I GOT SOMETHIN’ FOR YA
After getting a glimpse of the first image for the original Xenoblade Chronicles so many years ago, I never in my wildest dreams assumed we’d be welcoming multiple sequels. Xenoblade Chronicles 3, arguably the most accessible entry so far, is yet another example of why I’m glad that Monolith Soft is sticking with it.
[This review is relatively spoiler-free, and will only be discussing specific story elements through chapter 2.]
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Monolith Soft
Released: July 29, 2022
With a relatable and easy-to-understand premise, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has a much faster startup time than a lot of other JRPGs. Time and what you choose to do with it is a huge theme, and it’s the emotional crux of the narrative. Our core six party members have a limited life span (with units called “terms”), all in service of one of two warring kingdoms (three people on each side). As a result of a twist of fate, they end up meeting under auspicious circumstances.
There’s a lot of flashbacks interspersed into the story as time goes on (with some of them showing up really late), which both inform the macro-narrative and help flesh out the main characters. You get real wizard school vibes, as teams of kids with powers compete with one another and make choices that impact their relationships in the current day. There’s a push and pull here that reverberates throughout the game.
The constant conflict of this world is what makes things interesting. We get to see plenty of examples of provincial life, as well some silly downtime, all juxtaposed to the horrific realities of the battlefield. Since dead soldiers’ souls fuel the machines of war on either side, things can get heavy. Allowing the heart of the party (Noah and Mio) to serve as off-seers (trained officers who are meant to usher souls into the afterlife after falling in battle) provides for an emphatic, relatable lens through which to take in the story.
I have to say I bought into this world hook line and sinker just five or so hours in. At that point, I had met the main party, and I was addicted to finding out what will happen to everyone — given, you know, the concept of predetermined death and limited lifespans. It’s deeply contemplative at times (without going over the top or waxing poetic with overly flowery dialogue), like that time Keanu Reeves made everyone cry.
The relationships everyone has with one another are a huge part of why I bought in. Since each half of the core six comes from a different side of the war, each person has a different take on the situation, or a different attitude — and it doesn’t always mesh well with the other faction. “Aging as an abhorrent foreign concept” is a classic sci-fi trope, but it’s played with here in interesting ways that make sense within its own universe. I’m also a sucker for “marked for death” storylines because of the inherent tension within.
While a lot of people will likely balk at any form of Switch visuals, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is impressive looking by any standard. I took a ton of screenshots of this gorgeous world for fun that I look forward to drip-feeding out once the spoiler statute of limitations is done and dusted, and it’s all backed by an incredible soundtrack that may or may not get snubbed at The Game Awards. One of my only hang-ups when it comes to the visual style is the animations during some cutscenes — they can look wooden, especially when characters move and run in and out of set pieces.
It does sport some really cool action sequences, and for those of you who don’t dig the Xenoblade dubs, dual audio is there for you. With that in mind, I loved this dub. With dialogue like “spark that,” “deffo,” “how much magic power has this geek got,” and “queen bitch,” it runs the gamut of wonderfully campy to straight-up laugh-out-loud hilarious. The spirited performances can get downright sassy, especially if we’re talking Eunie, the queen of sass. The stoic Nopon Riku also brings a nice counterbalance to the otherwise peppy and loud Nopon creatures in the series, and I’m always down to just hang out with this crew. Plus, who can not love an NPC vendor named ShillShill.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 lets you know that yes, this is a Xenoblade sequel, but it also has its own rules. Exploration is a lot more fun because the sandboxes are generally bigger, and the ability to zoom in (all the way into first-person) or out, and swap party members is a nice touch in terms of immersion. Breadcrumb trails are available as an optional toggle to cut out aimlessness, and the map automatically checkpoints points of interest for you, without obnoxious maps full of pointless pins.
The game nudges you in the direction of participating without pulling teeth, encouraging players to talk to people for the first time for a small reputation gain. There’s even bonuses for faster swimming, better meals (which provide timed bonuses), a quicker run speed, and so on. Quests are often uncovered in the overworld with traditional menu-based quest lists, or through talking with your party in a camp after hearing rumors while out and about. With supply drops (big bonus chests coming in from the sky) happening amid things like double-sided conflicts (where you can choose a side for a separate set of rewards), and shiny monsters indicating bigger loot rewards, there’s always something going on.
Convenient fast travel and “save anywhere” features are back for Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and although there are droves of tutorials, most of them are quick text boxes you can just skip. One of the only technical issues I had with the game involved a few framerate drops in specific areas where there’s a lot going on, but in my personal experience, most of that was in cutscenes. I had encountered one stretch of the game where load times were a bit longer than normal (including areas I had already been to or warped back from), which was solved after rebooting the game. All told, any inconveniences were minor, but your threshold of framerate terror could be different.
Similar to other Xenoblade games, combat starts off very simplistic with an emphasis on auto-attacking, and occasionally popping an art (ability). At first, there’s no real downside to just spamming arts when they come up, and you can’t swap classes or try out new builds as readily. There are a few nuances, though, that carry on throughout the rest of the game.
Canceling auto-attacks (after they hit) into arts is optimal, as is canceling arts into supers (which are slowly charged up through arts or auto-attacking). Some classes can also throw down healing/buff rings, and select bosses toss debuff/damage rings on the ground to avoid. With easy-to-read aggro lines (blue means the enemy is centered on a tank), you can see how you need to adjust, or swap between party members to regain aggro or heal the party up. (All six core members can be swapped to in and out of combat, and be controlled.)
Roughly five to ten hours in (depending on your speed) you’ll unlock the class system, which opens up party customization. Although everyone starts with a “core” function that’s governed by three roles (attacker, defender, support [healer]), you’ll slowly unlock the ability for any party member to swap to any role. As you level up, you’ll unlock more accessory and gem slots, more classes, and it’s off to the personalization races.
Passives, art alterations, combo potential, gems that have special effects (like drawing aggro at the start, or letting healers resurrect party members quicker), it’s all on the table. I started to experiment with builds like offtanks that were mainly damage-oriented, but could grab enemies and take the heat off if the main tank fell in battle. The sheer number of support classes also encourages strategy beyond raw healing, with buffs and offensive spells in the mix. I eagerly maxed out every class in one of the three roles for each character so I could mix and match arts; opening up three more slots for cross-class arts (on top of the three you already have) is key.
So as I’m mentioning quite a bit in the review, the core party of six is static (though again, they can be customized and change classes), and you get a seventh “guest hero” party member too. Some are optional and off the beaten path, and several are required via the story. These are automated characters that have static equipment and presets, but they add a little fluff to combat, and can shore up party weaknesses if you want to go with an unconventional lineup.
Then you have the Ouroboros system, which, to be very vague and overly simplistic about it, combines two characters into one controllable mech in combat, sort of reminiscent of Xenogears. While there are naturally three combinations of Ouroboros links (two preset party members always sync up together), each person has their own unique Ouroboros form, and skill tree. I told you there would be layers!
In theory, using Ouroboros in combat presents an interesting twist, as it technically eliminates two party members in favor of one body, so you’d potentially lose out on a healer or tank (temporarily) by linking up. However, I wish the system was a bit more sparing in nature (perhaps only used in certain battles), or tweaked a bit. Depending on how you get on with it, it could be seen as an extra thing to micromanage, that takes you away from the fun builds you just spent a ton of time tweaking. While there is some light customization for Ouroboros, it’s not nearly as in-depth as the class system, and the ability to freely swap into Ouroboros form wasn’t as tantalizing or as satisfying as I expected it to be.
Of course, it has its strategic uses. If a party member is about to die or draws aggro when they shouldn’t, you can swap to Ouroboros form for respite, which is protected by an overheat gauge rather than a traditional life bar. Once it overheats, you have to wait for a cooldown period to use it again with that particular pair. But in many encounters, especially overworld trash fights, you simply don’t need it. Fighting elite foes (enemies with blue or orange title cards, seen in the overworld image above) can add some excitement to the festivities, but I found the Ouroboros system a tad oversaturated — and wanted to see a little more meat on those bones.
Once again though, Xenoblade 3 ties everything together and makes it all worthwhile. Ouroboros have a huge impact on the storyline, and every time I’d see the CPU make a decision to sync up two party members (accompanied by a voiceover shout not unlike popular Sentai media), I’d smile, as I’d recall the connections they had during the journey and their relationship. It evens out, and you don’t even really need to use Ouroboros if you don’t like it.
Because of the way everything funnels back into the emotional core, this isn’t a bad “first dip into the pool” if you’ve never played a Xenoblade game before. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 didn’t need to do a whole lot to keep me invested, as I was all-in very early on. The cast, the weight of the story, and the freedom of party composition are the power trio that won me over. Even during some of the slower moments of the narrative, I was fiddling with stats and loadouts, and still driven by a need to see where everyone ended up.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]