I’ve been looking forward to the next game from Monolith Soft since the last one ended in 2017, though not without my fair reservations. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a meandering JRPG with a hodgepodge of systems and extremely inconsistent storytelling. As much as I love the series, I was concerned Xenoblade Chronicles 3 would be the same. So far it isn’t. It’s a first-party Nintendo Switch blockbuster that can hang with the rest of the library.
After five hours, it feels like the most lush and balanced game in the series. The environments are expansive but filled. Combat has many levels to experiment with, but none of them come across as overly blunt or overbearing. Your party’s list is crammed with classic archetypes that don’t shy away from clichés. And the music responsible for keeping the momentum going through long, crunchy sections of a game like this is as excellent as ever.
Given discussions about Xenoblade 3‘s gigantic running time and how it is still tutorials 10 hours in, my biggest concern was the pace. However, the game hardly wastes any time to get going. You play as Noah, a member of the nation of Keves who, along with his comrades, is embroiled in an existential struggle against the rival nation of Agnus. Both sides are bound to “flame clocks” in giant mech bases called Ferronis, which drain life energy from those killed in battle. Humans are born infants and only live 10 years or less if they don’t take enough lives to feed the clock. It’s something like that Battle Royale by Philip K Dick.
Things start with a big fight before quickly escalating into otherworldly intrigue. Noah and his crew encounter rival fighters from the opposing nation on a reconnaissance mission, only to throw both sides into chaos after a mysterious old man tells them they are all pawns in a larger conspiracy. Next thing you know, cyborgs fight, characters merge and a party of six characters is delivered into your hands to fight your way to the end Xenoblade 3‘s secrets.
This all happens within the first few hours. I spent most of the time before and after the fight across fields, rivers and mountain passes. Despite its heady premise and chatty ensemble, the heart of Xenoblade 3‘s gameplay remains classic JRPG grinding. Much of this can be done on autopilot. Tougher fights against non-bosses are announced with special fonts above enemies’ heads, indicating their extra power, better rewards, or both. And unlike in Xenoblade 2, the landscapes are once again liberally peppered with collectible resources that you can collect simply by walking across them. You no longer need to stop every five seconds to press a button prompt to discover extra pieces of wood or cook mushrooms.
Combat-wise, I’m still unlocking some of the core features, but customizing special attacks (called “arts”) in combat and changing character classes open up fairly early. It’s easy to see how these interlocking systems, which involve some degree of mixing and matching of active and passive abilities, can lead to a lot of satisfying tinkering between marquee boss fights. And while I was initially concerned that having six party members on-screen at once would make fights unnecessarily chaotic, the ability to switch between them at will adds welcome micromanagement Xenoblade 3 which I’ve sorely missed in previous games (the UI remains a nightmare).
My only real complaint is that the extensive tutorialing is overly explanatory and non-skippable at times. Do I need the game to guide me step-by-step through equipping a new piece of armor? But. Likewise, I don’t need the characters chatting away about different game systems to make them feel vaguely part of the sci-fi world-building. Humans join bodies and become cyborgs. Magical costume changes and young adults wielding giant swords are the least of my worries.
Luckily, none of that gets in the way too much. I’ve really enjoyed the last few days Xenoblade 3 while playing it and constantly thinking about it when I wasn’t doing it. That rarely happens to me these days. Especially when it comes to JRPGs. But for now Xenoblade 3 managed to combine some of my favorite elements from Monolith’s previous games (Mechs, Cabal, free-flowing combat) with what has worked so well for others. Namely the group of student fighters who praise, question and berate each other as they seek to overthrow the powers that be and while reduce creep to a minimum. It worked individual 5, Fire Emblem: Three Housesand currently it really works for me in Xenoblade 3. I still have a few dozen hours to go before I know if the rest of the game will hold up.