The best of both worlds.
After nearly five years, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is releasing in a very different context from its numerical predecessor. When last I covered a brand new mainline Xenoblade game, it was 2017. The Switch had been available for under a year and the bar for Nintendo’s shiny new system wasn’t firmly set. What performance levels were to be expected? What resolution is too low when playing in handheld mode? A lot of what stunned us with its mere existence back then wouldn’t be looked upon as kindly today. So while yes, Xenoblade 2 dropped to hilariously low resolutions when played in handheld mode, it also presented us with a richly detailed world that surpassed anything else on the platform in terms of material complexity and cutting edge technical features like rendering an endless sea of volumetric clouds. Even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was, in a pure rendering sense, outdone by this majestic action JRPG. Its lore was rich, the underlying narrative was fascinating to watch unfold, and the music felt like a return to form after the divisive Xenoblade Chronicles X. That being said, its characters ultimately didn’t stay with me in the same way that Shulk, Fiora, Reyn and the rest of the original Xenoblade cast have for over a decade. Mechanically it chose to reinvent rather than continue what had been started in Xenoblade and Xenoblade X. While it largely worked in terms of combat, the improved navigation system of X was lost. Fluidity was broken up by field skill gates, and much of your party development revolved around an RNG-based gacha system.
I say all this at the start to hammer home the major obstacles that Xenoblade 3 faces. The level of technical performance found in Xenoblade 2 is less acceptable by many Switch players now than it was early on. The world design and soundtrack have an incredible string of successes against which they must stand. The story woven between Xenoblade and Xenoblade 2 must be followed up on in a satisfying way. And what didn’t work in Xenoblade 2 needs to be changed, and perhaps concepts left behind need to be revisited.
The game opens with the player in control of Noah, an off-seer for the kingdom of Keves. Off-seers are soldiers who carry flutes onto the battlefield and perform funeral rites for fallen soldiers, sending on their spirits so that they may find rest. Accompanying Noah is Eunie, a healer, and Lanz, who is definitely not just Reyn but as a Machina. The fact that from the very start Noah and his companions are trained soldiers immediately shifts the tone to something much darker than either prior mainline Xenoblade game. The people in this world, Aionios, only live for 10 years, spending their entire lives fighting an endless war against the nation of Agnus. Most die on the battlefield, with their life force going to feed the opposing side’s flame clock, from which the soldiers subsist. In the rare instance that someone lives all the way to the end of their 10th year a ceremony called a homecoming is performed before their queen in which their life energy returns to her.
While on a mission Noah and his companions come upon a man transporting a strange egg-like device. It is here that we meet another off-seer party, this time from Agnus, which includes the off-seer Mio, Taion the tactician, and the hammer-wielding Sena. The six of them are drawn into an uneasy alliance after the mysterious man makes use of the device to grant them all the power of the Ouroboros. With this power certain members of the party can join together into a large and powerful form. However as soon as they take on this new ability, both Agnus and Keves mark them for death. It is up for the party to unravel exactly what this power is, and why their nations want them dead.
As you head out into the world of Aionios the sheer scale is striking. No matter how many Xenoblade games I play, that initial moment of stepping out into the first giant field still gets me. Like Xenoblade and Xenoblade 2, the world is separated into loading zones. However unlike Xenoblade 2 each of these zones are directly connected. You simply walk to the edge of one and after a short loading screen appear in the next. That being said, hitting a loading screen is extremely rare. Each zone is huge and often sports multiple biomes. Outside of the entirely seamless world of Xenoblade X, these are the biggest areas the series has ever presented. They’re varied too, with everything from the expected grasslands and deserts, to a fully explorable sea, dotted with islands and hidden caves. This area in particular features an entirely unique sailing mechanic that feels like Xenoblade meets The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker. I can’t help but hope for a future title that explores this concept to even greater effect.
As you explore you’ll encounter hero characters. Heroes are recruitable party members that can fill in a seventh party slot. A few of these are along the critical story path but the vast majority are entirely optional. Occasionally these hero characters will teach the party a new ability such as climbing vines up the side of cliffs, and sliding down guidewires in a manner usually reserved for edgy hedgehogs. Abilities like these replace the field skill system of Xenoblade 2 and are a monumental improvement. The effect of having these traversal options be binary gates eliminates tedium. You either can or can’t use a given traversal option. There is no point at which you should be able to cross a barrier but need to grind out arbitrary skill trees first. As a result the entire experience is smooth and uninterrupted. As these abilities open up, past areas of the map will often reveal their true size, with new areas accessible for exploration. While this is by no means a metroidvania, there is a similar feeling to opening up a new ability and thinking back on previously inaccessible areas you’ll want to return to. Much of this exploration is entirely optional, as the core story sends you on a predominately forward moving path without much backtracking. But exploring optional areas, picking up new quests, and meeting new heroes is where Xenoblade 3 is at its best.
In addition to providing an extra party member and opening up new forms of exploration, hero characters also provide your party with a steady stream of new classes to be mastered. Each member of the primary party can take on the class of any other member of the party. While their base stats will still come into play making some more transferable to certain classes than others, every member of your party is ultimately viable in any role to varying degrees. When a new hero joins up, their class is inherited by one primary party member. As other members spend time around that hero or a party member using their class, they’ll gradually fill a gauge which, once full, grants them access to the class as well. Once a class is mastered by reaching rank 10, you’ll be able to carry over specific skills and arts from that class into others. This can be employed in many different ways. Perhaps you want your healer-type characters to master a variety of healer type classes so they can add more moves of that type to their repertoire. Perhaps you want your attacker to have some healer moves, or your Tank to have some attacker moves in the rare instance they aren’t drawing attention to themselves. Party members can be further customized with accessories and gems. Gems, which make a return from the original Xenoblade, are much more user-friendly this time around. Each one can be crafted from a predetermined set of items and you only need to craft one of each kind. Once crafted a single gem can be equipped by multiple party members without the need to craft more.
Combat is largely in keeping with what has come before. Upon approaching an enemy you’ll seamlessly transition into real-time combat. Your character auto-attacks when standing still but your main source of damage output is from arts. Arts are special attacks that have a cooldown after use. Each one has unique qualifiers for its effectiveness based on position relative to the enemy, current status of the enemy, and more. The underlying mechanics feel, very intentionally, like a middle ground between the other two mainline Xenoblade titles. While visually the actual interface is clearly built off Xenoblade 2, the specific behaviors of arts and auto attacks are split between Xenoblade 1 and 2 based on the origin of the art in question. For example, arts of Kevesi origin will recharge slowly over time, while arts from Agnus will only recharge during auto attacks. The quick-time event style button presses of prior entries are entirely absent this time around. The closest thing to a quick-time event is the option to mash a button to break out of daze a little faster.
As you master arts from other classes you’ll be able to combine multiple arts in combat for greater effect. This also charges your Ouroboros link level, which resets after each fight. While you can activate your giant and powerful Ouroboros form at any time during combat, waiting until it is charged up to level three will make it even more powerful. Once in use you’ll need to watch its timing gauge carefully as staying in that form too long will cause it to overheat and extend its cooldown time before it can be reactivated.
There is honestly more to the depth of Xenoblade 3’s gameplay than I could ever cover in a well-paced review. However the most critical point to make here is this: Xenoblade 3 is the best gameplay the mainline series has ever offered. While it still took me around 80 hours or so to roll credits, I never found myself stuck behind a dumb mechanic. It feels like the fluidity of the original Xenoblade, with all of the features that did legitimately work from Xenoblade 2 along with its DLC sprinkled in. But it is worth noting that anything that didn’t work in previous games has been left behind. Rarely has the term the best of both worlds been more appropriate than it is here.
This level of quality largely holds true presentationally as well. While this is by no means a locked 1080p title, it turns in significantly better image quality than either previous Xenoblade game on Switch.The base rendering resolution seems to top out at 720p and drop as low as 540p when docked. However it is important to note that some high quality upscaling and anti-aliasing do a great job of giving the impression of something more like 900p. It can certainly still get a little blurry in handheld mode, but this is much more often during complex cutscenes than actual gameplay and I’ve yet to clock it hitting the 360p that was common in Xenoblade 2. I did however note a few bugs during my playthrough. I mentioned in my preview early in the month that grass had a very aggressive near field cull that caused it to disappear too early. Upon investigating further this appears to be an inconsistent glitch as it will occasionally appear at random and then be fixed by rebooting the game. I also encountered a few hang ups randomly where the game would simply freeze for a few seconds before returning to normal. Finally I also ran into some cutscenes in which short pre-rendered cutaway sequences would fail to activate and I’d be left looking at a wall while a flashback or something similar was clearly intended to be playing. All of this is happening on version 1.0.0 and outside of the cutscene bug, none of these had any real impact beyond mild presentational annoyance, and I encountered each of them only a few times during my playthrough. The sound design is consistently excellent. The soundtrack more than lives up to the incredibly high bar set by previous titles. Noah and Mio’s off-seer flutes play a strong part in the soundtracks overall feel, with much of it intertwining with their flutes’ melodies. Voice acting is also strong with each member of the primary party turning in a strong performance. Many of the hero characters are also extremely endearing with one major exception later in the game.
The story is excellently told and feels more in line tonally with the original Xenoblade than its sequel did, though it ultimately skews darker than either of them. It takes a little while to get moving but once the twists start hitting it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the characters and the world around them. The one area in which the story unfortunately didn’t land for me was in its ending. Obviously I won’t say a word about what that ending is but suffice it to say that I felt many of the characters were left somewhat unresolved and major events seemed to contradict events set up earlier in the story. The whole ending winds up feeling a little contrived in a way very unlike the Xenoblade series at large. My suspicion is that the story expansion will deal with many of these issues, but even if that’s the case I can’t help but feel like something was trimmed in order to preserve it for a later DLC. That being said, even after the credits rolled I was happy to jump back in for more and was delighted by some hidden post game opportunities.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the best playing game in the series. It is challenging yet excellently paced. I rarely found myself over or underleveled. The world unfolds naturally and effectively rather than through tedious field skill gates. The map, though segmented, still feels massive and unified. Characters are engaging and the story compelling even if it feels like it leaves a little too much to be resolved. A few mostly minor bugs may trip up the experience occasionally but taken in the context of the scale of the journey, it’s hard to give them much weight. It will be fascinating to see if updates and the eventual story expansion can clean up the very few blemishes. Regardless of how you came to Xenoblade, either through one of many incarnations of the original, or through its sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 strives to satiate all audiences and it is largely successful in this endeavor while also presenting something entirely new. This is not just Xenoblade meets Xenoblade 2. In many ways it is greater than the sum of its parts and those parts already added up to quite a bit.