With just a few more weeks to go now until the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, we've been busy getting to grips with the latest entry in Monolith Soft's epic action-RPG series and, you may be relieved to hear, it's more than living up to our lofty expectations so far.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 introduces us to Aionios, a war-torn world where the warriors of two factions, Keves and Agnus, battle each other in an endless cycle of all-out destruction. These warriors are fully committed to their roles in life, unwavering in the belief that they are born from Aionios' Queen and destined to serve her by fighting constantly through the ten years — or "terms" — that make up their short and brutal existences, at which point they'll return to her embrace through a ceremony known as "Homecoming", if they're lucky enough to make it that far.

It's a bleak existence, and the opening chapter of the game does a fantastic job in setting the scene, introducing us first to Noah, Lanz, and Eunie, three Keves soldiers who dutifully fight alongside one another across battle-blasted landscapes where enormous mechs lay waste to innumerable enemies on either side.

As they fight and destroy their foes, they leech the very life energy out of the husks that remain, each fighter's soul flame being sucked upwards into their enemy's Flame Clocks, huge machines that take stock of just how many victims their side has claimed in battle. Every fighter on the battlefield is linked to these Flame Clocks through an Iris device and they must, as Noah puts it, "fight to live, live to fight" in order to ensure they keep their clock ticking over.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 wastes no time in flinging you straight into the mix, boots on the ground and right into battle as it methodically explains its various combat mechanics. Fans of the series will already know what to expect at the outset here and early on we're introduced to the returning concept of auto-attacking, which functions just as it did in the game's predecessors. Get in range of an opponent and engage in a fight and your character will take timed swings to do damage, you'll need to get used to the timings and rhythm of these attacks in order to then make use of your Arts, assigned to the 'X', 'Y', and 'B' buttons. Arts recharge over time and you'll need to unleash them in rhythm with your auto-attacks in order to perform them properly.

in the opening few hours it seems not much has changed with regards to the combat here but, of course, there are many, many layers to be added

You'll also need to take your position into account here, with back attacks needing to be performed from the back, side attacks from the side and so on if you want to fully benefit from their damage output, pull off Break/Topple/Daze/Launch combos that see your foes opened up for maximum damage, and charge a character-specific Talent Art that really lets loose the big guns.

On top of this, you'll need to take stock of the fighting lines emanating from foes that indicate whether or not you've drawn an enemy's aggro, as indicated by a red-coloured line showing that you have the full and undivided attention of the soldier or beast you're currently tussling with. So far, so Xenoblade Chronicles, and in the opening few hours it seems not much has changed with regards to the combat here but, of course, there are many, many layers to be added as the adventure progresses.

Just as you're getting to grips with the basic flow of combat in the opening hour or two, Noah, Eunie, and Lanz are sent out on another routine mission from Colony 9, but this time it's one that takes an entirely unexpected turn, a turn that throws into question everything these characters believe in and stand for. Facing off against strange automatons controlled by a mystery man who seems to fight for neither Keves or Agnus, our three heroes find themselves — after much argument — joining forces with Mio, Sena and Taion, Agnian soldiers who've been sent on the exact same mission. It's here we get our first glimpse of a new enemy, Moebius, with our six-strong team of heroes taking on a huge foe as they get to grips with all-new powers granted to them by a glowing Ouroboros stone.

The interlink mechanic immediately transforms the action, giving you screen-shaking attacks to pull off

We won't go into too much detail here, it's really best you enjoy this rollercoaster ride unsullied, but if you've been keeping up with official preview content drops for the game, you'll have already gotten a glimpse of the game's fancy new Interlink system. The power of the Ouroboros stone enables Noah and Mio to become one being, seeing each other's entire pasts, reading each other's thoughts and, more importantly, transforming into a huge new form that's fit to take on the biggest and baddest that Moebius can throw at them. The interlink mechanic immediately transforms the action here, giving you screen-shaking attacks to pull off and tasking you with building up your Interlink level, a gauge on the left of the screen that can be powered up through three stages of readiness.

Once in Ouroboros form, the basic flow of attacks and how you deploy them remains much the same, with your auto-attack rhythm, arts and positioning all-important. However, you must now also watch your Interlink gauge as you fight because you'll need to drop out of Interlink mode before overheating or suffer a penalty that sees the ability locked off for an extended period of time. Yep, every time you assume Ouroboros form here you're on a timer and you need to think ahead and plan your strategy with regards to when you transform in order to maximise its benefits.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2's "Blades" system is here replaced by unlockable heroes. Each hero represents a brand new class with new skills and abilities, all of which can then be freely switched between

Of course, Ouroboros transformations aren't the only new mechanic here — not by a long shot — and not only can you now directly order your squad to attack a particular foe, follow your lead or have a preference for a certain combo type as you fight, you're also now free to change characters at any point during level traversal and, more crucially, during battles. This opens up a ton of strategies based around the game's three base class types; healer, fighter, and defender.

And there's more. By earning XP during battle you'll slowly unlock the ability to use other character's classes, meaning the likes of Noah, who starts out as a fighter, can switch to a healer or defensive sub-class and the game actively promotes that you switch out and level up in each and every unlockable class with all of your characters in order to maximise your options in battle.

Further to all of this, Xenoblade Chronicles 2's "Blades" system is here replaced by lots of unlockable heroes who you'll meet and discover during your adventures. Every hero represents a brand new class with all-new skills and abilities, each of which can then be freely switched between by your party members as you unlock the right to do so. It makes for a hugely flexible, fun, and in-depth combat system that, even in the early stages of the game, gives you a ton of options to play with as you dig into battles. Switching instantaneously between players to draw aggro, heal up your party or attack your foes head on, utilising special hero skills, levelling up classes and Interlinking in order to bring the smack down on huge boss enemies is hugely addictive, flashy and fast-paced stuff and, unlike some aspects of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, everything here feels wonderfully streamlined so far, even as it piles on more and more layers.

Indeed, there are even detailed VR training missions tucked away in the game's menus where you can learn all about the finer points of combat or brush up on some particular mechanic that's got you bamboozled. Further to this — and although we can't talk about any of it in this preview — there's so much more cool stuff added into the combat mix down the line as you and your comrades take the battle to a world which, thanks to Moebius, now sees you all as enemy number one. There really is a lot to get excited about here.

Away from the delightful new combat system, the first chapter of the game also introduces us to Aionios's colonies, the settlements in which both Keves and Agnus fighters live under the watchful gaze of their Flame Clock and consul. These areas are where you'll take on side missions, gather info, level up, and work towards growing your colony affinities in return for rewards. We're also introduced to the Collectopaedia Card system, a streamlined version of fetch quests which sees NPC cards added to your in-game menu automatically, you then head out into the field and hoover up the many collectibles you'll find lying around and jump into your menu to settle up any cards you've completed, rather than having to head back to each NPC every time you're done.

All in all, from what we've seen so far, this is shaping up to be an epic Xenoblade adventure that's superior in every way to its predecessors, with a deep and satisfying combat system that explains itself more clearly, crisp visuals, jaw-dropping cutscenes, incredible vistas, and tons of variety in its locations and enemies. It's been a smooth and stutter-free performance experience for us so far too, even when battles get super-heated — which they very often will. It's also great to see the regional UK accents back in this latest entry and the banter between your squad-mates really is all the better for it. There are some absolutely excellent swear words thrown around here and some of the lighter moments really are genuinely very funny as a result.

We can't give much more away in this preview, unfortunately, but what we can tell you is that we're a good ways into the adventure here in preparation for our full review later in the month and everything from that cracking new combat system to the twisting, turning storyline, superbly written characters and top-notch world-building is making for a third entry in this series that's hitting all the right notes so far.

It's an emotional one.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 launches on 29th July. Looking forward to finally getting your hands on it when it arrives? Let us know below!

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