Xenoblade Chronicles' impressive scale has always been a selling point for the series. Nintendo's traditionally underpowered hardware has never stopped Monolith Soft--an appropriately named developer--from creating massive worlds, and based on what I've played so far, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is no different. While the early hours are railroaded with cutscenes, tutorials, and linear areas, when the game opens up, it really opens up.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is, oddly enough, the fourth game in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, all of which are loosely tied to the long-running sci-fi fantasy 'Xeno' franchise. As Monolith Soft's director, Tetsuya Takahashi, put it in an interview with Time in 2015: “The ‘Xeno’ name […] really just exists to make it clear that these are Tetsuya Takahashi productions." All that is to say you don’t need to play Xenoblade Chronicles 1, 2 or X in order to understand what's going on in Xenoblade Chronicles 3. Without getting into spoilers, there are nods to the other games, but newcomers should have no issues jumping into 3. It boasts a new cast of characters, a fresh setting, and a new story.
However, while you may not need an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise, 3 still has its fair share of fantasy RPG mumbo jumbo. Flame clocks, ether channels, nopons, off-seers, life terms, Ouroboros forms, and so on. While fans of the series have come to expect that kind of jargon, a newcomer’s tolerance may vary.
The short of it is that you play as Noah, a sword-wielding flutist called an Off-seer, who uses his instrument to send off fallen soldiers to the great beyond. Noah is accompanied by Lanz, Eunie, and Mwamba. Together they are a special forces unit tasked with keeping Noah safe as he attends to his mission. But things go sideways and Noah and team are sent off on a globe-trotting adventure. There’s a lot to love in the Xenoblade franchise, but the setting has always been a highlight for me. I feel like a tiny speck in a massive, dynamic world. While I have yet to come across an area as awe-inspiring as Bionis Leg from Xenoblade Chronicles 1 or the Kingdom of Uraya from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the first two major areas I have been to are colorful, distinct, and sprawling.
There's also a lot to do in these open areas. Quests are scattered around the landscapes, challenging optional bosses--called Unique monsters--guard key locations, and occasionally you might come across enemies battling it out amongst themselves. In these situations, before the battle begins, you are given the option to pick a side. The side you pick determines the reward. Unfortunately, in the early hours you can only join one faction during these fights, but I imagine that mechanic will open up later in the story.
I don't want to dwell on the story's specifics for too long, but it's safe to say that it has its hooks in me. The voice acting is better across the board, the cutscenes are flashier and more frequent, the characters are intriguing, and the story setup feels fresh. Obviously, it's going to take some time for these characters to grow on me, but so far no one really fits into your typical JRPG archetype. It's hard to say whether or not the story can hold on to this momentum, but I'm excited to continue my journey nonetheless, partly thanks to the combat. Xenoblade Chronicles 3, like its predecessors, features an MMO combat style. Party members are divided into three main classes: Attackers, Defenders, Healers, and then into various subclasses equipped with different weapons and abilities. Attackers are essentially DPS, Defenders are tanks, and healers are support. Auto attacks and timers offset art cooldowns which can be combo-ed across multiple party members for devastating effects. Better yet, unlike the previous games, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 lets you swap characters mid-battle. This means you can manually start and finish combos across multiple party members without having to wait for them to use a specific art. This could be a game-changer, especially during long boss fights. This is only the tip of the iceberg though. I fully expect the combat to ramp up significantly as it did in previous games.
One of the most notable additions to combat is the robust class system. As demonstrated in the Xenoblade Chronicles 3 direct, players can change a party member's subclass to further customize their moves and battle styles. Unfortunately, the preview session didn’t allow me to experiment with this feature as much as I would have liked, but so far, it seems like a promising feature that could add even more depth and strategy to the combat.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 also adds the Ouroboros ability. Basically, two compatible party members fuse, or Interlink as the game calls it, into a giant mech-like creature. You can activate the Ouroboros form with the touch of a button, and they play like your typical party members, except their arts don’t have a cooldown. Eventually, they overheat and kick out both party members. I've only used this ability once so far, so it's hard to gauge whether or not it adds anything meaningful to combat. Based on what we saw from the Direct, it seems like there is still a lot more to uncover about the Ouroboros forms and Interlinking, so hopefully the new mechanic will add more strategic depth as I progress.
Thankfully, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has a robust tips menu that's accessible right from the get-go and automatically updates as you progress, a notable improvement over Xenoblade Chronicles 2's tutorial tips menu, which had to be purchased from a discreet in-game vendor. Additionally, 3 has a series of repeatable drills for players who might need a little extra guidance. The in-game menus are also a marked improvement over Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Like the previous games, you will spend a lot of time in menus managing movesets, loadouts, and accessories. This time, flipping between menus and swapping between settings feels a lot snappier. Sub-menus that were once buried in other menus are much more accessible. It's hard to say whether or not the menu UI will buckle as more features and mechanics are introduced, but as of now, it feels more approachable than 2’s menus.
I do worry about the ever-present limitations of the Nintendo Switch hardware with a game like Xenoblade Chronicles 3. I didn’t run into any major issues during my time, but the low frame rate and blurry resolution definitely took some getting used to. Nintendo hasn’t announced the exact frame rate and resolution for Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and we lack the tools to properly test it, but considering Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 both hit 30, I’d imagine it’s the same for 3. Fortunately, the frame rate was consistent. Whether or not it holds that consistency over the course of the game remains to be seen. For some, like myself, these issues are easy to overlook, but worth noting for the more tech-sensitive crowd.
Overall, I am curiously optimistic for Xenoblade Chronicles 3. So far, Monolith Soft has laid out all the ingredients for a memorable JRPG, and now it’s just a matter of seeing what they've managed to cook up. The big question I have now, as I do with most JRPGs of this scale, is whether or not it can keep me hooked for the entire runtime.
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