Xenoblade Chronicles 3 marks the first time where Tetsuya Takahashi and his team at Monolith Soft have truly seen a long-term vision through to its completion. Xenogears, which Takahashi and many developers who would go on to form Monolith created while still at Squaresoft in the mid-to-late-’90s, famously ran out of time in its development. This is how the second disc ended up more story than gameplay, and the end credits referred to the game by a surprise, George Lucasian full title that has never been acted upon: Xenogears Episode V. Similarly, the Xenosaga trilogy that Monolith would develop while a subsidiary of Namco was actually supposed to be six games long, but was sliced in half after deadlines in the development of Episode I forced significant cuts and made it clear there was simply too much ambition for the development cycles and storage solutions of the day.
The Xenoblade trilogy, though, seems to have struck the proper balance between what’s achievable and Monolith’s grander designs. Each of the three titles is a standalone game that doesn’t require playing the others in order to be understood and appreciated. At the same time, though, all of these games are connected: it took much longer to realize that connection in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 than in its sequel, which depicts iconic imagery from the first two entries in both its box and promotional art, but that catgirl has been out of the bag for some time now. Takahashi described Xenoblade Chronicles 3 as the “culmination” of the series—bringing to a close the themes of the previous two games, continued in this title, allowing for Monolith to look forward to what’s next for the Japanese role-playing franchise Nintendo isn’t about to put a stop to now that they finally have one with something to say.
This reworking of scope has actually allowed for Monolith to focus even more on building intricate systems, while ensuring that they only look convoluted and complicated from the outside. A screenshot of a late-game battle in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is inscrutable, unknowable—explaining what everything on screen means and how you react to and with it would take longer than a review of the game as a whole. Monolith, though, has figured out how to hold your hand without making it feel patronizing, bringing you along, one system at a time, until the deployment of all of that accumulated knowledge feels as natural as Mario jumping on that first Goomba’s head. It all happens much more quickly than in its predecessor as well—Xenoblade Chronicles 3 also ties its advancements in battle systems to the narrative, but all far swifter than in Xenoblade Chronicles 2—and has been designed so that a larger group of people can figure it all out at their own pace, too.
Monolith has made this Xenoblade more approachable through difficulty options, the ability to autobattle, and, most importantly, freedom as to whether you want to approach this game as a sicko who loves tweaking characters and skills and stats in a menu for concerningly unbroken stretches of time, or as someone who simply wants to press a button so that the game will do all of that for you, and you can get back to exploring. The process of crafting stat-enhancing gems—and the number of gems that are even craftable—has been greatly reduced from the absurdity of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition. There are no weapons or armor to purchase or find: the characters live in a world where all of that is generated for them depending on which class they are, by the same military technology that enforces every other aspect of their lives. Which also means Xenoblade Chronicles 3 removed the worst part of games that have a Job system: having to grind for heaps of gold in order to buy new job-specific gear that you’re just going to have to replace once you max out a job, anyway. Sorry, Bravely Default fans, but that shit sucks out loud.
Monolith is well aware of their own habits at this point in a way they didn’t used to be, and that self-awareness caused them to streamline the elements that could be streamlined, which in turn makes Xenoblade Chronicles 3 the most accessible of the three titles despite its nigh-excessive scope. That streamlining allowed them to go harder on the number of systems in place, so while things might seem overly simple at the beginning, when you’re simply letting auto attacks do their thing and occasionally using a skill once its meter fills, that all changes once you get out of the earliest of introductions.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 introduces the different class types—attacker, defender, and healer—by forcing you to play as one of each in succession for narrative reasons, and then introduces the sub-classes within those larger parent classes. Characters from each side of the war actually see their battle skills charge up in different ways, with one being exclusively time-based, the other filling each time you successfully land an auto attack. Knowing the difference matters not just for which of the game’s six lead characters you’re controlling at a given moment—you can swap between them at will, so long as they’re conscious—but also because, eventually, each of those characters will have some of each in their arsenal. You begin with four equipped battle skills—arts—and four eventually becomes seven. You can either use those additional three whenever they load, or wait until corresponding arts—such as the ones mapped to the X button and Up on the directional pad—are both ready to go, and then perform a Fusion Art, which uses the attack of the X art while also delivering the effect of the other. The use of Fusion Arts, of course, feeds its own meter, which is tied into two other systems you’ll probably want to take advantage of.
Decisions like that, plus filling a Chain Attack meter that pauses enemy movements and attacks and allows you to absolutely lay into them uninterrupted as a party, the ability to transform paired party members into the mech-like Ouroboros with their own arts and skills, and the fact you have to work as part of a well-constructed party in the role your current class dictates, means you will always be thinking and doing something, be it in the moment or a few steps ahead. And that there are presets for how you want to set your party to act—focus on Smash Combos that will do loads of extra damage to foes, or Burst Combos that will nullify their buffs? Attack at will against anyone, or focus on the same enemy as the character you’re controlling? Use any arts immediately, or aim for Fusion first?—means you also need to be considering what the larger party as a whole is doing, and not just your own actions. Again, though, you’re brought along slowly enough that you grasp all of these individual bits before moving on to the next, and they all work together in harmony by the time you’ve got the full slate in front of you.
So, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels great to battle in once those limiters are removed—the best of the series in that regard, even—but how does the rest of it play? Exploration will consume much of your time, as the world is absolutely massive. There are icons on your map and minimap you’ll want to discover, yes, but you aren’t inundated with these markers like in certain sensory-destroying open-world games of the modern era, and much of the decisions about where to go are left up to you and your roaming eyes. It’s not Breath of the Wild-level freedom, and the starkness of that map is basically unmatched by anything unless you shut off all of the icons in this one, but Monolith is responsible for both landscapes, which explains part of how Xenoblade Chronicles 3, while not replicating the full openness of Breath of the Wild, still manages to create that, “Hey, I wonder what’s over there” vibe that begins with you seeing what’s on the other side of a hill, and ends a dozen hours later with you finding yourself as many levels ahead of where the story expects you to be without having progressed it at all.
There’s some good news there, too. If you want to battle more and explore less, then do that. If you’d rather explore and earn additional experience and levels that way, hunting down rare and unique monsters while mostly avoiding normal foes with normal rewards, you can do that, too. If you want to partake of both, challenging yourself with the optional missions and exploration while cruising through the required missions and battles, then by all means, you can. You’ll get the experience you need one way or the other, and if you want to play on the tougher difficulties, you’ll likely need plenty from both paths. JRPGs tend to be somewhat strict and linear, and there is some of that in here, but where freedoms can be granted in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, they are.
It’s worth it to play the more optional missions of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, though, even if you don’t have to. They often have just as much narrative and emotional weight as the main game, furthering not just your own characters’ beliefs and backstories and personalities, but those of NPCs and your swappable seventh party members, the Heroes of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, as well. These are what flesh out the world, its philosophies, and the people within it. The world of Aionios is full of people just like those who make up your party: they are all soldiers, child soldiers, really, living the exact same life, with the exact same experiences, and, as you free yourself from that particular yolk and free these other from it, as well, the same difficulties of a post-war life also emerge. Sure, sometimes you have some “hey, get X of Y for me” missions, but most of those are relegated to an automated system within your menu. Usually, these optional missions are about pushing you to discover more pieces of the world and the people and problems within it.
I haven’t gotten into story specifics too much, but that’s mostly because all you need to know is that it’s great, genuinely emotional without feeling contrived or forced, and that it does what it sets out to do. There are two clear protagonists who much of the main story will revolve around, but all six of your party members are given more than just a moment in the spotlight. They all feel significant, they all feel fully realized if you bother to do more than just blitz through the main missions, and, maybe most vitally, they all find the peace and the answers they are looking for without it being directly because of the pair at the top of the game’s protagonist pyramid. They are all their own people, with their own histories, inner thoughts, concerns, reflections, fears, and loves, and they exist in a much fuller environment than simply being the friend and associate of someone the main story has deemed to be more vital.
These characters might appear a bit trope-y from the outset, but as layers are stacked on the game’s systems, they are also peeled away from its characters and world, revealing riches you will spend 100 hours mining. It’s the larger emotional beats that manage this for the most part, but also little touches, like the way character interactions at camp change as the game goes on, with little partnerships forming among characters who dozens of hours before were only together due to circumstances beyond their control, circumstances they very much regretted. It’s in Monolith’s decision to design real-life flutes to achieve the unique sound and scale envisioned by the sound team, so that these accompanying instruments would stand out in ways using flutes with sounds and scales the world already knew would not. Eunie’s tendency to exclaim statements that are all related to the Queen’s body parts and possessions are another little touch that pays larger dividends. They start out seeming like a little bit of language- and world-building—hey look, people in Aionios say things like “Queen’s wings” when exasperated—but eventually becomes a very Eunie-centric thing that shows she’s got an endless supply of these idioms, and that they’re part of her broader, quick humor that’s often on display.
“Queen’s cuticles” and “Queen’s paninis” are two personal favorites, but it’s not just cutesy bits like that inform the world’s language and make it feel fully realized. Aionios has its own rich cursing vocabulary that mixes in well with various English-language cusses from around the globe, and helps make the whole world feel as lived in as it’s meant to feel. And we are talking about a bunch of lifelong soldiers who see death and destruction as part of their very existence, dealing with the fallout of realizing that life doesn’t have to be that way: all the “arseholes!” and “you shitheel” and “what’s the snuffing deal” and “you dags” do wonders for building out the emotional support of the script and the believability of those reading it.
You don’t need to have played the previous games in the series for the story of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 to be rewarding—Falcom’s Trails this is not, insofar as how it’s constructed—but for reasons that you aren’t about to find in a review, the experience of the third entry in this connected trilogy is richer for having done so. The connections range from enjoyable, “hey, I understood that reference!” moments to ones that bring about a fuller understanding of everything Monolith is trying to achieve with this universe they’ve been working on for 15 years now. If you’ve got some FOMO and just want to dive into Xenoblade Chronicles 3, no one could blame you, but just know that you might wish you had experienced the games in order by the time you wrap the trilogy.
Is Xenoblade Chronicles 3 the best of the series so far? That’s a tough question, as each of the four games—don’t forget about the online-focused Xenoblade Chronicles X, the only game in the series not on the Switch since it’s held hostage by its Wii U-centric design—are clearly of a piece, but also possess enough uniqueness that you’re going to get a different answer about which is best from different people with differing tastes. What maybe matters more than “which is best?” or which is deserving of the highest review score, or whatever your metric, is the fact that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a worthy addition to the franchise, one that succeeds in its mission as a culmination of the Xenoverse so far, and one that, despite building on top of pre-existing systems with even more of them, manages to streamline itself enough and in enough ways that it wouldn’t be a surprise for it to become the best-selling title in the series. It turns out you can sell philosophy to the kids, so long as that philosophy also has mechs.
Monolith has come a long way since Xenogears and Squaresoft, and Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is evidence they’re still going to have places to go without needing to find a new developmental process or bosses, too. Whether it’s the “best” Xenoblade or not doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it fits in wonderfully with what already existed, and ensures that we should be looking forward to whatever those next steps for the series end up being, too.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It is available for the Switch.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.