beyond the horizon, ceding the last remaining bastions of its shine from a desolate battlefield. A piper, flanked by two filthy, battle-weary companions raises an instrument to his lips and begins to play a low, wistful melody. As the melancholic elegy echoes through the air, the blood-soaked plains slowly begin to glow, as the fallen warriors strewn across their barren expanse return their life force to the ether as gentle, flickering motes of light. This is the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3: a war-torn, chaotic arena of strife that makes space for beauty, reflection, and hope.
After 2017’s critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and 2020’s remaster of the original Wii title, this third entry in Monolith Soft’s unique JRPG series promises more expansive worlds, more juicy lore, and more Welsh catgirls than ever before. When I previewed this title earlier in July, I was captivated by its narrative and combat. Now I’ve finished the main story, and… well, no spoilers, but it’s bloody fantastic.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes place in Aionios, a vast world split by endless conflict between the warring nations of Keves and Agnus. It’s a sprawling blended universe that combines elements of the titanic worlds of the first two Xenoblade Chronicles games into a cataclysmically beautiful landscape. The armies of the two nations in conflict are similarly inspired by previous adventures: Keves soldiers take the forms of Homs, High Entia, and Machina from the Bionis and Mechonis, while Agnus soldiers resemble Blades and the many races from Alrest. You play as a band of six soldiers: Noah, Eunie, and Lanz from Keves, and Mio, Taion, and Sena from Agnus. Noah and Mio serve their nations as “off-seers”, whose role is to serenade their fallen comrades with ceremonial flutes and ensure they find peace after death.
The clock is ticking for our band of protagonists, in more ways than one. Soldiers of Keves and Agnus live for only ten years in their Colonies before they reach “Homecoming”, where their life essence dissolves into motes of light and returns to their nation’s queen. When we first meet Mio, she only has three months until her Homecoming. She and the party are determined to make their mark on the world before her soul returns to Queen Nia. This time pressure is compounded by the ever-present yoke of the Flame Clocks, massive sources of life energy that dwindle over time and spell certain doom should they expire.
The only way for a Colony to refill its Flame Clock is to kill soldiers from the opposing nation and absorb their essence, driving the endless conflict between Keves and Agnus. Another force dependent on the unending war is the nefarious Moebius, a collective of beings that seem to derive joy from the constant cycle of death. Members of Moebius exert influence over each Colony’s commander, and can even take control of a Colony’s soldiers through the power of the Flame Clocks, forcing them to do their bidding.
Early in the story, Noah and Mio’s troupe meet on the battlefield as enemies. Through a twist of fate, the six warring soldiers are given the mysterious power of Ouroboros, which allows them to fuse with a member of the opposing faction into an extremely powerful form. This catches the ire of Moebius, who can’t stand to see Keves and Agnus working together, and sets them up as the primary antagonistic force for the bulk of the story. Each Moebius is named for a single letter of the alphabet and they often bear a resemblance to familiar humans, making cruel caricatures of the party’s loved ones.
It would have been nice to see a little more diversity in the designs of Moebius characters – they’re all clad in a similar red-and-grey armour that sometimes makes them difficult to distinguish from one another. However, their personalities and battle styles are all distinct and exceptionally nasty, making them a satisfying group of villains as a whole.
A Life Sent On
The narrative sets off at a rocketing pace and immediately goes into some dark places. There’s a sense of impending doom that overshadows much of the story. Even as the party attempts to free each nation’s Colonies from the Flame Clocks’ life-sapping shackles, they are constantly driven to the brink of despair. The choice of lighting hues, environmental effects, and UI colours feed into this sensation of lingering melancholy, backed up by the haunting piped notes of Noah and Mio’s instrumental elegies. This is in lovely, gentle contrast to the levity brought by mundane character interactions and the adrenaline of high-octane combat.
The only time the tone shifts into true misery is during a particularly frustrating sequence in the middle of the game, which coincides with the introduction of an incredibly irritating character. This section has you perform repetitive fetch quests with unsatisfying results, all the while being “treated” to constant barbs from this character whose voiced lines cut through every scene with an abrasively sharp Aussie accent. Following this slog is the longest, most angst-ridden cutscene in the game. Luckily, this gameplay segment only takes an hour or two to push through, but it is certainly a weak point in an otherwise well-paced narrative.
Despite its darker themes it’s striking just how well Xenoblade Chronicles 3 balances the tone of its storytelling, resisting the temptation to step into grimdark territory. Apart from the aforementioned gruelling midgame sequence there’s a delicacy to the way the narrative is told. The world is a brutal, messy place, but the characters are given time and space to reflect on both its pain and its beauty. There are so many moments of introspection between stretches of intense combat and exploration that serve to reinforce and contextualise the party’s motives. Particular attention is given to Mio’s relationships, with her impending Homecoming framing every conversation. These quieter moments add weight to the core conflicts with Moebius, where you’re given the sense that she’s holding absolutely nothing back. A superb performance from Mio’s voice actor Aimee-Ffion Edwards definitely helps in this regard – a particularly memorable moment is in her agonised delivery of the line “stop toying with our lives!” which gave me chills.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Xenoblade game without some weird horniness. While character designs are a little subtler than the bombastic beauties of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, there are certainly a few characters whose amiibo figurines would struggle to stand upright on their own, if you know what I mean. However, much of the “mature” content is surprisingly tasteful. There’s a bathhouse scene in the first hour that sets the tone for how the game deals with modesty: Keves and Agnus soldiers simply don’t have time for it.
As the characters learn more about the world, it’s refreshing to see them build relationships without the shame, embarrassment, or rigid adherence to gender roles we’ve seen in previous games. There are also some strongly queer-coded characters given depth and complexity, despite the lack of actual queer representation. The charisma and maturity of the cast is helped by some phenomenal voice acting. Veterans of the series will be pleased to know that you can expect the classic Xenoblade melange of accents in the cutscenes, with most actors providing excellent depth and charm to their characters.
Time to Fight!
The biggest update to combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is that all six party members take the field simultaneously, doubling the available characters from previous entries. This already changes the flow of battle dramatically, and the ability to switch character mid-fight increases your moment-to-moment options exponentially. Basic combat has you controlling your character’s movement in real time while they automatically attack the enemy. Arts will charge up as you attack or as time passes, which you can trigger with a button press. The party’s roles have a larger impact on how you play, with Defenders drawing enemy aggro, Healers providing buffs and party support, and Attackers stacking damage bonuses and debuffs on foes.
Your positioning on the field is important: some skills provide extra effects based on whether you’re beside or behind an enemy, while others create fields of effect that power up your character while they stand within them. The Break-Topple combo from previous titles returns, with additional combo routes: you can choose to Launch-Smash enemies for extra damage, or Daze-Burst them for item drops and to temporarily remove their Enraged-status bonuses. Most combo-related frustrations from the first two games have also been addressed. No longer can you trivialise difficult enemies by permanently Topple-locking them, nor will your AI companions maddeningly neglect their combo-inflicting abilities.
You’ll also have access to unlockable Classes, which determine each party member’s role and weapon type. These drastically alter how you play, with each Class providing unique strengths and weaknesses. You gain access to new Classes by completing Hero Quests, which add a seventh AI-controlled companion to your party. The depth and quality of each quest is generally excellent, occasionally granting access to entirely new Colonies and further side-stories. Once you’ve gained access to a Hero, their class is unlocked for the party member that featured most in their Hero Quest, with other party members gaining access through battling together over time. I really liked being able to swap out Heroes as needed – it provides a quick way to patch up holes in your party’s build, and the promise of unlockable classes means you always have some new goal to work towards. They’re also vital additions to the new Chain Attack system, which revolves around building up Tactical Points before unleashing damage-boosted combos on foes. It’s worth noting that if the number of options between Classes, Accessories, Arts, Skills, and Gems seems overwhelming, there’s a handy new auto-build function that does a pretty good job of equipping your party members in a single click.
“It’s incredibly satisfying to pummel enemies as a giant Ouroboros monstrosity…”
A core focus of the Xenoblade series is in exploring relationships within the main party, with the game mechanics reflecting bonds between the characters. The Affinity system of the original Xenoblade Chronicles allowed party members to share skills as they grew closer, with this system taken further in the Blade Affinity Charts of the second title. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 introduces the Interlink ability, allowing characters to fuse together into an extremely powerful Ouroboros form. Interlink partners can share emotions and memories while linked, and the relationships between members of Interlink pairs are a key focus of the main story. While the lore implications are significant, it’s the additional layer Interlinking adds to combat that makes this such a juicy feature.
Once unlocked, you can initiate an Interlink with a single button press, fusing together two of your characters and making you temporarily invincible. Each pair has a particular focus: Noah and Mio are strong attackers and great combo starters, Eunie and Taion can heal and buff the party, and Lanz and Sena deal massive damage and draw enemy aggro. The pairs grow stronger if you Interlink after using special Fusion Arts, adding extra effects on your attacks. There’s even a separate skill tree for each Ouroboros form allowing for a little customisation. It’s incredibly satisfying to pummel enemies as a giant Ouroboros monstrosity, and nailing the timing of initiating an Interlink can turn the tide of battle. Hitting the Interlink button with only a sliver of health remaining salvaged more than one otherwise hopeless boss encounter throughout my playthrough.
You Will Know Our Names
All of these interwoven systems come together in some of the most intense and epic battles in the series to date. What the Moebius bosses lack in visual distinction they make up for in unique battle styles, keeping you guessing as to what fresh horror you’ll be facing once you’ve whittled their health away enough to make them Enraged. While the default difficulty setting rarely provides much of a challenge in the main story, a few surprisingly tough Moebius battles sent me scurrying back through the menus to optimize my classes and accessories. These bosses are complemented by the usual Xenoblade cast of strangely named Unique Monsters, as well as the addition of tough Elite enemies that drop extra experience points and loot.
And, true to series tradition, there is of course an incredibly high-levelled gorilla in an early game area that will one-shot unsuspecting new players. Delightful. This isn’t to say that newcomers are mistreated, as the extensive tutorial system, steady drip-feed of combat mechanics, and sheer volume of customisable UI and gameplay settings allow players to set their own pace. There’s also no need to grind for levels, with quests dropping more than enough bonus experience points to keep pace with the main story.
It’s clear that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is pushing the Nintendo Switch to its absolute limit. Environments and character designs are simply gorgeous, as we’ve come to expect from Monolith Soft, with detail even extending to Mio’s twitching cat ears. Performance is smooth in docked mode, but you do notice occasional stuttering during busy battles in handheld mode, particularly when multiple party members have Interlinked. The resolution dip between docked and handheld is noticeable but much less dramatic than in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. There’s a day one patch addressing some of the lengthier loading times, which were honestly few and far between when considering the sheer scale of the overworld.
Taking into account numerous well-written side quests along the way, it took sixty hours to complete the main story of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 – however, I’ve already discovered new quests, storylines, and even entirely new areas in my few postgame hours. The wealth of content on offer will satisfy the appetite of any JRPG fan. There’s also an Expansion Pass available promising at least a year’s worth of new content into the future. Newcomers to the franchise needn’t have played previous games to enjoy this one, but the tasty tidbits of lore and callbacks to old adventures do make this a unique experience for veterans. Between its nuanced characters, expansive world, and refined combat, this is the slickest and most mature title in the series to date. I’ve relished my time with Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and I’m looking forward to dozens of further hours working my way through the superbosses and exploring the vast corners of Aionios.
- Nuanced, introspective narrative with excellent characters
- Deep and satisfying combat from beginning to end
- Stunning art direction that pushes the Switch to its limits
- Massive, detailed world bursting with content
- One of the weaker mid-game chapters kills the pace a little
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes the best elements from its predecessors and combines them into a uniquely compelling gameplay experience, all while telling a nuanced and captivating narrative of its own. Its beautiful and stylistic art direction lends a rare maturity to its visual presentation, while its heartfelt, melancholic story comes together in an epic, personal conclusion in spite of a couple of odd pacing decisions. Through a complex and refined reimagining of the Xenoblade combat system and top-notch worldbuilding, Monolith Soft have once again cemented their position at the forefront of the JRPG genre. Series veterans and newcomers alike are in for a deep, immersive narrative adventure with dozens of hours of engaging combat and satisfying exploration.