Xenoblade Chronicles 3 - A Story for the Ages
I could not think of any better bliss than living a life determined – the expectations of your existence already set in a comfortable terrarium and the only variable remaining is your capacity for success.
If not success … death.
Some people thrive in a place where everything can be straightforward and straight-shooting, and it is certainly a comforting thought in the complex cultural climate that all of our lives are now beholden. Equally, someone would see that kind of life as a stagnant existence, pre-determined with no capacity to succeed in a different direction or just simply be if they choose to do so.
This seems to be the main triggering struggle of all facets of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 – whether it is the motivations of its ensemble cast, the cacophony of the game’s mechanics, or the expectations of a franchise recently remastered for the Nintendo Switch in anticipation of its third narrative.
I walked into this game with no familiarity with the franchise at all – having been selective with my JRPGs to not stray far from Square Enix through the years. I found this both exhilarating and terrifying, wondering what I would pick up or miss that more seasoned fans would recognise immediately. I expected that my cognition would be assaulted by worldbuilding concepts that I would need to pick up quickly (“off-seers” feeding “Flame Clocks”, or “Ferronises”, or “Interlinks”). But I have been all over Japanese RPGs. And there was that time in my life when my brother and I used to play Guild Wars 2 together. This seemed sufficient enough to guide me through.
I reached the second chapter where we are introduced to skills, arts, master arts, interlinks, combos, chain attacks, gem crafting, and food.
I can declare that I was only tangentially aware of one of these concepts before I ever played this game, and as a newcomer to Xenoblade it would be easy to figure out which concept that is.
The mode of these tutorials infuriated me. I hated that a character would meta-describe a game mechanic, followed by a text description of the mechanic, followed by the game not allowing you to proceed until you implemented some sort of change or action that showed that you had done what the game and characters described that you could do. Then you were not allowed to return to your own decision for a set period of time. I hated that loss of agency, even if it briefly progressed the plot because it did not feel necessary in order for me to progress in the game for two reasons – the required experimentation of combat and the priority of the story.
I survived in the paradigm of grinding levels, equipping arts that complimented my playstyle, and trying to challenge myself to play classes outside of my comfort zone. For a combat system that has a foundation on MMO-style auto-attacks, it is easy to go with the melee classes that stand in front and hit the thing with the pointy end so playing more strategic support roles to buff, defend or heal damage-dealers was a hesitance that I had to overcome. I realised that I needed to experiment further and the game could not “tutorial” me through that. Once I had played with these classes and class archetypes, I progressed to trying to grasp master arts (there are 23 classes and master arts are not necessarily class-bound, so be prepared for hours of experimentation). My classical understanding of summons were realised through interlinks, which were also managed through the strategic use of class arts. Play your cards right, and you merge two of your characters into an overwhelming Ouroboros that can take a massive bite out of your bigger boss battles through devastating attacks, party buffs, or beneficial heals.
More importantly, Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s story needed to shine through. Even with no knowledge of the story of the previous two games, I knew that the story spotlight was not negotiable – we needed its depiction of anticipated loss, of long-term grief of the people long gone and the people that will inevitably depart. The concepts are deep, to say the least – even discussions about the only remaining agency being control over their own deaths. It is more mature than my cosy Switch OLED is used to, and Monolith handled it with the dignity that it deserved. Whether introducing additional heroes to tag along with your party or developing each character’s alternative reading of their accepted cultural norms, each chapter held me on a precipice, even if I knew exactly what was going to happen. The cut scenes were long, but they allowed the characters to exist without being propelled by auto-attacks and aggro. They also helped me to become more accustomed to the jargon of Aionios.
To make up for the cinematic investment in the story, I loved how world exploration was developed in a pragmatic way. The map facilitates fast travel, and materials and monster drops are used in a variety of contexts that justifies the commitment to finding those Growsa Aspars or running around to see what reagents or ingredients are scattered around the world. For those who choose not to appreciate the gorgeous regions depicted in Monolith Soft’s vibrant open-world, you could just hop out one of those amiibo that you still have sitting around from your Smash Bros days and get some random item drops that way. It is the lazy catch-of-the-day tactic, with reasonable viability to progress your inventory, but it feels nearly criminal to rely on this and reduce your time enjoying the visual and auditory environment that Monolith Soft has lovingly tried to create. I will admit that I had to change to Japanese voice acting, mainly because I realised that post-battle and exploration chatter was more suited to a Japanese vernacular.
As per your standard JRPG sauce, the management of side quests and hero quests needed to be encouraged and not hindered by world exploration, and I was pretty satisfied with how this was achieved. I always expect fetch quests and I know that this will bother some more than others – I didn’t find an intrusive over-reliance on them that I wouldn’t expect of the genre. But what makes the side quests and exploration the most rewarding is that they are not simply experience-grinding or reward-fuelled endeavours. Resolution of quests can increase positive relations with specific colonies, progressing the story as much as unlocking beneficial items or buffs for the party.
For my first experience with a Xenoblade game, I know that I missed a lot that fans of the series would have appreciated. I knew going into this I would only be able to comment in the framework of my own experience of similar mechanics or genres. Despite this naivety, I definitely appreciated Xenoblade Chronicles 3 even without knowing its true legacy. I see it as a game that reflects on its own expectations – it provides comfort in the moments that it lets itself simply exist, and it gives a welcome habitat for those who gain the most out of success in pre-determined parameters. It may be a reflection that is long overdue for serious fans or one that is just appropriate for the thematic take of this particular entry.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with code kindly supplied by Nintendo Australia.