Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review
For close to a decade now, the Xenoblade series has been somewhat of a warm jumper for me. It’s a series of wonder, of hope, of bright futures and fighting for what’s right. In some ways, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the same. In other ways, it’s a heart wrenching departure for the series, an entry that, for the first time, isn’t afraid to tackle serious topics with the seriousness and gravity they deserve. If Xenoblade is a warm jumper, then Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is all-too-willing to pull at threads I was absolutely not prepared to have pulled. That’s a good thing, and it’s part of why I love it so damn much.
Our story starts in the midst of a battle. In the land of Aionios, two nations – Keves and Agnus – are at war. They’ve always been at war, it’s all anyone ever knows, from the moment they’re born to the moment they die. Their inhabitants live for just ten years, born at roughly the mental and physical age of about 15, and most die before they hit their tenth year of existence. From the moment they’re brought into the world, Kevesians and Agnians will train, fight, and die to keep their colonies alive, to extinguish the flame of the enemy, to kill and be killed. It’s a bleak affair, a dark, bloodstained backdrop for a grounded, down-to-earth story that doesn’t pull its punches when the going gets tough.
The first half of our heroes hail from the nation of Keves. Noah, Eunie, Lanz. They’re just about at the end of their ninth year, having survived so long and killed so many, they have little time left to kill and fight for their chance to leave their legacy. It’s not long before we meet the second half of our heroes, soldiers from the nation of Agnus. Mio, Sena, Taion. They might be from different nations, notionally a world apart, but their lives, their goals, their purpose is the same. Live to kill, kill to keep living. When they meet, naturally, they fight. It’s all they know — you see someone from the other nation, and you have to kill them and take their flame.
In that fateful meeting, they meet Guernica Vandham, a resident from somewhere called “the City”, whose wisdom is matched by his aged appearance. Kevesians and Agnians, our heroes, they don’t really see old people. They live for 10 years and die at the physical age of about 25. It’s a big deal. Vandham heralds a new age of understanding for these six fledgling heroes, of questioning why the world is the way it is, why the only option is to kill or be killed. A horrific beast called a Moebius attacks, and our heroes are simply no match for it. Vandham, injured and dying, sees the hope of the world resting on our heroes’ shoulders, and in a last-ditch effort activates an Ourobouros stone, intertwining our heroes with their other-nation counterparts for the rest of their short lives, freeing them from the shackles of Flame Clocks – and thus, the constant cycle of death – and making them enemies of the world at large by granting them tremendous power. “Head to the city” are Vandham’s dying words where, he promises, the path to ending this death and destruction will be revealed.
Death is at the very core of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Much of its story is about the people who’ve died, the people who will die, and the legacy they’ll leave behind. Mio only has about three months left, and that’s barely enough time to get to the City, let alone change the world. The legacy she wants to leave on the world is one of hope and peace, but death waits for no resident of Aionios, and there’s a very real and present chance that she simply won’t survive long enough to see change. Every one of the characters in this game has seen more death than any person should in their life, much of which committed by their own two hands. They’re acutely aware at all times that their lives are dispensable, that their choices are to kill or be killed, and that there’s no way out of this horrific cycle. For many, that’s okay — they like to fight, they like to kill, so going out in battle is no big deal, it’s just a part of life. Others, however, want nothing more than to be free of the cycle, to live happy, peaceful lives, free from war and destruction.
With that backdrop of death always looming, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness in tone that’s ever-present in Xenoblade 3. At one point, a character even suggests that, for a lot of people, living in an unjust system with no escape means that the only way forward is suicide. It’s a heavy air of distinctly mature theming, but it’s handled with a grace and sensitivity that you wouldn’t expect from a Xenoblade game, nor any Nintendo game for that matter. Part of that comes down to its utterly stellar characterisation, which is the shining point of pride for this game. Its characters are all believable, well-written, nuanced, and surprisingly down-to-earth for a game that features cat and bird people fighting alongside people with their hair on fire. And the way they’re transformed by their past, their present, and their future is expertly woven into every fabric of their being. It takes a little while to get going, but it’s easy to get attached to these characters, and I found myself getting very excited when my favourites got a win, or sobbing when things didn’t go their way.
It’s a story that hits close to home for me, too. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve struggled with the concept of death, both in myself and in my loved ones. I’ve suffered from depression, I’ve found myself looking for the light at the end of the tunnel and seeing only darkness. And despite moments of hope scattered throughout, the spectre of death has weighed heavy on my heart for much of my life. I’ve often wondered what mark I’ll leave on the world, what legacy will be borne from my existence. Xenoblade 3 doesn’t shy away from exploring these concepts, and it doesn’t pull its punches when delivering the verdict that, for many, there are no happy endings. Its depiction of anxiety and depression, while more implicit than explicit for much of the game’s runtime, is surprisingly nuanced and careful, in a way I never could have anticipated. I’d urge anyone playing to keep a close eye on Sena and Lanz, as personally I think they’re expertly-written hidden gems in an experience that’s focused largely on Mio and Noah as its leads.
I should point out, too, that it’s not all doom and gloom. While the first half or so of the game leans heavily on the darkness inherent in the world, there are glimmers of hope mixed in with the rivers of anguish, and the back half of the game compounds on this greatly. There’s a particular moment, halfway through, where our heroes get to see something other than death, other than killing and fighting, for the very first times in their lives. It’s a genuinely uplifting moment, and it makes it all that much easier to find a way forward, perfectly illustrating the future that they’re all fighting for. For every moment of the contemplation of death, of leaving your mark on the world or running out of time before you do, there’s an equally poignant moment exploring the joy and purity of life, like the flipside of a coin showing that these moments, these experiences, are linked in complex ways that will absolutely make you contemplate your own existence in the world. There are silly moments, too, that will remind you a little bit of the absurdity of Xenoblade 2, but they serve as fantastic little moments of escape from the often-overwhelming nature of the story.
It’s worth comparing this game to the first two games, too, in part because it takes a lot from both, and in part because it’s simultaneously nothing at all like them. I’d say that Xenoblade 3 is closer in tone to Xenoblade 1 than Xenoblade 2, which suffered a bit from a very tropey, anime-inspired silliness, but in truth it’s really very little like either game. It’s its own thing, different and distinct, while remaining familiar and homely. A warm jumper, to be sure, but one that’s not quite warm enough on an early winter morning. As a fan of the first two games, I had high expectations for this, but it not only surpassed those expectations, but subverted those expectations at every opportunity. In the third game in a series (fourth if you count X, which… yeah okay), that’s a very good thing — more of the same would be more than welcome, but something fresh, something new, it’s an absolute treat.
Look at me, I’ve written 1500 words so far and I’ve yet to talk about the gameplay. Let’s rectify that. There’s nothing in Xenoblade 3 that hasn’t, in some way, been present in previous games. The systems are refined, improved, perfected in every way, and while I have minor gripes here and there, I still think that there’s absolutely no better game to actually play in the series than this one. Exploration is exactly what you’d expect, open and expansive in a world that’s larger than it needs to be but manages not to feel like it’s wasting space. Actual moment-to-moment combat is a familiar refinement of both Xenoblade 1 and 2’s systems, with some simplification in some aspects and additions in others. I’ve described it in the past as “single-player MMO”-style combat, and while I stand by that, it feels like, finally, it’s coming into its own. In the future, I hope to describe another game’s combat as “Xenoblade-style”, because it’s very good, and very satisfying.
Instead of going over those refinements, however, I’d instead like to talk about what sets apart Xenoblade 3’s combat and gameplay systems apart from its predecessors. There’s more detail in my preview of the game, which you can read here, but the basic gist of it is that there are two main differentiating factors that set Xenoblade 3 apart: classes, and interlinks. Classes are about what you’d expect, offering new ways to fight, new weapons to use, and new synergies to discover and obsess over for weeks on end. You could, rightly, compare them to Xenoblade 2’s blade types, which often changed how you attacked and what your role was in battle, but it’s simplified in some aspects and offers much more depth in others. Choosing from a host of classes for each of your six party members can feel daunting, and trying to find the right balance between attackers, healers, and defenders can be a frustrating effort of trial and error at times, but once something clicks it all feels incredibly satisfying. I found a class to my liking quite early on, as I primarily played as Noah throughout most of the game, but other characters didn’t always synergise well with that class, leading to me to try more and more classes as I progressed through the game. Eventually, it all fell into place just right, and I was shredding through Aionios without a care in the world. Some might not be patient enough to get to that place, but I promise it’s worth trying to stick through to get there.
Interlinks are, frankly, a much less interesting system, but they’re another tool on your belt to really make the most of battles. Use enough arts in a battle, and you’ll get the chance to merge two of your characters and become an Ouroboros. Ouroboros are effectively invincible, do stacks of damage, and are pretty much always a good choice in difficult battles. Depending on the characters used (though it’s worth noting that each character can only merge with a specific other character), the Ouroboros formed can heal, buff, or just go all out on attack, so there is some level of strategy available here, but for the most part it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card that can both get you out of some sticky situations and also speed up some of the more tedious boss fights. Still, despite its simplicity, interlinking and all the other combat systems play well with each other, each adding another layer of depth to combat and largely preventing it from ever becoming boring — though an auto-battle system is present, and for lower-level material grinding, this does come in very handy.
Speaking of grinding, however, it’s worth noting that the quest system is very good at keeping you at a reasonable level for the story progression. The game expects you’ll spend a decent chunk of time doing side quests, and when you throw Hero quests in – which unlock new heroes and thus new classes for your main crew, along with a seventh, unplayable party member for support – there’s absolutely plenty to do in the world of Aionios, and a lot of it is great. I spent the game flicking between easy and normal difficulties, depending on how much time I had to play on any given day, and rarely found myself either whooping enemies mindlessly or struggling massively to defeat anything. It’s well-balanced, and the returning bonus experience system also lets you tailor the difficulty further to your desires.
What’s not so great is the fetch quests. Now, granted, there aren’t quite as many fetch quests as there were in previous games, so that’s a good step forward. But the quests that are here are as tedious and frustrating as ever, often popping up right in the middle of a side quest or Hero quest that I was enjoying. In a lot of cases, the game straight up told me where to go and what to kill to get some of the required materials. In just as many, it didn’t, and without any access to online guides or any sort of in-game feature showing how to get previously obtained materials, I had no choice but to drop those quests altogether and hope I happened across the required things later. It’s an RPG, so I get it, fetch quests are the bread and butter of these kinds of games, but it would’ve been nice to see a little more thought go into them. Thankfully, most quests are not fetch quests, so there’s more than enough to do outside of those specific frustrating moments.
I also want to mention that the visual presentation can sometimes be what some would call a bit lacking. Yes, there are times where it looks fuzzy and pixelated, and yes, there are times where that occasionally looks a bit bad. But honestly, it’s a huge step up from Xenoblade 2, and no matter how low the resolution got in handheld or in docked modes, it was always still beautiful. The visual design of the world and its characters is utterly fantastic, and it makes any visual presentation drawbacks borne from the Switch’s hardware a complete non-issue for me. Others might have different opinions, and that’s fine, but I loved every single moment of my time with Xenoblade 3, taking in the scenery, sobbing through cutscenes, taking on the strongest beasts in Aionios. Throw in an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack that goes toe-to-toe with previous entries, and cutscene direction that goes above and beyond more often than not, and there’s really very little to complain about in terms of presentation.
There’s no such thing as a perfect video game, but for me, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 comes as close to perfect as you can get. It’s a thoughtful, charming, sombre experience, punctuated by expertly-crafted moments of joy and wonder that come together to leave a lasting impression that sticks with you long after you put down the controller. I don’t know what the future holds for the Xenoblade series, but I do know that, with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, it’s leaving a wonderful legacy in gaming.
+ Incredible storytelling and characterisation
+ Great additions and improvements to combat and exploration
+ Made me sob like a baby
- Fetch quests can be very frustrating
- Visuals can get a bit fuzzy
- Not enough Nopons