Xenoblade 3 already wins me

Noah looks at his sword in disbelief that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 hasn't made him cringe yet.

Screenshot: Nintendo

I’ve been looking forward to Monolith Soft’s next game since the last one ended in 2017, but not without a good deal of my reservations. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was a meandering JRPG with a mishmash of systems and extremely uneven storytelling. As much as I love the series, I was concerned Xenoblade Chronicles 3 would be the same. So far it isn’t. It’s a first-party Nintendo Switch blockbuster that can stick with the rest of the library.

Five hours later it feels like the most lush and balanced game In the series. The environments are vast but filled. Combat has many layers to experiment with, but none of them seem overly blunt or overbearing. Your party roster is filled with classic archetypes that stop with clich├ęs. And the music, responsible for keeping the momentum going through long, grindy sections of a game like this, is as excellent as ever.

Xenoblade 3 characters fight a huge battle.

Screenshot: Nintendo

Given discussions about Xenoblade 3‘s gigantic runtime and how it is still tutorials 10 o’clock in, my main concern was polar bears. However, the game hardly takes time to get going. You play as Noah, a member of the nation of Keves, who, along with his comrades, is engaged in an existential battle against the rival nation of Agnus. Both sides are determined to create “flame clocks” in gigantic mecha bases called Ferronis that suck life energy from those killed in battle. Humans are born as children and live only 10 years, or less if they don’t take enough lives to feed the clock. It’s kind of battle royale via Philip K. Dick.

It starts with a big fight before quickly turning into alien intrigue. Noah and his crew encounter rival fighters from the other land while on a reconnaissance mission, but both sides are thrown into chaos after a mysterious old man tells them they are all pawns in a larger conspiracy. Before you know it, cyborgs are battling, characters merging and you’re getting your hands on a party of six characters deep in your hands to fight your way to the bottom. Xenoblade 3‘s secrets.

A chaotic battle screen displays Xenoblade 3's cluttered user interface.

Screenshot: Nintendo / Kotaku

This all happens within the first few hours. I spent most of my time before and after fighting over fields, rivers and mountain passes. Despite its heady premise and chatty ensemble, the heart of Xenoblade 3‘s gameplay continues to grind classic JRPG. Much of this can be done on autopilot. Tougher battles against non-boss are conjured up with special fonts over enemies’ heads indicating their extra power, better rewards, or both. And unlike in Xenoblade 2, the landscapes are again strewn with collectibles that you can pick up just by walking across them. You no longer have to stop every five seconds to press a button to discover extra pieces of craft wood or cooking mushrooms.

Combat-wise I still unlock some of the core features, but customizing special attacks (called “Arts”) in battle and changing character classes opens up pretty early. It’s easy to see how these interlocking systems, which involve a certain level of mixing and matching of active and passive skills, can lead to a lot of satisfying tinkering between selective boss fights. And while I was initially concerned that having six party members on screen at once would make battles unnecessarily chaotic, being able to switch between them at will adds a level of welcome micromanagement to Xenoblade 3 which I’ve missed a lot in previous games (the UI remains a nightmare).

The mysterious villains of Xenoblade 3 are shrouded in darkness.

Screenshot: Nintendo

My only real problem is that the heavy tutorials are sometimes overly explanatory and can’t be skipped. Do I need the game to help me equip a new armor step by step? No. Likewise, I don’t need the characters talking about different game systems to make them feel like they’re part of the sci-fi world being built. People join bodies and become cyborgs. Magical costume changes and young adults wielding giant swords are my least concern.

Fortunately, none of this gets in the way too much. I have really enjoyed the past few days Xenoblade 3 as I played it and constantly thought about it when I wasn’t. That rarely happens to me these days. Especially when it comes to JRPGs. But for now, Xenoblade 3 managed to combine some of my favorite elements from previous games of Monolith (mechs, cliques, free flowing battles) with what worked so well for others. Namely, the group of student fighters who praise, question, and mock each other as they attempt to overthrow the powers that keep cringing to a minimum. It worked in Persona 5, Fire Emblem: Three Housesand right now it really works for me Xenoblade 3. I still have a few dozen hours to go before I know if the rest of the game will do.

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