I’ve been looking forward to Monolith Soft’s next game since the last one ended in 2017, though not without my fair share of reservations. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a meandering JRPG with a hodgepodge of systems and extremely uneven storytelling. As much as I love the series, I was worried Xenoblade Chronicles 3 would be the same. So far, it’s not. It’s a first-party Nintendo Switch blockbuster that can hang with the rest of the library.
Five hours in, it feels like the most lush and balanced game in the series. The environments are sprawling but filled. Combat has plenty of layers to experiment with but none of them seem overly obtuse or overbearing. Your party’s roster is stocked with classic archetypes that stop short of cliché. And the music, responsible for sustaining momentum through long, grindy sections of a game like this, is as excellent as ever.
Given discussions about Xenoblade 3’s gargantuan runtime and how it’s still tutorializing 10 hours in, my number one concern was pacing. The game wastes hardly any time getting going, however. You play as Noah, a member of the nation of Keves, who along with his comrades are locked in an existential struggle against the rival nation of Agnus. Both sides are indentured to “flame clocks” inside giant mech bases called Ferronis that hoover up life energy from those fallen in battle. People are born as children and only live 10 years, or less if they don’t take enough lives to feed the clock. It’s sort of like Battle Royale by way of Philip K. Dick.
Things start off with a big battle before quickly pivoting to otherworldly intrigue. Noah and his crew run into rival fighters from the opposing nation while on a reconnaissance mission only for both sides to be thrown into chaos after a mysterious old man tells them they’re all pawns in a larger plot. The next thing you know, cyborgs are fighting, characters are fusing together, and a party six characters deep is delivered into your hands to fight your way to the bottom of Xenoblade 3’s secrets.
This all happens within the first couple hours. I spent most of my time before and after battling across fields, rivers, and mountain passes. Despite its heady premise and talkative ensemble, the heart of Xenoblade 3’s gameplay remains classic JRPG grinding. Much of it can be accomplished on auto-pilot. Tougher battles against non-bosses are called out with special fonts over enemies’ heads denoting their extra power, better rewards, or both. And unlike in Xenoblade 2, the landscapes are once again generously peppered with collectible resources you can pick up merely by walking over them. No more stopping every five seconds to press a button prompt to discover extra pieces of crafting wood or cooking mushrooms.
Combat-wise, I’m still unlocking some of the core features, but customizing special attacks (called “Arts”) in battle and changing character classes open up pretty early. It’s easy to see how these interlocking systems, which include a certain level of mixing and matching of active and passive abilities, can lead to lots of satisfying tinkering in-between marquee boss fights. And while I was originally worried that having six party members on screen at once would make battles needlessly chaotic, being able to swap between them at will adds a level of welcome micromanagement to Xenoblade 3 that I’ve sorely missed in previous games (the user interface remains a nightmare).
My only real qualm is that the heavy tutorializing is sometimes overly explanatory and unskippable. Do I need the game to walk me through equipping a new piece of armor step-by-step? No. Similarly, I don’t need the characters chatting about various game systems to make them feel vaguely a part of the sci-fi world building. People are joining bodies and becoming cyborgs. Magical costume changes and young adults weidling giant swords is the least of my worries.
Fortunately, none of this gets too much in the way. I’ve spent the last couple of days really enjoying Xenoblade 3 while I was playing it and continually thinking about it when I wasn’t. That rarely happens for me these days. Especially when it comes to JRPGs. But for now, Xenoblade 3 has managed to combine some of my favorite elements from Monolith’s past games (mechs, cabals, free-flowing combat) with what’s been working so well in others. Namely the group of student fighters praising, questioning, and sniping at each other while trying to overthrow the powers that be and while keeping cringe to a minimum. It worked in Persona 5, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and, currently, it’s really working for me in Xenoblade 3. I’ve got several dozens more hours to go before I know whether the rest of the game measures up.