It Is A Very Large Head

HIGH Dealing 5 million damage and completely healing my party on the verge of defeat.

LOW Nuking a boss before a cutscene where the same boss was wrecking my party.

WTF Can we not have a colony full of preteens in skintight suits please?

The final boss of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is a giant screaming head. I want to emphasize that it is a head without a body, that it is many times the size of any playable character, and that it screams about both hating the world and also not wanting the world to change. That this gibberish concludes the many dozens of hours it takes to play Xenoblade Chronicles 3 is entirely fitting.

The giant screaming head is sat at the edge of a circular arena floating in midair. Although Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s snappy, enjoyable combat system is heavily reliant on positioning (and indeed there are entire attack classes built on primarily attacking from the side or back) it is impossible to get around or behind the giant screaming head. The giant screaming head is also largely immune to key status effects, so strategies built around these effects are largely useless despite being instrumental to success throughout the game.

The giant screaming head’s arena is an iridescent stage of pulsing light, which makes it even more of a visual jumble than the real-time battles typically are. All six members of the party, plus at least one guest, are always present on the battlefield, which can easily feature an equal number of enemies. With each enemy displaying a targeting line, particle effects from special attacks going off, plus various circles on the ground displaying buff and debuff zones, the battles frequently become a chaotic mess where the action becomes almost impossible to follow.

The giant screaming head doesn’t start off as a giant screaming head. Instead, he begins the boss sequence as a man who must be defeated several times in sequence, with the six main members of the party chaining attacks together both in their regular human bodies and in the “Ouroboros” forms (basically, biological mechs) that pairs of them can fuse into. Each time he is defeated, the boss seems to become more powerful, until he reaches his apotheosis as the aforementioned giant screaming head.

This is de rigeur for Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a game that loves nothing more than to follow up the player’s rousing combat victory with a cutscene where the same enemy is beating the absolute tar out of the party, delivering a lengthy speech while the kids listen passively, or simply peace-ing out instantly, as if the entire preceding battle had not happened. Sometimes all three!

Many of these enemies (and the giant screaming head) belong to Moebius, an organization of cackling psychopaths that has created a world of endless, stalemated war between the states of Keves and Agnus, waged by soldiers that live a maximum of ten years before being recycled. The Moebius crew seem to sustain themselves on the lives lost in battle and derive more sustenance from those that experienced epic highs and lows, thus explaining why everyone has a 15-minute cutscene’s worth of tragic backstory, always delivered as a flashback infodump, despite being only 8 years old.

Our heroes appear to be teenagers (thanks to accelerated aging) equally drawn from both sides of this ginned-up conflict, and once they gain special powers, they set about liberating military units (colonies) from the tyrannical rule of the Flame Clocks that force them to kill in order to survive.

Each colony comes with its own hero who adds another option to the class-based character system, and a story. A few of these tales are compelling, but the volume is prodigious and it’s easy to lose sight of the quality storytelling amidst the cascade of stories that are mundane or simply rehashing eroded JRPG tropes. Even the best of these struggle with pacing, and the lesser ones are often done in by it. One colony whips back and forth between killing to live and quietly awaiting death and then looking forward to a bright future over the course of five minutes, ultimately accepting salvation after the heroes kill a squad of angry goats.

This slapdash approach permeates the story.

Massive and expansive as it is, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 never seems to come to grips with its world, its themes, or even the main characters. Although 2/3 of the party have the murder of a beloved friend by enemy forces as their single most formative experience, they almost instantly suppress their lifetime of conditioning and grief, and never really struggle with those feelings again — nor do most other characters. Instead, their challenges are banalities like not being true to themselves or lacking conviction, as if the whole script was cribbed from a sports anime. That’s how a story about constant worldwide war ends with disjointed pablum about “walking together [and] choosing who you really are”. Although most of them are well-drawn and likable characters, few of the main cast get anything like a real arc. Although the love between two characters is central to the plot and critical to the themes, the romance itself is so anodyne as to be nonexistent. The melodrama occasionally lands some hits, its emotional heft enhanced by a well-written score, but the story is ultimately flimsy and weightless.

The overall construction suffers from a similar lack of care. While the core combat systems work well, the class system is unbalanced, with a particular lack of options and variety for tanks. The system is also hobbled by the fact that the experience levels are badly tuned, so that even modest attention to sidequests will produce a badly overleveled party that advances class capability at a glacial pace. The world’s merchants don’t sell any materials necessary for crafting and only offer the lowest-ranked equipment, rendering the entire economy moot. Even the world, though it is beautiful, expansive and full of life (as is usual for the series), feels unimaginative and rather empty compared to earlier entries. And then, of course, there is the giant screaming head.

What really bothers me about all of this is that it’s so far beneath Monolith.

This is a studio that has created characters with moving arcs and developed stories that grapple with revenge, forgiveness, and even the nature of being. Here, it feels like all that ambition has died and been replaced with Gundam for Complete Illiterates. It’s a tragic regression, all the more so because here and there compelling stories and characters poke through. Alas, they end up buried beneath a mountain of anime tropes and JRPG platitudes. Monolith is better than Xenoblade Chronicles 3, and so are we.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Monolith Soft and published by Nintendo. It is currently available exclusively on the Switch.This copy of the game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Switch. The console was of launch vintage. The game was primarily played with the Pro Controller on a television but handheld mode was also used. Approximately 90 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Language, Mild Blood, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. From a third-person perspective, players complete quests and engage in melee battle against enemies (e.g., animals, creatures, human boss characters). Combat is highlighted by impact sounds, explosions, and cries of pain. Cutscenes depict further instances of violence: characters impaled by sword; a character shooting herself off screen; a man stabbing himself off screen. In principle, almost all the characters who die are children; additionally, on several occasions characters with the appearance of children are killed. A handful of scenes depict blood (e.g., droplets falling from a wounded character; drips of blood on a character’s face). Some fantasy characters/creatures are designed with revealing armor and/or anatomy (e.g., deep cleavage, partially exposed breasts). The words “sh*t,” “ar*ehole,” and “b*tch” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles and most dialogue is displayed in dialogue boxes. Subtitles cannot be altered or resized. Unfortunately, a large quantity of dialogue, particularly at the initiation of, during, and after combat, is not subtitled. Additionally, many contextual statements (characters reacting to the environment) are not subtitled. No sound cues are essential in gameplay, however character callouts and ambient sounds during battle (that do not receive subtitles) are used to reinforce visual messaging about timers and the charging of special skills.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Sparky Clarkson
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Darren Forman
6 months ago

Even once the oceans sink, we’ll still have X.

Just not on Switch. Gah.

7 months ago

I wish there was a bit of comparison to the other Xeno games. I’ve loved XB1 ever since it came out and I must have played it four times across different consoles, and now I’m finally playing XB2 and everything about it is a slog and a step down. I heard Torna and XB3 address a lot of the things I hate, but this review doesn’t make clear what those are.