Reviewing a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is, for me, a daunting task. Not because of its overwhelming playtime of 70+ hours but more so because of my dithering expectations of the game prior to its launch. My expectations were lofty as the first Xenoblade Chronicles sits comfortably in my top five JRPGS of all-time list, accompanied by such titles like Persona 4 Golden and Final Fantasy VI. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, though far from terrible, was simply a forgettable experience for me. Where I find myself often humming a tune from the first game’s excellent soundtrack, remembering one of its beautiful landscapes, or recalling a charming character moment, I fail to remember even the most grandiose of aspects from the second game. It would be heartbreaking for me to write many words if this game leaned closer to its predecessor than its original. Well, thankfully, that worry has been lifted. Many times over. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is magnificent, and may not only be the best in the series but, simply put, the greatest JRPG I have ever had the pleasure of playing.
In the world of Aionios two nations, Keves and Agnus, are at an endless war with one another. The game sets the somber tone immediately with Noah and his fellow comrades, Lanz and Eunie, walking through yet another bloody battlefield before Noah, Colony 9’s Off-Seer, takes out his flute and begins “sending” the fallen soldiers off. The little motes of life from each Kevesi and Agnian body begin dancing through the air and up towards the sky as the gentle melody from Noah carries them off. In this moment, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 instantly separates itself from its predecessors, letting you know that this is going to be a darker, heavier story. Though one would benefit from playing the previous titles, this story is confident in telling its own self-contained one while staying within the lore of Xenoblade. No matter how unique and robust the battle system or how polished the audio and visuals, the narrative is the core pillar of any JRPG worth playing. And this pillar is the foundation of what makes Xenoblade Chronicles 3 such a triumph.
Noah, Lanz, Eunie, Taion, Mio, and Sena are by far the best cast in the series, and one of the most memorable in recent memory. Though it takes some time for their characters to flourish, and their nuances and idiosyncrasies to come to light, it’s beautiful once they do. Many titles struggle with managing the writing for a cast as large as this, but Tetsuya Takahashi and his team of writers ensured that each character was written with care, and given their moments to shine. The cast feels, for the the lack of a better word, “balanced.” You won’t find the traditional archetypes of the JRPGs of yore here, and Taion is a great example of that. A black character (a scarcity in JRPGs in general) who isn’t stereotyped in the usual role we’ve seen before of darker-skinned characters, but rather one who’s nuanced and given actual care and attention. Though the primary characters are Noah and Mio, the rest of the cast each have something to say, something to add to their grim circumstances, or a joke to tell to add levity to an otherwise melancholic moment. ‘Melancholy’ is an apt description for so much of the narrative, all the way to the very end. Aionios, much like the worlds of previous Xenoblade games, is mesmerizing in its scope, and yet a feeling of sadness and stillness permeates throughout its landscapes. From walking along a cliffside and coming across the body of a fallen soldier, which prompts you to “send off” their soul and has either Noah or Mio play a shortened version of their melody, to overhearing NPCs talk about their colony’s lack of medical supplies, it all makes for feelings of being in a world that, though grand and beautiful, is oppressive and grim. These moments are also handled with a subtlety that is usually lacking in most other JRPGs, previous Xenoblade titles included.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 deals with an array of themes, the most overarching of them being the meaning of life itself and the right to live for a tomorrow of your own making. Aionios is not what it seems. The war is a façade, hiding the truth behind those actually in power as they thrive on the suffering of those fighting it. The revelations of the story as you play are a spectacle to behold, but those spectacles never come in the way of cheap shock, and are always supported with genuine moments of character introspection. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 allows itself to take time, not only in the slow unraveling of its mysteries, but in the quieter moments. Campsites are a common landmark throughout the game, acting as rest-spots as well as save points, and it’s during many of these scenes where some of the more gentle moments of quiet come through between characters. A look from Noah to Mio, or from Eunie to Taion as they sit beside the crackling fire-pit underneath the black of night is enough to tell more story than words could. In these moments I could tell the character’s fears, their curiosity of what may come the next day, and wondering what it means to be free. The freedom to choose to live for an unknown tomorrow. To accept that all must come to an end, but that a multitude of unique, surprising, and fulfilling paths exist for every being walking to that end.
Though writing is the most important factor in telling a compelling story, there are a number of elements that need to coalesce with the writing in order for the narrative to thrive, especially for a high-budget game like Xenoblade Chronicles 3. One such element are the cutscenes. This is where cinematography, voice acting, pacing, and clear direction are of utmost importance. Though the facial animations could have been a tad more expressive, there’s a fullness in the voice acting that’s leagues better than the previous games. There’s a weight to each shot, a clear direction with every scene, and the wonderfully composed and contextually appropriate soundtrack brings everything together. Each cutscene is impactful and full of emotion without ever feeling ham-fisted—a quirk that I’ve unfortunately grown desensitized to from other modern JRPGs. Furthermore, the action choreography is absolutely stunning. Whether it’s characters crossing blades, or colossal mechs battling over a crumbling colony, every action set-piece in this story was enthralling and served to propel the narrative forward, instead of simply for the sake of visual spectacle.
If narrative is the foundation of which a JRPG should work upon, then gameplay is the first structure that stems from that core pillar. The Xenoblade series has always had a unique combat system unlike any other JRPG I’ve played. It’s a twist on Final Fantasy VII’s Active Battle system, and a traditional action-RPG like Kingdom Hearts. The basics are carried over from past titles like the rhythm of stringing together combos, customizing character “Arts,” and equipping gems, however Xenoblade Chronicle 3 introduces a slew of new battle systems with the introduction of the power of “Ouroboros.” These powers, granted to the cast by a stranger, allows two members of the cast to fuse into one Godlike entity and unleash an array of attacks, buffs, and healing abilities. Even after 70 hours, I was finding new ways to combine the abilities of characters, trying out different classes, and playing as a class with a certain character I hadn’t done so before. This is a game that’s perfect for those, like myself, that grow weary of the repetition that is inherent within JRPGs. Though it takes a while for all of its mechanics to become accessible, and strategy can seem like an afterthought during the first dozen or so hours, everything comes together and you soon find yourself flinging through the menu tabs switching out arts, changing classes, and becoming a wizard in combat as you constantly shift between characters and whiz through art combos. The result is some of the most visual and tactile satisfaction I have ever felt with any game within this genre. And to have all of this at your disposal and still never feel that a certain mechanic or an ability is underdeveloped or unbalanced, and everything simply works the way you expect it to, is a programming marvel to say the least.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3, much like Final Fantasy VII Remake, allows you to switch characters mid-combat. The difference, however, is that the AI in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is actually adequate. The AI will heal at the proper times, inflict de-buffs on enemies and buffs on other party members, correctly continue the combo, and even fuse together into their Ouroboros form if they’re running low on health and see that the party healer hasn’t recharged their art ability. It’s refreshing and allows players to simply focus on what they want to do, instead of having to play babysitter. Lastly, another fun wrinkle in this game’s combat are the “Heroes.” These are unplayable characters you’ll be able to have join your party as the story progresses. There are over a dozen heroes to meet throughout the world, each with their own class and abilities. Most of them are characters you meet along your journey, but a little less than half are missable if you don’t take the time to explore the world, which you’d be remiss not to because not only are these characters beneficial for opening up the combat, but each of them have their own unique stories and side quests, all of which (at least from the one’s I’ve played) are quite well-written and worthwhile to deepen both your connection to the cast, and the world at large.
The gameplay is, however, not without its quirks. The Ouroboros forms themselves aren’t as satisfying to control compared to the regular cast members. As fun as they are to watch during the finale of every cinematic “Chain Attack,” they feel unnecessarily slow on the battlefield and their attacks never seem to have the heft you would expect. The economy and resources also felt a little overlooked. Money is quite abundant in the game, though you never feel the need to spend a penny on a common accessory from a Nopon merchant when you can find equal if not better accessories quite easily in combat. It’s usually an exciting moment in any JRPG when you come across a new merchant in a new part of the game, hoping to refresh the gear of your party, but unfortunately that sensation isn’t here as most of the offerings from Nopon merchants are quite underwhelming, and stay so throughout the game. Speaking of Nopon, the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 doesn’t allow you to play as one of your overly cute companions, Riku and Manana, in combat is an absolute tragedy that had me aghast and is easily the biggest slight I have against this game. This may seem like an over exaggeration, but any fan of the series knows how appalling this is. At least the both of them are constant members of the party and are adequately given their own story beats to shine, but not having them playable is a horrible omission to say the least.
You also receive Nopon coins from hidden containers and some rare monsters, though their use cases are fairly limited. You can use gold coins to upgrade gems, which are the most useful accessories in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, though finding gold coins is like finding…well, gold. So you might as well spend the time collecting the actual resources required to upgrade said gems. You can also have Manana cook food to apply time-limited buffs to your party. These dishes require ingredients you find in the world, however for reasons beyond my understanding, you can also cook dishes by using silver Nopon coins which are far easier to find, more so than the ingredients themselves which makes the need to collect ingredients moot.
Lastly, though so many of the boss battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 were memorable from a narrative standpoint, I did miss a variety in visual designs for many of them. The animals and monsters I found throughout the open world were more interesting from a visual standpoint than the bosses, all of whom were very similar to one another as they all existed within the same villainous organization. But I felt that, because they each had such unique personalities, having something to separate each one from a design aspect instead of just having them be variations of a purple hulk of a giant would have been welcome. Especially when so many of these fights include a second phase, which would have been a perfect opportunity to make some distinctive design choices that would stick with me as much as the characters themselves did. At least the final boss was a welcome change of pace both visually and mechanically, allowing for some truly haunting imagery coupled with abilities that were more than just heavy attacks that chopped off half the party’s health bars.
The Nintendo Switch is a little over five years old as of writing, and one of the biggest concerns since its launch has been its hardware limitations; making open world games rarely be able to run on the system efficiently without looking absolutely horrendous. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, though impressive visually, was justly criticized for its performance on the system, especially in handheld mode which ran at a measly 560p resolution while barely maintaining 30fps. Somehow, Monolith Soft have figured out how to not only have Xenoblade Chronicles 3 run at a consistent 720p in handheld mode, and edging near 1080p while docked, but do so while (for the most part) being locked at 30fps. All the while looking far better than the previous title with greater scope and an evolution of its already great art-style. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is gorgeous, and has clearly pushed the Switch to its absolute limit. Obviously, you can’t expect the high definition textures of other titles found on Xbox and Playstation, with all the ray-traced reflections, hair physics, and other bells and whistles, but neither should you be expecting that. The art-style for Xenoblade Chronicles 3 will hold up for years to come, and its open-world will be talked about as one of the most vast and beautiful to explore amongst any JRPG. From gritty desserts, to damp forests with abandoned colonies, to grassy plains, to an absolutely stunning open-sea with explorable islands; Monolith Soft have once again created another immense, bold, and beautiful open-world that for the first time not only looks beautiful, but tells a story within it that’s worth exploring.
The music in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is quite good. The Off-Seer flute melodies of Mio and Noah are wonderfully composed and aptly convey the emotional and melancholic hope that exists in both of them as characters. There’s also a very beautiful Eastern Asian tinge to every track where flutes are the primary instrument that I quite enjoyed. Though if I’m honest, aside from those tracks, I can’t say that there’s another piece of music that truly grasped me. That’s not to say that the music is bad by any means. The boss themes are operatic and epic. The subtle piano riffs during emotionally charged moments enhances those scenes ten-fold. It’s is a fairly consistent experience throughout, but nothing really “stuck.” The same, however, cannot be said about the sound design and sound mixing. Sounds of weapons are often muddied during combat, making it difficult to hear their impact on enemies. Folly during cutscenes, especially during fights but also in more smaller movements and shifts of characters, don’t sound as “full” as they should—or out right don’t exist. This causes for some disconnect as a player where you’re having to fill in those audio gaps. Though this doesn’t take away from the overall polish of the audiovisual design, it’s still worth mentioning.
“Do you think they found it? That something?” This was one of questions asked by party member, Sena, sometime midway through Xenoblade Chronicles 3. To find meaning in an existence that’s destined to end. To fight for the freedom to live and experience the many paths that life offers, and not be forced to choose only one. All with the hope to find a meaning, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 reminded me of why I love JRPGs as much as I do, and reignited my passion for the genre. It’s a game that doesn’t shy away from the quieter moments, or the darker topics, and tells its character-driven story confidently without relying on past titles with a gentle and hopeful melancholy that never fully leaves you, even after the credits end. The story exists within a world that is vast and gorgeous, that beckons you to explore every corner to find its more intricate details, while also allowing the narrative to cascade over it hauntingly as you slowly unravel its secrets while experiencing one of the most robust and endlessly customizable combat systems of any JRPG. There are very few games that make me feel the way Xenoblade Chronicles 3 did. It is, in every sense of the word, a complete video game.