Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the perfect game to get you through the annual summer drought of video game releases precisely because it’s a game that seemingly goes on forever. By the time you get it out it will be well into November, just in time to pick up Game of the Year shoo-in Skull and Bones or whatever game Sony Santa Monica is playing, that will certainly have no effect.
I’m not even sure about the game can be done because after 25 hours it still throws new mechanics and tutorials at me that make an already complicated game more and more complicated. That said, oddly enough, I was forced by its combat, which makes it feel like an MMORPG, and its almost incomprehensible story. Half the time I don’t know what’s going on, mechanical or narrative, but I enjoy it.
Let me reveal two things beforehand. First off, I haven’t finished this game yet. It’s a JRPG; those things take over 60 hours to complete. And even with the wealth of time Nintendo has given us – a luxurious full month – it just isn’t enough. I’m only 25 hours into it with an incalculable amount to go. Second, I’ve never played one xenoblade game for. I’m a Final Fantasy girl, and the xenoblade series came at a time when my taste in JRPGs had long since calcified.
Knowing all this, it’s possible that my attitude to the game will change once I hit the 50-hour mark. The game could, finally, stop introducing me to new mechanics every three hours, finally figuring out how battles are supposed to fit together. And the game’s story can finally begin answering the a lot questions it has so far seemingly refused to acknowledge that it has even been asked. So while this isn’t a formal review, it’s a good summary of how the first half (third?) of the game made me feel.
XBC3 starts the same way my favorite Final Fantasy (VIII) does: with some old-fashioned child soldiers. Noah and his team of special Kevesi troops have trained since birth to fight off the hostile forces of the Agnus, and the game begins with a very “war is hell” montage of teenagers on both sides fighting and dying on a brutal battlefield. In time, he will become an ally with Agnian forces, and together the group will hopefully save the world.
I am most impressed with XBC3‘s fight. It is very difficult these days to make RPG battles engaging. It’s either turn-based like it used to be or a super-fast button masher with no more strategy than “keep hitting X until someone dies.” But xenoblade feels like a single player game has come closest to MMORPG combat. You and your allies can take each other’s lessons and learn new lessons from the characters you meet. Your allies learn their skills that you can use alongside your own to create combinations that work very well together, leading to huge advantages in battle.
There is an elaborate process of tormenting enemies with status effects. In order to, say, stun a target with stun, you must first torment them with a fracture and then hit the broken target with falling over. It’s rare for a character to have the ability to inflict all three, so if you equip your allies with abilities that break, knock down and stun opponents, the AI will automatically use them in sequence to do so.
XBC3‘s combat has also attached an interesting importance to positioning. During major boss battles in MMOs, you never want to be directly in front of or directly behind an enemy, as they traditionally have abilities that deal extra damage to players in those areas. There’s also a long-standing nugget of MMO wisdom that dictates that you shouldn’t be in area debuffs and should instead be in area improvements. In xenoblade, characters have abilities that deal extra damage or activate certain statuses when used when in a certain position. Characters also have abilities or auras that strengthen allies when you’re in them. In practice this means, as with my Astrologer in Final Fantasy XIVI position my butt and work on my character to be in as many buffs as possible for maximum output.
As much as I love combat other than positioning, the mechanics don’t make sense to me. There are icons under skills that are never explained and have no mention in the byzantine tips section of the game. There are ways of linking attacks together (which is uselessly called “cancelling attacks”) that I’ve never quite mastered. You have to launch one attack as the previous one lands for a small boost in damage, but the timing seems finicky. Combat is chaotic in its own right, and trying to play a rhythmic game while dancing around enemies is a bit too much to ask.
However, chain attacks are the worst. Filling a special meter can trigger a chain attack for massive damage, making them crucial for boss fights. Chain attacks take you from the battlefield to a separate screen where you can choose a special ability that, to perform, you must choose a series of smaller attacks to build up to 100 percent or more.
At first I didn’t think there was a strategy for it. I just picked the attacks that made the numbers soar. The game throws so much at you so quickly, with jargon you haven’t really learned yet, that I clicked through the tutorial panels, eyes glazed over as I tried to absorb the sheer amount of everything all over at once. It turned out that there is a strategy to do a chain attack effectively, but learn how to get buried in the combat drills of the game. In-game battle sims for learning game mechanics are a great resource and accessibility tool. But it’s a bit stinky that some of the tutorials out there aren’t experienced in the game itself, forcing you to search through them like a manual for an expensive coffee maker.
To add an extra combat element to an already overloaded system, characters can merge into creatures called Ouroboros, giving them stronger attacks for a limited time. Ouroboros have their own skill trees and abilities, and they even have a second form that you can activate, but as with everything else in this game, it’s under-explained. I see no reason to activate the second form of my Ouroboros, and the game has not yet given me a clear reason why I would choose one form over the other.
Even though you have the ability to play any character who in turn has the ability to be any class, the only class I hold on to is healer. Your allies do not have the ability to heal themselves. There are no items to restore HP or even revive the dead – both are the only domain of healers. If they go down, you lose the ability to revive other fallen allies and usually a game over ensues. It’s just better to personally control that, and the AI is decent at doing the damage and tank classes’ pain points and blockages anyway. It severely limits my gameplay options, but when my screen normally looks like this:
…being limited doesn’t seem so bad. I appreciate that XBC3 has tried to differentiate itself from other RPGs with its combat. But with too much mechanics to keep up with, that’s under-explained and buried in a tutorial section that would take an extra 10 hours to dissect, sometimes less is more.
Above all, the story of a game is the most important thing for me. XBC3The story is intriguing enough to keep going, but it feels like the game keeps adding breadcrumbs of plot without me waiting in the middle of the woods. This isn’t and can’t be a serious complaint given the sheer amount of game I assume is left to me. But at this point I feel like I need to have a basic understanding of what the characters want to achieve.
As Noah and his friends continue with “happy sonOn their way through the game, they meet a creature they’ve never seen before: an old man. This old man tells them that there is more to life than fighting and dying at a young age, sacrificing his life energy to power their colony’s “Flame Clock”. Noah befriends a group on the other side of the war, and together they learn that by smashing the flame clocks of colonies, both groups can save their respective sides from the endless cycle of war and death.
I’d expect this to be the main thrust of the story, but the way it’s presented subordinates it to the real focus of the plot, which is “make your way to the big sword statue that’s on the box art.” I understand that the “big sword statue that is on the box art” is the key to xenoblade lore, but the liberation of your allies and enemies seems much more compelling than “going here”.
In addition, there is a cabal of armored enemies who control the colonies like pieces on a chessboard. Their motives are as yet unknown and their ranks include former allies of Noah who were thought to be dead. As if that wasn’t enough, I was just introduced to an even shadier cabal of thugs who control the people who control the colonies. It is too much.
I appreciate how each character gets a moment to shine. Each person has their own motivations and backstories. The game takes time to elaborate carefully and weave it into the story wisely in a way that other RPGs neglect in favor of hyperfocusing on the chosen protagonist. (Choose a Final Fantasyeach Final Fantasy.)
I also really dig how the game portrays the complexities of relationships between people who have hurt each other. The characters you control have fought each other. Although they are forced together by circumstances, it takes time to trust each other. And while they help other enemy colonies, those people rightly exclaim that the good they are doing now does not erase the pain they inflicted on others in the past.
As much as this game confuses me, I’m content to let it get me sucked into babe-in-the-woods style. Like I said, it’s still early in the game. I hope all the disparate bits of story and combat are constructed as an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that starts to make sense once I reach the game’s climax. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is like that detective Benoit Blanc quote in Blades off: “It does not make any sense. Makes me.” It’s a byzantine maze that’s as fun as it is mind-boggling to navigate, and I hope it doesn’t take too long for me to figure it out.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 launches on the Nintendo Switch on July 29.