Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review (Switch)
Release Date: July 29, 2022
File Size: 15GB
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I have loved the Xenoblade series since I first laid eyes on it in 2009, watching field exploration videos on YouTube from the first, then un-localized entry in the series. I waited patiently for the game to come overseas, and then waited once more for the Wii U’s opus, Xenoblade Chronicles X. I told myself, on the day of the official Nintendo Switch presentation in 2016, that if Monolith Soft were to announce a new game, I would be forced to invest in Nintendo’s next console. I returned to my beloved classic when the Definitive Edition was announced and released. I did everything I could to keep myself from going mad as I waited for my physical copy of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to deliver after Nintendo shipped special edition copies on the day of release.
After one hundred hours, I have completed the latest installment in what, over the course of a decade, has become one of Nintendo’s most valuable and cherished pieces of intellectual property- at least, in my opinion. There may be others who are just as, if not better-equipped to review this game, but mine is a very unique perspective.
This is the SwitchRPG review of Xenoblade Chronicles 3.
A key question regarding whether or not Xenoblade 3 is worth your time might be: “how is it unique or distinct from other entries in the trilogy?” What sets this title apart from other entries in the series is the scale of combat, which has been vastly expanded in comparison with its predecessors. Although slow to start, players will take on the role of up to six party members as they fight across Aionios. Previous games locked leadership of the questing party to a specific individual, but in this installment, players can rotate their leader and control freely across the six central characters, both in the overworld and during combat.
This allows for the execution of status combos, a series staple, in much greater frequency, although the tactics menu also encourages party members to focus on specific combat objectives when being controlled artificially. Both switching characters and selecting tactics can be performed by holding the ZL button, with the former using the L and R bumpers and the latter utilizing the D-Pad.
Aside from this, combat hearkens back to previous entries in an on-the-nose fashion, as Xenoblade 3 is meant to represent a merging of the narratives and styles of the prior installments. Depending on the selected class, Arts recharge via a timed interval or through an amount of successfully-connected auto-attacks (Keves for the former and Agnus for the latter). Mercifully, the game has foregone the somewhat slow-to-start Arts experience system of past Xenoblade titles, meaning you won’t need to improve the Arts themselves and lower their timers/counters for recharge. In order to keep with ease of access and selection, Arts have been mapped to the face buttons and the D-Pad, much like Xenoblade 2.
By mastering classes, players can gain access to Master Arts, which allow them a selection of Arts from the opposing faction based on their selected class. It is key to remind yourself of this, as a particularly valuable defender Art might only be accessible when using the class of an opposing faction, or when using the class itself. Once you have mapped a total of three Master Arts to your character, you can then hold the ZR button to create Fusion Arts, a system that merges your Class and Master Arts in every respect, using the attack animation from the Class Art, but adding all effects from the Master Art. This can allow for some impressive chaining of status effects, buffs, and raw damage, but it is important to note that some effects won’t trigger without proper positioning.
It seems that this system is delicately balanced to ensure players can’t create horribly broken combinations, as this even extends to certain types of Arts, like those with field effects. The notion extends to Master Skills, as well, which are passive traits linked to specific classes that can also be transferred upon class mastery. An ever-pressing progression to master as many classes as possible underscores the entire player experience, as this leads to the availability of new Skills and Arts.
However, it is important to keep your team balanced in regards to the major roles of the game: attacking, defending, and healing, which will increase the survivability of your overall composition. These roles also factor into Chain Attacks, a system once again overhauled in Xenoblade 3, with each role offering their own unique function within the orders that exist. Yes, it is true – you can select whichever character you want during a Chain Attack, making sure their abilities compound upon one another properly.
This is a thorough overview of the game’s combat, which serves as the foundation of all the Xenoblade titles. However, there is still exploration to be had, and structural changes to this gameplay are minimal. In comparison with prior games, areas are more strictly subdivided by enemy level, meaning the player might find themselves sprinting from hostile engagement rather than drinking in the sights. Material farming reflects the original Xenoblade Chronicles, in that individual resources pepper environments, though the player can ascertain their specific type and rarity as they draw closer to them.
Field skills are far more limited in number, with some being unlocked through the main narrative and others via sidequests. Their use is the same, however: locking away specific areas due to certain kinds of terrain, such as slippery sand dunes, climbable vines, or rope bridges. The last of these skill checks can be somewhat lumped together with another clever design feature: the collapsible ladder. The player will often find themselves fed down a straightforward linear pathway only to gain access to a sliding rope or ladder that interlinks two areas, allowing them the opportunity to expedite backtracking and exploration.
You might find a container in the field that will grant resources of all sorts to the party, as well as the infrequent supply drop, which is marked by a trail of red smoke and often guarded by enemies from either faction. In an attempt to add more life to areas, hostile creatures have been given “behaviors,” which appear as exclamation points over their heads and often lead to them scrounging up collectible materials. Likewise, a number of skirmishes dot the landscapes, in which a player may select a faction to support.
The rewards for participation only appear once, so the player can weigh what will benefit them more in the immediate future or the long-term. These rewards range from materials for gem crafting and cooking (processes made mercifully less-complicated than prior entries), to accessories, money, and the elusive and rare Noponcoins, a meta-currency that comes in two types and can be used to bypass the cost of the aforementioned crafting as well as ease the grinding experience in a variety of ways. In many respects, Xenoblade 3 is a far more accessible and forgiving game than previous entries, but that doesn’t always make for a more enjoyable experience, as we will discuss later.
Monolith Soft has always been known for presenting lush worlds with spectacular views and rousing scores, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is no exception. Aionios is not an open world, but it does feel far more interconnected than the previous title. The regions are positioned in a circular fashion creating a large loop around a central maelstrom, and each individual region offers a great degree of topographic and visual variety. Admittedly, some of these areas do feel a bit more linear in design and function than others, which is a bit of a surprise and disappointment, though they are still much less segmented than some of the smaller Titan areas from the prior installment.
What seems to be the intention here is variety, not only in aesthetic but also the potential that exists in exploration. A highlight of the early game is the Fornis region, which possesses craggy, harsh canyons, sandy deserts, forested cliffsides, and an ethereal, petrified area that is difficult to label- and that doesn’t include the subterranean caverns and tunnels that require a keen eye to unearth.
This is very much unlike the late-game Cadensia region, a sprawling seascape littered with islands and jagged outcroppings, each offering up a different kind of exploratory challenge. No matter the landscape, Monolith manages to insert areas of scale to put things in perspective: the player may think they’ve been confined to a relatively linear portion of the game, only to discover that the world was far more topographically interlinked. The draw distance helps sell this point extremely well.
The texture work throughout these environments is as impressive as ever, though there are some surprisingly low-resolution textures used in mechanical environments. Still, there is so much variety on display, from different colors of grass and foliage, to extremely thoughtful environmental positioning, to the mix of technological and biological integration in areas, that the occasional unimpressive texture seems forgivable. Enemy types run the gamut of those offered in other Xenoblade games, though their color patterns and animations are further diversified.
A number of unique enemy types are given an impressive set of abilities illustrated through their own attack styles, and although the number of attack animations is limited for each class, the party, their Ouroboros forms, and their many variations seen in Talent Arts and Chain Attacks are nothing to scoff at. The game’s art style has thankfully been unified under Xenoblade 2’s lead character artist Masatsugu Saito, whose more exaggerated designs from that game have been toned down somewhat. The diversity of character types is appreciated, as is Saito’s work recreating the races from the original Xenoblade in his own style.
Where the game falters somewhat is in its audio, which sometimes feel poorly mixed during battle (despite sound effects being a scalable option in the menu), and the abundance of repetition in post-battle banter. There is an incredible amount of voice acting featured in the game, and the voice performances are truly excellent in a number of respects, with several standout performances including a few voice actors who double up on certain roles. However, the number of options for post-battle dialogue is limited in scope, which wouldn’t be as terrible if the frequency of said dialogue wasn’t so high. It has already become a meme very much in the style of Xenoblade 2’s Ardanian Soldier, but as was the case in that game, it may also be patched or edited in some capacity. As it stands now, however, it is a bit insufferable.
Where the voice clips falter, however, the music soars. Xenoblade 3 has the most grandiose and mature soundtrack of the trilogy – a bold statement, in many respects (and yes, we’ll exclude Xenoblade X from the equation due to its thematic and composition uniqueness). The tracks here are a blend of the what has become this trilogy’s staples: rocking guitar and/or jazzy tempos for pulse-pounding battle themes, powerful orchestral compositions for field exploration, the addition of choral elements for truly epic moments, and beautifully composed cutscene themes that seem perfectly fitted for their narrative beats.
Where the previous games have leaned more towards overly bombastic video-game – or anime-styled music, however, this title is content to be restrained in its instrumentation. The result occasionally feels as though environmental tracks are more atmospheric and less melodic than prior entries, though this isn’t always a bad thing. Xenoblade 3 has greater highs than its predecessors, and only the occasional low- the basic Keves battle theme, for example, could use a little less flute.
The narrative of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is unique from the previous two entries in a number of ways, although in many ways it is also disappointingly similar. As has tended to be the case with all three installments, much of the plot revolves around understanding how exactly we came to the start of the narrative proper. While Xenoblade 3 takes time to establish the past of both its world and its characters, the narrative beats come in very familiar formats, to the point where the game can feel formulaic in its revelations. Similarly, the idea of a subordinate born of malformed intention much in the way of Xenoblade 2 rears its head once more, though thankfully the motivations of this title’s character are much more understandable and sympathetic than Jin.
Thematically, Xenoblade 3 is all about “life,” although it successfully tells a convincing love story, explores trauma, and manages to vary the stories of its main cast thoroughly, save for one in particular. Sena is a curiously noncommittal entity in a story about moving forward and having strong convictions, and her story feels the least satisfying of the bunch – though that might come down to personal preference. Though it still leans heavily on revelations and new understandings in an overly-wordy fashion, it manages to sell its gravitas with an impressive number of cutscenes and smart localization.
The usage of fake slang and some… bizarre slurs… might take you out of the experience at certain points, but overall, it’s hard to ignore the compelling drama that unfolds right in the meat of the narrative, though the conclusion does feel a bit drawn out. Fortunately, the nods to previous entries are minimal at best, but there are still a few references that longtime fans will appreciate.
What is most surprising about Xenoblade 3 is its near-clean slate of concepts, terminology, and mysteries. It relies on the rules and concepts of previous titles so little that it doesn’t even need to be marketed as a sequel, and its conclusion does almost nothing for the large Xenoblade universe other than maintain a status quo that we never really get to see. While each Xenoblade title is about overcoming obstacles and establishing a new world, recycling this structure once again further emphasizes the inconsequential nature of completing sidequests.
One aspect of the game is the stronger focus on quest storylines, as it has merged the ever-exhausting collection and monster-slaying quests with the Collectopaedia (with a few exceptions here and there). Colonies usually have their sidequests revolve around a fundamental subject, such as farming, mechanical work, or… murder. But save for getting to know its weird and colorful cast of Hero units, there is no reason to better the lives of those in Aionios if you know that the conclusion is meant to set everything right. It feels like a strange dissonant point to the game’s thematic messaging, which encourages both its characters and its audience to continue moving forward.
In many ways, the end of Xenoblade 3 seems determined to hammer home just how tired the trope-laden narrative of this universe has become, asking players to cease harping, hemming, and hawing on the “endless now” that each universe represents and instead move towards a different and satisfying future. But of course, if I delve too deeply into that discussion, I might end up infuriating the very fanbase this series has created. In allowing this world to move on, perhaps we will see true, deliberate change in the kinds of stories it presents, though the structure of this tale seems to imply otherwise.
Impressions and Conclusion
To be honest, as a decade-long fan of the Xenoblade series, I am greatly confused by Xenoblade Chronicles 3 from a mechanical standpoint, despite how positive I feel about the narrative elements. Aside from the odd overly-verbose dialogue sequence here and there, I think that the core narrative and the way characters function within it is detailed and smart. While it is by no means the way I would approach a third installment in which the worlds of two previous entries collide, I can respect the decisions made, even if the narrative in its entirety does not move the lore of the series forward in any way.
It is perhaps a commentary on the nature of video games themselves: only when we relinquish control of these characters are they able to break from the literal gameplay loop, at peace and able to grow without the threat of combat before them. Sure, it might sound hokey, and there are admittedly some developers who would take a more aggressive approach in communicating this point, but this is the game that Monolith created, not them. Oh, and what’s the deal with that black fog, anyway? Ahhh, forget it, I’ll stop rambling about the story.
As I mentioned before, it is the mechanical elements of Xenoblade 3 that frustrate me, as some of them feel needlessly static, often archaic, conflicting in relation to the forward-thinking design of Monolith’s previous titles. The game feels terrified to let the players discover systems for themselves, which is arguably not all that unfounded, considering the online discourse wherein players have admitted to being unable to grasp specific mechanics. However, the intense number of tutorials in the early game is exhausting, reviewing concepts that are straightforward for any player with a semblance of genre savvy. Similarly, there are mechanics, such as Art-to-Art canceling, that are gated behind story progression for an unreasonable amount of time. I understand that all three installments in this Xenoblade trilogy are meant to function as standalone titles, but even so, the lack of trust in longtime fans of the series is astounding.
In a similar vein, the early narrative beats are aggressively linear, railroading the player into specific areas and discouraging exploration via the use of invisible walls. This is beside the high frequency of moments where narrative cutscenes will trigger within eyeshot of one another, interrupting any sense of freedom or exploration. Though this sort of design may have been used previously in other titles, it feels especially dishonest here, when areas like Fornis are rife with open areas and alternate routes. If Monolith wished to discourage player freedom, they could have used smart level design or high enemy levels to signpost a desire for forward momentum rather than artificial barriers.
This might be a result of level design clashing with narrative design, but a part of me feels that this could have been avoided, and in fact, has been accomplished in previous installments as well as this one: look no further than the Pentelas region, which features claustrophobic, linear sections interlinking larger areas! A region with giant locked doors that can only open from one side- but the player never gets to encounter them from the wrong side because the road to said giant locked doors is blocked by… an invisible wall. Infuriating!
Another form of strangely forced engagement are the “overheard dialogues” from Colony members, which must be sat through and then discussed at a campfire. The strange thing is that some of these quest-based dialogues occur through NPC engagement instead, sort of negating the need for the overheard version? The campfire dialogues very rarely add anything meaningful other than character commentary on all the information previously gathered, which feels superfluous, considering the first thing to do upon gathering this information is to actually trigger the quest via campfire. Although it is meant to act as a “refresher” on information of which the player might need reminding, I never experienced an instance in which I felt the campfire discussions added anything to the quest structure.
There are other aspects that I could needle, such as the late-game Ascension quests used to lock class Arts and Skills away from use so as to keep the player exhaustively grinding every single other class instead. The low-leveled narrative-based quests that discourage thoughtful engagement in a game and a series that prides itself on character progression and exploration. The amazing concept of Monolith Soft-designed islands on a vast sea that is limited to a single region, which must be traversed and mapped with a pathetically small field of vision.
The utter uselessness of the game’s economy, which will most likely leave the player with tons of cash and nothing meaningful worth spending it upon. Are the developers of this series as tired of making these games as I now feel playing through this weirdly flawed entry? If so, I desperately implore them: change up the formula! Make something different, for the sake of your sanity!
…This may come across as a somewhat harsh position, especially with so many touting this game as an extremely strong release. What I will say is this: I fully believe that Xenoblade reviewed well from journalists seeking to see its narrative through as quickly as possible. The frequency and proximity of narrative beats, paired with the relatively low-level enemy encounters required to progress, likely ensured this. Similarly, the nature of the narrative and its internal logic, namely having a time-constraint tied to a specific character, likely spurred a number of them to progress the narrative at a brisk clip.
The game fails to have any mechanical function tied to this narrative element, however, and would perhaps serve itself better if Monolith were to have forced players to feel the weight of their exploration and the pressure that it placed upon the main narrative. However, this seems counterintuitive in a game that thrives due to its open-ended exploratory nature… in which case, it might be best to perhaps forego a narrative element such as this in the first place…?
But then, of course, we would miss out on the beautifully-crafted story beats of Xenoblade 3 as they currently exist. And if there’s one thing I genuinely enjoy about this game, it is the way that it tells its story. So is it worth ignoring all those other ways that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 muddles its execution and disrespects me as a longtime fan? Am I, perhaps, out of touch?
But as a fan of this series, I had hoped to see a title that chose to move forward in many respects, and instead was given a very self-referential, stagnant title instead. And hey, if that’s supposed to be an example of gameplay and narrative interlinking, then Monolith Soft has created a staggering success. But to this reviewer, it shows that the staples of Monolith Soft’s games cannot be continuously applied without a resulting loss of inertia, and much like Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s iconic Queens of Keves and Agnus, I am ready to move forward, and I hope the developers are, as well.