Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels in many ways like a culmination of everything that Monolith Soft have explored before with their Xenoblade series, including both explicit and intrinsic elements from across the games to create something that should satisfy pretty much every fan. This sprawling RPG presents audiences with a massive, entirely new world to explore and new characters to grow attached to in a surprisingly gripping story, that eschews some of the arresting visual conceits the series is known for, in exchange for a more interesting sci-fi premise.
This time around, the action takes place on the world of Aionios. While there are monolithic structures, scenic vistas and plenty of lovely fields to run through, there isn’t a core visual concept that’s as immediately interesting as the Bionis/Mechonis in Xenoblade 1 or the Titans in Xenoblade 2, even though there are some influences from the worlds of those games. Instead of the hook that your characters are ‘running around on the back of ‘X’ creature’, Aionios instead runs on a grim life-cycle that grinds through its inhabitants, as two opposing nations find themselves eternally at war. Most of the world’s inhabitants are grown for the explicit purpose of fighting in this war, bred with only 10-year long lifespans, as their respective armies suck up the life force of the enemies they kill. In Aionios, you literally have to kill to survive.
It feels like a concept that might have made for a simple morality tale in an old episode of Star Trek, but Monolith expands this premise into a gripping melancholic narrative, that explores the various strata of this society, as well as its deeper connections to the overall Xenoblade mythology. Your party is built from members from both sides of this conflict, led by Noah and Mio, and without spoiling too much, their eventual co-operation drives most of the conflict in the story. The characters are all easy to like, with the series’ renowned affable voice acting helping to ease you into this alien world and terminology, and the strength of their personalities makes the following 100+ hours all the more engaging. That said, the pacing of the game’s story can be quite uneven, despite a cracking introduction. It’s also a very cutscene-heavy game, which isn’t unusual for an RPG like this, and there are many well-directed scenes with full voice acting to enjoy – nevertheless, there are considerable stretches where you’ll be putting the controller down for a bit.
Yes, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a massive RPG, even though on the surface it has a smaller chapter count than past Xenoblade games. Just the main story itself, with occasional detours and grinding, will run you around the hundred hour mark, while looking to fully complete the game would take substantially more than that. There’s constantly things to do in Aionios, from main quests to side quests given by NPCs dotting the landscape, to ‘Collectopaedia Cards’ you can fill out as you explore the vast landscapes, which task you with finding specific ingredients and materials for NPCs, but can often be casually completed as you do your own exploring. While the landscapes and lighting are often quite lovely, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 does look very good for a Switch game, performance can also be quite spotty, from dodgy frame-rates to the resolution of the game looking rough, even in docked mode.
However, gameplay and combat across the board has received a bevy of upgrades from past Xenoblade titles, starting with party size. Your entire party, of six, can now join you in combat, which certainly makes battles much more crowded than in the past, although this expansion seems to have been mainly to service the new class system in play. While initially there’s only a limited range of roles to choose from – attacking, defending, healing – these do expand as you play further into the game, and characters can swap classes as you deem necessary. That means the balance of roles in your party is generally pretty important, especially against stronger enemies and bosses, such as whether you have equal numbers of roles, favour attacking or healing, etc.
While broader tactics are emphasised, there’s also more minute-to-minute changes in combat that aim to keep your more invested. While the combat still resembles MMO-style play with characters’ auto-attacking as they get within range of an enemy, there’s also the introduction of ‘cancels’ that let you quickly combo moves across various power levels to deal serious damage to your opponent, as well as other combos that encourage you to lay-up combos with your other party members, like ‘breaking’ an enemy, for another character to ‘topple’ them and another to ‘daze’ them for you to get in some more hits. There are further moves to explore as well, including conjoined ‘Ouroborous’ forms that can supercharge two members of your team for a time. Combat becomes very addictive the more you play Xenoblade Chronicles 3, as your characters permanently learn more skills they’ve gained from other classes, and you move closer to creating your ultimate, and flexible, ideal party that can take on the toughest bosses towards the end of the adventure.
All of this adds up to a lot to throw at players, and there are quite a lot of tutorials to endure, not just through the early game, but the entire game as a whole. These range from short, helpful pop-up messages that seem to be the best way of conveying the information, and more lengthy and unnecessarily-enforced menu tutorials that require you to equip an exact item, or go through an exact sequence of commands, in order to progress with the game. There’s a lot to take in, but even with the game’s long length, you find yourself getting interrupted fairly regularly.
The adventure also has potential to expand even further with the Expansion pass currently promising two new heroes in the next few waves of release, and a new ‘original story scenario’ by the end of next year. At the moment, the first wave adds some neat costume options for characters in the game, along with some helpful equipment to get you started – nice to haves, but hopefully the meatier stuff in the future justifies the price of the pass.
Ultimately, I’d say Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is best enjoyed by the longtime fans of the series. The story and world provide a nostalgic and satisfying culmination and fusion of the main entries, while the gameplay offers the deepest experience yet, especially regarding the multiple layers to combat. It’s a behemoth of a game, and maybe not best enjoyed as one marathon-long session, especially with some of the pacing issues, but over the course of a few weeks as you get to know the wide cast of characters, and appreciate the melancholic world of Aionios. While it might not be the best place to start for newcomers to the Xenoblade series, there’s still a cracking story here with memorable characters, and fun and layered RPG mechanics, that make for one of the strongest RPGs on the Switch.
-Vast world to explore, with 100+ hours of content -Memorable characters and gripping story -Improved combat and systems
-Cutscene heavy at times, to its detriment -While good looking for the Switch, performance is spotty -Pacing feels off in some chapters