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Monolith Makes Worlds Part 4: Xenoblade Chronicles 3

Strap in, folks. This is a roller coaster ride of a retrospective, which may or may not show a maturity of thought. Definitely not maturity of composition.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3: The Best of Both Worlds?

Part 024: The Beginning of the End (Hopes, Dreams, Fears)
Part 025: One Step Forward (Core Mechanic Variations)
Part 026: One Step to the Side (Setting and World Design)
Part 027: A Section at War (Characters, Combat, and Narrative)
Part 028: The Weight of Life (A Thematic Game)
Part 029: The End of the Beginning (Final Impressions)

DLC Part 030: Fixing What is Broken

Part 024: The Beginning of the End (Hopes, Dreams, Fears)

I had originally intended to preface this final(?) installment with a summary of how I was feeling about Xenoblade Chronicles 3 prior to its release, but... time ran away from me, and I found myself putting together a podcast about Xenoblade Chronicles X, of all things. This turned out to be a terrible thing, because returning to that game in preparation for this latest installment was... setting up some unrealistic expectations, to say the least.

So what did I expect from Xenoblade Chronicles 3? Well, it's hard to say, since the shifting release dates resulted in an information dump that explained a great deal of the game's base mechanics and structure. Before that information had dropped, here are some elements that I would have highlighted as priorities for making a “superior” game to XC2:

-Stronger and more cohesive world design, from a topographical standpoint

-Further refined combat, taking the lessons learned from Torna

-More cohesive aesthetic design

-A matured narrative, delivering a satisfying conclusion/cohesion to the previous titles

Now, if you've been following the game's released information, reviews, or if you've been playing the title, a few of these hopes were rendered irrelevant near immediately. In a somewhat misleading move, the characters of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 share the “racial” aesthetic traits of their respective universes, but none of the lore characteristics. Spoiler-heavy discussion of the nature of the narrative will reveal its nearly-inconsequential nature when considering it a “sequel.” The battle system, while offering some new functions that will be discussed momentarily, is very much a spiritual “merging” of the systems featured in XC1 and XC2. And while the world design is certainly more cohesive, it still offers some bizarre design decisions that either speak to another rushed development cycle or a team dealing with the frustrating limitations of the hardware platform.

In short, XC3 feels less like a step forward and more of a game rooted in the last decade of Monolith's work, excluding XCX because we can't have nice things. If Monolith is going to shamelessly retread the composition of previous titles, then so too shall I:

While XC has ties to concepts found in Tetsuya Takahashi's previous Xeno- titles, it also possesses species and ideas wholly unique to its own series. When looking at the -blade titles, I find that I can very easily categorize them with [four] overarching key words:

With Xenoblade Chronicles, the word is “Character.”

With Xenoblade Chronicles X, the word is “Exploration.”

With Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the word is “Combat.”

And now, with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, the word is “Theme.”

While I have enjoyed many characters from Monolith's -blade series, I have only ever truly loved XC1's narrative. It accomplishes what it sets out to do with multiple twists and turns and is respectful of player investment. I thought that, perhaps, it would remain unchallenged due largely to its nostalgic significance, though I can confidently say that XC3 matches and perhaps exceeds it in some ways. XC3's themes are explored with a great deal of maturity and focus throughout its main narrative and side quests to a degree that borders on hyper-fixation, although it does seem reasonable given the lore justifications. With a topic as all-encompassing and relatable as “life,” there is plenty of mileage to be covered, and the game does so very well. It is a strong, thematic title, arguably the only Xenoblade trilogy title worthy of that label. Again, that is excluding XCX, because we can't have nice things.

The only problem, and it is far from a small one, is that darned gameplay side of things. XC3 is so willing to throw all of its weight into telling a story that it refuses to be brave in terms of gameplay, resulting in a game that feels middling, mediocre, and infuriating.

But if a game doesn't make a player feel things, is it really doing a great job? Hopefully, it makes the player feel those things on multiple levels concurrently, as when a game's mechanics facilitate the narrative it hopes to deliver. XC3 is not a great example of that, though if you do want a more effective analysis of the idea, there's a big, ugly Breath of the Wild retrospective that you can read up on. Even so, if I was less frustrated, or invested in Monolith Soft on the whole, I wouldn't be here, explaining why I care so much and have such high expectations for this developer. And in spite of its flaws, I do think I love Xenoblade Chronicles 3, but that is a declaration that comes with many caveats.

So let's get to it, shall we...?

Part 025: One Step Forward (Core Mechanic Variations)

I was recently sick. Like, unable to sit down and pen and edit this whole schtick. And to be honest, I had a great deal of time to think about this analysis. Is anyone still listening to me? Does anyone care? Have I even accomplished the goals I've set for myself, here and/or elsewhere?

It's been a long time since I started this series, if you can even call it that. In that time, I've spent a long time tempering my analytical skills as a staff writer on another website, and while that has helped with honing my perspective on RPGs, it's helped put a great deal of Monolith's design into perspective. I've played other RPGs- shorter RPGs, derivative RPGs, and yes, in some respects, better RPGs than what Monolith has put out in the last decade or so. It's made me wonder what their ambitions are for their creative output, or if creative ambition has much to do with their recent work.

It has made me wonder if I should continue to write this retrospective, and if I do, whether or not I should use the same style of prose.

Starting a playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is like returning home after a long leave, if you consider XC2 a particularly homey place. While there are elements of XC1 present in the design of some Arts, the UI and button mapping are more of a reflection of the former than the latter, in any of its forms. While I originally lauded XC2 for stripping down its complexities for a more straightforward experience, I didn't imagine I'd find further streamlining in the next XC installment.

Instead of swapping weapons using the D-pad, you'll gain access to another trio of Master Arts that will act in a similar way to the cooldown-oriented design of XC1 or the auto-attack recharge system of XC2, depending on your class. You'll never be able to rock a full set of six of either type, but this does allow the player to expand their options with valuable combat abilities from other party and character members. If you are looking to further boost your attack power and mix some abilities together, you can fuse your Arts with your Master Arts into Fusion Arts, which combines all attributes and increases damage. Fusion Arts can only be performed when the arts that compliment each other on the face buttons and D-pad are both charged, so they aren't always opportune.

Tank and Support classes have much stricter “zones” of influence, as a number of passive abilities create fields that grant bonuses to characters who occupy them. Other characters get a defense boost when in the field of a Tank, while Support fields can regenerate health and increase other stats. Since XC3 is a much more mobile game, you'll want the movement options and freedom to get where you need to go, which come in the respective forms of quick steps and character changing. Quick-stepping is a fast, dodge-roll-looking movement option that allows characters a brief burst of mobility based largely on their current target. And for the first time in the series, the player can actively switch between their playable party member in order to utilize their specific talents, which is rather impressive, given the number of active party members per battle.

The Arts you'll find your characters using are largely based on their current class as well as those they have mastered, hence the titles of both forms. The current class will obtain class points and also determine the character's Talent Art, while mastered classes offer different Skills and Arts based on their level. The delightful aspect of Master Arts and Skills is that they can be sourced from any mastered class, meaning that mixing and matching abilities from across the impressive range of Classes is encouraged and rewarded.

There's Ouroboros. But we'll talk about that later. Oh, and don't forget to laugh at my reference back to this section when I remember that I forgot to reference how you can fight while swimming in the next section. It's not a huge change, but it does mean you are free to flee or fight when being hunted by a fish or shrimp or urchin or what-have-you.

Equipment, accessories, and field effect items have had some re-contextualizing in hopes of streamlining the contentious aspects of XC2's design. There's no true equipment in the style of XC1, but instead a variety of accessories that grant specific sorts of benefits and can never be doubled up. What does return from XC1 are gems, and though they still require a huge resource grind for later tiers, I practically screamed when I discovered that crafting one tier of this role-enhancing item grants every party member access, rather than needing to create duplicates. Lastly, all timed, field-effect items come in the form of dishes, which can be bought from canteens in Colonies as well as crafted from sourced materials at rest sites. A way to mitigate the class point grind and the gem crafting and cooking grinds comes in the form of Nopon Coins, a resource gathered from dangerous, felled enemies and unique encounters that can prove just as weary a time-investment.

In terms of field exploration, a few aspects have been altered in order to mitigate past mistakes while increasing linearity in some odd respects. The introduction of Ferronis Hulks, which are large structures that offer resource dumps for the right price, is another kind of landmark to be found within the world, as are supply drops, which are marked with red smoke and are infrequent. Field Skills from Xenoblade 2 have been abolished in favor of a number of another breed, some of which are unlocked via story progression like wall-climbing (which is different from ladder climbing, okay?) and rope sliding, while others like scree walking and hazard neutralization unlock through side-content. These exist to more or less prevent players from entering certain areas during earlier parts of their playthrough, and even then, tricky environmental design can still prevent the player from easy traversal and continuous loops. You won't be able to farm high-level materials with field skills, though the player can still spot the rarity level of a material while in the field. The linear environmental design can be waved by the inclusion of a number of “fast travel” ropes and ladders, which can be triggered upon taking a linear path to a certain point and loop back down to an earlier area. These sorts of elements feature most frequently on the narrative path of environments, though you will find one or two of them off of the beaten path, or exclusively used for obtaining a particular treasure.

Two new enemy types have been added to the usual fare, being Lucky and Elite monsters. The former is as easy to defeat as a normal enemy but yields much more rare materials, while the latter is a sort of step-stone between normal and unique monsters, getting its own encounter music and acting as a skill check for players who might feel overleveled in an area. The most tantalizing addition is that of in-world skirmishes, where two factions will be locked in battle and the player must choose a side in order to nab rewards. Unfortunately, these rewards only apply to the firs time you enter a skirmish, which more or less makes this different form of combat useless afterwards, despite the skirmishes reappearing.

In terms of community development, the affinity of each town is tied to the amount of socializing, sidequest completing, and Collectopaedia cards completed for each Colony.   

You know, I could honestly put on my analytical spectacles and punch this out in my typical, monotonous prose. But I’m tired of that. I’m tired of this series. I hate that I have to say something like this so soon in this analysis, but I’m not going to apologize. This game is a mechanical mess. Like, yeah, it streamlines things. Yes, it’s less-obfuscated because the game takes painstaking lengths to telegraph everything to you, but that also heightens the transparency on what a fucking waste of time that is this RPG tedium. 

If you don’t like having your time wasted, strap yourselves in, because you’re going to be forced to hear a bunch of dumb shit that auto-scrolls. The player must navigate towns in order to “overhear” what individuals are saying about topics, which then unlocks a quest for completion. Oh, no, wait, I’m sorry, did I say it unlocks a quest? I meant it unlocks an event at rest sites where you have to listen to the party repeat the same stuff they just heard in order to then activate said quest. Sure, if you want to just comb an environment and come back to all these quests later, this might give you a refresher on the information you might have forgotten because you were bored to tears by the combat system. Sure, why not?


…Okay, uh, I’m sorry. I needed to get that out of my system. Let’s… be analytical again, shall we?

Collectopaedia cards are a tamer, less-exhaustive version of the format used in previous games. Essentially, if the player gathers a certain amount of materials, they can choose to submit them to a specific Colony member for rewards. Some of these grant multiple special rewards, but many will only offer a single reward for the first submission and offer affinity points and currency thereafter. It eases the mental burden that an incomplete Collectopaedia used to inflict, and is a low-investment way to boost affinity.

You can also whistle your flute to net some affinity points for specific factions. It’s *thematic*.

While some of these changes and additions feel like genuine attempts at improving and refining the Xenoblade experience, many of them, especially in the realm of combat, feel like thematic decisions applied to a standard formula. In some ways, these changes don't really feel like steps forward, but a new coat of paint applied to a system that was refined a long time ago. Stripping some of the exhaustive complexity of systems like gem crafting, timer-based bonuses, and much of character building feels like an appeal to newcomers, but it doesn't change what has become the standard for how combat plays out, or what to expect when exploring. Honestly, exploration has had the most essential change, and the one I care most to elaborate upon, which will be discussed in the next section.

But man, I’m sorry to break tone again, but this game is just so… predictable. It’s such a milquetoast application of Xenoblade’s core mechanics to what is a deeply engaging narrative, and that kinda pisses me off. There are parts of this game that the player can choose to ignore due to their inessential nature that aiming for completion of any particular aspect is mind-numbing. It doesn’t even offer mechanical twists that differentiate the gameplay experience in the way that Xenoblade 2- in spite of its flaws- did masterfully and unexpectedly in its late-game that recontextualize all previous interactions with its systems. It’s just… there. Doing Xenoblade things. Slightly differently, mind you, with a bit more agency and direction, but without joy.


Obviously, my main point of focus and arguable obsession has always stemmed from the way that Monolith designs their worlds, so this is bound to be the most extensive and perhaps opinionated analysis. I did find XC2 to be somewhat lacking in comparison with XCX, but to be fair, the open-world design of that game is very difficult to top, and I was perhaps too harsh, especially when I found some of its environments to be excellent. Xenoblade Chronicles 3, on the other hand, is a thematic game, through and through, and this is reflected in its consistently fresh, yet bizarre topography.

Part 026: One Step to the Side (Setting and World Design)

I’m so tired, you know. I have a job now, which I care deeply about. I have all these disparate elements of my life that I need to attend towards and it makes sitting down in front of a screen difficult. Like, you can take that in whichever way you’d like: it’s hard to sit down and play a video game, let alone write some extensive, flourishing narrative analysis about one. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing with my life, and whether the time I’ve spent on video games has been worthwhile.

These thoughts become especially prevalent when discussing a video game as infuriating as Xenoblade Chronicles 3.

Aionios stems from Greek language, meaning “without beginning or end, eternal,” a key indicator of how XC3’s story and world are designed. This world is not simply a simulation, but rather, a technologically-induced temporal freeze, able to reset indefinitely due to the cyclical nature of its inhabitants and the powers that oversee it. This is a result of the desire to delay and prevent a collision of worlds- specifically, the worlds of Xenoblade Chronicles 1 and Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which were apparently on an orbital crash-course after the events of their respective narratives. Instead of preventing a calamity, the two worlds were merged by a meddling supercomputer known as Origin. Despite Origin’s attempts to create what is known as an “Endless Now,” parts of Aionios seem to be “blinking” out of existence due to phenomena known as annihilation events. This results in a world that is very much a mixture of topographical landmarks from XC1 and XC2 peppered with spherical chunks of the world simply ceasing to exist.

Topographically, there is so much of Aionios that seems extremely familiar, though at the same time, there are elements of its design that also seem completely new. An increased reliance on field skills that are trickled out to the player via narrative beats and side quests narrows the scope of explorable space, but the amount of walkable terrain seems vastly enhanced due to the focus on “region-oriented” design. Simply put, this region design feels much more in-line with XCX’s open world, mashing roughly three to four aesthetics and terrain types together to create a larger space that is segmented in nature, yet frequently interconnected. New kinds of biomes and features change the way the player may wish to explore, and the potential in some of these zones feels immeasurable in comparison with XC1 and XC2- but only in some places. There are other locales that feel disappointingly isolated and/or structurally dissatisfying.

In the end, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is circular. A snake eating itself in both structure, and the way that it skirts brilliant new design and archaic elements not just from the first game in the -blade series, but the history of 3D RPG design. And that sucks.

To begin the Ouroboros that is Aionios, we must take a look at the Aetia Region. This is a curious case, as Aetia serves as both an introductory region and a late-game area, as Cadensia, which we will address last, features an exit to Upper Aetia. We’ll review this region in a chronological order, but it will be bookended with the biomes in the Upper Aetia portion. Monolith attempts to wow the players with Everblight Plain, a very ragged, Temperantia-looking location that has been permanently blighted (see what they did there?) by the war between Keves and Agnus. It is arguable whether this is meant to be a newly-formed blight or one that exists as a reference or merging of the Temperantia Titan into the world of Aionios, but given the other references built into the game, we can certainly assume. Everblight Plain is certainly desolate, featuring the wreckage of a few Ferronises and having a number of areas featuring high-level enemies, but it doesn’t offer much to the imagination in terms of topography. It is more of a valley, with ridges that rise to oppose the player on all sides and multiple small steppes that lead to pits of enemies. In any case, there are a number of quests that require thorough exploration of the area, but it is unlikely you’ll find much variation in its design.

Following the critical path to Yzana Plains reveals XC3’s own determination to wow with scale yet keep its explorable area tight. Colony 9 sits at its Northernmost point, though there are some nice steppes that surround and a river that flows through the area. Colony 9 empties out into the larger plains, which are devoid of greenery and flanked by large cliffs, some of which are scalable. The area is split by a large river that links to the Millick Meadows in the South, but this body of water also bends Northward and leads the player up into a cavernous region, which then partially loops back to Colony 9. Though the narrative pushes players Southwest towards Alfeto Valley, there is a decent amount of walkable space here and ultimately becomes a much more appreciable area upon discovering how closely connected it is to Millick Meadows. It’s arguable what area this is meant to evoke, but I would argue that it takes design cues from the less-forested portions of Gaur Plains.

Alfeto Valley is a winding set of cliffside routes that empty out into a large, multi-leveled field. The area benefits from a huge range of terrain that uses a burnt orange color palette to emphasize its uniqueness from other parts of the region. It does feature more foliage than its interlinking areas, but it also has a great degree of vertical depth, which is a definite area of focus for the game as a whole. It does serve as a tutorial area for scree walking upon reaching some of its higher-level zones, which open out into clear skies and rocky terrain. Players can exit into the Alfeto Valley from Upper Aetia.

The last part of Lower Aetia is Millick Meadows, which feels like a small area upon introduction but opens up substantially with more field skills. It is a continuation of the river, which pools into a lake at the meeting point with Yzana Plains, and that river leads the player to a Ferronis Hulk and the exit to the Fornis Region. A cavernous area with a few sparse tunnels North of the Ferronis Hulk takes the player to the upper plateaus of the meadows, which border its large lake. These plateaus are vast, but lack foliage in much the same way as most of Aetia, which does make them a bit flat, visually. The plateaus actually serve as the canopy of a large area filled with high level monsters and series staple Gonzales. Should the player brave the lake and make it to its Southeastern shore, they’ll find an entrance to what is arguably one of the largest subterranean areas in the game, the Elgares Depths. This is a late-game area filled with high level monsters that helps further sell the vastness of the region, and is impressive in its intricacy. It features a number of forks that ultimately take the party into its lowest arena.

Of course, we should follow Aetia’s deepest portion with its highest, which is technically a separate area of its own, due to it being divided from the rest of the Region with loading screens. Upper Aetia isa frosty and a bit bland, comprising a few wide, branching paths with little “shoulder content” to be found. These routes exist to link a few vital areas together, those locales being Colony Omega, the Cloudkeep, and Colony 0. There are some greater details to be noted, such as the peaks of the region being formed from the remains of the Gormott Titan, but there’s no standout aesthetic feature like Mount Valak’s glowing crystals to engage the eye. 

Directly South of Aetia is the Fornis Region. This comprises most of the barren and craggy parts of Aionios, though this changes as the party travels further South towards Pentelas. Paired with Cadensia, Fornis represents the true vastness of XC3 in earnest, as the game funnels the party through a very linear portion of this region when it has massive “shoulder content.” On one hand, it feels a shame that players looking to progress the narrative should miss out on some of this content, but that’s a topic that we will discuss in a later section. In any case, it can be difficult to discuss these regions in a way unrelated to narrative progression, so we will do just that: first covering the narrative path, and then the massive amount of “shoulder content.”

Fornis starts with the Eagus Wilderness, a dusty set of steppes that funnel the player down a set of linear trails and empty out into circular fields, which are then interlinked with collapsible ladders. These round areas are bordered to the West by curious architecture, such as the Fallen Arm from XC1, a strange mechanical ring that evokes architecture from Sword Valley, and a pair of springs that don’t really seem befitting of a desolate wilderness. As per narrative events, the Colony 4 Ferronis takes up a large swath of space right in the center of the Wildlands, but a Western loop of caves takes the players to a higher plateau that carves a moderately large lane out of the Wilderness and into Ribbi Flats. Again, the player can branch off in several directions from this exit point, but staying with the narrative, Ribbi Flats leads the party Southward and underneath the Rae-Bel Tableland. The area is, as one might expect from its name, a large plain, possessing few branching variations and a smattering of foliage, a welcome change. A large lake hides underneath one of the Tableland cliffs, which the party must circle around in order to reach the start of the Tablelands proper. Again, there’s little architecture here that evokes mystery or wonder, though it does give more strong visual and topographic cues to Gaur Plains.

The Rae-Bel Tableland is a striking area due to its verticality, which is partially composed of a series of winding cliffs that require the wall-climbing field skill. However, there is a massive amount of walkable space beyond this point: heading North leads to the small, yet cavernous Colony 30, which is suspended above a pool of water that filters out into a number of tunnels and allows access to further high plateaus. The central plain of the Tableland leads to a ravaged Western canyon that remains fully inaccessible until looping around from the South, which reveals a story-relevant scarred battlefield, another Ferronis Hulk, and a number of large hills. Foregoing the exit to the Urayan Mountains in the Pentelas Region will take the players on the aforementioned loop back to the center of the Tableland, a wide and green canyon rife with higher level enemies that links to another entrance into Pentelas. The Tabeland itself is a vast area with plenty to explore, though the enemy level range, collapsible ladders, and unlaunched ropes prevent a great deal of exploration until later revisits.

This is not the entirety of the Fornis Region, however, as the Eagus Wilderness is bordered by two other large biomes that feature much more engaging topographical elements. These areas- the Elaice Highway and Dannagh Desert- are so much more aesthetically and structurally unique that it feels a shame to have to revisit them later, though the Desert in specific is much more accessible, with enemies in the early to mid-twenties in comparison with the early to mid-forties of the Highway. Starting with the Desert, which is accessible via skree walking from the Northern portion of Eagus and through a much more straightforward path East of Ribbi Flats, the biome has a much more tangible feeling of being affected by annihilation events, with a number of spherical “blinks” torn from the sand, leaving neat, half-globe sand pits across the area. To its Eastern limit lies a Ferronis Hulk, and the Northern limits lead to a hidden spring with a nice aesthetic and some neat resources, though not much else. This is not the only major set of landmarks, however, as a path will take the party in a spiraling route around the desert’s highest peak, which flattens out into a number of walkable areas as well as a high summit that allows a great view of most of Eagus and Ribbi. This mountain is also the first notable instance of the Nopon ruins, a set of tunnels that wind through large landmarks and feature a set of basic rotation puzzles, often offering their own rewards and unique enemies to combat. The Dannagh Desert is a large area, but its dunes feel somewhat spread thin up against its mountain peak, not doing the Tornan desert from which it is inspired any kind reference.

The Elaice Highway certainly does feel like a linear route upon entering from either Northern Fornis or Southwest Eagus. It opens into a much larger field about halfway through its critical path, and features a number of large trees composed of what looks like petrified wood and bioluminescent, willowy buds. The region is still fairly desolate despite this, and is loaded with Igna and other monsters. This hints at some association with one of the most beautiful regions in XC1, Satorl Marsh, though a distinct lack of water to justify this- in addition to the different kind of foliage present. There’s a significant landmark here that also factors into its background music: The scalable fingers of the Fallen Arm. This isn’t the only unique feature, as there are a pair of tunnel systems that serve different purposes: the subterranean caverns of Torus Hollow that offer higher level enemies and side quest fodder, as well as a route that goes underneath the climbable digit of the Fallen Arm and serves as a shortcut around some of the more densely-packed landscape and a hideaway for the Igna tribes. Follow the Highway South and you’ll pass another crater from an annihilation event and reach the Northern gate for Colony Iota, a camp seemingly tucked away from outsiders but truly only a stone’s toss from Colony 4, barring a fierce mountain range. Foregoing the entrance to the Colony, there is a linear route that curves Southeast and empties out by Ribbi Flats.

We’re hardly halfway through this overview of environments and I already feel as if I am reusing sentence structures and treading the line of boredom, so I’ll make some notes about Aetia and Fornis before we launch into the weirder and possibly more controversial areas of the game.

Discussing these regions from a place of narrative progression feels the most comfortable simply due to it being the way these regions are communicated to us by the developers, but that raises some hairy questions about the way they want players to experience the narrative. Has my mind been trained to imagine these areas as “routes” simply due to the existence of entrances and exits, which frame not only the narrative but the actual region design? Imagining this game with starting points out  An open world lacks these stringent borders, as best seen in Nintendo and Monolith’s own Breath of the Wild and XCX. But there is a linking cord in these regions, and it is meant once again to represent the thematic idea of the Ouroboros. The Titans of XC2 were deliberately separate locales that lacked any sort of unifying topographical link, and XC1 had only one area that forked off into two other regions. This is perhaps a telling revelation regarding the design of these games, one that I feel somewhat foolish for not having acknowledged sooner.

Imagining this game with starting points outside of those predetermined by the developers seems near impossible, which speaks to their careful craftsmanship, but also reveals scant free-form exploration. The most generous, open-ended interpretation of Aionios would start somewhere in the middle of either the Fornis or Cadensia regions, where both the entrances and exits could be used as connective avenues to other areas. Colony 30 and Mu are great starting areas for this idea, though Colony 30 could stand to have some more substantial structural elements, as the current area is fairly bare-bones.

All of this theorizing makes little sense, however, considering that XC3 is a thematic game, designed around the notion that its characters should follow the Ouroboros path. So while alternative starting points could be conceived with the preexisting topography, this environment was created with parallel thematic intent in mind. This is why it is so strange that so many of its regions possess generous shoulder content, considering the nature of the narrative progression.

But of course, these areas are not always accessible to the player for several reasons.

There are frustrating blockades that face players on multiple occasions, and the design of some regions does not lend itself to free traversal, but rather fast travel. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but seeing how Aetia’s Yzana Plains directly connects to Millick Meadows and being unable to traverse the area due to not only high-level monsters (the admittedly easy-to-escape deterrent) but craggy walls that prevent progression is frustrating. There is a great deal of high-level monster roadblocking that exists in the game, which is understandable and perhaps a smarter way of encouraging revisits to areas while also preventing the player from learning all of the game’s secrets, and there are a few sidequest-centric roadblocks that exist as well, which encourage the notion of players making meaningful choices that affect the world and their exploration. The most insulting of these design choices, however, is the inclusion of invisible walls, which flat out tell the player “we don’t want you exploring this area yet, and would rather you continue to play the narrative instead.” I think a linear narrative experience is sometimes preferable- after all, The Last Story is one of my favorite RPGs of all time, and it is highly linear. But to develop exploration-focused environments and then use artificial tools to prevent that exploration feels cheap. We need look no further than the Pentelas Region to see some excellent examples of this, which is all the more reason to end this aside.

The Pentelas Region feels like a colossal waste of potential in so many ways, partially because the areas it is based upon were known for their enticing concepts and expanse design. The party enters from the Western portion of the map, known as the Urayan Tunnels, which evoke Tephra Caves in XC1 and parts of the opening to the Urayan Titan in XC2. This is an extremely linear area in design that is meant to represent a descent and help with many narrative beats, further proven by its function in future sidequests and the minimal amount of rope-sliding points that open the area further. Its most distinct feature comes towards its conclusion, which appears to be a derelict set of industrial ruins that have a larger explorable space and a few interactive elements.

This area literally spills out into Maktha Falls, a combination of Makna Forest and the Land of Morytha. In keeping with the trend of verticality, this area is a series of terraced pools that overflow into one another, and while these feature several small islands and a wealth of enemy types, there’s surprisingly little to do in these bodies of water themselves. A Ferronis Hulk can be found at the center of one, and the entirety of Colony Lambda hides underneath another. There’s a small cliff face to the North that has some enemies to slay, and a small Nopon ruins tunnel with a unique enemy encounter to face. One of the more striking parts of the landscape, a Morytha building now overgrown and integrated into the forest, serves as little more than a diving board with a pretty view. The sooner we move on from this area, the better.

While the High Maktha Wildwood is more of a similar kind of design as the Urayan Tunnels, it is technically one half of the area map, and it feels dishonest to overview it without also discussing the Low Maktha Wildwood, the more open and unique portion of the terrain. The Maktha Wildwood is meant to serve as the deeper part of the forest, where the Morytha structures and Makna foliage further interweave, but the High area is rigidly segmented by a number of rope bridges that the player traverses with a story-based field skill. The various cliffs of the region (once again, with high vertical limits and sheer drops) feature industrial, city-like pathways with overgrowths and many enemies. Colony Tau stands secluded in the region in a carved out piece of cityscape, but the Westernmost portion of the area is far greener, conjuring the tree-paths of Gormott and Makna Forest much more. Heading North will take you on a path that either splits off towards the Urayan Trail, or descends into the Lower Wildwood.

This is where you’ll find far more walkable space, and a great deal of heightened danger. The Lower Wildwood is spotted with toxic pools of poison and high level enemies that can’t be tackled until the late-game, and has a subterranean cavern that winds deep into the earth and branches off into claustrophobic encounters with high level monsters. This area has its fair share of varied encounters in terms of enemies, and smart maneuvering can help the player reach an elevator in the Southeast region that will take them back up to Colony Tau. But this area is hazardous in so many ways, and until unlocking the hazard neutralization field skill, will prove tough to navigate and take full advantage of until the late game.

Heading Northwest from the Upper Wildwood will take you to a ruinous region that once again hints at the potential of an overgrown cityscape, which then opens up to a large arena that features a narrative boss battle. Moving further West will take you towards Keves Castle, but conversely, the player can activate a switch that opens a pathway in the East to the Urayan Mountain Range, a somewhat linear trail that will dump the player back in the Fornis Region. This is irksome because it is a one-way switch, a literal lock on entering from this avenue that is also backed with enemies that sit in the level sixty range… but even if the player were to attempt to reach this route from Fornis, they would be stopped by an invisible wall due to the developers (and by extension, the game) wanting the player to experience the narrative rather than explore. There are multiple deterrents that do not require an out-of-context wall to exist in this place, and yet, Monolith seems insistent on funneling the players in a specific direction: namely, an extremely linear region that features multiple set pieces that exist solely for narrative convenience.

To return to the notion of wasted potential, we need only look to the much more enticing Makna Forest or Noctilum, vast jungle regions with varied terrain and respectable scope. Pentelas feels like a region that could have been better explored as late-to-post-game due to how little it features- as this lack of shoulder content is in service of the narrative moments. These beats  help us understand our core and secondary cast members more thoroughly, but all of these moments come from a place of artificiality- something that could have been solved if Monolith were wise enough to trust player intuition and allow them to make the mistake of approaching Pentelas from other directions. Now, some might argue that this is forgivable. But to tease the player with something intangible is antithetical to the spirit of Monolith’s environmental design, which encourages exploration. We will discuss ways that this could have been circumvented or designed alternatively to achieve a stronger impact later in the analysis. For now, let’s continue our own exploration.

The next chronological Region the player explores is the Keves Castle Region, a combination of the Syra Hovering Reefs, Fort O’Virbus, and the titular Keves Castle itself. A fan wikipedia would tell you the remains of Mor Ardain exist here, but to be honest, if you weren’t highly scrutinous, you’d likely fail to notice any topographical element that indicates this. In terms of linearity, this region is the epitome, though one might argue Upper Aetia is stiff competition. The Syra Hovering Reefs are connected by a series of ropes the player can traverse in order to enter Keves Castle from the rear, and these reefs are so painfully uninspired in design that it almost feels insulting. Climb a wall to get to a rope launcher. Fire rope launcher. Slide to the next island. Rinse. Repeat.

So at this point, you might be thinking “oh boy! Asshole Evan is back to dunk on this game some more!” But why don’t we try to put a positive spin on things? If we consider what are some of the -blade games’ best dungeon designs, how does Syra Hovering Reefs and Keves Castle Hold up? Well, the somewhat symmetrical design of the Castle means you can approach certain checkpoints from not one, but two different directions, and there are some admittedly fun switch-flipping and key-snatching moments within the dungeon itself. Heck, there’s even a rest spot buried deep within the halls! Keves Castle, and really the Ether Mine before it, are really nice dungeon-esque set pieces with a bit of lore tied to them.

But the Hovering Reefs? They’re tiny islands with nothing to do. And maybe they don’t have to have anything to do on them- maybe they’re just there to be straightforward blobs and crescents of terrain with nothing to do so you’ll get them out of the way and keep moving and finish the narrative. Maybe they're just a part of the critical path, yo. But then you have a Region after this that’s so damn expansive, so rich in detail and variety, right after this that it makes you wonder what they were even going for with this sequence. A waste of time. Content to be fluffed for the purpose of leveling. Except I did that two regions ago when I was given the chance to explore.


I guess I could also talk about the Big Honkin’ Bridge™ that holds both Colony 11 and Fort O’Virbus. The latter of the two sits in front of the proper entrance of Keves Castle, but commits a rare sin of being a relatively high detail area with very low interactive quality. This is perhaps due to how it is only accessible very late-game, but aside from a ladder that lets the player catch a nice view, a hidden passageway, and a canteen with a silly name, there is little to do in this place. It acts as the center of the Big Honkin’ Bridge™, whose Eastern exit is directly tied to Colony 11, which is much less a livable space and much more “a bridge upon which people live.” The Western gate leads to another nice area of architecture where there is almost nothing to do- not even fight enemies.

That’s it.

North of Keves Castle is the Cadensia Region, also known as the “Why-The-Hell-Didn’t-Monolith-Make-The-Entire-Game-This-Way Region.” I mean, to be fair, Cadensia isn’t right after Keves Castle- that would be Swordmarch. Swordmarch is a weird region because its very very very very small, and we all know that small things don’t work in Xenoblade Chronicles. In all seriousness, Swordmarch does earn points for selling its verticality while not necessarily being all that vertical in design- a number of tricks both aesthetic and technical make the upper regions of this map seem very high up. In other words, it’s frosty and uses a number of ramps and land bridges to evoke a sense of high altitude. A particularly neat detail of Swordmarch is its late-game functionality, where it is given new context and explorable area due to narrative developments. That’s pretty much all there is to say about Swordmarch, but considering it is very closely tied to Cadensia, we should at least note it here.

Oh hey, there's also the City, which originally appears as a part of Swordmarch and then doesn't later (but we're not going to talk about why). The City is... a city. It's a big block of exploratory space and I can appreciate its design somewhat while also finding it a bit small, in some respects. I'm mostly forgiving of scale, however, and although the City is squarely focused on presenting a specific number of locales for the sake of narrative progression, it pales in terms of its scale and exploratory joy in contrast with something like Argentum, which truly does feel like a multi-leveled and progressively more enticing location with plenty of areas that feel justified by the game's narrative. You know I'm jaded when I start praising XC2's sense of scale and design, so maybe we'll just move on from this location. It's at least aesthetically distinct from every other man-made structure in the game, which makes sense for a number of reasons.

So, Cadensia. As I was saying before I so rudely interrupted myself, Monolith has done “a job” in previous games by offering expanse sea regions featuring island structures. That is to say, they have mitigated the issue of sea traversal largely by constructing in-game concepts that segment and/or isolate sea travel almost entirely. If one thinks back to XC1, Eryth Sea is a large body of water that is largely featureless- it instead uses floating reefs of modest topographical variety as points of interest, with the occasional sea-sitting island to spice things up. XC2 uses the Cloud Sea as its raison d’etre for having a segmented world, but the Leftherian Archipelago is the game’s equivalent of a marine-focused region. In a similar way, this region is open and can be navigated via swimming, but it uses a interwoven lattice of land bridges, floating isles, and the occasional small island to achieve a similar effect to XC1 with vastly different aesthetic impression. We should maybe give that area more credit for what it accomplishes as a marine region, in that case.

Now, it could be because Cadensia has a travel-cycle boat (which bizarrely still features the same scope of map fill-in as the normal walking speed) and a number of highly diverse islands that actually sit in the water themselves that it feels the most authentically explorable. The player does not need to spend ages swimming from island to island, or even sailing from place to place, as the region is rather densely packed with around seven to eight islands (depending on how one feels regarding the cliffside installments) and a number of obstacles. To discuss each of these islands topographically would be pretty wild, wouldn’t it?

Well, we aren't going to do that. But we should at least note that Lavi Sandbar, Daedal Isle, Anu Shoals, Cape Arcaphor, Vinisog Holm, Cape Arcaphor, and Migrow's Rosary vary vastly in topography. There is a great deal of canopy and cliff usage to block off parts of walkable/explorable terrain, which is blotted out and given rigid boundary lines on the map. This does raise a particular topic, so we'll get to it here: the boundary lines of walkable/explorable areas can lead to the map screens for many regions feeling highly segmented and limited in size. This is likely an attempt by Monolith to once again discourage exploration and narrow the player's ambitions in favor of narrative progression, but it hurts the scale of regions like Pentelas and Cadensia for different reasons. In the case of the former, it makes the region feel claustrophobic, while in the latter, it devalues the walking space in favor of the sea, of which there is... a lot.

To return to the region at hand, it is telling that Monolith has only given a few of the many exploratory parts of this region freely-approachable beaches, with a majority of these areas having smaller docking points that take the player on linear trips throughout a small area. Daedal Isle and Lavi Sandbar in particular are slightly more accessible, but Anu Shoals, Corne Island, Migrow's Rosary, and Cape Arcaphor take this straightforward approach. Thurbin Island gets something of a pass, as the party can take a particular shortcut from another angle in order to bypass the full frontal assault that occurs when using its main dock, but this is a rare exception. The Malevolent Hollow that exists fairly close to Swordmarch is actually inaccessible until obtaining the hazard neutralization field skill, and a few other portions of the region are roped off until main and side-narrative progression are completed. There are a few reefs and pools that actually require the party to disembark from their boat in order to access, but this isn't a huge threat, considering the game has added swimming combat to the mix. I guess that's something I should have mentioned back in the previous section.

I go back to my “why isn’t the entire game designed in such a way” comment from earlier, fully acknowledging Monolith’s own statements about the Nintendo Switch’s ability to run the base XCX experience. Even with that in mind, some sort of concession could have been made in regards to the way that XC3- or maybe even XC2- were developed, perhaps in a similar style to the classic Wind Waker. But of course, while I laud Cadensia for its large land masses and free-form exploration, I also acknowledge its highly linear environmental structure. So many of its islands and shoals have a high degree of intention and direction baked into their design, to the point where any worry of the player going off in a direction that doesn't mesh with the narrative progression is hardly an issue simply due to how many areas are inaccessible and locked off via smart topographical design or those narrative-focused sometimes-visible-and-sometimes-not walls that the game frequently uses. In so many ways, a Monolith Soft game could be designed as a large Cadensia and still remain focused in narration.

But, of course, then the entire world wouldn't be a literal Ouroboros- and as we've previously stated, XC3 is a thematic game.

I should note the Northern portion of the region, which is entirely dedicated to the Agnus Castle and main base of operations. There's quite a bit of walkable space and a dedication to allowing entry and access as seamlessly as possible, despite the narrative funneling the players to a particular point for contextual reasons. We won't talk about Agnus Castle, because it is a small and very dumb map that feels like a set piece more than anything and makes me very sad and disappointed in contrast with the at least slightly-more-elaborate Keves Castle. You will find the Li Garte Prison Camp here in the North, a place with a strangely expanse and aesthetically rich set of grounds that lead to the rest of the Barbican, which is more or less a small battlefield for some high-level enemy encounters and the final link to Upper Aetia, thereby completing our tour of the world.

There's also Origin, but we're not going to talk about it. It is an aesthetically fascinating area that features some bare-bones dungeon design in line with areas like Keves Castle, Galahad Fortress, the entirety of the Mechonis, and other linear dungeons of the like. It disappoints me deeply to see the modest steps towards richer dungeon design, such as the rare one or two featured in XCX and XC2, abandoned for these linear affairs, but Monolith Makes Worlds, you know? Not dungeons. In any case, the less we say about Origin, the better, because it's best saved for one's own eyes, and not the meager descriptive skills of a forum-going video game enthusiast.

Cadensia stands as an excellent justification as to why I should have probably dropped the notion of discussing “biomes” and instead focused on entire maps/regions in this section, though that might be an offensive admission that we’re already so close to the end. Cadensia is the “sea” of XC3, and if we consider the way that other -blade titles have attempted to communicate the notion of biomes into their world design, we can make similar comparisons with all of Aionios: Aetia is the “Plains” biome, Fornis is the “Desert,” Pentelas is the “Jungle,” and Eryth Castle is the “Hallway.” Where these simplistic labels falter, however, is in the finer details: Aetia’s Upper portion is frosty and linear, and the Lower portion has a strangely vertical and wooded portion in the Alfeto Valley. Fornis’s Elaice Highway is barren, but in an ethereal sense, and Ribbi Flats and the Rae-Bel Tableland hardly feel like wastelands. It is really only Cadensia that “makes sense” in the context of sweeping generalizations for the sake of labeling each region as a biome, and that is maybe why I feel so frustrated with this entire topography section as a whole.

There is really only one region that feels as if it naturally- or rather gradually- transitions into another, and that is Fornis’s slow gradient from brown, dust, and sand into a greener and forested Pentelas. Millick Meadows and Eagus Wilderness are maybe arguable, but even Fornis and Pentelas put a large mountain range and/or a subterranean cavern between their biomes to justify the transition. I don’t necessarily require a natural progression from biome to biome, mind you- this is coming from someone who was perfectly accepting of the bizarre nature of a sea being placed atop a tropical biome in XC1- a place that also featured an abrupt exit to a frosty mountain. This is fantasy, I am fine with that, and so I am forgiving of the biomes of XC3. Likewise, I'm also forgiving of scale, as I've stated prior- I know Monolith can't create an entire world and I am okay with them referencing other Colonies that are not found on the map, even though the bulk of the action is strictly said to take place in all of the party-visited locations in Aionios.

But with all of that in mind, there is such an extreme degree of rigidity that this game presents, to the point where it is willing to lock out entire portions of its environments via contextual-or-otherwise roadblocks. This is a weird and contrary statement for someone like me to make, as I oddly enough spent a good forty hours in the Aetia and Fornis regions combing the world for quests and secrets. Mind you, this is very much not the developer-intended experience the game, and I know this because the game takes repeated measures to push the narrative forward rather than let a player sit with the explorable space they have. Aetia has a select few areas where its enemy levels are so absurdly high that it would take an aggressive grind to match them, and a number of side-quests and content are inaccessible due to narrative progression. There's also a particular story element that we'll touch upon in later portions of this analysis that could have informed game and narrative design a bit more keenly, but exist in the base game experience as a dull pain in the back of the player's head, pushing them forward due to curiosity.

And yet, I was able to spend those forty hours gleefully and without direction, scoping out more of the world and getting to come to terms with many of the features I have pointed out thusfar in this analysis. So what the hell am I actually trying to say in concluding this section? I like XC3's map design when it's just letting me do what I want, and I hate it when it presents a world that cannot be fully explored unless I buy into its idea of narrative progression. A world can and should change based on narrative progression, and this is often a nice thing to experience in an RPG. I like a natural, in-game explanation for this, too- like when pieces of debris fall from the landscape late in XC3's narrative and open up new and select portions of environments. I like when the game telegraphs my lack of preparedness with high-level enemies- hell, even a one-hit kill would be preferable to an invisible wall. But when I get to an area where there are climbable vines and I am told that I can't progress, despite my characters being able to climb ladders, and am told that I have to complete some bland narrative beat in order to obtain that skill? Not a fan of that. I'm honestly pretty much sick of floating islands at this point, too. Or, at least, I'm tired of being told that floating islands are a neat feature when they're being used to mask a linear gameplay segment.

Now, if you are wondering “why doesn't this dude like linearity?” I think it's important to acknowledge that I'm really very okay with linearity in games, so long as the game is designed with that idea in mind. And frankly, there are many parts of the -blade series that aren't designed to be exploratory, and XC3 is no exception to this. So when Monolith presents me with something that is more linear, I must either assume it is due to a desire to want to tell a linear narrative or a lack of interest in creating a non-linear experience, in which case, I'd really just rather advocate for more linear design. Like, y'know, smart linear design. Not invisible walls and text prompts telling me I can't go someplace.

Overall, what I feel about Xenoblade Chronicles 3's world design is that it is at war with itself, moreso than just about any other game in the series. It pushes the limits of being open to the point where some of its regions truly do feel akin to XCX's open-world design, but mixes this with largely linear narrative and environmental sections that feel obsessed with telling a narrative. With a narrative like the one featured in XC3, that's perfectly understandable, but a conflict that is so forward in terms of its momentum shouldn't be dabbling so deeply with open-ended, non-linear design.

Part 027: A Section at War (Characters, Combat, and Narrative)

Let’s talk about character.

In my now-famous analysis of Xenoblade Chronicles 1, I claimed that “character” was a hugely important part of its gameplay and design. Each party member plays in a different fashion due to the way their Arts and their animations inform their class design. This is a tangible element of combat and a welcome one. On the other hand, XC2 is all about “combat,” using methodical pacing, the auto attack recharge system, and Arts canceling to build momentum and make battles feel thrilling. Sure, the presence of Blades and their accessibility to all party members means that role diversification changes, but at least combat animations are still unique across the playable cast, meaning there is a “meta” to learning cancel windows for each character, and Blades can be built in unique ways in order to maximize different kinds of class goals.

XC3… doesn’t have that. Listen, I wish I could tell you that combat feels like even a half-step up from what we’ve previously seen, but it just doesn’t. The combat system takes many cues from XC1 and XC2, but fails to iterate upon them successfully. Quick stepping for the sake of positioning and healing and defense fields doesn’t feel like a substantial change, and the inability to revive outside of the healer class is a logical wrinkle that can prove frustrating. The ability to cycle through playable party members is one way the game attempts to mitigate this, as is the inclusion of a seventh, non-player controlled Hero unit. However, the main issue is that characters and classes don’t really play differently, and that, barring subtle differences in grind length, every character has access to every class. The Master Arts you obtain share the animations from their origin class, and everyone has access to these. The only determining factors of Arts selection are their effects and the length of their animation. Admittedly, some effects demand their length execution times, like tank Arts that absorb damage, but some are speedier and have higher damage outputs than others, which can be a huge factor in assessing their utility.

A particularly frustrating, but thematically relevant decision (as XC3 is a thematic game, after all) is that Master Arts must reflect the opposing faction of the main class… except, of course, when they don’t, which is the case for two particular unlockable classes. Keves and Agnus must be equally represented on the Arts palette, which is again understandable from that a design philosophy, but in execution, there are so many more tank-focused Keves classes and so many support-focused Agnus classes. This is perhaps meant to maintain balance, but it is frustrating to have limitations for tanking and healing options while playing the game, especially because the narrative trickles out these classes. Now, one might argue that a level-headed min-maxer doesn’t necessarily care about the amount of options available to a class and would rather have fewer in order to streamline their build, but this often results in tanks and healers needing to take on non-class-conducive Arts.

All of this further exacerbates yet another frustrating aspect of this game, which is the speed at which classes can be mastered. Class mastery initially “caps out” at level ten, where Monolith gives a small sampling of Master Arts and Skills to the player, but there is a later extension of this mastery that is unlocked through late-game Ascension Quests, which are Hero- and party-focused side narratives that further extend the grind and open up more options for the player. Yeah, I get it: in order to justify a 60-80 hour playtime, Monolith needs to put as many “invisible walls” into its progression systems as possible and they definitely do not want players crafting broken class compositions in the second of seven chapters. But you could avoid this by using that slow, narrative trickle of classes to prevent these potentially broken options from existing. As mentioned before, every character can learn every class, albeit at different speeds… but if one two of the playable cast have unique Talent Arts options, why try playing as any other character during combat when you’ll experience everything the game has to offer with one? The AI and the enemy challenge is hardly ever high enough to necessitate character swapping. It almost feels like a useless feature.

Ouroboros transformations are impressive in nature, giving a free period of raw damage and utility to a pair of characters with little fear of repercussion. They remind me of using Skells, not only due to their scale but also their extremely high-committal animations. You do gain the ability to boost their action speed and power via the Soul Tree, which costs insanely high amounts of Soul Points that are obtained via quest completion. In any case, unlocking Arts cancel for this form is essential if you want to maximize damage, but it really doesn’t feel like you get to experiment with some of the intricacies of the Soul Tree until the mid- to late-game, especially since many quests aren’t accessible until that point. This is just another example of gating abilities in a convoluted way in order to make certain challenges insurmountable.

Ouroboros are particularly frustrating due to their Fusion level, which is a number that rises with the amount of Fusion Arts used by the duo in question. The Arts that do utilize Fusion level are always relevant, but gain an extra function when the level is raised to its highest point. Considering how Fusion level also factors into Chain Attacks, deciding to hold off on executing Ouroboros (as Fusion level resets upon disengaging) is a costly time investment, especially since these Fusion level-focused Arts are highly limited in their utility. It’s a bizarre move, and only made stranger when a single Ouroboros gains a particular Talent Art

If there’s one aspect that has gained further relevance in XC3, it is Chain Attacks. If a player is struggling to heal or deal sufficient damage or even divert enemy attention, the Chain Attack operates as a figurative pause button that enables all of these options. As the narrative progresses, new Hero units and Ouroboros functions factor into how you craft your Chain Attacks, but there’s no way to skip attack animations or even turn off the (admittedly good, but repetitive) Chain Attack music track. This means that, depending on the amount of times you initiate a Chain Attack in a single battle, you might end up spending several minutes of that fight navigating the chain attack menu and watching animations. It’s nowhere near as snappy as it has been in previous games, and it’s really only the Fusion level that can have a tangible effect on how your Chain Attack functions- and it’s a pretty debatable option.

I don’t know what else to say about the pervading sense of monotony that exists in combat, but what I will say is that it is heavily impacted by the player’s access to six characters from the start of the narrative. This gives the player a substantial number of classes to play with, but the play styles and personality of these classes feels much less unique than any previous -blade title, which is further emphasized by the necessity of changing characters to classes that don’t fit their initial archetype. Simply put, if you want to be able to toy with character composition as much as possible, you need to try to max out as many classes as possible. Time spent in a mastered class is time wasted, especially since the affinity grind is so intense. So you’re constantly bouncing back and forth to new classes, and while the game is merciful in the way that it auto-equips a decent selection of optimal Master and Class Skills and Arts, it only further emphasizes how similar classes and combat become.

The exception to this is the late-game Hero unit Triton. Essentially a blue mage, Triton unlocks access to the Soul Hacker class, which has a massive number of Master Skills and Arts that are obtained through slaying Unique monsters. Not to diminish the insane amount of existing grind, however, Monolith has also given these skills and arts upgrade requirements, which are obtained in a variety of ways. It’s essentially an achievement and additional quest list rolled into one, which would have been an excellent thing to have… from the start of the game, but because of where Triton is found, the player needs to retrace their steps, fast travel back to previously slain Unique monsters and kill them with the Soul Hacker skill equipped in order to obtain these abilities, and then get to work on their upgrade requirements. It’s… a waste of time. A colossal waste of time.

This section isn’t just about combat, though, it’s also about the characters that participate in it. And finally, we can begin to discuss a part of the game’s design that I have almost entirely positive feelings towards. The risk of introducing six characters at the start of a narrative is obvious, as we wonder if each will receive enough development and care to justify their spot and their relevance. Thankfully, each character is given a modest amount of main narrative focus, though some feel a bit more shoehorned in than others, and there is plenty to be uncovered and developed in the game’s sidequests.

Noah is our protagonist of protagonists, a man who values life due to the connections he has made. As a swordfighter, Noah gets the Big Red Sword™ of legend, a weird one in this world, as it’s a combination of his blade and the mystifying Lucky Seven. This sword does have access to a few unique Talent Arts, one of which turns Noah into a Topple/Launch/Smash machine all on his own. It’s a bit terrifying, especially since Lucky Seven is… just a sword? As far as weapon designs go in the Xenoblade Chronicles trilogy, it’s surprisingly tame, with the weird element being that the Big Red part is actually a reassembling gauntlet that reveals the true Lucky Seven in times of great need? It’s never really explained all that well, and what’s worse, this very unique aspect of Noah’s design is also rarely a point of focus in cinematics or gameplay. It’s a really cool gauntlet that seems to serve no particular narrative or mechanical purpose.

What is more enjoyable about Noah as a protagonist is that he is extremely consistent in terms of narrative growth and depth of character. His confidence stems from the certainty of his belief in the preservation and sanctity of life, which are values hotly contested throughout the main narrative. Watching him learn of the deeper complexities of Aionios and his own existence is compelling stuff, and although he does get one or two “get out of jail free” cards, they feel earned as a part of the game’s lore and his particular eccentricities. Seeing as our two focal protagonists are Off-Seers, it’s no surprise that XC3 is a much more solemn game than its predecessor. Noah is a great representation of this, a character who has clearly been shaped by events throughout his life in meaningful ways. Despite what we could argue is a lesser amount of “lived life” than previous characters, we are given a glimpse into Noah’s thoughts and memories more explicitly, and understand him better as a protagonist. He is similar to Shulk and Rex, in that he values life and the journey towards betterment on a grander scale. There are things he is moved to do that may not align with his desires, and that is the truest and most authentic sign of an aspirational hero. Mind you, this is “just” Noah we’re discussing, here, not his other version. We might talk more about that later.

Mio represents the Zephyr class, an agility-focused tank that uses stances in order to heighten specific stats while consistently dealing damage. Stances, in my opinion, are one of the worst-defined mechanics in XC3, operating similarly to auras from previous -blade titles. Now, I might just be an utter dunce (update: I checked while in-combat, and in fact, am/am not a dunce), but stances activate upon Arts execution as noted by the teeny tiny icon next to the character, and last for a certain duration for that character only. Seeing as individuals within close proximity of Defenders or Supports get buffs from area of effect rings and stances are highly-class oriented, they can sometimes feel like a wasted effect. There are a select few that have widespread utility, especially in chain attacks, but for the most part, they’re risky maneuvers, even when equipped as Master Arts, which remove the animation that often goes with them. In any case, I like how the Zephyr class moves with some of its Arts animations, but I find it to be weak, on the whole. Apparently, some people would disagree. Hey, why am I talking about the class, and not the character?

Mio gives the group a fascinating bit of perspective as the eldest, and thereby closest to her homecoming. That means death, by the by. And, god… I just love this character so much. She is so complex, yet underrated in many aspects and sort of disrespected in the grand scheme of things. It is difficult to separate Mio from her late-game depiction, but her desire to understand and to be freed from the shackles of her expiration date are some of the most relatable character traits in the entirety of the Xenoblade trilogy. What I love the most about Mio is that she is not necessarily defined by her loving relationship with Noah- it is telling that the two don’t really share a romantic gesture until the game’s final cutscene- but rather her desire to know and be known. In the exchange of Off-Seer flutes, we see some of the most beautiful and concrete signs of existence that this game has to offer: not a guarantee of time, but a guaranteed legacy. She is an astounding motivational element of the game, and I think it’s a shame to not see that implemented more in the overall mechanical design, so… blah.

I guess it’s time that we do, in fact, talk about Noah and Mio in more explicit terms. These are continuations of the concepts known as N and M, and you’ll need to note the nomenclature. The Moebius forms of Noah and Mio lack souls, as they have succumbed to despair in the hopes of eternal coexistence. It is strange, then, that M has some of the most genuine and humane motivations in the game, offering an easy way out to Mio in the form of a body swap. Thus, M passes on at Mio’s homecoming and Mio remains, tethered to Aionios in a Moebius body. This act would be gratuitous, even wish-fulfillment on the part of the writers, if Mio did not resolve herself to right the wrongs of Origin and return the worlds to their rightful state afterwards. I mean, don’t get me wrong: there is wish fulfillment in this stupid game, but it’s not that moment.

N is the culmination of that nagging thought, of whether or not existence matters if it will end. M is the denial of that thought, sacrificing herself for the sake of change. It is strange that they should stand at such opposing ends of the spectrum, and it makes you wonder how they could have been paired in the first place. Honestly, the insanity of Noah and Mio still having a working relationship after seeing the atrocities Noah could be capable of being represented in N is pretty wild. Mio is somewhat undercut by the sacrifice of her soulless Moebius doppelganger, as much of her narrative moving forward is about righting wrongs in a similar manner. M gets a single act, a crucial one, to solidify her place in the hearts of Xenoblade fans everywhere. Sure, her memories and understanding are transferred to Mio, and thus, it’s difficult to say if we can truly separate the two in the way Noah and N defy one another, but hey, I’m just a guy who plays video games. And Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a thematic game, albeit a messy one.

N, meanwhile, is a colossal asshole. A man who breaks the will of the world for his own interests, and is then broken when all his efforts amount to nothing. His relationship with M is nonexistent, as he has lost so much of his humanity in the acts he has performed. And I love that this is how pretty much all of Moebius is characterized: selfish, cowardly, and spiteful. It is the antithesis of connection: that willingness to be open to change, even if it should hurt. It’s why N is such a pushover in the player’s final encounter with him- he’s not an obstacle for those who value change, he’s just a minor inconvenience. Especially when you’re five to ten levels stronger than him.

Hey, let’s get back to classes, yeah? I’m going to go with Lanz next, because his class and character are those about which I have least to say. Lanz rocks a weird greatsword that also functions as a gatling gun, the former mode very much used to block things and make big swipes, the latter to draw enemy attention. He’s the tankiest tank that ever did tank, and is maybe the most derivative version of the archetype in the entire -blade series. He has all the fixings for drawing aggro and standing in one spot, and if you like that sort of play style, well, you’ll enjoy him for a time until he is replaced by this game’s insane version of Dunban. She’s great.

Yes, Lanz has some trauma, and yes, it’s so sweet that the big buff man who wants to protect his friends failed to do so in his youth, but what else does Lanz have to say for himself, especially after he discovers the fate of “the one that got away?” He’s angry, he’s sullen, he… sticks to the lead of his smarter friend, because every game needs a big dumb lug. Even in his Ascension Quest, he ponders questions about role and ambition that he himself cannot answer- only that he wants more. Maybe that’s the point of the character, but it’s all a bit naive. Hey, maybe he’s meant to represent the first, small thoughts we have about change. Whatever.

Lanz’s counterpart is Sena, who is a tiny girl with a whole lotta gall. Also, a huge forehead. And hey, not that there’s anything wrong with that, or the idea that little girls with a bit of fire Blade in them can’t have tremendous strength, but I’m a bit disappointed by her character design. We can’t have a big, buff gal, Monolith? Oh, she’s an Ogre, by the way, which further speaks to a certain body type that her character design doesn’t really reflect. Sena is all about hard-hitting damage and even a bit of launching, and her hammer can do lots of things that the Japanese have depicted hammers doing. And can turn into a barbell. Anyway, she’s strong! Stronger than Noah, until he draws Lucky Seven.

Sena is an oddity in that she lacks a great deal of personal agency. She fawns over her only friend Mio and can at least enjoy the same things as Lanz, but she is very soft-spoken and hardly stands up for herself. It’s kind of pathetic. She’s pathetic. I hate her arc. She latches on to characters who exude more ambition and drive than she, and while she does manage to rehabilitate No. 7 in the dumbest way possible. If Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is in fact a thematic game, which I believe I have previously asserted, I just don’t know where Sena (or Lanz, for that matter) are meant to fit into its theme, other than “it takes all types.” But maybe Xenoblade Chronicles 3 isn’t a game with just a single thematic statement, especially when we factor in the narratives of N and M, who help us understand that despair impedes process as a selfish emotion. Sena and Lanz almost blow themselves up in Chapter 5, as due to the circumstances and their own despair, they believe a sacrifice like this is the only way to give their lives meaning. If the game had the narrative guts to explore the implications of this act, it might serve as strong commentary on the theme of despair. The fact that it’s being referenced right now means that it already could be.

Anyway, it does, in fact, take all types to change the world. I just find that Sena lacks agency, and maybe as a person who spends his free time typing about video games on the internet, I don’t like that. I am also a hypocrite.

Now, onto the fun party members. The last members of each respective faction trio are Eunie and Taion, who both play support roles in somewhat different ways. I think it’s a shame that support characters tend to straddle the line between healing and… I dunno, support? I mean, the best combat class in the game is a pure support character, and that is because she’s insanely broken, but why can’t we have more of that? Taion’s tactician class is capable of modest heals and more substantial debuffs befitting an early game class, and I’d argue its most distinguishing feature is its stylish orange scarf and weird little Mondo. No, not Monado- they’re little paper dolls that swarm around and attack people. It is a genuinely neat aesthetic, but it doesn’t say much that the class is defined by its appearance.

Taion is a fellow whose tactical eye has been honed by despair, if we wish to continue with that thematic concept. However, he also comes to embrace the mission of the Ouroboros upon getting some much needed closure. His despair makes him hyperfixate on his initial goal, which is to be a gosh darn good tactician. He has experienced the pain of loss, but he hasn’t necessarily grown from it, instead choosing to focus on the endless facade of conquest orchestrated by Moebius. It’s not as clean as Noah and Mio, but his well-developed character arc in the middle of the game solidifies his place as a party member, and he definitely grows to trust and understand others, even though he can’t drop his analytical demeanor entirely.

Then, there’s Eunie. Oh, Eunie. You wormed your way into our hearts by being the antithesis of what we’ve previously seen in a High Entia: crass and combative. The Medic Gunner is an excellent depiction of this, as an offensively-oriented healing class, it mashes the Ether Rifle of Sharla with the AoE effects of Melia. The result is a class with an impressive range that offers AoE fields and healing abilities, and has the added bonus of access to a Daze Art. Healing as a focus just makes sense a bit more in concept, especially since the class archetype is the only one that can properly revive downed party members, unless you wish to waste an accessory slot. AoE fields are a bit of a bummer, since your party can only have three active on the field at a time and party members can only equip up to four on their palette, there’s definitely something going on in terms of game balance or performance that limits their usage. Ah, well. There’s always direct healing abilities.

Eunie is a fascinating character because she’s one of the three members of the party that has an understanding of who she was prior to her current iteration, which raises sticky questions about the nature of personality and free will in this world. One would argue, as is the case with N and M, that our fate and persona can change, and Eunie further supports this as an individual able to move past the trauma of her unfortunate end and conquer her fears for the greater good. But, on the other hand… N and M are fated to be drawn together and fall in love. Now, you could argue that this is all just a simulation (and it is, to an extent) and that I should shut the hell up, or that these beings that have their lives continuously reset are the culmination of years of unfinished desire, and therefore gravitate towards one another as an echo of those ideas. Anyway, Eunie is able to acknowledge only parts of her persona, but she is acutely aware of her demise, and she operates as a fascinating agent within the story in that she does not let these visions deter her from the course. They seed doubts, of course, and are essential world building, but Eunie just keeps on trucking. The transient past and the uncertain future present conflicting thoughts, and while we can only know and act upon what exists in the moment, we must do so without thoughts of despair. Maybe? I don’t know, I’m stretching thematic concepts pretty thin, here.

Now, there are plenty of other classes that I could address from combat, as well as the characters that represent this, but I’m going to limit myself to a few that I think work thematically and operate in mechanically unique ways. I’ll start with the latter, because it’s a much shorter list.

In the late game, you gain access to Commander Triton, a weird Moebius pirate guy who is kind of tired of being selfish. He’s sailed the Cadensia region for years with a number of different crews, and has come to realize that he is no more deserving of eternity than they. Despite all efforts to remain apolitical, it’s impossible to avoid XC3’s revolutionary bent. Its central message evolves from the weight of life to the duties we owe to others, and Triton is a great representation of that. He is an authority figure, a maker of the world, but he cannot come to the conclusions he makes without having experienced the lives of the working class- the exploited. In doing so, he becomes aware of the imbalance of power and the privilege he possesses, and resolves to embrace change and a shift in the status quo for the sake of something better. Now, it’s hard to imagine what Takahashi is attempting to pinpoint here other than a system of governance that facilitates conflict and exploits the lower class through scarcity of resources for the sake of preserving their way of life. That’s not specific at all.

Hey, wait, I said this was about class gameplay, not narratives! Triton represents the Soul Hacker class, which breaks open the previous notions of versatility the game possesses. Soul Hackers can be anything- attackers, defenders, or supports, and the number of Arts and Skills they have allow them to become fascinating, monster-based versions of these concepts. It puts a fun twist on character progression, which is why it’s so much fun to engage with, because the actual act of combat is pretty repetitive and disinteresting. It’s also why it hurts to have this system introduced so late in the game- it is a genuinely novel way of recontextualizing Unique enemy encounters and it doesn’t harm the usual progression in any sense. In other words, I would have preferred more classes implement systems like this for either acquisition or progression. After all, why does Triton have such sweeping Arts and Skills upgrade systems when they could have been used for other classes? Give the Signifier some sort of collection-based unlock system, for god’s sake! It’s broken enough as-is!

…That’s it. That’s the only class that, from a progression standpoint, feels fundamentally different from any other class in the game. Barring Ino, but she’s DLC, which means we’ll talk about her later.

From a thematic standpoint, there are a number of Hero characters whose narratives align closely with the aforementioned topics: life, despair, revolution, and mortality. Lots of these characters possess introductory and Ascension quests that speak to these ideas, though the process of obtaining those Ascension quests is always tedious. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to lump either Ethel or Cammuravi into this group, since their quest-specific plotlines feel like wish fulfillment. Their roles in the main narrative are much more poignant and speak to the game’s themes more, as one might expect. Rather, I do prefer the nature of Juniper, Asura, and Monica’s narratives far more, as they relate directly to life, purpose, and the decision to progress. Sure, characters like Fiona and Valdi (and… I dunno, Teach?) are great examples of how the world functions and how individuals are tasked with dangerous responsibility despite lacking emotional and literal maturity. In fact, in terms of fleshing out the conflict of the world, they do a pretty stellar job of thematic fortification. But I do think that the number of heroes is rather high, and that the impact on combat and world design is felt strongly. Some classes just feel a bit useless, some Hero narratives feel like time-soaking bullshit, and some Colonies feel a bit half-baked. Honestly, most of those fall into the Agnus category, as not a single Agnian Ferronis is accessible in a way similar to the Kevesi. Maybe it was just my unrealistic expectations, but when the Ferronises were marketed as giant war machines you’d need to destroy in order to liberate the people, I thought we’d actually get to… destroy them in order to liberate the people.

Instead, we get Moebius fights, which feature an insanely hard battle theme, but have a sparing bit of mechanical variety. The big ones pick you up and throw you, the normal-sized ones do lots of kicks and stuff (honestly, I don’t even remember, they were pretty forgettable), and the generic female ones… uh, I actually think I only fought one throughout my entire 100+ hour playthrough, and it wasn’t memorable enough to even recount. They’re neat, high-stakes battles with a great soundtrack and unique aesthetics, but outside of being a level-check more often than not, they don’t present much more variety, which is necessary for this game to differentiate itself from the prior two installments, which already use many of the same enemy types.

Then again, it’s supposed to be a blend of those two games, so… I guess it’s thematically excusable? I hate that I can say that.

There are people out there who will claim to understand the progression and combat mechanics of XC3 far better than I, and who can justify the existence of its Hero classes and swath of Arts and Skills. But I think that the game doesn’t do enough that feels unique with all the mechanics it offers, and outside of scrambling medics for quick heals and activating chain attacks and the occasional Break-induced Arts combo, I felt like I was lulled into a quiet and predictable rhythm that would be occasionally upset by random status ailments and/or intense attacks that had no meaningful telegraphing or sense of logic. I’m bored with this combat. I’m tired of playing the same game. But that is what XC3 is meant to feel like, so I guess it’s thematically excusable.

After all, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a thematic game.

Part 028: The Weight of Life (A Thematic Game)

In my initial projection of this retrospective, I had hoped to write separate sections for the story and side missions and the game’s thematic nature, but like any decent human being, I’ve decided that my initial prospects were stupid and have decided to spare you the pain of reading an additional section. My apologies.

You may or may not have heard that Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a thematic game. Who could have possibly spread such a malicious lie? Should we take this assumption and run with it, we should then discuss the thematic message of this game.

A theme is often related to the artistic elements of a game, and if you believe that game design can be artistic in nature, then you can get behind some of the thematic relevance of XC3’s environmental design, and maybe its combat as well. The combat being this woefully archaic thing can in fact fit into the thematic nature of the narrative, whether I like admitting this or not. However, it’s important to acknowledge, especially for those of us who are not scholarly in a literary sense, what a theme truly is: the main idea, or encompassing message related to a more specific topic, which often serves as the basis for a work. Topics are often a bit more clear-cut, factual, and hardly debatable, while a theme is an author’s statement about that topic, an understanding that they wish to convey to the audience. That’s the literary application of the word, anyway, and we could argue that theming is topical in nature should we apply the idea to, say, construction: I want my amusement park to be dinosaur-themed, or to use dinosaurs as the overarching artistic element. However, that is a thematic application to the topic of theme parks: as in, “an amusement park modeled around or utilizing dinosaurs as its central motif is more unique and appealing to a park visitor than an amusement park without a theme.” It’s perhaps why we have separate naming conventions for amusement parks and theme parks.

I digress. What is the thematic statement of Xenoblade Chronicles 3? Well, we can look at the topic in order to glean this: life is arguably the most important topic, albeit rather broad. “Life goes on” is a pretty on-the-nose thematic statement, but it does apply to the visual symbology of the Ouroboros. It is important to note that this symbol is a circle, but it is not an eternal one- the very idea of a snake eating its own tail implies that there is a “head” to the cycle, a starting point that will eventually consume the end, overtaking it. This is different to the Moebius’ infinity sigil- no beginning or end, the faction itself named after August Ferdinand Mobius, co-discoverer of the Mobius Strip. An abstract topological space, an anomaly within this three dimensional reality that we inhabit.

One might look at the existence of the Agnian and Kevesi soldiers as a similar anomaly- never given the chance to mature beyond ten years, they cannot be open to the idea of change, and succumb to the perpetuated nature of conflict. Except, the one odd subversion of this is the nature of homecoming- where their souls are truly set free from the cycle, as Z itself confirms. Noah is an anomaly within this truth, a soul that has continued to reincarnate despite having reached homecoming in his past lives. One could argue that this is a flaw to the storytelling, but homecoming, whether survived or not, is not a natural end to life. None of what exists in Aionios is natural. We cannot assume that this is so, and shouldn’t debate this point any further.

Aionios is an unnatural perpetuation, and the tireless pursuit of The Endless Now has led to the decay of the world in the form of annihilation events. Again, one could argue that a world frozen in time should not be confronted with decay, but that’s a logical retort to a very emotional thematic message. The Xenoblade trilogy has always centered around emotional plots, which is why it has been embraced by a very emotional and outspoken audience, willing to share their raw emotions regarding the series on social platforms and defend the illogical elements of the trilogy to a self-destructive degree. We must embrace the notion that Xenoblade as a whole is a realm of human emotion, and no game represents this better than Xenoblade Chronicles 3.

In dismissing the logistical hiccups of the narrative, what then are we left with? Existential dread, mainly. This game is all about the end of life, and what life looks like when it is entirely dedicated to a system designed to exploit manpower for the sake of self-sustenance. Sure, these kids spend ten years grappling with this concept, but ten years is a fraction of the time we get. Playing through the entirety of Xenoblade Chronicles 3, even exhaustively, will be a blip in the normal lifespan, so that this game stuffs itself to the brim with emotionally-raw discussions of life, memory, and existence is appropriate. It has to wear these emotions on its sleeve in order to make an impression on the player. Arguably, it made quite an impression on me.

It’s the reckless abandon that XC3’s characters throw into their goals and lives that really sell the experience, and this extends to the Hero characters featured in quests, as well as other NPCs. Given the freedom to live their lives, they do so recklessly, without abandon, and that results in some questionable babysitting, like the lengthy explorer side plot from Colony 4, as well as some bizarrely dull stuff, like Colony 9’s potato schtick. But this idea of living with meaning is not just explored upon liberation, but also within the confines of the war itself. You have a warrior clan determined to find meaning in the ends of their lives, rather than the conflict that they participated in, and a Colony of multitaskers able to distribute goods and services for the good of their faction, creating a system that benefits all of mankind. Some of their choices are sloppy, some are carefully considered, but legacy is a hugely important discussion to be had for these individuals, as they lack some degree of it due to the brevity of their lifespan and the nature of their conflict. The City of The Lost Numbers is perhaps a counterargument in its own right, a civilization so tied up in bureaucracy based on the legacy of its founders that acts of free will are stifled. This is primarily due to their existence being threatened by Ouroboros, though, so maybe this is still a discussion of power structures?

I could meander through the ways the weight of life is discussed in its totality, but I think I’d be doing the game and its scenario writers a bit of a disservice in doing so. There are clearer objectives and thematic statements that they likely had in mind when crafting the game, but seeing all of them acquiesce in its execution is truly something to behold. It feels as if the theme of life’s weight, importance, and unyielding will in the face of opposition is on par with the side-narratives of XCX, and that’s a game whose core narrative was… mixed, at best. I do feel that this game achieves the goals of ambition in writing that have eluded Monolith Soft throughout their previous games. I’d also say that trying to find some sort of thematic through-line in the -blade trilogy is fruitless- even this game’s ties to XC1 seem tenuous, at best. XC1 is a fine narrative with memorable characters, but it doesn’t necessarily stand for something in the way that this game does. XC2 tries to stand for something, but it loses steam about two thirds through- it’s still a fine story, though. Some might argue that XC3’s themes parallel XC2, but I’m not entirely sure I agree. That game is about existence, and identity, but it discusses human potential and growth more, which is not what XC3 aspires to address.

There is only one more topic to address in response, then.

Can one forgive a game for being thematic?

I don’t know. One of the greatest challenges in writing this entire series of retrospectives was allowing myself to defend Xenoblade Chronicles X… and then I played Xenoblade Chronicles 3. To clarify, one of these titles is narrative-light, but thematically rich, and the other is narrative-dense, and thematically rich. XCX is the former, also moving the series forward substantially in terms of gameplay design and extremely fun, to boot. This game feels like an intentional echo of its predecessors, but rarely achieves their gameplay highs due to aged mechanics and half-baked progression ideas. Then again, one can excuse this as a thematic choice.

Okay. Whatever. I don’t need to like art in order to appreciate it.



I often struggle with the idea that a game can have deliberately bad design, and XC3 is that internal struggle projected across the entirety of this retrospective. I didn’t like playing this game. It felt boring, archaic, and uninspired- but then, I found myself enjoying the cutscenes and side narratives. Mind you, I hated having to sit through campfire chats in order to trigger those side narratives, but that’s arguably an effective tool for making these characters feel more engaging and relatable. It’s an endless war raging in my mind.

I often found myself wondering, once I had truly understood the nature of Aionios and its ultimate fate, whether I should even seek to complete the side quests. The status quo of this world was to be reset upon the heroes ending their journey, and even the members of The Lost Numbers would cease to exist. Ages of culture, generations of new life… wiped out, for the sake of the cast of characters and their existence. But of course, we know that the end of this story is the end of our part in it, and much like the world without Gods that Shulk swore to create at the end of XC1, we are not allowed to see the worlds of XC1 and XC2 after Origin serves its purpose. The world that is frozen in time is the only one that we can visit again, in hopes of prolonging The Endless Now.

It’s a game, and like many of its kind, we can replay it again and again. Watch these characters grow and change and fight the status quo- but we must move on from this narrative, and let them live.

…And that’s all well and good, but then I remember that XC3 fails to have any stakes because of its archaic design. In making an exploratory game that doesn’t have narrative impetus baked into its design, we could spend ages with its characters and not face the consequences that they grapple with. Why is it that I spent 50 hours screwing around in the Aetia, Fornis, Pentelas, and Keves Castle regions only to learn that apparently, this amount of time was only 2 months and then had to watch Mio die in the span of roughly six hours of gameplay? Because if 24 minutes is the equivalent of one in-game day, then I actually spent 125 in-game days dicking around in Aionios before Mio even had one month left to live, and i’m pretty sure that, if our calendars function similarly, she should have been death for about a quarter of that playtime.

All that math aside, you might just be like, “hey man, it’s just a game, chill the hell out?” But actual gameplay stakes have enhanced the quality of games since, well, since Majora’s Mask, at least. It just pains me to see Monolith going SO hard in the narrative department and relying on tired gameplay design- whether intentional or not- when all the changes they’ve made to their pre-established formula have been middling at best and discourage exploration. Now, the point of Aionios is that life doesn’t repeat the same way during each reincarnation, but could we have fooled around with that notion for the sake of a compelling gameplay/narrative connection? Rather than telling me about all of Noah’s past lives in which he was unable to save his cute cat girlfriend, we could have experienced this ourselves by failing to make a beeline for Swordmarch and solving the problem. Then, the echoes of past lives we witnessed prior to Noah’s awakening of the Sword of Origin would have been our own game experiences.

Or conversely, one could have cut off exploration entirely utilizing linear design during the “save Mio” section of the game and truly blown player’s minds by opening things up to them afterwards. In this case, we would strip the opportunity for side-content in lieu of strengthening the bonds established within the narrative and kept things at a relatively stable level of balance, seeing as I was overleveled pretty much through the entirety of chapters 3-5, trivializing the boss fights and their narrative weight almost entirely. I mean, seeing how the game locks away side content until the figurative eleventh hour, I don’t see why this would have been a bad choice.

I’m talking about intentionality, here. Either make a game better suited for your narrative, or further wallow in a realm of mediocrity. This might sound entitled or uninformed, especially when factoring in the perspective of having played other Xenoblade titles, but I would argue that some of these games performed their roles more serviceably. I think back to moments like the destruction of the Mechonis, or the loss of the Aegis and the implementation of Nia and even Poppi or the Spirit Crucible, and they make more sense. Now, these games have featured arguably as much exploratory content as XC3, but they also didn’t have time-sensitive narrative elements functioning as narrative impetus- I mean, except for that one time during XC2, which wasn’t perfect. But hey, remember the Mechonis Slash from the Egil fight in XC1? How you got an instant game over if the Bionis was destroyed? That’s committal game design, right there.

See, I’ve always loved the way that Monolith Makes Worlds (not a bad title)- how they use environmental elements to emphasize world building and encourage exploration- but as I’ve matured as an individual and I daresay a game critic, I have found my love of expansive worlds and grandiose narratives to be at odds with what I want from game developers. Breath of the Wild was a beautiful, contemplative experience because it had nearly no narrative impetus, and the developers gave a great deal of freedom to the player because the player truly is Link. That feels acceptable, where Monolith’s XC3 is not. I love Pandora’s Tower and The Last Story because they are quaint, but still have plenty of world building. Those games were released a decade ago. We can do better, because we have done better.

But of course, if all of this bad design was intentional- as in, if the game was truly designed to echo past Xenoblade titles not for the sake of its narrative, but rather to highlight the absurdity of replaying games and keeping a game world stagnant- then it would be excusable. And I suppose that if perception is reality, I could choose that critical lens and be done with bashing the design choices of XC3. But there’s a part of my dumb, English Literature Teacher brain that can’t settle with that interpretation. Not after four games of very similar game design.

…I’ve run out of steam for this section, but I think that’s all I can say about this topic. I feel strongly that I should raise this point not just for myself, but also for you, the reader. There have been a few individuals who have come across this retrospective, and beyond that, I have listened to some individuals comment on the -blade games from different perspectives and vastly different degrees of appreciation. If Monolith’s design choices have not sat well with you previously, I can’t imagine that XC3’s decisions will do anything to convince you of their merit. Which is a shame, because the narrative of XC3 is arguably one of, if not the best of this entire series- you just need to trudge through the same, boring shit to see it to fruition. It is a strong thematic game… but not necessarily a good game.

Part 029: The End of the Beginning (Final Impressions)

So prior to even touching the game’s downloadable season pass content, what else is there to say about XC3? I think I’ve more or less exhausted it from every perceptible angle. As we end the beginning of this discussion of the game and continue through what will arguably be the final stretch of this retrospective, what do I even have to say…?

I don’t think I’ve ever been so torn up about the disparate elements of a game, despite my opinion of XC2 being the near-opposite of this game: it was a joy to play, but a slog to watch. Maybe it is my propensity for narratives that makes this conflict such a sore one. Maybe it’s because I have become so accustomed to JRPGs having mediocre narratives- the -blade series being no exception to this- that it is such a surprise and a delight to see a game with a decent one.

Maybe it’s because I think about life and death a lot.

But it wouldn’t be fair to simply reflect on this game from a narrative perspective- no matter how much at odds it is with the other elements of the product. Instead, I’d like to return to the carefully considered list I generated for the beginning of this section, which detailed my hopes and dreams regarding Xenoblade Chronicles 3:

-Stronger and more cohesive world design, from a topographical standpoint

-Further refined combat, taking lessons learned from Torna

-More cohesive aesthetic design

-A matured narrative, delivering a satisfying conclusion/cohesion to the previous titles

So, what is the verdict on these four points?

From a topographical standpoint, Aionios is more cohesive- there is a structure to its world, and the region-based design allows for a greater degree of connectivity and expansiveness… at least, in some areas. Others feel like an afterthought, or rather, designed for a much more linear kind of game, which I would be perfectly fine with, should the narrative call for such a choice. (It did, the game failed to capitalize on this)

The combat is refined to the point of feeling overtuned, resulting in something that lacks any sense of excitement or personality. The rare exceptions to this idea feel too deeply buried in the game’s core systems to feel like worthwhile ventures for exploration. In combining the systems of previous games, XC3 does nothing better than them, frozen in its own hellish “Endless Now.”

More cohesive aesthetic design is certainly achieved, and  arguably an element I haven’t given its proper appreciation. I feel that, from a musical standpoint, there is always a degree of excellence to be expected from the -blade series, but XC3 offers a more poignant, better arranged, and evocative listening experience when it isn’t blasting flute riffs at the player in combat. Some of that is excusable, but not in the base battle theme. Outside of this, the character designs are much more restrained than the previous title while still maintaining a sense of personality and uniqueness that was lacking in XC1’s Definitive Edition. If this were the aesthetic standard Monolith maintained in their efforts moving forward, I would be perfectly happy. This game was actually enjoyable to play with another person in the room!

And of course, the narrative is excellent, truly. However, I don’t know if it offers any sort of proper conclusion to the previous two installments, instead existing as nothing more than a nice “what if?” narrative. It is about not moving either world forward in a meaningful fashion, outside of the slight reference to Future Connected and the absolutely embarrassing snapshot of the XC2 cast in its final cutscenes. In a game with relatively restrained wish-fulfillment and a reserved tone, XC3 manages to shit the bed in this odd moment of fanservice (lol in hindsight, I was not ready for what Future Redeemed would do to me). Aside from this, what more does XC3 offer than “we can’t live with these characters forever?” Time passes, characters cease to exist, and a story can be endlessly retold, but moments can never be recaptured. Even our ability to replay games doesn’t offer us the same feelings of wonder we had during a first foray, and that is perhaps its most damning critique of its own fanbase. I can at least respect that, and that its themes of life unrestrained by shadowy organizations is the preferable option. That ties into the previous titles not really as a thematic through-line, but rather an exhaustingly trope-heavy observation.

So in truth, XC3 is a half-hearted victory, a game that does some things right without any clear sense of unity. That’s kind of a bad thing when the game itself is supposed to be about unifying its previous two installments. If it were about telling the concise kind of narrative with character-rich gameplay that XC1 offered in combination with the engaging progression and combat fundamentals of XC2 and its DLC, I would be completely on board. It surpasses the narrative, yet lacks the character of the former, and only dredges the surface of the progression and combat of the latter. At least it has better world design, sort of.

I seriously hope that XC3 is the conclusion of a trilogy, the closing of a door. I want Monolith Soft to do something different, if only for the sake of being different, rather than settling for what I imagine is considered by Takahashi and his creative team to be a very conceptually stable product. In preparing this retrospective, I came across a very matured perspective on the Xeno- series, which is very different from the -blade series that I have attempted to cover. It discusses the raw ambition of Takahashi and his continual thematic references from the start of Xenogears to the conclusion of Xenoblade Chronicles 3. It states rather lovingly that this game is the culmination of his sensibilities, having a narrower and more manageable focus than the epochs of old he attempted tackling.

And while I see that sentiment as valid, it also sounds disappointingly hollow. Throughout his works, I believe Takahashi to be an ambitious writer- the content of XCX and XC3 are evidence of this. But to say that the ambitions for delivering his narratives have been stifled by the industry and the expectations of his fans is equally warranted. That XC1 was the rousing success it was and influenced the development of the subsequent -blade games is irrefutable, but that each title has leaned on safe game design precepts is true in all but one exception. I hope you can guess which title I am referencing.

As the -blade series has strayed from being anthology-oriented, I have found that the perfect combination of Monolith Soft’s design sensibilities seems to have been reached, and worry that I will no longer feel the same urge to cover their games should they continue along this safe mode of game design. I have seen the worlds that Monolith has made, and though I have always hoped they would become as lush and real and tangible as those found in other games I love, they have remained sterile, lacking an interactive element that would further emphasize their evocative spirit. Perhaps it took me all four of these -blade games to realize this, but I don’t despair in having come to this realization, or regret the journey taken. I love the narrative this game offered me, even if I think the product is fundamentally flawed. I can only hope that my thirty dollars spent on the Expansion Pass does not result in content that echoes this sentiment.


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