What is the nature of time? There’s a ticking rhythm to life that never goes away, but it doesn’t generally intrude on your day to day. Unless, sadly, there’s a terrifying, health-related deadline at the other end of the countdown. What would you do if you knew you only had a ten-year lifespan? It’s long enough to make connections, to see the world, but it’s an endpoint nonetheless. Would you spend it in service to a higher power? Would you try to do every activity you’ve ever dreamed of? This is the reality for the main characters of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, with the forces of Keves and Agnus living under the ticking time bomb of a decade-long lifecycle. It questions how you should spend your days, while also asking about identity, relationships, and, of course, death. It’s a thought-provoking anime epic, and one that takes the best of Japanese storytelling while weaving it into a hugely enjoyable RPG experience.
You take on the role of Noah. He’s a thoughtful and gentle young man, whose personality is mildly at odds with the glowing energy sword he uses to lop bits off enemy soldiers and myriad fantasy creatures during the course of the game. He is, of course, deeply conflicted about it. Noah is an Off-seer; a military role that’s part bard and part priest, sending the life energy of fallen soldiers back out into the universe. Given their already limited lifespan, it’s a role that means he spends a lot of his time considering life, and worrying about his friends. It’s great to have a central protagonist that isn’t just there for success, power, or to save the princess.
In fact, the royal role here belongs to the Queen, and she’s not quite the benevolent benefactor that you and your teammates initially believe. Noah’s joined by Lanz and Eunie, and they’re set in their military roles for Keves when fate draws them into contact with Taion, Mio, and Sena from their mortal enemy realm of Agnus. Events see them become inexorably linked, not just as they’re pegged as being deserters and defectors by both sides, but because they are given the power of Ouroboros. This draws them into direct conflict with the shadowy cabal of Consuls who wield the similarly destructive power of Moebius, and whose machinations pull the puppet strings of everyone involved.
Ouroboros lets a pair of characters Interlink, becoming a hugely powerful being that’s capable of inflicting a level of damage that will send creatures to the beyond in mere moments. It forms a central part of Xenoblade 3’s expanded MMO-like combat, and if you’re coming from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and its DLC prequel Torna – The Golden Country, the system here will feel similar enough to feel at home, but fresh enough that you’re not going to face hours repeating the same thing over again.
Things are certainly less chaotic than they were in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and it feels more like a multiplayer game than ever before. There’s three central roles: Defender, Attacker and Healer, and different classes within those. At the outset each of the characters in your party has a distinct role, but once you’ve levelled that class you’re expected to swap them all around with each other, so suddenly Noah goes from being a DPS to a tank, while Lanz goes from tanking to healing. It’s a great idea, and as you progress and level up a series of classes you’re able to swap in Arts from each of them to create a hybrid character that does exactly what you want them to do.
You’re given further choices by the arrival of Hero characters. This seventh position in your party provides some much-needed support at crucial moments, but it also lets your characters learn another class. Initially it’s gifted to just one of your team, but any character can learn any class once they’ve witnessed it in action for long enough. As with a real MMO, you have to make sure your team has the right collection of classes and skills otherwise you’re not going to get very far at all in Xenoblade 3’s expansive, and deadly, open world.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 will particularly please those who love min-maxing stats and finding the most effective character builds, as there’s a ton of things to mess with. Different classes, arts, skills, gems, and accessories will keep you occupied for a long time, though it’s easy to forget that you need to have a rethink each time you change class. That’s before you start to mess around with the Ouroboros setup as well.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 does a fantastic job of drawing out the drama of its narrative, and some of the cutscenes are the most dramatic and action-laden I’ve seen in an RPG for long time. The tale isn’t as fantastical as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, and it feels closer to Xenoblade Chronicles X in a lot of ways, but the way it’s delivered is certainly the best the series has seen. It’s fundamentally more serious than 2, and anyone expecting the same level of fan service will be starkly underserved. It feels like Monolith Soft didn’t want any element to detract from the serious notes in the narrative, and I think it works. Even the Nopon have had their annoying aspects turned down.
There’s still the stark beauty in the open-world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and the expansive land of Aionios has the kind of vistas that other RPG series would give their final quests for. They’re stacked with all kinds of wildlife, and given that you’ll be needing many of the materials they drop it’s well worth swinging your sword at a few of them along your way. Xenoblade 3 is an RPG that’s actually vaguely respectful of your time, and while you’ve got a long, long way to go, there was never a point where I felt like I was truly grinding.
The downside to series’ penchant for impressive landscapes is that the series’ only home is on the Nintendo Switch. In order for this third entry to run smoothly Monolift Soft has tuned the resolution to a point that you wonder if that’s where the ‘soft’ in their name came from. The art direction still shines through, and given that Xenoblade Chronicles began on the similarly underpowered Wii it’s hardly a new issue, but there’s always a nagging voice in my head that wonders what things would be like on more powerful hardware. I’ll hopelessly cross my fingers for a PC port, but it’s more likely I’ll be waiting for the Switch 2 remaster. Even with the lowered resolution the frame rate will still occasionally dip, but it’s not something that outstays its welcome.