How Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Surprised Me

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How <i>Xenoblade Chronicles 3</i> Surprised Me

You can do a lot with 100 hours. I’ve spent less time at some part-time jobs, read Anna Karenina in less, and took an entire trip to Washington D.C. last month that, door to door, took me less time to complete. You can take a semester of a class, learn the basics of a new language, or remodel your kitchen. It’s less than a week, but a large enough span of time to be notable when you spend it on just one thing.

I’ve spent nowhere near 100 hours with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. By my best estimate, I’m about halfway through the main story, and I have done a lot of the larger sidequests, though very few of the small ones. But increasingly I’m finding the 100-hour time scale, the benchmark by which this game has marketed itself and been described in awe since its release, to be an impoverished way of talking about what it has to offer.

I say this because historically, spending 100 hours with a game is not something I’ve been excited about. This is partially because before this spring, I hadn’t played a JRPG in years, let alone one with the reach and reputation for length of the Xenoblade series. The last one I played, Final Fantasy VII Remake, is now one of my favorite games of all time, but ditches a lot of the quirks of the genre I have little patience for: overblown story, combat that’s difficult to understand and execute, millions of sidequests that all amount to giving someone something you picked up off the ground three hours ago. It’s not that I don’t like JRPGs, but that the bar they have to clear for me to enjoy them is often high.

Even after reading some favorable reviews of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, I was still nervous it wouldn’t be for me. But after spending a few days with it I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not only an enjoyable, balanced, and emotionally moving experience, but one that is friendly to someone skeptical about a lot of its component parts. Elements that I was nervous wouldn’t gel with me, like the multi-hour cinematic cutscenes and the MMO-style combat, fit so naturally into the structure of the game that they almost disappear into its flow.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 tells the story of two nations, Keves and Agnus, who kill each others’ soldiers in perpetuity. Those soldiers are born from test tubes and live only 10 years, if they don’t die in battle first. Their lives are tied to devices called Flame Clocks, which store the essence of their enemies and kill their inhabitants if that essence runs out. Noah, the main character, is an Off-seer, a musician in charge of making sure the souls of lost soldiers are returned to the earth in death, which is a responsibility that’s made him skeptical of the cycle of violence required to sustain his life. Yes, that’s a lot of proper nouns, but it helps that the central premise is so emotionally strong: the six main characters are child soldiers whose lives are tied to killing each other, and the inciting events of this story are the first time most of them have questioned whether that’s an exchange they can live with.

Xenoblade 3 has MMO-style combat, a phrase I wouldn’t know the meaning of were it not for a former roommate of mine who liked to play Overwatch in our living room. Your team is divided up into healers, defenders, and attackers, with the first two playing a support role for the third. You switch back and forth between your six playable characters in order to release timed Arts, powerful attacks that recharge over time or through performing auto-attacks, another MMO staple that Xenoblade 3 borrows. This can be sped up by canceling, which takes its name from the same strategy in fighting games. Pressing your next attack at the moment the first one hits gives you damage and recharge speed bonuses, making combat feel more like an exchange as you swap back and forth between your party members.

I’ve never felt unfairly challenged by anything Xenoblade 3 has thrown at me. There was only one fight where I got really stuck, and figuring out how to use chain attacks solved the problem for me. That’s something I appreciate about Xenoblade 3’s combat system: it’s extremely flexible. Don’t like how a class plays? Choose another one. An end of chapter boss is too hard? Level up with bonus XP. It’s a smoothness of user experience that is obscured at first by the combat’s complexity and its submenus upon submenus. But even this, which I was worried about at the start, is doled out to you so carefully through hours of tutorials that by the time you get to the game’s midpoint, you have a reasonable enough command of the combat to slide through Normal difficulty without too much trouble. This truly is the beginner’s Xenoblade—and if that’s not what you want, you can always switch to Hard mode.

One thing that I don’t like about the combat in Xenoblade 3 is how easy it is to get very overleveled. There are enemies all over the vast areas you spend most of your time running across, and if you fight even half of them, you’ll soon be unstoppable to anything in the main story. This is all well and good if you’re only interested in completing the story, and Hard Mode swings things back in the other direction, making even battles with things 10 levels below you difficult, but I wanted something in between those two extremes. So I’ve spent most of the game so far trying to be two or three levels below whatever I’m fighting, a strategy that frequently requires me to just run by whatever is between me and my objective, and cross my fingers that I won’t get smashed into the ground.

What being overleveled means, however, is that whenever I take a break from the main story to explore parts of Xenoblade 3’s vast map that I haven’t been to yet, I am walking by enemies that are 20+ levels below me, and thus do not care about me at all. This way of navigating turns the game from a button masher into a meditative exploration, where I’m free to wander around and look out over cracked, snowy mountain vistas. Occasionally, something strong will bother me, and it’s a nice surprise break from the peace.

This brings me to something else I appreciate about Xenoblade 3: the way it arranges sidequests. I have a complicated history with collection quests in videogames. One of my favorite games ever, Dragon Age: Inquisition, has a notorious quest where you collect hundreds of shards whose purpose is unknown for 50+ percent of the game. Xenoblade 3 has this exact same quest, though thankfully the shards are less numerous. There are dozens of other small sidequests though, from colony requests to item fetch quests called Collectopedia cards.

The saving grace of all these quests is that most of them complete automatically. When you have the required items for a Collectopedia card, you navigate to a submenu and turn them in, and get your rewards and a thank you. There’s no walking back to a colony you haven’t been to in 20 hours just so you can give someone a bunch of leaves and spices. This made me about a thousand times more likely to actually complete these quests, and to see the stories associated with them, which tend to be less fleshed out than the main quest, and a little less consistent, but usually at least passingly interesting and more related to particular characters’ personalities.

As for that main story, it’s told largely through cutscenes that stretch to the length of several movies. They’re over the top, but in a way that suits the darker tone the game is going for. All six of the main characters have full personalities and relationships to each other, though some of these are more interesting than others. The game pairs off the characters from Keves and Agnus, a combat mechanic that also contributes to the story: when characters fuse together in what’s called Ouroboros form, they can see each others’ memories. This is often part of the tension in cutscenes where one character is in distress, and their partner (and the player) is the only one who realizes why. I would have been insufferable about the plot of this game if I’d played it when I was 13. It seems made to play on a YA-esque blend of romance, teen awkwardness, and military drama that remains critical about military service. For the most part, that blend still works even if you can recognize it dipping into cliche sometimes.

While the cutscenes hold a lot of the most dramatic character action, there’s plenty of small moments that help build the sense that you’re part of a coherent team that enjoys spending time with each other. The rest screen at campsites shows clips of characters cooking together, showing each other books, and playing pranks, activities that play up their personalities further. Post-battle banter is repetitive at best, as others have observed already, but what’s much better are the idle animations that play when you’re stopped for a moment: Noah fixing his ponytail, Lanz and Sena doing squats and jumping jacks. It drives home that these child soldiers are actually children, and that there’s other things they’d rather be doing than fighting for their lives.

Would I still enjoy Xenoblade 3 if I only had 30, even 15 hours to spend with it? That’s something I’ve been considering as I’ve run through an expansive series of open fields and climbed up vibrant purple strands of ivy that led me to cliffs rising even higher into the sky. Even in the first half of the game, having seen much less than half of its content, I’ve watched a few hours of cutscenes and completed several dozen quests. In a game of this size, I would normally tend to think that the content was justified by its length; it might not be all winners all the time, but there’s so much of it that it’s hard to criticize what’s not working, because there’s always something else to do.

There are certainly parts of Xenoblade 3 that I feel this way about. Quests can feel pointless sometimes, enemy placement doesn’t quite compute for me, and there are a few story beats, especially at the beginning, that fail to build on the surprisingly substantial characters Monolithsoft has provided. But for the most part, whatever I’m doing, I’m enjoying it. The game’s run time helps to give your actions a bigger weight: when I’m running from mind-controlled soldiers in hour 10, I know I’ll probably be flattening them no problem in hour 40. But the combat and exploration are fleshed out enough, and the setting is compelling enough, that the quality matches (if not exceeds) the quantity, at least most of the time.

For a game about characters whose problem is that they don’t have enough time, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is generous with its own. I’m glad the game is as long as it is, but even if there were less of it, it would still feel complete. This is the best assessment of the game I can personally give. Many of the people who play Xenoblade 3 will see a fraction of its content outside the main story, and as with any game of this length, might not even finish that story in the first place. But experiencing 10 or 20 hours of Xenoblade 3 is a totally engaging experience, one made better by the realization that there’s plenty more out there for you to do if you want it. However much of its world you see, and however you decide to engage with it, Xenoblade 3 will meet you halfway.