Before we get into it, let's set the scene. My first foray into the switch Xeno saga came with Xenoblade Chronicles 2
, and even though that was a sequel I was sold by the marketing team over at Nintendo
that it was worth digging into. That, and getting a reassuring “nope” when Googling “Do I need to play the first Xenoblade to understand the second?”. Like a new Final Fantasy
, it presented new characters, a new setting, and an interesting world with thematic links to the first game. It wasn’t until a few hours - possibly 20 or more, it’s hard to tell with JRPGs - that I realised even among a sea of games featuring wide-eyed heroes wielding unusually large blades, Xenoblade Chronicles was special.
Fast forward several more hours, and even a few years, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 quickly joined a small list of games that I consider to be the absolute best of the best. Not too long after that we got the original Xenoblade Chronicles in remastered form
, which only helped solidify my affection for the series. Affection? Who am I kidding, this is love baby. And then word from the hallowed halls of developer Monolith Soft
made its way to the information superhighway, letting us Xenoblade-philes know a third entry was in development.
The hype was real, and in a surprising move for the times in which we all live, Xenoblade Chronicles 3
’s release was brought forward. So here we are. And to save you a trip to the Google factory, you don’t need to play the previous iterations to enjoy this one. Like any ongoing series, it’s enhanced if you’re well versed in all of the verses, but as a first-time Xeno Chron, I say… jump on in.
Even with new characters and settings there are some very cool connections to first two games, and, yeah, I'll leave that there.
A few things to mention at the top. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, and I’ll only talk about the first few hours of the game with any sort of intimate detail. The rest should be experienced for yourself. Even with new characters and settings there are some very cool connections to the first two games, and, yeah, I'll leave that there. To kick off the gushing, let’s just say that after putting over 60 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 3 it’s become my favourite single-player franchise.
But, saying yes and actually sitting down to begin the whole review process was difficult. Not in the time sense, review code was provided weeks ahead of launch, but in the ‘shouldn’t I stop every now and then just to savour all the good things’ sense. So yeah, even with 60 hours of playtime, I chose the latter, to enjoy Xenoblade Chronicles 3 like a tall glass of the best-aged grape juice in all of grape country. To be honest, I’m delaying the end. Biding my time exploring every corner of the world and story. That being said, I've gone through most of the major story beats, and can quite confidently recommend everything I’ve seen.
60 hours and not hitting the end credits is not unexpected either, these Xenoblade games present chunko adventures. Comparatively, I finished both previous entries at around the 75-hour mark so this looks to be similar. Epic RPGs aren’t traditionally the sort of games you’d consume in a day or week or even a couple of weeks, which is one of the reasons why RPG fans look forward to finding the next big thing or world that can draw them in. If you’ve already been brought into the fold, by now you’ve probably come to the conclusion that this is a must-buy. You know what's up. For the rest of you, I'll try my darnedest to convince you to take the plunge and cleanse you of your insolence. Ahem. Here goes.
After three games Monolith Soft has mastered the introduction when it comes to story, as you’re thrust into a world rich with history. Concepts and strange sci-fi mechanics are introduced at a steady pace, and even with all of the characters, you meet you never feel overwhelmed. I would draw parallels to the first Star Wars movie (you know, the good one), where things
have clearly happened in the past as you follow the new-on-the-scene and fresh from Tosche Station Luke on his hero's journey.
The world is called Aionios, and you're born into an environment steeped in an endless battle. People in this world are born in their tween years and only live for 10 years, with each passing year referred to as a term. With conflict and war a part of everyday life it’s rare to make it all the way to 10 years, you’ll most likely be killed in battle long before then. And if you make it to 10, well, there’s no retirement plan. But it’s not all doom and gloom, lives are given in service of others, and any end is met with a celebration.
The first few years are spent training for battle, and it’s on the battlefield where everyone fights to live. As the tale begins you’re introduced to two warring factions, Agnus and Keves. They’ve been stuck in this cycle of conflict, killing each other to survive. The reason for that comes down to the fact that fighting isn’t optional, it’s a part of life. Each person born into this world is bound by something called a Flame Clock, and if it runs out, everyone in the entire colony dies. The only way to fuel the Flame Clock is to kill the enemy and watch as their life essence is slowly absorbed into this mystical and strange object.
After three games Monolith Soft have mastered the introduction when it comes to story, as you’re thrust into a world rich with history. Concepts and strange sci-fi mechanics are introduced at a steady pace, and even with all of the characters you meet you never feel overwhelmed.
In the early parts of the game you get to play as characters from both Agnus and Keves factions, and quickly learn that their hatred for each other is mostly surface level and ingrained due to the way each society lives. Needless to say, after a series of dramatic events both sides are forced to work together, which in RPG terms means they become the six party members that form the fellowship on their journey to the heart of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring and end the Rise of Sauron. No wait, that was The Lord of the Rings terms.
Still, like that story of Hobbits and Dwarves and Agent Smith’s Band of Elves, the one found at the heart of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is all about character. Relationships, aspirations, tragedies, and individual journeys sit within a collective. And as we’re talking about characters that have only known battle and war, and haven’t had the opportunity to explore who they are, it leads to some fascinating story beats. Throw in the calamitous threats that come with the territory and the pressure is pretty much always on. Time isn’t on your side, literally, as you quickly learn the oldest, Mio, only has a few months to live. This sparks reflection and understanding, set amongst the heady backdrop of unraveling the mysteries of the world.
In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the story definitely keeps you on your toes, especially when you think you can predict what will happen next. The revelations and twists are not only well-handled, but all make sense in the overarching narrative. Split into multiple Chapters, some of which are quite hefty and full-game-like, each one always ends with a scene or series of events that can only be described as epic.
It’s worth giving a shoutout to the presentation, the main story cutscenes are all highly polished and well-choreographed. From the camera cuts to the animation and even the pacing of the action and dramatic confrontations - it’s all top tier. Monolith Soft has really amplified the character stuff, taking every opportunity to let you get to know the characters. Banter during battles, chatter as you explore the world, covering small personal tales and commenting on major events as they unfold. Watching them grow and connect over the course of several hours, I felt a true connection to each of the main characters. Sharing in their joy, getting annoyed at them, getting annoyed with them, shedding a tear, or multiple tears.
With the story featuring voice acting, you do have the option to play with either English or Japanese voices for the cast. Though with that, I personally chose the latter as the localisation really leans into the British-ness and European-ness that was present in previous games. Eunie, for example, will say something like “You absolute muppet!”, which is hilarious and adds a surprising amount of personality to the world. Taion comes across as a posh socialite, and you’ll even encounter characters with Scottish accents. And yeah, the Aussie accent too. It’s the localisation that sets this game apart from other JRPGs, and frankly, all of the Cor Blimey and How Do You Do’s work extremely well.
It’s worth giving a shoutout to the presentation, the main story cutscenes are all highly polished and well-choreographed. From the camera cuts to the animation and even pacing of the action and dramatic confrontations - it’s all top tier.
The soundtrack is also outstanding, each environment has a unique theme that helps define its characters, history, and place in the story. Music that enhances both the cinematic story and the RPG side that has you exploring a vast landscape and taking part in several battles is not only rare, it's something to celebrate.
As far as the underlying tech, the Torna engine keeps improving with each iteration too and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is by far the most impressive looking Xenoblade so far. This game doesn’t just look good for a Switch game, it looks great period. Of course, a large part of that comes from impressive art direction, but somehow they’ve managed to make the environments in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 bigger and more detailed than the ones found in previous games. Monolith has managed to squeeze even more out of the Switch in both docked and undocked mode.
If you’re familiar with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, you might recall how that game didn’t scale very well in handheld mode. Some areas would render in such a low resolution, it was like watching a Kramer-directed bootleg of Cry, Cry Again. Not even a VHS copy of Jerry’s far superior Death Blow. Seinfeld references aside, I’ve invested quite a bit of time in both docked and undocked and I'm happy to report that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 looks great in handheld mode. The only times I saw things approach crunch town was when there was an insane amount of action on screen. Special post-processing visual effects like screen-space reflections are also heavily used across both docked and handheld modes so you don’t have to sacrifice much by taking this game on the go.
What’s even more impressive is how Monolith has managed to fit so many characters, creatures and enemies on screen at once while retaining a steady frame rate. It’s not perfect by any means, but across the vast environments you explore and the epic story that unfolds, I only found one area or biome that featured consistent or noticeable frame-drops no matter if the game was in docked or handheld mode. For a game of this size and scope, and in the age of post-launch patches and unpolished releases, it’s damn impressive. Worthy of the Rocky Solid Balboa performance stamp of approval. Monolith and Nintendo even brought the release date forward - a testament to the level of polish you’ll find here.
Somehow we’ve gotten this far without talking about combat, so let’s do that. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is an epic JRPG that you can easily play for 100 hours, so you’ll be doing a lot of combats over the course of the experience. Combat-wise there are quite a few mechanics to learn, but even though they are doled out at a steady clip, this definitely takes its time easing you in as it introduces new concepts over the first 15 hours or so.
What’s even more impressive is how Monolith has managed to fit so many characters, creatures and enemies on screen at once while retaining a steady frame-rate.
To start off, your basic attack is carried out automatically. All you need to do is stand next to an enemy. From there you’re then given the option to learn and choose three Art attacks mapped to the controller face buttons. These are triggered but run on cool-down timers and fit into that skill or spell or ability mould you’d expect in an RPG. You have buffs, debuffs, draw aggro, special attacks, heals, and so on. On top of this, some Arts require you to be in a specific position relative to a monster to receive bonus effects. It might sound a little complicated but the combat has been streamlined with a helpful UI that lets you recognise if you’re close enough to attack or what side of the enemy you’re currently standing on.
In terms of how it plays, Monolith has taken the best bits from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the original game’s remastered release. Early on in your adventure, you’ll gain the ability to change classes and as you master each Class you’ll earn new Arts to use in battle. At this point, the d-pad enters the picture and you’ll be able to equip those new skills. It’s here where you can go crazy and try out a bunch of different build combinations. With Defenders, Attackers, and Healers serving as the foundational bedrock of combat - there’s definite wiggle room here to foster the sort of choice you’d normally find in an MMO.
Defenders need to hold aggro and take all the damage, where Attackers are all about that DPS. That said, Attackers also need to be careful not to steal aggro. Healers, well they’re healers. Casting green rings of healing and sending waves of green out into the battlefield as they keep the rest of the team alive. Striking a balance between what abilities you give each Class and how you can maximise just how quickly you can effectively deal damage is key. On-screen colour-coded identifiers let you know who’s being targeted, and where the aggro is being directed, so there’s the same UI help here too.
It all makes for a streamlined and easy-enough-to-read combat experience that revels in moment-to-moment changes. But, there is a lot of UI in play during combat. And I feel this is where some of the audience will be divided. From combat aggro helpers, damage numbers spilling out on all the attacks, Art specific UI with cooldown animations, and portraits for every member of your team alongside different stats. And as it’s not uncommon for you to end up in a battle against 4-8 enemies at once, each with their own cool visual effects spilling out - it can quickly become absolute visual chaos. To the point where all the help can make it hard to follow what's actually happening on screen.
And while I love the character chatter in general, it’s in combat where it can quickly become repetitive when Art or reaction-based lines are repeated consistently. If you’re fighting a large Boss for 10-15 minutes, hearing the same line over and over and over isn’t fun.
In terms of how it plays, Monolith have taken the best bits from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and the original game’s remastered release.
The other main RPG ingredient, Quests, is here too and they come in a few different flavours - main, hero, side, and fetch. Naturally, all of the main quests are fully voiced, well written, and feature super-high production values. Most of them could pass as episodes in a high-quality anime. On the other end of the spectrum the fetch quests, are exactly that - going out to find certain items for people because they ask you to do so. Hero quests are great in that they task you with completing stories for the main cast which also offers the benefit of recruiting additional heroes to join the team and the ability to unlock new classes. With the heroes you do recruit, you can choose one to join you in battle, giving more ways to customise and put together a well-oiled Xeno team. Most of these quests are voiced and feature dedicated cinematics too, which is great to see. NPC-based side quests are unfortunately text only, which is a shame, but understandable as there are a lot of side quests to discover. That said, it’s an opportunity to read out loud with a full British accent, so that’s a plus.
Although small in the context of the entire experience, the way Monolith has streamlined a lot of things when it comes to ‘Quality of Life’ is very welcome. Collectables, which you’ll find many of on your adventures, only require you to run up to them to add them to your inventory. In previous games, you would have to find an interaction point, press a button and then watch a superfluous animation. Every time. It’s a small change, but one that really encourages you to explore the massive environments. That said, it’s still a little over-the-top when it comes to the sheer quantity of items. If you’re a newcomer it’s not immediately obvious that all of the collectible items are used to complete side quests, fetch quests, and eventually in gem crafting.
Gem crafting is back and in much-improved Pog form. In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, you’re given all gems from the get-go, and upgrade them via an easy-to-access menu. Much simpler to use and because the right gem combination can make a difference in the outcome of a battle.
Fetch quests too are so much easier to manage, here you simply hand them in via the menu as opposed to having to visit specific towns or colonies looking for the right person. There are a lot of systems to learn, there are no two ways about it, but easy-to-access tutorials and special training drills for the Xeno newbies (as a master of the blade I didn’t need to fire them up) make this the most accessible game in the series to date.
Exploration is also improved, there are usually multiple ways to get to your destination, hidden paths aplenty, and secret treats to discover around every corner. Environments are impressive not only in size but scope. Verticality plays a large part in delivering the sense of awe that comes from exploring this world. Overhanging cliffs, mountainous plains, rocky walkways, windy paths. Impressive and inventive environments have always been the staple of the Xenoblade games, but with that, there was also a sense of navigational confusion. The addition of the “show quest route” here is a godsend. Previous iterations really struggled to guide you to quest locations as the landscapes were never simple. Implementing a full breadcrumb system might not sound like something you’d necessarily want in an epic RPG where discovery is a key part of exploration, but getting a guided line with a clear destination marker is great for those with limited time. Or, if you get stuck.
Purists will be pleased to know that this is entirely optional.
Exploration is also improved, there are usually multiple ways to get to your destination, hidden paths aplenty and secret treats to discover around every corner. Environments are impressive not only in size but scope. Verticality plays a large part in delivering the sense of awe that comes from exploring this world.
Bringing it all back to the story, and getting back on track, it is the key to Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and the entire saga. There are huge beats, and several twists and turns where something unexpected happens, and everything gets flipped on its head. This is a series that has garnered a following due to its characters and stories, and Monolith Soft has delivered something special this time around. Underneath all of the pyrotechnics is a tale that deals with life, death, and the meaning one can find or cling to. Xenoblade’s story is also as fun as it is heavy and heartfelt, as sad and somber as it is cinematic and action-packed. With a cast of series-best characters and some of the best exploration and combat to boot - it’s hard not to look at Xenoblade Chronicles 3 as anything but a game of the year contender.