Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review: Turning Things Around
Xenoblade has to be one of the more unexpected success stories in Nintendo’s history. It took a massive fan campaign to even get the original game released in the United States, which seems absurd when it already had an English translation but makes a bit more sense when you consider that it was part of a niche genre on a dying console. Apparently, it did well enough to convince Nintendo the series had a future because Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is now the fifth installment in the series to be released in the US in a little over ten years, and that’s not even accounting for the original being rereleased on both the 3DS and the Switch.
I’ve bought every game in the series shortly after release, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was the first time I did so with trepidation. While I loved the series’ start back on the Wii, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 lost me, and I feared it might be for good. There were certainly good things about it, but between combat that felt like it got too complex for its own good and a significant change in tone that felt like a step in the wrong direction, I had to wonder if Xenoblade was still for me.
I’m glad to say I had no reason to worry. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 fixes almost every issue I had with the second game while providing an experience RPG fans owe it to themselves to check out. It’s not only the best game in the series; it’s one of the best JRPGs I’ve played in years.
The Meaning Of War
Aionios is a planet at constant war. Factions known as the Agnians and Kevesi have been fighting for as long as anyone can remember, with death being all their soldiers know. The only way to survive is to kill, not only because your foes will kill you if you don’t get them first, but because these factions’ colonies each have what is known as a flame clock. Flame clocks are filled with energy from the death of opposing soldiers. If your clock runs out of energy, you die, so there’s no real chance at peace. It isn’t even something people consider. War and death are life.
Even if you survive the fighting, these soldiers don’t have long. On Aionios, soldiers only live ten years. They come into the world looking like pre-teens, and after only a few years, they’re sent to fight. Only the best soldiers survive the full ten years. Those that do are sent off with a special ceremony, but they don’t get a reprieve. Death still comes for them.
The closest thing we have to a main protagonist is Noah, who is closer to all the death than most, thanks to being an off-seer. Off-seers are soldiers with a special role. They play a song that gathers the energy of the dead, sending them on. He’s joined by his friends Lanz, Mwamba, and Eunie, who all help protect him in battle due to his important role, not that Noah doesn’t get in on the fight as well. They’re a group of special forces who are considered elite soldiers.
That all changes when a special operation that didn’t add up in the first place goes weird. Meeting up with a group of special forces from the opposing Agnian colony, their fight to the death is interrupted by an older man who has clearly lived more than ten years. The man tells both sides that they shouldn’t be fighting and that they aren’t each other’s true enemies. That people aren’t meant to live like this. Freeing them from their flame clocks and giving them some fantastic powers which I won’t spoil, he sets them on a path to join forces and change the very nature of the world.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 asks a lot of questions about existence, the meaning of life, and whether one should accept what they have or fight for a better future. While some of these questions aren’t fully answered, the path is always interesting, and your main six-member party, which is brought together early in the game, are all interesting characters going through their own unique struggles. Some may find certain twists melodramatic, but the story mostly worked for me, and I love how it finds a way to be a true follow-up to both of the earlier mainline games in the series while still establishing a clear identity all its own.
Starting Out Strong
Six-member parties aren’t common in RPGs, and that’s especially true in ones where combat happens in real-time, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 manages to pull off a highly satisfying system where combat never feels like too much is going on. Excellent pacing helps, as while there are a lot of mechanics here, they’re introduced slowly. For the first couple of hours, you’re only playing as Noah, but over time you’ll gain the ability to add additional moves you’ve mastered, switch between any of your six main characters, cancel from one attack into another, execute powerful chain attacks, and use a combination mechanic which grants even more power by bringing two of your characters together. Even after a couple of dozen hours, there are still mechanics introduced periodically, so get used to seeing tutorials pop up. After the first couple of hours, though, they’re rare enough that they never bothered me.
One of my favorite things about RPGs is adding to my party and growing my team, so a game that gives you all six of your main characters in the first couple of hours shouldn’t be the best fit for my needs. Xenoblade 3 still satisfied me, though, by adding a series of hero characters who join your party. In addition to your six main characters, you can pick one of these heroes to fight alongside you at any time. They’re AI-controlled, but many of them have excellent stories of their own, which make seeking them out worthwhile.
These characters are important beyond providing some extra relief in combat, though. Every character in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has a class, including your main party. As your party fight alongside each other and these heroes, they’ll learn more classes they can then switch to. These are a lot deeper than just having attackers and healers too. You can pick a healing class that’s focused entirely on healing, or one that’s trying to balance that with combat ability, or another that is more focused on providing buffs. The amount of customization this provides to your team is huge, and it allows you to really outfit your party just as you need it. While balancing different class types is encouraged by some of its other systems, you have the freedom to do what you want.
The world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is enormous, too, with a ton of areas to explore. While the main story is linear, you’re given many reasons to go back and explore the colonies you’ve passed. Find new heroes, take on new quests, and dig into aspects of the story only touched on in the main storyline. There’s an epic quality to all of this that really pulled me in. I tend to play my Switch in handheld mode far more often than not, enjoying the freedom to play wherever I want. This, however, is the first Switch game in years that made me want to play it primarily docked with my Pro Controller in hand. Oh, I did a bit of grinding here and there in handheld mode, but it’s a game that demands the larger screen. While the graphics may not hold up next to the current generation of consoles, they look great for a Switch game. Performance is much improved from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 as well. That game felt choppy to me frequently, but I rarely had issues here.
A Rough Finish
For the first 50 hours or so, I loved just about everything about Xenoblade Chronicles 3 but I’d be lying if I said it sticks the landing. Of the game’s seven chapters, I was very happy with the first six, but the final chapter is a bit of a mess. One of the first quests you’re given in it is the worst padding I’ve seen in a game since the Triforce Quest in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Nintendo seemingly hasn’t passed on the lessons they learned from that game to the team at Monolith Soft. The final dungeon is huge for little reason, dragging on far longer than any previous area in the game with not enough interesting moments to support it. Featuring some of the game’s least inspired art direction, I quickly grew tired of running through one long hallway after the next.
The ending’s not all bad. I found the conclusion to the story melancholy but satisfying, and some of my favorite story beats in the entire game happen in the final chapter. The game just drags too much between those moments. Even the story, which is the highlight of this section of the game, starts repeating itself with long cutscenes, which are mostly just saying the same things these same characters have already said. Padding is rarely a good idea, but it’s incredibly confusing in a game the size of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. There’s so much to do that no one would have even noticed if the final chapter was a few hours shorter.
While it doesn’t end as well as it starts, that doesn’t ultimately change how much I love Xenoblade Chronicles 3. With fantastic characters, deep combat, and an enormous world to explore, it was more than worth pushing through those final hours to see the ending to one of my favorite RPGs in years. Monolith Soft have the Xenoblade series back on the right path, and I can’t wait to see where they go next. I just hope next time they have the confidence to end their game when it’s ready to end.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Monolith Soft; Players: 1; Released: July 29th, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 3.