In the world of Aionios, the nations of Agnus and Keves are locked in a never-ending war. In each nation, soldiers with a mere ten-year lifespan are sent out to fight each other and collect life energy for their ‘Flame Clocks’. But a chance encounter with a third party grants three Kevesi and three Agnian fighters a new power, and freedom from the cycle of life and death. Can they use this power to free their world from its eternal war?
While Xenoblade 2 didn’t land quite right with me, it’s fair to say that I had a great time with the original Xenoblade Chronicles and its spin-off, Xenoblade Chronicles X. I’ll go into more detail in my upcoming Xenoblade rankings, but suffice to say for now that I was looking forward to Xenoblade Chronicles 3. The question was, would it deliver?
At first, things seemed promising enough. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 introduces a new world and new characters – young soldiers with a limited lifespan, doomed to fight each other until their time runs out. Naturally, our heroes – drawn from both sides – get invested with a destined power, and embark on a journey to uncover the truth of the world, while defending themselves from their former allies. It’s standard JRPG fare, and something many a game has turned into a serviceable story. Alas, that is not the case here.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a game crushed under not one, but two major story issues. The first is the sheer ludonarrative dissonance of the entire setup. At the start of your adventure, your plucky band of heroes are cut off from their allies, and perceived as enemies by both sides. This leads to some tense moments, with the protagonists unable to find safe haven anywhere, and having to gamble that they can get through to an old ally and convince her that they’re not monsters.
After this first arc, however, every new colony you encounter – whether Agnian or Kevesi – turns out to be led by a friendly oddball who quickly warms to your party. There’s no real sense of jeopardy, as everyone quickly accepts you. In theory, there is a ‘warning level’ that increases and makes the world more dangerous as you liberate more colonies, but you can basically ignore this mechanic as it makes no difference to the decisions you make in the game. There are still enemy soldiers from both sides scattered about the world map, but by the end of the game it’s not even clear where they’re coming from – there are references to unliberated colonies, but these don’t exist anywhere on the world map.
Of course, all of your fellow soldiers are just unwitting pawns of the real villains – Moebius, an organization of bad guys who wear powered suits and name themselves after letters of the alphabet. In true cliched fashion, Moebius spend most of their time watching the heroes via magic CCTV, and deciding amongst themselves who should be the next boss for our heroes to face.
The other major story issue is the insistence that Xenoblade 3’s story ties in with that of the first two games. In Xenoblade Chronicles 1, we learnt that the world of the Bionis and Mechonis was created by events on Earth, and thus represents the far future of humanity. That’s a pretty standard twist for a fantasy world, and one I could entirely live with.
Things got a bit more convoluted with the release of Xenoblade 2, which revealed that Earth had actually split into two different realities. The ending of Xenoblade 2 seemed to depict the two worlds coming back together, with the implication that this would spell a happy future. Xenoblade 3 blows that out of the water, instead telling us that the combined world is slowly annihilating itself, and that what needs to be done is to separate them again. What I did spend 80-100 hours doing in each of the previous games, then? I thought I was defeating God (twice) and making things better, but now everything is in an even worse state?! I can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed and disillusioned.
I wish I could leave it at that, but there’s so much else that rubbed me up the wrong way about the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. I’m saving some of these for another article, but for now, here are some spoilerific reasons to dislike the game’s plot.
- One of the major points about Aionios is that the soldiers of Agnes and Keves live short, dangerous lives, with death never far away. Naturally this means that all the characters have lost someone dear to them in the past, which is supposed to bring some drama and depth to the story. Complete enough of the main story and its sidequests, however, and pretty much everyone who had a dramatic past death will return to life somehow. Yes, JRPGs are notoriously bad in having characters stay dead, but in this case it robs the game of a lot of its emotional power.
- One of the big reveals is that Noah and Mio were basically fated lovers in every reincarnation, until one version of Noah chose immortality with Mio as Moebius Consuls N and M. To this end, N made M immortal against her will, and in order to do so, he sacrificed his own child and his former allies to provide the life force to do it. This is retconned a little in Future Redeemed, but unlike said future, to me, N is irredeemable. He acts like a possessive jerk throughout the story, completely ignoring M and Mio’s own wishes and desires, and coming out with lines like “my woman on your arm”. I don’t care if this is meant to be a tragic love story – I’m never going to feel sympathy for this guy.
- The “Hero Quests” that flesh out the supporting characters are prone to falling into the worst of anime tropes. Think of a stereotypical anime or JRPG personality, and there’ll be a Xenoblade Chronicles 3 hero to match it. The innocent betrayed by her best friend? Check. The inexplicably battle-hungry berserker? Check. The taciturn older man who argues with his wife all the time but secretly loves and admires her? Check. There’s even a character who killed her former commander in order to take his place, and, surprise, surprise, she gets immediately forgiven because she’s friends with the main characters.
- I’m sorry, but I can’t conclude this section without talking about *that* picture – the one of Rex and his three wives Pyra, Mythra and Nia, each with a newborn baby in their arms. So not only did Rex, an entirely undeserving character, get his own harem, but he got them all pregnant at the same time. Pyra was always going to be tradwife material, but Mythra and Nia at least deserved better. How were three Blades even able to have children anyway?
- Noah: A Kevesi offseer, and the hero of Xenoblade 3. When examined with a critical eye, Noah offers more style than substance, and it’s hard to see more to him than “sword wielding destined hero with a pure heart”. In fact, when Noah attempts to be more than that, he just comes across as insufferable – for example, when Mio is feeling depressed about not having much time left, he responds by saying “why are you moping, you’ve still got a whole month left to live!”
- Mio: An offseer and leader of the Agnian group, Mio is extremely talented on the battlefield, and admired by all of her peers. At the start of the game, Mio is nearing the end of her lifespan, and her impending death invests a level of tension and urgency to their quest. Mio’s quiet strength and emotional development are handled well, and she’s a genuinely likeable character, although it’s not so clear why she puts up with some of Noah’s bullshit.
- Lanz: The musclehead of the Kevesi group, Lanz is presented as a straightforward type who doesn’t do nuance. He’s likeable enough, but there’s not a lot to him – yes, he has some long-held issues stemming from the death of a friend, but so does everyone else, so it hardly marks him out as distinctive.
- Eunie: A refreshing change from the usual “demure female healer” trope, Eunie is forthright and not afraid to speak her mind – even when she’s wrong. Eunie is a well-developed character whose refreshingly direct exterior hides her inner worries. Unlike some of the other characters, Eunie feels like a character with some depth to her, who actually learns and grows a bit over the course of the journey.
- Sena: Sena is probably the least well developed of the main six – her most distinctive character trait is that she’s a musclehead who likes to lift weights. Sena has deep feelings for Mio, so much so that she even admits to being jealous of Noah at one point. I actually think that Sena and Mio would have made a better couple that Noah and Mio – we get some development of their friendship through flashbacks, and it just flows more naturally for me than putting Noah and Mio together.
- Taion: The tactician and healer of the Agnian group. Taion starts out as a fairly uninteresting embodiment of the “glasses guy” trope, but he actually grew on me throughout the adventure. Unfortunately, the game insists that he get together with Eunie, and forces the two characters together even though they work better as enemies to friends than enemies to lovers.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by offering players a vast world to explore, complete with areas to discover and numerous foes to battle. Those who recall the messy volume of gameplay mechanics in Xenoblade 2 might naturally be wary, but fortunately, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 isn’t quite that overburdened. That being said, the balance still isn’t quite right.
When it comes to exploration, there’s plenty that simply gets so tedious that you find yourself ignoring it. Xenoblade 3 tries to play into the theme of being stuck in a endless war, and as you explore, you’ll occasionally see a supply drop, or a local skirmish where you can pick which side to take. At first, these add a bit to the immersion, but when the same supply drop or skirmish repeats the next time you visit an area, it starts to feel a bit pointless and repetitive. It also doesn’t help that some collectibles are so plentiful that you’ll soon start to begrudge the time spent picking them up.
Battle in Xenoblade remains a lot like its predecessors – enemies wander around the map, and can be targeted to initiate combat. Characters auto attack and build up the charge they need to use their specials – the Xenoblade 1 derived Kevesi have skills that recharge over time, while the Xenoblade 2 dervied Agnians must auto attack to charge their skills. For most of the game, the party will consist of all six main characters, plus an additional seventh ‘hero’ character, drawn from a range of recruitable extras who can be unlocked as the story progresses. The player can choose to control any one of the six main characters, and can even switch between them in battle – an option that was sorely lacking from the earlier Xenoblade games.
Each playable character comes with a default class that falls into one of the three usual types – DPS, tank or healer. Eventually, you’ll gain the ability for characters to switch class, and recruiting heroes will also open up new classes to play as. Given the wide variety available, players are bound to find something they like, and you can also play with your party balance – do you want to evenly cover all the bases, or go for something a bit more challenging, like a healer-only party?
On top of basic combat, each pair of characters is able to transform into an Ouroboros – a giant being that’s more than a little reiminiscent of Xenogears’ Gears. In Ouroboros form, characters gain access to a new moveset and also can’t take damage, but unsurprisingly you can’t bust out this superpower indefinitely. The Ouroboros power will certainly get you out of a tight spot, but you need to deploy it wisely to get through the harder battles.
Speaking of difficulty, in general, it is pretty easy to breeze through Xenoblade 3 without breaking a sweat. The reason for this is that exploration and sidequests will net you a hefty amount of “bonus EXP”, which can be used at campsites to significantly over-level your characters, making the main story largely trivial. If you fancy more of a challenge, then be warned – hold off on the bonus EXP. In New Game+ you can use the campsite to level down as well as up, but this feature isn’t available first time around.
Despite these issues, the core gameplay loop of Xenoblade 3 is compelling enough to carry you through the game, even when the story is distinctly failing to impress. There is one caveat, however, and that’s how your time is split between watching cutscenes and actually playing the game. This is a challenge every JRPG must deal with, and usually it works out best to intersperse one with another, so that a single play session can encompass a bit of both.
Not so with Xenoblade 3, however. If you focus on the main story, then you’ll be interrupted every few minutes with yet another cutscene where the characters talk about their lives or indulge a flashback, before you get to walk a little way towards the next landmark. You can try to break things up with sidequests, but here again the balance doesn’t feel quite right. Instead of doling them out in reasonably-sized chunks, sidequests seem to get dumped on you in huge batches. Yes, you can leave most of them until later, but if the sight of all those quest markers on the map incites the completionist with you, you can suddenly find yourself losing 5-10 hours to sidequests alone, without ever advancing the main story once.
As with its predecessors, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has lofty ambitions for its graphics, promising large, open areas filled with stunning vistas and a variety of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the Nintendo Switch isn’t really up to the task. The game looks especially bad in the opening area, where everything looks a bit rough around the edges and the hardware struggles to keep up. The difference in quality between custcenes and player-controlled sections is especially glaring, and it all adds up to a feeling of disappointment.
That being said, things improve when you move away from the sludge brown of the opening area and start exploring some more aesthetically pleasing sections. While the locales never felt as memorable as those of the first two games, the game does offer a variety of biomes to explore.
When it comes to character designs, the protagonists and their allies are generally strong. The various factions all have consistent motifs, but within that there’s a lot of scope for individual variation. There are a few misses, such as a tendency towards school uniform type outfits, or the frequent presence of oversized bazongas, but for the heroes it’s a strong showing overall. The decision to have characters wear different outfits when they change class is also a nice touch.
Unfortunately, the villains don’t fare so well. If you choose to do all the sidequests, then you’ll be seeing a wide variety of Moebius designs, each more ridiculous than the last. It really defuses the tension to see the big bads of the world show up looking so utterly stupid.
When it comes to music, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 proves to be weaker than its predecessor. The various battle and boss themes are the strongest of the bunch, and clearly a lot of effort has gone into weaving the offseer flute into the game’s music. The rest of the soundtrack feels serviceable at best, however, without the punch and memorability of the Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and 2 soundtracks.
Future Redeemed DLC
Just as Xenoblade 2 had Torna: The Golden Country, Xenoblade 3 also gets it own 20-hour prequel DLC, Future Redeemed. Future Redeemed tells the tale of Matthew, N’s grandson, and his merry band of travelling companions. Said companions include older versions of Shulk and Rex from their respective games, Agnian and Kevesi soldier versions of Shulk’s son and Rex’s daughter, plus the mysterious warrior A. The story fills in a bit of the gap between the time the two worlds came together and the era of the main game, and also tries to retcon N into being slightly less awful.
Future Redeemed starts off well enough – Matthew and A are decent enough characters, and the interplay between them serves to make them feel more rounded and likeable than most of the main game’s cast. Unfortunately, things soon go downhill when the rest of the party joins up. Future Redeemed immediately switches to fanservice mode, ignoring the newly introduced characters in favour of focussing on conversations between Shulk and Rex. Admittedly, adult Rex is less annoying than his fifteen-year-old self, but I found myself distinctly less interested in the story once they showed up.
Gameplay is largely reused from the main game, although a few elements are stripped down or repurposed. In particular, since Ouroboros power hasn’t successfully been mastered yet, you don’t get to turn into giant creatures, and must instead make do with a weaker sort of special attack. The over-levelling issue is also absent, which makes the game a bit more challenging, particularly if you decide to take on some of the higher-level optional enemies.
While I enjoyed my time with Xenoblade Chronicles 3 sufficiently to see the game through to its conclusion, it didn’t quite live up to the lofty heights I had hoped for it. The game’s need to tie itself to the lore of its predecessors hamstrung an initially promising story, while the division between gameplay and cutscene never quite struck the right balance. It was inevitable that I would play through it once, but I don’t see myself rushing to go through it all again.