Stasis can be comforting. It’s nice to stick with what you know, even when it’s not ideal. It’s easier to stop trying to move forward, stop attempting to do better, and just quit. And when we try to move forward? We often make mistakes. We iterate on the same things repeatedly, often seeing the same result. It’s easy to say things can’t get better. Eventually, though, most of us go back out there and try again. We try to do better than we did last time, even if failure seems inevitable.
No one can accuse Tetsuya Takahashi, creator of the Xeno series (okay, I know it’s more of a meta-series but bear with me here), of resting on his laurels. With every entry, he tries to push boundaries; whether it’s with the story of the original Xenogears or the exploration and MMO-inspired combat of Xenoblade Chronicles, he’s always trying something different. Sometimes this falls flat (looking at you, Xenosaga Episode II), and other times this can be divisive. (I don’t care what you say; Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has incredible combat.) Still, Takahashi and the team at Monolith Soft are always trying to do better. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the culmination of all those iterations. Everything, including the story, the combat, the side quests, the exploration, and everything between has been polished to a high sheen, and it is magnificent.
That’s all pretty ironic because the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is static yet desperately needs to change. We open on Aionios, a world constantly at war. There are two factions in this world, Keves and Agnus, and they have been battling since time immemorial. No one knows why, and no one seems to care. Everyone in the world is a soldier, raised from “birth” as a pre-teen to a young adult to fight for ten years. And if they’re lucky enough to last ten years? They still die, “returning” to the queen of their respective faction who gave them birth in a “Homecoming” ritual.
The narrative starts in during one of the battles and follows three soldiers from Keves: Noah, Lanz, and Eunie. After obliterating a rival Agnus colony, the three are assigned to investigate a group of strange automatons. On the way, Agnus soldiers Mio, Sena, and Taion attack, but all six find themselves joining forces after they are ambushed by a mysterious “Moebius.” Then, the leader of the group of automatons, Vandham (a familiar face if you’ve played Xenoblade Chronicles 2), gifts them with the “Ouroboros” power to link with one another and unleash devastating attacks. After the fight, the six find themselves running from Keves and Agnus alike after being declared enemies of the world. Thus, they journey to find the “City” Vandham tells them about to discover the truth behind the conflict and the history of the world.
Needless to say, death permeates the world of Aionios, and the tone of the narrative, which is notably more somber and mature than previous games, reflects this. The game’s main musical themes are based on the elegiac flute melodies you play when you’re “sending” a fallen comrade to rest, so you know things aren’t exactly bright and cheery. The story isn’t driven by a clear desire for revenge or by the anime tropes of previous games. This time, every early moment is tinged with a knowing melancholy and a feeling of inevitability. The “now” is all the characters have; it’s all they’ve been given. For most people in this world, that’s all they’ve ever known.
Pushing against that inevitability isn’t easy, either. When all you’ve known is stasis, how do you push for a better future, a better tomorrow? The writers expertly plumb the depths of despair such a premise entails, throwing in the philosophical conundrums that we’ve come to expect from the series. This leads to the best story Takahashi has ever told (yes, I know Xenogears exists), with some jaw-dropping moments in the latter half. Few, if any, video games can match this narrative at its best moments. Honestly, when Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is at its finest, I’d put it against the best movies or books I’ve read. It’s that good.
Don’t get me wrong, though: the story’s not perfect. The villains, outside of a couple, don’t have the depth that we’ve come to expect from previous Xeno titles. Additionally, the game’s final hours are a bit too drawn out, with the characters often shouting the philosophical conclusions the game wants us to come to long after they’ve established their premise. The ending itself leaves a few too many loose threads and doesn’t necessarily seem to be in line with the philosophy of the game, either. It’s clear that they want to tie everything together with the (paid) DLC, but I don’t think that’s particularly fair or satisfying. None of that really matters, though. The brilliance of the rest of the narrative shines so brightly it overcomes any weaknesses in Xenoblade Chronicles 3‘s final hours.
The most brilliant thing about Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s premise is that it leads to intense bonds between the main cast, and they’re really what carry the narrative to those aforementioned heights. Every character knows they’re going to die soon, whether they make it to their “Homecoming” or not. They’re all in this together and build remarkable relationships as a result. They share their hopes and fears in small character moments in their journey, and I loved each of them by the end. Noah and Mio are the two best protagonists in the series, each showing incredible growth, range, and kindness. I’d follow both of them wherever they told me to go. Early on, it seems like Lanz is largely comic relief in the vein of Reyn, but reveals surprising depth and vulnerability as the hours tick by. Taion and Sena are both fabulous as well. The real standout is Eunie, though, with her quips, barbs, and her delightful Britishisms.
Speaking of Britishism, the English dub once again utilizes voice actors from the UK, which continues to be delightful. While I’m more bullish on Xenoblade Chronicles 2‘s voice work than most, there’s no question that this is a noticeable step up, and each of the main voice cast is perfect. There’s incredible range even within the leading cast, from Eunie’s London-inspired “Oi’s” and “Wot’s” to Noah’s more sedate vernacular. This extends out to the rest of the characters, too. You’ll find accents ranging from Yorkshire to Australia and everywhere in between, and there’s no false note to be found. There’s a Japanese voice track, too, but I can’t imagine playing Xenoblade without finding another accent to chuckle at around the corner.
There are plenty of opportunities to hear the different dialects of Ainonios, too, because Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is simply chock-full of sidequests, many of them voiced. And if there’s one way this game is an enormous step up from the previous games in the series (outside of potentially X), it’s the sidequests. There are notably fewer of them than in the first game, and while the number might be similar to 2‘s, the writing here is so much better, and there are a lot fewer fetch quests than before. Sidequests open up by approaching a question mark on the map or by overhearing then discussing a conversation. Many of the quests are focused around the Colonies; as you do these, you gain experience and class points while also increasing Affinity with the Colony, which leads to passive bonuses such as faster walking speed.
The quests in each Colony often build upon each other, too. You’ll get to know the characters, watch them grow, and see their relationships change. You might see an uncertain lieutenant slowly blossom into a confident commander, or you might follow a young boy and his Nopon friend as they escape their Colony to explore the world. No matter what type of quest you’re doing, you’re meeting interesting people who feel real and essential to the world. Hell, even the Nopons are great this time around (I will fight for Riku). It all goes a long way toward building an Aionios-wide community that you care about, and as others have said better, a considerable part of Xenoblade‘s DNA is the importance of community. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the nadir of that philosophy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the side quests here are almost essential. I haven’t completed all of them, but each one made the narrative that much richer and the world that much more alive.
Of course, if you’ve played a Xenoblade game before, you know that a considerable portion of the “side” content is found in exploring the vast and beautiful worlds Monolith Soft creates. And this time, the world is massive; it’s actually five times larger than Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s. As with previous titles, the game isn’t quite open-world, but it’s darn close here. Most zones feel like six different ones from earlier games cobbled together, and they incorporate everything from a desert to a swamp to a forest growing out of a dilapidated city. Some parts of an area can tower above others, allowing you to see across vast vistas. Couple that with the ability to see landmarks in the distance from one zone to another, like a giant mechanical sword or a snowy mountain, gives this game a sense of scale that neither of the previous two mainline titles can match.
These zones are loaded with things to do. Whether it’s grabbing a few collectibles, finding your way to an area you didn’t think you could reach, or attempting that challenging Unique Monster who is ten levels above you, there’s always more to discover in this vast world. Even after well over 110 hours, there are still huge portions of the map I haven’t touched, and I can’t wait to dive back in and knock down Territorial Rotbart again (his name is different this time, but look, I refuse to call him anything else). Unfortunately, I’ll admit that, especially in the early hours, some of the areas don’t have the zest, beauty, or creativity of some zones from previous titles like Satorl Marsh or Uraya, but it gets better later and the scope of the world more than makes up for it. Exploration is always one of my favorite things in any Xenoblade title, and it’s never been better.
The scope is even more impressive when you keep the hardware in mind. Honestly, there were more than a few times while exploring that I was more impressed that the game was running on the Switch than I was at the visuals on my screen. Sure, the game isn’t going to touch some big AAA hitters on the PS5 or the Series X in terms of pure graphical fidelity, but the art design outstrips almost all of the competition. Plus, the game performs well. Things can often get chaotic on screen, the world is massive, and the characters move around a lot. Nonetheless, I very rarely experienced any slowdown. I didn’t play much of the game in handheld, but when I did it still looked great, if a bit fuzzier. From a performance and a graphical perspective, this game is a huge step up from the previous entries on the Switch, especially Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
Okay, so I just said that things can get chaotic, and you guessed it, it’s during combat. I’ll admit, I had very high expectations from the combat coming into Xenoblade Chronicles 3; Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has my favorite combat in any RPG. I spent more than 250 hours on that game because of it. I can’t say that we’ve surpassed the brilliance of 2 in 3, but it’s darn close, though I imagine the vast majority of people will prefer the combat here. It feels like it’s taken the best elements from all the previous entries, boiled them down to what absolutely works, and added a few new wrinkles on top of that.
Like in previous Xenoblade games, combat is inspired by MMORPGs. You can see enemies while running around the field; by drawing their attention, you can then fight them. Each character in your party of six comes with a unique class that is either an Attacker, Healer, or Defender. Along with auto-attacking, they have more powerful “Arts” that need to charge up to deal more damage, help your party, or debuff the enemy. You start with three arts available to each character, along with a “Talent Art” that charges up more slowly. Eventually, you’re given the ability to swap between the other characters’ classes and level those up, too, allowing you to assign “Master Arts” that you can carry over from other classes for a total of six main arts. That’s not all. You can also fuse these Arts with one another if they’re both charged for even more powerful attacks. Each time you use a “Fusion Art,” you slowly build up your Chain Attack gauge, allowing you to play a minigame of sorts that lets you chain a ton of attacks together that deal massive amounts of damage if you play your cards right. You also can fuse with another character and take on an “Ouroboros” form that puts you in a giant mech that can dish out big damage and makes the two characters invincible. Other elements from previous games return, too, like combos to topple, launch or daze your opponents.
Okay, so I know that sounds like a lot, but the combat is honestly pretty easy to get your head around, especially if you’ve played the more complex systems in previous games. The game takes great pains to make sure you know what you’re doing, slowly doling out new abilities over the first few chapters of the game, along with giving you tutorials, which are sometimes frustratingly pedantic and long, on each. You can also pop into the menu and test out everything the battle system has to offer in Training mode. Little tweaks like allowing you to switch which character you’re controlling in battle, work toward making this system a much more accessible than previous entries.
The level of customization here is great, too. Gems for combat bonuses have returned and are thankfully much easier to manage than before, and accessories are also critical to the right party build. But really, it’s the class system that makes Xenoblade Chronicles 3 overtake its predecessors. Outside of the six base characters, you can also recruit different “Heroes” to join you in battle as a seventh party member. There are almost 20 Heroes to recruit, often through sidequests, and they each have a unique class to eventually teach to everyone in your main party.
The Heroes remind me a lot of the Blade system from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 but with much better characterization and sidequests and none of the frustrating gacha elements or ridiculous character designs. They’re fantastic; even after clearing the game, I feel like I’m just scratching the surface of everything the class system has to offer. I still have plenty to level up, party builds to try out, and superbosses to take down. You really don’t need to, though. The game certainly doesn’t force you to experiment a lot to clear the main story, but I love that it caters to people like me who want to clear (and master) everything the game has to offer.
There’s no way I’m ending this without mentioning the music, but what is there to say? Mitsuda, ACE, and everyone else who works on these has done it again. The general flavor of the music is the same as it has been previously, but here there’s a lot more flute and a lot more melancholy, perfectly matching the tone of the game. I didn’t think they could surpass their previous work, and I’m not quite sure if they have, but the music here is masterful. The only slight complaint I have is that some things, like when you open the menu or start a chain attack, cut off the track you’re listening to, and there’s no way to stop that, which is sometimes quite jarring. I’m sure Monolith Soft will eventually patch it out, but it’s a small frustration.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a reminder that “good enough” isn’t good enough. Takahashi and the rest of his team could have relied on doing the same thing they’ve always done. Heck, they’ve already revolutionized the genre once. Instead, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is no revolution; it results from listening to what doesn’t work, tirelessly working to do better, and knocking it out of the park. Put simply, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a masterpiece, and one of the finest games the genre has to offer.