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Xenoblade Chronicles 3 review - a JRPG masterpiece

Bionis shock. - Essential badge
Monolith Soft caps its loosely connected trilogy of epic RPGs with its most adaptable, malleable and high-spirited adventure yet.

When Final Fantasy veteran and survivor of the Xenosaga games Tetsuya Takahashi set out to make the original Xenoblade Chronicles, it was with the intention of creating nothing less than a JRPG masterpiece. His team at Monolith Soft were tasked with making a game that would restore the balance between systems and story that had been knocked out of whack by certain giants of the genre throughout the noughties, and one that would bring the JRPG back to its 90s pomp.

Upon its release in 2010 the first Xenoblade Chronicles met its brief and then some; coming six months after the high-budget hobble of Final Fantasy 13, Takahashi's game restated and refined the elements that helped make JRPGs so beloved in their heyday. Monolith Soft created a seemingly boundless fantasy world whose impossible horizons stretched on for miles (featuring landscapes as breathtaking as Breath of the Wild's, a game Monolith Soft helped create alongside Nintendo in its frequently employed role as a support developer) . Here was a JRPG infused with an infectious sense of adventure matched by some exquisite systems. At the time it was nothing short of a revelation.

Subsequent entries struggled to have the same impact. Xenoblade Chronicles X, a fantastic and fascinating spin-off, was held back by the Wii U's paltry user base as it shifted the balance towards its open world systems; Xenoblade Chronicles 2, meanwhile, had its appeal limited by some of its more questionable character designs and the excesses of its story as it was crowded out in the Switch's busy launch year. With Xenoblade Chronicles 3 coming during a relatively quiet summer for big new games, it feels like the timing might be right to restore the JRPG crown to a beloved series.

The vistas are frequently breathtaking - and it helps that this is a significant step up from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in terms of performance, both handheld or docked.

It helps that this is the most approachable in the series to date; indeed, it seems tooled towards an audience who've never played a Xenoblade game before, or maybe even one that's not touched a JRPG before. That number in the title seems off-putting and perhaps even a tad unwise; Xenoblade Chronicles 3 works effectively as a standalone entry, the deeper links to the preceding games not coming until well into this epic adventure (and well beyond the point I'm able to talk about in this review).

Know this, though; as an entry into the series - or into the wider world of JRPGs - Xenoblade Chronicles 3 works brilliantly. Set upon the world of Aionos, it's a far-flung future fantasy where two nations are perennially facing each other down in a war designed to never end. On the one side there's Keves, its soldiers adorned in black outfits while its cities carry steampunk vestiges; on the other there's Agnus, dressed in angelic white whose colonies have a more ethereal aesthetic. Both side's soldiers have an artificially reduced lifespan of 10 years; both sides expect those ten years to be spent in combat until their lifeforce is depleted in battle so that the cycle might start again.

Some colonies are entirely optional, and each has its own culture and customs for you to unpick. There are some delicious stories and characters to be found in some of the more far flung examples.

It's a bleak backdrop that provides Xenoblade Chronicles 3 with melancholic foundations that inform its every beat - a boon if, like me, you love your JRPGs served up with a side order of sadness. Noah, the first of six heroes to make your acquaintance, hails from Keves' Colony 9 outpost where he's trained in battle alongside his companions the healer Eunie and hot-headed tank Lanz; his duty, however, is as an off-seer, making sure those who've fallen on the field have safe passage to the next realm as he plays them off with a mournful melody on his flute. It's a duty he maintains throughout Xenoblade Chronicles 3's 50-hour adventure. Spot a fallen soldier on the course of the myriad quests that come your way and you're invited to pause and send them off with a few sorrowful notes.

On Agnus' side Mio performs the same task, seeing off those who've been slain in the fight against Keves. Alongside her are companions and party members, tactician Taion and the deceptively slight ogre Sena, with all six briskly brought together to form what's firmly an ensemble piece. Each character is given their own breathing space in a story that's deep with touching sympathy - and told in cutscenes that can cause deep sighs given their extended runtime - but what's really important is the breadth that's lent to combat by having such a big cast.

Each one is in your direct command, with the ability to flick through the party on the fly whether exploring or in combat. Even better, they're six characters you can spec out almost entirely how you want to thanks to Xenoblade Chronicles 3's brilliantly fluid approach to classes. Here you can mix and match with an impressive amount of freedom, building outrageous parties of nothing but high DPS attackers and seeing what damage you can unleash in the Xenoblade series' metronomic MMO-esque real-time RPG combat. There's even a seventh slot for an ever-expanding list of cameo heroes whose classes you can then unlock for your own repertoire.

The player in combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 3, in a grassy valley between mountains.
Combat can descend into chaos - with six characters in play, plus their Ouroboros formations and with chain attacks popping off it can feel a bit like a fruit machine at times. | Image credit: Nintendo

It's a potential tinkerer's dream, though all that complexity can sometimes feel lost in the frenetic rhythm of Xenoblade's combat. There's an added chaos this time out with all six heroes sometimes threatening to collapse in a cacophony of combos and chain attacks, but find that rhythm and the right way to massage the numbers upward and Xenoblade Chronicles 3's combat can be a charm. Or, you could just engage with it lightly; there's a host of options including a very easy Easy mode plus the ability to autobattle through all but the boss characters, meaning it's possible to just kick back for an evening and push your party through mobs for an enjoyably mindless grind.

Whether or not you choose to delve into the mechanical depths or take a more frictionless approach doesn't really matter, because above all else Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a delightfully breezy thing, bound together by a sense of world-hopping adventure. It's an attribute it has in common with many a classic JRPG, with a galloping urgency to the story, tugged along amply by its six leads as well as a rapid fire run through the Xenoblade series' recurrent themes. There are devious gods and circles of fate that must be broken - or, in Xenoblade Chronicles 3's case, literal clock faces that must be broken as you liberate the numerous Agnus and Keves camps on your path.

Like so many other elements of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 you're free to engage with these colonies as much as you'd like - or you could simply carry on. Pause in the camps and you might overhear conversations that lead to a questline, or maybe just something to chat over the next time all six of you sit down to rest. Hang around a while - and Xenoblade Chronicles 3, like its predecessors, has the sun rise and set as part of its day cycle - and you can make yourself at home, fulfilling quests and pushing out into the vast wilderness beyond. I love that depth, and that adaptability.

The English voice work is high quality, though there's a real dearth of barks in battle that soon grates. Thankfully it's easy enough to switch to the Japanese voice track at any time.

I love, above all, that wilderness that ties together Xenoblade Chronicles, and that's delivered with fresh abundance in the third instalment. World-hopping's one thing, but it's greatly enhanced when the world's as wondrous as Aionos, a collection of impossibly vast wide open areas with heart-stopping alien vistas. That's where the real appeal of Xenoblade Chronicles comes, tapping into a fantastical vein of sci-fi that makes it feel like you're playing through the cover of one of the Starlog magazines Takahashi used to cherish while growing up, or that you're playing through the backdrop of a classic 80s shmup like Darius at ground level.

There are the crags and crevices of Aetia, with clifftops that look out over lagoons and fields that stretch on and on and on. See that level 80 monkey over there, circling the lake in the far distance? You can go and smash him in the face if you so desire. In Pentelas there's the arresting sight of a Colony under a waterfall, a full rainbow arcing out across the mists; later, in Cadensia, there's an open body of water you're free to criss-cross in your ship, visiting the various islands and unearthing their secrets like you're playing a mini Wind Waker. It's quick to get to what I love about classical JRPGs - the sensation of running through endless fields of long grass with your companions, facing impossible odds with a spring in your step.

The sense of adventure is unparalleled, helped along by a soundtrack from the all-star collection of Yasunori Mitsuda, Manami Kiyota, ACE, Kenji Hiramatsu and Mariam Abounnasr.

It feeds into the incredible sense of adventure that makes Xenoblade Chronicles 3 truly soar as a JRPG. Perhaps more than any game before it in the series this gets the balance between systems and story down perfectly - even better, it manages to entwine the two in an adventure that infuses each of your footsteps with a sense of purpose. It might not quite be the revelation the original was back in 2010, but Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is most definitely another JRPG masterpiece from Monolith Soft.