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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

‘Xenoblade Chronicles 3’ review: Persist and ye shall be rewarded

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is, if nothing else, a testament to the power of trust and persistence.

For more than a decade, Nintendo has been throwing seemingly infinite amounts of time and money at developer Monolith Soft to make some of the biggest and most ambitious RPGs of the era. Each Xenoblade, from the series’ 2010 debut on the Wii to this latest Switch-exclusive installment, gives players immense game worlds to explore, intensely deep (and often confounding) systems to play with, and some of the wildest stories you’ll see in any RPG. 

But despite relatively strong sales over time, the series has still been stuck in “cult favorite” territory for years. It would’ve never even come to the U.S. if not for a 2011 fan campaign called Operation Rainfall that helped convince Nintendo to release the first game here.

I’m here to tell you that avoiding these games is a mistake. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is Nintendo’s most unsung recent franchise at its finest, with the series’ most mature story to date, richly varied combat that rewards any and all levels of investment, and a thorough love and appreciation for its own world.

If you need one Switch game to keep you occupied through the rest of 2022, make it this one.

A multi-dimensional world at war

Every Xenoblade stands out right from the initial sales pitch, which is always some version of “What if everyone lived in a really weird world?” The first game took place entirely on two continent-sized mechs that laid dormant after simultaneously killing each other, for example. What I’m saying is these games revel in just how cool they are, and Chronicles 3 doesn’t change that.

The new sequel’s setting is Aionios, a world in which the nearly identical kingdoms of Keves and Agnus are locked in an eternal war. Each citizen of these kingdoms comes out of a birthing chamber as a preteen and lives a maximum of 10 years (called “terms” instead) as nothing but fodder for the war effort. From day one, they’re instructed in the art of combat, with only one incentive to keep going: If they make it to the end of their 10th term, they get sent to the afterlife in a special “Homecoming” ceremony by their respective kingdom’s queen.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 seems like a somewhat normal war story up front, but you’ll notice — and, if you’re game, quickly get hooked on — a steady trickle of world-building weirdness throughout the first 10 hours. One early scene makes it clear that none of these characters have any idea what an old person is, while another establishes that sexual and romantic desire simply don’t exist in Keves and Agnus. Oh, and observant fans will notice landmarks and locations from the worlds of the first two Xenoblade Chronicles games littered around Aionios, which is certainly strange and, of course, factors into the story later on.

This is a fantastic RPG party.
Credit: Nintendo

Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s central narrative touches on far heavier subjects than your average Nintendo game: The role war plays in keeping a population in check, the process of unlearning propaganda, finding the humanity in those you’ve been conditioned to see as the other, and seeking joy in a world that worships (or, more accurately, fetishizes) death. People who are functionally teenagers have existential dread about what kinds of legacies they’ll leave behind after their lives are artificially cut short. It’s not exactly uplifting stuff, but a great cast of characters helps keep you invested in such a depressing world.

Our special anime boy protagonist this time around is Noah, a ponytailed swordsman who has an unusual role in his army as an Off-Seer. These soldiers carry around special flutes to play at the end of big battles, as a send-off to those who died prematurely and couldn’t make it to their Homecomings. These scenes are genuinely moving thanks to the gorgeous flute melodies each nation employs, and Noah’s intimate relationship with the carnage of war gives him a deep empathy for his supposed enemies. 

Despite the fact that he’s literally younger than 10 years old, Noah is by far the wisest, most world-weary protagonist in the trilogy. He’s also my favorite. Noah quickly comes to the conclusion that the oppressive structure of his world is keeping its denizens from living rich, full lives. As such, those structures must be destroyed, as simply reforming them won’t do the trick.


The central narrative in ‘Xenoblade Chronicles 3’ touches on far heavier subjects than your average Nintendo game.

Noah’s companions come from both sides of the war and form a diverse, fleshed out party, as is customary of any great RPG. There are lots of delightful character interactions, like Noah and his fellow Off-Seer Mio (who is from the enemy army) immediately finding common ground in their dead compatriots’ send-offs in one early scene. I’ll also shout out the burly greatsword wielder Lanz and the petite hammer user Sena, who form an entertaining bond over their love of weightlifting that lasts throughout the entire game.

The game is also full of little worldbuilding touches that hammer home just how well thought out all of it was. You’ll hear an Off-Seer’s flute in much of the outstanding soundtrack, even during boss fight songs. Life force is represented by flames in Aionios, so regular curse words have been replaced in dialogue by “sparking,” “flickering,” and “snuffing.”

By now, you’re surely wondering if you can enjoy Xenoblade Chronicles 3 without playing the first two. For the most part, the answer is yes. The story of Noah and his friends traversing Aionios largely stands alone, and even explicit references to the prior games are mostly there for hardcore fans. That said, I’d recommend at least watching a YouTube story recap ahead of time.

You’re going to need to give Xenoblade Chronicles 3 some time to fully set in anyway, so why not spend 30 minutes watching YouTube to get caught up?

Sit with it for a while

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 combat

There’s a lot going on here, but the game rolls it out to you slowly and carefully.
Credit: Nintendo

Of course, a game this long is going to have a whole heck of a lot going on mechanically to stay interesting for dozens of hours. I’ll just say right now that the tutorial for Xenoblade Chronicles 3 lasts about 10 hours, and if you aren’t game for that, you should play something else. But be patient and you’ll find a game that totally rewards your investment.

To be clear, those 10 hours are necessary. Xenoblade Chronicles 3, much like its predecessors, is oozing with complex systems. The basics of the combat, which unfolds in real time, are simple enough: Target an enemy and approach it to start auto-attacking, much like World of Warcraft, and use special abilities called “combat arts” to kill enemies faster.

That’s easy enough to grasp, but there’s an abundance of other things to remember as you fight enemies. Many combat arts have positional bonuses, meaning they’ll do extra damage or inflict status ailments like a damage-over-time bleed effect if performed from the side or from behind. It’s not always easy to tell where you’re standing as battles unfold, but a helpful arrow icon next to your combat arts always lets you know which position you’re in.

From there, the developers keep layering on systems that include, but are not limited to: More than 20 classes that characters can freely switch between, Gundam-style transformations called Ouroboros that are useful for tough boss fights, the ability to control any character you want on the fly, and even AI-controlled “Hero” characters who can act as extra party members, in case you need a numerical advantage. It’s a lot, especially considering you have at least six party members on the field at any given time.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Ouroboros

The fantasy mech forms are totally sick.
Credit: Nintendo

Once you learn how to properly use all the tools Xenoblade Chronicles 3 gives you, it forms into one of the most pleasurable RPG battle systems of the last few years. Thanks to a new dash move that helps you navigate around large enemies quickly and extra damage for precisely timed button inputs, this sequel feels more like an action game than its predecessors.

Over time, you’ll find yourself darting around the battlefield, annihilating enemies with big, crunchy attack animations and oh-so-satisfying critical hit damage numbers flying off their faces. Things feel a little slow at first, but seriously, give it time.

The secret sauce that makes the combat release those good, good brain juices for 70 hours is the aforementioned variety of classes, as Xenoblade Chronicles 3 doles out new roles for party members as you progress through the story and meet certain new characters. Each of the 20-plus classes has a distinct play style, from the aggressive, frontal attacking Martial Artist to the culinary-themed, firestarting Yumsmith, and they all become more powerful as you level them up.

Obsessively seeking out new classes (many of which are optional) became my main motivator for the bulk of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. I kept wanting to see what kind of bizarre new fighting styles the developers could come up with, and I was never disappointed.

This is a game where you can dual wield off-brand lightsabers, pistols, or laser axes, heal your comrades while waving around a big banner, or rain damage down on fools from afar with a high-tech bow and arrow. The class system that makes all of this possible is a stroke of genius which motivates you to explore the gigantic world while keeping combat gratifying for an extraordinarily long time.

A gargantuan adventure

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is also just a huge space to explore. Monolith Soft has created yet another enormous world full of screenshot-worthy vistas, featuring cool-ass landmarks like a skyscraper-sized sword sticking out of the ground or the ruins of an ancient, technologically advanced civilization peaking out from beneath the foliage of a dense jungle. The path through each zone on your first visit is fairly straightforward, but you’re eventually handed free reign to explore at your own pace, with new movement abilities granting access to secret areas.

The environments you’ll explore over the course of the 70-plus hour journey (I know, but it’s worth it) also help make this setting feel like a real world. Aionios is dotted with several colonies from each nation, and they all find meaning in their respective micro-cultures and tangential storylines. Other open world games like Skyrim have done a nice job of making different cities feel culturally distinct, but few go quite as far to make them evolve over time as Xenoblade Chronicles 3.

For instance, each colony has an “Affinity Chart,” which is an almost overwhelming menu showing how each and every NPC relates to one another. Minor quest-givers who would be called something like “Fish-Loving Man” in other RPGs have names and relationships in Xenoblade Chronicles 3. These relationships also evolve over time as you do quests for people, so you might see a scenario play out where two rival characters eventually become friends. It makes each locale feel three-dimensional.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 affinity chart for Colony 9

Affinity charts are seriously wild.
Credit: Nintendo

Monolith Soft has always been excellent at creating worlds that feel like they exist independently of the player. A day/night cycle gives way to unique enemies that you’ll only find at certain times of day, while each zone also has its own unique weather patterns depending on the environment. You’ll occasionally run across groups of enemies fighting each other, and there are even rewards for taking sides in those scuffles.

In all, the artistic intent is to make the player feel small. Noah and his friends are but ants compared to some of the creatures and topography of Aionios. You will die at times because you dared venture too far into an area that’s too high level for you. Heck, there’s a murderous level 81 gorilla stomping through one of the starting areas who exists purely to teach the player a lesson. If you remember the hellacious horse knight right outside the tutorial in Elden Ring, you’ll be right at home here.

There’s just a special something going on here, an intangible feeling of wonder as you traverse a breathtaking field with a building-sized mech hand sticking out of the ground, never knowing what kinds of monsters, treasures, or even storylines you’ll run into around every corner. It’s lofty to put any game in the same sentence as Elden Ring and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but that’s the kind of territory that each Xenoblade game occupies at its best.


If you remember the hellacious horse knight right outside the tutorial in ‘Elden Ring,’ you’ll be right at home here.

It’s a shame, then, that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is so coy about surfacing some of the best stuff you can find in the game. There are hours upon hours of side quests strewn about Aionios, the most substantial of which are fully voice acted and can unlock new classes. Every class can also be upgraded multiple times, though getting each of them fully leveled up was one of the more frustrating struggles as I approached the end of the story.

The bigger class-related quests are typically marked on the map by big yellow question marks, but they sometimes won’t appear until after you navigate a gauntlet of smaller side quests that aren’t obviously connected. Most problematically, the game doesn’t spell any of that out. You’re left to figure out how to open up these great side quests on your own. Plenty do show up on the map without any guesswork, but enough don’t that it’s a problem.

Thus, a cycle manifests of the player simply fast traveling back and forth between settlements, checking with every NPC to make sure they don’t have something new to reveal, and repeating that cycle until finally the quest you were looking for shows up. This is something that mostly rears its ugly head in the later hours when you’re fully upgrading each class, so it didn’t impact my enjoyment too harshly. That said, I ultimately stopped playing a game I was still enjoying after 75 hours because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock certain quests.

A series at the peak of its form

I wasn’t even halfway through Xenoblade Chronicles 3 before I was ready to declare it as The Best One. Mind you, that came immediately after playing all the previous games over the span of a few months, so my memory is fresh. In a game about literally combining the worlds of its predecessors, you also figuratively get the strongest aspects of the previous games with very little of their worst qualities.

Noah is the most endearing protagonist in the trilogy by an Aionios mile, and the plot is its most grown up. The combat is approachable on the surface and so deeply customizable as you dig into it that, once it clicks, it accomplishes the nearly impossible task of being thoroughly engaging for more than 70 hours. And true to the fantastic worlds Monolith Soft created for the past two games, Aionios feels just as alive as ever, populated by people with evolving relationships, even if they have no relevance to the main story.

I wish I wasn’t asking anyone who picks up Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to let it marinate for 10 hours before the going really gets good, but I promise it’s worth your time. Give the game your trust and persistence (just as Nintendo has done with this series for more than a decade), and you’ll get to experience one of the best games on the Switch, period.



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