“Fight to live, and live to fight”. It’s an idea that you’ll be introduced to fairly early on in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but it’s one that carries on throughout. Set in the breathtaking world of Ainios, the nations of Keves and Agnus are locked in an eternal struggle, forced to harvest each other’s life to live. It’s not until a group of defectors from either side reluctantly join up to journey the world and confront the reason behind it all does this idea get questioned.
It’s an intimately personal story about the futility of war and what it means to live, but like its predecessors, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is still gargantuan as well. So much so that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 sits in a particularly fortunate position, able to cherry-pick the best parts of Chronicles 1 and 2, and leave what didn’t work so well behind. And for the most part, it does this extraordinarily well. The combination of Chronicles 1 and 2 plays a large role in determining Chronicles 3’s own DNA. The world of Aionios is literally a fusion of the worlds of Bionis and Alrest: the nation of Keves represents those who hail from the former, and Agnus those from the latter.
Despite this, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 manages to feel wholly unique. The combined DNA especially lets the world design stand out. World design has always been a strong suit of the Xenoblade franchise, but this instalment manages to take it a step further. By combining areas from past titles, it creates some extremely strong and inventive locales, like a vast desert overlooked by the ruins of a giant robotic hand, or a ruined city that’s collided with a lush and temperate rainforest.
It’s not just visually that the design excels, but practically as well. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 arguably has some of the best exploration so far. Not only are the areas larger and less segmented, but there’s consistently more to do while exploring Aionios. The landscape is dotted with containers to find and open, as well as soldiers that need to be sent off into the afterlife; they sound like menial tasks, but they also help to push you towards new areas.
Its strong artistic design and captivating, physics-defying structures also work to entice your sense of adventure, inviting you to explore over just one more peak. Unfortunately, the map system lets down the experience here just a bit. It’s not that it’s bad per se, but a slightly messy structure and overly large icons that can be difficult to read next to one another just make it a little more cumbersome than it has to be.
Another area that benefits heavily from a sense of combined DNA is the battle system. Combining the faster paced combat of 1 and the more tactical approach of 2, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 strikes a strong balance of being actively engaging and tactically rich. It might be complicated for first time players, but it’s a system that rewards you the more you invest.
Your party is split into three distinct classes — attackers, healers and defenders — with each obviously excelling at a different style of play. Standing still sees your character auto-attack which is the basis of combat. Although you can also employ stronger ‘arts’ which all often have secondary effects. Some will deal more damage if used from behind, some will heal allies, and others might place down fields which grant buffs.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s combined DNA bleeds in again, with characters from Keves’ arts charging up over time, à la Xenoblade Chronicles 1, and characters from Agnus’ arts charging as auto attacks connect, à la Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Eventually by performing “role actions” suited to your character’s class, you can charge up their “talent art”, an extra powerful ability that could help turn the tide of battle. There can be a lot to wrap your head around, but the battles become more and more dynamic as you become more confident. The early game can be a little heavy-handed with tutorials, but once you’ve settled into the groove of combat it feels more than worthwhile.
After a little while, you’ll unlock the ability to change your character’s classes around, and that’s when the combat system as a whole really opens up. Not only does it offer you more flexibility, it actively makes combat more engaging. Using a class more often and levelling them up unlocks specific “master arts”, abilities that you’re able to employ irrespective of your current class. Master arts can also be combined with your standard arts as “fusion arts”, allowing you to combine the effects of two moves at once.
Positioning has never been more important either. Placing yourself near a defender increases your defence, and attackers work best when attacking from behind. This is emphasised by a new dash move that lets you quickly orientate yourself around the battlefield.
Obviously, the biggest change is that your party is now a giant six members, instead of the previous three. Not only that, but you can switch between all six members at any point during combat. While it can be a bit cumbersome scrolling through each character individually, the freedom that the choice opens up more than makes up for it. The game also does a shockingly good job at making managing six active characters at once an easy task.
Almost every aspect of the battle system is multi-faceted in some way; no single aspect has only one use. It’s a complex assembly of systems within systems that feels incredibly satisfying to master. Fortunately, a few things make it easier this time around. Training drills let you relearn parts you might have struggled with, and a new icon tells you what side of an enemy you’re on at a glance.
This multi-faceted design extends beyond combat as well. There’s usually more than one incentive for getting anything done. Side quests don’t just reward you with experience points and loot, but they also build affinity with the different colonies throughout the world. Higher affinity doesn’t just reward you with more quests, but also with perks when adventuring as well. Not only does it make the experience more dynamic, but it also goes a long way to portray Aionios as a living world.
Given that we’re looking at a JRPG it’s pretty expected that the story will be the star of the show, and for the most part the narrative is exceptionally strong. On occasion it will fall into the usual trappings of the genre — namely overly-expository dialogue and excessive anime melodrama — but there’s an underlying charm in them that you come to appreciate with JRPGs.
It also helps that the main cast of characters is incredibly strong. There’s a consistent and believable chemistry between all their interactions and banter. Like in previous games, the party will chat amongst themselves during battle, but fortunately it shows much more restraint than before.
The crew is also more animated out of battle during exploration, commenting on different things they might find and marvelling over views you stumble across. Not only does it help flesh out the characters, but I also found myself discovering something new because I followed where one of my party members ran off to.
Unlike the previous two games, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 does a good job of making all of its main cast members feel equally important from start to finish. There’s obviously a greater focus on the two protagonists, Noah and Mio, but never does it feel like the other four get sidelined for their spotlight. Unfortunately, the narrative pacing can falter a tad throughout the 80 hours or so of the campaign, but the main cast is so strong it never felt like a chore. The abundance of side content also helps smooth things out, letting you make your own pace.
Even though it’s technically “side content,” it all feels incredibly purposeful and well designed. Much of the side content comes in the form of “hero quest”, which rewards you with new party members that occupy a special seventh spot in your posse. Each hero has their own unique class, and with a total of 17 throughout the game, it’s a testament to their design that they all feel distinct.
Returning systems from games past have also been considerably improved. Chief among these are the equippable gems. Instead of crafting multiple disposable gems, you now instead craft a single gem which remains in your inventory permanently. They can also be equipped by more than one character at a time, cutting out the process of having to continually craft the same items and excessively grind.
The game’s soundtrack is another expected highlight: not only are all the tracks well composed, but there’s a strong synergy between the contexts and where they play. Iterating on the series’ past there’s a large diversity in styles represented, from the heavier rock of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and 2, to the almost free-form jazz shown off in Torna: The Golden Country. The game also shows some restraint, and knows when things should feel less bombastic and more relaxed, letting the natural ambience take centre stage.
All this talk of combined DNA might dissuade new players, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is ultimately a self contained experience. There’s a few references and nods for returning players, but the game assumes no prior knowledge at all — at most, you might be concerned why some of the characters have wings coming out of their heads (I promise it makes sense).
Unfortunately, like other Switch games performance might be an issue if you’re more graphically concerned. I’ve always thought that the Xenoblade franchise made up for its lesser graphical fidelity with insanely strong environmental design, but it doesn’t change the fact that the game can still stutter from time to time in some more demanding areas. Fortunately, performance in handheld mode has seen a massive improvement, finally shaking off the blurry textures that plagued Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and 2’s portable experience.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 really is a big game. It’s not just the size of the world, but the scope of the game as a whole. It might not be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of the genre, or looking for something to lose yourself in, it’s a tour de force of JRPG design and more than worth your time.
Ethan reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles 3 using a Nintendo Switch copy purchased at retail.
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