The Xenoblade series is a bit niche compared to some of Nintendo’s other first-party properties. Games like Mario Kart 8 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have sold upwards of 20 million units, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 only clocked in just over 2 million. While sales exceeding 2 million units is nothing to sneeze at, it’s not the amount that might justify how much Nintendo promotes and favors the Xenoblade franchise.
The latest entry in the series, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, makes a compelling case for why the company keeps throwing its marketing weight behind the niche RPG franchise. Where the prior outings were often criticized for their byzantine storylines and complex gameplay mechanics, the third entry has earned high praise for balancing these elements against a compelling and likable cast of characters.
Xenoblade Chronicles is a series that meditates deeply on concepts like life, war, class struggles, and finding common ground between seemingly different groups. The third entry is no exception, and it takes the series to new heights–both visually and in terms of gameplay. It’s the best entry in the series so far, and it might even be the best game that executive director Tetsuya Takahashi has ever worked on.
Fighting Against Fate
The game’s story will sound familiar to fans of the Xeno metaseries. Two city-states, Keves and Agnus, are locked in an eternal war. Young soldiers from each nation battle each other fiercely and lay down their lives, seemingly for no reason, and their life energy spills over to fill bizarre machines called “flame clocks”. Six young warriors, drawn from both countries, meet in one such battle in this everlasting war before an old man interrupts them and tells them there’s more to life than fighting for these warring nations.
The six protagonists are taken aback by the presence of the old man. It’s not just his words that surprise him, but also his age. He’s older than anyone they’ve ever met, despite appearing to only be in his fifties. The two groups are each led by “off-seers,” and they form de facto military detachments in their own rights. Noah leads the Keves detachment, alongside his childhood friends Lanz and Eunie. Meanwhile, Mio, an off-seer from Agnus fights beside fellow soldiers Taion and Sena.
The six are led on a mission to break the cycle of war by fighting their “true enemy,” a shadowy cabal that treats both Keves and Agnus like pieces in some kind of sick game. After the two groups become fugitives from their own nations, they join forces to reach Swordmarch, a giant monument in the shape of a sword that looms over the continent Aionios.
Familiar Sights, Echoes of the Past
Fans of the Xenoblade series will instantly recognize the silhouette of Swordmarch. It’s the blade of the Mechonis, one of two titans from the first game in the franchise. It formed a landmass called the Sword Valley in the first Xenoblade title, which was the site of numerous massive battles in that game’s story.
Moreover, some other shapes on the horizon will look familiar to Xeno series veterans. In one direction, you can make out the shape of the Urayan Titan, one of the main locations in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Even though the first two games in the series took place in different continuities, the actions of their respective protagonists seem to have created a merged version of their worlds.
Fans hoping to see those previous protagonists might also be a bit disappointed to learn that neither Rex nor Shulk could possibly still be alive for this game’s events. The climactic battles that took place above the Cloud Sea in Xenoblade 2 and around the Bionis and Mechonis in Xenoblade Chronicles are distant memories, little more than myths now. The land of Aionios scarcely remembers the legendary heroes who brought its existence about.
Yesterday’s Victories, Today’s Struggles
Rex and Shulk may have emerged victorious in their struggles against the powers of their respective worlds, but Noah and his friends find themselves raging against the same unfair conditions that once drove Shulk to pick up the Monado for the first time. While the stakes are as high as ever this time around, the core cast is comprised of such well-written and grounded characters that the story never becomes overbearing.
Though players might not instantly grasp the convoluted machinations of the game’s villains, what’s clear is how these characters feel about them. Xenoblade 3 takes time to show players the harm that the ceaseless wars in Aionios cause to people, animals, and even the landscape. It doesn’t matter which country you hail from, if you live in Aionios, your life is defined by your proximity to the fighting.
Each victory the characters win against their enemies brings the world one step away from the brink of destruction. Battles and journeys are imbued with weighty purpose because the game works overtime to make you care about the settlements and people you come across along your way. It’s hard to begrudge any side quests when you’re genuinely concerned about the well-being of the non-player characters who need your help.
The Gameplay Evolves
Combat will also look recognizable to any Xenoblade fans who have spent time with the series. Characters auto-attack enemies when they get close enough, giving the game a similar feel to an MMO RPG. However, your companions are controlled by the game’s AI, not by other players. Balancing your party composition is critical to success: without the right mix of tanks, healers, and damage dealers, you won’t have what it takes to survive the toughest boss fights.
Sure, auto-attacks in a single-player game might sound odd, but there’s a lot more to combat than that. Each character can use “weapon arts,” active abilities that have more powerful effects but go on cooldown after use. Some of these arts are more powerful when you’re behind an enemy, while others might heal your allies or draw enemy aggression to your player character.
You can also swap among the six main characters at will when you’re out of battle, allowing you to enjoy the distinct animations and voice lines the developers created for each character. Moreover, you can even swap classes between these characters. So, if you love Noah’s design but hate playing as an attacker, you can have him specialize as a healer instead and keep his personality front and center while mixing up the gameplay.
The party is at its best when it fights as a single unit. Some characters can create auras that give out power-ups, so there’s a ton of emphasis on proper positioning during fights. When you perform well, you’ll fill up a Chain Attack meter that allows your group to unleash a powerful finishing move. Chain Attacks pause the real-time action and give you time to think about how you want to take your opponents down.
Choosing the right effects can layer more damage and status debuffs on your enemies. If you set it up right, a well-timed Chain Attack can make the difference between winning or losing in a tough spot. And that’s not the last trick up your sleeve, either. The six main characters can pair off–Noah and Mio, Lanz and Sena, and Eunie and Taion all have special team-up abilities called Ouroboros.
When these pairs are fighting in synch, they can temporarily fuse into a powerful mechanical warrior called an Ouroboros. When in this form, the duo is significantly stronger than the two characters are apart. If you find yourself stuck in a tricky fight, try triggering one of these powerful transformations to turn the tide!
Incredibly, development studio Monolith Soft has gone above and beyond with the graphical presentation of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. The game pushes the Switch to its absolute limits, using clever rendering techniques and unbelievable compression technology to squeeze gorgeous 1080p graphics out of the game while it’s running in docked mode. In handheld mode, the game hits a consistent 720p image, and it looks much clearer and crisper than the infamously-blurry handheld performance of Xenoblade 2.
Traveling across the sweeping landscape is often breathtaking. The bizarre, alien geography serves as a suitable backdrop for this epic adventure, and the swelling orchestral score sets the mood nicely. It would be a shame to not give special attention to this game’s sound design, too. The voice acting is classic Xenoblade, with the characters speaking in earnest tones about the most ridiculous stakes. The sounds of combat are as noisy as ever, but special attention is paid to the quieter moments this time.
The crackle of the campfire, the quiet intensity of the music, and the heartfelt conversations between the characters all drive home the game’s themes of togetherness and unity. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is one of the finest games ever released on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s easily the best in the series so far. If you’re remotely a fan of RPGs and narrative-driven games, you owe it to yourself to check out this sprawling masterpiece.
I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s likely that Xenoblade will never sell more copies than Breath of the Wild, but it deserves to at this point–the amount of passion and dedication that Monolith Soft poured into this game is evident every moment you’re playing.