Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Review, Part 1: A JRPG Magnum Opus

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a JRPG developed by Monolithsoft and published by Nintendo. It was released in July 2022 as a Nintendo Switch exclusive. MSRB is $60. This is part 1 of my review and will only contain minimal early-game spoilers about gameplay and basic story elements similar to what was shown in Nintendo trailers.

I don’t exactly hide the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles is one of my favorite series ever made. These games offer unique open worlds to explore and deep combat systems to master. Most of all, these games present emotional and thought-provoking stories. They aren’t afraid to tackle the big universal anxieties we all face as part of the human condition. That one factor alone has me discovering some new nugget of emotional insight every time I play through them.

The story about war is particularly relevant for the culture wars that pervade modern U.S. society.

That being said, I realize that past Xenoblade games can be off-putting to some players. It’s in a niche genre, with a complicated UI, and an anime aesthetic. I get that. However, I see plenty of anime “haters” (for lack of a better term) make an exception for Studio Ghibli movies. They do this because Ghibli movies speak to the heart. Spirited Away, for example, is a Ghibli masterpiece; it’s a beautiful coming-of-age story whose superb artistic statements transcend the medium.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is Monolithsoft’s Spirited Away. It’s a monument of a video game. It’s worthy to stand alongside classics like Final Fantasy VII, EarthBound, and Chrono Trigger. Even if you aren’t usually interested in JRPGs, you should make an exception for this one.

This is a dark and grim opening for a JRPG, and it does a great job of pulling you in.

A Brave Yet Terrible New World

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes place on Aionios, a world scarred by an unending war between two nations: Keves and Agnus. In order to survive, people must fight and siphon their foes’ life energy into a device called a Flame Clock. Time is always ticking down for the people of this world; the only way to survive is to keep killing people and keep filling the Flame Clock. During a military operation, three soldiers from Keves (Noah, Eunie, and Lanz) and three soldiers from Agnus (Mio, Sena, and Taion) come upon a mysterious person that suggests someone behind the scenes orchestrating the war. The six of them set out to find answers.

Stunning vistas are everywhere.

The game grips you with its dark and mysterious premise. I was immediately asking questions and wanting to know answers. And throughout the adventure, the game teases just enough to get hypotheses brewing in your head before blowing them up in a spectacular fireworks display of plot reveals. Some people claim that just because they see a reveal coming that a game has bad storytelling, but in reality that all depends on how the game builds up to that big moment. In Xenoblade 3‘s case, the foreshadowing is like a sky slowly gathering storm clouds, with a faint thunder rumble, before giving you the big lightning strike. You can tell something is coming, you can anticipate what it will be, but it’s still exhilarating when the moment happens.

The world itself feels like a character.

Whether it’s through the leitmotifs of the goosebumps-inducing soundtrack, or the thought-provoking visual iconography, this game is rich with symbolism to help you connect with the overall themes and existential questions. The name of the world itself, Aionios, is Greek for “eternity,” and once you beat the game, you’ll understand why it’s named that way. The characters also help you connect with the game’s intangible philosophical ideas. The dialogue and growth between the characters is grounded and relatable; you may see some familiar anime tropes, but they arrive at those scenarios in believable and compelling ways. Whether it’s the burly Sena and Lanz bonding at being gym buddies, or the glasses-pushing Taion trying for the umpteenth time to keep everyone on track, the party gels just enough to get along yet creates enough friction to make them learn from each other.

I love the way the world helps you build anticipation for the upcoming story beat as well as provide context for how far you’ve come.

Part of the game’s symbolism comes from the world itself. Supposedly the answers to your questions lie in a place called Swordmarch, a land pierced by a giant sword. You can see it and other story-relevant landmarks in the distance, providing further foreshadowing and context about how far you’ve come in your journey. Xenoblade’s worlds are always expertly-designed, and this game is no different. No wonder Nintendo asked these devs to help design Breath of the Wild. If you want to, you can get lost exploring and completing all of the numerous side-quests; or if you want to stay on track, you can always turn on a glowing trail that shows you exactly where you need to go next. It caters to experienced veterans while also remaining approachable to newcomers.

Combat has never been this approachable in a Xenoblade game.

Combat Like a Symphony

Speaking of beginner-friendly mechanics, combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has the best tutorial of the entire series. It gives you just enough information to know what to do, but allows you the freedom to experiment with some of the finer details for yourself. Combat in the Xenoblade games is like playing a musical instrument in an orchestra. You pick a role to play, and you need to execute your notes just right with the other sections. It looks complicated if you’re watching from the outside, but when you’re in the seat playing it for yourself, it makes sense. If you ever need to slow things down, or you feel like you don’t understand a certain mechanic, there’s now an optional tutorial battle mode that walks you through every step of the mechanics that you’re fuzzy on — including which buttons to press and when. YouTube tutorials can help as well, but most of everything you need is right there in the game.

I highly recommend going through these tutorials if you’re struggling.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes the combat to new heights with its Classes and Fusion Arts systems. Every character can be assigned a Class, not unlike the job systems of Fire Emblem Three Houses or Final Fantasy Tactics. Each has their own unique Arts, Skills, and combat specialties. Once you reach max level in a Class, you can carry over certain Arts and Skills into your next Class, incentivizing you to experiment with what abilities synergize well. To continue the orchestra metaphor, it’s like being able to pick any instrument you want, and then swapping right in the middle of a song. It sounds tricky, but it’s very satisfying to pull off. If you want to, you can dive deep into the game’s menus and make maxed-out party members, but you can also leave that brainwork to the computer and they’ll offer you a decent character build.

Heroes add a welcome layer to the already rich combat system.

You acquire Classes by recruiting Heroes, who are optional characters that join your party as a 7th member. Each hero comes with a Hero Quest you’ll need to complete in order to recruit them, along with a secondary quest that will complete their character arc, unlocking a higher set of skills. If you don’t usually do side content in video games, I’d advise you to consider at least completing the Hero Quests. They have meaty story content with them, and some even answer lingering questions you may have from the main story.

I just adore how you get to sit around and chat, and the dialogue is surprisingly well-written for a side quest.

Speaking of Side Quests, I see them as a mixed bag overall. The game uses an Affinity system not unlike the first two Xenoblade games to help you track all of the NPCs and the various tasks they will give you. I like how you unlock quests by overhearing NPC conversations and then having a discussion about it near a campfire. About 2/3 of the scenarios just cycle through the same mundane scenarios: gathering supplies for someone, finding a kid who wandered off, and so on. As far as side dishes go, they tasted like sawdust. The other 1/3, though, were spicy and flavorful, like uncovering hidden areas or helping NPCs become friends. One of my favorite parts of the first Xenoblade Chronicles is how you can help Colony 6 grow and change over the course of the game, and in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, almost every settlement will develop like this. Your actions will make a real change on the world.

If you’ve never played a Xenoblade game before, I highly recommend starting with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. If you’ve heard about problems from the other games, this one fixes just about all of them. It whisks you away on an epic and unforgettable journey. I consider this game the new #1 JRPG on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s in the running for landing on the podium of my Top 3 Nintendo Switch games.

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