Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a huge game, both in scope and in the anticipation levels of its dedicated fan base. Its ambitions match! There’s a ton to do, see and learn. With all this, though, comes high expectations. So does it meet them? Let’s go through the menu.
The protagonists of the game, two combat teams from the game’s main warring factions, are out to… save the world? Handle everyone’s problems? It’s a fairly standard JRPG setup, though Monolith does a good job making you invested in their adventure and its secrets. The two main heroes, Noah and Mio, are “off-seers,” experts in sending off dead fighters in a world very much full of them. This is used to center the story on life and death, and the consequences of an abbreviated existence.
The tone of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels like a mix of the original Xenoblade and the Wii U-exclusive X. It’s more serious in tone, and more realistic in visual presentation. It’s also less of a “handheld” game. We didn’t have any issues playing it on our Switch Lite, but it’s clear that the game’s designed for a larger, TV-based play experience. Xenoblade 2 had large text, hidden interface elements and such, and that’s just not here. It’s also a darker, more atmospheric game, while 2 was generally a vibrant anime world.
That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t anime inspiration. For better or worse! There are tropes. There are a few… you know… character designs. (Though not in the quality or ludicrous extent of its predecessor.) But also there’s the very-anime stuff that’s quite fun! Like riding your big sword like a surfboard in a combo attack. And we won’t spoil how, but the game uses the aesthetic to obscure some of its biggest plot twists.
In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, you manage a team of six fighters. Seven, perhaps? Though guest teammates are less in your control. They’re all very flexible in terms of capabilities, as classes modify your stats in huge ways. That said, each has strengths through their capabilities. While anyone can be any class, if one combo is less suitable, it takes a while to unlock and level it up.
This system can be frustrating at times. One party member unlocks a class to start, but often fully maxing it out with that character won’t raise meters enough for another to begin using it. We’re glad to have the flexibility, but there were definitely times when we thought we might be better off if classes were just explicitly character-locked instead of dangling the possibility in front of us and pulling it away for so long.
Also, in case you needed to know: yeah, battles are as talky as ever. Party members yell out all the time, and with a whole group of seven out there, it can really be a cacophony. A tip: there’s a separate volume control for voices. Maybe use it?
Simply put, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a gargantuan game. Even by Xenoblade standards! It took us about 80 hours to get to the final battle, and there was a ton of side quests and activities left to do when we did. We also didn’t uncover all the map. There are totally missable colonies. There are areas you’ll only explore if you’re curious what’s there. It’s meant to be a coherent world, not one totally designed just for your adventure.
Still, there’s a lot of structure. The ring shape means you’re progressing from area to area with major story checkpoints between each. It’s an interesting gating system, considering even early areas have opponents you can’t come close to defeating. It does serve to make the environments digestible, rather than overwhelming, and that’s nice.
If you, like us, are more about the exploration than the combat most of the time, XC3 has a nice touch to keeping you motivated. Defeating special, strong monsters? They unlock fast-travel points at their locations, and often those locations are quite handy. Elite and rare enemies also give more experience and rewards, so focusing on those can limit the pure quantity of targets you’ll need to take down.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 puts in a lot of effort to get you invested in its characters and their relationships. The “Affinity Chart” option in the menu lets you keep track of the dozens upon dozens of NPCs and how they feel about each other. If you’re not into this stuff, you can skip scenes and keep pushing. But for those who are? This is probably nice.
It’s interesting to see this focus and attention to these ties, when the main theme of the game is learning to let go and move on. The warring factions are constantly stressed about their limited ten-year lives and the time pressures that come with it. The enemies are looking to prolong their situations and power at great cost. Ultimately, the game’s thesis is that it isn’t worth trying to hold onto scraps of how things used to be, especially if it means working for awful bosses, and that it’s best to follow the examples of others and move forward. This felt particularly relevant to us right now. For some reason.
There’s a critical path in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 that’s fairly easy to follow, but it’s adorned with a metric ton of side missions. Most of these aren’t particularly innovative: talk to this person, collect stuff, defeat a particular enemy. But for a game that fully expects you to use its leveling system from one end to the other, it’s helpful to have these things to do in lieu of the traditional grinding.
You could, certainly, just go fight a bunch of stuff, but with the bonus experience system, it wouldn’t be as efficient as actually accomplishing things. Finding new areas, talking to NPCs and completing non-essential quests earns you way more experience points, and you apply those at campsites to level up. Monster-grinding could still be useful for increasing class levels and acquiring ingredients and such, but it’s nice that you aren’t forced into it for long sessions.
There are some duds in the quest lineup, though. We were particularly irked by the “follow person” and “follow tracks” missions. These require you to walk slower than usual or you might happen to miss the trigger point for the next segment to show up. With fetch quests, scene skipping and fast-travel can make them fairly painless. These, though? These don’t have such solutions.
The Xenoblade Chronicles 3 system is full of things to collect, but surprisingly little about using these things in combat. Ingredients make meals and collectibles can be traded for experience and bonuses. And yeah, there’s equipment and gems? But in our play, we found that the auto-equip function almost always gave us the optimal configuration for what we had, and our strategies weren’t largely affected by this stuff. For a franchise that can often look overwhelming to newcomers, it does a solid job of cutting out some elements that could be a pain to manage during battle.
Like a lot of open-world games, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 uses unlockable movement abilities to allow you to return to old areas and explore them differently. You can grind rails across large distances! Or climb vines! These largely use the game’s increased focus on verticality. Regularly, you’ll come across a tall tower or floating island, and it’ll be a dozen or two hours before you can actually get there.
One party skill you can’t unlock? Minimizing fall damage. A lot of the game’s traversal in the early game is based around limiting your progress because you can’t survive the fall. We do wish it were a bit less punishing, because we slipped off a ledge just running around and died… a lot.
Technically speaking, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a fairly impressive game. There’s open-world pop-in and quality dips and such, but it all feels polished and intentional. It runs better than Pokemon Legends Arceus or Breath of the Wild. And loading times were generally tolerable. We did run into issues of loads getting longer after particularly lengthy sessions, to the point where it felt like it might be freezing up. A hard reboot cleared that up, though.
And it won’t surprise any veteran players to learn that the soundtrack is top-notch. It’s full of effort and energy. We felt like it was focusing more on atmosphere than iconic melodies this time, but with how many hours you spend in this game? Yeah, you’ll get the notes buried into your skull regardless. The voice acting is charming too, as usual, with its British sensibilities. (But yeah, as we said earlier, people continue to talk way too much in battle.)
While it’s unlikely to transcend genre preferences, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a gift for those who love JRPG trappings. There are lands to explore, combat systems to optimize, and lore implications for longtime franchise fans. And at the very least? You certainly get your money’s worth.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It launches July 29, 2022. An Expansion Pass is also available.