|Release Date||July 29, 2022|
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 comes with high expectations, as fans wait to see if it can deliver on everything hinted at and promised in the first two games. I will avoid spoilers as much as possible in this review, but anyone who has seen a trailer for Xenoblade Chronicle 3 knows that we see representatives from the worlds of both prior titles. It seems to promise a big, epic conclusion to what’s happened so far…is that what we got? Let’s find out!
There are some very important things to discuss here that cannot be done without involving spoilers. Let me just say this: violence in this game has little-to-no blood or gore (although some of the violence is traumatic), and the sexual content is quite light. I think the spoiler-free ESRB explanation is about what I would say without spoilers. If you want all of the detail that I can’t help but get out of my brain, read this part of the review; if you hate spoilers like I do, skip down to the “Review” header.
Sexual Content: Early on, there is a mixed baths scene that is rather unconventional. Nothing explicit is shown, and the characters seem to have no idea that the situation is sexual. Later, female characters change clothes in front of the men, but this happens entirely off screen (the men do not notice it happening) and the men, embarrassed, find a place to hide to change. Later, a female character asks another if she’s not taking a bath because she’s embarrassed. In a side quest to find a hot spring, characters are, now, embarrassed by the idea of a mixed bath, but again nothing is shown.
Now, to spoiler content: philosophically, the characters live for ten years only, and spend the whole time in battle. They essentially have no concept of romance and sexual relationships. Later, they are given a traditional, conservative vision of “the way things are supposed to be”: people find a spouse of the opposite sex (there are no homosexuals in the game), have children (a doctor asks them “Who wants to know how babies are made?” and they unwittingly all raise their hand), and grow old together. It is close (though not quite) a Christian vision for the romantic aspect of our lives, and it’s completely ruined by the game’s ending, which shows a “family portrait”: a character from a past title with his arms around three women, all holding babies fathered by him, and all the same age. It’s not just that polygamy is an issue, it’s that, at the game’s very last moments, it decides to contradict a sexual ethic that has been built up for the past 50 hours of story content.
Violence: In terms of graphics, there is very little blood in the game, and the anime art style prevents any realistic-looking corpses. Yet, philosophically, the game is incredibly violent. There are many corpses, many battles, and many people dying. The world is in a constant state of war, and two of the main characters are “off-seers”, essentially there to provide last rites for the dead. Characters only live for ten years and then die “naturally” (essentially disappear), and at one point several characters, one of which is about to hit the ten-year mark, are all intentionally imprisoned until that character dies as a form of psychological (and physical, in a way) torture. A notable NPC in a key story moment commits suicide by shooting herself (not shown on the screen, but you hear the gunshot). Someone who is squeamish would not have trouble with this game, but as a parent, I would discuss some of these deeper psychological and theological issues with my (future) teenagers before letting them play this game.
Language: Many instances of “arse” or its American English equivalent (almost all characters have British accents and similar vocabulary), several instants of “sh–“, “d-mn” and “hell”. One extremely obnoxious side character that you meet midway through the game swears constantly and often uses the phrase “b-tchqueen” to refer to her own mother. Fortunately, she takes a backseat after her brief arc. There are no f-bombs; the characters most commonly use “in-universe” cuss words, “snuff” and “spark”. “What the spark!?”, “Get snuffed”, “You snuffin’ [noun]” are all common phrases, that felt thematic (after the initial silly feeling) and did not bother me as much as the “actual” swearing.
Positive Content: As with every Xenoblade game, the story begs quite a few philosophical questions, ones that I would encourage the player to wrestle with deeply. What does it truly mean to live? Would eternal life on earth truly be satisfying? What cost are we willing to pay for what we want? What kind of vision for the future do we want? While these games often draw vaguely from Judeo-Christian thought, they are in no way perfect reflections of that; I would encourage players to seek out other Christian gamers who have played the game and discuss the philosophies presented in the game, and suss out what was redemptive and what was not.
While Taion could stand to be a bit more clearly dark-skinned, he is voiced by a black actor and as far as I can tell, clearly intended to be black. Likewise, there are several key NPCs later who are black and voiced by black actors. This is so uncommon in JRPGs that it is worth mentioning. He is a fantastic character amongst a fantastic cast, and simply integrated without any fanfare, virtue signaling, or fighting amongst fans. But now black fans of the series can see themselves represented on the screen. Keep doing this, Monolith Soft.
If I had to sum up Xenoblade Chronicles 3 in one word, it would be polish. The first two games were so well-received (particularly the first) because of the many new ideas they brought to the table—too many ideas, to be honest, by the time we get to Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Thirty hours into that title and I was still being introduced to new collectibles and pseudo-gacha systems that fortunately required no extra real-life dollars, just hours sunk into pointless farming. Fortunately, crafting and collectibles have been greatly simplified, and players can use “Nopon coins” in a pinch as a substitute if they can’t find the right items. The best ideas are all still here in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but the fat has been trimmed.
This combat system is essentially the same one we’ve had in every Xenoblade game. It is not far off from the “cooldown” systems we see in many MMOs, but in very few single-player JRPGs. In one sense, this version is “bigger” with a full party of seven characters (including the rotating “Hero” guest member), and six playable characters to rotate among. On the other hand, the actual combat systems have been incredibly simplified, although there is still more than enough “meat” there. Yet, I do have a minor complaint, which is that it’s too easy just to put things on auto-battle. I did that for overworld encounters for most of my 115 hours spent completing the game (50 hours of story and 65 more of side content on Casual mode) and I was okay with that. Tales of Arise showed that a real-time combat system can be compelling enough to keep players off of that auto-battle button, but too much of Xenoblade is spent watching meters fill up. During the boss fights, though (including the many optional “unique monsters”), I found myself interested and engaged, so maybe it’s my own fault for finding auto-battle too irresistible of an option. One other comment: by the end, I was wishing for a way to skip the animations during Chain Attacks, even though they were quite cool.
Graphically and sonically, this is one of the best games ever made on the Switch. Nintendo has found a niche in the pseudo-anime-looking-but-serious art style they’ve used in Breath of the Wild, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and in the Xenoblade series. The game looks absolutely fantastic, and runs quite smoothly both docked and in handheld mode. The only graphical glitch I ever saw was party members occasionally falling off a cliff to their death and then coming back, or failing to hop on an elevator and then magically reappearing. But seeing the whole cast traverse the world together, often with little unexpected side comments, made the whole thing come alive.
Speaking of the cast, I’m not sure there is a better main cast in any other modern JRPG. All six characters have full personalities and back stories, as does every “Hero” character, optional or otherwise. I would gladly take another Xenoblade game with this exact cast, and I eagerly await the DLC campaign. There is one NPC later on who is rather annoying (Ghondor) not only due to foul language, but because her actual voice is just grating. With that one exception, the entire game’s cast is simply outstanding. In addition, the music is beautiful throughout, with melodies that have been stuck with me for days after putting the game down. Several composers worked on the title, including the famous Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, past Xeno titles), and they unified their work through flutes, which are featured throughout the game as part of the story as well as the music. The composers built the actual in-game flutes from the ground up in real life and used them throughout the score, and this attention to detail pays off greatly. I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about the music or sound effects.
Combat is great! The other mechanisms are great! The graphics are great! The sound is great! But if you’re a JRPG fan, there’s a good chance you’re here for the story. I mentioned the cast was great for the voice acting, but I should also say for the character moments. There are some truly touching and tender scenes among the cast, a few really funny ones, and, thank the Lord, Nopons that aren’t annoying for the first time in franchise history. This is the first Xeno title I ever even considered trying to “complete”, and while I didn’t do Hard mode or NG+, I finished every side story and battle the game had to offer me. I did not want to leave this world and these characters, and that says a lot.
I cannot overstate how important those little moments are, like just seeing Sena doing push-ups with Manana (a Nopon) on her back at the campsite, or two characters suddenly discussing something while walking down the road together. At first, I was quite miffed that “Heart-to-Heart”s or “Quiet Moment”s are gone from the game, but I think those ideas essentially became a “forced” part of the main story for the main cast, and were otherwise replaced by “Side Stories” for the main cast and Hero/Ascension Quests for the guest characters. This is a trade I’d happily make again.
And finally, we get to the Achilles’ heel in an otherwise perfect JRPG: the plot. It starts out with an absolutely great premise, and early on there are some true “wow” moments, especially for long-time fans of the series. But while the first two Xenoblade games buried their story in sci-fi gobbledygook at the end — and fans like me loved it — there is a distinct lack of that in Xenoblade Chronicles 3. And I don’t just mean that the story is simpler. The same big, crazy questions are posed by early, shocking plot points, but the answers given by the game are either vague, abstract nonsense, or just not given (and believe me, I scoured an extra 65 hours for answers, and did not find very many). I am holding out hope that the upcoming DLC will flesh things out, but right now it felt a bit too like LOST Season 6 after binging Seasons 4 and 5 (I am sorry if that reference falls flat for most of you). I spoke with another staffer who was playing the game after me, and asked him what he thought would happen as we went. He had a lot of the same ideas and expectations as me, and we both thought what we had anticipated would have been far better explanations. And I’d be okay with something different, but I’m not okay with hand-waving.
So I have to say I felt a bit sour at the end of the story after some key plot points fell flat, but again, I could not leave this world and did not want to, to the point where I spent more time playing the game after that than before. I’m not sure what higher recommendation I can give a game than that. The last thing I’ll add is that the story seems to be designed in a way that this can easily be anyone’s first Xenoblade game without confusion; yet another reason to pick up one of the best JRPGs of this generation, and likely ever.
The Bottom Line
One of the best JRPGs ever made, marred slightly by some disappointing story beats.