Rawen’s Review of Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Love conquers all, I guess.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is the fifth game in the Xenoblade Chronicles series if we count the first game as two games, which it is. It’s a direct sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles (the first game) and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (the third game) and it set in a world that resembles the worlds of those two games.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 came out four months ago and I only just finished playing it because I have a job, but if you’re as slow as me you might not have finished it yet, so beware of spoilers, because though most of the plot is just JRPG nonsense, there is some legitimately cool stuff in here.

The game is set in a world called Aionios, where two nations, Keves and Agnus, are locked in a forever war fought by two armies made up of bioengineered child soldiers who have a ten-year lifespan and whose main goal is to steal each other’s life forces to power Flame Clocks, which house the life forces of their own colonies. Though they’re two armies controlled by two queens in two castles, there’s not much of a sense of military strategy, it just seems like each group of soldiers goes around doing whatever as long as they murder people. The plot of the game focuses on three Kevesi soldiers, Noah, Eunie and Lanz, who meet three Agnian soldiers, Mio, Taion and Sena, and all six of them get powers to merge into giant mechs called Ouroboros to fight a tacky evil organization called Moebius, which is secretly orchestrating the forever war because they’re all weird energy vampires that need human life force to maintain their immortality. So you go on a journey across a gigantic and lush RPG world full of exploration, characters you can talk to, and side quests, in order to save the world.

If you’ve played the other games in the series, Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s gameplay and core mechanics are the same as in those. The gameplay in the first game was really good already, and then it was polished a lot in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which marred its objectively excellent game design with a lot of questionable writing choices. It’s been further polished in this game. Combat unfolds in real time on the world map, and you attack enemies using your attacks or “arts” that recharge over time. It’s got a lot of depth to it once you get more into the game, but it’s very intuitive to get started on. There’s not a lot of inventory or equipment management like there is in the other games, which I always enjoyed before, but oh well.

Some new additions to this game: there’s no collectopaedia, which I didn’t appreciate because that was the best part of picking up the random item drops in the other games. They added more sub-menus to level up different abilities, which is fine. They’ve removed heart-to-hearts and party affinity, which I also don’t like and which takes away some of the impulse to play as anyone but the main character. They’ve also arbitrarily changed the game’s signature “chain attack” mechanic again, seemingly just to say they changed it, but I like what they changed it to, so whatever. Gem crafting to boost your characters’ attributes has been simplified and turned into a game-long fetch quest. Characters can freely move between an increasing number of classes as the game goes on, similar to what the main character could do in the second game, Xenoblade Chronicles X, which the series continuity prefers to pretend didn’t happen. Over the course of doing this you get more skills and arts, which I was worried would just make all the characters interchangeable, but the game mitigates that risk by having these only be secondary to your current class’s arts and skills, which are required. Putting everyone in the same class is generally a bad idea from a gameplay perspective since different classes do different things in battle and also the characters have different proficiencies with different classes.  

Even for the changes I wasn’t that into (I really liked collecting everything in the collectopaedia in the other games, and both that at the heart-to-hearts actually added a lot of depth to the world and characterization, especially of a lot of NPCs), they were fine. I don’t think there were any changes from the other games that I considered bad on the whole, except that you’re not allowed to strip the characters and make them all run around in their underwear like in the first game. They removed this in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and it was a mistake then just like it is now, and though the bathing suit outfits you can get as DLC are hilarious, they’re not the same.

That said, this is very balanced out by the fact that they’ve toned down the male-gaze fanservice a lot in this game, taking it down from the stratospheric levels it reached in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, where they had guest artists, including some actual porn artists but not the good kind, design a lot of the optional “Blade” characters who you could recruit into Rex’s harem of weird sex slaves. It’s even toned down from the first game, where objectively good and interesting character Sharla’s tits were bouncing everywhere all the time even when she was having the most dramatic cutscene in the game and mourning the second death of her dead boyfriend after he’d come back as an evil robot. This game has hardly any fanservice; there are some tits now and then, but it never feels particularly gratuitous. Obviously the real solution would have been to still have all that but just also have a bunch of naked dudes too, but I guess if you’re going to go the other way, it’s only fair to do it equally. Two notable things on that front.  First, in the Lost Vanguard class, given to you by one of the female characters with the biggest tits in the game, everyone kind of gets bigger boobs, even the dudes, which is hilarious. Second, all Kevesi children wear crop tops and low-cut pants with straps that are probably supposed to be belts or equipment pouches but look like thong straps, and that’s definitely fanservice for someone.

The characters in the game are generally pretty well done. Not to the level of the first game, which had some of the most memorable NPC characters of any game I’ve ever played (I still sometimes think about Ma’crish and Nopo’rikh and I’m still sad that Mer’litz and his whole fucking family just die offscreen, fuck), but you get to know the characters and care about them over the course of the game through the side quests, which is a feature of the franchise that I really appreciate. The major characters are all very well written and have clear personalities and motivations, which I like. Some of the non-main Hero characters are a bit one-note, but there are so many of them that’s not surprising. There’s also a clear difference between the ones who are important to the plot and the ones who aren’t; comparing Zeon or Fiona’s characterization to Ghondor or Valdi’s isn’t even a contest. Valdi in particular is a really interesting character; he’s a genius mechanic who just wants tanks to be his friend, and he appears early in the story and has just so much more personality than any other NPC that you really wonder why he’s not a main character.

The main characters, even without heart-to-hearts to get to know them better, are all really well characterized and have good and complex relationships with each other. Getting past their initial racialized enmity, they grow as people over the course of the game in really meaningful and interesting ways that make them confront their own traumas and preconceptions. Noah and Mio fall in love and their romance, instead of being a boring heterosexual romance, is a boring heterosexual romance that’s at least interesting to watch. Eunie’s trauma arising from memories of her past lives and her inability to express herself honestly about is well done, and Taion’s fear of failure is palpable and relatable. Lanz projects masculinity and confidence because he’s deeply insecure (and gay; getting to that) and afraid that he won’t be able to protect his friends. Sena projects strength and power because she’s deeply insecure (and gay) and terrified that people won’t recognize her for her efforts, which are considerable. Sena is the character who gets the least characterization in the game, but she’s one of my favourites and not just because she’s a disaster lesbian whose dating history consists of one straight girl and two psychopaths, which my lesbian friends tell me is pretty true to life.

So about the gayness. The game is pretty relentlessly heterosexual in a way that’s a bit disappointing. The straight relationships that get the most screen time are fun—Ethel and Cammuravi are sworn enemies who have ten years of combat history/sexual tension between them, Noah and Mio’s love is literally the driving force of the universe—but there’s a weird assumed heterosexuality which, considering these people don’t reproduce sexually, doesn’t totally make sense. Like, they’re born in test tubes at the age of ten and then die ten years later if they’re not killed in battle, and they don’t have children. But they’re capable of having children, so it kind of doesn’t make sense because are we really supposed to believe that these people aren’t fucking? It’s kind of a feature of the game that once you “liberate” a colony the people start doing whatever they want and often there’s at least one character who expresses heterosexual interest in another character suddenly, and the naturalization of heterosexuality like that is kind of gross. There’s a cutscene early in the game where Noah, Lanz and Eunie share a public bath with a bunch of other people with no concern in a military setting, but then its offset by a scene a few hours later where the male characters are all nervous about changing clothes in front of the female characters and it doesn’t totally track narratively, except that in between those things you get the Ouroboros power where the characters can merge with each other, and it’s kind of obviously a metaphor for puberty, the discovery of sexuality, and of course the naturalization of heterosexual desire. It’s as though the characters, who are all teenagers, are programmed not to experience sexual desire (which maybe is true, since their bodies are constructed by Moebius), but then that’s somehow activated by their freedom from tyranny? It doesn’t really make sense and if sexual desire was always there but the armies were trying to forbid procreation, it would have been pretty logical to require that everyone have gay sex. But heterosexually is repeatedly, mercilessly reified from start to finish in the game.

So there’s that. But at the same time, there’s literally no way to read Lanz or Sena as straight. Their relationship can’t possibly be read as anything but a friendship; they have no romantic interest in each other at all. Sena’s significant emotional relationships outside of Lanz are all with women whom she has obvious crushes on and who constantly guide the development of her character without realizing it. Lanz’s entire character arc focuses around his guilt over the death of his childhood (boy)friend Joran, who he was mean to as a kid but clearly is still grieving the death of seven years later. Then Joran comes back as an evil Moebius zombie and Lanz is devastated because of course they have to kill him again and I can’t emphasize how much that’s just what gay people are like. No, but seriously, as a queer person, Lanz and Sena both come off as authentically queer people even if neither of them ever “comes out” and I think the writers or at least the English localization team has to have known that. They’re the queerest video game characters I’ve seen in a long time, including some that are actually openly gay. They don’t get together at the end, which nobody does because the universe splits in two (more on that later), but their parting is the most emotional of the three main couples because their entire arc was about how they each found someone who understood them.

Noah and Mio’s heterosexual love is the main plot point in the game, because it turns out that they have been consistently seeking each other across several reincarnations and have fallen in love a hundred times before. Partway through the game, it’s revealed that the guiding principle that defines Aionios’s rules is just Buddhism, and that everyone is trapped in an endless cycle of suffering and rebirth, but with an evil god of stagnation who benefits from it thrown in because the final boss of a video game can’t be a metaphysical concept that doesn’t have hit points. Noah and Mio keep almost breaking out of the cycle and then dying, and on one occasion, Noah went crazy and became the evil N, one of the game’s main villains and a member of Moebius. He turned his version of Mio into M, and she wasn’t too happy about being an immortal energy vampire who had to kill her former friends to survive, which is probably why she eventually broke up with him and committed suicide so he’d stop being evil, as one does.

Now I’m making it sound tacky and dumb and it is because it’s a JRPG, but the way N and M’s relationship is written is genuinely very sad; it’s about a guy who just really wanted to escape a cycle of suffering and be with the person he loved, who just couldn’t figure out that trapping that person in a permanent present wasn’t the way to do that. He’s a tragic figure and his eventually death is really sad as well, if earned. Noah and Mio represent the future that N is trying to deny, a coming together of their two souls that can actually be productive instead of tragic and costly.

This kind of cycle is common in the Xenoblade Chronicles games and the Xeno series more broadly. Two souls that love each other being able to save the world isn’t a new concept, but it’s very powerful in this franchise. The first game is based on a conflict between two creator gods, Zanza and Meyneth, whose former relationship deteriorates into a conflict that leads to Zanza (whose name used to be Klaus, incidentally) attempting to remake creation to make it more perfect. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is set in a different world that was mostly destroyed by Zanza when he created the world the first game is set in, and a split incarnation of Klaus exists in that world and is watching Zanza be defeated in the other world while you fight a giant robot in outer space as the final boss.

In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, after the deaths of both versions of Klaus/Zanza, the two worlds have merged. This is the premise of the game so the player knows it going in (the box art is literally major images from those two games beside each other), but it’s revealed very subtly early on. The desert early on in the game is my favourite desert region in any video game I’ve ever played because it’s more interesting than just “sand” but also it’s very clearly the remnants of the first game’s Fallen Arm, including a remix of the music from that region, and I really liked how quiet that was. The references to both games get more obvious as you go on, and I think this is the best way to have revealed that information, since it means absolutely nothing to the characters but is really important to the audience. The one disappointment I have on this front is that Future Connected, the epilogue story in the fourth game, Xenoblade Chronicles Definitive Edition, teases a rift in the worlds that was allowing a new type of monster to come through, and we never really saw any evidence that that was related to the plot of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, despite the fact that it was appended to the remake seemingly specifically to hype the sequel. Given that they had to know what they were aiming for at that point, it’s a writing decision I don’t really understand, especially because Future Connected’s plot had so much interesting content in it that just kind of gets left by the wayside.

Eventually it turns out that, knowing that their two worlds were going to collide, the queens of both worlds, Melia from Xenoblade Chronicles and Nia from Xenoblade Chronicles 2, devised a plan to turn the whole universe into a weird supercomputer that would rebuild everything after the apocalypse, which then got hacked by a guy named Z, who I’m pretty sure is another reincarnation of Zanza, even if the game insists that he’s, uh, a corporeal manifestation of everyone in the world’s fear of the unknown. Z creates a binaristic, perfectly ordered and objectively terrible world with himself at the top, which is Zanza’s exact modus operandi and also his name starts with Z, so come on. There’s more DLC coming later and I expect it to confirm this, because Zanza is a really threatening villain and his coming back for one more round with a new group of spunky teens is pretty on brand for him.

Anyway, the merged world isn’t supposed to exist, and so everyone goes to kill Zanza with the help of Melia and Nia (fan favourites from the first games, and notably also both occupying the role of “third wheel of the main character’s love triangle”). I really like their appearances; they’re not too overblown and they don’t take over the narrative, but they contribute in a way that’s substantial and satisfying to the plot.

And then they both have a lengthy transformation sequence where they turn their castles into giant mechs to fight the final boss, who has turned his giant sphere fortress into a giant mech, and I cannot emphasize enough how insane and stupid this is. It goes on for such a long time and the game treats it as being very, very serious and cool and it is just so desperately ridiculous and so long, and also includes every other mech from the game appearing to do nothing and someone turning a city into a giant plane called Gilgamesh for no reason (the Xeno series generally loves random mythological references that mean absolutely nothing, see also the Apocrypha Generator and the artifice Ophion that guards the World Tree). This happens while you are fighting the third through fifth phases of the final boss fight, the ones where he has turned into a series of giant faces, a classic JRPG transformation for final bosses, and normally this is where I’d say “I’m making it sound stupid and it’s not” but I’m making it sound stupid because it is and I can’t get over it. Of course Z is eventually defeated with the power of love because it’s a JRPG, and that’s fine, but literally every ounce of JRPG nonsense they could cram into that last hour was there, and it was glorious and I loved it.

The game ends with the two worlds splitting back apart, which results in all the couples being split up and several people’s existence being erased and I have to say that I was genuinely not expecting that. It’s a really good ending; it’s legitimately poignant and moving. The rest of the plot of the game is pretty predictable because Xenoblade Chronicles games all have the same plot and more broadly, JRPGs all have the same plot. One of the things that this franchise is lauded for is its writing, and the first game has an exceptionally high level of writing for its genre. This whole game certainly doesn’t always hit that note, but when it hits, it hits really hard, and the ending is one of those hits. Noah and Mio spent centuries being reincarnated and trying to be together and their happy ending is that they’re not together and that’s just so contrary to how romances about soulmates usually work that it’s hard not to get emotional about it even as you can’t help but know it was the right decision for everyone.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a two-hundred-hour game and there’s a lot I haven’t touched on. There’s a lot of stuff to do in it and unlike in a lot of other games of this length, very few of it feels like busywork, which is impressive as far as I’m concerned. I think the sidequest system could use some tweaking; I don’t like that you have to listen to information and then talk about it and then trigger the quest because that just feels like too many steps. One bad thing that’s extremely worth pointing out is that there’s a huge ocean that you have to explore with a boat that’s hard to control and it’s very tedious and I can’t let the game get away with that without commentary. But those are minor quibbles and overall I think it’s a very solid, very fun game that other huge RPGs in general could learn from. You don’t need to have played the other games in the series to understand it, though you’ll get the maximum out of it if you do. Even without that though, I really recommend it and I think it’s an admirable conclusion to a trilogy that’s been consistently strong from its start.

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