The world of Aionios is bleak. After letting us adventure across the long-dormant corpses of fallen titans and whisking us away on a fantastical journey across an endless sea of clouds, Monolith Soft has struck a completely different tone with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Here, the grim reality that you are met with is a never-ending conflict between Keves and Agnus – opposing martial nations whose soldiers fight in order to live while living solely to fight.
Locked in an endless struggle, a Kevesi or Agnian soldier’s lifespan is limited to ten years – each year referred to as a term – in which they must continuously fight. Most sadly lose their lives on the battlefield before their time is up, their remaining terms feeding the Flame Clock of their enemy’s Ferronis – towering mobile bases that are capable of unleashing their own devastation – and their drained bodies immediately reduced to become harrowing husks. Those that, by some small miracle, survive to reach the end of their tenth term receive what is seen as the greatest honour – to be commemorated in a special service, called the Homecoming, in front of their Queen.
Unknowlingly sent on a covert mission during which they have a fateful encounter with each other’s undercover squad, the time has come for six soldiers from the rival factions – Keves’ Noah, Lanz and Eunie and Agnus’ Mio, Taion and Sena – to set aside their distrust for one another and defy their fate, in an effort to break the never-ending cycle of violence that binds their homelands and expose those who are responsible for it.
Nintendo Switch has offered the perfect way to experience Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna – The Golden Country, presenting the chance to wander gargantuan worlds both at home and on the go. I was inevitably excited for Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but, to be honest, I had also felt apprehensive about how I would find it and whether I was mentally ready to endure another sprawling JRPG this year. There was more enough shown that impressed in the Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Direct, but I feared that from what I had seen I was failing to feel the same connection with the game’s premise and the party characters compared to the unforgettable adventures that Monolith Soft has treated us to before. I’m pleased to say that I couldn’t have been more wrong to have had such doubts.
After spending over 170 hours exploring Aionios with more still left to uncover, I haven’t felt this emotionally invested in a game for quite some time. Nintendo has readily pitched Xenoblade Chronicles 3 as “a heartfelt RPG adventure,” and, as whimsical a marketing line as it is, I find it hard to disagree with such a bitesize snippet. That’s because the game’s greatest triumph can be found within its character-building, the developer so effortlessly weaving together the personalities, motivations and even the flaws of its six lead protagonists to produce an irrepressible and resounding emotional core that the rest of the experience is commendably wrapped around.
It seems rarer these days to truly feel a connection with a game, but it wasn’t long before I cared about each character and the situations that they had to deal with. The dialogue is exceptionally written and emotively delivered by their respective voice actors, and the storyline’s exploration of their relationships unwaveringly meaningful throughout. In part, that’s because the Heart-to-Heart interactions from earlier games – easily missed due to their often obscure unlock requirements – have been integrated into campfire discussions and optional side quests. Therefore, such moments are made much more accessible this time around meaning that there’s a broader chance to see the bonds between each character continue to develop during the entirety of their journey.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 doesn’t shy away from handling mature topics either, which isn’t a particular surprise given the game’s darker premise. It’s also a reason why the experience resonated so strongly with me. Loss is an emotion that I have struggled to deal with throughout my life, as much as feeling the need to make the most of the time that I have. Both of these are key themes that the game explores and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried on multiple occasions during its many pivotal, heart-wrenching cutscenes.
That largely came from Noah and Mio’s role as off-seers for their colonies, responsible for sending the souls of their former comrades peacefully into the afterlife. Against the soothing melodies played on their flutes, these offer frequent moments of reflection as the golden glimmers of their fallen souls illuminate the darkened sky – something that had soon reminded me of Yuna guiding the spirits of the dead to the Farplane in Final Fantasy X. I had a lip wobble at that too, back in the day. It is the cinematic spectacle to the game’s memorable cutscenes that elevates these heartfelt moments just as much as the jaw-dropping action sequences, comfortably achieving a high-point for what Monolith Soft has accomplished with the series so far.
There’s so much more that I would like to say about the twists and turns that the game’s plot takes, but it’s always best to reel in shock at them for yourself and I’d hate to end up wrongly colouring your expectations somehow. Nintendo has stated that the game would connect “the futures of the two previous mainline Xenoblade Chronicles games,” and know that it certainly delivers on that promise while leaving enough room to potentially expand upon some unanswered questions through the story content that is planned for the Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Expansion Pass.
Away from its storytelling, the gameplay that underpins Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels like a culmination of lessons that have been learned from what has come before. That means that things that haven’t quite worked or were overcomplicated are out – I was glad to find that Field Skills from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 were gone, as I’m sure others will be too – and what we’re left with is much more accessible but unconstrained.
I was certainly somewhat alarmed when I first saw in-game battle screenshots early on, but, in motion, such encounters are easy to understand and actively participate in. You have six controllable characters in your party that you can freely switch between mid-battle, and a seventh Hero character that can support you. There are three main roles that your party’s chosen Classes can fall under – Attackers (Red), Healers (Green) and Defenders (Blue) – and the Hero characters that you recruit as you progress further in the storyline will broaden your breadth of choice over time.
There’s much that will remain familiar to returning fans of the series, whether that be Auto-Attack and Arts to building Aggro and performing an Art Combo such as Break, Topple, Daze and Burst to purge an enemy’s rage status. However, there are also new changes to consider such as your party’s chosen Classes, which necessitates that there is a reasonable balance to your choices – I’d say two Attackers, two Healers and two Defenders will end up being the standard approach for most players. It’s also worth mentioning that only the Healer class is able to revive incapacitated allies, which caused me some mild panic early on in the game.
The Class system is excellent though, offering tremendous depth to experiment with different combinations to see what works best for your style of approach. Each feels distinct from one another – Taion’s starter Class with his command over paper crane-like drones a clear favourite – and the ability to freely switch characters allows you to easily get a feel for how each plays.
It is in the lengthier battles that the combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 comes alive, more strategic-thinking being required to overcome the game’s many boss encounters and higher-level unique monsters. This is where your party’s newfound Ouroboros powers come into their own. This was another concept that I hadn’t been sold on, but soon proves to be invaluable in tougher encounters. Each pair of characters can Interlink to become their Ouroboros form, performing potent Arts before needing to disengage to prevent the ability overheating. While that’s cooling down, you can look to continue to build the relevant gauge to perform a devastating Chain Attack. This isn’t new to the game but the approach is much simpler than what’s come before – no longer requiring you to perform specific actions to burst elemental orbs, but instead powering up character orders with your attacks. If I can easily get my head around it, I’m sure you can too.
Monolith Soft continue to excel at world-building as much as its character development this time around, and when you aren’t fleeing from high-level monsters that you’ve unwillingly attracted the attention of there are Secret Spots to discover that offer the breathtaking vistas that you have come to expect. There’s more than enough to keep you busy, too, with Hero Quests to set out on – unlocking access to higher Class Levels – Standard Quests and exchanging the materials that you have gathered to complete Collectopaedia Card requests.
There are a lot of Standard Quests that you can offer to help with, and, while completely optional, I did start to feel burnt out by them. More often than not they are enjoyable – ranging from searching for characters that have gone missing or a game-long mission to give every Nopon merchant a friendly wave to eliminating monsters that have become a nuisance – but there inevitably a few duds thrown into the mix that could easily have been cut given the sheer number that there are.
Having now learned how to extract the best performance from the ageing Nintendo Switch hardware, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 easily ranks among the best-looking games on the system – a far cry from the technical issues that had hampered Xenoblade Chronicles 2 all those years ago. The animation quality witnesses in the game’s cutscenes will forever be the immediate standout here, but the developer’s aptitude for the portable home console sees them continue to raise the bar for themselves beyond what was achieved with the Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition remake.
What Monolith Soft has achieved with Xenoblade Chronicles 3 went far beyond my already lofty expectations. The developer’s masterful approach to character development and world-building results in an unforgettable adventure that is set in a world that is just as remarkable to explore. It is the emotional storytelling that makes it an unmissable journey that’s worth undertaking, elevating the experience to not only be considered as a Game of the Year contender but an all-time classic that will be remembered for decades to come.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo