Thanks for clicking into our end of the year coverage! Merry-Go-Round Magazine is an independent culture site funded by people like you! With 2023 in full swing, we’re looking back at our favorite games and gaming trends from 2022 through a series of personal essays. In this entry, an ode to one of the most expansive and under-celebrated modern JRPGs on the Nintendo Switch. If you’re enjoying our End of 2022 Coverage, consider becoming a member of our Patreon, or even donating to our operation here!
I’ve finished a lot of really great games in 2022. ELDEN RING was somehow already game of the year on its release, NEON WHITE made me feel like a total badass gunning down demons in purgatory, and SIGNALIS’ oppressive atmosphere reminded me why I fell in love with horror games. But the game that stood out to me the most all year has got to be XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3. Not only is the game a perfect ending to a tumultuous and interesting franchise, but it stands entirely on its own as one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played. When I think about everything I’ve played this year, I am certain that XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 will be the game that I think about the most.
Although I’ve always been a fan of the huge anime JRPG that takes 80 or more hours to complete, I got into the Xenoblade series late. I ended up jumping into the franchise with the second entry on the Switch and found its over-the-top fan service unbearable at times and never ended up finishing it. I wasn’t sold until I decided to give the first game’s remake on Switch a shot. I was surprised with how restrained and focused the narrative and world were. The characters were well written, the fan service was tame, and the story (although still a bonkers and classic “we must kill god through the power of friendship” narrative) was executed well. Needless to say, by the time XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 was announced, I was excited, but also worried. Would it be like the sequel and have a gacha system and big jiggling breasts, or would it take a more tame approach like the original?
I was not prepared for just how unique and emotional the game would ultimately be.
XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 is a behemoth of a game, both narratively and mechanically. The game takes place during an eternal conflict between the kingdoms of Keves and Agnus and follows six heroes: Noah, Euni, and Lanz from the Keves side, and Mio, Taion, and Sena from the Agnus side. In this world, everybody has a maximum life span of 10 terms (years) with very few ever reaching it because of said conflict. Children are born from tubes, immediately trained to be soldiers, age rapidly, and sent to war. The purpose of these conflicts is to fill a “flame clock” that each colony watches over that works as a source of energy for the queen of each empire. The only way to “keep the flame lit,” so to speak, is to steal it from other living beings, hence, the non-stop war. Through pure coincidence, our six heroes are granted a unique power after a battle with each other and become “Ouroboros,” a special group of people with the means to end this war and free everybody from the prison of a 10-year life span. The cast is initially hesitant to believe the information, but are soon forced to work together and look for meaning with their new status as Ouroboros and wanted outlaws from both empires. You start exploring the world, freeing colonies from their flame clocks and allowing them to live life however they wish while searching for answers in a constantly escalating series of twists.
The gameplay and combat seem daunting, with a billion health bars and skills on screen constantly, but it’s all rolled out slowly and you settle in on just how much you have to pay attention to things. Your characters auto-attack, so you only have to push buttons when your skills are ready. You’re only in charge of one character at a time, with the A.I. always doing a good job of handling their own roles. There’s a job class system with quite a variety of options, though they all fall into one of three categories: Healers heal, tanks draw aggro, and DPS (damage per second) do the big damage. Each job comes with its own look, and even though I personally didn’t feel a huge change gameplay-wise between most classes, I’m a sucker for outfit changes and customization options. There is also a sort of fusion that your main six heroes can do during battles that makes the game a whole lot more manageable. Each duo (Noah/Mio; Lanz/Sena, Eunie/Taion) can combine together into a mech form that allows them to deal massive damage, or provide massive healing and support for a limited amount of time. These fusions also come with their own skill trees, but really it seems like a way to make the game easier and just have more going on rather than adding anything super engaging to the combat. There’s a lot: I haven’t even talked about the “Chain Attack” mechanic that allows you to slow down time and set up combos, but it’s all really easy to grasp and not as overwhelming as it looks.
What really floors me about XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 is its narrative, and how the game is able to speak to something universal and widely addressed in a way that feels incredibly human and relatable. As opposed to a single character receiving a special sword with magic powers (1) or big breasts (2), you are presented with a band of soldiers that are all equal to each other. I can’t remember the last time a cast has felt so fully fleshed-out, with everyone getting a chance to shine and show so many different sides of themselves. Sena’s happy-go-lucky attitude veils a relatable inferiority complex, Eunie’s brash and harsh language helps her overcome deep existential crisis, and Taion’s Type A personality of thinking about everything logically stems from trying to process traumatic events from his past. This is just half of the main cast, but it doesn’t even stop there. Along the way you meet a varied cast of characters that are all trying to make sense of this fucked up situation. It can be heartbreaking sometimes to see just how scared these characters are of what’s going on, and to see them struggle to accept or fight relentlessly against things that feel insurmountable. It all feels incredibly relatable and timely.
Since 2020, the notion of “the end of the world” or us (as in, humanity) not making it to see certain things has become more and more commonplace. Maybe talking about it more jokingly is a way of making it all seem less scary, but we rarely ever talk about how scary it is to think about. I’m not one to imagine The End. I think we’ve lived through the end of many things. But I do feel that we focus so much on things ending that it becomes impersonal. Death, although it comes for everybody and everything, and has never not existed, means different things to different people. XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 is about death, and the effects that death has on people. It’s not just about trying to be okay with dying, it engages with what is actually scary about dying, and that means something different for each person.
For some it’s about not being alive to see a momentous occasion, for others it’s about not being able to achieve a personal milestone, and a lot of the time what’s really scary about dying is no longer being around the people you love. As someone who has experienced the loss of friends and loved ones, the moments of characters doing everything they can just to get one more day with the deceased or damning humanity to an eternal limbo feels understandable in moments. People are mad, scared, frustrated, and grieving throughout this whole game. There are characters that give up any sort of future to be able to live in an eternal moment with the one they love, while others are reeling from the loss of their friends in destructive ways. The game engages with almost every reaction to death someone can have without ever claiming that any is more or less reasonable. It comes for everybody, and if there was a chance to slow it down or halt it completely, wouldn’t you at least be curious?
XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 feels like staring into the depths, but while holding hands with your loved ones. In examining death so earnestly, the game is also reminding us what makes life worth living. Yes, you are fighting a god with your friends, but you’re fighting for things to go back to having the right to die and getting to experience something new, to say goodbye to the ones you love on your own terms. Its world is depressing and heartbreaking, but there are also so many moments of joy and connection between people going through similar experiences and being reminded of why they are crying in the first place. It’s scary to say goodbye and to lose the ones you loved, but it’s inevitable and that doesn’t mean good things can’t happen throughout all of this heartbreak. I cried a lot during XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3, a lot of it hit home. We live in a world where we are told that some lives are less valuable than others, where it feels like we are just waiting for an end sometimes, and it can all feel so meaningless when all we can think about is how it’s going to end or how we never get enough time with the ones we love. XENOBLADE CHRONICLES 3 made me happy to be alive, though, and it made me cherish the precious time that I do get with the people around me. It made me think of the end as a motivator to hold my people closer and let them know how happy they make me. We can joke about the end and everything being meaningless as much as we want, but we still wake up and try everyday, and that’s not something that should ever be taken for granted.