When we see videogames nowadays we almost always know what we’re going to get. You look at The Last of Us and you know not one of them is gonna have a good time. You look at Red Dead Redemption and you know there are going to be at least seven cowboys. You look at Cyberpunk 2077 and you assume they could make roughly seventeen Bladerunner references. You look at pretty much any videogame and you can feel it — they are made clear in the way they’re presented.
What comes to mind when you see Xenoblade Chronicles 3? JRPG? Anime? British accents? Well, Persona’s gameplay is pretty JRPG (whatever that means), but it’s nothing like Xenoblade. Opus: Echo of Starsong’s storytelling is pretty anime, but it’s nothing like Xenoblade. And Fable is pretty darn British and, surprisingly, the most similar game to Xenoblade in this silly list, but it’s still not really similar to any meaningful extent. So… what is Xenoblade? Well, it’s Final Fantasy. Except it’s not. Let me explain.
Xenoblade is itself and loudly. With every iteration, it gets more itself and louder too. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the most loudly surefooted statement in the series’ history, being what it is without a hint of doubt throughout its hundred hours. It’s the perfect videogame, inasmuch as it takes everything that makes the series special, turns it up louder, down darker, and spins the contrast knob until all the colours are upside down but it’s fine because your brain rights them anyway. It does what it wants.
Anyway, my editor won’t let me get away with that as an explanation, so now it’s time to do my laundry (as in, clean up my mess into something someone would actually want to wear (my words are the clothes, Pocket Tactics is the wearer, my editor is the dad who says “you can’t go out dressed like that young lady”)). So, here goes. Better Clockwork Orange your eyes friends, it’s gonna be a long one.
Firstly, listen to this track above. What do you get from the flute’s melody? Hints of sadness or melancholy? Some tentative wide-eyed wonder? Well, it’s a perfect microcosm of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 as a whole.
Everything that the flute expresses sums up what the game is: sadness and wonder. The flute is such a perfect fit for this game that it begs the question; did the instrument affect the tone of the game, or did the tone of the game force its inclusion?
Either way, this is the key to Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s success, this blend of melancholy and wide-eyed optimism. It’s so much sadder than anything that’s come before it in the series, and it helps the game’s sincerity shine through, without being undercut by less serious themes that the previous games have often overexplored.
It sets this up from the outset too, with the story built around two warring factions, Keves and Agnus, whose soldiers only live for ten years and fight to feed their own flame clocks with dead enemies as their fuel. This flame clock keeps them full of vigour, as it were, with characters feeling drained or less energetic when it’s depleted.
We meet our characters in the peaceful past, a city square bustling with children, a planet looming large in the sky. Everything’s dark, but at least no one’s dying.
But when we get to the present, they’re on a battlefield. Noah, an off-seer, plays melodies on his flute to send the spirits of the enemy onwards. He does this for dead friend or foe, to the chagrin of his colleagues. There’s Lanz, a musclehead with a heart, and Eunie, a bad-mouthed healer with tiny wings on her head. They‘re all soldiers of Keves.
On the other side is Mio, a cat-eared off-seer who only has a few months left of her ten terms. Alongside her are Sena, a slight but strong hammer-wielding optimist, and Taion, a tactician who comes off as cynical (but he’d insist it’s pragmatism). They’re all soldiers of Agnus.
They meet as enemies, with both sides attempting to intercept a strange convoy. On the convoy is a wrinkly man – his wrinkles shocking these short-lived soldiers – who activates a big egg to let our characters interlink into a more powerful form, helping them take down a big monster known as Moebius. This monster’s first words to us are “oi oi”, the game revelling in its Britishness more than ever.
So, now they’re friends, because that monster marked them, marked them as Ouroboros, the one that will destroy everything… or something along those lines. This means that both Keves and Agnus are out to get them. They‘re fugitives with nowhere to go, except in one direction given by the wrinkly man. He tells them to go to the base of a giant sword that pierces the land in the distance. To a place called Sword March.
Let’s just say, the journey to the sword place is basically the game’s introduction. It may take around forty hours, but you’re learning every step of the way, whether it’s fresh tutorials, new characters and side quests, or just the deepening lore of this dark world. You pick up knowledge the closer and closer you get, and the world-building is exquisitely tied into everything you do and see.
But the magic of this story is in the way it’s told, marking a dramatic step up from previous entries in the series. There’s a cinematic flair in every cutscene, whether it’s the choice of camera angle, the delicate use of flashbacks, or the sweeping score rising up behind a moment of heartbreak. Not only is the subject matter darker, but the way it’s shown is also markedly better than anything that has come before it. It brings style by the bucketload.
There are shots that follow an object as it flies through the air, a gun falling out of a dead soldier’s hand, the close-up eyes of a sinister villain, or the faraway cries of a fallen comrade. The camera can spin and whirl and loop with a sense of purpose in every cutscene. Sure, Xenoblade has always had a cinematic flair in its presentation, but this is something else entirely. Every moment is put together so carefully.
Because of this, the six main characters develop in a sincerely interesting way. They may be on a quest to change the world, but their quiet hopes and fears, their subtle disdain or different interests, are all displayed with serious levels of care and attention. And then, of course, the way the grander narrative shifts and moves is a sight to behold. Everything’s turned up louder, down darker.
That’s not to say there’s no sense of humour. Rather, this game’s sense of humour is keener and better placed. There are still campy, slapstick moments, but they never feel jarring – they’re pitched perfectly, designed to charm. Then there’s the language, which feels freer, with swear words, catchphrases, and slang used differently by different characters. It feels like the translators had a great time working on it.
Then there’s the actual gameplay. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 offers up the most lavish world in the series to date. It might even be the most impressive world on the Nintendo Switch. Everything’s massive, from the mountains to the monsters, highlighted with bright colours, strange structures, and endless expanses full of wonder.
But this wonder is still combined with the game’s specific melancholy. For example, there are soldiers fighting over the different landscapes, and you can choose to support one side or the other, gaining a pretty inconsequential reward. All they really do is reconfirm the endless conflict.
Then there are the husks of dead soldiers, which need to be sent off. These moments offer little in terms of actual value – just an affinity bonus with the colony they’re from – but instead are just quiet, beautiful spaces where the HUD disappears, and our off-seers play a heartwrenching melody on their flute, before tiny droplets of light float upwards and their body dissipates. Everything feeds back into this newfound sombre tone.
The variation in the world is the key to its success. One vast desert can lead into a wide-open plateau, onto deep, damp caves and into snowy mountain passes. You’re never trapped in one locale for too long. If you want to find something new to look at, the game lets you.
There aren’t just landscapes, however, as interiors are just as keenly constructed. There are large hangars, winding tunnel systems, and military bases that offer a completely different atmosphere. Some of them are basically dungeons. The Keves Castle dungeon is particularly great — twisty and labyrinthine, reminding me of Tokyo Mirage Sessions or Shin Megami Tensei.
Then there are the colonies and cities. This is where the Xenoblade series frequently shines (remember Goldmouth or Torigoth in XC2? Those places are exquisitely designed), and nothing has changed here. City structure is often underappreciated and underserved in sprawling RPGs, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is as good as it gets, in terms of having some of the best, most honest architectural nous out there.
If you do want to linger in these spaces there’s quite a lot to do, too. There are little collectables, traversal puzzles, and, of course, lots of monsters to fight. Various side quests offer even more, the majority of which are small, focused affairs based on supporting one of the many colonies you free on your journey.
These side-bits aren’t overly impressive but do offer a look into the different colonies and their nature, and completing quests gives you affinity bonuses to help you on your journey, like faster movement speed and increased rarity in enemy drops. Smaller side quests are just an excuse for smaller stories to play out – they’re never that interesting gameplay-wise, but the scenes that play out because of them often are.
That’s not all there is on the side, however, as the new hero mechanic brings with it a whole new type of side-quest. Heroes are a seventh party member that you can recruit and add to your team, but to recruit them you have to complete their quest. These missions are extremely good, mainly because the characters in them are all uniquely interesting. It’s the first time the series has ever had genuinely excellent side missions.
One mission may let you into the heart of a colony, spend time with its leader, and understand the nuances in the way they lead, while another may be a long-fought battle through layers of foes just to get to the colony in the first place. The mechanical differences in the mission also feed into the quest’s story itself, making all of them a holistic experience.
There’s one specific hero quest that sums up the ethos of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Just like the majority of these missions, the final aim is to free a colony from the shackles of the flame clock and the cycle of killing that the inhabitants are stuck in. So far, so standard.
This colony, however, has been off the grid. Their rulers rarely visit, thinking it an unusable part of their web of pawns. So the colony folk are barely surviving, their flame clock close to running out completely. They themselves have some sort of suicide pact, or at least something close to that type of thing – (up louder, down darker).
Once you free the colony, the people see some ray of hope. They’re worried as they’re used to having measly supplies from on high. But they turn around and decide they’ll grow their own food. They till their fields and learn irrigation. They seize their independence. That message runs through the rivulets covering every inch of XC3. This game has kindness, this game has soul.
Anyway, these heroes can sometimes give you new traversal abilities too, that can let you do stuff like slide along ropes stretched across crevices or climb up leafy walls. These abilities then let you get to areas that were inaccessible before. Some even give you access to new quests. It’s a welcome layer that adds a bit of value to backtracking, though it’s not some dramatic metroidvania overhaul.
Then, there’s the combat. You have your six main party members, a seventh hero who can be switched out for a different one on the fly, and a bevy of different mechanics layered on top of each other. It’s basically a combination of the combat systems from the other two mainline games in the series.
You start with auto-attacks, basic moves to do while you wait for arts to charge. Arts are more powerful attacks that can cause status effects. For soldiers of Keves, these arts charge by waiting for them to fill up, just like in the first game. For soldiers of Agnus, these arts charge up by auto-attacking, just like in the second. The possible meaning of this is immediately intriguing, but I’ll let you ponder on that yourself.
Arts, when used correctly, charge up a more powerful art. Using arts correctly depends on your class. There are six main classes, and then each hero has a unique class (there are a lot of heroes, so you end up with lots of classes). Classes have different roles – attacker, defender, and healer – and having the right combination is key.
There are ten ranks for each class that your characters can move up. Once fully mastered, you can then use arts from a mastered class with a new one, creating new combinations. These are master arts and can be combined with your original arts into something called fusion arts. The use of fusion arts increases your interlink level.
Interlink levels denote how powerful your characters will be when they combine into their Ouroboros form – kind of like a Power Ranger morphing system that looks like a wacky Bionicle – which then has its own unique arts and abilities, though you can only be in this form for a fixed amount of time.
Using all of these systems properly then also charges up your chain attack meter. Chain attacks turn the action combat into a one-sided turn-based system, tasking you with chaining arts together to fill up another meter which multiplies your damage. Chain attacks can deal massive damage and behave differently depending on some stuff with your Ouroboros interlink level.
All of this plain explanation of combat is to make clear one thing: every system interacts with another. The magic of fights in this game comes out when you understand how this heap of systems all works together. As you move up the hierarchy of systems, from the auto-attacks at the bottom all the way up to the chain attacks at the top, you can get into a state of flow that feels sublime.
Chain attacks alone can offer a magical feeling, as the oblique nature of how to get successful chains becomes clearer and clearer the further you get into it. The game doesn’t explicitly explain what it wants from you during a chain attack, but you intuit it, which in turn lets you feel like you discovered it.
Meanwhile, arts can be cancelled into each other. This means that if you activate one art just as the last one hits, it increases the speed of your attacks and fills up various meters more quickly. Cancelling arts helps support this feeling of flow excellently.
In spite of all this, I often find myself using the auto-battle system in the overworld, outside of large story segments. That’s just because those shorter battles rarely allow you to make the most of these combat systems. When it really shines is the giant boss battles, which let you showcase your mastery of these systems and the way they intertwine.
This big pile of stuff gets even bigger when you get into the menus, the admin. Characters have different skills they can interchange, different gems and accessories to augment certain things, and a whole separate Ouroboros skill tree. This is dense and near-endlessly micromanageable. You really have to want to sink your teeth into it to get the most out of it. I don’t think Xenoblade Chronicles 3 will reward the more tentative player anywhere near as much as a dedicated one. It might even push them away.
Where it rewards everyone, however, is the presentation. Of course, the world is big and gorgeous, as I’ve said. But the soundtrack, too, takes a step forward for the series. Not only is the heartwrenching piano and driving guitar that Yasunori Mitsuda excels at as good as ever here, but there are new elements, adding to a darker, more dystopian tone.
From the outset, bubbling synths drive alongside fast-paced drum beats, like a hyperactive Bladerunner soundtrack, adding to the overall feeling of sci-fi this game presents. Sure, Xenoblade Chronicles X has that, but the other two mainline games feel much more like fantasy lands, rather than the far-flung dystopian future of XC3. (This isn’t just a tonal change, it feels deliberate for story reasons, reasons best left unsaid for now).
Luckily, all this presentation is supported by solid performance. I had no issues with the framerate, and the resolution in docked mode is excellently detailed. It’s less impressive in handheld but still looks better than it has any right to, considering the vast expanses of land, numerous creatures, and distant obelisks on screen.
There are many smaller things I’d like to highlight before we wrap up: a) the fonts are big and nice; b) the story is still genuinely bonkers, even if it’s darker, it hasn’t lost its delightful absurdity; c) the character designs are exquisite – even inconsequential characters look better than Rex; d) I know I’ve already mentioned the music, but crikey, it really is beautiful; e) the gaps between voiced lines of dialogue are pretty reasonable – they’re still too long, but only just, whereas previous games’ line-gaps were big enough for the both of us, if you know what I mean; f) the title screen makes me want to cry; g) there are people with cat ears and people with horns, and I love it.
However, after all that praise, there are a handful of tiny things I don’t vibe with: a) some menu things make no sense, e.g. you can mark all new items in your inventory as ‘seen’ to get rid of the notification dot, but you can’t do the same with tips, so you have to manually scroll through all of them if you’re irritated by notification dots; b) the subtitles include things like ‘gasp’ or ‘wailing cry’, which is good for accessibility, but make it optional! It feels like a split-second spoiler before a heartbreaking noise from the voice actor; c) larger attack animations no longer have QTEs like in XC2, so you just watch them play out… This is boring, bring back the QTEs!
In summary, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has people with cat ears and people with horns, and I love it. It’s also very pretty, the characters are cool, the combat is engaging, and the whole package is presented with a level of prestige beyond the expected amount. Sure, there’s no mind-blowing rope physics that took the devs a million hours, but there’s something else here. Something I can’t quite explain any more than I already have. Something special.
The characters change, the world changes, the combat develops, the colonies evolve, the noise gets louder, the jokes get quieter, the endgame approaches, and… It just envelops you. This world, its proper nouns, its absurdity – its highs have been pushed up to their loudest points, its sadness drummed down to its darkest yet.
I think that is my only takeaway from Xenoblade Chronicles 3. For a series that can rebound so many people due to its certain idiosyncrasies, it’s such a wildly uncontainable feeling to see it double down, yet still feel more approachable than ever. The combat is more complex, the story longer and wilder, the characters deeper and closer, the emotion soulful and dark and jovial and absurd. It’s something good, choosing to be more itself, to increase its unique good. I find that heartwarming.