It’s absolutely wild to see the life that the Xeno RPG franchise has taken on since Square Enix sold off the rights to Xenogears so long ago. I’ll likely always lament that we never got more of that style, but I can’t fault Monolith for what they’ve done with Xenoblade. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is here and it’s every bit as compelling to me as the mecha martial arts I enjoyed in the olden days. While the story and cutscenes may get a bit longwinded at times, this is an incredible refinement of storytelling, exploration, and combat through a somewhat bleak, but also vast, beautiful, and imaginative world.
Xenoblade Chronicles is set in a stark sci-fi world in which two major forces, that of Keves and Agnus, wage a never-ending war on one another. Keves is more technologically centered where Agnus relies more on magical Ether in its war machine. However, both sides fight for a common, yet conflicting, goal. By slaying one another, each harvests its opponents’ life force to power Flame Clocks in towering machines that serve as colonies to soldiers of each side. Those soldiers are also artificially produced children who are born specifically to fight the other side. Their lives have a hard limit of ten years and if they don’t die in combat, they achieve the “honor” of a Homecoming in which they willingly give their lifeforce to their colony’s Flame Clock.
It is in this world that we play the main protagonist Noah and his friends. Noah is a soldier of Keves and Off-Seer whose duty is to play special music which sends the stifled spirits of fallen soldiers to the afterlife. Noah’s party fights on, never questioning the motive until a fateful battle guides them to a fight with three individuals from Agnus (Mio and her friends) over a power known as Ouroboros. When a greater threat arrives, the vessel containing Ouroboros’ power is activated and given to Noah, Mio, and their allies. They suddenly find themselves freed from the Flame Clocks of their prior colonies thanks to their new power, at the cost of becoming enemies of both nations. Faced with a chance to free themselves from endless battle and having a chance at a better life, they seek to take the power of Ouroboros and find the true reason behind the endless conflict.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s story is extremely dark, pitting child soldiers against each other, and eventually the forces behind the war. However, the joining of these two opposing sides in an unlikely alliance makes for quite a journey of slowly kindling friendship and camaraderie. The twists and turns of the story are also a fascinating rollercoaster of high and low emotion, and the adventure inside and outside of cutscenes is aided by a beautifully designed world and stellar soundtrack. The title music of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 alone is relaxing in its calm and mysterious piano composition, but in the more intense battles, the mix of rock and guitar into the orchestral arrangement makes for some incredibly dramatic scenes. The only part Xenoblade Chronicles 3 didn't hide well visually was some graphical flaws when the focus moves between foreground and background. It was there that I often saw some rough pixelated segments in whatever part was out of focus.
One other thing I found fault with in the presentation of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was how it split its time between telling the story and letting me play the game. Cutscenes are extremely long in this game. Some of them easily run from 30 minutes to nearly an hour. While they’re mostly important to the overall story, and I enjoyed the direction of the story, I sometimes found myself wondering when it would let me have control of the game again. It might not bother some folk, but I think a better balance between gameplay and cutscenes could have been achieved. Even so, it’s a story well worth keeping your eyes glued to as Noah, Mio, and their friends’ journey plays out.
Draw your blades
I wouldn’t have much of a problem with the cutscenes being so long in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 if it weren’t for the fact that the exploration, combat, and customization are really great and I wanted to get back to those aspects as often as possible. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 isn’t the kind of game where you have an overworld map. Instead, the world is divided into vast sections full of wild-roaming monster mobs (visible outside of combat), side quests, treasures, resources, and secrets. Each area presents a vast opportunity to explore and engage in combat to strengthen your party. Some areas have monsters far more powerful than you that are worth coming back for later. There are also challenging “unique” monsters that almost serve as mini-boss battles and reward you handsomely if you can overcome them.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is chock full of ways to make your characters stronger, too. It begins with party composition. Every character has a starting class and assigned role. Classes are divided into three main categories: Attackers, Defenders, and Support. Attackers focus on dealing damage and dishing out combos, Defender classes draw enemy attention and tank damage, and Support classes buff allies, debuff enemies, and heal the team.
However, there are also multiple classes in each of the three main categories with all sorts of capabilities. For instance, Noah’s Swordfighter class is big on combo attacks in which players can string skills together where Sena’s Ogre class uses a big hammer to lay down slow, staggering hits. There are more classes to discover, too, and characters can change roles, master them, and utilize the moves in other classes. Mastering classes and giving your party a wide assortment of skills and abilities to choose from is a key part of figuring out what compositions work best in battle for you. If that wasn’t enough, you can also buy accessories and craft Gems that supply unique stat boosts like extra damage, healing, or reduced aggro from enemies to further bring the best out of your classes.
That’s just the prep work and customization. In combat, there are plenty of other spectacular features to explore. Combo strings are where tactics, party composition, and even character positioning in combat shine. Your characters are equipped with an array of Art abilities in their classes that cause damage, but some have special properties depending on what direction you hit your opponent from and how another character might set a target up. For instance, Noah’s Swordfighter has a Side Sword Strike Art that if used against a target’s side will stagger them into Break state. Lanz can then use the Bull Rush Art to Topple foes, knocking them down, and Eunie can then use her Myopic Screen ability to Daze opponents and extend the knockdown duration. Sena can also use her Pressure Drop ability to launch opponents in a hilarious spinning airborne state where they can’t dodge and attacks do more damage. There are also skills that do more damage if an opponent is Toppled, Dazed, or Launched. Mastering combo pathing and timing is key to getting the most damage out of your party and defeating difficult enemies.
There are two even bigger spectacles to combat in the form of Interlink and the Chain Attack. Interlink allows two characters to fuse into a large mecha form full of strengthened attacks and abilities. Your combined characters don’t take damage in this state, but it takes their individual abilities out of the fight. Moreover, if you use Interlink too much, a heat meter will max out from your own attacks and incoming enemy damage to put the state on cooldown. In big boss fights or tough encounters, good use of Interlink is crucial.
Finally, Chain Attacks allow you to do an all-out attack with your whole team with leading attackers providing special boosts and debuffs. Lead an attack with Taion and you’ll lower enemy defenses for everyone’s attacks during the chain. Eunie’s lead Chain Attack reduces enemies' magic defense, Sena’s makes the attacks unblockable, etc. Choosing who leads the chain attack and when leads to some absolutely massive damage and the presentation of it all is just dramatic and fun to watch as well.
All of these pieces together make combat an incredibly deep and engaging system both inside and outside of battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 3. One of the few things that bothered me here was just how much the voice lines are repeated. I know that’s kind of a meme thing in Xenoblade at this point, but after about the 2000th time of hearing “Didja hear that, Noah? Lanz wants something meatier.” I was kind of fatigued by the sheer repetition. Even so, for the most part, combat and exploration were quite fun in this game and I always looked forward to each new area and the encounters I’d find there.
A life beyond battle
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 hit a lot of good beats for me. The struggle of Noah, Mio, and their friends was engaging pretty much right from the start, especially given their bitter rivalry and how they come to trust and rely on one another. Their fight to survive this inhospitable world and put an end to the war that has defined their lives makes for an emotional journey aided by a gorgeous soundtrack that had me crying out loud in joy for their victories. The deep and engaging combat, customization, and exploration alongside the excellent music and narrative are all sorts of delicious icing on this cake of an adventure. Whether you’re a newbie to Xenoblade games or have played through the prior games, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 might be one of the better JRPGs to have graced the Xeno franchise throughout its lengthy history.
This review is based on a digital Nintendo Switch copy supplied by the publisher. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 comes out on Nintendo Switch on July 29, 2022.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3
- A compelling, rich, and lengthy story
- Solid cast of playable and supporting characters
- Combat is both engaging and strategic
- Open regions are vast and fun to explore
- Soundtrack is excellent inside and outside of battle
- Class and Interlink provide deep party customization
- Some graphical flaws noticeable in camera focus
- Combat dialogue is overused
- Occasionally iffy balance between cutscenes and gameplay