The Xenoblade Chronicles 3 key art promises a hell of a lot. You know the shot, that jaw-dropping vista with its deep blue skies and lush green fields, this time joined by an impossible rock formation looming large on the horizon as the silhouettes of a band of heroes you've yet to meet look on. It's an image that exudes the very essence of adventure, that promises a fantastical odyssey populated by unforgettable new friends, breathtaking scenery and rip-roaring combat. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 delivers all of this and so much more in a game that ramps up the emotional intensity, gives us the best combat the franchise has seen to date and introduces an all-new cast of characters that we'll genuinely never forget.
By now you'll no doubt know the gist of the story here. The world of Aionios is a tortured and war-torn planet where two factions, Keves and Agnus, are embroiled in endless conflict, their soldiers condemned to live and die again and again in a perpetual cycle of violence. We join this relentless action as Noah, Eunie and Lanz, three eager Keves warriors, march into battle once more, laying it all on the line for a Queen they believe they're born from and must therefore sacrifice everything for. They're almost entirely consumed by this belief system, never truly questioning their actions or the brutality of the existence they suffer through. Their short lives are measured in year-long "terms", just ten in total, at which point they'll be rewarded with a homecoming ceremony that sees them returned to the Queen's embrace — should they get lucky enough to make it that far.
Of course, on the particular day that we meet them, the battle at hand plays out quite differently. Our soon-to-be heroes face off against an unusual troop of automatons controlled by a mystery man who fights for neither Keves nor Agnus. They're thrust into an uneasy alliance with three Agnian troops who've been sent on the exact same mission and soon find themselves imbued with the power of Ouroboros, at the same time learning some uncomfortable truths about the nature of their reality and the real enemy working behind the scenes to keep them all chained to a never-ending war machine.
It's a properly engrossing start to a game, a premise with plenty to offer, and it's all helped along enormously by some fantastic cutscenes that punctuate an extended tutorial period with some of the most effortlessly stylish combat sequences we've ever seen on Switch — or any other console for that matter. It doesn't take too long to settle into the groove in these early hours, to get to know a little about the motivations and personalities of Noah, Eunie, Lanz, Taion, Sena and Mio as you prepare to pit your wits against their new shared enemy, the majestically theatrical members of Moebius. With the world now set entirely against them and their shared realities shattered, this epic adventure gets underway proper as our band of six set out to put things right, to liberate their world colony by colony and save a planet that's been blindfolded to the true nature of its existence in order to serve the plans of unseen puppet masters.
We really don't want to give too much more of the story away here, it would be a shame to have even a second of it needlessly ruined before you get to experience it all for yourself, but needless to say that over the course of around 100 magical hours, we were put through the emotional wringer with this one to a surprising degree. Yes, there have been actual tears on multiple occasions, we're not ashamed to admit it, with a couple of scenes really not holding back on the pulling of heartstrings. There's an emotional depth here that sits alongside plenty of laughter — those returning regional UK accents delivering so much humour and warmth once again — surprises, twists, turns, heartbreak... oh yeah, this game got us good. With a surprisingly dark and complex narrative that asks some tough existential questions; what you'd choose to do if you had more than one chance at life, what you'd actually sacrifice for your convictions, and whether one should be happy with their lot or strike out and seize the future regardless of the consequences, there's certainly plenty to sink your teeth into with this one.
It's not all grimness either, there's real hope for humanity here - something we could all do with a good dose of right now - and so much positivity and drive to survive in the face of all-encompassing evil that it's hard not to get thoroughly caught up in it all and find yourself really rooting for your band of heroes, heroes who are willing to do the right thing, no matter how much it costs them. There's complexity too in the motivations of many of the bad guys you'll meet along the way, they're not all evil for the hell of it, and you'll find good guys gone bad, decent people who've lost their way and others whose fear has driven them to desperate measures. There is, in short, a fair bit going on in terms of the narrative here, far more than we expected at the outset, and the game's consistently excellent writing frames and delivers all of these situations in fine style, making for a campaign that we were enthralled by for its entire running time.
This is a tale that's then bolstered no end by the game's superb cast of core characters. It's not often you'll get a group of six individuals covering such a wide range of personality types without at least one of them becoming a bit of a pain in the butt, let's face it, but each and every one of the heroes here is a genuine joy to get to know, and you really will feel like you're getting to know them. Through well-written campaign missions and side quests that see all six get plenty of time in the spotlight, every character here is given ample time and space to grow and develop from the almost catatonic state we find them in into the fully-fledged heroes of Aionios they strive to become. You'll grow to love Noah's steely determination in the face of terrible odds, Taion's uptight nerdiness that masks a desire to be accepted, Lanz's knuckleheaded bravado backed up by a heart of gold, Mio's quiet strength as she struggles alone with inner turmoils, Sena's constant need for reassurance — even as she hands out kickings to absolutely everything that stands in her way — and Eunie... well Eunie is just a masterclass in brutally calling out BS, going so far as to stop a Moebius boss in full pre-battle speech flow to tell them to stop gabbing and get on with it.
And then there's the Nopons. They should be annoying, they really shouldn't work as well as they do, but Riku and Manana, and all the rest you'll meet as you journey across Aionios, are an absolute delight, the game's universally strong voice-acting ensuring that even the most potentially annoying character usually ends up worthy of plenty of screen time. Elsewhere, and although we can't go into any real detail on all of the unlockable heroes on offer for fear of entering big-time spoiler territory, you can rest assured there are plenty of them, a huge roster of new comrades who are a constant joy to get to know thanks, once again, to the quality of the writing and acting work on show here.
Every colony that you liberate as you fight for the future of Aionios has its own cast of characters, its own social practices and situations to learn about, and once you've freed them from the misery of constant battle you'll find busy little hubs full of new people to meet, missions to take on, stories to become a part of and more. You can really go to town here, getting stuck right into the game's Affinity Chart, checking how all of these NPCs are getting on with one another, how relationships are developing and exactly how each colony regards you and your teammates as you busy yourself solving their problems in order to raise your friendship level in return for rewards, further missions and so on. It makes for a world that feels truly busy, alive with more than just monsters and baddies to battle, and one that's always got another story to tell. Indeed, even after over 100 hours, there's still many hidden corners of our map we've yet to visit, plenty of adventures, secrets and great big chunks of narrative that we've yet to unearth and explore.
While Xenoblade Chronicles 3 probably sits closest to the first entry in the franchise in terms of the general tone and feel of its story, in terms of combat it aligns itself most obviously with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 by expanding and layering on a bunch of new systems which, thankfully, this time around feel far more intuitive, much less confusing, and nowhere near as clunky. Yes, we enjoyed the heck out the Blades system in Rex's adventure, make no mistake — it's an excellent time once you get your head around it all — but there's no doubt it could have been more streamlined, more user-friendly and worked into the rest of the game's combat a little more fluidly. Here there are no such problems.
The action kicks off by introducing the auto-attack and rhythmic deployment of Arts and specials that fans will know well from the rest of the series before unleashing the fantastical power of Ouroboros, giving our heroes the ability to Interlink, combining in pairs into great big Transformer-like beings with a variety of screen-shaking attacks that you'll need to make good use of as you go toe to toe with a rogue's gallery of gloriously hammy Moebius monsters.
Interlinking is a slick addition to the action here, it adds real drama and excitement to battles and is, most importantly, easy to get your head around, employing the same general rhythms and rules as the base layer combat but with much more impressive end results as a reward. The game gives you plenty of time to get used to this flashy new mechanic too before slowly adding more fuel to the fire, layering on the ability to combo smoothly from art to art in a never-ending flow of attacks, fusing master arts to normal arts to meld multiple effects together in a blur of explosions and colour, unleashing special talent arts — such as Noah's incredibly powerful and hugely satisfying Lucky Seven Sword manoeuvres — and then introducing delightfully strategic Chain Attacks into the mix for good measure.
There are plenty of new classes to be unlocked by discovering and adding the game's generous roster of heroes to your crew too, each one working as a seventh unplayable member of the team who can be swapped out to suit your needs in battle. Every new class you discover comes with its own unique moves and skills, they can be used by anyone in the squad and, more importantly perhaps, you can now freely switch between all of your characters as you roam the world and fight, flipping from a defensive role that draws aggro from enemies, to a healing class that drops HP and defence-boosting rings on the battleground before swapping to a straight-up offensive role to truly lay the smack down with fast and furious attacks. Once you've unlocked Ouroboros and the ability to string combos of arts and fusions together here you can really go daft, unleashing a non-stop tirade of attacks, powerful specials, strategically satisfying chain attacks and Interlink transformations to devastate your foes.
If it sounds complicated, well, it's certainly got plenty of depth and a ton of moving parts — the Chain Attack system here almost deserves its own separate review — but it's always great fun, always intuitive, and the game has got an encyclopaedic hints and tips section as well as a ton of VR-style tutorials that cover everything you need to know in great detail. Feel like you don't quite understand the ins and outs of how Chain Attacks work or how to position your character to make best use of rear/side attacks? Jump into the training mode and practice until you've got it down.
In general, besides showdown battles against big bosses and the roughly 140 legendary monsters you'll find hiding around the world, the combat here is flexible and generous enough in normal mode that you'll get by without too many sticking points, it's an enjoyable and addictive experience for anyone to just pick up and dive into, and there's an easy mode for those who want to simply kick back and enjoy a stress-free ride. However, it also has the depth and strategic chops to fully engage those looking for a massive challenge and playing on a harder difficulty sees you really need to dig deep and consider your every move, know when to deploy that Chain Attack or hold off for just a bit longer, when to erupt into Ouroboros form to take control of a battle gone bad, how to combo from a level three Interlink straight into a Chain Attack and then out into your charged special talent art, breaking, toppling, juggling and dazing the biggest and baddest foes for maximum damage.
We could go on and on about the combat here but what Monolith Soft has come up with is one of the very best battle systems we've ever had the joy of getting to grips with and, beyond the super slick and streamlined nature of things on a purely mechanical level, visually it's also absolutely knockout stuff. As the game settles into its rhythm, as you get to grips with liberating colonies from the clutches of their Flame Clocks, you'll find yourself coming up against a unique Moebius Consul for every location you attempt to free. These face-offs, and we mean every last one of them, are just spectacular set-pieces, kicking off with plenty of highly entertaining smack talk, OTT cutscenes, and villainous posturing before high-intensity battle commences. We never tired of it and honestly, after over 100 hours, the desire to immediately dive right back into New Game+ is overwhelming. We genuinely can't wait to go back and play this one all over again, and there really aren't too many JRPGs of this length we can say that about.
Is it all absolutely perfect? Of course not, no. The world here may look fantastic and its various locales are stuffed to bursting point with interesting locations, secrets, and collectibles, but it isn't a particularly modern creation, it's perhaps not as exciting as Alrest and its Titans were to explore first time around, it's segmented rather than truly open-world and can at points feel quite old-fashioned in how it's designed as a result. Side quests, too, although there are plenty of excellent ones, still suffer from their fair share of groan-worthy filler and busywork.
But that's it. Thinking back over all the time we've spent with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, that's the worst we can come up with. That, and the fact it goes totally mad on the melodrama from time to time (but we love that about this franchise).
With regards to performance, this new entry is a big step up from its predecessors, with crisp image quality in docked mode and a much-improved resolution in handheld. Yes, you'll still notice dynamic shifts as you wander into busy areas or get stuck into a particularly epic fight in portable mode, but it's a huge improvement and at no point did the clarity diminish to the point it impacted our enjoyment. In terms of the frame rate, too, we didn't notice any issues beyond the odd very slight stutter here and there. There are some longish loading times as you get to the endgame, and these can get a little infuriating as you approach the final encounter, but overall Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a real technical triumph on Nintendo's ageing console. This is a huge game that's jam-packed full of stunning vistas, action-packed battles and stylish cutscenes and it honestly rarely misses a beat whether you're playing portably or docked.
There's so much other stuff we can't give away in this review, so much we don't want to spoil about the adventure that awaits, but if you're a fan of Xenoblade Chronicles, know that this is the pinnacle of the series so far, a game that continues the story and ties into everything you love about this franchise in some delightful ways. If you just love yourself a great big JRPG, know that this is one of the very best out there, one of the finest experiences currently available on Switch and a game we'll be talking about and enjoying for a long time to come. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is an emotionally-charged masterpiece, a heartfelt epic that delivers the goods and easily overcomes any of its minor shortcomings with an incredible narrative and some of the best combat we've ever had the pleasure of digging into.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a genuine masterpiece and the highlight of Monolith Soft's superb series thus far. There's an emotionally-charged and surprisingly edgy epic to get stuck into here, a sprawling and hugely engaging narrative populated by a cast of unforgettable characters that's backed up by some of the very best combat we've had the pleasure of getting to grips with in this genre to date. Over 100 hours into this one, we're as captivated now as we were when we first booted it up and it has more than delivered every bit of the adventure, emotion, and action that its key art promised it might. Aionios awaits, it's time to seize the future.