Monolith Soft is a master of settling. Every Xeno title going back to the PS1’s Xenogears has felt, in its own way, like the summation of idiosyncratic compromises between vision and technology. The scope of series creator Tetsuya Takahashi’s vision has never really fit on one disc or one console. And that’s made the studio great at getting the gist of it all across in just 80 hours.
Xenoblade Chronicles has continued in this development legacy since it debuted on the Wii in 2010, each successor and rerelease regarded with measured praise for pushing the capabilities of Nintendo’s consoles. The seams, barely held together, are just a part of the charm at this point.
If I could describe my brief time with Xenoblade Chronicles 3 in just a word, then, I would say it is uncompromising. Though not entirely up to snuff, Monolith Soft has clearly found its stride in creating a more even and altogether consistent experience befitting the Xeno series’ grand storytelling. And there are even autosaves this time.
What’s immediately clear from the very beginning of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is that this is another Xenoblade game. During my first moments roaming an ashy battlefield in the game’s open world, a composite continent of large regions stitched together à la Xenoblade Chronicles, I was met by high-level monsters I would not be able to fight for dozens more hours and inundated with tutorial screens and umpteen more notifications. I quickly found that I could, however, turn tutorial notifications off.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 includes many of Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition’s quality-of-life features, with simpler menu organizations, intuitive button mapping with customizable shortcuts, and a UI so efficient it feels downright modern, all of which combines to form an experience that feels like a polished, mainline Nintendo series. That all might not mean a lot to someone that hasn’t played past entries, and I’m not entirely sure it will be enough for any newcomers who haven’t spent 200 hours with the past games. But time has clearly been spent trying to make four submenus in your quest log, a collectopedia, four different map screens, and some hundred-odd customizable pieces of your party look approachable.
Set in Aionios, the titanic ruins of both previous games’ settings, opposing factions battle each other to harvest the life force of their foes in a mechanized forever war. Each side’s soldiers, Aionios’ sole inhabitants, live only to fight this battle for their brief, 10 year lifespan. Most don’t make it that long, however, and it is our twin protagonists’ responsibility as “off-seers” to oversee the ritualistic burial of their fallen comrades on the battlefield. The lines are, curiously, drawn along resemblances to past games. The nation of Keves appears as a consolidation of the peoples and races of Xenoblade Chronicles, while High Entia and Machina fight alongside each other against Agnus’ Gormotti and Flesh Eaters (races seen only in Xenoblade Chronicles 2). Each side is led by a familiar-looking queen. It’s as if the games themselves are warring with each other.
And as characters from each side of the conflict join together, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels like a similar marriage of the first two games’ combat styles. Kevesi soldiers like Noah, whose faction hails from the descendants of the titans Bionis and Mechonis, recharge their Arts on a timer just like in Xenoblade Chronicles; Agnian soldiers hailing from Alrest, like Mio, recharge their Arts with auto-attacks like you did in Xenoblade Chronicles 2.
But Xenoblade Chronicles 3 takes a new approach to combat with its Class system. Characters each play as a Class, like Swordsman, Medic Gunner, or Heavy Guard, that fits one of three main “Roles”: attacker, defender, and healer. Each Class comes with a rating in each role as well as an additional rating for control, represented by a chess piece. In some ways, Classes resemble a job system in other JRPGs, and with their faction-defying cooperation, your team can learn how to fight with one another’s Classes.
New Classes can also be inherited from Heroes, characters who join forces with your team as a seventh fighter and whose move set (and outfit) can transfer to any of its members. Each of the games’ six characters can play as any Class after fighting alongside it for long enough, and tiered level caps encourage players to mix up compositions often. And you’ll want to, as mastering Classes unlocks new abilities for your characters in the form of Master Arts. Master Arts double as both standard attacks as well as modifiers on your current Class’s move set, opening up the board for thoughtful and powerful new combinations.
Your party’s move set expands again when the team stumbles on the power of Ouroboros, a magical mecha formed by “Interlinking” two characters together. This new addition to the combat system more than supercharges what each character could do alone, making them essentially invincible for a time and playing off the revised Art system. Your AI team members, who are reactive to combos and attentive in their support, will smartly do this when you’re in a pinch, saving themselves from death and helping turn the tide of an encounter.
Now consider that there are six team members, each of whom you can swap between in combat, and things can start to look overwhelming. While Monolith Soft has clearly taken strides to improve its tutorialization, it triumphs in deploying complexity in the form of customizability, which is more likely to keep combat feeling fresh 20, 40, or 60 hours in. And if you don’t want to engage with all that, you can simply auto-equip Arts, gems, and equipment on your characters with the press of a single button.
Having six characters on screen introduces other challenges, though, some of which Monolith Soft is better at addressing than others. While numbers, aggro lines, and AoE effects can clutter the screen, the Switch itself is up to the task. Monolith Soft has clearly figured out how to optimize its engine for not just frame rate, but for graphic fidelity as well. There’s evidently still adaptive resolution at play (and I’m not entirely sure what the pixel count is while the console is docked), but characters and UI elements possess a level of graphic fidelity only reserved for cinematics in past games.
The same is true even in handheld mode. While resolution is clearly reduced, the compromises in image quality between character models, backgrounds, and particle effects are juggled successfully, creating a more balanced viewing experience. Moreover, the game almost always holds at 30 frames per second in combat — while docked or in handheld. We’ll have to see how the Switch holds up when, say, fighting in larger settings with more ambient particle effects against multiple foes while Interlinking. But the point is that, for perhaps the first time, it feels as if Monolith Soft’s scope and ambition aren’t constrained. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 doesn’t look like it’s straddling its hardware’s — or its developer’s — limits.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 will be released on July 29 on Nintendo Switch. These impressions were written after using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.