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Review

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review

It’s cryin’ time!

The Xenoblade Chronicles franchise has quickly become a mainstay in Nintendo’s first-party published stable, and for good reason. When it comes to best-in-class worlds, storytelling and combat there are few other JRPG IPs doing it quite the same. While Xenoblade Chronicles 2 divided some fans of the original with some of its bolder ideas, the newest entry carries with it the hopes of a coming together of the best past ideas into something familiar but fresh. Good job that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 does exactly that, then.

It all starts on the world of Aionios, inhabited by the two distinct nations of Keves and Agnus and ruled on both sides by powerful and mysterious queens. Populating the two nations aren’t traditional human communities but semi-mobile colonies of purpose-built soldiers “born” at a matured age from their respective queens and immediately conscripted to war for the sake of their side and their colony. Governed by Flame Clocks that burn brighter with each enemy life taken, and which spell the end for any colony whose flame should die out, the people of Keves and Agnus spend their artificially-controlled life span of ten years (or “terms” in their vernacular) knowing nothing but battle.

Live to fight and fight to live is the norm, then, for the inhabitants of this world. That is, until six particular soldiers – three from each nation – meet under extraordinary circumstances and discover that the nature of their lot in life isn’t as clear-cut as they once thought. Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s narrative follows Noah, Eunie and Lanz of Keves and Mio, Sena and Taion of Agnus as they cross Aionios in search of answers to an increasing number of questions. I’m not going to even begin to hint at those answers here, either, because things naturally escalate significantly as soon as the journey starts in earnest.

What I can say is that throughout the 75+ hours it took me to roll credits having done the core path and most of the narrative-critical side content, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 had touched on a lot of fairly mature and often introspective subject matter, using the broad stroke backdrops of war and class to hone in on ideas of mortality, legacy and time anxiety. It’s all a lot more than I’m qualified or educated enough to deconstruct here but a lot of its messaging hit me surprisingly hard and I’m certainly keen to see what conversations arise after far more intelligent people have had enough time with the game, because there’s a lot to chew over here and it’s all told with a level of subtlety and trust in the player to understand its themes that I’ve missed since the golden era of JRPGs.

Thing is, a lot of what Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is “about” also shifts and changes over the course of the game, with Monolith Soft doing a great job of not only exploring different tones and themes with each act but also wholesale abandoning or introducing gameplay ideas to suit. There’s so much I’m not at liberty to say in this review (or would want to spoil), but no matter how much you might think you know about the game as of right now, there’s more to come. It’s also stacked with memorable, well-written and often entertaining characters throughout, including a parade of genuinely compelling antagonists. The payoff of the game’s ending is, in my opinion, worth every hour spent working towards it as well with a bittersweet and perfectly-pitched send-off.

The game’s preceding narrative thread of liberation manifests in its most prevalent moment-to-moment loop, one that sees players traverse the series’ staple massive, multi-region world not just to the journey’s hypothetical end point but to many of the human colonies along the way. One of the most critical things you’ll be doing in the front end of the story is freeing these settlements from the tyranny of their Flame Clocks. By destroying them, Noah and co. are able to remove the threat of an empty Flame Clock at the expense of introducing the threat of isolation. Cut off from their masters, a colony is at the mercy of nature and an enemy of the state and so the party must rise to the results of their noble actions.

What that means for players is that looking after the needs of colonies on Aionios is a major component of both the narrative cause as well as the core gameplay rhythm. While many new colony visits and liberations fall into the game’s run of primary quests, the discovery of some and upkeep of nearly all fall largely to optional side quests and discoveries in their respective regions. One of my favourite things about Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is how it weaves together all the different levels of quests, world collectibles and NPC interactions in natural ways so that you rarely feel like you’re chasing map markers or checking off lists – spend enough time talking or listening in colonies and checking in from time to time and you’ll organically turn up new things to do or see. Then, the more you do and the better your affinity with a colony the more passive benefits you’ll earn like better enemy looting and even faster walking.

Even without the ever-dangling carrot of new loot, levels and looks, there’s a simple joy in just exploring the game’s many, vast and awe-inspiring environments. It should come as no surprise that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a feast for the senses given its pedigree, but somehow Monolith Soft has managed to dial everything up another notch on Nintendo’s meagre little system. Not only is everything still impossibly big and brimming with art but the team has managed to find a very happy medium between the more subdued art style of the first game and the cel-shaded fanart fodder of XC2. Character design and animation is fantastic across the board, and especially impressive in the main cast who can each wear some 25 different class outfits and have their own unique Ouroboros form designs.

Cutscenes as well (especially any of the multiple, lengthy fight sequences throughout) are stunning to behold and feel like bigger-budget productions than a lot of games on mode ‘modern’ platforms. That impression is no doubt helped along by the game’s downright stellar writing, both in its script that nails dramatic, silly, sombre and sobering in equal measure and in the hours of incidental and contextual dialogue (my kingdom to switch off the repetitive in-menu and post-battle cries, though). And yes, the voice acting is made up of a similar mix of mostly British English dialects and odd terrible Aussie accent as its forebears and while it still makes for some silly moments with its more imposing characters, performances throughout are strong.

Naturally, music plays a huge role too, not least because the game’s score is exemplary from its rousing encounter themes and enchanting aural backdrops as you explore its world and gorgeous tear-jerkers. There are plenty of huge and bombastic, operatic scores to its biggest battles alongside the requisite rock opera romps, but like the earlier games it’ll be especially memorable for the more sombre and gentle themes it offers up in its quietest moments. The flute plays a starring role both in the soundtrack and the game’s narrative, standing in as the instrument of choice in the ritual Final Fantasy X sending-style sequences that Noah and Mio are responsible for, which lends every subsequent flute part in cutscenes an extra emotional edge.

Like much of the game’s structure and aesthetic, Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s combat borrows elements borrow liberally from the first two games to create something both immediately recognisable and arguably superior. You’ll still engage enemy soldiers/monsters/hulking anime mecha in a pseudo-MMO manner with your characters all auto-attacking while you wait for your slotted special skills (or Arts) to recharge, ready to skilfully deploy at the right time. Interestingly, which nation each of your party members hails from determines whether their Arts recharge like those in the first or second game – unpack that how you will.

Some big emphases in this iteration of Chronicles’ combat are controlling enemy aggro, deploying area-of-effect buffs on the field, skilfully cancelling Arts in sequence and fusing your characters’ primary Arts with a second palette of those inherited from other classes. It makes for quite a few plates to spin in the heat of things, but through some masterfully-designed HUD and in-game UI elements it’s shockingly easy to keep track of everything you need to play effectively. Anyone who had qualms with the second game’s combo system resulting in a lot of waiting around for Arts to recharge will be glad to know that, while those systems remain, everything moves pretty quickly and those waits are augmented by your character, class and any on-field buffs, so it’s constantly changing.

The game also offers two new killer plays to truly tip the scales in your favour; Interlinking and the latest iteration of Chain Attacks. Interlinking refers to your core party members’ newfound status as Orobouros and their ability to fuse as set pairs into a huge, mecha-like form. The great thing about Interlinking, besides looking anime as hell, is that it’s not an instant-win button. Your Interlinked forms are technically invincible, but they’ll heat up as you use Arts and need to cool down after a short while. Using them also means taking two potentially crucial components of your overall party strategy off the board, so they work best as a saving throw for pairs on the brink of death or even better as a gateway to even more devastatingly powerful Chain Attacks.

On the subject of saving throws, the newest take on Chain Attacks pauses the action and allows you to pick from hard-hitting special attacks from one of your three characters, which you then charge up by picking from a succession of your other characters’ regular Arts to fill (and hopefully overfill) a metre. There’s a ton of nuance to it and ways to truly maximise the effectiveness of each round, add more rounds, and even let off huge Interlinked attacks, more than it pays to explain without just learning its intricacies first-hand. Like Interlinking though, it’s especially useful for finishing off a tough enemy or giving your party some breathing room to fire off a few field buffs and healing arts while also taking some extra swings. Chain Attacks recharge regularly enough that you’ll get a chance to use at least one during everything but a basic mob fight, as well.

These systems all build nicely into a superpowered crescendo during especially tough boss battles, where you’ll typically work from smart Arts chaining while managing your team’s survivability, to then souping yourselves up by Interlinking and then finally laying waste with a perfectly-appointed Chain. It’s satisfying as hell to be on the brink of death only to have everyone transform into big, beautiful, badass ‘bots and go balls-to-the-wall.

Your party of the game’s six protagonists doesn’t represent the entirety of your playable combatants either. Through most of the game you’ll also have a seventh member tag along, that extra slot filled by one of its nineteen Heroes, which are a mix of story-critical and optionally met characters that can be recruited after finishing their respective questlines. Each comes with their own unique class that fits into the three-way paradigm, expanding your six main characters’ options beyond their starting classes as you collect new friends. The metagame of maxing out particular classes in order to further flesh out your core party’s builds and open up new strategic options is fiendishly addictive, and further cements Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s combat as being both friendly and remarkably flexible.

What this all amounts to is a game that, like its predecessors, feels absolutely larger-than-life and packed to the rafters with compelling systems that can go as deep as you want them to, with some exceptions. I do have some minor gripes with the game, though they’re few, and mostly expected. For a game so stuffed with RPG mechanics it’s not surprising that a few of them feel undercooked or get left behind early on (notwithstanding the ones that change for story reasons). Things like the pseudo-Wanted metre that’s supposed to determine how many human enemies come after you in the open world, which I’d forgotten existed until it was brought up later on in the story. The game’s economy is also next-to-non-existent, with a paltry few items to buy at random Nopon stores but more cash flow than an inner-suburbs landlord.

And as much as I’ve heaped praise on its visuals, there’s no skirting around the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is absolutely stretching the Switch to its limits. It performs shockingly well, mind. You can be locked in combat with gigantic and striking creatures while UI elements and flashy character animations dart around the screen and your teammates transform into intricately-designed 10-foot robots and somehow the Switch hardware manages to keep up, but when it needs to the dynamic resolution scaling kicks in hard, especially undocked where I occasionally had to check I hadn’t forgotten to wear my glasses. It’s definitely a huge improvement over the second game, but if you can help playing through the majority of the game on a TV – please do.

The game’s final hours are also unashamedly typical of the genre, which is to say they involve a world-spanning fetch quest followed by a slog through a wholly uninteresting dungeon and multi-stage boss battles broken up with lengthy monologuing. It’s the kind of stuff that’s part and parcel with the series (and genre, really) so it’ll either delight or disappoint you to know that it’s here in full force.

Final Thoughts

While it’s not going to change the minds of anyone who’s not gelled with the series to date, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 manages to amalgamate and streamline what’s come before while still revelling in glorious excess. A tightly-bound and intoxicating bundle of systems informs a gorgeous open world that’s surely running the ageing Switch hardware ragged but shows few signs of it. One or two loose gameplay threads aside, Monolith Soft has delivered yet another impossibly-rich JRPG tapestry on which to weave the series’ best narrative yet.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher

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Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review
I Hardly Noah
It's not perfect, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a confident sequel that's best-in-class in the ways that matter most. Your favourite bits of the first two games are here, cherry-picked and placed into a narrative with a tasteful balance of earnest ideas and anime bullshit.
The Good
Huge, nuanced story with genuinely great antagonists
Scores of well-rounded and likeable characters
Best iteration of the series' combat to date
Looks phenomenal despite the limitations of the Switch
Another stellar soundtrack
The Bad
Some superfluous systems
Final hours are kind of a slog
9
Bloody Ripper
  • Monolith Soft
  • Nintendo
  • Switch
  • July 29, 2022

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review
I Hardly Noah
It's not perfect, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a confident sequel that's best-in-class in the ways that matter most. Your favourite bits of the first two games are here, cherry-picked and placed into a narrative with a tasteful balance of earnest ideas and anime bullshit.
The Good
Huge, nuanced story with genuinely great antagonists
Scores of well-rounded and likeable characters
Best iteration of the series' combat to date
Looks phenomenal despite the limitations of the Switch
Another stellar soundtrack
The Bad
Some superfluous systems
Final hours are kind of a slog
9
Bloody Ripper
Written By

Kieron's been gaming ever since he could first speak the words "Blast Processing" and hasn't lost his love for platformers and JRPGs since. A connoisseur of avant-garde indie experiences and underground cult classics, Kieron is a devout worshipper at the churches of Double Fine and Annapurna Interactive, to drop just a couple of names.

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